Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between


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Have They really Been Here Before? Part 1

I have long been fascinated by the way events (even apparently minor events) can reverberate through time, affecting subsequent events hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of years later. A recent example is when 19-year-old Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo, Bosnia on June 28, 1914, which triggered World War I. Events following that war led directly and (in retrospect) inevitably to World War II, which led directly to the Cold War and all the little proxy wars, coups, assassinations, and CIA covert operations to “stop the spread of communism” that the Cold War engendered. The consequences of all of those things affect us even today, particularly in the Middle East. One person’s actions, one bullet, literally changed the course of history for the entire world, resulting in millions of deaths — and the count keeps rising.

Granted, this example only covers decades, but I’m certain it would be easy to find single events hundreds or thousands of years ago that have led directly to the way things are today.

It is precisely this concept that I explored in the Children of Hathor trilogy. In that story, all the hundreds of human races in the galaxy are descended from an extinct progenitor race, the Hathor. 800,000 years ago. a single action by a single one of these Hathor altered the course of history for every race in the galaxy. As a direct result, some of those Hathor-spawned races visited Earth thousands of years ago, helped elevate early humans to civilization, and interbred with them. Now those actions have directly affected the life of 12-year-old Jason Hunter, and his subsequent actions define the future course of galactic civilization, affecting hundreds of worlds and trillions of people.

When I set out to write the trilogy, I was of course aware of the many books that claim ancient aliens visited Earth. I’m not sure I bought it, but it was a fun concept to explore in fiction. Since them, however, I have read some of these books, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe there isn’t some truth to the idea. I’m beginning to wonder, in fact, if there isn’t as much truth as there is fiction in my trilogy!

Now, before you think I’ve gone off my rocker, let me first say that much of what is written in the aforementioned books is horse hockey. That is, the writers almost invariably take a few tantalizing facts and use them to launch into absurd flights of fancy. One book made the claim that the “starmen” were wise and benevolent, that we were a carefully watched colony, and that soon they would return and peace and beauty would reign over the Earth, or some other such nonsense. Even if aliens did visit Earth in the past, there is no reason to assume that they were any more selfless and benevolent than the Spanish Conquistadors. Why should they have been? The people here must have seemed to them as primitive as subsistence hunters in the Amazon jungle seem to us. They would have been as likely to enslave early humans as raise them up.

As for the notion that these aliens will return, well, that sounds just like the South Pacific cargo cults, or, frankly, any religion that insists its god or prophet or whatever will return someday soon (always soon!) to save us. These aliens, if they existed, might well be extinct by now. In fact, I’d lay heavy odds that they are. We’re talking thousands of years! If Earth history is any guide, no civilization lives for more than a few hundred years, tops. Odds are pretty much even that our “modern” civilization won’t survive for more than another century or two, based on how we are trashing our planet and how we are ever so eager to kill each other.

Still, there seems to be some pretty good evidence that human-like aliens did visit Earth millennia ago, and that their presence dramatically affected the development of human civilization. For all we know, there could be a vast galactic civilization composed of hundreds of races, just like in my trilogy, and we are no more aware of it than small Amazonian tribes deep in the jungle are aware of Western Civilization. Nor would those galactic races be any more aware of us than we are of those hidden Amazonian tribes.

It’s a tantalizing thought. In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the evidence that makes me think this is possible. And I’ll talk about why I think it’s premature to insist that space travel between star systems is impossible.


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Is the Universe Conscious?

I am certainly not the first to pose this question. Philosophers and physicists have been asking it, and often answering in the affirmative, for quite some time now. In fact, here are three quotes from physicists that broach the subject:

“Physicists are being forced to admit that the universe is a “mental” construction. Pioneering physicist Sir James Jeans wrote: “The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter, we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter. Get over it, and accept the inarguable conclusion. The universe is immaterial-mental and spiritual.”  – R.C. Henry, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University

“As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.” – Max Plank

“It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality” – Eugene Wigner

Certainly in my own philosophical meanderings I have considered the possibility that the universe itself is a conscious entity. Then I saw these rather intriguing images. Three of them are representations of neural connections in the brain, and the other three are representations (derived from the latest astrophysical research) of the large scale structure of the universe. See if you can tell which is which:

neural net1

Universe2

neural net3

Universe1

neural net2

Universe4

Can’t tell? The last image is what brought this on. I saw it in National Geographic a few months ago and my jaw dropped. I had seen images of neural nets before, so when I opened the page and saw this image of the large scale structure of the universe, I could hardly believe it. Suddenly, the question took on a lot more relevance. I did a little more looking recently and found additional images.

