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April 2012

Geek Bias, Butterflies, and The Kremlin Games

 

by Paula Goodlett and Gorg Huff

Paula: 1636: The Kremlin Games started as a series of stories Gorg Huff and I wrote. It was published in the Grantville Gazette and was called "Butterflies in the Kremlin."

Gorg: Partly it was based on the notions of the butterfly effect on history. It was mostly a comedy series about a basically incompetent up-timer moving to Russia. It was written for laughs and the point . . .

Paula: . . . to the extent there was one . . .

Gorg: . . . was that even an average, or slightly below average, up-timer would have a significant effect in 1632, simply because of the sort of knowledge that we acquire just by living in our world. Things like the shape of an aircraft wing, or the notion that there are such things as electromagnets. Around this time, the Gazette was getting a lot of stories about the super up-timer. For instance, the eighty-year-old grandpaw that beat the crap out of four armed, professional mercenaries with a stick. At the same time, there was the ongoing argument that only a professionally-degreed electrical engineer could possibly fix a light switch. I originally, in my head, conceived of Bernie as a fairly standard stereotype of the dumb jock who, after his glory days on the high school football squad, spends the rest of his life flipping burgers. In part because he never had to study in school, just make touchdowns.

Paula: I think your geek bias is showing.

Gorg: Like you don't have one.

Anyway, I had Bernie as about a 95 IQ, average but on the low side of it. I made him a mechanic rather than a fast food chef because being a mechanic would fit his self image better. He was going to be interested in beer, sex, and food, not necessarily in that order. Sex might come first.

 

Paula: And that was fine with me. We actively wanted to do a story with "every man" not "super man." Although I admit that I, personally, wasn't overjoyed by the hot and cold servant girls bits.

Gorg: But you aren't a guy. It has something to do with the damaged X chromosome we all get.

Paula: Praise the powers, I'm not a guy. ;-)

Later, when it was decided to convert the comedy stories of Butterflies to the novel "1636: The Kremlin Games," Eric insisted that Bernie be made a bit more heroic and a bit less of a nonentity, because the nonentity hero apparently doesn't sell all that well.

And we didn't have a problem with making Bernie grow up quicker. In Bernie's situation, he probably would have done just that.

As you may know, Eric is a devout follower of Dr. Samuel Johnson and his favorite quote is "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Gorg and I are now officially members of the Order of Dr. Johnson.

Gorg: Did we change Bernie? Of course we did. We changed a lot of things to make the novel more salable.

Paula: We're not proud.

Gorg: Just greedy.

The argument in the 1632 Tech discussion group at the time was a lot about airplanes and how complicated they are and how you had to have the proper education to build one. Like, for instance, a couple of bicycle repair guys couldn't possibly do it, not having had degrees in aeronautical engineering. The original plan—and to an extent we managed to keep to it—was that the down-timer Russians would supply the brains and Bernie would be the on-site dictionary that they could question when something in the paper dictionary was confusing. That's pretty much what that whole scene between Boris and Patriarch Filaret is about. That the information would be coming from Grantville and all the books there; it was just the translating that Bernie would provide. We managed to keep a lot of that, simply giving Bernie a bit of justification for starting out the south end of a north-bound mule and making his transformation more sudden.

The reason we chose Russia was because it was, we thought, far enough away so that what happened there would have little impact on the main storyline back in Western Europe. We were getting far enough out of town so that we wouldn't disrupt what Eric was doing and hopefully wouldn't get shut down because we were interfering with the main plot line.

Of course, if we were going to write about Russia, we had to study Russia. If you suffer from even the mildest form of depression, don't study Russian history. It will make you suicidal.

Paula: So will Irish history. Heck, so will most history of the seventeenth century. Folks, we don't know how good we've got it.

Gorg: Not as much as Russian history. I used to think it was Russian authors who made everything so depressing, because they thought it made better art. Now I think they were soft-peddling the downside. The best I can figure, Russia has spent most of the last five hundred plus years as a slave plantation, with only a few brief moments of liberty to offer a contrast. And most of those brief moments involved blood in the streets and are looked at, properly, as bad times.

Paula: Ohhh. Harsh, Gorg. We did develop quite a bit of sympathy for Mikhail Romanov, though. Everything we found about him in the actual histories had him as ineffective, dominated by others, and in ill health.

Gorg: He was ineffective. But an ineffective figurehead was, as it happened, pretty much what the dynasty needed to establish itself. A more aggressive leader that soon after the Time of Troubles would not have lasted a year before he was assassinated or had an open revolt on his hands. Mikhail bent to the political winds, which may not have been the bravest thing he could do, but considering how they played politics, was certainly the smartest.

