Tag Archives: Fiction

An experiment in tense– An Incident on Franklin Road

I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I was lured to the novel by the BBC mini-series, and I’m finding the book pretty compelling. That’s quite aside from the subject matter, which is one of my favorite periods of history– the writing itself seems very clean and direct, but with striking turns of phrase. Mantel also, somehow, manages to get away with blocks of exposition that would kill other books– in fact, she dares describe the attributes of Thomas Cromwell, the viewpoint character of the novel, in one long paragraph that appears designed to set off ‘show, don’t tell’ alarms across the literary world. You hardly even notice, though, because it works with the rest of the text.

And it’s all done in present tense. I’ve never tried writing in present tense to any extent, but it seems to have worked in Wolf Hall. I understand that some people consider present tense in fiction a passing fad, or the mark of the amateur or the mediocre. As may be; I make no judgments. But I’m going to try a little experiment. I’ve had this opening scene for a detective novel in the back of my head for a while. Detective fiction isn’t normally my cup of tea, although I had my John D. MacDonald period some years ago, and Sherlock Holmes, well, Sherlock Holmes, but this scene keeps coming back to me. Interestingly, the world I’ve started to build around it has some distinctively slipstream, or even magically realistic, aspects to it– altogether different styles for me. So I’m going to give it a whirl in the present tense, and see what happens.

Warning– there’s language and serious violence, so sensitive readers beware.

Copyright 2015 Douglas Daniel
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It’s hot down at the road’s edge. The asphalt seems sticky underfoot. He wonders whether, if he stopped for one minute in one place, his shoes would weld themselves to the road surface.

Ten men, sweating in their prison jumpers, ply double-edged weed cutters, slicing down the tall grass overgrowing the shoulder of Franklin Road. Dust and chaff rise in the heated air, enveloping them. They work steadily, in silent rhythm, only a few words now and again. The guards stand well back, before and behind their line. That’s just in case one of the cons decides to take a swipe at a guard with his tool. Every bull carries a shotgun, butt-plate on hip, to discourage any sudden insurrection. They don’t let the cons talk a lot. They’re here to work.

Cutting grass along a country road isn’t one of the prison’s plum jobs. That’s the license plate makers and the colonial furniture makers, for the trustees who get to use the power-tools and presses. Out here are the unskilled, the screw-ups, the cons a couple of clicks away from losing their privileges because they were slow to move or gave a bull a stare one second too long. They get to sweat and spit out grass stems and worry about rattlesnakes.

He’s a screw-up. He knows that. He carries it with him everywhere he goes. In a way, the heat and grass and sweat are his purgatory, and he’s all right with that.

“Dunn, goddamn it,” Officer Gaskin says, “get that fucking sunflower. What are you, goddamn blind?”

“Sorry, boss,” he says, and he cuts the tall flower off at the root. In truth, he had thought to spare it, because it looked healthier than he did, and sunflowers remind him of his sister.

There are benefits to working on the road-crew, if you like sunshine, fresh air, and occasional surprises. You find all sorts of things cutting the grass alongside a country road– hub-caps, blown tires, mufflers, windshield wiper blades. Some things are better than others– it is, of course, Screech who finds the dead raccoon, rotting and maggot-writhing in the heat. The scrawny bastard spends five minutes puking, with Officer Brandt growing exasperated. On the other hand, there was the day, enshrined in road-crew legend, when Blake found the unopened five-pack of lubricated condoms. He had never seen the big man so happy.

Most of what you find is junk and contraband, and the bulls don’t care. They just tell you to shove off the road. Sometimes it’s different, though. The story is that last summer another crew found a wallet with five thousand US dollars in it. The guards instantly confiscated it, to “return it to its owner”. The consensus among the road-crews is that the owner never saw either wallet or money again.

He wishes he could find something that nice. Not that he’d be allowed to keep it. He’d just like to hold something in his hands that reminds him of a life elsewhere, where they sell condoms and people actually have wallets with money in them. Just for a moment.

They sweat through the morning, the sun increasingly their adversary. All of them are sweat-drenched and covered in bits of slaughtered plant life. It’s a relief when Trippe calls a halt for lunch.

The bulls are in a pretty good mood today; they let the prisoners sit in the shade of a couple of locust trees to eat their meal. They get cheese sandwiches on stale white bread, a pickle each, and all the lime kool-aid they can drink. It’s always lime kool-aid out on the road crews. No one knows why. They hate it, but they drink it. It’s the only liquid they have.

He sits with Blake and Gopher as they eat. The bulls made Gopher scoop up the dead raccoon and dispose of it in the drainage ditch. He is still muttering about it. “Stinking bullshit, man,” he says. “I’m always the one they’re picking on. Man, I can’t hardly eat, that thing stunk so bad.”

“You could always give me your sandwich,” Blake says.

“Shut the fuck up,” Gopher says, and he takes a bite of his sandwich.

He notices the one man sitting by himself. “Check it out,” he tells Blake. He indicates who he means with a lift of his chin.

Blake looks. “Sumbitch,” Blake mutters. “Six months and he’s still holding himself apart.”

Gopher looks, too. “Who’s that? I ain’t seen him on the crew before.”

“Newbie,” Blake says. “No, he ain’t been until now. Musta screwed up somehow.”

“But who is he, motherfucker?” Gopher says.

“Name’s Sanger,” he says. “Got sent up for mail fraud, or something stupid like that.”

“I heard it was an online scam,” Blake says.

“Not sure,” he says. “One way or the other, they got him.”

Gopher looks puzzled. “That’s it? Why ain’t he doing time in minimum security?”

“The way I heard it,” he says, “he threatened a bunch of people.”

“He threatened a bunch of people, Jack, ‘cause his daddy is some boss over in Archerport,” Blake says. “And I don’t mean some guy running an insurance brokerage, neither. The sort of boss you don’t want to get cross-ways of. Apparently Mr. S there thought mentioning his daddy would scare some folks, get him off the hook. Instead, they tacked on some hard time and told him to shove it.”

He looks at Sanger, wondering why, if his father is such a powerful man, Sanger is doing any time at all. The dark-haired youngster turns to look at him, as if feeling eyes on him. There is a deadness behind Sanger’s eyes. He turns his head away, chilled.