Of course, it could just be coincidence. Perhaps all complex systems organize themselves this way. Still, it is intriguing, no? It is especially intriguing in the context of quantum entanglement (see here, here, and here). Theoretically, any part of the universe could communicate with any other part instantaneously, much like nerve impulses between neurons.

Which raises the question: could one of the concepts underlying the story in the Children of Hathor trilogy actually be true? Could the universe itself be composed of pure consciousness?

I’d like to believe it’s possible.

(In case you haven’t figured it out, the images alternate, with the first one showing the brain’s neural connections and the second the structure of the universe, and so on.)

Note: If you found this post interesting, you might also like an earlier post: A New Way to Look at Quantum Strangeness.


Liberating Creativity – Re-Blog

To all you writers out there, this blog by Kevin Brennan is well worth your time:

“Last March I developed a long essay on the state of fiction these days, as I see it — particularly the fiction we associate with the indie market. It’s probably thought of mainly as genre fiction, though there’s a mixed bag of material out there, available predominantly as ebooks from Amazon.com. It struck me — still strikes me, in fact — that the tools offered by online publishing present an enormous opportunity that’s not being taken advantage of by writers, artistic freedom being the biggest elephant in the room.”

Click here to read more.


Can America Be Saved?

I tend to avoid politics and religion in this blog, for obvious reasons. Both subjects seem to get peoples’ blood boiling. But it is an election year, so the temptation has become too strong to resist. Besides, reasonable people can discuss contentious issues in a reasonable and respectful manner, right? So here I go.

The title of this post might be considered a tad dramatic. But it is, nonetheless, not far from the truth. Sadly, our government is as corrupt as any third world banana republic. (In fact, elections in some of those third world countries are often much cleaner than ours. Just ask Jimmy Carter.)

So what makes our current system so corrupt? Two things:

1) Politicians require massive amounts of money to run for national office. The 2012 election cost over $7 billion. The 2014 midterm election was the most expensive midterm in history ($3.67 billion), and this upcoming election in 2016 will probably cost more than both of those previous elections combined.

Most of this money comes from large corporations and extremely rich people. When oil companies give a politician millions of dollars, whose interests do you think that politician will vote for? Simply put, campaign contributions are legal bribery, and the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision only made the problem worse. The idea that “money is speech” is a grotesque misrepresentation of the Constitution. The Koch brothers (or a union) just have to hand over a few million bucks to a campaign without saying a word and the politician is in their pocket. No actual speech required.

This situation is absolutely no different that handing a politician a briefcase full of cash in return for a political favor. In a word, it is corrupt. And it is legal.

2) Our election system itself is corrupt. All of the major electronic voting machine companies are owned by avowed republicans. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. I have good friends who are republicans. But my confidence is not inspired when the owner of one of the largest companies stated publicly in 2004 that he was committed to electing a republican president. Nor is my confidence inspired by clandestine, last minute changes to the voting software, the companies preventing government officials from inspecting their software, evidence that the software is easily hackable, thousands of votes that mysteriously appear and/or disappear, municipalities where the number of votes exceeds by a large margin the number of eligible voters, or the propensity of votes for one candidate to switch automatically to an opposing candidate — while a person is voting. All of these irregularities are well documented.

If the benefits of these irregularities were equally divided across the political spectrum we could blame incompetence, but they’re not. In nearly every case, they benefited republican candidates. I believe it was Stalin who said, in effect, the voters don’t matter; what matters is the person who counts the votes.

On top of that are the myriad voter ID laws and voting rules passed recently in response to contrived fears of “voter fraud,” which is nonexistent (except for the institutional fraud noted above). The only purpose of these laws and rules is quite transparently to disenfranchise people of color, who overwhelmingly vote for democrats. (Example: Increasing the number of voting machines in affluent white neighborhoods and severely limiting them in minority neighborhoods, such that people in the latter must wait many hours to vote — or can’t vote at all because the polls close before they get off work.)

And then, of course, are all the stories of republican committees putting up billboards in minority neighborhoods or sending out flyers to minority voters that give the wrong voting date, or the wrong location, or contain a veiled threat that the voter will be arrested for some reason.

Honestly, I don’t understand how people get away with this stuff. But it’s all legal.

Obviously, the fix is in, as George Carlin once said. The idea that we live in a representative democracy is a pleasant fantasy, but no more than that. The question is: can it be repaired? Can the republic be returned to the people? (The government has only been “by the people” (mostly) for about half of our history, such as for several decades after the revolution, and for several decades after the depression.)

