Category Archives: Uncategorized

The daily routine of a man newly unemployed (warning– may involve some whining….)

1. Wake up at an unnecessarily early hour.
2. Get up about an hour later.
3. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
4. Take daughter to school. Don’t get out of the car, because you’re still in your pajamas.
5. Get dressed.
6. Walk two miles to Safeway to buy a bear-claw.
7. Walk home.
8. Shower.
9. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
10. Sit down to edit current novel-in-progress.
11. Fall asleep over current novel-in-progress.
12. Wake up.
13. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
14. Eat lunch.
15. Check state job boards, Monster, Linked-in, Indeed.com, Dice, Ziprecruiter, Siemens, Volt, Kforce, and about a dozen other job sites.
16. Submit one resume.
17. Watch forty to fifty Youtube videos about cats and World of Tanks and guys ranting about movies, most of which you’ve never seen.
18. Go to library.
19. Check out a book.
20. While at library, try not to get depressed looking at all the other people’s books that got published.
21. Go home.
22. Think about doing a blog post.
23. Fall asleep thinking about doing a blog post.
24. Eat dinner.
25. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
26. Play World of Tanks.
27. Watch Youtube cat video to make yourself feel better about the pummeling you just received on World of Tanks.
28. Look at emails, hoping for a job offer.
29. Go to bed.

(repeat)

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: The poetic and the pragmatic

I am beginning to resent Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges— they’re making me stretch. A lot. And my joints aren’t as limber as they once were.

The challenge this time is to take one of three random sentences (and I mean random) and incorporate it into a short story of no more than 1000 words–

“The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.”
“A poetic pattern retains inertia.”
“The criminal disappears after the inventor.”

Just because I’m old contrarian, I used all three. Probably failed again, but here it is.

********************************************
“The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins,” the philosopher said.

“Violins?” snapped General Hama. “A rather poetic metaphor for the systems of the Hegemony.”

“A poetic pattern retains inertia,” the philosopher said. He straightened his robes; one did not come before the tyrant and overlord of much of the known galaxy disheveled. “Expressions metaphoric carry energy. Pragmatic description loses energy. Better to express difficulties in verse. Song alone captures the essence of reality.”

Hama shook his head. “You know I prefer practical words. Give me clear narrative. And the clear narrative of this time is that the Hegemony– my Hegemony– totters.”

“Because of the disharmony of your instruments,” the philosopher said. “In previous times the harmony of the hundred violins– the hundred systems– filled space and echoed between the stars. But the song is now out of key– the dissatisfaction of the systems breeds discordant notes.”

“So much so that the systems allow the QinKar’ki to overrun our borders,” Hama said, “and threaten the core worlds. No one cares to stand against them.”

“Because the harmony has been lost,” the philosopher said. “It must be found again. Recovered, discovered, perhaps uncovered.”

Hama closed his eyes, as if in weariness and frustration. For a long moment it was quiet in this, his personal compartment, aside from the sighing of the ventilation system, and the soft, distant sounds of subtle electronics and giant mechanisms, noises common to any dreadnought of the Hegemonic fleet. It was a quiet of danger, of chance, of suspended decision. The philosopher waited, interested to see which fork the future would take at this precise moment. They were alone.

“I should never have asked you to come,” Hama growled, opening his eyes. “I need practical advice– how to force the systems back in line, how to defeat the QinKar’ki. Time grows short– if I cannot punish the defectors and rally the systems, all could be lost. You gave me good advice years ago, old friend, but in your later years you have become more and more obscure. I need help to force the systems to obey.”

“Force,” the philosopher said, “cannot save that which is breaking, but will simply shatter it all the more. Perhaps we must admit that the old pattern cannot hold, and that a new must emerge. There is much that blocks the vision of what could be– the bureaucracy, the nobility, the industrial combines– but if there is will at the critical nexus of decision, much could be done to clear our vision, and to allow us to see aright. A new song must be sung.”

Hama turned red. “You’re talking about change. Revolution!”

“Revolution is but a turning,” the philosopher said, “when viewed from the axle that drives all. Be the axle of change.”

“No!” Hama shouted. “The Hegemony has endured two thousand years as it is, and I will not lead the overthrow of that heritage! This is your advice? You’ve not only grown obscure, you’re senile. The Hegemony must stay as it is.”

“To force something to endure,” the philosopher said, “that cannot endure is to only increase suffering and misery.”

