NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS has been nominated for the Dragon Awards!

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I am pleased to announced that my novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, has been nominated for the 2017 Dragon Awards under the Alternate History category. The Dragon Awards seeks to represent the finest works in science fiction and fantasy, giving all of fandom a voice in selecting the best books, games, TV series and movies. This is the first time a Singaporean has been received a nomination for the Dragon Awards. I would like to thank all of my readers and supporters; this historic achievement could not have been done without you.

To celebrate, my publisher, Castalia House, has made NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS available on Kindle Unlimited, which you can find here. With 31 reviews and an average rating of 4.3 stars out of 5, it is among the highest-rated and best-received Singaporean novel on Amazon today. If you love the novel, please register to vote here and vote for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS by Kai Wai Cheah under the alternate history category.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to the next novel titled HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Book Review: Six Expressions of Death

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Six Expressions of Death is a solid debut work from Castalia House author Mojo Mori. Set in 16th century Japan, the story begins with the murder of a traveller on the road between the city of Morijuku and the village of Iwagi. When Daikawa Tadashi, a poor but noble samurai, investigates the murder, he quickly discovers there is more to the crime than a mere murder-robbery. Soon, he is embroiled in a complex web of deceit, intrigue and violence. Clan war is on the horizon, and shinobi stalk the night.

Six Expressions of Death is a taut, atmospheric murder-mystery set against the backdrop of the Sengoku period. Japan is still divided among daimyo, and powerful, ambitious clans like the Takeda are seeking to dominate the land. The book demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail, from architecture to artwork, cuisine to culture, immersing the reader into its setting.

Buddhism and folklore are key components of the narrative. The samurai view themselves as drifting within an ever-changing dewdrop world, recognising that their lives are brief and transient. The titular six expressions of death refer to belief among samurai that the faces of the dead hold portents for the future. While religion doesn’t play a significant role in the narrative, it nonetheless informs how the characters think and act.

The Japanese obsession with honour, too, pervades the book. The warriors among the cast, for instance, strive to comport themselves with honour. Tadashi grapples with how to handle himself in the most honourable fashion, even as he deals with shinobi, whom he believes the most dishonourable of creatures. Likewise, when meditating on his relationship with his lover, he, too, tries to behave in a manner becoming of his ancient house. And of course, in the story, deceit and betrayal are seen as the most craven acts, while seppuku is always the final solution to regain one’s honour.

The prose is tight and clean. There are no unnecessary scenes, no wasted words, and the narrative flows cleanly from one event to the next. Mojo writes with a strong, clear voice, imbuing the text with a heady mixture of mysticism and violence. The action scenes are quick and lethal, with individual combats often resolved in the space of a breath. As the mystery unfolds, plot twists come at surprising moments, yet every revelation is carefully thought-out and appropriately foreshadowed. My only quibbles come with the occasional use of Westernisms like ‘sir’ and ‘Commissioner’; I would prefer the use of the original Japanese terms, but I recognise that such terms make it easier for non-Japanese readers to follow the story.

As I read the text, I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler’s notes on the character of a private detective. To quote from the master:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a >disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

Daikawa Tadashi neatly fits into the the archetype. He routinely confronts danger and death, but he is neither afraid nor negatively affected by his encounters. Being a samurai he is educated in the way of the pen, the sword, the bow and the horse, and is prone to reciting haiku at the drop of a hat. He is born of high status, yet he is also a poor man not too far removed from commoners. While the people he encounters treat him with the respect he is due, he in turn does not mistreat them or take advantage of his station. He is, of course, a man of honour, and as such he despises deceit and holds weak people in contempt.

Throughout the story, Tadashi uses his wits as often as his weapons. A perceptive and intelligent man, he is quick to pick up clues and piece them together. He is also equally handy with bow and sword, able to match trained killers on their own terms. Readers accustomed to ‘gritty’ works or noir fiction might grouse that he is too perfect, but I would say that Tadashi strives to hold himself to the samurai ideal at all times.

The rest of the cast is also well-characterised, reflecting both their personalities and the norms of the times. There is the loyal and unflappable servant, the extroverted if somewhat unreliable comrade, the incompetent commissioner, the feminine and faithful lover.

A common complaint I’ve seen among other reviews is that the ending is anticlimactic. The true villain of the story is dealt with in a few placid pages. I can sympathise. Readers accustomed to Western-style action stories would expect an action-filled climax in which Tadashi personally delivers justice at swordpoint. However, this is a crime novel at heart. Violence is punctuation, not purpose; the story is not driven by the fight scenes, but rather by Tadashi’s investigation. Likewise, as a poor country samurai, Tadashi’s ability to confront the mastermind is sorely limited; if anything, I felt his method of bringing justice to the offender was particularly inspired. It was entirely within character and completely congruent with the setting.

