Tag Archives: Science-fiction

Films that inspire me– “Aliens”

Once more, I need you to join me in the Wayback Machine. We’re returning to a distant historical era– the ’70’s. Specifically Fall, 1979, in a small movie theater in a US Army kaserne in Germany. The geeky kid in the Army-issue glasses, about midway down the auditorium, is me. I’m about to watch Alien for the first time.

I didn’t go into this movie cold– I had intentionally spoiled myself at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England that summer, where there were exhibits and people from the production. (Yes, I am a spoiler junkie. It doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of a movie– or a book, for that matter– and it has saved me from some notable catastrophes). I was therefore forewarned going into a movie I might not have seen otherwise.

Oh, by the way–


I have mentioned before that I do not like horror, and I might have skipped a film that was set up as the sort of horror flick in which a cast of colorful characters gets picked off one-by-one, but its space setting, and the production values associated with it, got my butt in the theater seat. Ridley Scott, in his second directorial effort for film, and the producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill, all made a serious effort to create a believable, workaday science-fiction universe in which to tell their story, and discussions about it at the convention had persuaded me this was a film I wanted to see.

I found myself drawn in and held tight by a story that kept you guessing, despite a few flaws in its logic and some actions that did not make complete sense. I was particularly mesmerized by the young actress playing Ripley, who seemed to be the only character who had her head on halfway straight. It was the first time I had ever seen Sigourney Weaver, and I’ve been in love ever since.

(If by this you construe I like skinny, dark-haired women, I would have to say “yes” and ask you what your point is).

I liked the movie so much I watched it three times in a week, no mean feat when movies in the military theater system were usually there and gone before you could blink. I enjoyed the gritty feel of the film, the interactions between the crew, the derelict alien ship, and the spooky Space Jockey. The alien itself was refreshingly, well, alien, and I found I could deal with the horror elements without open weeping (yeah, I’m a wuss). Ripley was largely responsible for that– I was rooting for her from about the seven minute mark in the film. I am so very glad Ridley Scott was talked out of killing her off at the end of the film– the ending in its final form was just about perfect, and was the perfect setup for Aliens.

Fast forward seven years. I am out of the Army, working in California as a baker in a health food bakery (with a cockroach problem– go figure). When I hear that a sequel of Alien is being made, I am interested. When I see the trailers and realize that the second movie has a military flavor, I am very interested.

Aliens opened on July 18, 1986–

Personally, I have to count that date as one of the watersheds of my life.

It is hard for me to overstate the impact this film had on me, and continues to have to this day. It pushed just about every sci-fi action-adventure button I have. Once again the story centered on Ripley, now overwhelmed by the memories of what happened in the first film. At the end of Alien, Ripley is in an escape pod, in suspended animation, hoping to get rescued. Instead, she drifts right through human space and is only found fifty-seven years later. Her story of the destruction of her crew by a supremely vicious alien is not believed, particularly as there have been colonists on LV-426, the planetoid where her crew found the first alien, for many years.

Then contact is lost with LV-426 and Ripley goes with a platoon of Colonial Marines to investigate. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse to utterly catastrophic, except that this time there is visceral satisfaction in the discovery that these aliens (most definitely plural this time) go to pieces quite nicely under heavy munitions. It’s military stupidity and corporate cupidity that get Ripley and the Marines in trouble this time.

In the process Ripley connects with a young survivor of the colony, a shell-shocked little girl called Newt, and their relationship becomes the emotional linchpin of the whole story. When things go really bad, and Newt appears to be lost to the aliens, it is Ripley’s irrational refusal to accept that fact that pushes her, and the story, into a cathartic, and climatic, confrontation.

I enjoy action-adventure films, but I have never been a fan of the sort of action film that seem to exist primarily to showcase explosions and things going fast– I have had zero interest in The Fast and the Furious franchise, and do not get me started on 300 and similar trash. I prefer adventure movies in which something is at stake, and which possess some heart. Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (particularly The Fellowship of the the Ring), Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander are all examples of the sort of adventure film that holds my interest.

For me Aliens is supremely this type of film. Ripley’s struggle to overcome her demons (figurative and literal) is where we start. Slowly she becomes part of an extended family of Marines, and then comes her connection with Newt. At this point Ripley once again has something to lose, and something to protect, and it forces her out of her fear into courage. That’s the best sort of adventure film– not populated by super-beings, but ordinary humans who struggle to overcome obstacles far greater than themselves to preserve something precious, or forestall a horrible evil.

It does not hurt at all that Aliens is one of the most tightly written action films ever, basically keeping you legitimately on the edge of your seat and/or hanging on to the back of the one in front of you the whole way through. To this day, when the second drop-ship is heading straight for the atmosphere processing plant to rescue Newt, I simply cannot sit still.

