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Pinging Jeff…

Pong, everybody. Relax. I’m still here. And I’m very glad to say that I’m probably 1200 words from the end of my current book project. If it weren’t for some home repairs and carpet cleaning I’d be done by now, and I expect to be done by EOD Friday. The publisher is still reluctant to say much about the book, for reasons I still don’t understand. I’m puzzled, but in publishing as in so many other realms, those who write the checks make the rules.

Much to do after the last word rattles out of the keyboard. Getting rid of XP is high on the list, given our April 8 deadline. This afternoon I ordered a refurbed Win7 laptop, a Dell e6400. How could such an old laptop be useful to me? Easy: I don’t do much on laptops. It’s a travel computer, for Web, email, and some light word processing–like writing Contra entries on the road. It cost me $240 postpaid, as they used to say. I’ve had very good luck with used Dell machines in the last ten years. Every machine in the house but my quadcore is a Dell refurb. I already have two Win7 Dell 780 USFFs for upstairs, and installed Win7 on my lab machine over a year ago. That leaves the laptop and the quad, basically, and if I didn’t need to use the quad to finish this book, the quad would be running Win7 by now as well.

The SX270s are now all bookends. They make very nice bookends.

Oh, and the computer junk pile is getting impressive.

The list of things to do Post Book is long. We need to replace our driveway slab, which is descending into rubble. Ditto the garage slab, the replacement of which will require putting my lathe, big drill press, tooling, and metal stock in storage somewhere. There’s a lesson here: Soil compaction matters. We spent thirty grand mudjacking the lower level, recarpeting, and repainting. Settling soil pulled our gas meter down so far the pipe cracked and damned near blew us over the top of Cheyenne Mountain. I made a number of mistakes having this house built, and I will never make those mistakes again.

Then there’s 3D. I drew 81 figures by hand for this book project, all of them in Visio. (I actually drew 83, but two of them won’t be used.) I’m very good at Visio. However, Visio is inextricably a 2D CAD program, and every time I’ve tried to use it for 3D, it makes me nuts. I took a lot of drafting and engineering graphics when I was in school and know how to do it. (Sure, it was with a T-square. Ya gotta problem widdat?) I need to be able to draw things in 3D. I downloaded the free version of Sketchup after Google bought it in 2006, but was too busy back then to spend much time with it. I see that Google sold it a year or two ago, and the new owners are positioning it as an architectural CAD system. That’s fine, since I know from earlier tests that Sketchup can do telescope parts, and if it can also design me an observatory, I’m good with that. I need somewhere to put an observatory, obviously, but that’s a separate challenge. So learning Sketchup is another priority.

Fiction, too. I’m going to try finishing Old Catholics. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start The Everything Machine, complete with a 3D scale drawing of a thingmaker, courtesy Sketchup. (I tried that in Visio years ago. Uggh.)

I will also be doing some intensive research on Oscar Wilde, for reasons that only a few people in my inner circle understand.

As I always say, Boredom is a choice. I may be tired, but I am not bored. And in a few days, I suspect I will no longer be tired. Bring it on!

Excerpted From Old Catholics

Cathedral Demonstration Turns to Riot

(AP) Violence erupted at a noon-hour protest in front of Holy Name Cathedral, as demonstrators from the liberal Catholic organization Christ With Us traded taunts with counter-demonstrators from the reactionary conservative group Voluntas Dei. The march, targeting the recent moratorium on marriage annulments announced by Pope Pius XIII on November 27, began peacefully, but descended into fistfights that spilled into the street near Wabash and Superior about 11:45 AM.

Chicago’s Cardinal Peter Luchetti quelled the riot by addressing the crowd through a police megaphone. Police arrested twelve of the demonstrators, who were charged with disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment. Two were later charged with criminal destruction of property. Numerous demonstrators were injured, seven requiring hospitalization.

Cardinal Luchetti later met with representatives from the two protesting organizations in his office at the Diocesan complex. No details of the meeting were released.