Six Expressions of Death is a heady brew of logic, spirituality, treachery and combat. It comes highly recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction and crime novels. It can be found on Amazon and the Castalia House store.

(Full disclosure: I am also published by Castalia House.)

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If you would like to see the work I’ve published at Castalia House, you can pick up NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House store. This one is for people who love urban fantasy, military science fiction, espionage and martial arts.

Initial Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS

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Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS are rolling in, and reader reception has been highly positive. Here are a few samples from Amazon:

Ray, May 5, 2017

Great book, that took a surprising twist on the usual mixing of Urban Fantasy and Military cloak and dagger genre, plus a bit of alternate history. I’ll need to re-read it because there is a lot under the surface of this hard to put down well written book…
The action is fast paced and it reminded me of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series that is just a fun read, but with a much more sophisticated, serious world view… The mythology makes sense and is not the usual urban fantasy drek. The attention
to detail reminds me of the Laundry Series by Charlie Stross. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

James Nealon, May 6, 2017

The book is damnably technical, or is it technically damning? Mr. Cheah wrote a very good military spy/thriller, of the type that pulls you into intense action… The book is very well written, with very good characterization of heroes and villains… I can’t wait for more in the series. Great action hook for the book, and a great hook for the series.

Koba, May 11, 2017

This is an action-packed story of “counter-terrorism with a twist”…The alternate Earth is extremely well-realized and convincing. It is just “different enough” that it is not too predictable… The system of magic and the “theology” of the book are also well thought-out and coherent… I would compare this favorably with Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter” series – action oriented, lots of weapons, but with supernatural elements. If you liked his books, you will like this book. I am definitely looking forward to the sequels from this exciting new author!

NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS can be can found on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store. If you have already bought a copy, do consider leaving a review on Amazon or your blog if you have one. That would help others find and enjoy this novel too.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel, HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

How to Write Someone Else’s Martial Arts

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Fight scenes are fun. Fight scenes featuring believable techniques are even more fun. If you already know martial arts, incorporating them should be easier. But what if you don’t? Or if the story calls for characters to use other martial arts you haven’t studied?

It’s a question I faced when writing recent stories. My latest novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, required a character to be proficient in historical European martial arts, specifically the German school of longsword fencing. Another novella I wrote last year placed Chinese martial arts in the limelight. Unfortunately, I do not have any training in those styles, and there was no way to justify having the characters use the style I have trained in.

The best answer to the question is to simply train in that new style, or at least ask someone who has trained in that art to look over the fight scenes. But this may not always be available to you. Teachers in the styles I have selected aren’t readily available here. Here’s what I did to make fight scenes realistic and research less headache-inducing.

Down the Rabbit Hole

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A martial art is a paradigm. It is a method of moving your body to solve specific problems in a specific environment. These problems can be as simple as breaking a fall or as complex as handling multiple armed attackers hell-bent on killing you. The signature of a martial art lies in its approach to problem-solving based on its operating assumptions.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu aims to solve the problem of how to force a single opponent into a submission without necessarily causing permanent damage. Classical karate provides practitioners a means of unarmed self-defense against ruffians. Kali tackles the problem of confronting attackers armed with weapons. Some branches of HEMA attempt to replicate the battlefield techniques used by soldiers against enemies with and without armour in European battlefields.

Different martial arts are suited for different purposes in different environments. Once you understand how your chosen martial art is supposed to function, match it against the problem your character is going to run into. A kali practitioner with a baton may be able to fend off a single knife-welding opponent in a duel. A man who only knows BJJ and finds himself surrounded by raging gangsters on the street is in deep trouble. Depending on your writing goal, this may or may not necessarily be a bad thing. The trick is to know what kind of scene you want before writing it, and to explore the consequences of success or failure following the action scene.

The Way You Move

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In the age of YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo, it’s easy to simply watch a selection of fight techniques online and replicate them in writing. However, every trained martial artist knows that techniques do not exist in a vacuum. Throwing random techniques does not a fight scene make; to write action scenes at a higher level, you must understand why a character will choose to move in a certain way in a given situation.

Different martial arts have different ways of moving to solve problems in different environments. The key to breaking down an art into its essentials is to understand the way its practitioners move. In particular, look at footwork, power generation and weapons. These are the three pillars that define an art.

