Reality Skimming

Reality Skimming

Reality Skimming promotes optimistic SF -- stories that inspire us to fight the good fight for another day. Committment to larger projects, the writer's sense of mission, joy of reading, the creative campfire of the SF community and the love of deserving protagonists are celebrated. We believe in heroes and striving to be what we believe in. It is also a news hub for content related to the Okal Rel Saga written by Lynda Williams.


Ethics in SF #9: Pauline Baird Jones

This week, Pauline Baird Jones continues our recent theme of optimism in Speculative Fiction with a mini essay.

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Pauline Baird Jones Pauline Baird Jones is a long-time reader--and a writer--of hopeful, humorous mayhem that includes science fiction romance, steampunk and yes, romantic suspense. If you’re a reader in search of any of the above, check her out at

In Defense of Hope

In South Pacific, when Nellie sings about being a cock-eyed optimist, she's also singing about me. Like Nellie, "I'm stuck like a dope on a thing called hope."

I like it in my life and prefer it my fiction. Part of what drove me from romantic suspense to science fiction romance--in my reading and my writing--was the genre's trend toward more cynicism and unrelenting, gritty realism.

Steamrolled by Pauline B. Jones

I don't mind my characters getting down and dirty against the bad guys, but at the end, I want the soaring lift of that happy ending. I want the good gals and guys to win. I want the good gals and guys to be good.

Yes, conflict requires characters to struggle with issues of heart and conscience, and often that means making mistakes that seem to kill hope, but for me, that just makes the overcoming, the return of hope that much more satisfying.

I know that's one of the things that drew me to Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet books. Jack Geary is a hero in every sense of the word. He's honorable, decent, willing to do his duty even if it kills him--or keeps him from the woman he loves. He's not perfect, but he recognizes that a life not lived well, one without hope or honor, isn't worth living.

He resonates with me because I know people like him. There are real heroes in the real world. I know some. In honor of heroes--real and fictional--I'll conclude my happy/hope fest with two pieces of advice.

From Galaxy Quest: "Never surrender! Never say die!"

And from me: Every day is twenty-four hours, whether you're happy or sad. But it feels longer when you're sad. So don't be.

Rock on, hope!

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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Ethics in SF #8: Justine Graykin

Justine Graykin returns to Ethics in Speculative Fiction with an article on writing optimistically.

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Justine GraykinJustine Graykin is an SF writer, librarian, philosopher, historical archivist and blogger who also loves to read. She is married with two children, too many cats, two dogs and flock of chickens on 50 acres in New Hampsire. She likes to hike, participate in community theater and is a member of Broad Universe. Read Justine's work online: "Chimera" published and anthologized by Absent Willow Review; Works by Justine, including "Archimedes Nesselrode"; and Excerpts from The Elder Light Series. About the last, Justine says, "My best work, that which I feel represents the kind of science fiction I really want to write, has yet to be published. It's a hard sell, but I keep working on it." Her short story, "The Next Con" appears in the anthology, UnCONventional, published by Spencer Hill Press, release date January 2012.

Writing in the Light

We as a culture seem to be on a downward spiral, surrendering to darkness and ugliness as inevitable, embracing it and making it our own. In both life and art we are locked into a hideous game of "Can you top this".

The usual argument to support gritty brutality in literature and visual arts is that Reality is like that, and Art is reflecting Life. Well, Reality can also be warm, funny, joyful and beautiful. As the Dalai Lama says, "I prefer to be an Optimist. It feels better."

There is also an argument that exposing all this ugliness and suffering in Reality will somehow raise people's awareness. That may be so, but it doesn't seem to have done much good. Reflecting horror in our arts and entertainment seems only to have stimulated an appetite for more of same, and greater extremes. There isn't much evidence that it galvanizes people to do anything about it. Quite the opposite; it becomes normalized and accepted.

There is solid scientific evidence emerging which suggests that subjecting ourselves to ugliness, violence and despair has a negative effect on our brains. The more we surrender to anger and aggression, the more we condition our brains to do so, and the more we are prey to depression and addictive behaviors. Conversely, the more we focus on compassion, understanding and joy, the more our brain begins to restructure itself to make that the norm. We are talking measurable, physical changes in the brain structure, the size of the hippocampus, the activity of the amygdala. Being happy really is more healthy.