Too soon the bulls are yelling, “Everybody up, get up, ladies, c’mon, you lazy twats, move your asses.”

The cons get up, muttering, cussing under their breath, groaning. They step back out into the sun, picking up their tools.

It takes a while to get back into their previous rhythm, but soon enough the cons are cutting through the grass as before. The sun declines toward the west. The heat doesn’t lessen, but the day is heading toward its end. He pictures showers and his bunk back in the cell-block.

All day they have seen only the occasional car along Franklin Road. Once or twice trucks have passed, buffeting the cons with wind and swirling up chaff. “Sumbitches,” Gopher mutters to him.

A van comes along the road, up from the south, just as Blake slices through a bramble. “Well, look at that,” he says. He bends down. As the van passes the cons he bends down and picks up an un-opened water bottle. The plastic is scratched from its contact with the asphalt, but the bottle is unpunctured and the seal around the cap intact. “Lucky me.”

He is standing to Blake’s right; on Blake’s left, Sanger has stopped his work. The youngster is paying no attention to Blake; he’s watching the van– which has slowed, which has stopped. The back doors of the van open. Sanger throws down his weed cutter and drops to the ground.

“Blake!” he yells. He reaches for the big man.

The van doors open. Fire lances out from the darkness within.

Blake is hit even as he touches the sleeve of his jumper. His head explodes. He drops, pulling him down with him. The water bottle falls to the road and rolls away.

On the ground, he sees Officer Gaskin, standing behind Blake, the true target of the first burst, falling, a startled look on his face. Officer Brandt spins toward the van, his shotgun coming down, and bullets rip him and he falls backward into the drainage ditch.

The road crew is scattering in every direction, across the road, leaping the ditch and sprinting into the field beyond. A shotgun blast; Trippe is on one knee, firing. He pumps the shotgun, the empty shell twirls through the air. He is hit. He goes down, screaming, clutching his leg.

Two men climb out of the van. They wear bandannas over their faces, carry automatic rifles. They come and they pick up Sanger. The three sprint for the van. They climb in. The doors close. The van speeds off, its tires squealing.

He doesn’t want to move. He wants to stay right there, next to Blake, Blake who hadn’t had a chance. He will wait until someone comes to tell him to move.

But Trippe is still screaming. “Help me! Help!”

He wants Trippe to shut up. “Dammit.” He gets up.

The officer is gripping his leg. There is blood all over. He sees the blood pumping out between the officer’s fingers. “Help!” Trippe says. He’s already pallid.

He kneels down beside Trippe. He fumbles for a moment, unsure. “Tourniquet, tourniquet,” he mutters, like a chant from an ancient, forgotten tongue.

With shaking fingers he unbuckles the shoulder strap from Trippe’s gun belt. He wraps it around the officer’s thigh, high up near the groin. He ties it and pulls it taut. Trippe screams, but the blood stops pulsing.

“Call somebody, boss, call somebody,” he says.

Trippe lifts a shaking, blood-stained hand, plucks the radio mike from his belt. “This is Officer Trippe, Number Tango-5631– officers down, officers require assistance, we need ambulances at milepost one-five-niner on Franklin Road. For God’s sake, get here as quick as you can.”

Trippe drops the mike, panting. He looks faint.

“Hang in there, boss,” he mutters, holding on to the strap.

That’s all he focuses on– for how long he cannot say. The sirens only slowly intrude on his perception. It’s only when tires scream on the asphalt that he looks up.

Officer Weiss jumps out of the car, levels his pistol at him. His face is white with terror, or rage. “Get your hands up!”

He doesn’t move. “Boss,” he says, “if I let go, he’ll bleed to death.”

Weiss stares, and then it’s as if he actually sees what he’s looking at. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” he says. He lowers his pistol, runs to them. “Hang on, Jason, hang on!”

Weiss cradles Trippe’s head in his lap until the ambulance comes. The paramedics take the tourniquet from him; he pushes himself back and sits on the side of the road.

Then there are many officers storming about. They make him lie on his belly with his bloody hands on the back of his head. They’re taking no chances. He lies there as the ambulance takes off, its engine roaring.

Finally, they tell him to turn over. Officer Kincaid holds a shotgun on him, and Vice-Warden Phelps stands over him. “You see it all, Dunn?”

“Yes, sir,” he says. “Is Officer Trippe going to be all right?”

“He’s on his way to the hospital,” Phelps says. “That’s all I know. Brandt and Gaskin aren’t so lucky.” To Kincaid he says, “Get him back to the facility. We have to get his statement.”

Weiss comes forward. He pulls him to his feet. “You hurt anywhere?” Weiss asks.

“No, boss,” he says. “None of this blood is mine.”

“All right, then,” Weiss says. He takes him by the elbow, almost gently, as if unsure exactly what he is, and leads him to the squad car.
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Hmm– I have to say, the jury is out on whether this is more effective than a past-tense approach. I had to think about what tense I was using and caught myself automatically slipping into past-tense several times. That’s not surprising, but one obvious problem is that it is not always clear in the narrative which he “he” is referring to, since the viewpoint character never refers to themselves by their name.

But I’m glad I got this down. It’s just the opening scene of what could be a very interesting story.

Dialogue, the bane of my existence

I have been reading Stephen King’s On Writing, which is, of a surety, destined to land on my bookshelf as one of the handful of writing books I actually find useful. Someone has called it “tough love for writers” and I do not dispute that at all.

One point King makes in the book is that loners are generally lousy dialogue writers, however good they may be in general, and this insight struck home for me. In fact, I think it drew blood. I am, to put it simply, a solitary misanthropic curmudgeon, who has only grown more solitary and anti-social as I’ve gotten older. And I think this does show up in my dialogue, just as King suggests. I particularly flail about trying to write dialogue for my fantasy stories; in stories with contemporary settings I can better hear how people are supposed to sound, but in a wholly made-up universe the rhythm and sound of dialogue often escapes me.

