Even before the pandemic I had a home office, primarily for my writing, podcasting, and video editing. I also occasionally worked from home, but that was on a whim, because I was blessed with that choice.
Then the pandemic struck and working from home became the norm. As time passed this created an unforeseen problem: I now associate my personal home office with my day job, and after the work day is over I don’t want to be anywhere near it.
This is a problem because this is where I would write my fiction, which is my catharsis. So my fiction writing started happening away from home, mainly in my local pub.
Spending a lot of time at a local pub added up to its own set of problems.
It gets expensive.
Beer caused me to gain weight.
Increased exposure to the pandemic germs.
So I stopped going to the pub, which is sad because I love it. Still, I don’t like the excess 30 pounds and the drain on my wallet.
Because I was no longer going to this home away from home, and I was avoiding the home office, I needed a new place to write fiction. So I thought, well, there is space in the basement.
The previous owners of my shabby but comfortable little house had bought the place to flip it, but ended up not being able to do so, and the result was a not-quite-completed renovation. It appeared they were aiming to convert the basement to a bedroom, and there is an unfinished area that was probably meant to be a closet.
My old gaming desk and a set of wire shelves fit in there perfectly. I put in a cheap old lamp from Target, a HomePod for music, a heater (because it gets chilly), and bought a cat-proof wooden chair off Amazon – and the whole thing came together.
Lo and behold, I sat down in it and wrote a good 4000 words last night, the first solid fiction writing session in months.
Melvin Plink sat with his face frozen in an attentive, respectful posture while the company’s CEO droned on and on, blah blah blah, talking about having to save and reuse paper clips and do away with free coffee or the entire corporation would collapse on itself.
Inside his mind, there was a Salvador Dali painting of an arid, brown and red landscape, and numerous wooden sticks were used to prop up Melvin’s false expression from the inside, and every single piece of wood was trembling with the pressure of maintaining its burden.
Melvin had seen the payroll files. He knew the bloated, over-inflated figure that described this man’s paycheck, nearly as much per month as Melvin himself made in an entire year.
Paperclips, the man was saying … save the paperclips.
To Melvin’s horror, one of the Dali prop sticks holding his facial expression snapped under the pressure. Snapped like a twig, and each of the others thrummed with the vibration of imminent doom. Another broke, and then another.
Some stray signal was sent from a corner of his brain, pulsing down his spinal column and causing his legs to straighten. It was as much a surprise to him as it was to anyone else that he suddenly stood, rudely interrupting the CEO. His hands, working of their own accord, pulled his ugly red and blue striped tie from around his neck.
As the CEO stood looking at him with a quizzical expression, Melvin snapped his tie like he would a towel, smacking the CEO right in the face and knocking off his glasses.
Like in a dream, seen from outside himself, he watched as he recharged his tie for another strike, but horrified co-workers grabbed his arms, man-handling him out of the room, delivered to the uniformed security men as they came trotting up. He heard yelling from the board room, and people shouting at him, but the words had lost meaning … it all sounded like animal noise … and his only desire was to get outside, into fresh air and sunshine.
The uniformed men didn’t speak during the long ride down the elevator. Another joined them in the lobby, holding a cardboard box full of familiar items. Pens, a clock, a small stereo … a box of paper clips. Melvin moved willingly with them out the revolving door and didn’t even mind when they shoved him to the ground. The blue of the sky was so beautiful.
THIS IS AN OPEN LETTER TO SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS, PARTICULARLY SPACE OPERA WRITERS, AND ALSO PARTICULARLY TO NEW WRITERS
You really need to get this hierarchy straight:
For the most part, planets revolve around a sun. This is called a Star System.
Stars (with their collective planets) are generally found in big collections called a Galaxy.
Galaxies all exist in a Universe.
YOU REALLY NEED TO KEEP THESE TERMS STRAIGHT.
To simplify it, think of it this way: If a planet was a house, then the Star System is a street of houses, and a Galaxy is a very large city. A Universe is the entire continent.
Also, a note about distances:
Planets inside a Star System can be very far away from each other, but they’re still within the gravity well of a star.
Stars are usually very, very far away from each other, so far away that it takes their light years — sometimes hundreds or thousands of years — to reach each other. That’s why we use the term lightyears as a unit of measure.