Writing is, at it's best, a subversive activity. I believe compassion is the new radicalism (again, I'm borrowing from His Holiness) and we need to be radical in our work. Dare to not be dark. Dare to offer solutions instead of despair. Dare to defy the toxic market for ever more extreme shocks, and write about the triumph, against all odds, of the good. Not a sappy, shallow, Disneyworld good, but the stubborn, patient good of the person who has the courage to turn the other cheek, who embraces the radical philosophy of rejecting revenge and forgiving one's enemies that made the Christian message so startling.

Confront the immense challenge of being a peacemaker in a violent world, bringing illumination into darkness, embracing joy instead of apocalypse. Be truly radical, truly revolutionary.

Write in the light.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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Continuing Characters #4: Jetta & Sheshan

This week's Continuing Characters feature has a bit of a different format. This week, we include two continuing characters and hear both sides of the topic.

Continuing Characters: A series of interviews featuring continuing characters and the authors who know them best.


Firedancer, S. A. Bolich's first novel, is available now from Sky Warrior Books. Book 2 in the series, Windrider, is due out in April 2012. The release date of Seaborn, the third book in the series, is to be announced.

JettaAt twenty-six Jetta ak'Kal was the youngest Third Rank master in all the Fire Clans, brash, confident, supremely skilled in the elegant Firedance that binds the greatest threat to her people--the Ancient, the elemental fire at the heart of the world. She and her lifemate Kori kept their assigned village fire-free for five full years, a thing unheard-of. But one night the Ancient rose in Setham and defied the Firedance, destroying the village--and Kori. A year later, still grieving and no longer confident, she is both insulted and secretly relieved to be assigned to a remote mountain village where the black containment stone that is the only other safeguard against fire is mined. Annam should be safe; the Ancient has never risen there. But the Delvers are curiously naive, and not all of them welcome the presence of a failed Firedancer and her partner Settak, the most erratic journeyman in all the clans. When fire begins to assault the village, Jetta and Settak are thrown straight into the middle of a battle not only against fire, but with the Dance itself. And to top it all, Annam is full of Windriders, masters of air, who control the very thing the Ancient wants most. The wave of a Rider's hand could bring disaster down on them all--especially if what Jetta secretly suspects is true. The Ancient has always been an opportunist; now she fears it has begun to think. If they cannot discover a way to keep the white fire from escaping into Annam Vale, nowhere will be safe from the ensuing firestorm.

"We're naked on the floor, and it's cold. Yes, we are a fine pair of fools." --from Windrider

Sheshan of Clan Heshth, Third Rank ak'Kal (master) of Wind, survived the great disaster that overtook his clan during a great storm by the sea. While the masters fought to keep the raging winds from scouring the coast clean, a great wave flung itself into the cave and drowned his lifemate and all but a handful of his kin. The grieving remnant fled far from the smell of the sea to the clean winds of Annam Vale, where for three years they have kept the high passes open for the kindly Delvers who accepted them without question. It is a great gift to a people whose nomadic existence make them forever the outsiders among the people who hire them to turn Wind's capricious hands away from their homes and crops. And something rare and wonderful has come to pass in Annam. After a summer of terror and fire, Sheshan's frozen heart has thawed to an impossible touch. Happily he defies the gloomy Delver tradition that autumn weddings are unlucky and reaches for new love as the leaves turn. He even shyly hopes that the Rider's song born in him and lost to the great storm that killed his clan will return--but the Hag, gentle Wind's malicious sister, has other ideas. Like her brother the Ancient, she is rampaging across the plains, and every Rider is needed to discover what has set these two against their mother Earth. Angrily Sheshan answers the call to duty, but a close encounter with the Hag leaves him more desperately aware than ever that a Rider stripped of his song is oh, so very vulnerable indeed...

"Wind is a woman, fickle and fey, now here, now there, gentle as a caress, as unbending as a shrew."
"Thank you," Jetta said dryly. "No wonder Windriders are so few." --from Firedancer

Questions for Jetta & Sheshan

Q. Jetta, you were the main point of view character in Firedancer, the first book in a series. In the sequel, however, Sheshan takes over the lead role. How did that make you feel?