Nations, it turns out, are never all one thing or all the other. In Russia, in the seventeenth century, perhaps one person in three hundred knew how to read. And its population was very small for its land area. Precisely what its population was in 1632 is still very much a subject of debate. But it means there were a lot fewer clerks than were available in, say, Germany. However, "a lot less" doesn't in any way equate to "none at all." Literacy in Russia was very much focused in a couple of classes—priests and members of the service nobility. Boris, as a member of the service nobility, was literate in several languages and so were quite a few others. Not all of them. There were colonels and captains throughout the Russian army who weren't literate, but there were almost as many who could read and write.

The Dacha, not to put too fine a point on it, was mostly made up of the best educated and smartest people available. Putting them all in one place got all the geeks out of everyone else's hair, so they could continue hunting their deer, drinking to excess, and schtupping the peasant girls—with or without their consent.

Paula: There's that geek bias again . . .

Gorg: Russia was not a nice place. Alone of the European states, there were actual legal distinctions in the punishment for rape, depending on what the rank of the rapist and rapee. A lord raping a peasant paid a fine, a peasant raping a lady was executed. Not that such results were uncommon in Europe in general, but in Russia they were sanctified by law.

Paula: Let's talk about something else. I'm getting depressed again.

Gorg: Which, to a great extent, is what we did in writing the book. Glossed over the really nasty bits. Otherwise we would have ended up with a seventeenth-century version of Dr. Zhivago. Which no one would want to read. I know I wouldn't want to write it.

Technically, the Russians didn't have any of the machines that the Ring of Fire brought back, except what Bernie brought with him or Vladimir sent. Including Precious. (Don't blame me. The whole Precious thing was Paula's idea.)

Paula: Because I'm married to a certified car nut! They are all precious to him. Me? Not so much. Gas and go, that's what I do.

Gorg: Women rarely understand the deep emotional attachment men have to cars. (That wasn't a sexist comment, was it?)

Paula: Sneer. Duh. Of course it was.

Gorg: Anyway . . . Bernie, being a mechanic, had a car and we chose one that had started out as a junker. Paula decided to use the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazard as the model. And, honestly, I didn't care, except for not wanting it to have a computer in it or need a computer to run. Quite a few of the cars that went back with the Ring of Fire are going to have to be retrofitted to operate without their chips and they can do that in the area of Grantville. Not so much in Russia.

On the up side, they can buy things from the area around the Ring of Fire and have them shipped to Russia. So, very much as happened in our Russia in the twentieth century, they will buy one of everything, then copy it. Like sewing machines and airplane engines and steam engines and chemistry sets. And, and, and . . . the list gets really long.

Paula: At one point in the series published in the Gazette, we had the car painted bright pink.

Gorg: I think Paula has some issues with Don's love of cars. ;-)

Paula: Who? Me? Whatever gave you that idea?

Gorg: Just a random thought. No reason for it at all.

Paula: Yeah, right.

Anyway, when it came time for the cover, Tom Kidd, the cover artist, asked us what we wanted. And, in all truth, we just didn't have an opinion. The pink bit hadn't made it into the book, so we told Tom to do what he wanted with it.

I think it's a great cover, myself. Evocative of the cover on 1632.

Gorg: Me too.

So, partly through planning and partly through evolution, the Russians get access to the tech base developing in Germany. And because Russia has a much more centralized government, it naturally went for a much more controlled economy. Nowhere in Europe at that time was laissez faire capitalism even considered before the Ring of Fire. And, in Russia, the czar is keeping control over the production of money. (Well, until the revolution anyway.) So Russia is, in some ways, in a better position to capitalize on and implement the up-time innovations than other countries. (Well, until the revolution.) The government can tell the farmers to plant potatoes in a way that would be very difficult in Germany and it uses that power in a number of places, even though we don't focus on that or what it does to the people ordered to change their life all that much.

Paula: Speaking of change, as far as the co-writing goes, my and Gorg's methods have changed over the years. Back when we started, we traded the documents by email. He'd write, send it to me, I'd edit and write, send it to Gorg, back and forth several times a day. And then we discovered Skype. So, I'd type, sharing the screen with Gorg, then email him the file, where he'd write more and send it back. Then I'd edit, write some more, share the screen, etc., etc. Pretty much every day.

We were really happy to discover Google docs, where we can both work on the same file and talk via Skype as we work. So far, that combination is working best for us.

Working with Eric is a bit different. We write it, send it to Eric . . .

Gorg: . . . Eric tells us what to change, we rewrite, send it to Eric, Eric tells us what to change, etc., etc. All the while adding his own bits to the story, like increasing the romance between Natasha and Bernie since Paula and I never did get that part right, fiddling with the politics, and so forth.

Paula: Eric, speaking as his editor for the Gazette, is pretty easy to work for. He has pretty much a "hands off" policy, unless I have a question—or unless he decides to pull half an issue out of the Gazette to make it into a book. More on that later.

