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Day Two Hundred and Twelve: The Good Doctor

December 19, 2011 Leave a comment

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

——————

Tonight’s random pick is one of those characters that got mentioned in a sort of off-the-cuff manner in one story, and quickly grew into someone of real depth and humanity. Damn, but that’s fun.

Let us look at Dr. Julian Harcrow, doctor to the super-heroes:

36: Interviews

  • Professor Harcrow works at the Corsair City University
  • He’s won three Nobel Prizes.
  • He worked with the Heroes United team.
  • He’s looking for a cure to the Gene Bomb set off by Tobias Rhyne.

114: Dr. Julian Harcrow (interview)

  • He has advanced degrees in biochemistry, quantum electrodynamics, and abnormal psychology.
  • He’s won three Nobel Prizes.
  • He grew up in the poor section of Corsair City.
  • He grew up in a single-parent household (his mother) with many brothers and sisters.
  • He was rescued from a tenement fire by Captain Cosmos.
  • He’s a Person of Color.
  • He went to university when he was fifteen.
  • He designed his own metahuman studies program.
  • He is at least 55 years old now.
  • He helped metahumans understand their powers and find ways to use them better.
  • He’s trying to undo the effects of Tobias Rhyne’s gene bomb.

A lot about Harcrow is right there in the interview, and I’m honestly surprised at how much I came up with. As I think I mentioned before, figuring out some characters is like torture for everyone involved. I want the character to reveal something of herself to me, and she’s saying, “Hell no. You’re the writer, you figure it out.” But occasionally one of them not only cooperates, but offers to do a lot of the hard work.

When I saw Harcrow, a picture popped into my head. He’s an alder black man, with the gray hair of a man who hasn’t stopped working since he was a teenager. He’s exhausted now, demoralized from seeing the gods fall from the sky. It’s hard to imagine what that must be like, but I try to think of it as a fundamental re-adjusting of your world view. Like when you realize that you don’t believe in God, or when you can’t find it in you to care about who’s running for President because they’ll just be the same guy with a different face. The things that kept you going are gone, but somehow you have to keep going.

What’s keeping Harcrow going, of course, is the hope of discovering a cure for the gene bomb, and he’s beginning to suspect what I already know: there is no cure. The heroes who have been nullified will never get their powers back. Ever.

There are two things he’ll see before he dies, though. The first is that there are plenty of non-meta heroes out there who will rise to fill the gaps. “Martial artists, robotocists, time-trapped heroes with amazing future tech…” The physics of his world still allows for all kinds of superheroics, and there will be plenty of people to step in and take over.

The second thing is that the gene bomb only re-configured people with currently active metahuman genes. But the meta-gene is necessarily recessive – otherwise the world would be overrun – so sooner or later (perhaps even right now) kids will be born with meta-genes that are just waiting to be activated. A whole new generation of mutants and accident-prone kids will mark the new age of heroism, and I think Harcrow deserves to see that before he dies.

Anyway, Harcrow is essentially a man in mourning, which isn’t something I’m all that familiar with writing. I haven’t lost something or someone that important, that literally defined my world for me. I know I will someday – that’s pretty much a certainty – and I hope that I am able to handle it with a certain amount of quiet dignity and grace. But for right now, I can explore that feeling through Harcrow.

Let’s see, what else? I’m going to have to figure out what he won his Nobel Prizes in at some point. Quick research suggests that no individual has ever won three prizes – and only a handful have won two. So that’ll take a bit of justification right there, but since he’s at the forefront of metahuman science, I think there are a lot of openings for him to grab a prize or three.

I can look at his rise to fame, and how being raised poor affects that. Our past shapes our actions in a thousand different ways, and that needs to be looked into. Harcrow was poor and black, which is not a childhood that often lends itself to becoming a triple-Nobel winner. How did he rise above the ghetto? How much of those formative years does he still keep around? How does he help the kids who are there now, the ones who maybe aren’t as smart or as lucky as he was?

I’m reminded, actually, of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who tells a story about being a young astrophysics student. He was told by an upperclassman he admired that he was wasting good talent on astrophysics and should have been using it to help “his people,” i.e. working in more political or social issues and helping to make life better in the black community. He says that he struggled with this – he knew that he should be making an effort to help other black kids, to help build the black community, but he also knew that he loved science and astrophysics.

Long story short, he found a way to do both when he was called to appear on TV as a science expert and talk about the sun. After the interview, he realized that not once had they asked him anything as a black man – they had asked him questions as a scientists. And that was his contribution right there. Just being a public black intellectual would challenge white stereotypes and at the same time give black youth someone they could look up to.