Looked at another way, Aliens is almost the only great sci-fi military film, for my money the closest anyone has ever come to adapting Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (Verhoeven’s abortion does not count. Uh-uh, sorry). James Cameron, in fact, asked the actors portraying the Marines to read the novel during preparations for filming.

A special edition of the movie, released in 1992, restores seventeen minutes of footage that had been cut from the theatrical release. It’s not an unmixed blessing– it telegraphs things about the colony on LV-426 that had been left as spooky mysteries in the theatrical version. But the special edition works for me because it critically expands Ripley’s character and deepens her relationship with Newt. In the extended version, when Ripley is willing to go into the bowels of her personal nightmare to save Newt, you understand exactly why.

Now, let me balance this all out. I don’t believe Aliens is the greatest science-fiction film ever. There are films with more profound themes and deeper examinations of human nature and the meaning of the universe. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (particularly the director’s cut) is certainly a contender for that title. Nor is Aliens absolutely perfect in its execution– some of the characters are not fleshed out (let’s face it, they’re there to be alien-fodder) and some of the plot points don’t quite make sense (if the second drop-ship was available the whole time, why didn’t they call it down at once, instead of waiting for the processing station to start going into overload?). You don’t really notice, though, because the film as a whole just pulls you along and enlists you in the fight these people are waging to survive.

This film is probably a good portion of the reason why I am spoiled for lesser action flicks. When I want to remember how to structure a story that you can’t put down, built around people you give a damn about, I think of Aliens. The first movie script I ever bought (during one of my delusional periods in which I thought I could be a screenwriter) was for Aliens. This film taught me a lot about story and action, and it’s a personal touchstone of quality. I’m almost tempted to say they don’t make movies like this anymore, but I keep hoping….

As for the Alien franchise, it took a nose dive after Aliens with the two subsequent sequels. Re: Alien 3— wretched trash. Do not bother. Alien Resurrection— its got some cute moments, but mostly meh.

(By the way, if the folks who own this property happen to be reading this, I have a concept that will reboot the franchise. Call me. Seriously).


Films that inspire me– “Things to Come” and the history that wasn’t– Part Two

(This is the second part of my discussion of the movie Things to Come)

Part Two– how this film inspires me.

My previous post was an appreciation of Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, discussing how it is a powerful, if sometimes disturbing, early science-fiction film classic. One of the powerful aspects of the film is that it took contemporary events and concerns of 1936 and projected them into an effective “future history“. There were many thunderstorms looming on the horizon that year. Germany was rising again under the Nazi dictatorship, which had no scruples about telling the whole world what it meant to do, especially in Eastern Europe. Asia had already seen the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 and would see all-out war between Japan and China in 1937. Civil War broke out in Spain in July, 1936, in what most historians now see as a dress-rehearsal for World War II. It didn’t take much prescience to see that another general war was coming.

The course the film lays out for this new Great War is a reasonable projection of the first Great War, which was deadlocked for most of its history. Supposing that the war could go on for year after year of bloody stalemate was not a wild leap of the imagination. In that stalemate the breakdown of civilization and the previous world order was all-too-reasonably a possibility.

The fact that the actual history did not turn out the way Things to Come thought they might teaches us some lessons about the business of alternate history. It also teaches us something about irony.

In its classic form, alternate history takes a single, critical event and changes it– Lee Harvey Oswald misses Kennedy, Hitler dies of poison gas in World War One, Harry Truman loses the 1948 presidential election– and examines how that one change alters history. When it’s done thoughtfully and well, alternate history can create worlds that are tragic, or evocative of what might have been, and can teach us important lessons about the contingency of life and history on decisions which might even appear trivial at that moment.

Watching Things to Come reminds me of all the ways history could have turned out differently in World War Two. The period is loaded with potential branch points for an alternate history, and it’s been a favorite of sci-fi writers for decades. World War Two is also a rich field for alternate history writers because the moral implications of a Nazi victory in the war would have been so profound– a nightmare that barely bears thinking about. Even short of that catastrophe, postwar history could have turned out a thousand different ways, right down to the very personal and intimate. What if Anne Frank had survived the war? What if Eisenhower and Kay Summersby had really hooked up? What if Hitler had immigrated to America in 1919 and become an illustrator for science-fiction magazines– which is the actual premise of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream.

All of this is fertile ground for science-fiction writers, and looks to remain so for a long time to come.

At this point, though, you might be asking what Things to Come has to with alternate history– it was created as a future-history, not alternate history. To put it simply, all future-histories are fated to become alternate history. Eventually every future sketched out by an author finds itself diverging from factual history, real-life events having no obligation to adhere to some writer’s conception of what path they should follow. When this happens, some authors try to retcon their stories, but others throw in the towel and say, “It’s alternate history”. As an example, the future history of Star Trek, as described in the original series, has now diverged from factual history (no Eugenics War in the 1990’s, etc.).