 

***

Gorg: My introduction to writing for the Grantville Gazette came while they were getting ready to publish the first one electronically. I got in an argument in 1632 Tech about the effect of treadle-powered sewing machines on the tailor industry down-time. It was a fairly collegial argument till someone (I carefully don't recall who) interrupted to explain to us both that it was a ridiculous argument because no one would have time to do something as silly as reinvent the sewing machine, and even if someone tried, the three machine shops in Grantville couldn't be wasted on making sewing machines.

Paula: So who was it?

Gorg: mumble mumble

Paula: Thought so.

Gorg: Anyway, I found the interruption to our discussion annoying. More importantly, I found the basis for the conclusions to be both erroneous and (several expletives deleted). Most irritating was the notion, implicit not explicit, that only a few of the people in the Ring of Fire would have the necessary skills to do anything but eat and produce fertilizer. I don't remember the calculations, but I think someone managed to get the number of actually useful people transported by the Ring of Fire down to about one hundred white males with ages between eighteen and forty and with appropriate diplomas.

Paula: This was not Eric's vision of Grantville.

Gorg: True, but honestly that wasn't what bothered me about it. What bothered me was the other side of the ninja, nuclear physicist, Green Beret, computer programmer argument. Not just the notion that there would be such people in a small West Virginia town like Grantville, but the notion that you had to have such people to get anything done. I've been a paratrooper and a programmer, and I ain't that special. Lots of folks can do things if they have the chance and a good reason to put out the effort.

So I wrote an outline of how it might be done, using a few teenagers and a grandma. That's when Virginia DeMarce stepped in, asking if I could expand it. At this point I had no idea that publishing was in the offing, and Virginia didn't enlighten me. I wrote back that the mechanics of how it was done were pretty much covered, and all I could really add was character development.

Understand, I had done the first outline as a single post to the 1632 Tech conference. 1632 Slush didn't exist yet.

But I went ahead and started writing it just for fun.

Paula: Blockhead.

Gorg: True. Anyway I introduced four teenagers, a girl and a boy she liked, another boy and his friend who both liked the girl. The twins weren't even related until Virginia hit me over the head with the Grid, necessitating a rewrite. (The Grid was still quite new, but I still had to change David's name from, I think, Dan. So for a while I was writing every day, then Kerryn Offord started editing my posts on the Bar and sending me edited copies. (I don't recall for sure, but I think I started sending him the day's files before I posted them.) In any case, editing was an absolute necessity. And still is.

I don't remember quite when the subject of money came up. I am fairly sure that I didn't bring it up. But, once it was brought up, I became quite willing to make any little changes they wanted.

Paula: Funny how that works. ;-)

Gorg, repressively: Hilarious.

By the time I was done expanding the story, it was over thirty thousand words on how people—just ordinary people, not square-jawed übermen—could manage to built a sewing machine factory given the opportunity and the need. By the time I started on my second Gazette story, "God's Gifts," the 1632 Slush conference was up and running and I had started to wonder how a religious down-timer would react to the Ring of Fire. "God's Gifts" was harder to write than "The Sewing Circle," even though it was much shorter because much of it happens in the mind, perhaps even the soul, of the pastor.

Back then, I think, the Gazettes weren't coming out nearly as frequently, and I think it was almost a year later, on the story "Other People's Money," that Paula started editing my stuff. She edited "OPM," and I did some plot refinement on "The Merino Problem."

 

***

Paula: It's funny how a silly accident can change your life.

Way back in 2003, I managed to break my foot. While sweeping out a shed. Wearing a pair of heeled sandals. Basically, my foot slipped off the sandal, taking the rest of my weight.

Gorg: Slut shoes? I seem to recall something about you calling them slut shoes?

Paula, repressively: Smart aleck.

Okay, really silly accident.

Anyway, I broke my foot and wasn't supposed to go to work at the bookstore for a week, although I'd be able to after that, wearing a big, clunky medical boot.

I get bored easily. Dreaded not working; didn't want to sit around rereading books I'd already read about fifty times. And television hasn't gotten any better over the years, so that wasn't a thrilling pastime. So . . .

I bought my first computer.

Total computer neophyte, that was me. I'd used non-internet-connected computers back when I was in the Air Force, but I'd never owned a real home computer. I associated them with—of all things—paperwork. I was very wrong.

Boy, what a blast they are.

It took me about three days to figure out how to register on Baen's Bar, which I'd read about in various Baen book advertisements. Yes, rather a long time, but remember: neophyte.

Gorg: Naw, not that long. It's an information jungle out there.

Paula: I spent about another two days reading the Bar. It was probably the first time I'd truly felt at home. Everybody read books. They read them, they discussed them. Authors hung around and would actually answer questions.

It was a true revelation to find people who read for enjoyment. I did, but I'd been told many times that it is a weird thing to do.

Gorg: Well, Paula, it probably is. You're a little tetched, you know.