Filipino martial arts is defined by its choice of weapons: the stick, the sword and the knife. As a weapon-based art, its practitioners assume that the opponent has a weapon. If you block a weapon with empty hands you will lose your arm; if you block with your weapon you might chip the edge and lose an opportunity for an immediate counterattack. FMA answers this problem through triangular footwork and timing. Instead of meeting force with force, the ideal is to get off the line of attack, evading the attack altogether, and disable the opponent’s arm and/or finish him off.

FMA relies heavily on hip rotation to generate power. Every strike ends in a chamber position, allowing the practitioner to seamlessly chain together a string of attacks without having to reposition his hands or feet. This combination of swinging hips and attack chaining is the basis of the FMA concept of flow: transitioning seamlessly from one technique to another to overwhelm the enemy with a blitz of strikes.

Sword-based Historical European Martial Arts appears to have some superficial similarities with FMA. However, FMA was developed in a jungle archipelago; the local climate makes wearing heavy armour impractical for most conditions. Europe’s climate allowed knights and wealthy soldiers to wear armour for extended periods. Plate armour mitigates or outright defeats the FMA tactic of stepping off-line and slashing the arm or thrusting to the body. In addition, unlike many traditional Filipino swords, European battlefield swords tend to have pronounced crossguards. Later swords incorporated knuckle-bows, basket hilts and cup hilts. These guards rendered decisive strikes to the hand more difficult.

The combination of armour and weapon characteristics lend themselves to different tactics. A HEMA longsword practitioner can bind the enemy’s sword, using his crossguard to trap the blade and protect himself, and thrust his own sword through gaps in the enemy’s armour. The historical fencer may also hold his sword by the blade instead of the handle, using the crossguard to hook, trap and trip his enemy–and the crossguard and pommel can be used to deliver the infamous murder stroke, using concussive force to defeat helmets. Further, HEMA training also emphasises preventing double-kills and guarding against afterblows from a dying opponent, an element not usually found in FMA, since FMA footwork ideally places the practitioner outside of the enemy’s reach.

In marked contrast, the signature weapon of the Chinese art of Bajiquan is the spear. Specifically, the daqiang, a long and heavy spear. The length and weight of the weapon makes it much harder for a practitioner to simply evade an incoming attack and counterattack in the same beat the way an FMArtist can with a light single-handed sword. Bajiquan spear techniques instead focus on controlling the enemy’s weapon with your own, either by small circles or swats, and immediately thrusting into unguarded space.

Empty hand Bajiquan carries echoes of the spear, emphasising explosive, linear movements like those needed to drive a spear home. Bajiquan delivers power through falling steps and abrupt movements, synergising with the footwork. Bajiquan footwork carry the practitioner deep into the enemy’s space to control his centreline, enabling the practitioner to destroy him with close-in body weapons: headbutts, elbows, hooks, low kicks, body slams and grappling.

While these are generalities, we can see how footwork, power generation and weapon characteristics make up the signature of an art. Tactics and techniques are derived from how the art trains its practitioners to move and the weapons the practitioners study. Once you know how a martial artist is likely to move based on his training, you can create a more believable actions scene.

The Fighter’s Heart

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You know what art your fighter studies, how he will move, and why he will move. Now it’s time to introduce the human element.

My approach to writing action scenes is similar to Chinese martial arts film. Every fight scene is fundamentally a clash between humans, and martial arts is a medium to express their unique personalities and achieve their goals. There are as many ways to express a martial art as there are practitioners. Different fighters have different personalities, skill levels, assumptions and conditioning, and their techniques will reflect that.

A large, strong, aggressive fighter is likely to charge straight into the fray, bashing aside all obstacles in his way. A defensive fighter will stay at long range and hang back until the time for a counterattack. A crafty martial artist will use feints and deception to create windows of opportunity to attack.

A martial art is like a toolbox. A fighter’s personality tells you which tools he will prefer to use. These are the techniques you need to pay extra attention to in your research and the ones your fighter unleashes in battle. It also means you don’t need to spend so much time looking for stuff you probably won’t use in your own work.

Taking Things to the Next Level

A fight scene is a clash of wills expressed in motion. When writing an unfamiliar martial art, you don’t necessarily have to have complete knowledge of the art to properly portray it. But to do justice to the art, you need to know the pillars of the art, its footwork, tactics and weapons, and know how your character will express the art. Armed with this knowledge, you can elevate your fight scenes to the next level.

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And if you want to see how well I did writing a bunch of foreign martial arts, you can find NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House bookstore.