I’m probably oversimplifying the story terribly, and if Mr. Tyson would like to correct me, I will be more than happy to fix it. After I stop sqee-ing.

In any case, that’s kind of the model I’m using for Harcrow’s intersection between his racial community and his chosen profession. This is how he contributes and how he makes a difference, by being a person who makes the world a better place by being the brightest man in the room. Of course, writing about race has its pitfalls, certainly. We all remember RaceFail ’09, and the lessons it imparted. But when I do approach it, I’ll do my best, and if I screw anything up big-time, I will gladly seek feedback from people who know more than I do about being a Person of Color.

Eventually, by the way, I’m going to have to work on Tobias Rhyne, too. If anyone can be said to be Harcrow’s nemesis, it’ll be Rhyne, even though the two never met in person. How would Harcrow react to meeting the man who stole everything he loved from the world? Would he be able to hold up to the ethical models of his heroes, or will he just snap and try to pummel the man to death with a lead pipe? I know what he wants to do, but will he let himself do it? That right there is the big story that needs to be told.

There’s also some entertaining back-stories to tell as well. Helping heroes work out their powers, being the scientific point-man for Heroes United, things like that. It could be comedy, a little mystery – who knows? I get the feeling that he’s lived a long and full life, and there are many places where I can drop in and take a look.

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Day Two Hundred and Eleven: The King of Cities

December 18, 2011 1 comment

For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.

Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.

Wish me luck!

——————

Since it’s my day off, giving me more time than usual, I thought I’d talk today about one of my cities. This time we’re talking about the first fictional city I used – Corsair City. It showed up in the story Delay, which is set in a future far enough away that teleporting from one place to another has become as mundanely irritating as going to an airport is for us. I needed something that sounded kind of cool and futuristic, and that was the name that popped into my head. Corsair. Two weeks later, it showed up again, and by that point it was my go-to Big City.

Before getting into the gritty details, let’s see what the stories tell us about it:

21: Delay

  • Corsair has (will have) a major teleportation hub.

36: Interviews

  • Corsair City has an eponymous university, where three-time Nobel Prize winner Julian Harcrow works

74: Mass Man

  • The Lady of the Rooftops is called “the guardian of Corsair City”. She works with a reluctant police department.
  • Photon the Magnificent also works out of Corsair

79: Ancio’s House

  • Home to the Half-Moon Gang, a gang of teenage criminals.
  • Broadmoore Hospital is in the oldest part of the city.

114: Dr. Julian Harcrow (interview)

  • The city has a poor section, complete with tenements.
  • Captain Cosmos worked out of Corsair.
  • Harcrow worked at the University.
  • Corsair city has a large population of super-heroes.

117: Rachael Decker (interview)

  • There’s a Corsair Academy, which has a good social sciences program.

162: A Day Out

  • Corsair is considered on par with Boston and New York in terms of size and influence.

167: Shift

  • Corsair has a subway system.
  • There’s “no end to the beautiful people in Corsair City”.
  • Boulevards are named after months. Logically, there should be at least twelve of them.
  • Juno Park is in Corsair. It has a small cafe that’s trendy and expensive.
  • There’s a subway station on September Boulevard.

198: The Guardian Corporation

  • Corsair may be the location of Cerbecorp headquarters.

Wow. For all the times it shows up, we don’t really know that much about it. Not sure how that happened…

In any case, that’s what we know about Corsair – it’s a large, bustling metropolis with lots of metahumans in it. In my mind, I see it as an East Coast city, which brings us back to the problem of location, location, location. Just as I had to squeeze Sylvania City into the Pacific Northwest somewhere, I now have to jam Corsair into an already crowded sprawl, somewhere along the East Coast. Fortunately, the kind people of Maryland have left a lot of non-urban space open in their city, and it provides what I’m pretty sure is an excellent location for Corsair. I can put it right off of Chesapeake Bay, where Eastern Neck is these days. That’ll give me an interesting geography to play with.

Similar to New Zealand, Corsair City will have a North and South island split, the South Island being where the Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge is. Sorry, animals. Being on the Bay also fits the name – Chesapeake had a long history of piracy, and the corsairs were borderline pirates from France in the 17th and 18th centuries. While the French corsairs didn’t operate in Chesapeake, the bay was a home to such pirates as William Kidd, Theophilus Turner, and the infamous Blackbeard. The geography of Eastern Neck could be such that it was a good place for pirates to stay between trips out to find ships to plunder.

Again, as with Sylvania, I do have to know a little bit about the western shores of Delaware and figure out why it never sprouted a metropolis of its own. What is it about the land there that didn’t attract a city? Was it too wet and sandy and unstable? Is there something different about being on the eastern side of the bay that won’t permit a city? After all, right across the waters you can find Washington, DC and Baltimore. What was it about their locations that made it possible for a large city to be built?