“Bah,” Hama said, throwing up his hands. “This is useless. You have nothing to offer me.” He glowered. “I should have never executed Gotan. He always spoke of practicalities, even though he defied me. I suppose that is the difference between the inventive engineer and the contemplative philosopher.” Hama smiled, remembering. “Now, Gotan was ruthless in his own way. He would have counseled me to obliterate a couple of systems, as examples. Yes– that would make the others see the light of day, wouldn’t it?”

Clenching dismay filled the philosopher. “The criminal disappears after the inventor,” he whispered.

Hama glared at him. “And what does that mean?”

“The pragmatic has emerged, great and terrible, from the metaphoric,” the philosopher said. So saying, he stood and pulled the Glock nine-millimeter from his robes, a weapon so ancient it was invisible to the dreadnought’s sensors. He fired three times, blowing his old friend’s brains all over the far bulkhead.

Short Fiction– Fifteen Minutes

Another of Chuck Wendig’s short fiction challenges— 1000 words on the theme “We’re all human, even when we’re not.”

I took a first stab at this, and it came out wrong. Bad wrong. There are times when I finish a piece and just know it’s a turkey. So I slept on it, changed some things around, made it first person, and tried again. This is somewhat better– at least, I don’t think anybody’s going to come after me with pitchforks and torches.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel

***************************************

Fifteen minutes.

We had just that long before the station reactor detonated. The terrorists had done their work well, even as they died for it. The nanites they’d inserted into the station’s structure had done irreparable damage. Systems were failing all through the station.

But the reactor had been their chief target. It was running wild. That was news I had to take back topside.

The lift doors opened on the command deck. Controlled pandemonium— the command team appeared to be doing a dozen things at once, and every being doing it at the top of their lungs, or whatever gas exchange organ they possessed. The wall monitors, the ones working, showed scenes from different parts of the station– all showing masses of beings, dozens of species, all scrambling to get to evacuation stations. I felt sick– we had mere minutes to evacuate thousands of sentient beings, none of whom had done the Kulanians any harm—but the Pure had always hated other species, and the tolerance the station represented.

T’kalas stood by the station infrastructure consoles. The Sinuran caught sight of me coming out of the lift and came down the tiered platform toward me at once. “What’s going on in the core?” he demanded. “We haven’t been able to raise any of you.”

“The comms are down,” I told him. “They sent me up instead. The reactor’s going critical. We can’t shut it down or damp it out. The rest of the team has evacuated the core. We’ve got fifteen minutes– fourteen now.”

“Formada and Signa!” T’kalas said. “We’ve got ships lined up, but it’s going to be close.” He turned. “Clear Control! Everyone out, get to your evacuation stations.”

The watchstanders didn’t need to be told twice. “Help me,” T’kalas said as everyone fled to the lifts.

For five minutes I helped T’kalas set what systems we could to automatic. Sometimes the Sinuran was a fidgety sort of being, but in moments like this he steadied down. I tried to imitate him.

Systems were going down even as we tried to work on them. I got glimpses from external vids, saw Sinuran cruisers hard-docking in haste to take people off, but the monitors were going black one-by-one even as I switched views.

“Come,” T’kalas said at last, standing. It was long after I would have run away, if I had been alone. “We’ve done what we can.”

We took the lift down to Corridor 3-Alpha. Its doors opened on confusion. People of every different species streamed past, toward the ship locks and the escape pods. Shouts and orders came in different tongues. The evacuation klaxon was still sounding.

“Nine minutes now,” I told him.

T’kalas blinked. “Maybe it will be enough– we’ve already cleared levels One, Two, and Four– just this one left.”

Another alarm– a rising and falling wail. To our left, a gas-tight door began to slide closed across the passageway. There were people still on the other side. They screamed, tried to rush forward and cram through the narrowing opening.

A huge being shoved through the crowd, right past me and T’kalas, toward the closing door, coming from the direction of the escape pods. It was of no species I recognized. I had an impression of a bull trying to be a gorilla, with a reptilian heritage showing through.

The door was nearly closed. The being flung itself down in the gap. The door crushed it against the seal.

The being screamed– but the door stopped, jammed on its body. A gap, less than meter wide, remained. The door mechanism whined, but it was not going anywhere.

“Help it!” I shouted. I got to the door, stood by the alien. Blood poured from where the door-edges had sliced into it.

“It wasn’t supposed to close!” T’kalas said. “We locked out the automatic function.”