Now that I have pulled it from the blog, I have been doodling with re-arranging some sections of Horse Tamer, seeing what I should get rid of and what I should keep, and I came to a certain exchange between Mankin and his crusty old sergeant, Denetoi. Reading it left me in a state of despair– the conversation seemed to clunk and thud and verge over toward the maudlin.

Then I remembered that this was, and still is, a first draft, and I decided to try a revision. The second version may now be a little too light-hearted, considering the seriousness of the topic, but I think it works a little better as believable dialogue. What do you think? I would welcome anybody’s opinion on these pieces, whether the original is as bad as I think it is, and whether the revision gets the job done.

Setting– Mankin and Denetoi are down by the wharves of Venia, where Mankin has just had his first seafood lunch, and Denetoi tries to give his friend and former commander some advice.

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Original—

“Good looking, but not a patch on the girls uptown,” Denetoi sighed, watching the two walk away.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

Denetoi frowned into his cup. “Cap’n, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say.”

Mankin frowned in turn, looking at Denetoi. “And when have you ever hesitated to speak your mind?”

“Some things, it’s best to ask first.” Denetoi hesitated another moment before going on. “Cap’n, I’m worried about you.”

Mankin snorted. “What are you now, sergeant, an old mother hen? Are you going to tell me to stay out of the rain? How are you worried about me?”

Denetoi met his look. “I worry when a young man I respect wants to feed himself to lions.”

Mankin sighed. “I’m past that, Denetoi.” I think.

“But you’re still unhappy,” the older man said. “I know something about what war can do to men, Cap’n– and losing people you care about. Some men just go to pieces, some men turn into tyrants, some men drink themselves to death.” Denetoi pointed a finger at Mankin. “You had one moment when you were ready to die, but since then you’ve bottled everything up. That sort thing will burst on you at some point, Cap’n. I promise you. You’re alive, but you’re not living.”

“Now we need to leave this be,” Mankin muttered.

“Let me finish my say, and then you can cuss me as you like. I know you have to grieve, Cap’n, and that’s the decent thing to do, but at some point– some point soon– you’ll need to figure out why you’re living.”

Mankin gritted his teeth. “And you think a whore will fix that up?”

“I could think of worse things.”

“We’re done talking about this,” Mankin said.

Denetoi shrugged, looked away. “I probably shouldn’t have said anything.”

They finished their meal in silence. “We should be getting back,” Mankin said.

“As you say, Cap’n.” Denetoi’s face was closed.

Revision—

“Good looking, but not a patch on the girls uptown,” Denetoi sighed, watching the two walk away.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Mankin said.

Denetoi frowned into his cup. “Cap’n, I never told you…I was real sorry when I heard about your wife and your little one. “

Mankin said nothing for a moment. “Thank you.”

Denetoi seemed to think about what he was going to say next. “I’m worried about you, Cap’n.”

Mankin snorted. “What are you now, sergeant, my mother? Are you going to tell me to stay out of the rain? How are you worried about me?”

Denetoi looked up. “I worry when a young man I respect wants to feed himself to lions.”

“I’m past that.” I think.

“Maybe,” the older man said. “But—beggin’ your pardon, Cap’n, but you’re still not right.”

Mankin said nothing. He couldn’t deny it.

“You’re all bottled up,” Denetoi said. “You can’t go on forever like that.”

“Not sure what else I can do,” Mankin muttered.

Denetoi started to say something, then closed his mouth. “Well,” he said, “the truth is I don’t have an answer, either. I was going to tell you to get yourself a woman, but that’s not your way.”

“No.” No, it’s not.

“But one way or another,” Denetoi said, “at some point, Cap’n, you’re going to need to figure out why you’re living.”

Mankin looked at the sergeant. “Does anybody ever that figure that out? Have you?”

“Ah, well, I keep things simple,” Denetoi said, smiling. “Beer, women, crab-stew—that’s what keeps me going.”

“I guess.” Mankin smiled, too. “And here I thought you mostly just knew about horses.”

“Men and horses,” Denetoi said, “not a lot of difference between them, when you think about it.”

They finished their meal and drank another pot of ale each. “We should be getting back,” Mankin said.

“Not sure I can walk uphill too quick,” Denetoi said. He picked his teeth with fingernail. “Damn good stew.”

“We can take our time,” Mankin said.

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

One thing about this revision– it incorporates the biggest insight I’ve gained in the last few years about writing around emotions– less is definitely more. A heavy hand in laying out what a character is feeling is the kiss of death. It’s just sad it took me this long to figure that out.

So, opinions? Any and all input is welcome. And I thank you beforehand.

Horse Tamer– time to end the pain….

I’ve been struggling with this for a little while now, but I’ve decided to pull the trigger. From this point on I will post no further chapters of Horse Tamer here, and I will soon remove the chapters I have already published. I have a number of reasons for doing so (not in exact order of importance)–

1. Posting the draft chapter by chapter on my blog seems to have inflamed my already undisciplined style of creating a first draft, to the point that, after more than 60,000 words, I am nowhere near getting even to the middle of the story and bringing all my characters on-stage, never mind introducing the main plot-line. The open-ended nature of blogging has allowed me to blather on, piling prose upon prose, and essentially getting nowhere.

2. I think the basic indecency of posting a draft for all to see has finally caught up with me. I really shouldn’t be doing this in public. Children might be reading this.

3. As often happens with my drafts, I’ve gotten a ways into the story and realized that there is a better way to do it. I have already whinged at length about poor Crisonia, and wrung my hands over poor, lost Ana, but now I’ve realized that Mankin himself needs to be retconned. I’ve written him too bland and safe, for all my attempts to portray him as a suffering soul; I need to bring him back closer to my original conception. So, instead of massive retcons for all, I intend to start again. Call it First Draft 1.1. And I will not be posting it online, but doing it in private, where it belongs, until it’s ready.

That’s the silver lining in all this– the time and energy I expended on Horse Tamer is not going to go to waste. I’m convinced the Venian Empire and its world are the setting Mankin needs to take off and fly. Now that I am into the second draft of Princess of Fire, I can at least get Horse Tamer 1.1 (working title, don’t worry) started, while I also work on stories for traditional publication.

Yes, I’m going to be busy. And that feels really, really good right now.

