The Cosmos On Your Computer: Universe Sandbox

The universe is bigger and more beautiful than we can comprehend through the naked eye.  Fortunately, thanks to Dan Dixon and the other creative minds at Giant Army, beholding the majesty of said cosmos is now as simple as clicking your mouse.

Well, maybe not that simple…

Universe Sandbox is an interactive space gravity simulator.  Through various controls, you can simulate planetary motion, the Solar System, and even whole galaxies across time and space at a rate of your choosing.

For the most part, the program is designed for educational purposes and is free for schools to download for their science courses.  That said, the sandbox encourages learning by doing, so you have an absurd amount of control over how you want to run a given simulation.  Want to create your own solar system?  You can do it here.  Want to see what Earth looks like with the rings of Saturn?  You can do that, too.  Want to blow up every moon around Jupiter just for the hell of it?  Well, too bad, because I already beat you to it! (but in my defense, it really is quite beautiful).

Not so mighty now, are you, Jupiter?  Copyright © 2012 by Giant Army.
Not so mighty now, are you, Jupiter? Copyright © 2012 by Giant Army.

I’ll admit that this isn’t so much of a video game as it is a piece of educational software.  It is also only available for Windows PC, limiting its reach to the whole simulator market.  But it is a very innovative piece of software and deserves a look by students and space junkies alike.

Universe Sandbox is available for download on its website and through Steam.

Bibliography: Universe Sandbox.  Designed by Dan Dixon.  Developed by Giant Army.  Windows PC (platform).  Original release date: May 2008.  Stable release date: October 1, 2012.

Flash Fiction: “Scars Earned In The Service”

Loyalty is one of those virtues that can be taken as a vice, depending on who you work for.  And loyalty isn’t the same as blind obedience.


Scars Earned In The Service, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 987

At the moment the electrodes were applied to her forehead, Belle’s entire body went rigid.  The world disappeared in a blinding light.

And then she was standing on a street corner in downtown Boston.

But it wasn’t Boston and Belle wasn’t really “there.”  For one thing, she didn’t breathe.  There was nothing to feel here.  No smells, no tastes, no wind.  No pain whatsoever.  Like someone had coated the whole city in novocaine.

When she looked down, her body was different, too.  She was still wearing her black suit.  Not a wrinkle to be found.  And her hair was straight and neatly parted to the side.  Nothing was out of place.

Another sign that this whole place wasn’t real.  It couldn’t be real.

But I’m real, Belle thought.  My mind makes this real.

“Hey there, Belle.”  The flat voice made her freeze.   She turned around slowly.

He looked the same as ever.  Same surfer’s haircut.  Same cold blue eyes.  Acid-washed blue jeans below an immaculate Red Sox shirt.  He stood with his hands tucked into his pockets, almost smiling at her.

“Scott.”  Belle stretched out her hand.  “You need to come home now.”

The teenager stared at her hand.  Then he shrugged.  “Nah.”

“This isn’t right, Scott.  You shouldn’t stay here.  None of this is real—”

“Says who?”  Scott held out his left hand and made a fist.

Without any transition, the scene changed.  Now Belle was sitting across from him at a table outside a café.  The ambience was definitely Parisian.  She heard birds singing and children laughing in the distance.  A French waiter came up to pour her a fresh glass of wine.

It finally dawned on Belle that there weren’t any cars or pedestrians in these simulations.  Scott had always hated that.  He hated any distractions from his Nex-Gen worldbuilding.

“This world is mine, Belle,” Scott said quietly.  “It’s not your world.  It’s better than your world.”

Belle’s first instinct was to grab him by the shirt collar and scream at him to snap out of this childish nonsense.  But her training held her back.  She instead offered a calm demeanor.

“Your mother’s dead,” she told him.  “Your father wanted me to bring you out for the funeral.”

“I don’t care.”

“How could you not care, Scott?  Don’t you love her?”

“Do you still not get it, Belle?”  Scott sipped from the wineglass that the waiter had served him.  “You don’t feel things here.  There’s no sensorium code in this engine.  No more hormones, no more tears.  You just… exist.”  He smiled.  “And you play.  Forever.”

