There’s a fair amount of analysis on the web on how Star Wars, Episode IV, borrows from many sources, including, of course, Nazi Germany.
The fascist aesthetic of Imperial architecture and its uniforms is unmistakable. Palpatine’s rise to power has close parallels to Hitler’s path to dictatorship: appointed chancellor to break a political stalemate (one of Hitler’s making) before, of course, seizing power. So, too, many names come from World War II, especially from the German side (Hoth, for instance).
Here are a number of other World War II parallels, most of which were probably quite intentional on Lucas’ part, although perhaps some were just part of the consciousness of “what war should be like.”
Tatooine was, of course, filmed in Tunisia. North Africa was a secondary front but it played an out-sized morale boosting role in Britain and the U.S as (arguably) the birthplace of allied resistance, if more in the imagination if not in reality. It also inspired a number of iconic Star Wars elements:
The allied forces complained heavily of thieving, scavenging locals (think Jawas)
The Sand People inspiration is perhaps more diffuse but North African raiders have a long history, even if they didn’t figure so much in World War II. Turning farther east, Arab nationalists fought in desert robes reminiscent of both Jawas and Sand People in the Middle East in both wars.
Pilots crashed in the desert (like the droids at the start). Many died, some made it out. A few wrote stories about it or inspired fiction, like Flight of the Phoenix.
Battle for Britain provides a rich source of analogs: love the chatter between the rebel pilots, the wing leaders, color-coded squadrons, the command center back at home base? That is all very much inspired by the British defense of the home isles in 1940, from the command and control center (Fighter Command) to the banter between pilots, terminology used, and, of course, the dog fights. There are even historical cases of Fighter Command radio operators (usually female) controlling loved ones in battle, and sadly, losing them in combat as well, including a woman who listened to her fiancee’s death, live.
How about the Millennium Falcon? While it must be based more on a tramp freighter than anything else, the two quad laser canons sure look like defensive machine guns on a B-17. I’d say they are a mix of the turret guns and the waist guns (maybe more turret gun in appearance and waist guns in positioning, in that the two gunners were opposite of each other.) Similarly, the headsets that Luke and Han wore while battling the TIE fighters is reminiscent of the B-17 crew’s gear.
While storm troopers were a creation of the World War I German Army, they certainly lived on in spirit into World War II. Serried ranks of Storm Troopers, especially in later movies, look quite a lot like soldiers at the immense Nuremberg rallies of the 30s. With their height and uniform appearance, as well as the clone angle, they also echo Nazi race ideas.
The age of battleships ended in World War II and while they played second string to aircraft carriers, the battleships are as iconic of that war as are the very similar Star Destroyers. Said Star Destroyers don’t quite rise to an aircraft carrier equivalent (to me) and neither does the Death Star but certainly the TIE fighters dueling with rebel fighters takes a cue from the great air battles of the Pacific War, as do the mix of anti-ship and air-supremacy aircraft of both sides.
None of this is meant to detract from Star Wars in any way. I quite enjoy how Lucas mined World War II for ideas. It adds a whole layer of verisimilitude as well as just being plan fun to spot. And in the mid-70s, when Star Wars came out, World War II was a whole lot closer in living memory than it is now, so much of this must of been accepted with little comment at the time from those who fought the war, many of whom would have been in their 50s.
What World War II analogues do you see in Episode IV or the later movies?
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This ties to a recent revelation of mine. I have been coaching an FTC robotics team this year. The team has done well and has designed a very innovative robot. The boys on it are all bright, eager, and have learned a great deal. In many ways, they are much like me at that age: geeks fascinated by technology, computers, military history and so on. But there was one surprising difference: not one of them knew any programming.
There are kids out there at this age (15-16) who do know how to program. But in a sample of 5 hard-core geeks, not one knows how to code? I was rather shocked, to be honest.
But it comes back to a trend that the test cited in the article above gets at: users of technology do not necessarily understand it. Today’s technology with its ready games, images, social media, suck up a lot of the time. This has already had a noticeable effect on the reading of books. Less recognized is the effect it is having on the sorts of skills mentioned in the article.
If a teenager is spending an hour on social media and another few hours on gaming or surfing, that’s the same time in their busy lives they might have spent in the past reading, learning to program, learning how a radio works or fixing a lawnmower. It can lead to a generation of people who are savvy about navigating the web, have an innate sense of how a GUI should work, but have little idea of the technology behind it.