In the case of The Shape of Things to Come, Wells’ original 1933 novel, his future history was obsolete almost at once. Things to Come did a little bit better, but by 1946 or so it was already diverging from real life– Western civilization did not fall into a recurring cycle of hot wars lasting a generation, but rather a Cold War with peripheral bush-wars and serious economic and political competition between East and West.

So why didn’t the future of Things to Come become our factual history?

The answer is pretty damn ironic– nuclear weapons.

Suppose that nuclear science took a different path in the 1930’s and that no one on the planet in 1940 has an inkling that nuclear weapons are a practical possibility. That means no Manhattan Project, no Tube Alloys (the code-name for the British bomb project), no German nuclear weapon program, no Soviet effort, no Japanese investigations– every major power had some sort of nuclear research going on on during the war. In fact, one of the poorly remembered aspects of the history of World War II is that, in certain circles, there was real fear the Germans were years ahead of the Allies and might deploy a weapon before them. In fact, for several different reasons, they were years behind.

Just as it was in the factual history, in our alternate history the war in Europe would have been won by conventional forces in the spring of 1945. The immediate result of our small alteration would almost certainly have been that the planned invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945 would have gone forward. The Allies anticipated a long, hard campaign to subjugate the Japanese home islands, including a million casualties (killed, wounded, missing). There is no telling how devastated such a invasion would have left Japan, over and above the destruction already wrecked by aerial bombing.

Suppose the conquest of Japan adds two additional years or so to the war, so that World War Two ends in 1947 or 1948 (GIs in the Pacific anticipated this– their poetic formula for the end of the war was “Golden Gate in ’48”). America’s instinct then, as it was in the factual history, would have almost certainly been to demobilize the Army.


In the absence of a nuclear deterrent, it is conceivable that the Soviets, under Stalin, would have seen the weak occupation forces the Western allies had in Germany (and they were weak), and been tempted to use the still powerful Red Army to try and scoop up West Berlin and then the rest of Germany. If so, the war would have resumed as the former allies fell out (as former allies tend to do)– and Wells’ generation of war would have been well under way.

In the factual history, though, nuclear weapons made even Joe Stalin think twice about resuming conventional warfare in the heart of Europe. The salient irony of nuclear weapons in the Cold War is that they were practically useless, in any traditional war-making sense– nobody ever figured out a meaningful definition of “victory” in a nuclear-armed standoff. As a result, a kind of quasi-peace settled over Europe, allowing it to rebuild and affording two generations of Europeans the time and space to buy Mercedes and Audis and time-shares in Majorca, rather than having to scratch for food amid the ruins of Birmingham or Paris.

This is what makes alternate history so much fun, seeing how one factor can change the whole historical equation. It’s also what makes it very hard to get right.

But I intend to keep trying.


My next post on a film that inspires me– Aliens. Oh, yeah– this is the big one. Buckle up.

Movies that inspire me– “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

The time: early 1970’s, midnight

The place: an ordinary living room in Oklahoma.

The scene: A young teenager crouches in front of the family TV set. He has draped a blanket over the front of the television to hide its glow from his sleeping parents. The volume of the TV is set so low that the youngster has to keep his ear close to the speaker to hear anything. He knows that if he’s caught staying up late, especially to watch a science-fiction movie guaranteed to “warp his brain”, as his father puts it, he will surely catch serious heckey-doodle.

He’s willing to risk it, though. The film is The Day the Earth Stood Still. The boy has never seen it before, and it will change him–

This movie is, in my opinion, with the possible exception of Korda’s Things to Come, the first great, modern science-fiction film. Destination Moon came out the previous year, but it is little more than a how-to manual on spaceflight, despite (or perhaps because of) the involvement of Robert Heinlein. The Day the Earth Stood Still, on the other hand, is a profound tale of humanity’s danger and possible fate.

Directed by Robert Wise (director of such little-known films as West Side Story, The Sound of Music, and The Andromeda Strain), it is a cautionary tale of an alien come to warn humanity, newly equipped with nuclear weapons and on the verge of space flight, that they must give up their warring ways, or face preemptive extermination by a galactic community that means humanity no harm, but cannot brook a deadly threat in their midst. In the process the alien (Michael Rennie) learns some things about human beings– not only our capacity for obstinate stupidity and parochialism, but also our capacity for love and generosity.

The film starred Michael Rennie, Hugh Marlowe, and a young Patricia Neal. Every one of them earned their salary. But it was Michael Rennie’s Klaatu who owned the film, with his wise but naive alien trying to comprehend these odd humans. In a way, his performance foreshadows another fish-out-of-water alien visitor, Jeff Bridges’ character in Starman (1984). Klaatu is wise, but he is not all-knowing, and his mission to warn humanity nearly fails, until he receives the aid of the Earth woman Helen (Neal).