Book Release: NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS

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I am proud to announce the publication of my latest novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS by Castalia House. It is the first entry of the Covenanter Chronicles series. Here is the blurb:

The post-World War III world is a radically different place where magic and technology have become one in the violent struggle for global influence between nations. The rising powers of Persia and Musafiria are challenging the longtime dominance of the weakened Western powers, as the increasing use of magic provides them with a more level playing field.

Supernatural creatures from other planes are summoned and wielded as readily as machine guns and explosives by the special forces of the rival militaries, the most deadly of which are the elite contractors for the Nemesis Program. Both conventionally and unconventionally trained, the Nemesis Program is the hidden blade of the Hesperian National Intelligence and Security Agency, a weapon as lethal as it is deniable. But although they are given considerable leeway, not even Nemesis operatives are allowed to covenant with archdaimons… which poses a serious problem for Luke Landon when a simple assassination of a scientist goes badly awry.

NO GODs, ONLY DAIMONS combines the best elements of military science fiction, fantasy, espionage thriller, and supernatural horror. It features powered armor, physics-breaking magic, close quarters battle, supernatural substances, swordplay, Filipino martial arts, black operations, daimons and an archangel.

Also, a very confused cat.

The following is an excerpt taken from Vox Day’s blog.

We dropped to the ground.

“AK fire,” Pete reported.

Several more bursts rang out, echoing through the city. The sound bounced off and around concrete and glass, coming from everywhere.

“Multiple shooters,” I added. “Can’t tell direction.”

“Can’t be more than a couple blocks away.” He picked himself up. “We gotta stop them.”

“Roger,” I said. “I’ll try to find them with open source intel.”

“I’m gonna get my long gun.”

“Go.”

He sprinted to a car parked down the road. I got to a knee and scanned around me. Civilians were still walking down the street, oblivious to the autofire raking the air, or froze in place. A couple actually stopped to stare at us. What the hell was wrong with people?

I powered up the Clipcom. An array of icons washed over my field of view. I touched the control button, freezing the screen in place, looked at the Memet icon and released.

The app booted. A deluge of raw information, updating every moment, flooded my cascade. Every major news agency reported a shooting in progress at Lacey’s in New Haven. An eyewitness had uploaded a blurry photo of a gunman racing into the department store, wearing a chest rig and cradling some kind of AK, maybe an AK-122.

Another photo showed a jinni. It looked like an old man with swarthy skin, flowing white hair and a thick beard, though his muscles were hard as rocks. But past his waist, the rest of him was a lion with exaggerated limbs, scaled up to support his mass. His tail whipped at air and spat venom—it was no tail, it was a snake.

This was a si’la in its default form. And si’lat were expert shapeshifters.

Pete slung a messenger bag around his neck, stuffed with everything the self-respecting gunfighter needed for an active shooter scenario. From the trunk he produced a Varangian Tactical carbine. It was one of the many, many variants of the AR-855 rifle; this one was designed by Special Operations veterans for their exacting needs.

As he checked the chamber, he asked, “Luke! Need a gun?”

“Got another rifle?”

“Just a pistol.”

“I’ve got mine,” I replied, drawing my SIG. “We’ll make do.”

He jumped into the driver’s seat. “What are we facing?”

I got in beside him. “Multiple shooters and jinn are hitting Lacey’s. Numbers unknown. AKs, grenades and at least one si’la.”

A fresh image appeared in the cascade. An ifrit, inside the mall.

“And an ifrit,” I added.

The car’s engine hummed to life. “Good thing I loaded aethertips.”

“Me too.”

We hit the road. I tuned the radio to the news and listened to a news station rattle off reiterations of the original active shooter report. The gunfire grew softer; the shooters must have moved indoors. Pete zipped through traffic, slipping past civilian cars too close for comfort.

“They’re inside the mall,” I said.

“Must be hitting the lunchtime crowd.”

Closing Memet, I opened Eipos, the preferred Internet telephony service of the Program, and dialed 911. The dispatcher picked up immediately.

“Emergency 911, this call is being recorded. How can I help?”

“We are two off-duty Federal agents responding to the shooting at Lacey’s,” I said. “Tell the first responders not to shoot us.”

“Okay, may I know what you look like?”

“Two white males. I’m wearing a black jacket, red shirt, blue jeans. I have a pistol. Partner has green polo shirt, khaki pants. He’s got an AR-855.”

“All right. What’s your name and which agency do you come from?”

I hung up and turned to Pete.

“Brick, comms on Eipos.”