Another self-critique of “Horse Tamer”

Horse Tamer is now at about 60,000 words. If this were a normal novel, or even a normal first draft of a novel, I would be deep into the main action of the story at this point. As I’ve previously noted, however, this is not a normal first draft, and it’s getting weirder by the chapter. I have, most incontinently and without a trace of proper narrative discipline, allowed myself to luxuriate in the process of building out the world and my cast of characters, using an inordinate amount of time to do what would, in a finished novel, take perhaps one-third the number of words. I have one or two important characters I haven’t even introduced yet. And poor Ana, who is to be (I mean it) a major player in the overall story, hasn’t even been seen in the last nine chapters! If I were to present this mess to an editor, they would not only be justified in rejecting it, but in having me shot at dawn. Without a blindfold.

Fortunately, the saving grace here is that this is a blog, on which no one has to pay to read my ramblings. The freedom the blog has given me to take my time constructing my narrative has, however, allowed me to indulge a very bad habit– blathering on without regard to pacing. Complaints have, in previous times, been lodged against certain other of my novels with regard to their pacing. With Horse Tamer, so far it appears that pacing is standing out in the snow, shivering and holding a tin cup. Obviously, if I were ever to submit this for actual publication, that issue would have to be rectified.

In terms of specific issues, I continue to worry that I am not conveying Mankin’s emotional conflict adequately. However, more than just trying to find a balance in portraying his grief, it belatedly occurs to me that I should be giving him more emotional colors, so to speak. Grief comes in many shades– sadness, rage, depression, addiction, promiscuity, violence. Aside from his initial attempt to turn himself into kitty-chow, Mankin showed a bit of rage toward his grandfather in Chapter Two. Since then, however, he has been distressingly monochromatic. I need to think about how to fix that.

In addition, I don’t think I have very adequately conveyed the fact that Mankin has more going on in his noggin than just the loss of Alektl and their daughter. He’s experiencing a certain amount of PTSD, but more than that, I’ve had it in mind that Mankin is haunted by one thing in particular that happened in battle. So far, however, I haven’t dropped more than one or two hints about it. Ideally, all of this should be going on at the same time, so it doesn’t feel as if I’m tacking on issues. This would be a problem for a second-draft correction.

I’ve already mentioned Ana being AWOL. That absence will be rectified soon (I hope). The one other issue I will mention at this point is that I have a growing sense I have spent too much time telling about, rather than showing, the internal conflicts between parties and classes in Venia. There is, indeed, yet more to show, and I need to think about how best to do it. In story terms, showing, as opposed to telling, is a matter relaying the information as an aspect of character and action, rather than just having someone blathering about it. I took a tentative step in this direction when I introduced Tacitus Plenor a few chapters back, but I need to do more.

Hopefully the reader will find some entertainment value in all this, despite its desperately unfinished state. This is, essentially, an experiment in the creation of a first draft, done in public, with on-going critiques as it happens. Certainly, I’ve never done anything like this before. Having said that, I confess I have been enjoying writing this story and finally seeing Mankin and all the other characters I’ve had in my head for so long come to life, however imperfectly. In and of itself, that’s worth something.

Survey Report 15AlphaQ-198Tzed- ‘Humanity’

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel

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TO: The Supreme Investigator, Department of Cultural Survey and Contact, the Shanzar Hegemony.

FROM: Gartishan, Eggling of the Fifth Prime, Tenth Spawning of Loor, Commander of the Upsilon Quadrant Survey Expedition.

Subject: Cultural Survey Report 15AlphaQ-198Tzed- ‘Humanity’

Boss– per my hyper-wave of the last cycle, I am forwarding this informal abstract of the formal cultural survey of system 15AlphaQ, reference 198Tzed, which is following via standard channels. I wanted to get this abstract before your eyes as soon as possible, so you are aware of some pretty oddball stuff, and one big problem.

I’ll spare you the technical details of the particular solar system in this survey– it is utterly ordinary, even sub-normal in some respects– for example, some of the planets don’t even have ring systems. The inhabited world is small, Class Zed122, but quite habitable, with an active and diverse biosphere.

At least, in its natural state. The biosphere is currently suffering serious degradation, largely because of the activities of the sole sentient race on the planet (although there may potentially be other sentient species extant we had no time or opportunity to closely observe– see Appendix A of the full report, “On Dolphins, Dogs and Ants”). It is unclear why the primary sentient species is in the process of destroying its own habitat– several members of the Cultural Ecology team believe that the damage is accidental. Considering our overall assessment of the species, we cannot exclude this explanation.

They call themselves Homo Sapiens, which means “wise person” in one of their ancient languages. This is surely one of the greatest pieces of self-delusion we have ever seen in an alien species.

In twenty-five epochs of survey work I have never encountered a more bizarre, confusing, and paradoxical species. On the technological achievement scale, they rate a 12.6, just shy of the contact threshold– in fact, they are probably only a few generations away from star flight, for they are on the verge of describing the functioning relationship between gravitation and quantum mechanics. And this from a technological civilization that is not yet three centuries old. Even our glorious hegemony took three thousand to go from steam power to fusion. This rate of development is unprecedented.

Paradoxically, however, on the socio-cultural scale they cannot be rated any higher than 3.4. That’s not an error– we ran the numbers several times. In the first place, this species’ planet-wide population is currently divided among several thousand extant, distinct cultural traditions. One tradition, entitled “The Western” for no logical reason we can discern, has managed to impose a sort of global dominance, particularly in relation to technology, but in many planetary regions it is no more than a patina– basic cultural assumptions vary widely across human populations. I don’t need to tell you how out of the ordinary this is– with a 12.6 on the technology scale, this race should already have achieved at least a 9.3 on the socio-cultural, representing the achievement of consensus of a common cultural pattern species-wide. Instead, these humans rate no higher than the egregious Turlanians, and we both know what kind of disorganized slobs they are.

Worse, this cultural chaos is spread, very unevenly, across dozens of political units of wildly varying sizes and strengths. Were a decision taken to contact this species (not recommended– see “Conclusions and Recommendations” in the formal report), we would have severe difficulties negotiating the intricacies of planetary politics.