“Nothing is working right, remember?” I said. I stood for a second, at a loss. I had no idea how to free the big being and keep the door from closing at the same time. A mass of people thronged together on the other side of the door.

Teisine hila,” the being gasped. “Eke passah brintine.” Even dying, its voice was like a sonic-drill on full power. I didn’t recognize the tongue.

“He says, tell them to crawl out over him,” T’kalas said.

I stared for a moment. There was nothing else to be done. I stood in the gap at the being’s feet, gestured to the people on the other side. “Come on!”

They climbed out across the being, stepping on him. I helped them– human, Sinuran, Prest– how many more? A Yed mother handed me her hatchling, then clambered out after it, her claws piercing the big being’s skin. He didn’t complain, but lay panting, silent now.

They kept coming– more Prest, a San, a family of Halchina. And then the corridor beyond the door was empty.

“Five minutes,” T’kalas said.

“We have to get him out,” I said. I had no idea how.

Shuma,” it said, gasping. “Shuma!”

“What?” I said.

Eke las krine.

“He says to go and leave him,” T’kalas said.

“No….”

Ljas pere brintine. Uk…uk bere males theru. Helua kimi gar kesu. Das mana.

“He says,” T’kalas translated, “it is over for him, but it is well. We must make the victory complete, and go.” T’kalas wrung his hands. “Peter, there’s nothing to be done.”

I still hesitated. I put a hand on the being’s shoulder. I met his eyes– pained, but clear and resolved.

Das mana,” he said again, gently.

The shockwave of the station’s detonation buffeted our escape pod, but we were well clear. The pod went down-orbit along with the cruisers, merchant ships and other pods. More cruisers were already matching orbits to recover the pods and help the smaller ships.

Watching the expanding cloud of glowing gas that had been the station, I asked T’kalas, “Who was he?”

Short Fiction Challenge– The Crossing

This short fiction is inspired by Chuck Wendig’s latest challenge, to pick five characters out of a list of fifty randomly generated characters and write a 1500 word story about them.

I picked–

The clumsy, wise, sleazy mentor on the wrong side of the law.
The quiet wanderer.
The agile heir.
The domineering assassin looking for a challenge.
The friendly musician.

This doesn’t work very well, but at least I finished it.

Warning– there’s some language at the beginning.

Copyright 2014 by Douglas Daniel
***********************************

It had rained for two days before, and now a large motley of folk waited for the river to come down far enough for them to cross. To be precise, they waited for the ferryman to tell them it was safe for him to take them over. “Fuck you all,” he said, when some of the merchants waiting to get their mule-train across complained. “Fuck you and all your pox-ridden mothers. I ain’t going until it’s safe. Think I want to risk feeding the fish because you fat bastards got impatient? Fuck you.”

Some might have taken offense at his forceful language, but he was the only one who knew how to work the ferry, he and his very large and numerous sons. And then there was the platoon of Imperial troops garrisoning the crossing, who told the travelers that the ferryman made the rules for the river and that was all there was to it.

So they waited– merchants, soldiers on leave, pilgrims, the young heir of a noble estate to the east, along with his retinue, a young couple going to Binsola to find work in the silk factories, a party of traveling musicians, a trio of grim, well-armed men, and one foreigner.

The foreign-man’s name was Mankin. He did not mind the wait– he had nowhere in particular to go, and he was in no hurry to get there. He had come down from Dan-es-reti that spring to see what sort of work a foreign sword might find. Now the autumn rains had come, and he was still looking.

There was an inn near the crossing, but it was often crowded and stuffy. Mankin liked to come out to the river bank, where there was a stone shelter. In the shelter the ferryman’s sons kept a fire going, so it was comfortable, unless the wind picked up. Mankin often sat there, watching the river, tending his sword and thinking.

The third morning a number of folk came out to look at the river, thinking it looked hopeful. The young nobleman was among them. He sat on the stone floor of the shelter. Mankin thought he was waiting for someone.

One of the musicians was there, as well, tuning his lute. As Mankin warmed himself at the fire, he bobbed his head in greeting. “Think we’ll cross today?” he asked Mankin.

“Maybe,” Mankin said, holding out his hands to the fire.

The musician waited, but Mankin said nothing more. “Oh, the joys of conversation,” the lute-player said, but he smiled as he said it. “Care for a tune?”

“I don’t know any Bukani music,” Mankin said.

“Ah– well, I’ll just play something to cheer everyone up,” the lute-man said. He started a lively song.