I called his number. Pete grunted. Moments later the call window filled the screen. He was taking the call on his implants. I handed the app off to the holophone, piping sound into my buds, and cleared my field of view.

Pete slammed the brakes and worked the wheel. We fish-hooked right, stopping in front of the department store, just barely missing a parked van. As we jumped out, a civilian almost collided into me. People were fleeing the area, but the roads and sidewalk were streaked with blood. A dozen civilians were lying on the ground, bleeding.

“Any idea where they’re at?” he asked, shouldering his rifle.

A string of shots split the air.

“Inside!” I replied unnecessarily.

We charged through the front door. I broke off to cover the right while he moved left. More gunfire erupted deeper inside the mall, punctuated by single shots. The shooters had left a trail of broken, bleeding bodies in their wake. Brass shells glittered in pools of blood. Most of the casualties had been shot repeatedly in the torso and then once more in the head.

We tracked the shooters by their gunfire, brass and empty mags. By the destruction they left in their wake. We ran past a shot-up McDonald’s, the customers bleeding and moaning, the golden arches destroyed by a burst of gunfire. Past an electronics shop, everything and everyone inside slagged. Past a schoolgirl, clutching at her bleeding leg, crying for help.

Pete faltered at the last. Halted for a moment. Shook his head and kept running.

This wasn’t our first ride at the rodeo. First neutralize the threat and then tend to the wounded. Reversing the priorities would leave the bad guys free to kill even more, and that would not do.

NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS can be found DRM-free on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

After the Hugos

Vox Day wrote excellent write-ups about the Hugo Awards here and here. Taken together, they are a veteran’s perspective on the state of internal politics in science fiction and fantasy.

I don’t understand why Social Justice Warriors make such a big deal about the Hugos.It’s a meaningless status symbol. A little trophy doesn’t put food on the table, and in recent decades it is no indication of merit. As a child, every award winning SFF work I picked up was so utterly boring it turned me off from the field. Even today, I read far more thrillers and non-fiction than SFF post-1980. Where a plebeian genre writer like me is concerned, there are only two objective indications of a successful SFF story: honest reader reviews and overall sales.

Rabid Puppies, and to a lesser the Sad Puppies, have demonstrated that the Hugo Awards are irrelevant. Last year, the SJWs voted to burn down most of the Hugos than to pick a Puppy nominee. This year, the SJWs chose non-controversial picks over No Award — never mind that other finalists are objectively (in terms of sales figures, reviews and achievements) more deserving of the award, such as Jim Butcher or Toni Weisskopf. The Hugos will soon be changing their voting rules in response to the Puppies — no doubt to shut out the Puppies and only the Puppies.

The awards are so irrelevant that in a nation obsessed with firsts, nobody cares that I’m the first Singaporean to ever be nominated for the Hugos. And I don’t blame anyone. A small group of people played kingmaker, forced the SFF-SJWs and their allies to react to their strategy, AND recommended choices that more accurately reflect reader interests or literary accomplishments than the actual awardees. This tells any reasonable person that the Hugo Awards, ostensibly to represent the finest in SFF, are broken.

A Hugo Award is a hollow award.

I spent more time, energy and brainpower planning and preparing breakfast this morning than I did on the Hugos this year. Somehow, a tale I wrote, itself nothing more than a testbed for technologies and tactics like the Takao, made it all the way to the nominations. While I’m pleasantly surprised and grateful, I lose nothing by not winning the Award, and gain nothing but bragging rights by winning it. I have no stake in the Hugos and no reason to care, now or in the future. Likewise, my target audience doesn’t care about the Hugos or other awards, only whether a story is worth time and money.

I measure literary success not by trophies but by stories. Flashpoint: Titan is only the beginning: coming up next is The Burning of Worlds.

FLASHPOINT: TITAN is a Hugo finalist!

It is my pleasure to announce that my story FLASHPOINT: TITAN has been nominated as a Hugo Awards finalist. I am humbled by the amount of support I have received, and it is my great honour to accept the nomination. I also congratulate my fellow nominees, and I wish them the best of luck.

FLASHPOINT: TITAN was written and published almost exactly a year after my first professional sale with Castalia House. I am grateful for everybody who has helped me with my writing, including Steven Hildreth Jr., Nate Granzow, Brian Kunimasa Murata, Vox Day, and so many more. Without your help, I could not have gotten so far, so fast. You have my deepest thanks.