“So that’s it?  You’ll just throw away your whole future?  Just play in the virtual world until brain-death?”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

Belle hung her head.  She couldn’t do this on her own.  She didn’t have the training for this.  The kid needed a cybertherapist or a virtual-access priest.  Not some second-rate housekeeper.

She pictured trying to explain the situation to his father.  Pictured his pale, broken face when she had to tell him that his only son was never coming home again, not even to say goodbye to his mother.  To tell him that the whole St. Clair family fortune was in jeopardy.

He’d fire Belle in an instant.  That thought hurt more than all the bullshit Scott was giving her.  Belle Andrews had served the St. Clairs for over fifteen years and never once missed a day of work.  She would rather die than lose the family’s trust.

Scott, on the other hand, seemed ready to let his body die than to face the pain of daily life.

“So what now?”  The teen leaned back in his chair.  A fully-peeled orange appeared in his hand.  He took a bite, then offered it to Belle.  “Are you gonna terminate the sim?  Gonna drag me back to the estate?”

Belle stared at the orange.  Then she looked at Scott’s bland smile.  “Would it matter if I did?”

“If you wanna keep your job, it might.”

“You’re a brat.  You know that?”

“Yup.”  He took another bite of the orange, but didn’t seem to relish it.  Belle wondered what was the point of having good food in a world where you couldn’t actually taste it.

As she stood up, Belle smoothed out the front of her suit.  She liked this suit.  It made her feel confident.  Powerful, even.  It didn’t matter what problem the family was facing so long as she wore this suit.  She was their guardian.  Their friend and ally.  She’d get them through each crisis no matter what.

But perhaps not today.

“Well, all right.”  Belle slowly tucked her hands into her pockets and walked past Scott onto the Parisian boulevard.  “Take care of yourself, Scott.”

“You’re really doing this?”  His tone was still flat.  There was no curiosity or surprise in it.  Even if he’d wanted to sound genuine.  “Just gonna let Dad down?”

Belle paused in the middle of the empty street.  She saw a bluebird soar overhead and turned around to see Scott lounging at the café.

“Yeah,” she said, “I guess I am.  We had a good run, but I can’t do my job anymore.  I can’t keep holding your family together.  Not when I’m the only thing keeping it together.”

“And are you still surprised that I left?”

“Guess not.  I’ll tell your dad you’re okay, but promise me you’ll stay out of trouble in here.”

Scott nodded quietly.  No snotty comeback for once.  Belle was almost proud.  She reached out and ruffled his hair, then turned away.

The sim would be over soon.  She’d let the techs remove the electrodes and then she’d look Mr. St. Clair in the eye.  Tell him that, sadly, Scott wasn’t coming out of his own free will, and yes, this was her resignation from the service.  Best wishes to him and her successor, if there would ever be one.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

“The Girl Who Waited”: A Doctor Who Review

Copyright 2005 by BBC.
Copyright © 2005 by BBC.

Amy: I’m gonna pull time apart for you.

One of my favorite episodes from Matt Smith’s run on Doctor Who is, ironically, one that features very little of the Doctor.  It’s a story that focuses on his companions Amy and Rory, and their love.  A story about time and broken promises and romance that overcomes bitter memories.

This is the Series 6 episode “The Girl Who Waited.”

What starts out as a side trip to a vacation on the planet Apalapucia becomes a nightmare when Amy finds herself separated from the Doctor and Rory.  At the Two Streams Facility, she ends up in an accelerated time stream, making her think the Doctor abandoned her for thirty-six years when he and Rory were only gone for a few minutes.  To protect herself from this alien hospital, Amy has grown bitter and violent, defending herself for what seemed like decades from deadly but well-meaning robots.  In the end, Rory has to deal with what his wife has gone through in her own time stream, the Doctor has to face a Companion who’s learned to hate him, and Amy has to reconcile her bitter memories with her deep-rooted love for Rory–all while trying to deal with the deadly hospital robots.

Copyright © 2011 by BBC.
Copyright © 2011 by BBC.