From up the river-bank an old man came stumbling toward the shelter. He wore the robes of a scholar-priest of the Fifth Rank, although somewhat askew and soiled. At the sight of him the nobleman bounded to his feet, in a motion that made Mankin’s joints ache just to see it. “Kura!” the nobleman said. “Where have you been?”

“Dear boy, surely you can guess,” the old man said. His words slurred, and he grinned lopsided.

“You’ve been to the song-house! Dammit, Kura, you know the company of women is forbidden you….”

“Now, my boy, you’re not going to begrudge your old tutor a harmless diversion or two?” the old man said. “Believe me, young lord, when you’re my age, a warm, female welcome will be most…welcome.”

The nobleman looked fit to burst. “Sit down, you old fool. No, not by the fire, your breath will set everything aflame.”

“Oh, the flame of love, the flame of love,” the musician improvised, strumming, “it o’erthrows e’en the wise….”

Mankin considered beating the fellow about the head with his own lute, but just at that moment the three grim men appeared. Their leader studied the river as if it had offended him personally. He wore expensive armor; his sword and daggers were the best Mankin had seen in a long while.

The musician’s tune trailed away. He edged closer to Mankin. “D’you know who that is?” he whispered.

“Not a clue,” Mankin said.

“That’s Shumon, the highest paid assassin in the Eastern Dasan,” the musician said. “Maybe in the Empire.”

“Really.” Mankin peered at the man. “And they let him walk around free?”

The musician snorted. “Foreigner. Don’t you know anything? Assassin is a lawful trade. The Assassins are a mighty guild. Their contracts are approved by the Emperor himself.”

“Huh,” Mankin said. There were some things about this empire he just did not understand.

Shumon turned away from the river to the fire. He looked at the lute-player, dismissed him. His eyes settled on Mankin. “Ho, a stinking outlander,” Shumon said. “What’s your business, foreigner?”

“Looking for work, nothing more,” Mankin said.

“Yeah?” Shumon said. “You any good with that sword?”

“Fair,” Mankin said.

Shumon smiled nastily. “Just ‘fair’? Aren’t you going to claim to be the greatest swordsman who ever drew blade?”

“No, because I’m not,” Mankin said.

“Bah,” Shumon said, disgusted. “And here I was hoping for a bout. Maybe I’d have given you a cut, you could have said, ‘I got this from Shumon the Great’.”

“You go around the countryside making people fight you?” Mankin asked.

“When I can,” Shumon said. “I need to keep my skills sharp, not just my blades. Practice is what I need, against real opponents, but there’s hardly anyone these days who can challenge me.”

“Huh– that makes you special. Most men just want to get through the day in one piece. They don’t go looking for trouble.”

Shumon swelled. “I’m not most men. I am Shumon, the man who slaughtered Lord Ehan and all his soldiers. I strangled Lord Gesaon and pitched his body from his own walls. My name is feared in the Empire. Noble lords pay me not take contracts against them, out of fear of my name. Women come crawling to please me.”

“Well, that sounds like easy money,” Mankin said. “Good work, if you can get it.”

Shumon peered at Mankin. “You’re afraid of me,” he said.

“Yes,” Mankin said. “But, then, I’m afraid of many things.”

Shumon sneered. “I fear nothing. Nothing can touch me.”

Mankin shook his head. “No, that’s wrong. Any man can be touched. And there are things every man should fear.”

“Maybe you,” Shumon said. “Not me.”

Mankin shrugged, and kept on warming his hands.

Soon after the ferry-man declared the river crossable. The travelers would cross in the order they had paid their fare. Mankin crossed with the nobleman and some of his retinue; Shumon and his two followers, despite their protests, had to wait for the second trip.

The nobleman and his men had to wait on the far bank– a second group of his party, with Kura the scholar-priest, were coming after Shumon. When they came ashore, and the ferry started back, Mankin bowed to the nobleman. “My lord,” he said, “may I beg a favor?”

The nobleman nodded. “Surely.”

“Would one of your men hold my horse’s reins for a moment? I have something I need to do.”

“I will hold them myself,” the nobleman said.

Mankin bowed again. “Thank you.”

He walked down to the water. The bank was covered with pebbles, worn smooth by the river. The water lapped at his boots. Mankin bent down and picked up a pebble, about the size of a hen’s egg, and very nearly the same shape. As he did, the ferry left the far bank, with Shumon, his men and their horses onboard. Shumon was facing the far bank, shouting something at someone, and laughing an ugly laugh.