There are ways to fix our former republic. They won’t be easy to implement, because the moneyed interests are firmly against any such change. In theory, though, they are doable:

1) Get money out of politics. Period. Make it illegal for anyone, private citizen or corporation, to donate to a campaign. But then, how would candidates get their message out? Simple:
2) Free air time. Television and radio stations are given licenses by the government to use the public airwaves. Let me repeat that: public airwaves. The people of the U.S. own them, not the broadcast companies. Make it mandatory for each radio and TV station to donate an equal certain amount of air time to each candidate, as a condition of keeping their licenses. Make other aspects of a campaign publicly funded, and each candidate gets the same amount.
3) Limit actual campaigning to a maximum of three months before the election. No more of this ridiculous 18-month campaign. This will have the added benefit of reducing the media’s sophomoric tendency to treat the campaign like a horse race instead of a forum of ideas on the future direction of our country.
4) Go back to paper ballots, which can be recounted and are much more difficult to tamper with.
5) Repeal all those ridiculous voter ID laws, ensure that every person is given the opportunity to vote, and make voting day a holiday. Make it illegal to spread false information.
6) Finally, make it mandatory to vote. If you don’t vote and don’t have a reasonable, verifiable excuse, it’s a $100 fine.

Please note: there is absolutely nothing partisan about these suggestions. They benefit both parties equally. Nor do I mean to imply that democrats have never engaged in underhanded or even illegal activities, because they most certainly have (Daly’s Chicago comes to mind, as do the shady dealings of some unions in the past). But is it a sad fact that most of the shady stuff recently has come from the GOP and right-wing PACs.

I guarantee if these changes were made, this would once again become the republic it was designed to be. Benjamin Franklin, asked upon leaving the Constitutional Convention what form of government we had, famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We lost it once before and regained it. Maybe we can do it again.


The Wages of Living in Fear

I don’t usually get too serious in this blog, but this subject has been bothering me for some time.

There seems to be an accelerating trend in the U.S., fomented with glee and abandon by republican presidential candidates and right-wing media. That trend is to believe that everyone lives in mortal danger at all times, from every conceivable avenue, and the only defense is to arm oneself to the teeth and be ready to shoot.

Well here are the wages of living in constant fear and paranoia (from ABC News):

Ohio Man Fatally Shoots Teen Son He Mistook for an Intruder
By Dan Sewell, associated press
CINCINNATI — Jan 12, 2016, 4:20 PM ET

An armed man who believed he was confronting an intruder in the basement of his home Tuesday morning instead fatally shot his 14-year-old son, who was supposed to be on his way to school, police said.

Police said the teen had headed to the bus stop but apparently came back home through a back door. The man said he heard a noise in the basement. Police said when the father opened a door within the basement, the boy appeared.

“He scared me!” the distraught father said in his 911 call shortly before 6:30 a.m. “I thought he was in school. I heard noise, so I went downstairs looking and he jumped out at me. …. Oh, God. Get here quick!”

The man told police he accidentally shot his son with a .45-caliber handgun. After initially telling the 911 dispatcher the boy was hit in the chest, he then said it was in the neck. The dispatcher told him to put the gun on the kitchen counter, then talked him through first aid steps and tried to calm him until police and emergency vehicles arrived.

The boy died at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Police identified him as Georta Mack. They didn’t immediately release the name of the father, who’s heard in the tape repeatedly shouting, “Oh, God, please hurry! Oh, God!”

There was a similar story recently of a woman who shot and killed her daughter when the girl arrived home unexpectedly. The woman kept a loaded gun by her bed.

When are people going to wise up and stop listening to the fear mongers? Picture here Senator Lindsey Graham talking about ISIL, fluttering his hands and crying, “We have stop ISIS before we all get killed here at home!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ae7EXUSyhc)

Really? A few fanatics are going to cross the ocean and kill 300 million Americans? Just like that? What an idiot.

This kind of fear mongering benefits only the politicians who thrive on generating fear to get elected (with empty promises to make everyone safe) and weapons manufacturers who conveniently fund the campaigns of those very same politicians. See a connection?

When did Americans become so easy to scare? When did we all become so gullible and paranoid? Someone’s chance of dying in a home invasion is so small as to be negligible, but unintentional homicides like the one above are all too common, as are other accidental shootings, often by toddlers who get a hold of that same gun that someone believed was going to make him or her “safe.” Only a handful of Americans died at the hands of terrorists last year, but over 30,000 died as a result of firearm homicide, suicide, and accident. Few people seem to care about that, even though that really IS a scary statistic.

I’m not opposed to responsible gun ownership, but keeping loaded weapons at the ready as though you live in a war zone is a recipe for tragedy. Maybe it’s time Americans re-discovered their backbones and their senses and stopped listening to the spineless (or just cynical and opportunistic), frothing-at-the-mouth fear mongers in Congress and on TV.