In contrast to most other science-fiction films of the 1950’s, with their heavy-handed metaphors of the Cold War and Communism, The Day the Earth Stood Still is almost Zen-like in its approach. Almost all the violence in the film is committed by the US government against Klaatu (Gort, Klaatu’s robot companion, shows us just enough of his capabilities to prove he is, indeed, one bad mutha on a leash). The fuddled American authorities fumble and stumble in their handling of Klaatu, an early counter-cultural assertion of the principle that the Establishment is basically clueless.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first science-fiction film that really had an idea at its core, rather than whiz-bang futurism– the idea that humanity had to leave its childhood of war and division behind. And it was conveyed, in the main, with a light hand that focused on little details to carry its message– Klaatu’s reaction to a music-box remains one of my favorites. At the same time, it was painfully realistic in its portrayal of how human beings react, as officialdom, the press, and ordinary people, to the unknown, including the primitive, live “radio-television” newscasts and reporters who want to sensationalize the story.

Needless to say, I was the kid crouched under the blanket in front of the television. Seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still changed the way I viewed the genre of science-fiction, it changed my understanding of how a story is told, and it changed my standard for science-fiction movies– a standard that, sadly, few films since have met. The Day the Earth Stood Still is, quite simply, a classic that holds up even today (of course, Hollywood had to go remake it, in 2008. Don’t bother). The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of those essential films that define science-fiction cinema.

And the really great part is, I don’t have to hide under a blanket to watch it anymore.

Future posts on films that inspire me– Aliens, Wizards, and, yes, Things to Come, among others.

Where has all the mojo gone?

Some of you may have noticed (or not) that in my last few posts I haven’t really mentioned much about my current work-in-progress, Princess of Fire. Partly I’ve been spending some of my time trying out flash-fiction, which is kind of a new thing for me. Mainly, however, it’s because I seem to be having serious mojo problems.

Mojonoun: that which allows you to do what you need to do when you need to do it.

(If that definition seems kinda redundant, at least it avoids any sexual connotations. Not going there….)

Since completing my taxes it seems as if the wind that originally filled my sails with Fire (that was actually an accidental double meaning, but I’ll go with it) has dwindled down to a fitful whisper. I’m doing a few hundred words a day, as opposed to about a thousand a day before. I’m above 75,000 words, but it took me about a week or so to get there from 72,000.

It may be that I have exhausted most of the pre-imagined material that has carried me this far. I may also be slowing because I’m facing more difficult core sections. I also am not wholly pleased with a lot of the material I’ve laid down.

On top of all this, there has been some serious chaos in the personal space for the last three weeks, quite aside from the continuing unemployment thingie. The details would bore everyone, and spewing on about them here wouldn’t solve anything. But it’s a banal truth that it is hard to write when you don’t have a certain level of peace and quiet.

At this point I am not sure how to get the mojo back, or even if it’s get-backable. I may have to revert to the level of production I saw while drafting Princess of Shadows. If I have about 40,000 words left (a total guess at this point) that would mean approximately eighty days of first draft still ahead of me. That would mean completing the first draft sometime in May, and about a year between the publication of Shadows and Fire. I could live with that.

And who knows– things might calm down, I might get a job, and maybe Alfonso Cuaron will show up at my front door with an offer to film my novels for a lot of money.

Well, everybody needs a dream….

Flash-fiction challenge– Stars are not safe in heaven….

A little belatedly, I found this flash-fiction challenge from a couple of days ago– my apologies for being late.


“‘Stars are not safe in heaven’,” Isaacs muttered.

“What was that?” Sonderson said.

“Just a line from an old poem. IP in thirty seconds.”

“Understood. On internal power. Guidance online and tracking. Shields on standby.”

“Any sign of Bruin defenses?”

“Negative– the squadron decoyed them.”

“Understood. Twenty seconds.”

The sun grew in the holo. It was red– a K0, Isaacs remembered. Still life-giving.

“Ten seconds.”

“Bogey,” Sonderson said. “Incoming– azimuth twenty, declination thirty-two.”


“Negative– they’re too late.”

“Understood.” Warning alarms sounded. “IP- now. “

“Weapon launched. Running true, shields up– it’s away clean.”

In the holo Isaacs saw the weapon hurtle ahead. He got brief glimpse of the bluish glow of its engines, then nothing.

“Coming around,” Isaacs said. “Standby to jump.”

“Jump engine online.”


The stars disappeared, replaced by the distortions of hyperspace. Isaacs sighed in relief. “Looks like we’ll reach base in time for supper.”

The weapon detonated in the sun. The induced supernova blew outward at a third of the speed of light. The inhabitants of the second planet had only minutes to gather their loved ones to them and offer a prayer before the shockwave obliterated their world, their lives, their dreams, their songs.