Standing up, Mankin reached beneath his jacket and untied the slingshot he wore about his waist. The stone fit perfectly in the leather cup. Mankin weighed it for a moment, felt the wind on his right cheek, judged the motion of the ferry. He swung the sling, twirling it over his head until the leather whistled, and let it the stone fly.

The pebble flew true across the water. Shumon turned around just in time to take it square in the forehead. He staggered back, hit the rail of the barge, and toppled right over backwards into the river. Water splashed eight feet in the air.

Mankin tucked the slingshot away and walked back to the nobleman. The youngster stared at him in amazement, his mouth open.

“Thank you, my lord,” Mankin said, taking his horse’s reins from him. Out on the river, the cries of Shumon’s men indicated that Shumon was not coming back up in a timely manner– indeed, that he might not be coming back up at all.

All to the good— but now there was no time for dawdling.

“You– you sank him,” the nobleman said.

“Yes,” Mankin said, sighing. He put his boot in the stirrup, mounted. “I just can’t stand loudmouths.”

A brief update re: Princess of Fire

Perhaps a brief update is in order, now that I’ve been AWOL for a while.

I tend to be a glass-half-empty sort of person, even on the best of days, as some of you may have already noticed. Not for nothing have I been nicknamed “Eeyore” in more than one workplace. Lately, however, I have been more down than normal. Life-issues, starting a new job, and, most importantly, doubts about my whole writing effort have contributed. April has been a gloomy month.

Perhaps, though, things are starting to look up. Along with the new job, I have started work on Princess of Fire version 3.0.

Yes, version 3.0. There was a version 2.0, but it had the life-span of an ice cube on a Texas road in August.

I started out wanting to cut everything back to a single thread focused on Kathy. When I actually started cutting, however, I realized that another thread was needed, to round out the story and ground it in the everyday life of people Kathy was working hard to save. The chief difficulty is that I don’t really have the story of this secondary thread down. I probably need to build out the characters a little more, and in that effort, mostly likely, the sub-story will be revealed.

I still managed to cut 10,000 words. I will probably add that many, and a good deal more, back before I am finished.

The other issue I have to resolve is with structure and pacing. I want the story to go forward against a backdrop of rising danger, which has to start small and increase steadily until it’s screaming in Kathy’s ears. This may be, in fact, the most difficult effect I have ever tried to pull off in a novel. The only thing similar I have ever done was in one of my unpublished trunk novels, A New Heaven and A New Earth, in which a mortal danger is slowly developed– but that was achieved through a series of distant incidents, with the full revelation of what was going on eventually being sprung upon the protagonists (and the audience) in one big reveal. In Princess of Fire, the danger literally looms over Kathy the whole time, and somehow I still have to create suspense and increase the sense of danger by steady increments.

I am not sure I am up to it.

But I’ve started. Progress will be slower than with version one, simply because I’m no longer sitting at home debating whether to write or watch Game of Thrones clips on YouTube. Because of that, all bets are off about when Fire will see publication. But then, it’s not like the rent is depending on its sales.

I’m still working on that part….

**********************

PS, 4/26– As I get into version 3.0, one of the first evident facts about it is that many of the scenes and sequences are actually, no kidding, and absolutely in the wrong order. This was pantsing on a manic scale– I have one character working with Kathy before she even arrives in the capitol; another is preparing in the morning for a festival that same afternoon, and ten thousand words intervene that relate the passage of two whole days before I get back to that afternoon festival. I am cutting and pasting thousands of words at a time to get things in the proper order.

Never again…as God is my witness, never again….

Short fiction– The Last Tree

This is a piece of short fiction was belatedly inspired by a Sunday Photo fiction prompt

Photo copyright by Al Forbes
Photo copyright by Al Forbes

This is sooo belated, though (by ten days), that I am not going to add my link to the collection for April 6th– there’s just no point. There’s also the not inconsiderable fact that I completely blew away the 200-word limit. So, instead, I’ll simply acknowledge the inspiration and move on.

Having said that, this doodle is actually part of a concept I have had for a while for a sci-fi story. I think it would work as a novel, but I think it would really rock as a movie. But the story has to come first, and these are the first few hundred words of the concept I’ve actually laid down.

In a far future, humanity shelters from a poisoned Earth in a vast, enclosed habitat. After centuries, things are not going well, and an unlicensed scientist approaches one of the elite– literally, a “high-level”– with his concerns….

Copyright 2014 by Douglas Daniel
****************************************

“They say it’s the last tree on Earth,” Carr said.