What If You Won $400 Million?

Like so many other people this week, I’m indulging myself in the fantasy that I could win the biggest lottery jackpot in history. 800 million dollars! That’s $32 million every year for 25 years. Or, if you take the cash award, about $400 million after taxes.

Now, I realize that my chance of winning is so small as to be statistically zero, but if I don’t buy a ticket my chance of winning is definitely zero. So, what the heck? I bought a ticket. Just one. Buying hundreds of tickets, as I have seen some people do, only increases one’s chances by an incremental amount (they’re still so close to zero as to be negligible). I’m not going to waste that much money. I’m very fatalist about it. I figure, if I’m going to win, I’m going to win, whether I buy one ticket or a thousand.

So what if I do win? Well, I’ll admit I have indulged myself with a bit of fantasizing.

I would give most of it away. Let’s face it, who needs $400 million? Nobody. I confess I have zero respect for all those super-rich billionaires we’re always reading about, whose only purpose in life seems to be accumulating even more money, no matter who gets hurt or no matter how much the Earth is damaged. If you already have $40 BILLION, why would you want more? What could you possibly do with it? It just doesn’t make any sense to me to spend all one’s time accumulating more when you already have more than any sane person — or any sane thousand people, for that matter — could possibly need. There’s way more to life than that.

Anyway, back to the fantasy. First, if I won, I would use a very large chunk, perhaps as much as $100 million, to create a trust fund. The purpose of the trust would be to provide grants and low-cost loans to small farmers who want to convert to organic but can’t afford the cost. In this way, I would be able to increase dramatically the number of organic farms. People would be healthier, the Earth would be healthier, and the cost of organic would probably decline, perhaps even approaching the cost of “conventionally produced” food. (I love the use of the term “conventional” to describe the practice of dousing food with toxic chemicals, as though that’s how food has always been produced. In actual fact, until about 70 years ago, conventional food was all organic.)

Second, I would also provide hefty chunks of cash to a variety of environmental and social justice charities, because I believe we need to take better care of the Earth and because I think that people should be treated with dignity and respect. Sure, there are undesirable elements that don’t deserve respect (you know, like some of those avaricious billionaires I just mentioned, sitting in their fortified mansions, fondling their money). There are always going to be predators and parasites, in nature as well as in human society. But I believe most people just want to be treated fairly and live honorable, peaceful lives. If I can use some of this lottery windfall to help some of them do that, then so much the better.

Third, I would of course provide my extended family with enough money to erase their financial worries, for the rest of their lives if they manage it well.

And finally, yes, I would indulge myself. I’d like to have a nice house right by the beach so I could surf every morning without fighting traffic. I’d like to travel more. And I’d like to be able to charter a plane whenever I need to fly in the continental U.S. so I can avoid the hassle of flying commercial. And I’d like to have a Ferrari. Or maybe a Porche. I’d keep — and invest — just enough to allow me these things without having to worry about finances ever again. I don’t need much more than that.

What about you? What would you do if you won $400 million?

UPDATE: Now the jackpot is $1.5 billion. Holy smokes. I can barely conceive of that much money. But my priorities remain the same, just more for each. It’s fun to think about winning, of course, but there is a very real danger that winning that much money could completely destroy someone’s life. Perhaps that’s another reason why I would give most of it away.


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The Best Laid Plans

It has been quite some time since I last posted, but the reason is simple: I have been completely immersed in the final book of my science fiction trilogy. The first draft is now done. I tend to be rather eclectic in this blog, but just so you know, this post is just about writing, specifically about the journey I undertook to write a trilogy, and what I have learned about the craft in the process. Fair warning: there are no pretty pictures; just a lot of words, which I hope are interesting enough that pictures will not be required.

The amazing thing about writing is that no matter how much you do and no matter how long you do it, there is always more to learn. Language is the most complex thing we humans do, and writing is the most complex aspect of language. I could live to be 300 and write books the entire time and never know everything there is to know about language — or about writing. That complexity is deceptive, though. Since we apparently acquire language effortlessly as infants and cannot remember a time when we couldn’t communicate with words, language seems to be a simple thing. Everyone does it, and most people take it for granted.

(Note that I did not say we “learn” language. Until the age of six or so, we acquire language in much the same way we acquire the cells in our growing body. After that, though, if we want to learn another language, it is definitely a learning process. To wait until high school to require a foreign language is nuts; it goes against everything we know about language acquisition. Foreign language training should start in pre-school. Kindergarten at the latest. Our school system is stuck in the Nineteenth Century — but that’s another blog post.)

