Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Creating People

And now I reveal the working title of my next project, right after I say a few other things. I guess that makes it not really "now" so much as "pretty soon." Either way, I haven't really started working on that project except to think about it in spare moments.

First came the premise, which started out as "unmanned" ground vehicles that are in reality driven by invisible people. It didn't take long to alter it to unseen people instead of invisible. I'd create a class of people willing to risk their lives and in all likelihood die for large sums of money on missions no human should be sent to complete. And no human would, except that these people are hidden inside these supposedly unmanned battle vehicles. There are a lot of details to work out, like how do they see, how do they get in without getting caught, who owns the vehicles, who sends them on missions, what sort of remote control and monitoring do they have? Those are fun problems to sort out, and I'll save the details for the book.

Now, I need characters. But how do I go about creating people to plunk down in this situation? Two of them I'm fairly sure where to start. They're young, college-aged, and suicidal. A boy and a girl from different backgrounds and places. They're the insiders, the invisible people, and two of a few dozen recruits. They'll risk everything for the off chance (maybe one in three?) that they'll live to collect their paycheck. If they die, oh well. They wanted to die anyway, and now they have something to leave behind; the money goes to their families, or whatever they specify. (Under the guise of life insurance, perhaps?)

There's a possible third protagonist, a man about my age or a little older. I thought about making him just like me—a tech writer at a small robotics company, or maybe an engineer. The problem is, I would never do what I need him to do. I'm the kind of person who leaves well enough alone, but I need this character to start digging, to find out what's going on under the hood, to contact the two inside characters. (Also, it's never a good idea not to base characters so blatantly on yourself.)

I'm thinking he's got to be either a newspaper reporter, or the former head of a small robotics company that went bust after losing a contract to a competitor. (The Bad Guys. See below.) The motivations will be different, depending on which I choose. The failed inventor would be in it for revenge, to find out how The Bad Guys managed to leapfrog so far ahead, and expose them. The reporter would be doing his job, uncovering a sinister conspiracy and trying to win a Pulitzer or something. If I go with the reporter, the other guy would be a minor character.

The Bad Guys will be a large corporation with vast resources, possibly a defense contractor, and not based on any specific company. Only an organization with clout and credibility could pull off something like this. They could buy up expertise and intellectual property rights and smaller companies as needed. They could win mercenary contracts that smaller companies never could. They could hire hit men—I'm getting carried away. Anyway, the Bad Guys will be this company, and it will need faces—managers, PR, guards, trainers, techs. I think I'll make up one main Bad Guy, though I don't know which role he'll be in.

And now for the title! I thought of calling it Drivers or something like that. Just a couple days ago, I realized a better title was staring me right in the face: Unmanned. I haven't checked for books of that name, but there aren't many novels about UGVs. I feel uniquely qualified to write one.

How do (or would) you create new people?

[update: I'm calling it Drivers instead of Unmanned. It's about the drivers, not the unmanned vehicles. Duh. *slaps forehead*]

Unmanned! (For Real)

Here's the latest video I've cobbled together at work. (Including the music, if you can call it that.) The vehicle is driving really slow, but the supervised autonomy interface is the real star. It takes a 3D scan of the area, decides where it can and can't drive, and overlays what the vehicle senses and plans to do on top of the live video stream. The Velodyne laser sensor also lets it do untethered following of a vehicle, person, or anything highly reflective. (Oooh, shiny. Robot like shiny, follow shiny thing anywhere.)


Anyway, the red in the display are the areas the robot has decided it should NOT drive. The yellow line is where it intends to drive. The video display is pretty cool, because it gives you a nearly complete spherical view around the vehicle. The drivers in my next book will need something like that, and a sensor overlay could also be helpful to guide them to targets.

Oh, and apologies for how manic the video is. The raw footage was really boring.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Little Guys Never Win or Curse You Google!

One of Google's cars, from a Times article
So, I'm feeling slightly dismayed right now. I just read that Google's been working on autonomous cars. A couple things about that:

1)  They've been driving them in traffic on public roads. That's illegal under current law, even if you've "briefed local police" about your work. Sure, they have people behind the wheel, ready to take over when the cars screw up—and they do. No matter how awesome your database and software, the cars are still half-blind. (They use basically the same sensors we do at Autonomous Solutions, so I know how great the data is.)