Anneke knew that was not so. Far above, in the up-levels, there were many bonsai’d trees, individual specimens in pots. She had seen those all her life. But a full-grown tree—she had had no idea such a thing existed. This had to be the only, the last, of its type.

She looked up. There was the explanation– this patch of open space, nearly dead center under the core Atrium, was one of the few places in Lower London with plenty of light. Far, far above, sunlight shone through distant skylights, but this place was so down-level, at what the ancients had called ‘street-level’, that the natural light seemed filtered; it was bright here only because artificial light leaked into the core Atrium shaft and supplemented the sunlight. Even as she watched, the sunlight dimmed, then brightened again. Doubtless a dust-cloud had howled over the Habitat just then, momentarily occluding the sun.

“Come closer,” Carr said.

Anneke, hesitating, followed him into the open space around the tree. Odd stone slabs stood upright all around the tree, although some leaned considerably out of the vertical, and one or two had fallen. They were worn and gray; as she came closer Anneke saw that all of them had writing carved into them, although in a mode so ancient that she had trouble understanding the words. Some of the stones were so worn that she could not make out the writing at all.

Tombstones. The realization came with a start—it meant she was standing in a graveyard, among, or over, the bones of ancients buried here. And that meant that the dilapidated stone building standing close at hand was a church. The sheer antiquity of what she was seeing caused her to shiver, all the more because the Hampstead Heath support pillar loomed gigantic over the open space, a few hundred meters beyond the church, and the walls of the Atrium rose dizzyingly overhead.

The two of them stopped beneath the tree. The ground was covered with pink-white petals, matching those still on the tree. As Anneke stood there, a petal fell from a stem somewhere overhead and, in falling, brushed her face. She started, but the petal was soft and the impact gentle.

Looking up, she had an impression of a complexity of brown branches, green leaves, and pink blossoms. She had the sudden sense of being in the presence of a mighty, but silent, being. How long had it grown here, forgotten, a lost remnant of a dead world?

But more petals were falling. “Is it dying?” she asked Carr.

He shook his head. He casually laid a hand on the tree’s trunk, as if they were old friends. “No—it’s spring, or it’s supposed to be. I suppose there’s just enough natural light for the tree to follow its normal cycle. It was normal for trees to blossom in the spring, and then shed their flowers as the season passed. If there were other trees to pollinate each other, then they would bear fruit.” He paused, looking up at the tree. “But this tree hasn’t borne anything for centuries.”

Anneke shifted on her feet, uncomfortable. “Why are you showing me this?”

“I wanted to give you a taste,” Carr said, “of what humanity has lost. We’ve been trapped in the Habitat for so long, we’ve forgotten what the Earth was like before the Catastrophe. Imagine trees like this, thousands of them, standing in forests, groups of trees that covered the land and were so vast you could get lost in them, all under an atmosphere you could actually breathe. And that was only one sort of life-form on the Earth in the old days.”

“I know the history of the Catastrophe, and the ancient times,” Anneke said, irritated.

“I know you’ve read the histories,” Carr said. “Reading history can only carry you so far. Come, touch it.”

Anneke realized she was reluctant, and then she was angry with herself. She stepped closer and laid her hand on the tree trunk. The…bark, she supposed, was rough under her fingers, but cool and benign.

“We are meant to live among other life-forms like this,” Carr said. He stood over her, but there was no threat. His expression was solemn. “Humanity can’t continue to be trapped in the Habitat. We are dying, lady, slowly dying, because we have been cut off too long from what is natural. I think you know that.”

“Yes,” Anneke whispered. “But what’s to be done? The Earth is poisoned, and it’s been poisoned for two thousand years.”

“We must find a way,” Carr said, “to purify the world. And I think those who built the Habitat meant for there to be a way to do that. If so, surely the Administrator’s own daughter would be in a position to find out what that was.”

Anneke looked at him, comprehending. “So that is why you contacted me.”

“Yes,” Carr said. “My friends and I are desperate, lady. You may be our last hope. Please.”

Anneke hesitated. What Carr was asking her to do was to go against her father, the bureaucracy, the entire security apparatus of the Habitat, and two thousand years of tradition. But we are dying. There was no escaping that fact.

“I will try,” she said.

****************************************

Since putting Princess of Fire on hiatus, I have doodled away on several other projects, this among them. I may spend a few more weeks off, and then take a whack at PoF version 2.0. It’s not the way I usually handle my drafts, but Fire has already proven to be an unusual project.