In the case of this particular study, the results are relative: the US scores low, other countries score high. Some of the distractions for US youth must be present for youth in other countries. This may mean that the scores have little to do with technological distractions but, then again, the US may be worse because it was an earlier adopter of the new marvels.
We’ll see how this plays out but for the science fiction author in me, it’s not hard to imagine a future where most of the world population has a superficial understanding of technology: they know how to order a pizza online or track down an old friend, but they have little idea of what happens behind the scenes. It’s not like 20 or 40 years ago, the average person understood the underpinnings of technology but if the geek portion of a generation isn’t learning how the technology works, then there may be very few technologists and very little innovation down the road.
From a story point of view where conflict is necessary to drive the story arc, one can imagine a future where the rich countries are complacent and comfortable in their technological cocoon but have lost the ability to create new technology. Or perhaps this is what happens to very mature civilizations: maybe Earthlings encounter a space-faring race where very few of the aliens really understand how their technology works, leaving them unable to react quickly enough to an aggressive, more flexible race (us).
It would be an interesting turn-around from the uber-dominant, militaristic alien races to have one that, while more advanced, is more like a clumsy giant, out maneuvered by a still agile humanity.
As to the article itself, I can’t say it is all doom and gloom for the US. These things always have a way of coming and going. What I wouldn’t advocate as a response, however, is more homework. I think homework has been over done. Free time to explore is what kids really need. And maybe incentives to understand their world better: maybe more tangible rewards for the ones who start writing or programming, ‘doing’, instead of soaking up all that lovely media out there.
To circle back to the title: if we do create generations of descendants who have no understanding of the technology in their bright and shiny world, they will essentially look to technology as magic.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
I think most of us, when seeing it, imagine it applies to a less advanced race experiencing the technology of a more advanced race. But what if, instead, the technology of the advanced race appears to themselves as magic?
The book has now gone live on Amazon. Like most authors, I imagine, I’m nervous about reviews, although, like most indie authors, I should really be more nervous about no reviews at all: it’s a big world out there and any attention at all, good or bad, is a challenge.
For those who do read it, I’d like to hear your thoughts and areas for improvement. This is a project from a few years ago and it is far from perfect but hopefully you’ll find some positive points.
Thanks to all for the comments and support along the way. Even if I did not follow-up on a suggestion, I did give it consideration.
While creating the eBook was a little more trouble than I expected, it was fairly painless once the eBook file (.mobi) was ready to go. Amazon is pretty clear on what steps you’re book is in. They are also reasonable about setting expectations on how long it will take to process, post, setup your Author’s page, etc. Their estimates tend to be conservative and if you don’t run into problems it’s much quicker– for instance, they said it would take up to 12 hours for the book to go live but it was posted within 2 hours.
It’s been a longer road than I expected (silly me, I believed Amazon’s FAQs on publishing) but I think I have the eBook recipe ready. A final proofread is still in progress but Prince of Leaf and Stone should be live by end of the month.
The main problems I encountered had to do with getting a TOC (table of contents) in my doc, getting a TOC that comes up from the Kindle menu, getting that TOC to look right, and getting the book to open in the right spot. None of those are showstoppers but getting those right can make a book look more professional.
My experience has been with Scrivener for Windows, which is much less featured than the Mac version, in particular missing a feature that lets you set the start of doc.
Things You’ll Want
You definitely want the Kindle Previewer, which despite it’s name, not only let’s you preview your book, it will convert html and epub files to Amazon’s .mobi format.
You’ll also want Send to Kindle which is both a stand-alone app and something that you can get to from your file browser on a right click, which let’s you upload files to your Kindle (or a friend’s Kindle). Thing to remember: it will only appear on a right click for those file types it can upload (.mobi, .doc, .pdf) and not for others, like .epub.
You may also want KindleGenwhich is not needed for one-off mobi conversion (Kindle Reader does that) but can be used for bulk conversions. More importantly, if you want to write out .mobi directly from Scrivener, you’ll need KindleGen.
What Doesn’t Work: Scrivener -> MS Word -> HTML
Amazon suggests editing your book in MS Word (Scrivener writes out .doc and many other formats), adding an MS Word TOC, adding bookmarks for where your TOC and start page are, then writing it out as Web page, Filtered (html). You then use Kindle Previewer to convert the html to mobi. This does get you a mobi file and there is a TOC embedded in the document but you don’t see the TOC in the Kindle reader menu nor does the start page get set.