This nomination marks a milestone in Singapore literature. If my research is correct, this is the first time a Singaporean has been nominated as a finalist for the Hugo Awards. SFF is borderless, defined not by nationalities or arbitrary identity markers of writers or characters, but by its fearless exploration of technology, ideas and values. SFF, at its greatest, is an analysis, assessment, and affirmation of the human soul. I am proud to have played my part in growing this field, even if it were but a small role.

I acknowledge that the Hugos have been mired in controversy over the past few years. 2016 is no different. But no matter your position, if you are a voter, I ask only that judge each work on its own merits. Let the awards go to the most deserving, to the best and brightest in the field.

This is how we can make the Hugos great again.

Behind the Story: Flashpoint: Titan

Between being recommended for Best New Writer Award and this mini-review from Rocket Stack Rank, Flashpoint: Titan is the most high-profile story I’ve written to date. As I look back, I realised that very few writers I know talk in-depth about their writing processes, worldbuilding, characterisation and the stories behind the stories they write.

With Behind the Story, I intend to elaborate on my personal writing process, with an eye to discussing what went into the stories the wrote. With any luck, some passing writer will find inspiration from this series and learn the lessons I did along the way.

Background

Flashpoint: Titan began as a self-imposed challenge: I wanted to write a hard science fiction space battle, significant enough to shape the history of a science fictional universe I am building, without violating the laws of physics as far as possible. It should be rock-hard science fiction while still leaving room for future technology. Most importantly, it should be fun.

The concept of the story began as a novella concept, based on a few lines of dialogue from a supporting character in a work-in-progress. It would have an epic orbital battle, followed by a lengthy siege on the surface of Titan. Then I pared it down, slowly but surely, until it was lean and focused.

The Saturnian system, especially Titan, was a natural fit for the setting. In an age where space travel and fusion power is commonplace, fusion fuel would be the keystone of the interplanetary economy, much like oil is the keystone of the present global economy. In the story universe, helium-3 is the fusion fuel of choice; fusing one molecule of deuterium with one molecule of helium-3 yields one helium-4 molecule, one proton and 18.3 MeV of released energy. To put things in perspective, you could drive a car for twenty years with one gram of D-He3 fuel. Even better, the reaction is mostly aneutronic, so there would be far reduced radiation hazard than other fusion reactions (there would still be neutrons from stray D-D reactions). Rockets would find this extremely useful, as the fusion byproducts can be directed as thrust using a magnetic field. Being a gas giant with a high density of He-3, Saturn is a target for He-3 mining missions. Titan would be a natural base of operations, and with oceans of hydrocarbons the moon is itself a prime resource mining candidate.

He who controls the Saturnian system controls the Solar System. And it is this struggle that the story encapsulates.

Characters

Characterisation was an interesting affair. I am neither Japanese nor a native Japanese speaker, and research into Japanese culture was fascinating. I wanted to create a believably Japanese crew, and it had to show in the small details: how they talk, act and think. Fortunately, I could consult an actual Japanese speaker at second-hand, and it paid off.

The crew of the Takao are military men, and it has to show in their brusque, businesslike manner. Unlike civilians, they never use honorifics with each other — which, in Japanese culture, is also a sign of trust and intimacy, as expected of men who live and work together in a very close space for weeks on end.

When talking to each other, they rarely if ever use ‘you’, using instead rank and/or name. This reflects actual Japanese speaking patterns. Likewise, they use male-only Japanese ending particles, like kana and zo.  I also had the men use ‘ryoukai‘ in place of ‘roger’ and ‘sentou youii‘ instead of ‘General Quarters’ to further differentiate them from Westerners.

LIkewise, I wanted the American to sound quintessentially Midwestern through expressions and slang, to further differentiate him from the other characters. For that I have my proofreaders to thank.

As for Commander Hoshi Tenzen, the viewpoint character, I wanted to create a solid Japanese military professional, someone who embodies the value of giri. He is compelled, by his own sense of honour, to do his duty with self-sacrificing loyalty. It is this sense of giri that propels him to make the choices he does. Likewise, it is this sense of giri that compels the crew to obey his orders in the face of impossible odds. There is also a brief conflict between giri and its counterpart, ninjo, or ‘human feelings’, creating further drama. Everything about Hoshi should scream bushido, and in a sense, he is a modern day samurai.

For all that, Rocket Stack noted that the story lacked character development. It’s a valid criticism, and it’s something I need to work on for future stories.

Ship Design

Hard science fiction is hard. Designing the ships of the story required long hours of number crunching, fiddling, conceptualisations and comparisons with wet navy equivalents. But to make the story convincing, the maths and the physics had to stand up. For that reason, I shied away from traditional depictions of ultra-high-gee accelerations. While tempting, there is no need to have such accelerations in space; a mere six milligees would be quite sufficient to propel a ship to any orbit in the Solar system, and at the stupendous speeds afforded by fusion engines, only a slight nudge would take a ship safely clear of an incoming kinetic munition.