One of my writing instructors in college said that if you don’t have a plan in mind when you start a novel, you’ll find that you have written yourself into a corner by page 100. I didn’t believe him. I thought, “How can you know that will happen, much less by page 100? What’s so special about page 100?”

Well, it turns out he was right. For the first novel I started (and which I may yet return to — I still like the premise), I did not have a plan, and sure enough, by page 100 I was stuck. So when I decided to write a children’s science fiction novel, I knew I needed a plan. I bought a book called The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, by Evan Marshall. The book presents a formula for designing an effective novel. Now, normally I abhor formulas. When I was teaching Freshman English in college, there would always be a significant fraction of students who would attempt to fulfill the assignments I gave them with the infamous “5-paragraph essay.” It drove me nuts. The person who came up with the idea of the 5-paragraph essay as the ideal model for that form of writing should be forced to sit in a room and read nothing but freshman 5-paragraph essays for a week — and then EAT them! They’re horrible, contrived, and formulaic in the extreme. So you can imagine that I was dubious about using a formula to design a novel.

Nonetheless, I had to start somewhere. As it turns out, I didn’t stick precisely to the formula, since it was based on multiple point-of-view characters, and my novel had only one POV. I also opted for third-person limited, to keep the structure simple. The reader knew only what the protagonist knew. All that being said, Marshall at least gave me a rough structure, and he taught me the importance of mapping out a novel completely before starting. In the first book of the trilogy, The Talisman of Elam, I knew what was going to happen from beginning to end (except for minor details). It made the actual writing process very straightforward, and I didn’t get stuck at page 100 — or anywhere else for that matter.

Originally I had intended to write only one novel, but in mapping out the story structure I discovered there was no way I could get it all in one book. That’s when I decided to go for a trilogy. So I mapped out the whole, epic story, then broke it down into three parts and mapped the first book in more detail using Marshall’s techniques.

It worked well. Once the mapping was done, it only took me a couple of months to write the first draft. So naturally, I took the same approach to writing the second book, The Hand of Osiris. If you’ve written a trilogy — or even if you’ve only looked closely at trilogies — you can see there is a definite structure to them. The whole trilogy is like a single story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The first book is the beginning, the second the middle, and the third the end that contains the big climax and denouement. But each book must also stand alone as a complete story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. This makes the middle book of a trilogy rather challenging, because typically the middle part of a story is where tension builds as we head toward the climax, but the excitement of the beginning is gone, and we already know the big climax is not going to happen here. It’s just a series of obstacles the protagonist must meet and overcome, with each obstacle more difficult than the last. Finding a compelling beginning and a compelling climax to the middle part of the story, thereby making the middle stand on its own as a complete story, is not easy. At least, it wasn’t for me. That difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the second book you are constrained by what happened in the first. You can’t do just anything. You’ve established your fictional world and the direction of the narrative, so you don’t have the same freedom as you did in the first.

So it should come as no surprise that mapping out the second book was harder than the first, and it took longer. Nonetheless, the Marshall system worked again. I stuck to the script I developed and was able to write the first draft fairly quickly. (Interestingly, though I think the writing is better in the second book, and though I think the story becomes more interesting, people seem to like the first book better. Perhaps because the first book is more clearly good vs. evil and there are no blurred lines. Things become more complicated and more nuanced in book 2.)

If you are constrained in book 2 by what you did in book 1, imagine how constrained you are in book 3! In fact, I found that mapping out book 3 was much more difficult than I had thought it was going to be. I knew where I needed to start and I knew where I needed to end up, but the middle part gave me fits. Finally, I finished mapping it out and began to write. And then a very funny thing happened. The writing went flat. The characters went flat. It was almost as though they had taken on lives of their own (something I felt very strongly in book 2) and were telling me that I was making them do things they didn’t want to do. It just wasn’t working. By page 100 (there’s that magic number again! I wonder if that’s coincidence?!) the whole thing felt dead. It was boring to write, which I knew meant it would be boring to read. That is worse than death for a story.

So I quit. I threw away those first 100 pages and I threw away the plan I had worked so hard on and I started over knowing only where I would begin and where I needed to end. In essence, I let the characters drive the story. Once I did that, the story came alive and took off. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with it. As I noted earlier, I have now finished the first draft and have begun the first revision. The characters took me places I had absolutely NO idea I’d be going, but in the end it worked. I’m very excited about it. I think this is the best book yet, and I think the story will boggle a few minds. But like all writers, I won’t really know until readers get their hands on it.

I’m looking forward to that, and to finally finishing this project that has occupied me for the past ten years. I’m already thinking about the next novel, a completely unrelated fantasy.