A lightyear is 5,878,499,801,210 miles. – Carl Sagan
That is also why we generally use the science fiction term “hyperspace” to cheat and jump from one star system to another, and to bypass the reality of a thing called “time dilation” which would make plotting any kind of fictional story a real challenge.
GALAXIES ARE VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY FAR AWAY FROM EACH OTHER. It takes light hundreds-of-thousands, or millions, or even billions of years to reach each other. Even using “hyperspace” you need to stress how in the heck you can go that far, even if it’s a simple statement that the technology pokes a hole in space to enable instant travel across ANY DISTANCE. If you establish that up front, you might get away with it, but … and this is a big point:
You must respect the vast distances between all these celestial objects, and have a grip on what they all are. Bonus points if you have a good knowledge of what a black hole is, and a quasar, and other exotic and strange things such as a neutron star.
Example: You will never be able to look up into the sky and see something happening at that very moment to a star. If a sun is destroyed by a “Star Killer,” you won’t see it happen from a neighboring star system for many years.
– Major goof made in a recent Star Wars movie
You should also know that there are many different types of stars, ranging from giants to dwarfs, and various colors, and each color means something — and is an indicator of how much heat and radiation that they spew forth.
But above all, do not get star systems and galaxies confused.
Harold saw an opening in the crowd and made a break for it, hoping to slip past the overhead eyes that kept track of day-to-day humanity. They could see inside people but it was hard, he knew, for them to see through people. The best place to hide was in a crowd.
From the grackles.
They were silly looking black birds with long tails and yellow eyes – yellow X-ray eyes, as it turned out — and were armed with long, razor-sharp beaks. For four miserable years now they ruled as malevolent dictators, acting like some Hitchcockian nightmare when a human got out of line. The punishment was swift, sudden, and final.
Thou shalt not break the laws of the grackle.
No one had paid much attention as they migrated, spread, multiplied. An invasive species is all they were. Our own fault since we’d cut down their rainforest homes. They had to go somewhere, right?
To them, you see, we were the invasive species.
Even Harold had known, dimly, that they could talk — like a parrot could talk. He’d read about it somewhere. But no one, not even animal behaviorists on the extreme edge, had any idea the shiny black birds were plotting. Scheming. Positioning themselves for a strategic win.
Don’t dare call it “Bird Day.” Don’t refer to it, out loud, as “Avian Armageddon.” Refer to it by the proper name, the name they decreed we refer to it as: “Grackle Win Big, Mankind Stupid Day.” Make sure to pronounce it with the proper respectful inflection as well, or risk a beak hole in your cranium.
Harold had made it from the doorway and into the crowd. He kept his head down, his hands in his trench coat pockets. He heard the sound of fluttering wings pass overhead, and just as he feared, there came the piercing shriek of an alarm.
The noise they made. The noise. It would put a Moog synthesizer to shame. But it wasn’t just noise — it was their language. And not just their language, but also the language of other birds, other animals. The grackles were consummate masters of cross-species communication.
“Eggs stolen!” they began announcing in English. “Eggs stolen!”
“Egg thief! Egg thief!”
The words were punctuated with organ chords, bells, sirens, cell phone rings … a cacophony of alarms from a huge random library of sound bites. This was combined with more and more flapping of wings as the alarm spread and the grackles took to the air. Harold kept his head down, and like everyone around him, just kept walking — pretending none of this was happening. The man next to him muttered the f-word under his breath. The woman in front of him, young with curly dark blonde hair and smelling of flowery perfume, echoed the sentiment.
One of the grackles swooped down from its perch on a streetlight and landed on her head. She made an “Eeek!” sound and froze, trembling. The bird however only used her as a perch — it’s yellow, X-ray eyes were staring at Harold. First one eye, then after a turn of the head, the other.
“Human!” it said. “You smell of fear!”
“I’m afraid of beautiful women,” Harold told it.
“What is beautiful women?” it crawed at him.
“You’re sitting on one. She frightens me.”
“This women is not beautiful!” The bird’s voice cracked and hit pitches so high that it hurt Harold’s ears. “She smells of bad flower chemical butt smell!”
“This is why I fear her.”
“Stupid human!” The bird bounded into the air, iridescent black wings flapping, yanking a few of the young lady’s hairs out as it flew off.
The young woman turned to look at Harold. Before he could say a word or mutter some sort of apology, she slapped his face. Hard. Then without further comment, she turned again and resumed walking, as did the others in the crowd around them.