Tensions between liberal and conservative factions in the Roman Catholic Church have been running high since the Pope’s unexpected announcement and promise of an encyclical on the indissolubility of Catholic marriage…

Rob again scanned the headline piece from Friday’s Chicago Tribune and tossed the paper back on one of Suzy’s end tables. There would certainly be more in Sunday’s edition, much more, especially now that reporters were doggedly searching for anyone who might have been there and could provide a provocative quote.

Rob had turned his cellphone off and yanked the cord from his answering machine in annoyance after the twentieth call. Merciful God in heaven, what were the chances? To one side of the news item was a photo of Cardinal Peter Paul Luchetti with his hand on the forehead of the young injured woman from Voluntas Dei. To the other side was a photo of Peter speaking into a police megaphone, at his elbow a befuddled-looking middle-aged man in a gray overcoat. The caption was peculiar, not only for what it stated but for what it left out: “Cardinal Peter Luchetti spoke to the crowd through a police megaphone shortly after violence broke out, accompanied by his seminary friend, former priest Robert Prendergast of Chicago.”

He had given his name to no one. And where was Suzy? The photo had been cropped to exclude her completely, even though she had been standing perhaps a foot behind him.

“Rob, stop staring at that paper!” Suzy had an ancient blown-glass ornament in each hand, and the pile of boxes labeled “Shiny Brite” was growing on the carpet by her bare feet. There were cookies in the oven and a new log on the fire, and it smelled very much like Christmas. Rob put down his brandy snifter of eggnog (spiced up and fortified with some very good Scotch whisky) and took the ornament that Suzy held out to him.

“They cut you out of the picture,” Rob said in protest, edging around Suzy’s half-decorated balsam tree to confront a bare spot with the ornament.

“Like I need that kind of attention.”

“But why me and not you?” Rob tucked the ornament onto a vacant branch, touching it with one finger to make sure it could swing freely.

“Resigned priests are hot right now!” Maria said, and laughed. From her place on the stepladder she stretched to reach the 8-foot tree’s tip with the little plastic angel she held. “Get an interview on The Talk and you could land a national book deal. You could be famous. Give me a year or two to get in with a big New York house, and I’ll even publish your book.”

Maria Farella was finishing up her master’s work in journalism at the University of Chicago, intending to build a career in publishing. Like her mother, she was intense, but did not have Suzy’s sense of irony. Rob had never met her before his return from Indianapolis, and still wasn’t sure when to take her seriously.

“I don’t want to be famous. I want to marry your mother, and…” Rob paused, thinking about those still-unmentioned incardination papers.

“…and still be a priest.” Suzy bent down to pick up another ornament. “All we have to do is crack the vows thing.”

Maria backed down off the stepladder. Rob had never met Joe Farella but knew that he must have been tall: His formidable daughter was at least 5’11” in her Christmas toe socks, and towered over Rob and Suzy both. “Poor angel,” she said, hands on hips, sizing up her work on the decorations so far. “We’ve stuck a tree up her butt every year now for how long, Mama?”

Suzy looked up toward the top of the tree. “Christmas 1979. Find me a treetop ornament in the shape of Pope Pius XIII and I think we’ll let her retire.”

Maria laughed again and bent down to the floor near Rob to pick up another box of ornaments. She put her left hand on his shoulder and shoved down far enough so that she could kiss the top of his head. “Please crack the vows thing, Fr. Rob. Andrew’s finally coming around, and I might find a ring in my stocking this year. I want you to marry us so bad.”

Rob felt himself blushing. As soon as Bishop Hughes received his incardination agreement, he would gain episcopal faculties and lose his last excuse to dodge the question of what he could and could not do as a priest.

Suzy turned back to the tree, glass ornaments in each hand. “Dumpling, he can marry you and Andrew any time you want. What he can’t do is marry me.”

Rob did not want to re-ignite the vows argument in front of a young woman who, in Dr. Pangloss’ best of all possible worlds, might have been his own daughter. “Maria, your mother and I both need annulments, each of a different sort. By our dumb luck, both kinds are hard to come by these days.”

Maria sat down on the stepladder, stretching her very long legs out in front of her. “It all sounds like a paperwork problem to me. Would God really get upset if you two just went off and did it?”