Wouldn't it be nice to have the weight of Google behind you when you want to try something like that? We couldn't even get insurance to drive our automated five-ton manually on public roads because the insurers were too skittish. I wonder who's insuring Google's unmanned vehicles, and if they have any idea what to charge.

2)  Wouldn't it be nice to have virtually unlimited financial resources? I'm just feeling sorry for myself. ASI has operated without external financing for its entire ten years. The only money we have to work on research and development is what's left over from actually selling robotic vehicles and services. Maybe it's not the best way to operate, but I'm not the boss. I'm a little jealous that Google's team can afford to pay fifteen engineers plus support staff and buy cars and Velodynes (which cost more than cars) without having to worry about making a penny of profit.

ASI's dev vehicle doing some unmanned following.
Yeah, and our DARPA Urban Challenge team consisted of 2.5 engineers, and we still did pretty well. *sigh* Wouldn't it be nice to have money? The little guys never win in real life.

Which brings up NON-real life, which means the book I'm going to write next! See, the news about Google has given me a flash of inspiration about my bad guys. *rubs hands and giggles gleefully* No, I'm not going to write a thinly-veiled demonization of a business rival! I mean, it's still pretty cool what Google's doing, right? It doesn't make them evil—right? (I'm suddenly aware that Google owns Blogger.)

More later! Stay tuned! It's gonna be good.

Mwah ha ha ha ha!

Friday, October 8, 2010

I Hate Waiting

Yeah, so I just wrote a post about how I love waiting. No reason I can't hate it, too. See, while it's nice to have something to look forward too, it's nicer to know what's coming. Also, there are certain things that are better had than waited for. Actually, probably lots of things.

What I'm thinking of is something that I want very badly, but is very difficult to make happen. When and how it happens depends largely on me, and maybe that's the worst part. When I'm waiting for someone else, I don't feel any pressure, only anticipation. When I'm waiting for myself—well, it's harder to be patient.

What's worse is that I don't like to be rushed. It's a vicious circle.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Ballad of You and Me?

The free single of the week on iTunes is The Ballad of You and I. I really like it. Why? Because there are so many songs about attraction, lust, falling in love, and breaking up, and it's really nice to hear a song about STAYING in love. If I were to count the days of my life spent falling in or out of love and compare them to the years I've spent just BEING in love, the ratio would be miniscule. And I'm still young.

Sure, emotional turmoil is fun once in awhile—that's why we have kids. The greatest satisfaction in my life comes from sharing it with someone I love deeply. This song comes closer to capturing that feeling than any other I've heard recently.

And as for the title, it might not be technically correct right now, but it probably will be someday. People are getting into the habit of saying "you and I." If it keeps them from saying "me and you did something," it's well worth it. "The Ballad of I" is much less odious than "me did something."

Anyway, what thinkest thou, about grammar or otherwise?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Love Waiting

You know what I've realized? I love waiting. Funny, isn't it? I always thought I hated it. I submitted my first novel to Tor's slushpile last year. I didn't expect much to come of it—it took me ten years to finish the first draft, and I was just learning how to really write a novel. I finished a few revisions, just enough that I wouldn't be embarrassed by the book, (even though I am now,) and I sent it off so I could start working on my next book.

I guess over the course of a few months, however long it took them to respond, I got used to waiting. (The response came right when they said it would, to Tor's credit.) After getting the rejection, I felt kind of bad not having something to look forward to in the mail. I also entered a writing competition that gave me something else to wait for. I queried a few agents about my second book, and had a great time checking my email every day as the rejections trickled in.

I'm in the middle of a major revision, based partly on feedback I got from Gretchen Stelter. Waiting to hear back from her was also lots of fun. I read her reply breathlessly. I've gotten advice from two agents on my query and first page. One got back to me in a few days. The other took long enough that I wondered if she'd gotten my email. Waiting gave me something to look for in my email inbox, and a surge of excitement when the expected replies came. (Feedback is a lot more fun to open than plain rejections.)

Does it sound like I'm being sarcastic? Sure, it might be disappointing to check your mail and not get replies, but I think the rewards of waiting are a little like the random rewards of gambling. You overlook all the little disappointments for that one moment of excitement. I also think it's nice to have something to look forward to. That's an important part of life—as is hope. When you've got queries or contest entries out there, you've got something to hope for.

I'm looking forward to finishing up my latest revisions so I can start querying seriously. Waiting on other people seems to be easier than waiting for myself. How do you feel about waiting for news?