Flash Fiction– A hole in the world


“Damn thing’s gotta be a hundred miles across,” the crew-chief’s voice said in Lucas’ earphones.

The anomaly ahead of them was an open wound in the earth. Reddish-gold light, so unlike the Sun’s, poured out. Lucas kept the chopper’s nose pointed straight at it.

Someone, the crew-chief or the door-gunners, muttered a prayer over the intercom. Brandon, the co-pilot, crossed himself. Lucas remembered a song–

And everywhere that man can be,
Thou, God, art present there.

The last of the Pennsylvania countryside passed underneath them. Then they were over the anomaly. One moment there was earth beneath them, and the next, sky. Sky above, sky below– Lucas fought the sensation of being in a climb, and the impulse to put the chopper’s nose down. Not yet.

The door-gunners charged their weapons. The land inside the anomaly– Lucas could see it now, behind him and at right-angles to his flight path– was dark and green and rolling.

“Committing,” he said, to the crew, and all the world listening. “Hold on.” Now he tipped the chopper’s nose down. There was a moment of vertigo, of stomach-churning redirection, and then the chopper flew straight and level, under the light of an alien sun.


Episode Eight of Dinosaur Planet

Between doing our taxes, editing my unpublished novelette, and various and sundry crises of everyday life, Princess of Fire is effectively on hold at the moment. I hope to get back to it as soon as Amazon mails me my 1099-MISC form and I can complete my taxes.

Meanwhile, sometime back I promised a new episode of Dinosaur Planet, and it’s past time to fulfill that promise. I don’t know if anyone is reading these episodes, but I am having fun just writing them and posting them, without major revisions, more or less on the fly. This episode turned out a little long, but hopefully it’s enjoyable.

Copyright by Douglas Daniel, 2014.


Episode 8

Weasels, Weasels Everywhere….

For the next three days Paul walked eastward, roughly paralleling the river. He stayed in the riverine forest, not wanting to dare the plains. He slept in the same faux-olive trees every night, which were scattered about the woods everywhere the sunlight could reach the ground for more than half the day. He saw no more of the raptors, although he frequently saw the remains of their kills. Of other species, he saw plenty of examples– several different species and variety of iguanodons, two or three smaller herbivores, a small, fast and furtive scavenger type that Paul glimpsed around the carnivore kills, but didn’t really get a good look at, a tiny tree-dweller about the size of a terrier, and any number of birds or pseudo-birds. He may have also gotten glimpses of ground-dwelling mammaloids, but they were even more furtive than the scavenger.

Jasper was helpful. He identified a half-dozen plants and fruits that were safe for Paul to eat, all abundant in the woods; more than that, he was quick to identify items that were toxic. He was able to locate potable water-sources away from the river, which turned out to be both turbulent and filled with very large pseudo-crocodilians. He continued to keep a wide sensor watch, which Paul found reassuring. They didn’t get any readings of weasels or raptors. Unfortunately, neither did they get any readings of Alliance flotillas or well-armed rescue teams. It was obvious that the Alliance had no idea the S-54 had crashed on Dinosauria.

The fact that Jasper was helpful did not necessarily mean that Jasper was tolerable. Most of the time he varied between surly silence and surly sarcasm. Paul put up with it, only occasionally threatening to shove Jasper into one of the mudbanks that overlooked the river and leave him there. He didn’t follow through with the threat because it would be the end of their mission, and because, as irritating as Jasper could be, the AI was the only company Paul had.

Despite Jasper’s help, Paul realized that he himself was not an outdoorsman. Three months in the scout ship had left him ill-conditioned for a long march, despite the daily isometric and enhancement regimens. At the end of each day’s walk he was exhausted. His sleep in the trees was fitful; he was constantly afraid of falling out.

He grew grubby, sweaty and grizzled. He reckoned that by about the end of the second day his stink alone would scare off any hostile wildlife. At times he wished he could flee from it himself.

By the third day he was dull and his pace dragged. His muscles ached and his feet were blistered. He slugged along, head down, not really noticing anything, while Jasper gave his snappish course corrections.

Just before noon, though, Jasper went silent. It took Paul a moment to realize the AI wasn’t talking. “What’s up?” he asked.

“Shh,” Jasper said. “Something…something isn’t right.”

Paul stopped. Nothing moved in the forest around them. “What is it?”

Jasper didn’t answer at once; then he said, “Get down!”

There was no cover in that spot– it was open forest floor under tall trees. Paul went to one knee. There was still nothing moving among the trees. Even the flyers had disappeared. Paul got a shivery feeling down his neck.

The ground jerked sideways. Paul fell. He managed to roll so as to protect Jasper, but the earth itself undulated beneath him. His hands instinctively clawed at the soil beneath him. The giant trees around him swayed. Paul felt more than heard a deep, deep rumble that came out of the ground itself.