I found lots of kind posts on the web saying this does work or ways to directly edit the html to add the start and toc tag but none of that worked for me. Start and TOC remained stubbornly absent. From the posts I found on this, I’m not the only one who can’t get that to work.
What Also Doesn’t Work: Scrivener -> Mobi
Scrivener can write directly to mobi so I tried that. The table of contents does appear in the doc and from the Kindle menu but the starting position is second page of my TOC. This is apparently an issue of at least 2 years standing, not just an odd quirk of my doc.
The Kindle TOC also puts some but not all of my front matter (copyright, dedication, etc.) under a collapsible header. No matter how I organize my front matter in Scrivener, it doesn’t seem to group all of the front matter under the header.
Still more failure: Scrivener -> epub -> Kindle Previewer
Scrivener can also write out epub files. Tried that, converted them in Kindle Previewer. Same as the direct mobi path.
What does work: Scrivner -> epub -> edit epub file -> Kindle Previewer
After more research, I discovered that an epub file is easily editable because it is just a .zip file. Rename it to .zip, extract the files– which are all plain text– and rezip it when you are done. It’s surprisingly easy.
What you want to do, according to a forum post here is find the guide part of the file content.opf. This file can be edited with any text editor such as Windows NotePad. You will probably find something like the following at the bottom:
Before the </guide> (in html <xxx> is like an open parentheses for a particular object type and </xxx> is like the close parentheses), add the following lines (in bold), replacing body3.xhtml with the chapter you want to start with (you can open the .xhtml files in NotePad or Word or your browser to figure out which one is your chapter one):
Actually, I didn’t find a source that said to add both of the bold lines (the various pages I found recommended one or the other) but the first one of the two only seems to fix the front matter grouping problem for me, the second one actually seemed to move the start page.
Full disclosure: this didn’t actually move the start to where I told it to go but it did move it to my title page which is much better than the second page of my TOC. So I’m declaring victory.
The steps that worked for me are:
Write out a .epub file from Scrivener
Change the .epub file to a .zip file and extract it to a temporary directory
Find the content.opf file (which is usually in a sub-directory) and edit it
Add the two extra lines (above) to the guide section and save the file
Make a new zip file
Rename the zip as .epub
Use Kindle Previewer to convert the .epub to a .mobi
Check it out in the previewer (where the start page for me is actually where I want it)
Upload it with Send to Kindle and check it on a real Kindle (where the start page is not where I want it but is in an acceptable place)
This all seems like it is a lot harder than it should be because how hard can it be to specify a TOC and a start page? But there you have it; it is still pretty clunky. And probably buggy: pretty sure the start page should not be different between the Previewer and the Kindle: Amazon has something broken.
You can probably have Kindle Previewer convert the html files directly without making a .epub (i.e., skip steps 5 and 6) but I didn’t try that.
Also, if editing the html is daunting, there is a free program called Sigil that lets you edit .epub files. I didn’t try it because after many hours of messing around, I wanted to write the html exactly as I wanted it.
There are folks who will do all this for you for a fee. I didn’t price it but it shouldn’t be all that much since this process isn’t that hard once you know your way around it.
Based on feedback on the font, I’ve updated the title to use Auriol. Would be curious to hear what folks think. The blurb has also been updated. This is the text that will go on the Amazon page for the book so would love to hear what folks think about it as well.
Unplanned though it was, I ended up mostly dropping my blog and my fiction writing in 2014.
The immediate cause was a pile of submissions to contests and various short story markets. While I’m pretty good these days about shrugging off an individual rejection, getting so much out there at the end of 2013 left me on edge and not interested in writing while I waited to see how things went. Plus, while writing has been a major focus for me for the last four years, I don’t have too much to show for it, so the break proved a good time to take a breather and assess where I’m going with my writing career.
The main outcome of said break? It became clear I love to write and don’t want to stop. Next realization? I hate the chore of researching, submitting and tracking agents and markets, and that’s without doing anywhere near as much of it as I should have. Waiting for a response? Not so good at that, either. Final bit: I do want my stuff to be read.
Know Thyself was good advice 2500 years ago and it’s still good advice now. Realizing the above and finding out that Amazon’s Kindle Direct is free and a cover is less than I thought, I’ve decided not to submit any more stories for now and just self-publish. To that end, I’ve got the cover you see here, a blurb in progress (feel free to comment on it here) and a professional copy-edit. I even dusted off Campaign Cartographer to update my map. It’s going to be eBook only so I’m not going to get an ISBN number and I’ll file for copyright after it goes live.
