Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Immortal and Scary

Riffing off the cane-cutter, sorta. Two subjects, connected, and a small lesson in how my writer's mind works. I'm gonna throw out several things here, and then then try to assemble them into an idea ...

You've probably heard the alliterative Seven-P Rule: Proper planning and preparation prevents piss-poor performance. Thus the notion that learning a skill and practicing it in an effective manner is apt to lead to mastery of that skill. The Ten-Thousand Hour hypothesis offers evidence that such is the case, and there are a host of corollaries that make such a notion a reasonable and common belief: Practice makes perfect; If at first you don't succeed, try, try again; Slow practice leads to smooth -- smooth leads to fast; Just do it ...

Years ago, after coming across a science article, I wrote a story called "Darts," about a psychologist who uses the idea that standing in front of a target and pretending to throw darts at it will improve your ability to throw darts almost as much as if you threw real darts. Which is true.

Even shadow-practice works, to a degree. (The old saw is that you fight like you train; but there are myriad ways to train, and these can be layered to give different skills. Visualizing a thing might not be enough to make it happen, and if it doesn't, you could be in trouble if you are too attached to the specifics; however, visualizing a thing can help make it happen -- everybody and his kid brother have done research to indicate that this is true. One of the bones of contention amongst MA guys is what and how to train. I have come to believe that training to do something -- anything -- is an effective method. Doesn't matter so much exactly what the move will be, but that push come to shove, the trained person does something rather than nothing ...)

About that time, I wrote another short piece called "An Eye for Detail," which I always thought of as "the coffee cup story." It was an exercise mostly in dialog -- it got picked up for a radio play in Germany, as I recall. The tale was told from the viewpoint of a private eye, who while following somebody, noticed something unusual about a diner in a restaurant: Someone eating lunch ...

The reveal takes a while, but the gist is that the detective is caught by how smoothly the woman he sees is eating. The question upon which I based the story was, if somebody was immortal and several hundred or a thousand years old, would there be a way to tell by looking? And my answer was, yes -- because even common moves, after being done several hundred thousand times, would eventually become so practiced and smooth that just watching somebody who wasn't trying to hide it would be like watching the best Olympic athlete perform her event. Using a fork, picking up and replacing a glass, everything she did would be smooth, practiced, precise. To a man used to watching people for a living, the difference would be instantly apparent.

Observe somebody who was born into a culture wherein chopsticks are primary eating tools, as opposed to somebody who learned how to use them recently. Watch them pick up a pair and work on a bowl of rice. You can tell who has done it twenty thousand times and who has done it twenty times, even if the tyro has the hang of it.

One of the reasons my guilty pleasure in watching the old TV series Highlander wasn't less guilty is that none of these guys were good enough with swords, given how much they had practiced. If ever there was a need for EFX in a fight, that was it. Guy has been practicing for four or five hundred years at anything ought to be able to do it slicker (and faster) than hot oil on glass. You'd need stuntmen who were sword experts and an overcranked camera pushing the speed up by thirty percent, and even in slomo, it ought to look impossible.

Put that aside for a minute and go to:

Scary: Three of the scariest things I have ever been close to: Taking a shortcut across a neighbor's yard one night when I was a teenager and seeing her come around the corner with a shotgun. Her dogs had been barking earlier and she was frightened. Her hands were shaking. The gun wasn't even pointed at me, and it took only a few seconds for her to realize I was a neighbor kid and not a threat, but --

A frightened woman with a shotgun. In such a situation, you don't want to make any sudden moves. Amateurs are unpredictable. A trained assassin in control probably won't shoot you unless he wants to; somebody scared and without training is apt to do anything.

Scary: Being approached by four CHP officers unsnapping their holsters as I sat in my VW on surveillance when I was a private eye in SoCal. Unbeknownst to me, I was parked next to a spot where two CHP cops had been shot and killed a couple days earlier. Armed professionals who are nervous might not be as unpredicable as amateurs, but a man with a gun who has been taught how to use it, given leave to do so at his discretion, and knowing he can probably justify it is a man you don't want to startle. When I flashed my PI badge, the CHP's relief was palpable.

Mine, too.

Scary: At a silat class, and one of the students, showing off a new knife, handed it to my teacher. Guru smiled, took the blade, and did a little manipulation. No threat intended, he didn't point it at anybody, nor wave it around, he was just getting a feel for the balance. There were eight or nine of us gathered round.

Those of us closest took an involuntary step back.

Later, my son, who was in the class, allowed as how the atmosphere of the garage had undergone a sudden and noticeable change the second Guru took the knife. Like standing next to an electrostatic generator spinning up and feeling the hair on your arms dance.

Yeah. I noticed -- being the first guy to step back ...

So, what can I make out of all this? If I want a scary literary guy, here's one that works for me:

Postulate an immortal master martial artist; one who who has practiced his or her art on battlefields and mean streets for, oh, say, a thousand years. Used and become adept with a club, spear, sword, bow, and assorted boomware, his bare hands. He has killed thousands of armed opponents. He's immortal, but not impervious to harm or pain. He can recover from injury better than most, but he can be killed. He has been practicing his art or arts, proven to work in tens of thousand of encounters, every day for ten times ten thousand hours. Anything you can throw at him, he's seen fifty variations of, and he has an answer for them all. He knows anatomy and physiology better than a room full of doctors.