Honestly, when I watched this episode, the first thought that popped into my head was, “So, this is what happens when Doctor Who meets Portal.”  I mean, there’s a female protagonist who’s trapped inside an automated and well-lit facility, having to steal technology and fight against faceless robots and a supercomputer with a synthetic female voice.  Just swap out “time travel” for “teleportation” and it’d be the same story.  Not that I’m complaining, being a huge fan of both Who and Portal.

Beyond that geeky comparison, this story is low on monster scares and larger-than-life villains.  Its real strength is the tension between Rory, the Doctor, and Amy.  We’ve seen how the Doctor’s companions grow to trust him during their travels, and how some of them can even step in when the Doctor starts to go too far.  But what happens when a Companion thinks she’s been left behind or betrayed by the Doctor?  Karen Gillan’s performance as Amy gives us quite a stark answer: strong and resourceful like so many other companions, but without the compassion or friendship that defines them.

I also think Arthur Darvill brings a little more depth to Rory in this story.  While his role as a fighter is cemented thanks to his history as The Last Centurion, we get to see Rory more on his own.  The Doctor has to stay in the TARDIS, so Rory is the one using the sonic screwdriver and wearing “brainy specs.”  He’s the one who has to find Amy and then find a way to fix the time stream problem before they can all leave on the TARDIS.  It’s easy to sympathize with his plight, trying to reconcile what Amy goes through in her time stream with his faith in the Doctor and in her.

“The Girl Who Waited,” being a deconstruction episode of Who, gives the audience a lot of reasons to feel sad.  Watching three good friends fall apart over a time travel accident is hard, but the story is solid and so’s the acting.  And it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if the final act didn’t give us a solution that brings more tears.

Doctor Who is available on BBC One and BBC America.

Bibliography: “The Girl Who Waited.”  Doctor Who (Series 6).  Written by Tom MacRae.  Directed by Nick Hurran.  Produced by Marcus Wilson.  BBC TV.  Original broadcast: September, 10, 2011.

Flash Fiction: “Angels of Death Don’t Retire”

For fun, try reading this story with an outrageous French accent.  And imagine the narrator being played by Jean Reno.

Angels of Death Don’t Retire, by Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 395

Fear is like poison.  It enters the bloodstream, passing through each muscle and vital organ silently.

At first, nothing.  You tell yourself you’re fine, but you’re really not.  This is what it’s like to die slowly.  Your body betrays you.  You try to fight, but instead you flee.  Your mind, your body, your soul–all shutting down one at a time, turning back on themselves for protection from the Terrors.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is my friend.

My name is Jean-Louis Castile, and I am what all powerful men fear.

When my shoulder presses into the stock of my rifle, I forget all the scars you gave me.  All the roses you threw away in fits of jealousy.

No more half hearted apologies and spewing vitriol, dearest.  Time to pay the bills.

There, in the street below.  Do you see?  That fat olive-skinned colonel surrounded by men in black suits.  Colonel Francisco de Medina is no true soldier, just a very ambitious officer.  And the rebels of San Lorenzo are paying me good money to make sure he becomes a very fat mess on the Champs-Élysées.

My finger tightens on the trigger.  I breathe out and let the bullets fly.  Only three shots.  Two for the guards on his left and his right, and one for Colonel de Medina.  Only a second’s hesitation on the last.

When he sees the blood on his guards’ faces, that’s my reward.  That look of utter dread.  You could never understand this, my sweet Cosette.  You care about people and their politics, but that’s not my business.

I’m in it for the art.  Even now, as I put away my rifle and slide across the rooftop to the maintenance shaft of the tenement, I turn each movement into a work of art.

Let the authorities come.  Let the scandal emerge.  When the gendarmerie come storming into every room, they’ll eventually find me sitting at my table with a mug of coffee and my rifle disassembled in a dumpster on the other side of the street.  Just another bystander on a very bad night for Colonel de Medina.