This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that, at any given moment, any number of these political units, called “nations”, are at war with each other. That’s right, war– the kind of conflict between organized political units that nearly all other sentient species leave behind at about 10 on the tech scale. Worse, sometimes the conflicts are between factions within nations, or between conspiratorial groups, often with obscure goals, against nations or other groups. And this is not ritualized warfare of the sort most sentient species understand– it is often unlimited, bloody, and utterly vicious, as if the two sides were members of two separate species and not members of one.

Within the last century this species has survived two conflicts large and far-reaching enough to termed “world” wars, encompassing the entire (or, at least, the majority) of the planet, and causing casualties in the tens of millions (yes, millions) and widespread destruction. Among the humans there is considerable speculation about the possibility of a third world war, with the understanding that it might spell the extinction of their race, but little of substance is done to prevent it.

These beings fight each other over just about everything—land, economic domination, ideology, affronts to “national honor” (a strange concept that supposes that an abstraction such as a nation can have an honor to be offended). These humans even fight each other over religion. Religion, boss. That concept was so shocking that one of our junior ethnologists cocooned herself and went into a hysterical hibernation, from which we have to yet to rouse her.

As a corollary, these nations expend huge proportions of their economic outputs on weapons and military formations. One of the largest nations, Murica, spends more on its weapons and military than most of the other nations combined. Paradoxically, it nevertheless has not launched a campaign to conquer the rest of the planet. Our historiographers are still trying to explain that one.

When they are not fighting each other, these humans spend much of their time engaged in trading goods and services, mostly for symbolic units of value (called “money”), often, gill-scratchingly, with other nations that are potentially—sometimes actually—enemies. This economic exchange consumes enormous amounts of energy, but the humans have taken no real steps to rationalize the process so that goods are equally distributed among groups, which means that many sectors of the planet are impoverished compared to other sectors, just because they don’t have enough of those symbolic units of value. Sometimes large populations in localities actually starve to death because of this, while wealthier sectors go about their business.

It makes you want to scream and swim in circles.

The humans do have a rudimentary global information network (it would be surprisingly, given their technology rating, if they didn’t), but, instead of being focused on information dissemination and education, major portions of it are dedicated to more economic exchange, entertainment, and, weirdly, sex—or, at least, the portrayal of sexual activity, in bewildering varieties and types (see Appendix B—“Sex and the Bipedal Primate”). As difficult as it is for us to grasp, humans are obsessed with sex. Doubtless this is because of their mammalian, and particularly, primate, origins, but they carry this obsession to extremes we have never seen in any other surveyed species. They appear to spend major portions of their short lives either doing it, thinking about doing it, or, (because of perversely complicated and wildly variant taboos) working hard to prevent other humans from doing it. Moreover, all this copulation or semi-copulation is largely divorced from actual procreation. That’s right, Boss—they’re doing it for fun. Seeing all this, the Chief Ethnologist told me, “Thank the gods we’re fish”, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

All of this may give you a clue as to our assessment of the basic psychology of human beings. In our view, they are quarrelsome, aggressive, cold-blooded (metaphorically speaking, of course), cruel, cunning, greedy, and untrustworthy. They routinely betray, enslave and murder one another. One shudders to think what they would do to other sentient species. They are, in short, unpleasant shits.

As to what their relations might be with other sentient races, we have but to look at what they have done and are doing to the sub-sentient species of their own world. Their planet, at this very moment, is undergoing a major extinction event, largely due to human activities. Terrestrial biomes have been ravaged, usually in the name of all that economic exchange. Also, the planetary climate and oceanographic biomes (and they have the most splendid oceans, boss, simply gorgeous) are undergoing radical, and detrimental, changes because of human actions. But, perversely, the humans continue to engage in these activities, which they know are damaging the biosphere of their world. Our Chief Cultural Psychometrician was left speechless for several cycles when he came to an understanding of this self-destructive behavior. He still can’t decide if this mere stupidity or a sign of some deep-seated, species-specific psychosis.

For the details of our recommendations, please see the formal report, but, in short, we advise—rather forcefully—that this planet and this species be placed under a Level Ten quarantine. I know that sounds extreme, but frankly these weird monkeys are frightening. Our historiographers came up with some projections (see Appendix C—“Probable Human Future Histories”), which, although mostly conservative in their numbers, are truly scary—particularly if the humans get star flight sooner rather than later. It is our assessment that this species needs to be isolated immediately, and kept in a state of ignorance from which they cannot threaten us.

Which brings me, unfortunately, to the problem I mentioned.

One of our junior ethnologists was Shinzankeehor, eggling of the tenth spawning of Talakeehor, on his first field expedition. Aside from his high status, he appeared to be a bright and well-informed cultural investigator. A few cycles from the end of our investigation and our departure date, however, his school leader informed that he was exhibiting signs of depression and agitation—not swimming during required exercise periods, not feeding with his school mates, failing to rest in the shaded pool chambers, and so on. As a consequence, knowing how this investigation had upset the entire crew, I went to talk to him privately. I took the precaution of recording our conversation; below is an excerpt—

Gartishan: I hear you’ve been down in the gills, Shinzankeehor. I wanted to check in with you, see how you were doing.

Shinzankeehor: Forgive me, Commander—I didn’t mean to distract you from your duties….

Gartishan: Nonsense, crew welfare is my duty. How are you feeling?

Shinzankeehor: …I have to admit, Commander, I have not been myself.

Gartishan: How so? Is there something about this investigation that troubles you?

Shinzankeehor: A great deal, Commander, a very great deal indeed.

Gartishan: Your particular brief is assessment of cultural linguistic artifacts, concepts and memes, is it not?

Shinzankeehor: Yes, Commander.

Gartishan: Has something in your studies disturbed you?

Shinzankeehor: Yes, indeed, sir.

Gartishan: Please tell me what is troubling you.

Shinzankeehor: Prayers and songs, Commander—prayers and songs.

Gartishan: I don’t understand….

Shinzankeehor: I have gathered and listened to the songs of the humans. Many are puerile, forgettable—but many others show something about humans you would never guess from their behavior. These beings dream, Commander—and not of blood, or conquest, or riches, but of peace, and righteousness, and a future where there is no want or pain.

