Non-Earth Universes

I’ve started and abandoned several Earth-universe books, typically near-future sci-fi joints. They can be interesting psychological exercises – a reflection of the author’s political and cultural biases – but the defined historical root of the real world ultimately hamstrung me. (I’m sorry for inflicting one of them on the two people who’ve read it. You know who you are!) The world-building involved in getting from a known past to a future there can be an interesting theory-crafting exercise but becomes overly idealized or depressingly gritty. Neither appeals to me personally.

So I’ve found myself devoted 100% to the universe I’ve slowly built over the past decade, which I’ve come to call the Grey Empire Universe. My strongest WIP is a novel called The Thirteenth Orbit (current in a second draft and being actively beta read), set roughly 4,000 years into the established history of the world, but I’ve got unfinished projects at many points in the past and future relative to this book.

Designing a universe from the ground-up can seem a daunting task, even if you avoid the epic fantasy problem of needed a thousand or more invented names, languages, races, etc. It certainly hasn’t happened overnight, but two things about my particular non-Earth universe appeal to me – and have triggered writing this post.

Even when I was devoutly religious, I never put religion in my universe. By the time I realized this, I was years into writing the world. At first it was a curiosity – as in, “huh, I forgot the religion!” Cursory reflection quickly concluded that adding a religion in at this point would be difficult at best. Deeper reflection revealed that I liked it this way. It seems that the need for invented religions is assumed in non-Earth universes, but I have never seen it that way. My characters seem completely believable without it at all points in the universe’s history.

This is important, because I want to explore an alternate evolution of technology versus magic and organic living. The Empire is founded at the tail-end of a quasi-medieval period of my world’s history, at a critical juncture of relative influence between technology and magic. The First Dynasty suffers from a classic succession problem, where the second Empress nearly squanders the success of her father. In the end, the large Asia Minor-esque isthmus is established under central rule, and increased technological prowess allows the Empire to slowly expand and consume the independent entities of Nelara.

The principal obstacle to the Empire’s success is a magic society known as the Revealers. They made the likeliest candidate for a religion in my universe. I wrote a short story using the term priest to describe the mendicant wanderers who make up the magicians, but it didn’t work. It falls apart because magic and science in my world are two sides of the same coin. There is no act of will. No act of faith. Magic is simply an alternate set of knowledge, and the application of an alternate set of forces. Two of my protagonists are apprentice magicians, so I’ll leave the specifics for the books.

In the quasi-medieval period before the Empire’s founding and during the First Dynasty before their eradication, the Revealers’ principal function was the ‘revelation’ and interpretation of disease. In a fun bit of anachronistic (by Earth frame-of-reference) world-building, I give them the ability to visualize and manipulate DNA. Progress in agriculture and medicine is owed almost completely to them. Almost. Traditional scientific knowledge exists, even though it has to play catch-up. Concentrated in the hands of the Empire, it becomes a powerful enough substitute that the Revealers are scourged – plunging the enemies of the Empire into a Dark Age.

When, later on in the Empire, the writings of the Revealers are re-discovered by a team of free-thinking scientists searching for immortality, it triggers another war between magic and technology. Because they use different knowledge-sets and world-views, one could argue that this war (and the eternal tension in my world) is a holy war of sorts. The Empire fears magic because it can’t control it. Technology can be disseminated of course, but it is tied to an industrial complex that is far less portable, if you will, than magic. It is a political consideration. There is no act of faith. The Empire requires no worship of the ruler, nor is their any supplication required to become a novice magician – just a healthy disregard for one’s personal safety.

Plenty of magic-as-hidden-reality books are based in our world. Many of them are fantastic. But the real world doesn’t work for what I want to explore.


Crocuses are always a welcome sight.

Crocuses are always a welcome sight.

It is important to find the correct cadence in your life. A few weeks ago, my knee started hurting me. After talking with a few cycling folks, I think the issue was that I was using too high of a gear, causing me to strain at a low cadence instead of pump fluidly at a faster cadence. Life, I think, is the same way. I’ve talked before about the positive benefits of stress but we can take it too far. Sometimes backing off 10% can cut 50% or more of the effort, increasing happiness as a reward.

The warmer weather means the goblins and I are gearing up for nature hiking season. We try to get outdoors every day the weather allows, and the past few days have been quite forgiving. My knee is finally okay enough to get the Frankentrailer back out, so we’ve been doing some longer trips to get to new hiking destinations without using the car. Today we biked down the Hank Aaron State Trail and explored both sides of the river at Three Bridges Park.