Jetta: Frankly, after the summer I just had I'm tired of looking at, worrying about, and dancing fire. It feels pretty good, actually, to not be the one in charge trying to prop up everyone's morale. But Father Flame, I sure never knew what it was like to live a Windrider's life. Seeing through Sheshan's eyes is giving me a whole new perspective on things I thought I knew--and a lot of it is making me angry! But not as angry as Sheshan, and that worries me. He's always so calm, so gentle, and now this thing with the Hag... I'm a bit scared, actually.

Q. Sheshan, what do you see as the pros and cons of your new position as a main point of view character?

Sheshan: Well, it's good that people might understand what it's really like to be a Windrider. I mean, it's not all just weaving wind and singing, you know. I love dealing with Wind, but her sister the Hag? What a-- Sorry. I suppose it won't make it any easier to learn the songs of a storm like the Hag if I insult her. She just makes me so mad! I want to be with Jetta and enjoy what we earned together in peace, but it looks like that's not going to happen. The Hag is on a rampage everywhere. I'm not overjoyed to be back on the road dealing with all the things I had forgotten about for the past few years--and honestly, having people peering into my head while I do it is uncomfortable. I'm a really private person, you see. It makes me quite angry, in fact...

Q. Jetta, if you were to answer honestly, would you say Sheshan is fulfilling his role as well as you have?

Jetta: Oh, yes. I certainly can't do anything about a storm trying to flatten a whole town. It's beautiful and thrilling and really, really frightening, what Windriders can do. But, em, I am seeing sides of him I didn't know existed. I know something has upset him quite badly, but I wish he'd just tell me what it is. I mean, I know that deep down Sheshan wants to help all these people. He has to. This thing with the Hag? He's just going to have to get over it. And soon...

S. A. Bolich S. A. Bolich: My biography is nowhere near as interesting as that of either of my characters. Born and raised in Washington State, I graduated college and got commissioned into the Regular Army on the same day. I spent 6 years running around Germany and Texas as a military intelligence officer, got married, got out of the army, and eventually found my way home to a 20-acre patch of heaven in the boondocks. I have been a teacher, a riding instructor, a project manager, and any number of other things, but most of all I've been a writer, and a few years ago I escaped corporate cuckoo land to do it full time. I have not looked back. With a large family, two horses, four cats, and a dog for inspiration, I have more ideas than I have time to write about. My first published novel, Firedancer, is available now from Sky Warrior Books, with Windrider due out in April 2012 and Seaborn, the third book in the series, sometime after that. You can find my short fiction at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, On Spec, Damnation Books, in the military SF anthology No Man's Land and wolf-themed anthology Wolfsongs 2, and several other places.

Questions for Sue

Q. What is it about Jetta and Sheshan that makes each of their perspectives interesting for you to depict?

Jetta was actually the first female heroine I used for a full-length novel, so it was interesting. It's easier to write guys because it's easier not to end up smearing yourself all over them. You need to inject a certain amount of your own personality into each character to really understand where they're coming from, but it can hit too close to home sometimes. So Jetta was actually a nice challenge for me in learning to hold a balance. And I like her attitude a lot. She's blunt and undiplomatic and refuses to quit or accept defeat. Finding the way to turn that key in her after she's been so terribly hurt and had her confidence shaken was a big part of the book.

And Sheshan... wow, he turned out way more interesting than I thought he would. In Firedancer he is the voice of calm, absorbing Jetta's storms and rarely getting angry himself. So I was really sweating going into the writing of Windrider wondering how I could make this guy complicated enough to carry a whole book. Well, that took care of itself in Chapter 3 and suddenly I had this whole complex person with baggage I never suspected and abilities I never knew and problems I hadn't imagined. It was an unexpected writing challenge to try and evolve this wonderful, gentle guy through this series of changes and emotional storms without losing the qualities about him that I liked best, or leaving the reader going "no way" and hating what they're reading. And, it was fun, seeing Jetta from someone else's perspective, and the same with Sheshan. From observing him, we're suddenly inside him, and vice versa with Jetta.

