anthony dobranski online


Destroying Budapest

My science-fiction work-in-progress is set in a single city, and I needed to see it to imagine living in it. Welcome to Pest! Only walk on gray parts….

Pest, the White Lake and the Soft Lands

Budapest was a proxy in the One-Day War between Greater Russia and Umoja East Africa. Buda is now the White Lake, a boiling toxic waste of microscopic robots that eat carbon dioxide, and anything else, to make diamonds that wash on its shores. Both embargoed no-person’s-land and boomtown, Pest houses thieves, smugglers, engineers, and skaters, daredevil gladiators who jump and spin over the Lake in maglev boots, just one fall from death.

I suppose I could have done any old thing to ruin a city, but I wanted a dusting of Science! in my fiction. I thought a fractal would make a believably consistent result small enough for microscopic robots to store. I used FractalWorks, a Mac app, to generate a tiny portion of the celebrated Mandelbrot function, and overlaid this on a large screenshot of central Budapest, so its finer arcs and whorls were the length of city blocks.

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver

I didn’t think at the scale of blocks it could ever be so precise – if nothing else, land would collapse – so I cut out the Lake using an image editor’s predictive selection tool, to make the edges sloppy and eroded.

Both the pink and white areas are products of the fractal. The white is the Lake itself, while the pink represents Soft Lands, areas of shifting underground streams through which nanites recharge, around which smugglers tunnel.

It’s been a huge help to have the reference. Putting my characters on a literal map lets me figure out relative distances, and helps me imagine the land and the city that might grow from it.

I also thought further about my mechanical monster’s makeup. Where Lake meets land has always been seductively quiet, since earliest drafts. Instead, let the meeting of Lake and Soft Lands be a place of churn and upheaval, the turbulence of nanites going into and out of dormancy around the buzz of other nanites quantumly-uncertain just where their strange fractal stops. I have a heart murmur too.

It’s easier to name things in the context of the city’s weird sense of humor now, and I’m looking at it as more impressively built than previous drafts. Where before it was falling apart and hastily erected, now I see it as printed and reprinted, strange but regular, by the same artificially-intelligent drone “taxibots” that run the city services. This has new virtues and a very different look. And some rewriting.

If this map gets reproduced in the book, I don’t want the plain line drawing quality of most novel maps. Rather I’d commission a graphic artist to generate a cityscape, degrade that so it looked like a 12th-generation-photocopy of an old image, have all the landmarks written in sloppy marker. At top: “Welcome to Pest where you will likely die.” At bottom: “Wanna know more? Live and learn.”


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AwesomeCon DC 2016 – this weekend!

AwesomeCon is a large fan convention in Washington DC this weekend, focused on visual media – this year especially, it’s a Whovians paradise. Are you going?

Saturday will just be splendid fun, but the Friday and Sunday sessions have several good panels for my booklife.

I’m hoping to see: Comics in WWII, Giant Robots, Strong Women Characters, Nanobots – which together cover my debut novel, my serial novel, and my crazy SF work-in-progress – and attend at least one of the marketing panels. Continue reading


Robots vs. androids in fiction (go robots!)

Among the characters in my new novel is a collective of former package-delivery drones that, after a war, evolved themselves into a taxi service for their damaged city.

From the earliest drafts, I saw them as small flying saucers, with only a central trunk/harness to carry goods or a seated cross-legged person. It took a little time before I saw the plot and character possibilities of robots without hands or appendages. It meant that they had continued to evolve themselves to depend on people, both as customers and even as mechanics, like Thomas the Tank Engine.

I also gave them a limited vocabulary of green and red lights, suitable for bargaining over fares, but akin to the radiation-wounded Christopher Pike on old Star Trek. This made for a stranger, more labored interaction, but one familiar to anyone who has set a digital device.

It also made it easier for the taxibots credibly to be taken for granted by the people around them while they — well, you’ll read it one day. :)

This is a less common take on manufactured beings. Continue reading


Performance anxiety (Facebook edition)

If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise. — William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”

I noted recently that writing has become a performing art, one where we writers all have to be promotional and public. I’ve been mulling that over in regards to social media. Specifically, Facebook.

I made my first business career developing the consumer side of what we once called “cyberspace,” but I was quite late to Facebook. Most close friends who wanted to keep up with my personal life soon wised up and Friended my wife. My main reservation was Facebook’s awesome store of personal data (even now, my Facebook account is still under a different computer login than my work or personal logins), but it seemed harmless enough — shared humor, family updates and the occasional expression of political dudgeon by people whose politics I knew well.

When I signed up for the Superstars Writing Seminars, I joined their very active private Facebook group for news and updates on the seminar, and by extension, on the writers’ individual careers. To my great surprise, a lot of those people Friended me on Facebook — most before ever meeting me, and the rest after a very limited interaction (though you learn a lot playing Cards Against Humanity, and none of it good.)

I was bemused. Why on earth would these people want to Friend me? Did they care about my son’s new style of dancing to 80’s pop? Would they be as thrilled by the new retaining wall we’re getting as I am?

My folly was in not recognizing that Facebook has become a public space to the exact degree that one is a public person — and performing artists are public people, and writers now performers. This for me makes Facebook an increasingly staged and risky place. In Soho where she lives, a major fashion model can go shopping without makeup and in sweatpants — but when that same model hits the stores at Mall of America, she is not shopping. She is making an appearance, as rehearsed and planned and calculated as any Oscar Wilde bon-mot.

Thing is, I have plenty of friends, and extended family, for whom Facebook is not that space, and whose socializing there is more honest, more mundane, and in some ways more substantive. If I actually become a successful writer, commenting to me on a Facebook post will be the equivalent of meeting your friend for coffee when your friend is on a reality-TV show and has a camera following everywhere. Little-f-friends, are you ready for that? Am I? Continue reading


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Science fiction as time travel

I grew up on a solid diet of science fiction, and as a young man in the 1970s and 1980s I had a wide range of style to choose from — New Wave, Old Guard, the Cyberpunks. To read them all at once was like the old Evolution of Man posters, the history of the future all in view.

Like the time-traveler who uses knowledge of the future to succeed, I became a technology early-adopter by reading science-fiction. When I saw it happening for real in the 1980s, as limited and clunky as it was, I already knew what it was going to be. Twenty years ago I even lucked into a job in the field, first learning then explaining to others just what “online” was. That job is done.

I am running out of futures.

Continue reading


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Tinkerers and the Tea Party

Recently on Slashdot I read a thread about how 3-D printing — the technology of making an object layer by layer, as opposed to carving it out of a block of matter or forming it in a mold — is limited by the difficulty-of-use of 3-D design software. As threads on Slashdot do, it quickly became a forum for all kinds of venting and debate. One especially nerdy (and I mean that as a compliment) rebuttal explained a system for recreating sheet-metal parts in software, as a way of showing how “easy” it is to digitize a flat object like a gasket.

I suppose if I described exactly how to build my garage shelving out of 2x4s and plywood it would be even longer, but most people will read that post and be glad they have a hardware store to run to when their garden hose is dripping.

Tinkerers persist in society despite the vast system of production and shipping that we humans have created. This is of course usually seen as a blessing — where would we find innovation if not for such people — but the people doing this seeing are often faux-wistful columnists who would not at all be happy if they had to design their gaskets, or even their paper clips, from scratch. Continue reading