I have no idea, and I’m not entirely worried about it. After all, we’re talking about a city with a high concentration of superheroes, so I’m not above re-jiggering some basic geology or oceanography or economics to make my city possible. But if I want to make the city believable, it would behoove me to do some research into the history of the Bay, and the histories of the two cities that Corsair is going to share its space with.

So we have its origin going back to the heady days of piracy, when ships would use the many coves and rivers as home bases while they weren’t off pillaging. The south island probably got built up first, perhaps as a fortress of sorts, so that’s going to be the “old section” of the city, where Broadmoore Hospital is and where Ancio got into trouble with the Half-Moon Gang. As piracy declined during the early days of the United States, the city took on a more mercantile function and became a major shipping center for the Atlantic coast. It quickly spread up to the mainland, which is newer and more modern. This is where most of the subway system is – there’s one small branch that goes into the South Island. This lesser access has resulted in (or is caused by) the South Island losing its influence and its economic power. Along with being the oldest part of the city, it’s now the poorest.

I imagine the city had a good part to play in the War for Independence, but I’m not sure about the Civil War. Again, that’s where research comes in handy – what did the people east of the Chesapeake do during that war? What were their influences and politics?

(And talk about synchronicity – this post just came up on Metafilter about the rivalries between Maryland and Virginia during their colonial days. They fought bitterly over religious and resource issues, and apparently still aren’t very friendly with each other. Excellent.)

Now, in the early 21st century, Corsair has grown to rival other great cities in the East Coast Sprawl. It’s not the shipping hub it used to be – after all, a city on the other side of the Chesapeake has access to, well, the rest of America, but if there was a Shadow Capital to the United States, Corsair would be it. Again, I’m still not sure of a lot of the details of how it works, mainly because urban economics are not my strong suit.

I expect that as I do more research into how cities work and grow, Corsair will change as well. Some of what I thought I knew about the city will no longer be true, which is always sad. But the more reality I can bring to it, the stronger it will become. And in the end, all a fictional city really needs in order to stand out is a soul, which is given to it by its people. We don’t know what the primary industries of Metropolis or Gotham City or Ankh-Morpork are, and we don’t really need to know. Nobody reads about those cities in order to find out more about urban development and planning. But the growth of a city will determine the kind of people who live there, and the people are what make the city great.

Any book recommendations you have on how cities grow and develop would be greatly welcome, of course.

Day Thirty-six: Interviews

June 26, 2011 7 comments

“All right, Mister Vails, it says here on your resume that you used to be… Umm…” The unemployment counselor looked up from the resume to the tall, muscular man who was sitting uncomfortably across the desk from her.

“Photon.” He cracked a knuckle with his thumb. “The Magnificent,” he said. His voice was flat, almost a whisper, and his wide shoulders slumped.

She made a note on the resume. “I see. And this was before the gene-bomb?”

The man nodded, and didn’t look her in the eye. The gene bomb had gone off two years ago, detonated by Tobias Rhyne, an inventor and technologist-turned-supervillain. Rhyne had developed a method by which metahumans could be stripped of their powers, and thanks to years of defeat at their hands, he had finally gone and done it. When the bomb went off, there were 5,313 metahumans working around the planet. Some of them were in mid-action when it happened, and plummeted from the sky like a horrible four-color rain. Others were suddenly subject to the laws of physics that they had previously ignored, and the results were grisly at best.

Those who survived had to do so without the powers they had come to rely on, and as yet no one had managed to find a way to reverse the effects. Professor Harcrow, of the Corsair City University – a three-time Nobel Prize winner and frequent ally of the international peacekeeping squad Heroes United – was said to be working on a cure. To date, though, no metahuman had recovered his or her powers. Some tried on their own, hunting down lightning storms or trying to re-create the cosmic vortexes that had blessed them in the first place. They were, to a man, unsuccessful.

It became necessary, then, for them to try and re-integrate into regular human society. Even those who had maintained secret identities were having trouble coming to grips with their situation. For them, being a super-hero was the real job. Newspaper reporting, working in an auto garage, being a police officer was just a way to pay the bills. Now it was their real life, and much like soldiers returning from war, they were having problems assimilating.

Constance Wixted had just started processing these claims, and they were starting to get to her. She had seen Photon the Magnificent before, of course – everyone had. The silver and blue costume he wore was unmistakable, and after he saved the Golden Gate Bridge from being turned into a harmonic earthquake generator by Lord Temblor, his fame rose as high as he did.