Isaac at Three Bridges

It’s still quite brown here, but we found a couple really nice spots against the river where they chucked rocks and watched people launching canoes from creative docking spots. They periodically complained of being tired, but I’ve learned since last year that “tired” is code for “bored/unmotivated”. If I’m patient, encourage them, and keep my eye out for interesting things to point out (like the crocuses above) they always surprise me with just how far they can hike and how much they spot.

My girls are renewing their obsession with interesting rocks (only the boring ones got thrown into the river) and asking me so many questions that I think we’ll have to find some geology books at the library. I really don’t know much about them, other than to say the sparkles in the rocks are quartz. Maybe?

Last summer and fall I pushed them too hard with biking and hiking long (for them) distances. I’m trying to find the right cadence to ease them into things, as getting out into nature is such a critical part of my homeschooling program. Absolutely there is some factual knowledge which needs to be taught, but being out in nature allows and encourages the kids (and myself) to learn about the world around us.

Adaptation and Good Stress

Act like the apex predator you are.

There’s a reason human beings control so much of the biosphere. Our ability to use technology as leverage against environment has extended our range and population density far beyond what natural evolution would allow. The ability to survive in a wide variety of environments is a benefit and a drawback simultaneously. We’re arguably too successful, and run the risk of rapidly overrunning and unbalancing the ecosystem without realizing it.

Thankfully the very adaptability that’s gotten us into this mess can get us out of it. One thing I focus on with my kids is never wasting anything. Food scraps, fabric rags, energy – we have more optimization to do but we’re very keen on it. A big transition for us this past winter was keeping the thermostat quite low despite record cold weather. Daytime is no higher than 64F (18C) and nighttime is 59F (15). Initially this is cold. Like, I don’t want to move around at all cold.

But here’s the thing: you adapt. Quite quickly, actually. Instead of saying “I can’t do this”, you start wondering why no one else does it. Do people not realize how warm stores are? I have hated shopping this winter – more than I already hate shopping – partly because the internal temperature is kept so much higher than it needs to be. I’ve read that in many parts of Eastern Europe, it’s considered quite normal to see your breath indoors. This is a bit too hardcore for the Alchemist, but knowing that fact helps me adapt to 64F as the new normal. If they can do that, I can do this.

People forget that stress can be good as well as bad. In fact, to flourish we need good stress. Without exercise – prolonged and strenuous – our bodies forget how to burn fat, rejuvenate tissue, and in general plain fall apart. We developed technology to tame our environment, but we should never let it tame ourselves. Apologies for the language, but we’re motherfucking predators. We are the most badass of a lot of badass creatures out there. It’s time we act like it.

We’re so successful that we think we can get lazy. Laziness is what’s destroying our environment. If we’re going to continue, we need to dial back and let nature fight back a little. We’ll both be better for it.

Net Worth: Q1 2014

Edit 6/4/14: I severely overvalued our cars. I realized this quite a while back, but finally decided to edit this update rather than tweak it for the update at Q2’s end.

I’ve been looking forward to checking on our net worth for a couple weeks now. We’re progressing well. It could always be faster, but I know things will speed up very quickly as we stop having to waste money servicing debt.


  • Home (Estimated Market Value): 78,000 (Zestimate)
  • 401(k) combined: 60,692
  • Cars combined: 3,000 (will depreciate out by $500 each quarter)
  • Cash Savings: 6,633
  • Total: 148,325


  • Home Mortgage: 106,324 @6.5%
  • Student Loan (Chief A): 3,875 @0.1%
  • Student Loan (Chief B): 12,675 @6.5%
  • Student Loan (Alchemist A): $2,983 @0.1%
  • Student Loan (Alchemist B): $26,873.62 @6.5%
  • Roof Loan: 10,900 (no interest before March 2015)
  • Total: 163,630

Net Worth: -$15,305 (QOQ +$13,643; YOY N/A)

We doubled our net worth in three months! Of course, we’re still negative 😛

It’s cathartic seeing the asset lines go up and the debt lines go down as I edited the information copy-pasted from the last update. Going forward, we’re still going to be adding cash to our debt repayment war chest, but I’m also starting a few savings buckets for education (homeschooling), travel, and vehicle replacement expenses.

I wish we had enough liquid assets to fund our ROTHs for tax year 2013, but we’ll definitely try to get some funded for the 2014 year. 6.5% rates are eye-watering but tax-free growth forever is good to have, especially since you can only fund $11,000 each year.

I also just pinged our mortgage company about the PMI on our mortgage. If I can get that off when we hit 80% LTV based on the original purchase price, not the substantially lower current value, that’s going to be our first target after killing the same-as-cash loan for our roof.