“Hang on!” Jasper shouted, with fine illogic.

Somewhere not far away a tree crashed to the ground. Paul barely heard it over the tumult. He tried to calculate if he were in the line of fire of any other toppling trees, but he could not think straight.

The shaking died. Paul lay panting, stunned, unwilling to move for fear it was going to start again. Then a bird called, and then another.

“That,” Jasper said, “was quite a ride.”

Moving on shaky legs, Paul tried to resume the march. Within minutes of the end of the quake, though, Jasper started getting unusual aerosol trace readings. He sputtered about the necessity of getting a clear view of the surrounding terrain. They found a bare knoll half a mile away and climbed cautiously to the top, with Jasper scanning as they went.

The first thing Paul noticed, when they reached the summit of the knoll, was that the topography of the mountains to the east was more complicated that he had thought. Now that they were kilometers closer, he could see that an outlying range of hills separated them from the high peaks further east. The river appeared to pass through a narrow pass in these outer hills.

Among the hills, still miles distant but high and formidable, stood a volcano. Not a picturesque, dormant volcano, the type one sent e-cards about saying “wish you were here”. This volcano was very much alive; a tall column of smoke rose, boiling, from the summit.

“Ah, hell,” Paul moaned. “What else could go wrong?”

“Well, the universe could collapse to a lower quantum state and our very existences could be wiped out,” Jasper offered.

“It was a rhetorical question!” Paul snapped.

“Geez, don’t get your corset in a knot,” Jasper said. “At least we have a good idea what caused the quake.”

“Can we avoid that smoker?” Paul asked.

Jasper projected another holo-map. “Perhaps, if the river-gorge is passable. It’s at least another day’s march– probably two, the way you’re dragging.”

“Well, I don’t have a one hundred year battery pack,” Paul said.

“And it shows,” Jasper said.

They came down the knoll and re-entered the forest. Jasper gave Paul a new course and they set out. It was getting late– Paul started looking for a place to roost for the night, while wondering how safe a tree branch would be if there were aftershocks.

They had gone perhaps two kilometers when Jasper yelled, “Alert!” just as a silver, winged form shrieked overhead, headed eastward.

“Dammit!” Paul said. “Are those Weasels?”

“It ain’t the local Chamber of Commerce,” Jasper said. “You remember when you asked how things could get worse? Well, you just got your answer.”

Paul sprinted ahead and took cover among the roots of one the largest trees in sight. “Are you tracking them?”

“Do sheep bleat? Of course I’m tracking them, although this forest cover is really giving me some serious interference….uh, oh.”

“What, ‘uh-oh’?” Paul said. “Uh-oh, what? That’s a very ugly phrase, uh-oh.”

“Looked at first as if they were headed toward the volcano, but they’re circling back.” For once, Jasper sounded abashed. “They probably got an indication on my power-pack.”

Shit,” Paul said, with more sincerity than he had ever used before. “Where do we go?”

“For starters, to your right, down to the river.”

Paul ran. He tried to move from the cover of one tree trunk to another. If he ran into anything at the moment, he knew he would either run it over or be eaten.

“To your left,” Jasper said. Paul angled left around a tree.

“Stop, stop!” Jasper said. Paul skidded on the leaf-litter underfoot, so suddenly that he fell and landed on his butt.


“Weasels in front of us,” Jasper said. He was actually whispering. “Coming up from the river. Go back.”

Paul scrambled back the way he had come. Panic, more than exertion, made his heart pound in his chest. “How close?” he panted.

“Don’t ask– just run,” Jasper said. “More to our right.”

They crossed a shallow ravine– Paul had to pull himself up the other side by roots that trailed down the bank– and dashed through a clearing with another of the ubiquitous pseudo-olive trees and gold-leaved bushes. The sun beat hot on them until they reached the shade of the trees on the other side of the clearing.

Paul barely had the opportunity to register relief when Jasper cried, “Stop!”

“What, more Weasels?” Paul said.

“A line, coming toward us,” Jasper said. “They’re sweeping us into a trap.”

Without thinking, Paul went back into the clearing. There was no place to go, except…. He dashed for the brush around the pseudo-olive.

“What are you doing?” Jasper said.

“Hiding,” Paul replied. “The only option we have.”

They dived into the brush. Paul crawled through golden leaves until he more-or-less in the middle of the bushes. He reckoned he was deep enough in to be out of sight from anyone outside the stand of brush.

“This isn’t going to work,” Jasper said.

“It’s our only chance,” Paul said. “Go to minimum power/sleep mode.”

“They’ll still pick that up if they’re close enough with the right gear,” Jasper said.

“Do it,” Paul said.