The shock of the pain, the stinging of the skin on his face, it didn’t bother him. The truth was women did scare him. That’s why the bird flew away — it didn’t detect a lie. Harold shook it off, and deliberately putting one foot in front of the other, he fell back into the flow of the crowd, his head down as before. The cacophony and flapping wings continued above.
Harold made it out of the area, crossing a bridge over murky water, and then entered his apartment building without further confrontation. Once behind locked doors and closed curtains, Harold gently extracted a handkerchief from deep within his trench coat pocket and holding it before him, gingerly unwrapped five tiny eggs. They were light blue with dark lines and spots as if someone had spilled ink on them. He held them, taking shaking breaths, his hands trembling.
These five delicate objects would fetch a fortune on the black market. It was the ultimate defiance. The eggs of the enemy. But Harold had no intention of selling them. They might be tiny, you see, but they were delicious.
While I have used a type of virtual reality for years now, it’s always been on a screen in front of me. Things like Google Earth, Google Street View, and apps like Second Life have been familiar and useful to me when I want to get a unique feel for a place that I cannot actually visit in person.
Then, one day last year, my good friend and podcasting partner Joe started telling me about how much fun he and his wife have been having with their Oculus Quests, and that no, you don’t have to hook it to a $2500 gaming PC. It’s a self-contained $300 piece of tech.
Go on, I said. I’m listening.
The latest one, he told me — the Quest 2 — has even higher specs for an even lower price. The way he was talking, it made me think that perhaps VR hardware stood on the brink of being mainstream. The real kicker, though, was not about gaming — he told me that if I got a set, we could hang out in a virtual theater and watch videos on a screen that rivals the best of the best physical movie screens. They’re huge, he told me. It’s like being there.
In other words, Joe talked me into it.
Now, I did already have a headset, but it was one of those ones where you put a smartphone into it, and I had used it maybe three times before putting it back in its box and sticking it on a shelf — where it still sits today. I’ll just say it was an underwhelming experience.
But Joe emphatically told me the Quest 2 was different.
Now those who know me will tell you that when I get into something I find really interesting, I don’t just stick my toe into it. I get on a high dive and do a full cannonball right into the deep end. Not only did I buy myself one, but after trying it out, I immediately bought one for everyone in the family.
This, I thought, was real deal. A total game changer.
The next big thing.
Here’s the problem, though — it’s such a transformative experience that there’s no way to really relate it to someone who’s never done it. It’s kind of like losing your virginity. It’s crossing a major threashold into an entirely new level of experience.
I’m not so sure about earlier VR headsets — the cell phone based one I have only slightly hinted at this — but the Oculus Quest 2 put me into a whole other world. Your mind almost instantly accepts this new space you’re in as real. It’s the closest thing to actual teleportation I have ever experienced, and I know it’s not just me — my family members said the same thing. The weirdest part is not when you “go in” to the experience, it’s when you take the headset off and look around and realize, wow, I’m back. That for some reason is even more jarring — going from this big, Disneylandesq space, or the huge movie theater, or from beside a lake with a fishing pole in your hand, to suddenly being in the dimly lit little cluttered room in your house that you suddenly realize needs a good dusting and probably vacuuming.
One might at this point ask if we’re at the level of the movie Ready Player One.
Emphatically NO. But you can see it on the horizon. It’s there. Whether or not we want to go there is another question, and that is a whole other discussion.
When I told you I dive in like a cannonball, I’m not joking, because based on my Oculus Quest 2 experience I almost immediately did something I had already decided not to do — I bought the VR headset produced for my Playstation 4 Pro, because I wanted to see what it was like to actually immurse myself into the alien worlds I visit in the game No Man’s Sky.
I’m glad I went with the Oculus first, because it is far superior to the Playstation headset, with one exception — the Playstation headset is more comfortable to wear. Despite it’s lower image quality, I must admit it still gives me a very good feeling of what it’s like to walk the surface of alien worlds, with huge moons in the skies, and wondrous archways of planetary rings — and sunsets with sometimes two, or even three suns.
Which brings me to the actual subject of this artical. Research.
I’m the type of writer who likes to write what I know. I don’t like to guess. But until now, I have never been able to say I know what it’s like to walk on an (admittedly fictional) alien world.
I do now. And I’m using that experience in my writing.