Now he was sitting in her cramped and dingy public assistance office, hoping to find some kind of work that was as fulfilling as world-saving. “Okay,” she said, trying to pitch her voice somewhere cheerful and optimistic. “What skills do you have that might be valuable to employers?”

He looked up at her, and she remembered for a moment the cosmic blasts that he used to be able to shoot from them. There was a video on YouTube of Photon holding back a rampaging battle tank with those eyes. Now they were flat. “I can type,” he said. “And I’m very organized.”

“Those are good,” she said. “Anything else?”

He sat there, and exhaled. “I’m good with people.”

Constance fought the urge to rub her eyes. “Mister Vails, I understand you’re in a difficult situation….”

“Do you?” he asked. He looked at her again, and for a moment there was strength in his face. “Have you ever seen the sky in the infrared? Have you ever felt the earth move under your feet and known that you moved it? Have you ever had an entire city thank you for returning it from a shadow dimension?”

She shook her head. “No, I – I haven’t.”

“Then you don’t understand anything,” he said. He stood up and took his coat from the back of the chair. “Thank you for trying, Miss Wixted,” he said. “This isn’t working for me.”

She stood with him. “Wait, Mister Vails!” He turned and looked over his shoulder. “Maybe… maybe you could do some work with an NGO, or a charity – I have a few here that-”

He shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s just… It’s just not the same.” He put his coat on, and she watched him as he walked through the waiting room and out the door.

Constance dropped back in her seat. She made a note in Vails’ file – “Pending” – and dropped it into a tray on her desk. “Next,” she said. A tall woman with green hair and a willowy figure stood up, smoothed her dress, and came into the office, closing the door behind her.

“Miss Pierce?” The woman nodded. “Sorry to see you here again so soon. The arboretum job didn’t work out, then?” The green-haired woman shook her head and, quietly, began to cry. Constance stood up and brought over the box of tissues she made sure was always within arm’s reach.

“Don’t worry, Miss Pierce,” she said. “We’ll find something for you.”

Day Twenty-one: Delay

June 11, 2011 2 comments

“I’m sorry, sir. Your quantum signature is a little unusual. You could step through the scanner again?”

Lawrence rolled his eyes. “Every damn time,” he said. He stepped back through the archway, turned around and tried to stand with a pose that bespoke irritated indifference. It wasn’t easy.

“Okay, sir.” The energy field within the arch faded to a pale green. “You can come through again?”

He took three steps forward and held his breath as he passed through the familiar cold web of light. The energy field turned a pale pink.

The scanning officer approached him, holding a wand. “Over here, sir,” she said. In her other hand was a small tablet computer, at least two generations past new. The tail waved about as if it had a mind of its own, scanning and watching the crowd behind them. Which, for all he knew, it was. “Please hold out your primary manipulating appendages.”

“You mean my arms?”

“I try not to make assumptions, sir.” She flipped a switch on the wand and it started to hum. He felt an itch where it passed over him, and tried not to scratch. The whole process was done with the efficiency of someone who had practiced it on many a traveler, and in less than a minute the officer was consulting her pad. She tapped it in a few places.

The blue, smooth ridge above her left eye slowly rose upwards on her forehead. The tail whipped around to point at Lawrence. She looked up at him. “This reading is quite unusual, sir,” she said. Her voice had gone flat and quiet. “I may need to call my supervisor.”

Lawrence dropped his manipulating appendages and sighed. “Look, you don’t have to do that. Look at my passport, page two.” He gestured over to where his bag was and waggled his fingers. “Go, look.” The officer called out a string of hard syllables, and within moments a small flying drone zipped in, grasped the bag from the scanning table, and brought it over. “Front pouch,” Lawrence said. “Right… right there.”

The officer holstered the wand and flipped through the passport. When she opened to page two, the ridge about her other eye went up as well. The tail swung in over her shoulder for a look. She read the page twice, and then looked up at him. “Time traveler?” she asked.

“Retired,” Lawrence said. “I went back to do some work for Cerbecorp back in the late twenty-second. When I got back here, the whole trip had done something weird to my boson spin. Or something, I don’t follow the science. All I know is that I try not to slide because I have to go through this nonsense every single time.”

The officer nodded. The tail started waving above her head, and a moment later a creature which could only have been her supervisor arrived. It was big. It was very hairy. It had a badge. “Is there a problem?” it asked, with a voice that sounded like water flowing through crystal pipes. The officer handed the passport to the yeti, who glanced at it and said, “Time traveler. System can handle. Let him go.” It turned to Lawrence. “Enjoy your trip, sir,” it said.