Jasper said nothing else. Paul was a little surprised he didn’t argue further; perhaps he understood the necessity. The AI’s sensor eye faded down to the faintest pinprick of reddish light.

Quickly, Paul slipped the carrying-sling off his shoulder and put Jasper on the ground. He drew the pulse pistol. He didn’t arm it yet; sensors would pick that up, too. But he could do it in a moment.

Obviously, with one charge it wouldn’t stand off a company of Weasels. Paul had understood the math of the situation from the moment he’d thought of crawling into the bushes. One charge equaled either death for himself or destruction for Jasper. Paul did not want to fall alive into the hands, or the claws, of the Weasels. They enjoyed torturing human prisoners, and had ways of prolonging their agony. Some people said they had ideas about appropriating the power of their victims through inflicted pain. Paul had no idea whether that was true, and it didn’t really matter.

But he absolutely could not allow Jasper to fall into enemy hands, and preventing Jasper’s capture was orders of magnitude more important than anything that might happen to Paul. Jasper had all manner of classified information in his memory, included up-to-date starcharts of Alliance space. Pre-emptive destruction of the AI was standard procedure in the event of a scout ship’s imminent capture. Paul reasoned this was really just an extension of the same standing order; there was no question, in the end, what the correct answer to the math was.

To his ears came the sound of crackling undergrowth, from the forest they had just quit. He got down low, hugging the ground under the bushes. In this position, he could see little glimpses, flashes of sight, of what was happening out there.

Ten or more Weasels came striding into the sunshine. Paul’s face tightened with an instinctive grimace. There was just something atavistic about the sight of a Weasel.

Take an ordinary Earth mustelid, Mustela nivalis or, perhaps, Mustela sibirica. Give it upright, bipedal posture and fully opposable thumbs and fingers. Increase its size to about two meters tall and a mass of about one hundred kilograms. Endow it with intelligence at least equal to that of any human who ever breathed. Equip it with an advanced technology centered chiefly about the tools needed conquer and enslave other sentient species. Finally, infect it with a pack-hunter psychology far more avaricious than any wolf-pack that ever loped, and you would have a faint approximation of the vicious predators that now stalked out into the clearing.

Paul didn’t have to tell himself consciously to lie quiet. Something about these beings sparked a response deep, deep down in his primate brain. These were beings who came into the nest to kill and eat. They should be driven away with sticks and rocks and screams. Paul rather wished at the moment he had a sharpened stick; he could do more with that than he could with a single pulse charge. The ending, of course, would be the same either way.

The Weasels came into the clearing, peering about. Most of them carried their version of a pulse-rifle; a couple carried portable sensor rigs. All wore body armor and communication headsets. Otherwise they were naked, except for their fur. They even went barefoot, or bare-pawed. One difference between themselves and Earth weasels was that the aliens’ tails were vestigial.

Paul tightened his grip on the pulse-pistol. He would wait until the last moment, until it was certain that they had discovered him. Then he would arm the pistol, fry Jasper, then fight to the death, if possible, with his bare hands. He took in a breath, trying to steady himself. He had so many things he regretted never doing, he had no time to catalog them.

The Weasels stopped halfway to the brush. They hissed and skreeked. A set of answering skreeks came from behind Paul. He pressed himself even closer to the ground and froze as heavy bodies pushed through the brush around him. It was another line of Weasels, doubtless the group coming up from the river. Some of these Weasels passed within yards of Paul, but none of them raised an alarm. They passed by him so quickly that he had no time to arm the pistol. Paul would have thought the Weasels would have smelled him; then he remembered the aliens’ senses of smell and hearing were less acute than humans. Their eyesight, though, was just as good or better, and Paul held absolutely still.

The second group of Weasels met up with the first. There was a great deal of hissing, whistling and screeching. From his vantage point Paul, without moving, glimpsed Weasels moving about. The aliens appeared to be upset and arguing with one another. Paul glimpsed one of the Weasels, one of those carrying a sensor unit, shake the device, then give it a slap on the side, a gesture of frustration very nearly human.

Their sensors are not working. Paul clenched his teeth against a dawning hope. Lying here and continuing to pretend to be part of the brush’s root system was still a necessity.

The arguments in Weaselese went on for a few minutes, until a large Weasel with a graying muzzle and four concentric rings emblazoned on his body-armor– an Overmaster of the pack– cut through the discussion with a piercing whistle and a couple of roundhouse blows that knocked the recipients flat. The other Weasels fell into two orderly lines. The overmaster harangued them for a minute or so. Heads drooped. Paul almost felt sorry for them.

The harangue over, the overmaster led the Weasels, in a column of twos, out of the clearing. Paul lay there listening to them march away, and then lay there some more, not wanting to trust his reprieve. He lay there, un-moving, until he heard the Weasel ship take off, from somewhere nearby, and doppler away into the distance.

“Jasper,” he whispered. “Wake up.”