Rob blushed again, unsure what answer he could make to that. “Doing it” had more than one meaning, and both were an issue. He pursed his lips but said nothing.

Maria’s smile faded. “It’s really all about sex, isn’t it?”

Suzy turned back from the tree, and nodded toward Maria. “It is about sex. It’s always about sex. Sex is the only thing the Church cares about anymore. If I could make a case that I’d never had sex with Joe it would be open-and-shut, but there’s this little problem I have, and she’s sitting right over there.”

Rob expected Maria to laugh, or at least work up a little of her mother’s impish grin. Instead, the young woman who was so good at eye contact looked down at her feet and smoothed her plaid wool skirt across her knees. Suzy and Maria had gone this way before, Rob realized, and it clearly hadn’t turned out well. What did Maria think of her father? One might argue about the process-and the paperwork-but under certain circumstances marriage could be reversed. Fatherhood, now…

Rob knelt on one knee by Maria’s feet and placed his hands over one of hers. “It’s not only about sex. Love needs to respect the promises that it makes.”

Maria looked up. Rob expected tears. What he saw was the sort of confusion that was the precursor to anger. “Maybe. But why shouldn’t promises respect the love that created them?”

(c) 2013 by Jeff Duntemann. All Rights Reserved. Do not repost.

Odd Lots

The Zombie Bandwagon

On this fine Halloween Sunday morning, I have to ask: W(h)ither zombies? I’ve read about why pirates like parrots, but the undying love steampunkers hold for death-in-self-denial has always puzzled me. I guess it’s part of the punk rather than the steam, and I’ve always been better at steam than punk. A recent blog post by Charles Stross has created enough noise in the blogosphere to wake the dead: Charlie is annoyed at the fact that steampunk has become a bandwagon, and he doesn’t do bandwagons. (My overall reaction to the post is that Charlie protesteth too much, and by the end sounds like he’s annoyed because he didn’t jump on the bandwagon when it rolled past his house.)

One place where Charlie and I agree: zombies. They’ve been done to, well, you know. He’s locked horns with Cherie Priest, a gung-ho Seattle steampunk writer who’s had a lot to do with populating the steampunk universe with shambling horrors, which she very aptly calls “rotters.”

The problem may be that steampunk as a subgenre is shattering, and parts of it are slithering across the floor and merging with paranormal costume fantasy. (I’ll know when I grab and read one of Cherie’s books.) Perhaps it’s time to claim a subsubgenre as “hard steampunk,” where we get to keep the pipe fittings but bury the dead. I could do that. I may already have. (See “Drumlin Boiler,” which I’d rather see considered steampunk than weird western.)

Zombies are not a new thing. I was given a zombie story called “Impulse” to read aloud at a Boy Scout summer camp campfire gathering in 1964, and it was decent. (I wish I could find it again, but I don’t remember the author. I think it goes back to the Fifties.) Unless I misrecall–and that was 46 years ago–it was about some sort of telepathic alien goo that tries to use a dead body as a disguise and finds it doesn’t work well. Surprise! I saw plenty of zombie movies as a much younger man, and have read more than my share of zombie fiction. (The best? George R.R. Martin’s “Override.”) To my hard SF mind it’s a difficult business. Biological systems are more resilient than mechanical ones, but after all, we call them “dead” when they don’t work anymore. If they get up and start working again, I find it hard to still think of them as dead.

In truth, what I mostly think of them as these days is funny. I have a whimsical novel called Ten Gentle Opportunities on ice right now that turns De Camp’s Harold Shea concept on its ear, and posits a sort of magic hacker from a universe where magic works as a consistent alternate physics (with spells a sort of immaterial software) who jumps universes to escape from an enraged magician and lands here on Earth. To escape pursuit while still in his own magical world, he makes his way into a zombie trap, where the zombies check in but can’t check out. Alas, physics is a bitch, whether magical or not.

Getting the dead to stay dead was an increasingly serious problem. Formerly living material was powerfully endomagical: Once the Great Magic of life drained out of it, a corpse would soak up any uncommitted Third Eye magic in its immediate surroundings, and if enough were available would get up and start shambling around again, breaking things and getting into fights.