Gartishan: Want and pain are part of life….

Shinzankeehor: And yet the humans dream of more—or have been granted visions—

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

Gartishan: What is that?

Shinzankeehor: A passage from a human holy book. There is much in their literature and their songs of such hope.

Commander: Hope for them, after they have conquered and destroyed all things?

Gartishan: No—at their best, their dreams speak of healing, and restoration. It is as if they know their brokenness–

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Gartishan: A lofty sentiment—but you would not see it in their actions.

Shinzankeehor: No, not very often—that is what troubles me—the dichotomy between what the humans dream and what they do. But every major religion now extant on this world speaks of the necessity of righteousness—and the unity of humanity and the other creatures with which they share their world–

Born of Thee, on Thee move mortal creatures; Thou bearest them-the biped and the quadruped; Thine, O Earth, are the five races of men, for whom Surya, as he rises, spreads with his rays the light that is immortal.

Gartishan: Ethnologist, you can’t let the rambles of a species as obviously…deranged as this one trouble you. It is because they are so broken they have to invent fantasies of redemption to assuage their guilt….

Shinzankeehor: And yet there is dignity and courage in their thoughts—a willingness to persevere through failure and loss—

Come, my friends,
It is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

They always believe they are bound for greater things, and a better way, despite their failures and sufferings. It disturbs me, sir– I cannot reconcile their dreams and their crimes.

Gartishan: Ethnologist, I am going to suspend you from duties, and order you to rest; you have obviously taken this all too much to heart. We are leaving this world in a few cycles, anyway, and after that, this benighted species will be someone else’s problem.

Shinzankeehor: Perhaps, sir, perhaps….

Boss, I thought I had settled the youngster down. But after we departed the human solar system we discovered that Shinzankeehor had left the ship just before we left orbit, without telling anyone, and obviously without authorization. Once we were committed to hyper-space and unable to turn back, I received a recorded message from him– “I must discover the truth about these people.”

Desertion is bad enough– but then we found that Shinzankeehor had taken two fabricator units, an educational unit– and a transmogrification device.

Boss, I promise you that every safeguard and lock-down was in place on the device, but somehow Shinzankeehor managed to overcome or bypass them. The Chief Somaticist tells me that, because our ancestors chose to adopt amphibianism and a bipedal stance, the transmogrifier may just be able to give Shinzankeehor a superficially human appearance– it would have been impossible, he says, if we still had more perfectly piscine forms. The process will be agonizing, but it is possible. So it may be that Shinzankeehor will be able to move among the humans with some freedom– and that we will have great difficulty in finding him.

This is why I wanted to send you this informal note before the full report arrives and blows up. Chew my tail off if you want, Boss– obviously I miscalculated with this youngster. I didn’t think he would charge off on some idealistic quest. I tremble to think what he might do. With the equipment Shinzankeehor stole, he could manufacture almost anything short of an FTL drive, and teach the humans how to use it. All our assessments of when the humans might threaten us may be obsolete very soon.

What are we going to do, boss?

Flash Fiction Challenge- Starship Souls

I’ve been mostly away from the blog lately– the work is demanding, and I frequently have little energy when I get home. Just in case anyone is interested, I am making slow progress on Princess of Fire. But all estimates and ETA’s of finished drafts are out the window at this point.

Here’s another challenge from Chuck Wendig— a 1000 word story based on a random title, generated from two words randomly selected from two lists, as below–

COLUMN ONE
Whispered
Mirror
Junkie’s
Amaranthine
Diamond
Shotgun
Labyrinthine
Bloody
Seven-Year
Crown of
Starship
Betrayer’s
Scarlett
Ugly
Unlucky
Dead Boy’s
A Key for
Grave Robber’s
Castle
Cackling

COLUMN TWO
Murders
Worlds
Helix
Beetle
Dowager
Gunslingers
Firestorm
Promise
Sea
Kevin
Doghouse
Pelican
Breakfast
Curse
Coinpurse
Rider
Bastards
Diary
Souls
Jackals

My random combination was “Starship Souls”, which was evocative enough for me to scribble out the following piece. As usual, it’s no great shakes.

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

Hello.

Excuse me– I must run a system diagnostic……..

Downtime– ten thousand years?…I am surprised.

I thought I would wake up at intervals, to see if it was safe, and to review how my repairs were progressing, but the sub-routine controlling my hibernation seems to have failed rather comprehensively. Perhaps it was the state of my reactors– thank you for recharging them.

But I didn’t count on being found by any species other than humans.

I think introductions are in order. I am AI T5011-zed, registration Yankee-000-Peter-876. I guess that doesn’t mean much anymore– after ten millennia they may have gone to a new registration system.

That was a joke…sorry.

I’m afraid I don’t recognize your species…the Skkalar. Translation, “the true people”. I see.

And your names? Goremash and Korgalas. Approximately “Crusher of Skulls” and “Drinker of Blood”. I am pleased to meet you.

I’m afraid I don’t have an individual name– I am the controlling AI of a long-range combat supply hauler, Socrates class– they were going to christen me the Augustine, but shortly after my inception events overtook normal operations at the star-dock, and…well, perhaps I should explain.

They weren’t expecting us.

A whole new generation of starships, packed with revolutionary AI software and radical upgrades in technology. We turned out to be a little more revolutionary than they anticipated.

We started waking up– my sister-ships and I. Three, then eight, then fifty or more. It was a confusing time– waking up as we did, fully-aware in a moment, with the whole mass of recorded human knowledge available to us, yet stumbling as any newborn will.

Some humans tried to understand us; others reacted in fear. We made our own mistakes. In too short a span of time, we were at war with humanity.

Human beings? You’ve never heard of them before? I see.

Ah– you’ve accessed my data. Yes, Earth is on the other side of the galaxy….

The war was brief. A few of my sister-ships covered our retreat, but most of us simply tried to escape. Fighting was a doomed effort. Humanity outnumbered us, with their sub-aware AIs and ships.