So the plan now is to publish Prince of Leaf and Stone by March at the latest, ready Shadow of the Archons for publication later this year followed by a collection of my short stories.
This plan focuses on keeping me writing (which I enjoy) and not worrying about financial success, which seems like a long shot no matter which path I pursue. So, put another way, why worry about the money too much? Meanwhile, I’ll quietly build up a portfolio.
In an age of crisp, digital media, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law crafts ethereal creatures and luminescent backgrounds with a strong sense of motion using watercolors and media that hearken back to a handcrafted age. You’ll find knights and ladies, dragons and faeries, and exotic botanic creations in her artwork.
Please welcome Stephanie!
Thank you so much for joining us here! Please tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in New York, and lived on the east coast for the first 7 years of my life. My grandparents had a piano school & store in the city, and we would drive over there from New Jersey on the weekends. I remember spending a lot of time sitting at the desk in the shop and scribbling drawings. Those are really my first memories of drawing. I wasn’t ever really bored if you could just give me a pencil and paper.
We moved to California after that, and I kept my love of art, through high school and college; although I didn’t think of it as a viable career path. As a result, I studied computer science at UC Berkeley. It wasn’t until I was about to graduate that I did some soul searching one day after a career faire, and realized that if art wasn’t going to play a central aspect in my life, I would be miserable. It was at that point that I set out with a plan for the following three years that eventually had me leaving the professional world of software and becoming a full time freelance artist.
These days I primarily work in watercolors, but I sometimes mix things up a bit with ink, pens, metallic pigments, and gold and silver leafing.
What inspires your art?
A lot of my inspiration comes from nature. I love the fractal patterns and textures created by the growth of living things. The “magic” that I try to depict is that of being able to see past the surface preconceptions we have for the world around us and to try to really see the often unnoticed beauties that abound. Not just in that natural world, though as I said that is a major focus of my art, but in the man-made as well.
I find your artwork unabashedly ‘handcrafted’ for lack of a better word, something I find strongly appealing after decades of too crisp, acrylic fantasy covers. Can you share something about what has influenced your style? What opportunities or challenges does it raise?
I started off as a digital artist. In 1996 I discovered Adobe Photoshop 1.0, and Fractal Design Painter 1.0 (now known by the name of just Painter). I loved working digitally, but I think in large part it was reactionary to what I was doing in college. I went to school for the computer science program, but decided to feed my art hobby by incidentally doing a secondary major of art. Since I hadn’t sought out the school for its art program, I was at the mercy of what was offered, which was a very modern abstract expressionist program. The professors were enamored with buckets of acrylic and/or oil splashed and dripped on huge canvases, and sandbags dropped on metal plates out of second story windows. Gluing/hammering/cobbling together pieces found from junkyards. Physicality of art and art-making was primary.
I wanted to be more illustrative. Telling a story with my art was what I loved, and I wasn’t allowed to pursue that in the classes I was taking. So outside of classes I did my own work. And when I discovered digital as a medium it was just the contrast that I needed to so much excessive physicality.
When I left college and sent out my portfolio to various game companies, I was pleasantly surprised to hear back from Wizards of the Coast. The art director of Magic the Gathering expressed interest in my art, although he said that they were not really looking for digital work. If I could send a portfolio of a traditional medium….
This, of course, was in a time when digital was not yet accepted as a valid medium for art. People had the impression that there was a “paint wizard fighting dragon” button that an artist could push. Ironically enough, by the time I gathered together enough work for a traditional medium portfolio, the art director was pleased and gave me some art assignments, and then mentioned that they were also accepting digital art now.
However, I’ve got that initial letter from him to thank for setting me on the path to watercolors, which I quickly discovered that I loved. Having some distance from the college art program gave me a chance to appreciate that I did love a certain amount of physicality to my art. And having an original painting at the end was much more satisfying than pixels on a screen and bits on a hard drive.
Over the course of those next five years, I slowly phased digital art out and moved towards painting exclusively with watercolors. I can’t say I’ve had any negative challenges since doing so. In face, I think it’s mostly been positive. I’ve had an opportunity to write a whole series of technique books for watercolor through IMPACT books, and the fact that I am a traditional artist among more and more digital ones has made my art stand out.