Movies that inspire me– “The Andromeda Strain”

The late Sixties were a boom-time for science-fiction. The New Wave was taking hold of the genre, with its emphasis on psychology, ecology and sociology and its de-emphasis of technology. In that respect sci-fi reflected its times– as at the end of World War II, people in the Sixties felt they were living in a science-fiction world, with moon landings, the first alarms over the Earth’s ecology, the looming threat of nuclear obliteration, and the first moments of what would become the information revolution, all coinciding with the social and sexual revolution in the culture. Inevitably, that turmoil and fear found expression in science-fiction.

Science-fiction movies reflected the times, as well, although sometimes the reflection was just damned odd. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) set a new standard in cinema, at least for effects (it was roundly panned and parodied for its pretentious and obscure story-line, however). Between its release and the opening of Star Wars in May, 1977, a significant number of science-fiction films were produced. The results were pretty mixed– some of these were classics (Soylent Green), others were disasters (Logan’s Run), and some were just off the wall (Zardoz).

Some of these films represented serious attempts at film treatments of science-fiction themes from the New Wave– Rollerball, for example, looked at the role of the individual in a corporate world that manipulated popular, violent entertainments to keep the masses distracted. Some films had ambitions in that direction but failed to realize them (Z.P.G.). And some just didn’t care (Trog).

Perhaps the greatest sci-fi movie of this period is The Andromeda Strain (1971)–

Michael Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain, published in 1969, took a different tack with the theme of alien invasion– not militaristic hordes, but a microscopic form of life. It was alien invasion as epidemic, and it was brilliant. The film was directed by Robert Wise (who apparently could direct anything— we’re talking about a guy who directed The Sound of Music, then turned around and made The Sand Pebbles), and captures the book admirably. Crichton’s novel was the first of his taut techno-thrillers, and that carries over into the movie.

It starts out with an air of ominous quiet– an Air Force team of two men has been sent by night to the tiny town of Piedmont, Arizona, to retrieve an errant American satellite. Something goes badly wrong– but the horror is conveyed only by the team’s radio transmissions and the reactions of the technicians in an operations center, listening to them. An aerial photo-reconnaissance shows bodies lying all over the town, and a secret team of scientists is activated to investigate the mystery.

This film combines action, mystery, and solid scientific insight in a package that never flags, even when the characters are discussing technical issues that could have, in lesser hands, killed the story dead. Wise somehow managed to make the very gear in the secret, super-scientific lab in which the scientists study the alien organism into characters in the story. He makes the scientists into real people rather than stereotypes, right down the foul-mouthed female scientist with a secret and the elderly biologist who is ready to chuck the whole academic thing and go live in Alaska. At the climatic moment, as a nuclear self-destruct counts down (a blast that will only feed the alien microbe, not destroy it) the whole facility seems to turn against the people struggling to survive inside it.

The film plays out, in part, as a semi-documentary, flashing forward to secret government hearings dissecting the mistakes and failures of the team and their laboratory during the crisis. The back and forth in time, however, does not kill the tension of the moment, as the scientists struggle to understand what they have on their hands. The dawning horror of what they’ve discovered is liberally mixed with scientific curiosity and awe.

Many critics did not like the pace of the film, thinking it moved too slowly. That criticism makes no sense to me. Personally, I think of The Andromeda Strain as a quintessential thriller, building tension while the mystery, and the terror, is revealed piece-by-piece. True scientific endeavor is an effort to understand mysteries, and for me there is something fascinating about a team of scientists struggling against the clock to figure out what is happening (perhaps it’s telling that I also liked 2011’s Contagion). If I am ever inspired to write a thriller, this film, as well as the book, would point the way for me.

Of course, Hollywood tried to remake the story, as a mini-series in 2008– and, just as predictably, they botched it, departing in significant ways from the original material. I do not recommend it. Just once, I would like to see Hollywood not mess with something that is perfectly all right as it is.

Of course, that will be about the same time pigs get wings….

Wanted to share a couple of things….

First, I was reading Patrick O’Brian’s HMS Surprise this morning, and I encountered what may be the most screwball single line of dialogue I have ever read–

“Jack, you have debauched my sloth.”

Even though it makes perfect sense in context, the image it creates still leaves me giggling like a maniac. There are few who can write like Patrick O’Brian.

Second, by the grace of God tomorrow I start a new job. It’s contract, not permanent, but it looks like a good position and may lead to more permanent positions. It comes rather in the nick of time, too. Thank God.