I also made a deliberate decision to stay away from the traditional wet Navy ship classification types. I felt that they didn’t accurately reflect the roles and capabilities of what an actual space warship could do. That meant I had to find my own designations.

The star of the story, the JS Takao, is a torchship. That is, a ship with an unreasonably powerful drive. My target was an acceleration of 1/3 Earth gravity and a delta-v budget of 1000 km/s. To hit that figure, I had to cut away every excess gram from the original design proposal and postulate an advanced fusion engine. Takao masses 5000 tons, with a payload fraction of 88% — that is, 88% of the ship’s total mass is its payload.

In terrestrial terms, Takao is a guided missile frigate. Her mission is to rapidly project force anywhere in the Solar System, representing Japanese interests and responding to crises. Unlike a frigate, she can operate independently and still carry enough firepower to win a small war all by herself. She provides an option for policymakers to respond to crises quickly without escalating a situation by sending a full squadron, to secure an inhabited world ahead of a larger and more powerful task force, or screen a squadron.

To make the most of her modest payload, I made her primarily a laser ship, with her main laser capable of reaching out and touching a target over tens of thousands of kilometers. Takao also carries 80 missiles, which gives her the throw weight of a contemporary destroyer. Finally, I gave her a trio of railguns to round things off.

 

Each weapon plays different roles in a space engagement. The laser would degrade a target’s capabilities, taking out sensors, radiators and other critical systems. It would also defend the ship against long-range missile and kinetic attack. However, lasers generate huge amounts of heat, overheating in mere seconds. The calculations indicated that the laser could only fire just under 1200 pulses before overheating.

Missiles, on the other hand, generate very little heat in comparison. After taking out the enemy’s key systems with her laser, Takao would follow through with a mass missile launch to finish off the targets. To handle enemy counter kinetic fire, and force close-in threats to fly into missile vectors, her railguns would begin firing. During a high-speed encounter, the ship’s generator and radiators would be running at max capacity; the railguns needed to operate independently of the generator and radiator as far as possible. That meant the railguns would have a separate coolant reservoir and employ explosive power generators — which, in the real world, would likely be called explosively pumped flux compression generators.

As for the rationale behind the name Takao, I will simply say this: Tsundere heavy cruiser.

The guard ships in the story serve a similar function to antiaircraft missile destroyers. The term ‘guard ship’ comes from the Russian navy term for small ships designated for escort duties. At 10000 tons, though, the guard ships are closer to cruisers. They are tasked with intercepting enemy kinetics and saturating enemy lasers with more kinetics to allow other combatants to close the distance. That made missiles their principal offensive and defensive weapon. For these ships, lasers are best employed as area defense weapons, taking out kinetics that come too close. For their kinetic component, I chose a spinal railgun specifically to counter laser ships: laser-armed ships would have to either burn through a screen of incoming kinetics (and force their lasers into thermal shutdown) or burn away from the battlespace. Working as a wolfpack, a group of guard ships can swarm and take down other targets using missiles and railgun shells. With a payload fraction of 77%, a guard ship can carry a truly ludicrous number of missiles (400!), perfect for her role.

It’s tempting to think of assault carriers as aircraft carrier analogues, but in truth they are closer to amphibious assault ships. They ferry troops from place to place, and hold a number of drones to support the troops or friendly forces. They don’t need to be fast; they just have to be fast enough to keep up with the regular forces and burn to their objective at a reasonable pace.

If there is one thing I could change about the ship designs, it would be to incorporate afterburners for their fusion engines. I would give the ships an option to dump reaction mass into the fusion burn chamber, increasing their thrust (and acceleration) in exchange for lower exhaust velocity and prodigious propellant expenditure. But after a battle that proves the utility of ships capable of stupendous accelerations, you can bet that afterburners would become standard issue pretty quickly.

Atomic Rockets and Rocketpunk Manifesto were invaluable resources for ship design, and a must-read for anyone interested in creating believable future spaceships.

Combat

These calculators proved invaluable in determining what weapons could really do. Armed with these numbers, I had an idea of what space weapons would do to a target. However, real-life space combat in deep space would likely be very boring. Thermodynamics renders all notion of stealth impossible. You’d probably see two waves of spaceships rushing towards each other, flinging everything they have at hand. He who can launch more missiles, fire more lasers and dodge more kinetics wins. It could very likely be boiled down to mathematical formulae. And readers don’t want boring stuff.