A second passed. Jasper’s sensor eye flickered, then brightened. “What…we’re still here?” the AI said.

“Apparently,” Paul said. “Although I’m not sure why.

Next episode: Down By The Riverside

One thing about this story– as an exercise in turning off the censor and just writing, it’s been great. I am not sure, though, that I am exactly capturing the B-movie quality I was looking for in the beginning. It seems as if the action should be a little more breathless and unrelenting; I’ve instead slipped into a more leisurely pace. I will have to see what I can do about that; but then, we haven’t gotten to the cave-women yet….

Ten life-lessons from “Jonny Quest”

Hal Sutherland, one of the folks involved in the animated Star Trek series from the early Seventies, recently passed away. His passing got me thinking about the animation I watched as a kid, and I got pretty nostalgic about some of the old shows– Space Ghost, Spiderman, The Jetsons, etc. Looking back on them as a group, I realize many were just ways to anesthetize little kids so they would sit still long enough to notice the commercials, but some shows have found permanent niches in popular culture. A few, though, have special meaning, especially for all those kids who grew up be the geeks who sparked the IT revolution.

For me, one of those special shows was Jonny Quest.

The show (in it’s original incarnation) only ran for two seasons, 1964-1965, but I still remember it as absolutely riveting me to the carpet while it was on. Doubtless its sort of science-fiction, secret-agent adventure had a profound influence on the sort of fiction I write today. And although, when I watch it now, I can see all the stereotyped and even racist elements it casually threw around– pretty much in keeping with American television in general in the Sixties– it still has a special place in my heart.

So much so that I thought I would share a few life-lessons I have derived from it. If you loved the show, you might recognize a few of them.

1. The only way to handle a bully is head-on.
2. Enemy agents are always trying get our goodies.
3. A properly trained eleven-year-old can beat up an enemy frog-man any day.
4. Guys who wear monocles, speak with German accents, and live in South American countries are just up to no good.
5. When pursuing an invisible energy monster, always make sure your rocket pack is in working order.
6. Just because the kid in the turban doesn’t own a pair of pants doesn’t mean he can’t be your best friend.
7. A husky and sardonic bodyguard can come in real handy.
8. Mummies resent being robbed.
9. Listen to the Chinese cook you found hiding in the freezer unit of the derelict ship– he was there for a reason.
10. Science is cool.

If you remember the show with fondness, you’re certainly welcome to share any lessons it taught you. I’d love to hear them.

Writing plans for 2014

As is typical with me, I’m late marking the turn of the year. Yah, 2014. New opportunities, etc.

Okay, that’s done.

I have some definite plans for what I want to accomplish with my writing this year. Firstly, unless something goes very badly wrong, I should be able to complete and publish Princess of Fire this year, perhaps by late summer or early fall. Publishing two novels within a twelve month period would be a first for me.

There will be a downside, however. I anticipate Princess of Stars, the last part of the series, is going to be mammoth, probably somewhere north of 200,000 words, which will almost certainly mean I will need to eventually break it into two separate books. I want to write it as one narrative stream, however, so at the moment it is a unity in my head. Because of the length, there will probably be a long gap between the publication of Fire and of Stars, especially since there are things in Stars that may stretch my skills to the breaking point. I need to make Fire fairly memorable, to keep people engaged during what promises to be another long hiatus, and that is what I am working on at the moment.

It won’t be just the size of Stars that will be tough; I expect the book will be internally complex, as I pull together all the threads that I have been developing in the previous four books of the Divine Lotus series and resolve them in what I hope will be an epic science-fiction story. The size and complexity of the novel may well push me during this year to do something I usually don’t do for my stories– write an outline. That, or the equivalent of a movie treatment. Either way, I anticipate having to plan for Stars at a level I usually don’t attempt. I am normally a pantser, but this book feels as if it will need special treatment.

At the same time, while I work on Fire and prepare for Stars, other projects are romping around in the back of my brain. I have talked about some of these projects in previous posts, and at different times one or another of them looms larger in my consciousness than others. At the moment I am thinking about a historical novel set in 1900 (there was a lot going on that year) that I have had in mind, but it is actually an open question which project I will take on after the completion of Stars, which is, more than likely, at least two years away. Meanwhile, I am basically reading and researching for the other projects on an ongoing basis.

The last major piece of my writing plan for 2014 is to continue blogging, diversifying what I blog about (more reviews, less whining) and staying engaged with the online community I’ve discovered. 2013 was the year I began to blog in earnest, and I plan to keep it up. Aside from that, I will probably doodle away on pieces on the side, such as Dinosaur Planet (a new episode coming soon), more abandoned fragments, and assorted topics as they come to me.

Looks like it’s going to be a busy year. Then again, life has a way of throwing me curve balls. Or avalanches. We’ll see.