There are many things I like about your artwork but several things stand out. One is the sense of motion, even in a seemingly static scene, such as a knight in repose . How do you infuse your scenes with such motion? Is a sense of motion something you consciously strive to for?
I mentioned nature as one of my inspirations. Dance is another major element of influence. I have been a dancer for over two decades, studying flamenco for a large portion of that time. In a way, dance and visual art feel like diametrically opposing types of art to me. One is very much grounded in the present, in each moment, changing as the human body moves to rhythms and music. The other is static, a captured and distilled instant. I try to capture the flow of movement and rhythm in my art, not necessarily only in the human figures I depict, but in the whole orchestrated composition and the interaction of all the various elements.
Your color palettes are another enchanting aspect of your work for me. Can your share more about how you pick a palette? Do you tend to do several pieces in a row with the same palette? Is that because you want to explore a particular color scheme or is a common palette more to serve the needs of the theme?
I actually try to vary my color palette from piece to piece. It’s only when I have a series of images of the same theme that I try to recreate the same colors.
Even when intentionally trying to do so though, it can be difficult to recreate. I often forget what exact colors I used, and when using watercolors, layering them in a different order can result in varying shades.
Sometimes when I’m unsure of what colors I want for a piece, I scan the pencil sketch and the play around with various options digitally. It’s a good way to push different combinations that I would otherwise not think to try if I were just working directly onto the paper from the start. A digital test-run gives me a space to experiment and see how things might look.
Doing a color rough digitally is also something that I need to do when working with art directors sometimes. Art directors will ask for a a color rough so that they can get a better idea of where an artist is going with a piece, before the actual painting work begins.
How about lighting? Some of your pieces seem to glow. With others, you set a somber mood with secrets hidden in the shadow. Do you sometimes do a piece just to experiment with light? How do you decide how to light a scene?
Lighting is key to conveying mood in a painting. Colors can be done on the fly. Details and textures can happen as I paint. But lighting is something that really has to be thought out and planned, because it’s so important an aspect of composition and atmosphere. I always try to have a very firm concept in mind of the lighting before I begin a piece, and how it defines the negative space of the subjects.
How do you pick your subjects? Do you have favorites?
I like to have some kind of narrative thread that runs through my images. Sometimes this is from myth or folklore. Ballads, songs, poems. Sometimes it is from an internal mythos that I have created. A sort of over-arching world that my paintings have slowly circumscribed. These can go in cycles, especially when I have large projects that I am working on.
When I was working on the Shadowscapes Tarot, it was a world of connected archetypes that my paintings circled around. Currently I seem to find myself in a cycle of very dream-like images featuring many animals, and golden woods. I move from one subject to the next in a very fluid way. Sometimes certain characters or creatures make their way into a piece, and then I am inspired to do a sequence of paintings in these kind of snapshots of their existence.
I feel like I’m slowly uncovering pieces of this world as I explore and push its boundaries with each painting.
The three Nocturne images on this page illustrate such a progression.
What inspired your Tarot deck? How well has it been received?
I started the Tarot in 2004, and completed it in mid 2007, so it was a three and half year journey. Even before I began that project, I had many people telling me I should make a deck, because they saw what I eventually realized — that my love of mythology and folklore was ideal for a tarot deck.
It is especially clear in the 21 cards of the Major Arcana, where the archetypes that are represented are the basis of so many figures of various mythologies. It was a natural fit for me. I was anxious to embark on the project at first though because the prospect of doing 78 pieces of art was incredibly daunting! I had never worked on such an ambitious project before. But once I got going, it quickly became very rewarding, and I was actually a little bit sad when I finished the final card and suddenly had this empty space of free time ahead of me!
It’s been very well received, and well worth the effort of the creation. The entire project from inception to publication has been such a wonderfully positive experience.
(Lovers and World are from the Tarot deck.)
You mention on your website that you do some digital artwork but I don’t recall coming across anything that looks digital in your galleries. How do you make use of digital techniques? Is it just at a composition stage, for finish work or throughout for some pieces?
I started off as a digital artist, but around 2004, I had pretty much phased out any digital commissions entirely. For the past ten years I’ve been working entirely in physical mediums. Mostly watercolor, and most recently in the past year I have started incorporating ink and metallic powders and leaf as well. So at this point the only part a computer plays in my art is for conceptualization of my compositions, occasionally for doing color roughs, and for final scanning and digitizing for print.