That means an intense focus on drama and tension, while keeping hard sci fi tropes in mind. Space combat, as research and speculation suggests, would force captains to juggle power, coolant and munitions. Heat is the Achilles heel of any space warship, followed by electricity. An overheated ship would melt down in very short order, while an unpowered ship cannot do anything.

Space combat is also fundamentally asymmetrical. Lasers and kinetics offer vastly different capabilities, each with pros and cons. Different weapons would be suited for different missions, and I wanted the ships to carry different weapon mixes to reflect different missions. The space engagements in the story reflected this asymmetry, giving readers more to look at than a large wave of missiles approaching a tsunami of missiles.

I also elected to focus on Commander Hoshi Tenzen’s thoughts and emotions as he deals with the situation, using science to drive the story. Stories are about humans, and readers want to read about other people I incorporated thermodynamics, forcing Hoshi to deal with a steadily creeping heat load in the face of a missile massacre, and losing his longest-range weapons. While the capabilities of every laser, shell and missile had to be calculated (if only ballpark figures), I created room for deception. I won’t spoil the story, but I will say that the principle here is to disguise one’s capabilities, allowing the enemy to underestimate you.

Looking back, I would have made a couple of changes to the combat scenes. I would have had Hoshi target sensors instead of blowing away threats where practical; sensors are far more vulnerable, and sensor-kills would be nearly as good as a mission-kills.

I would also have Takao turning and burning more often, presenting her missiles to the enemy while disguising her motion as a vector change. Looking up the figures again, I realized that Takao could possibly outrun her own missiles. Takao is a fusion-powered torchship, and any lesser engine simply cannot match her exhaust velocity or thrust power. To effectively deploy broadside-mounted missiles, especially missiles with engines less powerful that her own, a spaceship would have to present the missiles to the threat before launching. It’s a minor detail, but a crucial one to ensure greater immersion.

Conclusions

Flashpoint: Titan was my first foray into very hard sci fi, and it appears to be highly regarded. It only means that the bar has been set very high, and I hope to exceed expectations with my following stories.

If there is one thing I learned from this story, it’s that science supports the plot, but characters drive the story. Science tells you what is possible and what is impossible in the story, and a character’s choices based on these constraints become the story. There is always a temptation to dump hard-won research material on the page, but readers are ultimately interested in reading about humans. They want to know what drives characters, what they choose, the outcomes of their choices, and how they can relate to the characters and the events of the story.

Stories are ultimately about people. The tropes of hard science fiction are simply tools to build certain kinds of stories about special people living in in imagined time and place, creating an experience for readers unlike anything they can find in this world.

Cheah for Best New Writer

My publisher thought that Flashpoint: Titan was so worthy of merit, he wants to nominate me for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

I am honoured that he holds me in such high regard. Honour demands that I remain silent on my work, but if you believe that my story is truly worthy of the award, and if you hold a Supporting or Attending Membership of Worldcon, feel free to second the nomination. You can find more information here.

I whole-heartedly welcome the nomination. After all, as certain groups of people the world over insist on pointing out, too many white people have won too many awards for far too long.

No safe space for predators

Castalia House recently concluded a series of posts on paedophiles in science fiction. (Part 1 here.) Drawing on testimonials, newspaper reports and oral statements, the expose accuses a number of high-profile writers as sex predators or defenders of sex predators.

The series makes for morbid reading. It includes descriptions of outrageous sexual violence, exploitation of children, and celebrations of the same. It also includes testimonies to a slightly lesser evil, of people sweeping accusations under the carpet and protecting known predators. I am disappointed to see so many of well-known authors on the blacklist, especially a few of my childhood favourites.

I can understand why so many celebrities and fans chose to defend these people. It is human nature for people to circle the wagons against outsiders, critics and accusers. But it doesn’t make things right. It does not, and cannot, excuse such depredations. The right thing to do would be to report these accusations and allegations to the police and determine the truth of the matter.

Science fiction is the literature of the future. Fantasy is the literature of values. Children are the future of civilisation, and civilisation is founded upon what we value. There can be no safe space for people who prey upon children and the bedrock of civilisation.

To SFF writers and readers who care about society, I urge you to speak up. Do not tolerate naked evil. Do not sacrifice the future for expediency and poisonous friends. Call the enablers and the silent to account, especially those who should know better. The monsters in the midst must be identified, isolated and dealt with.

There must be no safe spaces for predators. Not in the world, not in society, not in SFF.