Lawrence tried to thank the thing, but by the time he stammered the words out, it had gone. “That was new,” he said to the scanning officer.

“Really?”

“Yeah.” He turned back to the officer. “Last time I had to wait in the Little Room for about four hours while they got confirmation.”

The officer looked pained. Her violet eyes winced. “Oh, the Little Room? That is too bad indeed, sir.” She handed him his bag and passport. “Have a good trip, sir.”

Lawrence took his things, shoved the passport in his pocket, and shouldered the bag. Part one complete, and better than usual. No one at Cerbecorp had told him what mucking about in the past would do to him, and it was still nearly impossible to get a straight answer. Never mind the trip had netted them trillions. Never mind they now had always owned the patents to three of the most popular home utilities in modern history. That half-hearted lawyer had told him that their first and last obligation was to pay him for his work. They had done that, handsomely. Handsome or not, though, the money was limited. The aggravation was for a lifetime.

The departure lounge for the slide was sparsely populated, which was a good sign. Everything seemed to be working smoothly for once. He took his passport from his pocket, flipped it open to page two, and approached a departure desk. The receptionist there could have been a twin to the scanning officer, only more made up. Her pale blue skin was clearer and contrasted nicely with the wine-dark uniform. Lawrence still had a hard time getting the attractiveness of xenos, but he was beginning to see where it came from.

“Your passport, sir?” she asked. Same voice, too. He handed it to her and leaned on the counter. The tail curved up to look at him. “Could you step back, sir? We need to do a final scan.”

“But… they already scanned me,” he said. “Over there.”

“Yes, sir. We just need to do one more.”

“Oh, for the love of…” He dropped the bag and took one step back. A pale green circle lit up under his feet, glowed softly for a moment, and then turned pink. The receptionist tapped on her pad for a moment, checked page two again, and the circle winked out.

“Sorry for the delay, sir. To where will you be going?”

Lawrence picked up his bag. “I’m headed to Corsair City. The main port.”

She tapped on the pad again. “That will be no problem, sir. We have to route you through Elliel Exchange first.”

“Elliel?” He leaned on the counter again. “Where the hell is Elliel?”

“Could you step back please, sir?” she asked, not looking up at him. Reluctantly, he did. “Your quantum abnormalities require that we re-route you to Elliel Exchange before we can send you on to Corsair. Just a safety precaution.”

“Whose safety?” He had to fight to keep from shouting. “Whose safety am I risking?”

She looked up at him. “Yours certainly,” she said. “Your condition may make you a danger to yourself and others. If an… incident does occur, we would rather it be away from a populated area.”

“Away from…? Where is this place?”

“Asteroid 435 Ella,” she said, reading from the pad.

“As… An asteroid? You’re sending me to an asteroid?”

The tail swung up over her head. “Please keep your voice down, sir,” she said.

“I’m not keeping my voice down! You’re sending me to an airless hunk of rock in the middle of nowhere and you want me to keep my voice down? All I want to do is go to Corsair City, lady” He ran his hands through his hair. “It’s on the same damn continent!”

“Is there a problem?” The flowing-water voice again. Lawrence didn’t turn around – he knew what was behind him. The large, hairy paw that settled on his shoulder was a good warning against making sudden movements.

“No problem, sir,” Lawrence said through gritted teeth. “I was just asking why I have to go to the middle of the airless void on my way to a city three hundred miles away.”

The yeti lumbered over to the counter, and the blue receptionist showed it the pad. It read for a moment, then turned its surprisingly sharp orange eyes on Lawrence. “It’s so you don’t blow the city up. Sir.” It walked over to him, badge-first. “We can lose an asteroid. A city, not so much.” That paw landed on his other shoulder, staggering him. “You won’t be there. Just your energy signature. You’ll barely notice.”

“Right,” Lawrence said. “Barely notice. Gotcha.” The yeti lifted its paw from his shoulder, and Lawrence tried to give it a surreptitious rub. There was a strange, trilling conversation between the receptionist and her supervisor, and then the giant thing left. Lawrence tried what he thought was his best sheepish grin. “So. Am I good to go?” he asked.

She slid his passport and a destination chip across the counter. “Enjoy your travels,” she said.

“Enjoy. Right,” he muttered. He took the passport and the chip and walked to the nearest gate. The operator sat in a glass booth. Human, this time. Or near as made no difference. Lawrence put dropped the chip into the drawer, which slid closed. The operator took it out, inserted it into a console, and pushed a couple of buttons on his pad.

The gate hummed to life, a pale yellow field blurring out the space inside. Lawrence took a deep breath and hoped that the yeti-thing was right. Barely notice.

“This trip had better be worth it,” he said, and stepped into the field.