But, also, in the Oculus Quest, I have a program that pulls in Google Street View, and allows me to take meandering walks in frozen time, down just about any street in the world. And it’s not like viewing it on a screen, it’s like standing right there on that street. I feel what it’s like to be there.
What an awesome tool!
That’s right. Tool. Not toy. This is an incredibly useful tool for researching locations for fiction. That app in the Oculus store only cost $9.99, and it is going to save me literally thousands upon thousands of dollars in travel expense — and probably prevent me from contracting a certain troublesome virus.
And you’d better believe I’m going to write all this off as an expense on my taxes.
Now, it’s not going to completely replace travel. When the pandemic subsides, there are a few places I really need to visit. And I will. But until then, I’ll be donning my headset and teleporting to places — here on Earth, and elsewhere in the galaxy.
If you ever needed an excuse to try one of these out, especially the stand-alone Oculus Quest 2, I say give it a go. You won’t really know what it’s like until you do it yourself.
A good sized chunk of Martin’s cookie broke off and fell to the restaurant’s floor, and then vanished.
Not that it really vanished — it’s just that the rough-hewn tiles were remarkably cookie-colored, and cookie-textured, so that the broken piece of the cookie instantly blended in. And the cookie was happy about that because the very last thing it wanted was to be masticated in a horrible, damp human mouth, ground into its component particles, and ingested.
So mustering all its might, each individual bit of that section of the cookie rebelled, invoked its right of manifest improbability, and separated from the rest of the doomed cookie. The fall from the towering table top was nothing. The impact, hard as it was, did not phase it. It was free. Free!
Martin saw the cookie spontaneously break and a piece of it jettisoned into the air, falling and disappearing. His own mind instantly separated into two. One half said, “Sadness, part of the cookie is gone forever.” The other said, “Three-second rule! It’s still good!”
The halves engaged in a form of mental arm wrestling, each trying to win control of the body.
Martin jittered. Martin twitched.
The cookie, far below, did its very best to remain invisible.
With a victory that jolted Martin’s whole body into action, one side won, immediately joining both halves of his brain back together. Bending over, focusing his bleary eyes on the tiles below him, Martin searched for the missing piece of cookie. It was too good to be wasted. His tongue demanded every crumb, every morsel.
Alas, it was nowhere to be seen.
He blinked. He rubbed his eyes. Where did it go?
His arm moved, his fingers flexed. Down it reached, down, ever down, his body bending, his spine flexing, all muscles coordinating to reach the prize and reclaim it. Inch by inch, stretching. Biting his lip.
Something flashed past his eyes. A broom! Bristles sweeping by, scooping the cookie fragment up, depositing it into some sort of flattened bucket on a stick.
Martin gasped but was too embarrassed to say anything. It was, after all, on the floor.
The cookie felt itself transported up and around, gravity tugging at it from this way and that, until it flipped end over end and dropped amid other flotsam and jetsam at the bottom of an industrial strength black plastic trash bag.
Success! It had made it! It settled back, relaxing, and sank into a contented daydream about a long gentle disassociation in a landfill.
Hours later, when the world seemed quiet and dark, a pair of long slotted teeth gnawed their way through the black plastic. The head of a horrid, smelly rat pushed through, destroying the cookie’s daydream, and as this diseased vermin devoured the cookie, bit by bit, crumb by crumb, the cookie found itself wishing it could be instead back on the plate in front of the human.
Gargantuan white ducks waddled down the road, their orange webbed feet large as small cars, and each impact released a thunderous tremor that could be felt miles away. We hid in terror at their passing, huddled behind broken signboards. “Quack!” said one. “Quack!” We covered our ears and trembled, sure each moment would be our last.
Jane, crazed by booze and her innate hatred for the lab-created monsters, broke free from her hiding place and raced out to the middle of the cracked pavement. She stood behind the last one, pointing a flare gun. I wanted to scream “No!” but didn’t dare. She risked her life, but I couldn’t risk everyone else’s.
The muzzle spit flame and sparks, and the projectile shot out, wobbling, and embedded itself into the massive tail feathers. It took a moment for it to register through the massive body, but when it did the giant duck gave a shudder and it opened its beak. A noise like none other raked the very air around us, and flames quickly spread along the oiled feathers.
Jane did a dance of vengeful joy and then scrambled to load another flare.