He has better body control than an ashram full of yogis. He can hold his breath for six minutes. He can slip in and out of zanshin in a blink; his awareness of his surroundings, the ways in and out of wherever he is, his eye for details, are unmatched. He has the physique of a twenty-five- year-old in peak condition -- he is stronger than any man his size and effectively faster, too.

He isn't bored with his longevity and he doesn't want to die, but he has come to terms with the possibility. He doesn't want any normal human to know he exists, and will do whatever is necessary to keep his secret. He isn't psychopathic nor psychotic, but his morality isn't like yours or mine -- he has a long view that, as far as he knows, is unique -- save for one:

His wife.

She is a beautiful and intelligent woman who, like him, is immortal. She has been around for eight hundred years, but thorough a freak set of circumstances, has been discovered and collected by a bad guy who wants to figure out how he can become immortal. He's perfectly willing to open her up and slice her into hamburger, if that's what it takes.

The villain in the story -- for the sake of drama, let's make you the villain -- has the woman locked away. The immortal martial arts master has figured this out, and anybody who gets in his way when he goes to free her is going to get his full attention.

The deadliest man alive, the most experienced fighter and killer on the planet, is coming for you, and how you figure this out is that half your crew of tough and trained mercenaries are pushing up daisies everywhere you look. Is that apt to make you nervous?

It would me.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are you going to write it?

I'd buy it!

Tristan

Steve Perry said...

I dunno, it was just an exercise. Maybe some day.

Bobbe Edmonds said...

I'm with Tristan.

James said...

Crap, Steve. Make that into a movie. And by the way, I have the entire Highlander series on DVD. You have just been out-geeked.

Brad said...

Book, Graphic Novel, Movie, I'd buy/read/watch it.

I love the premise and think you could really do it justice.

But, when will you have the time?

Rory said...

One of the things that I like about Bram Stoker's Dracula (the character) was that Dracula had no problem with sunlight, vampires just had no supernatural powers during the day. It's been years since I read it, but Dracula during the day was described with feline agility, incredible speed and the skill you would expect from five hundred years of war.

steve-vh said...

The hero sounds like you're descrbing Wolverine from "Origins", think about it.
But the juxtaposition for the hero sounds interesting.

Metalsmith said...

First I would have asked. But, I'm the villain and I'm willing to kill her for the secret. So I'll take a stab at it.

No I'm not afraid of him.

If I have the resources to kidnap someone and attempt to extract the "secret" of immortality from them. I don't fear the martial artist.

I hire a quality kidnap team.
I'm going to kidnap the girl fly her away to different city, change planes, then to another, and then to another continent in my private jet. The kidnap team will be separated and given permanent employment in other companies scattered around.

Then I'm going to ignore Mr Martial artist.

Unless the guy can come reasonably close to matching my resources I win.

He's hamstrung by this particular character trait, "He doesn't want any normal human to know he exists, and will do whatever is necessary to keep his secret." This means he won't collect the favors and network of contacts and resources that a immortal human could collect during his lifetime.

I need never to be within 1000 miles of the guy or his wife. If I'm successful I'll even return the lady assuming shes still alive.

Steve Perry said...

Ah, Metalsmith, I see you've never met Plot Device Man ...

Who gave you a private jet? Did I say the Villain was rich? Do you have that kind of money?

My immortal, who learned how to make and keep money over the years, has access to at least as much loot and technology as anybody. You see a rich man, you don't automatically think "immortal," so he can pass for normal -- for all intents, he is the basic model with options and you can't see those with an X-ray.

More, an immortal who has had his rough edges rounded off will have likely become wise, and wise men know how to network without giving away their secrets. He just pretends to be working for somebody else, or he hires people who do things for him without knowing who he is. How long do you figure it would take you to find somebody to run an errand for you if you showered him in money?

If you know enough people, you can touch anybody else in the world with only a few degrees of separation. And your wife, also smarter than the average bear, will surely have left some clue for you that only you would get.

You don't think that after a few hundred years they would have worked some contingency plans? What if you get arrested somewhere? Or seriously hurt? How will I find you?

Enough time, you can work out a lot of things in advance.

Hopping on a plane and flying far away might make you more visible, not less, unless you laid that in well in advance. Why would you have such a plan in effect -- you think you'd come across an immortal you needed to snatch up and hide from her immortal hubby ... ?

You should be afraid. He's gonna find you. He's already taken out half your crew, and some of them surely talked before they died.

He's gonna find you. I guarantee it.

Steve Perry said...

james --

Okay, you're guiltier than I. (Then again, I have all the old Superman TV shows on DVD ...)

Metalsmith said...

"Who gave you a private jet? Did I say the Villain was rich? Do you have that kind of money?"