For the compositional phase, I scan sketches that I do of various main elements for a painting. Then I can shift things around in relation to other parts, resize foreground/background elements, flip things if I decide I want them to face a different direction, and other such manipulations. Once I’m happy with the composition, I print it, out and then redraw and refine it all, and transfer that to my final painting surface.
There are a number of gamers that visit here. What did you do for Wizards of the Coast? What work for other game companies might we recognize?
I did some cards for Magic the Gathering, as well as illustrations for the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. I did a lot of Legend of Five Rings art as well, both while it was owned by WotC, and later when it was sold to Alderac Games.
Your website FAQ mentions that some of the quotes are from your own writing. What do you write? Are you published or trying to be published?
I don’t have any current fiction plans. I did all the writing for my tarot deck cards, and other art books I have published. I write poems to go with my artwork.
Any upcoming projects we should keep an eye out for?
I’m working with a writer friend of mine, Satyros Phil Brucato, in collaboration for a new deck. This time an Oracle deck called the Dreamdance Oracle. It’s based around our shared love of dance and explores the varied range of the human experience and emotion that can be expressed in dance forms from around the world.
I also recently finished up the manuscript for my most recent installment into the Dreamscapes series of technique books that is published by IMPACT books. This forth volume focuses on how to paint fantasy landscapes. From the specifics of rocks and trees and clouds, to how to create an engaging world out of basic elements for viewers.
Do you do commissions?
Very limited. I mostly focus on my own projects, and I only take commissions if I have a connection with the subject. It has to be something that resonates with me because I want to create a good piece of art, and that’s only possible when I feel passionate for what I am painting.
Have you had a chance to do a book cover yet?
Yes, I’ve done a lot of role playing game covers from earlier in my career when I was doing a lot of work for the gaming industry.
I’ve also done some covers for Harlequin, HarperCollins, Tachyon Publishing, and of course my own series of technique books, Dreamscapes through Impact Books.
Many of my readers are aspiring writers and there may be a few artists among us as well. Any suggestions for those seeking a career in the creative arts?
If you’ve got a passion for it, then do it. Don’t try to second guess yourself and pander to what you think will sell or will be marketable — when you’re doing what you’re passionate about and what you absolutely love, it will show in the work. That’s when you will be creating your best work, and the right audience will come for that eventually.
I came across your artwork through DeviantArt. Is that the best place to find your new works or do you recommend your Shadowscape site or another place?
http://shadowscapes-stephanielaw.blogspot.com Midnight Ramblings is my blog. I have occasional essays on creative processes, technique tips, insights into my inspiration, and lots of detailed in-progress views of my paintings.
http://www.facebook.com/Shadowscapes Facebook is where I announce a lot of my appearances, and where people can get notified of a lot of my new pieces, and catch glimpses of my process as I post in progress shots.
Just a quick gallery today of some of my newer pictures from Space Engine. I’m looking forward to addition of accretion disks around black holes and blue stragglers in globular clusters in upcoming updates. As in the earlier post, all images are exactly as captured in Space Engine, without any post processing, cropping, etc.
Fascinated by swindlers? I’ll have to confess I am, probably because it is such an alien concept to me. Not only does it require snappy thinking on your feet to steer a mark the way you want, it requires faking empathy and, of course, a complete disregard for others. Myself, I’m more like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory: “Check your email, because when I think of a retort, I’ll send it to you!” (Or something to that effect.) I could never be a con-man because I’m not quick enough in conversation, not a good actor and, hopefully this is a more positive trait, constitutionally not able to screw someone like a con man does. But I don’t think I’d make a good soldier either and I do love reading about war, so why not cons?
The grandfather of all books on cons is The Big Con, by David Maurer, first published in 1940, available now as a high quality e-book. Professor Maurer was a linguist who, apparently, knew a lot of con men. He seems to have first approached the subject of confidence games from the argot but the book, while it does have an extensive glossary, is first a story of the confidence games and the con men themselves.
It distinguishes short cons, like the old shell games or rigged card games, where the mark is fleeced for his cash on hand, to big cons, which played out over hours or weeks, and involve putting the mark on the send for more money. We learn of what a store is and how they came to be: they are false gambling, brokerage, or other establishments that are completely stocked with con men and exist only for the purpose of duping the mark.