Of course, the best part of looking out through different eyes is that the reader and I both get to experience what it is like to be a Firedancer or a Windrider. I couldn't show the reader what it "feels" like to weave wind and call the storm, or to dance fire and understand a Dancer's perspective, if I didn't switch POVs from book to book. The sensory detail for each changes, and I really want the reader to be inside that skin.

Q. After Windrider comes out April 2012, there will be a third book in the series called Seaborn. Will you be exploring a new viewpoint character in Book 3?

Yes, in order to maintain the "insider" look at how each of the talented clans confront their elemental (Fire, Wind, Water, or Earth), I need to step inside a new POV character each time. I have not yet decided how I'm going to do that while continuing the story with the same basic group of characters I have now. I have some ideas. I think I may end up with an alternating POV, because I really want to use one of the existing characters and make it "his" story, but I need the Water Clan perspective to make it work as well. Another interesting writing challenge!


Stimulus/Response: Author Responsibility

Lynda WilliamsLynda Williams is the author of the Okal Rel Saga, published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. Part 7: Healer's Sword arrives in 2012. Lynda's work features moral dilemmas in a character-driven, multi-cultural setting with radically different attitudes to sex and social control surrounding space warfare and bio-science.


From a discussion on Google+:

"If a writer has any moral responsibility concerning his work, it's the responsibility to give the readers their money's worth."


Lynda on Google+If writing (or any art) is nothing more than a commodity, then, indeed, no moral responsibility exists beyond customer satisfaction. Even commodities, however, are morally (or at least legally) responsible to be honest about their claims. Commodities for sale that target nothing but serving customer satisfaction include child prostitution and drug dealing. Personally, as a writer, I don't want to align myself ethically with those models. Sex is a legitimate subject for literature. But all experience shapes us, and the stories we tell each other have to push for influencing us to make the world a better - not a worse place. Or what will?

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Ethics in SF #7: Matthew Graybosch

Matthew Graybosch explains why he believes fiction has a villain problem.

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Matthew Graybosch at Niagara Falls Matthew Graybosch studied computer science and applied demonology at Miskatonic University, but learned that even after the dotcom bust, software development pays better and is steadier work than exorcism. He is the author of Starbreaker, a serialized science fantasy novel published by Curiosity Quills Press, and lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife and a cat who insists on reading the Okal Rel Saga with him.

Roadwork on the Highway to Hell

Writers on the fantasy side of speculative fiction face the temptation to take the easy way out when characterizing their antagonists. Once they decide that their antagonist is a villain who wants to take over the world (or destroy it), they have a ready-made conflict since the protagonists stand to suffer if the antagonist succeeds in his ambitions. They have the basis for a plot, since the protagonists will struggle, suffer, and eventually prevail. J.R.R. Tolkien made this approach to fantasy famous in The Lord of the Rings, but it also shows up in modern media such as George Lucas’ Star Wars.

This approach to fantasy is ultimately sterile, because it offers unsatisfactory answers to questions concerning the villains’ motives. Why did Senator Palpatine orchestrate the suppression of the Jedi order and create an Empire from the ashes of the Old Republic? George Lucas offers no answer. What was Sauron going to do with Middle-Earth once he had conquered it? If J.R.R. Tolkien concerned himself with that question, the text of The Lord of the Rings offers no evidence to that effect.

An antagonist who aspires to take over the world and has the means to make a serious attempt at realizing his ambition is unlikely to celebrate his victory with a vacation in Disneyland. By not exploring an antagonist’s motives, writers discard a valuable opportunity to enrich their characterization, as well as valuable possibilities for crafting a compelling plot and a conflict that genuinely matters to their readers.

As an example of the narrative complexity that can be unleashed when a speculative fiction author gives his antagonist understandable human motives and even good intentions, let’s consider Heroes Die, a 1998 science fiction/fantasy novel by Matthew Stover. When Stover is not exploring the obsession of American entertainment media and its consumers with violence through the inner monologue of his protagonist, Caine, he is making the reader consider the actions and motives of one of the novel’s principal antagonists, the sorcerer-turned-emperor Ma’elKoth.