You did. I have just enough money and contacts to hire a kidnap crew and have a reasonable chance to extract the secret of immortality and nothing more? I threw my lifesavings away on a kidnapping without checking the associates of the target before moving? Not only am I a Villian, I'm Suicidaly stupid?

I would have observed and just asked for the secret. And threatened them with exposure if it was needed. The wise Immortal will realize the advantages of cooperating.

"My immortal, who learned how to make and keep money over the years, has access to at least as much loot and technology as anybody."

Where and how does he access this money? Pay taxes? People who offer secure storage of assets also keep records.

"More, an immortal who has had his rough edges rounded off will have likely become wise, and wise men know how to network without giving away their secrets. He just pretends to be working for somebody else, or he hires people who do things for him without knowing who he is. How long do you figure it would take you to find somebody to run an errand for you if you showered him in money?"

So his network of contacts are Reliable, Incurious and Greedy? A contact that is passed on to others as a friend of a friend of a friend. Not keeping any "friends" for more than 10 years lest they become suspicious. If they show any hint of curiosity they are killed to protect his secret. Are you sure you haven't set him up as the antagonist?

"If you know enough people, you can touch anybody else in the world with only a few degrees of separation."

Sure, but will they break the law? Will they do it for a guy they've only known for a 10-15 years? People who've owed you a favor for longer than that are going to pay it off without a personal meeting?

"Enough time, you can work out a lot of things in advance."

Being kidnapped and taken to a random spot in the world is one of those things? Perhaps a meeting point you can send a disposable know nothing henchman to check out, wait for his inevitable killing by the immortal and report it to the police?

"Hopping on a plane and flying far away might make you more visible, not less"

Just like that Rich guy who never appears to age who has a network of contacts and favors and money accumulated over hundreds of years makes you less visible?

"Why would you have such a plan in effect -- you think you'd come across an immortal you needed to snatch up and hide from her immortal hubby ... ?"

I discover an immortal woman, decide to kidnap her and that makes me less curious about her
life, not more?

"You should be afraid. He's gonna find you. He's already taken out half your crew, and some of them surely talked before they died."

I was forced to hire this crew myself and I couldn't go through contact and cut outs like the Martial Arts Master?

You can't simultaneously give me a "Crew" with one hand and take away the resources I would need to support one with the other.

"He's gonna find you. I guarantee it."

Yah, but for the same reason I wouldn't have much of a chance vs a police detective.

There's always plan B - Don't engage him, run! I hop a bus.
Plan C - Call the police. Plan D - a more indiscriminate form of plan C - I'm telling the world

Super Secret Ninja guy has more to loose than anyone else.

"He isn't bored with his longevity and he doesn't want to die, but he has come to terms with the possibility. He doesn't want any normal human to know he exists, and will do whatever is necessary to keep his secret. He isn't psychopathic nor psychotic, but his morality isn't like yours or mine -- he has a long view that, as far as he knows, is unique"

Self centered and secretive and untrusting of people. Sounds like the seed of a good villain.

Steve Perry said...

Starting to sound a lot like "And then what would you do if I did this ... ?"

You write it, you can get away. I write it, I'm gonna catch you. My guy has more motivation.

J.D. Ray said...

So, there's this guy that writes stuff. It's pretty good stuff. In one of his novels, there's a character who has been around for tens of thousands of years. We learn in the novel (the third in a series, mind you) that the guy is a (somewhat out of practice) martial arts and weapons master. Lately he lives life as a reporter. That is, until something happens that makes it necessary to bring all his available resources to bear and reveal himself to people who might do him harm to solve a problem that has put the whole world at risk. Turns out his resources are fairly significant.

"Sixty-two thousand years before the birth of Yeshua ha Notzri, whom later humans knew as Jesus the Christ, the Time Wars ended, for reasons which no sentient being now knows. With that ending, the Continuing Time began."

Good stuff. I suggest reading the whole series.

Steve Perry said...

Funny you should mention that, J.D. That guy is one of my favorite space opera writers. He's been slacking off the last few years, though. Gotten lazy in his old age.

Joe said...

Not only should you write it, but maybe place it in the "Matador" universe. As the villan realizes the increasing threat, he could hire the Matadors to protect him (but would NOT let them know about the Immortal's wife).

How can we find "Darts" & "An Eye for Detail" ?

Steve Perry said...

Short stories are iffy -- no collections of them have made it to print -- couple times, I had deals set up, but they fell through. A few have been reprinted, but other than those, the only places to find them are in the original 'zines: “Darts," ASIMOV's, Vol. 7, No. 3, March 1983 and " ... Eye ... " (as Jesse Peel); ASIMOV's, Vol. 2, No. 5, Sept.- Oct. 1978.

J.D. Ray said...

So... eBook? Ten stories, five bucks?

Steve Perry said...

Problem with the old stuff is, I'd have to scan 'em into some kind of OCR program -- those were written on a typewriter, and exist only as hardcopy, far as I know.

Of the short stories I've sold, only a handful of the more recent ones are e-files.

More trouble than it is worth to get them into electronic format.