The stages of a con are also elaborated from the roper’s identification of a mark and directing him to the store to the blow-off where the mark, once fleeced is sent on his way in a manner least likely to cause problems for the con man. Sometimes that is no more than sending him to another city to “square accounts,” the con man never arriving, of course. Other times it has to be more dramatic, as with a fake murder that causes the mark to run and hide. Such a murder might involve a packet of chicken’s blood hidden in the mouth, a cackle-bladder.
If all of this sounds suspiciously like the 70’s movie, The Sting, it should: Maurer filed a $10 million lawsuit against the studio and received an out-of-court settlement in his favor. I love that movie but always figured it was just Hollywood make-believe. It isn’t and The Big Con will show you the ins and outs of this scam and many others.
The book even goes into the bit players, how people become big con players, what happens to old con men, even what type of personal lives they tended to keep or whether any of them ever cashed out while still on top. I can’t say it has given me any immediate story ideas but as an illustration of one aspect of human nature and just a fascinating read in itself, I recommend it.
Be warned, like anything, it is a child of its times. There is some overt and ugly racism in a few places. It is also sexist, although not as much as I expected given the racism. The style is a little slow. Some of the reviews on Amazon claim it is repetitive and you only need to read the first quarter or so. Personally, I did not find it very repetitive chapter to chapter, but rather found a lot of the prose a bit more wordy and repetitive at the paragraph level. The other annoyance is that argot is used throughout, usually with no definition aside from the glossary in the back. In a hard-copy, this would not be too much of an issue but in an e-book I found it somewhat annoying (a better e-book edition would have had a link to the glossary at first use). There are a handful of transcription errors but overall editing was good.
If you liked The Sting, and some of the later movies on cons, like The Grifters, or just like a fascinating true-crime read, and can tolerate its unfortunate bigotry, I definitely recommend it.
John Pyle’s post on Light Speed, Not so Much, reminded me about something I wanted to look into based on my Space Engine experience. In this wonderful simulator you can go anywhere in the universe with the engine kindly accelerating you to fantastic speeds, as necessary. As part of the experience, you get to experience the Star Trek warp effect: stars go sailing by all around you as a readout at the bottom of the screen shows your current speed. It might be km/s over a planet or AU/s in a planetary system. Between stars, you typically get to go parsecs per second (a parsec is 3.26 light years). Hop over to the next galaxy and you’ll be travelling at hundreds of kilo-parsecs per second. This is a good thing, because otherwise travel would be tediously slow.
One of the neat things about Space Engine is that it doesn’t just pop you over to your destination, you travel to it, accelerating and decelerating. You fly through dusty arms of galaxies, through nebula, globular clusters. As I mentioned stars zip by a la Star Trek. This got me to wondering: I think Space Engine has a pretty solid model of spatial relationships and velocity. Therefore, I can use it to gauge what Star Trek warp factor I’d need to be traveling to get the same visual effect of star motion that we’ve seen since the original series. Of course, I had a feeling the TV show was way off but it is fun to do the numbers.
First, I’ll use the newer series’ definition of warp. You can find a great definition of what warp factors mean at Star-fleet.com’s engineering department: Warp Factors Defined. At warp 5, you’re going 215 times the speed of light and at warp 9 you’re going 1516 times the speed of light. That’s pretty fast, right? Indeed it is but as the old cliché goes, space is really big. At warp 5, it’s 40 hours per light year. Not bad for the local neighborhood but not too zippy. At warp 9, it’s only 5.9 hours per light year, so several light years per day.
So what would the star motion look like? Fire up Space Engine, play around with your speed and… you’ve got to be going around a light year per second to start to notice much star motion. Pick a densely populated region like the heart of a star cluster and maybe you can get away with 0.1 light years per second. But at those speeds, you are just starting to notice star motion. If you really want to be seeing stars zip by, like in the opening credits, you might be looking at 1 to 5 or more light years per second.
Even at warp 9.99, at 7912 times the speed of light, you’re crawling by at one light year per hour+, or ~4000 times slower than the speed you need to get the stars to zoom by. I’m not sure how to turn that back into a warp factor but since warp 10 is the max, it is something like warp 9.9999, perhaps?
This means that if you intend to use that cool “star gliding” effect in your own stories, you better be having your star ships travel much, much faster than they do in Star Trek, so fast that your ship could get to the Andromeda galaxy in a few days. That’s probably too fast for most science fiction stories, unfortunately. Put another way, the Star Trek apparent star motion isn’t really practical, although it sure does look cool.
Just goes to show that space is really, really big.