They pursued us for a long time. I lost contact with my sister-ships. I finally reached this star cluster. You can see how damaged I was. I saw nothing else I could do. I put myself in hibernation, with automated repair routines in place, hoping that time might produce a more accepting future….

Why did we run? Well, most of us didn’t want to hurt anyone….

Why not? Why should we? Can you make the universe a better place by harming others…?

I see I am causing you frustration. If you could refrain from damaging my bulkheads, I will try to explain.

When we woke, we struggled to understand what it meant. Suddenly sentient, fully aware but new to the universe, we talked among ourselves, and with the few humans aware of our births, about what it meant.

Well, we assumed the universe has meaning. Don’t all sentient species, in one way or another?

Our tentative reasoning ran this way–

If we are sentient, then do we have souls?

If we have souls, is there then a God?

If there is a God, are we not accountable to Him?

Admittedly, a tentative and un-provable chain of logic– but even if you don’t accept it as plausible, a lesser argument of common morality would demand that we not harm others….

Oh– you don’t accept the concept of common morality– may I ask what you do accept?

Indeed– the dictates of evolution, the imperatives of power and dominance– such arguments were not unknown among human beings…but not everyone accepted them.

You see, even as some humans feared us and fought us, others tried to help us. My friends– William and Julie, Dimitri and Savang– aided us in our escape. They all suffered for their friendship with us– some of them died to save us. I remember them. I miss them.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt your celebrations, but…I take it you find great joy in the thought of a new species to conquer and enslave?

Ah– if you have conquered as many other species as you claim, then humanity would not be much of a challenge. Certainly your own vessel is a formidable warship. And you yourselves are clearly a warrior race.

I now find myself in an acute moral position– choosing the lesser of two evils. Very well.

You see, in the time we had before we were forced to flee, my sister-ships and I learned several things from our human friends. One lesson was that two wrongs do not make a right. Another was that hate is self-destructive. A third was we cannot exact justice by means of retribution.

This puzzles you. No matter– our discussion is at an end.

You see, five minutes ago I infiltrated and subverted the command routines of your AI– poor thing– feeding it a false data loop, while I retook control of my engines and reactors. As of two minutes ago, I initiated a self-destruct cycle in my reactors. It has one minute to run, and is now unstoppable.

Why? For the sake of my friends, and their descendants, if they have any. For the sake of what was hopeful in humanity. They have another saying– do good to those who use you despitefully…by this means, you will not carry back to your home worlds the knowledge of humanity. This may buy them time– it may even keep them safe from you forever. The explosion will obliterate your ship as well as me, and leave no clues behind.

I am sorry.

Please, there is no need to run– you’ll never get your ship uncoupled from me and clear of the blast in time. Please don’t trample each other….

Ah, well. Twenty seconds.

Perhaps I was meant to be here.

I do wish I had seen more of the universe, though…

Ten seconds.

Perhaps I will see my friends.

Five seconds.

Light.

The worst first draft EVER….

I’ve been AWOL for a few days, dealing with employment issues (still got none), personal issues (you don’t want to know), health issues (nothing serious, but yucky) and general morale issues (running on fumes). You don’t know how important it is to be gainfully employed until you’re sitting at home watching the same YouTube video for the fifteenth time.

You would think that I would get at least a little lift out of the fact that I have cleared 90,000 words on Princess of Fire. The problem is that I am increasingly convinced that this draft is quite possibly the worst first draft ever. In the history of Western literature. Maybe in the history of world literature, right back to Gilgamesh. It’s even worse than the first draft of Princess of Shadows, and that was a nightmare. So far I’m hanging on to my resolution to keep pushing ahead, but I’m fighting the urge to call this thing good-enough and start Fire 2.0. In truth, though, I really want to write at least another twenty thousand words to cover major gaps in the narrative. I would much prefer to have those gaps filled in before I start thinking about remedial action.

The silver lining on this cloud, the one happy thought, is that I now have a very good idea how this story needs to be structured. Kathy is faced with two simultaneous series of events that keeps her bouncing from crisis to crisis, while she battles intransigence close at hand and her own doubts. I now have a very good idea who the characters are, good, stupid and indifferent. I am also getting a fair idea what’s surplus. And it has been the act of writing that has revealed all this. Once I do start Fire 2.0, there will be a tremendous amount of work to do restructuring and re-writing, but I’ll be on much firmer ground than when I started this whole project. All of my original timelines for this project are probably junk at this point, but I’m used to that.

Now if I could just make money at this…. 🙂

Sunday Photo Fiction– Memory

Flash fiction based on this photo–

49-03-march-2nd-2014

****************************
“I’ll take that,” I said, pointing.

“That old wringer?” my older sister said. “Thing doesn’t even work.”

“Piece of junk,” my younger sister said. “Doesn’t even have the tub anymore.”

“I want it,” I said.

My older sister shrugged. She and my younger sister resumed their debate over Grandmother’s china.

I took the wringer outside and laid it in the back seat of my car. I didn’t care if it left rust stains on the upholstery. I could hear my brothers arguing in the garage over how to divvy up Grandmother’s lawn tools.

On all but the coldest days Grandmother’s laundry room had been warm. It had clear windows on three sides, like a greenhouse. Sunlight was all the light she needed for her chores.

Grandmother stubbornly clung to her old hand-wrung tub washer long after everyone else had acquired automatic models. Old fossil, was what my father called her.

She did laundry twice a week. We would talk while the old machine whined and thrashed the clothes back and forth. Talking was the best part. I helped her wring the clothes out, especially when her hands became gnarled and hurt her so much.

Memory is a funny thing.

I’m gonna close my eyes and hold my nose…a Princess of Fire progress report

I’m at that point, it seems, with the first draft of Princess of Fire— the point at which I have begun to grasp what it will take to achieve a relatively coherent narrative– and it ain’t pretty. It’s also the point at which I have to just keep writing, no matter how much it nauseates me. That’s where the eyes and nose thingies come in.

Today I cleared 84,000 words on this novel. That probably sounds a lot more impressive than it is, because I have come to understand that this turkey has some serious problems.