Ma’elKoth is a complex character for a fantasy antagonist; his intentions are arguably nobler than Caine’s. Caine cares only about protecting his wife and getting revenge on a boss who placed his wife in danger for the sake of profit. Ma’elKoth attempts to be a just ruler. He uses his powers to help people, and is shown using magic to alter the weather and provide relief in the form of rain to a drought-stricken region of his empire. At the same time, he has made his empire into a police state and uses a series of purges called the Aktir-tokar (Actor hunt) to dispose of his opposition without inspiring the people to rise against him.

As a result, one cannot readily identify Ma’elKoth as the villain. Nor can one identify Caine as the hero, since the novel’s title is also a promise. Heroes Die shows the complexity in plot and characterization that can emerge when a writer gives his antagonist human motivations, and perhaps even noble or altruistic intentions.

Therein lies the problem. If the reader cannot distinguish between the hero and the villain, then the protagonist of the story -- good or evil -- is the one with whom the reader identifies. Telling a story in this manner is risky, regardless of genre. The complexity such moral ambiguity brings to a novel can tax a writer’s skill at both plot and characterization. But success on the author’s part enriches his work with greater psychological realism, and offers readers value beyond entertainment: a mirror in which each may see something of themselves.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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Ethics in SF #6: Alma Alexander

Our third feature in the Ethics in Speculative Fiction series. Interested in contributing to the Ethics in SF series? Query us at [email protected].

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Alma Alexander is an internationally published novelist whose work (Secrets of Jin Shei, the Worldweavers YA trilogy Gift of the Unmage/Spellspam/Cybermage, Embers of Heaven, Midnight at Spanish Gardens) is published in 14 languages worldwide. She is also a short story writer and an anthologist whose first collection (as editor), River, is due out in the Fall of 2011. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats.

Q. You are interested the fate of losers. Please explain.

The simplistic "happily ever after" endings ceased to be enough for me while I was still a child. I wanted to know whose happy ending it was, what happened to the people who lost, and what happened afterwards. Even as a child I somehow understood that a wedding was not the end of a story but the beginning of one - the beginning of a marriage. And that the latter might prove to be far more interesting and dangerous than just chasing after Prince Charming in woods filled with Disney creatures who burst into song at every opportunity.

Histories are written and propagated by the winners of every encounter – and it is their truth, often told at the expense of the truth of those who are conquered, which is often dangerous and threatening to the prevailing worldview and is thus (at best) suppressed into oblivion and the oubliette of history and (at worst) actively and sometimes bloodily put down if it dares to rear its objectionable head.

I come from a place that crawls with history, and much of what the rest of the planet would actually consider to be history in the sense of water-under-the-bridge-and-best-forgotten kind is still actually very much a part of daily lives in my ancestral lands. Ancient grudges and hatreds are carefully perpetuated, for generations, and their lights are still burning decades, sometimes centuries, after an original wrong had been done. I come from a place where history is still being written, every day. And people win, and people lose, and I can see how it all develops, how it works, and whose versions of "truth" are stronger and more enduring. You can’t come from a background like that and not be aware that there are two sides to every story.

Q. How does this position inform your work?

The real world, and that goes for any world that wishes to be real no matter how fictional or invented it is, has to take complexity into account. If you pricked any one of my own invented worlds with a pin you would never get a swiftly deflating balloon because I built weight and solidity into it. I built in difficulties, and failure, and drama, and fear, and frustration - just as much as I built in the joys and the triumphs.

2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens by Alma Alexander
2012: Midnight at Spanish Gardens by Alma Alexander

And yes, ethics. I built in those, too. With a full awareness that I may be building a character or a society whose morality is not remotely like our own, and then knowing that I must at least try to make a reader of our own kind, with full human built-in judgmentalism and morality and societal pressures and expectations, actually like or at least just root for my protagonist with whose values they may not agree at all.

I do not necessarily write about both sides of any given coin at any one given time. But everything I write is done from the premise that there always is a second side to a coin, even if I don’t necessarily have the time or the scope to explore it in any particular story setting. And I am trusting the reader to realise that there is such an untold story in the background, and between the lines, of the story that I am telling – and to be aware of it.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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