One potential downside may be that, because of a long commute, I may be blogging less frequently (actually, there may be some people who will see that as a blessing. Just try not to cheer too loud). If so, so be it. On the other hand, I should have plenty of time during my commute to contemplate projects and make notes. You gotta use the time you got as best you can.

Movie review– “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier last night–

With this film the grand movie story-arc of Marvel marches on, with an important chapter in the sub-story of Captain America (Steve Rogers).

Wait a second–

***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS***SPOILERS

There, I feel better.

This installment is a fast-paced action piece, in which the information comes fast and furious and you need to pay attention to what is going on or you’ll miss some important point. The basic plot is that Captain America, still working for SHIELD, continues to try to find his place in a future with which he still has not quite come to grips. Going out on a mission, ostensibly to rescue hostages on a SHIELD seagoing rocket launch platform, he discovers that fellow operative Natasha Romanoff has another agenda, to retrieve information from the ship’s computers. He confronts Nick Fury, head of SHIELD, who reveals a secret project to build new heli-carriers that are intended to eliminate terrorist threats.

It turns out, however, that not everything is kosher at SHIELD, and these heli-carriers are in danger of being re-purposed by SHIELD’s old adversary, HYDRA. Cap is also unexpectedly confronted by a piece of his past. At this point the elephant dung hits the turbine blades, and the action roller-coaster is screaming down its first curve.

That should give you a flavor of what this movie is about; despite my spoiler warning I don’t really want to give away too much. There are some nice twists and turns in the film, and a couple of serious points– how the mechanisms designed to protect people are vulnerable to being misused to oppress them, and the fact that some politicos might see advantages to themselves in the willingness of people give up their liberties in return for security– themes that are entirely too relevant in our real world.

The film does mostly take itself seriously, but there are some enjoyable lighter moments (one of the running gags is how everyone seems to be trying to get Steve a date). The interactions between Steve, Natasha, Nick Fury, and Sam Wilson (the Falcon) are sharp, and a refreshing aspect of the characters is that not everyone gets along perfectly– Rogers and Fury particularly don’t see eye-to-eye.

On the whole the movie is one more solid brick in the cinematic house Marvel is building. I give it four out of five shields (I am trying to re-calibrate my ratings to leave some room for the potentially perfect film. More Goodreads, less Amazon). If I have to criticize something about the film, it is exactly the fact that the information sometimes comes at you very quickly. The writers could have slowed it down a little and only added a couple of minutes to the running time.

Note: DO NOT leave the theater before the end of the credits. As has become typical with Marvel films, there are additional scenes midway through the credits and at the end. The middle scene is particularly interesting, although neither match the utter greatness of the shawarma scene at the end of The Avengers. God bless you, Joss Whedon.

Work in progress hiatus

Princess of Fire is now over 96,000 words, but that’s not a completely happy thought. I believe I will use most of what I have written, but the structure of the novel as it now exists is an appalling jumble. I have to admit that this is one instance in which pantsing the draft has not done me any favors.

This novel has gone from “gosh, this is going to be easy” to trench warfare. In fact, I have the feeling that I need to put this project on hiatus, giving it a few days to rest before I think about my next steps with it. This is not something I usually do, but the scope of the problems I now perceive with Fire exceed those I had with Princess of Shadows, which at least had the benefit of being a good deal simpler in structure. I need to give this project some space to sort itself out.

But, in truth, there is more going on with me than just the issues I am having with Fire. Other factors are impacting my productivity and making it hard to stay focused on a difficult project– uncertainties in the personal space, employment issues, and, depressingly, one of my periodic funks in which I am sure my writing is the most godawful dreck in the history of literature. I do this every now and then. This time around it’s been bad enough to make me wonder if I should really be asking people to pay for my stories on Amazon, and whether I shouldn’t just offer them all for free somewhere.

Partly as a consequence I did remove two of my novellas from Kindle I decided were not up to snuff, but I finally talked myself into leaving my other stories in place. I think my stories are at least as good as the average run of self-published material. Considering what’s out there, I may be damning myself with faint praise, but I’m not going radically change anything, at least for the time being.

As far as Princess of Fire goes, I am going to let it lie fallow for a few days while I doodle on some other projects, and then see if I can come back to it with fresh eyes. To be honest, it’s not like I have a rabid fan-base pounding on my door, demanding the next Divine Lotus book. The only pressure I have on me with this project is self-imposed, and I need to give myself a break.