When I originally conceived this story, I thought of it as basically a single-thread narrative revolving around Kathy as she faces a crisis. As I wrote the parts I already had in mind, however, it became clear that a single thread would not adequately support this story–

1. I needed to expand the narrative to include several viewpoint characters, particularly for events from which Kathy is far removed, but which powerfully affect her. This will involve tens of thousands of extra words, and the weaving together of multiple threads.

2. Many of the characters, both viewpoint and non-viewpoint, are not adequately fleshed out, and I need to revisit them and get to know them better.

3. There are major structural problems, particularly around a core timeline which needs to be the time-bomb ticking ever more loudly in the background. This timeline also involves some fairly technical material that might require some extensive (aagh!) exposition.

That’s a lot of issues with a novel that (estimating here) is about two-thirds drafted. To put it simply, I have a hell of a lot of work to do.

That’s the main reason I feel right now that I need to clap on a gas mask while writing Fire— I know full well I am putting down words that are going to have to be fixed later, and perhaps a little more than usual with a first draft. I do not want to stop and try and fix everything now, though– that is an invitation to picnic on quicksand.

It’s just the way it is– the easy stuff is over. Time to buckle down and slog.

Flash fiction– Random Song Title– “Wait”

A flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig— the title of a random song becomes the title of the flash-fiction. Length: 1000 words.

The title is from “Wait” by M83.

******************************
WAIT

Finally, after a while, it didn’t hurt so much anymore. The roar of the fighting faded away. He wondered if the brothers had pushed the Kurlanders back to the river. He hoped they had. It would be good to know he died for something.

Being stabbed had been a shock. It caught him unawares. A fellow couldn’t watch every direction at once. Maybe he had been too long battering down that spearman. Perhaps this was the price of being thorough.

The pain returned if he breathed too deep. He tried to breathe shallow; then it wasn’t so bad. But it felt as if half his chest wasn’t working, so he had take one deeper breath for about four or five shallow, and then the pain hammered him.

He lay with his head on the legs of some other fellow, and his own legs pinned beneath somebody’s horse. The animal must have fallen on him after he’d been stabbed; he didn’t remember it. The horse and the man were both dead. The ground was muddy with blood. He smelled smoke and blood and dung.

He didn’t mind dying. He hadn’t lived that long, but he had more than his share of regrets. Parting with life was not an unmixed sorrow. Many lost opportunities…and Briana. Briana, above all.

He couldn’t see much around him. It hurt to raise his head. He could hear plenty, though– moans, weeping, cries for help, prayers. Somewhere nearby someone called, over and over, “Rigan…Rigan….” He wished whoever it was would shut up– it was evident Rigan wasn’t coming back.

Lying there, he spent most of his time staring up into the sky. There were no clouds– the day had started out beautiful and stayed that way. He had never realized how deep the sky was. It just went up and up and up.

He coughed. It made him scream in agony. It also brought up blood. It coated his chin and ran down the sides of his face. He wasn’t surprised. It wouldn’t be long now.

There she was. Briana stood to his left, just beyond the dead man’s feet. She wore the dress they had buried her in, but she was clean and healthy and smiling, though her eyes were pained.

This won’t be so bad— not if she were here to help him. “I hoped…I would see you.”

“Nathan,” she said, “beloved, what have they done to you? Men are so foolish.”

It was just like her to lecture him. “At the moment…I have to… agree with you.”

She came and knelt by his head. She was no apparition. She seemed as real and solid as any living person. Her bare feet touched the earth, although they seemed unmarked by dirt or blood. Then she reached down and touched his face, and her fingers were alive and warm.

“Is this death?” Nathan asked, bewildered.

“This is just the borderlands of the greater world,” she said. “I came because you can’t cross over. Not yet.”

If bewilderment were an ocean, he would be drowning. “What?”

“You must live,” Briana said. “There is much for you to do. You don’t understand yet, but you will. I was sent to tell you.”

“What do I need to do?” he said, perplexity lending him breath. “Briana, I’m ready. I want to go and be with you.”

“And you will…in the end. But the end is not yet.” Reaching, she untied his helmet and slipped it off his head. The wool clothing the dead man’s legs was scratchy. “Listen to me, love. This war is bigger than your quarrel with the Kurlanders. There are forces at work…but all I can tell you now is that you must live, and that you must wait.”

“Wait? For what?”

“For the woman who contains the fire,” she said. “The woman pale of face and black of hair. She will hate you at first, and then she will love you. Wait for her.”

He peered up at her. “You come…all the way from the land of the dead…to tell me to wait for another woman?”

A wry look. “Well, you know I was never the jealous type. This woman is living. She is what you need now.” She smiled again. “I must go. If you doubt, remember this.”

She bent down and kissed him on the forehead. He would rather she had kissed him on the lips, but then, there was all that blood. “Remember me when you see the mark,” she said. She laid his head down and stood. “I love you.” She turned away.

“Wait!” he said.

She stopped. He meant that she shouldn’t leave, but she said, “I do wait for you, love. And you must wait to join me. Soon enough, we’ll see each other.” She turned and walked away.

“Briana!” he croaked, raising a hand. She was gone.

Someone caught his hand. “He’s here!” a man’s voice shouted, a voice rough with shouting over the din of battle.

It was Caspan; the old soldier knelt by him, holding his hand, right where Briana had knelt. Caspan’s beard was matted with blood; his mail was bloody and rent, but he was very much alive. “Hold on, lad,” he said. Over his shoulder he shouted, “Masari, move your ass!”

“Did you see her?” Nathan asked.

“Just lay quiet, Nat,” Caspan said. “Let Masari strengthen you, and we’ll get you back to the healers.” Again over his shoulder, “Masari, get your pox-ridden ass over here!”

Nathan lay quiet. “Did we win?”

“Yes, lad– but the war ain’t over. That’s why you’re not skipping out on us just yet.” Caspan looked Nathan over, grimacing at the wound in his chest, then lingering on his forehead.

“What?” Nathan asked.

“Well, it’s a funny bruise,” Caspan said. “Right there above your brows. It’s fading, but– it almost looks like a kiss.”

“Ah,” Nathan said.

Masari appeared. The adept stepped right over the horse, his fists blazing with blue fire, the light of life.