Paula: You're a fine one to talk about being tetched, buddy.

Anyway, then I started reading 1632 Slush.

Now, I'd never been one of those folks who tried to write. When you have a little brother, one of the first things you learn is: never put anything in writing because he'll find it, read it and make your life a misery. So the idea of writing anything except a term paper had never crossed my mind.

But I was really intrigued.

Gorg: Gotcha!

Paula: Not quite yet. But I was still off my feet with nothing else to do, so I wrote the first draft of my first story in a few hours.

I lurked for a little less than a week. No one even knew I was there. Not till I posted "The Merino Problem," as an attachment. I, not knowing any better, had written it in Microsoft's default text program for people too cheap to buy their Office suite. Not that I was too cheap. I just didn't know what the Office suite was. Probably the most difficult thing I'd ever done was post that first story.

The first response I got was from Rick Boatright, asking me if anyone still wrote anything in WPS. I had no idea what he was talking about. The good news, once people got the file opened, was that it wasn't a bad story. The bad news was it didn't fit the Grid. Naturally enough, since I didn't know about the Grid.

Virginia DeMarce explained the problem, and found me a character from the Grid to use. That character had relationships, which changed some of the story. Radically. Flo wasn't a spinner because it had already been determined that there were no up-time spinners in Grantville. So my very first experience in writing was how to fit a story idea into the canon of the 1632 universe.

In December 2003, when the Bar was pretty dead because a lot of people were away doing holiday things, I pounded out "Bad, Bad Brillo," a comic fairy tale about the down-time ram from "The Merino Problem." It was a joke, meant to cheer up the folks who were hanging around, reading the Bar.

Little did I know that I'd accidentally created a phenomenon.

Suddenly, there were Brillo stories popping up all over the place. It was a lot of fun and I was happy that people enjoyed the character enough to play with him, even if he was a very ornery ram.

About this time, in January of 2004, the Gazette's editor, Cheryl Daetwyler, had a stroke and heart attack. She was right in the middle of preparing Grantville Gazette III for publication, and I offered to help with the editing of the stories that were intended for that volume. At the time, "The Merino Problem" was planned for that, along with Gorg's "Birdie's Farm" and a pile of those Brillo fairy tales, as well as stories by Virginia DeMarce, John Zeek, Kerryn Offord and others.

And then Eric presented us with what he referred to as "a nice shiny new pile of monkey wrenches." He looted many of Gazette III's stories to make a new kind of anthology, a themed anthology, which dealt with the land laws and usages in German—not to mention a bit of revolution. Thus, 1634: The Ram Rebellion was born and the editorial board and I had to find other stuff to fill up GGIII.

It was my first introduction to the concept of "deadline," and I'm pretty sure I'll never forget all those monkey wrenches.

 

***

Gorg: The basic hook of alternate history is how would things be different if they knew then what we know now or at least some part of what we know now. And everyone has an opinion. What kinds of guns, how long to make steam engines, internal combustion engines, what about airplanes, blimps, dirigibles, ships and on and on and on. The tricky part is that everything that gets written affects canon and restricts what else can be written. Colonel Wood flew the Las Vegas Belle in 1633, so no one can fly in 1632, even if it's perfectly reasonable for someone to have done so. Four teens started a sewing machine company in 1631, so no one can start the first sewing machine company in 1634. They can start a sewing machine company in 1634, just not be the first to do so. Every story restricts what can be in any other story and many—most—of the stories have this or that bit of technology of innovation as the hook. That doesn't mean that the innovation used in one story can't be used in another, just that you have to be more careful about it.

Paula: And people can get irritated when they learn that someone else already wrote about "their" trick and didn't do it the way they wanted.

Keeping track of canon in the 1632 universe is . . . complicated. Keeping track of what characters are where, doing what, is . . . more complicated. I'm not sure it could be done at all without the Grantville Gazette Editorial Board and Dr. Virginia DeMarce's Grid, which is a genealogical program that keeps track of who does what, where. After every issue, Virginia goes through every story, "canonizing" which characters have appeared in what story.

 

***

Paula: We've managed some five million words in print for the 1632 universe, and hope to keep going.

Gorg: Eric, by opening up the universe in a controlled way, has produced a more complex tapestry than could reasonably expected of any single author. He has allowed other viewpoints and other approaches to weave the history of the 1632 universe in a variety of ways.

Paula: There are other books planned for the series, both by Eric alone and with other co-writers like Charles Gannon and Walter Hunt. Gorg and I have hopes that the universe will eventually need a sequel to 1636: The Kremlin Games, as well. Of course, that's up to the readers.

Meanwhile, Eric has other things to write in other universes . . . and so do Gorg and I.


Paula Goodlett and Gorg Huff are the coauthors, with Eric Flint, of 1636: The Kremlin Games.


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