And perhaps you were right after all, Cosette.  Perhaps that is the very image of my future.  To be an old man, always hiding the blood on his hands, with only the Fear for company.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

In Defense of Fan Fiction

Cover image for the Jedi Padme Trilogy by Katana Geldar.
Cover image for the Jedi Padme Trilogy by Katana Geldar. Copyright © 2005 by Rabbittooth.

Fan fiction.  Stories written by fans, inspired by their favorite pop culture material.  There are millions of stories online for any genre or media you can conceive–even fanfics about real-life celebrities.  Even Biblical fanfics.

Nowadays, in the mainstream, “fan fiction” is a pejorative.  It’s shorthand for bad and amateur writing.  Nothing but endless stories with poor editing and grammar, where established characters are pitted against or romantically involved with self-insert characters.  Millions of stories by amateur authors who’ve started writing and think their characters have to be amazingly talented, stunningly gorgeous, and a bare reflection of their own personalities, while leaving little to no room for a genuine plot.

And some say that fan fiction is inferior in quality to published stories.  It’s like there’s a wall between professional, talented authors and masses of undeveloped kids typing away at their computers whose writing will never progress.  Some authors, like George R.R. Martin, even complain about fan fiction, saying that they don’t appreciate others playing around with their personal creations.  Not to mention a host of legal issues involving copyright and trademark infringement, which goes far beyond any author’s distaste.

As a writer with some professionalism, I’m cautious about fanfics because of the widespread low quality.  But it’s for that same reason that I also cherish their existence, even if some stories drive me insane with how bad or offensive they are.

Back in high school, I was a fanfic writer, though I never put anything online.  That’s how I started to translate my lifelong passion for books into writing fiction.  And yes, it was awful.  It was a series of Star Wars/Lord of the Rings crossovers centered around a Mary Sue-type Jedi Knight named Beren Teleriand who was the best at everything.  I stopped after graduation, at which point I’d written over a thousand pages in the “Teleriand Saga.”  Thankfully, that collection has long been deleted and forgotten.  But as bad as it was, I’m glad I wrote it.  As a young author, I was able to develop my self-discipline for writing and see how I could improve my work from there.

And truth be told, that’s why I think we shouldn’t automatically put down fan fiction.  For many people, it’s their first time writing a story.  Yes, you’ll find plenty of grammar and spelling mistakes.  Yes, the plot will be a tangled mess and the characters won’t be that interesting.  But with the right community of readers and editors, that awful material could become better over time.  It takes a lot more dedication and patience than most first-time readers and authors are willing to give.  But we don’t have to put down creative self-expression even while we point out every flaw and inconsistency in a story.

Now, when it comes to legal ownership of content, I’ve always held that copyright should be cited and respected when it comes to playing around with someone else’s work.  But as an author, I don’t abhor the very existence of fanfics.  So what if some kid decides to write a story for where she bashes my main character or puts him in a romance with her self-insert character?  It won’t change the way I write or the success of my story.  And maybe some day, that same writer will use her first attempts at storytelling as an inspiration to become a better writer.

But more importantly, I believe in fan fiction because it’s a way to explore storytelling.  For every nine awful fanfics about shipping and reinterpreting characters, there’s one really great or touching narrative with a strong Internet following.  For every My Immortal, there’s a Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.  It’s not unheard of for authors and publishers to even officially approve of some character or story that was born as fan fiction (a more recent example being that the bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a Twilight fanfic; now Amazon wants to cash in on that trend with Kindle Worlds).  Thus the stories that were fanfics become official narratives in their own right, which inspire fan works of their own and perpetuate the cycle.

To this day, in between working on my Flash Fiction for the site, my reviews, and the rest of my career, I’ll still dab my toe into the water and write a Doctor Who or Red Vs. Blue fic just to explore those worlds and give myself something new to try.  They’re good exercises for any writer.  And to be fair to my own readers, should someone want to write their own story about one of my Flash Fiction tales, they’re more than welcome to do so thanks to their Creative Commons licensing.  So long as the writers acknowledge me as the original source and don’t try to sell it, they can take my plots and characters in whatever direction they want.  Whether good or bad, I’ll be pleased to see that they’re making the effort to write and write well.