For most of history, magic had been rare and valuable, and the few magicians in the world tended to be well-bred and tidy. Unnecessary or broken spells were always frotted back to the primordial chaos from which they had been drawn. Alas, as the archipelago grew crowded, younger magicians lacking an inheritance increasingly turned to drink and careless spellmaking to obtain what they wanted. Few landless magicians studied hard enough to advance to Adamant Class. The spells blikked up by drunken Ruby-classers were complicated and fragile, and rapidly broke down into increasingly tiny fragments that nonetheless had to be individually frotted to be rid of them. No one would bother, especially the Amethyst and Adamant classes, who thought of spellfrotting as something one did only to one’s own magic. So little by little, invisible grains of useless magic blew around the world on the very winds, ready to be absorbed by a corpse’s hungry substance.

Most folk lacking the Third Eye grumbled that Global Enlivening was a conspiracy by magicians, who were the only ones who could unbreakably bind a corpse to its own etheric shell such that both would comfortably and permanently disintegrate. Within Styppkk’s own lifetime, mean-time-to-shamble had fallen from a comfortable fortnight to only three days, and if a magician could not be found (and paid) to conduct a proper funeral and shellstaking by then, one’s deceased relatives would wander off, though walls as easily as through doors.

The problem had grown acute enough two centuries earlier that the world’s Adamant magicians had collaborated on the creation of the great lychfields, which were zombie traps: The bait was earth magic, which though powerful was not absorbed by dead flesh. The simple spell at the heart of every lychfield made earth magic smell like Third Eye magic, attracting zombies that were already ambulant. Once inside, they could not get out, and eventually exhausted the ambient magic they had absorbed and crumbled to bones and dust.

Styppkk had read it all in Wiccapedia, and as he got to his feet he felt around in his many pockets for the requisite spells. He knew how to command zombies and had done it a time or two, usually as a way of getting cheap if not especially skilled labor. This time what he wanted was a diversion. In only seconds, the shambling horrors in the lychfield would smell the magic he had in his pockets, and would turn in his direction. Then the real fun would begin.

Seconds passed, then minutes. Nothing. Styppkk looked around in the gloom. He saw no movement. There was no sound but the unnerving trickle of water down the granite walls enclosing the lychfield. He took a step forward, and crunched on ancient bones–then tripped over a motionless body that shuddered only slightly at the indignity.

Something was wrong, and Styppkk knew that in relatively short order, Jrikkjroggmugg would be over the wall and on his case again. He fished a clamshell phial from an inside pocket, snapped it open, and dipped his left pinkie in the dust it contained. Seconds later, his pinkie burst into brilliant but cold flame, and Styppkk could now see clearly to the far wall of the lychfield. There were plenty of zombies, but none were moving. In many places, they were stacked like cordwood or leaning against one another like tottering monoliths in a henge. Styppkk counted hundreds by eye.

On a hunch, Styppkk flipped down his helmet’s crystal daggers again, so to see how strongly the magically animated zombies were glowing. Nothing was glowing very strongly…but every zombie in sight was glowing identically. Of course! Like water, uncommitted Third Eye magic sought its own level, and newly-arrived zombies confined in close proximity to older zombies lost some of their magic to the lychfield’s older denizens, until at some point there was so little magic to go around that nothing was even twitching, much less shambling.

Styppkk fixes that, of course, and I get to make fun of the zombie fad on a large scale, while putting forth my own vision of magic-as-alternate-physics. (Want me to finish it? Then find me an agent. I’m not having much luck on my own.)

That’s my take on zombies. They’re kind of like reuben sandwiches or Drambuie: Not my thing on the consumption side, but as a bartender or deli owner I’d serve them up without a twitch to paying customers. (Hey, I sold lots of C++ books from Coriolis, right?) As for bandwagons, well, let’s consider that bandwagons don’t roll without customer demand to pull them. Sorry, Charlie. Zombies taste good, whether or not they’re in good taste. People are buying Cherie Priest’s books and those of many others who are plowing that same field, which means that zombies are now firmly planted in the fantasy landscape. I’m a starships guy by birth and I’ve been waiting for the elves’n’gnomes’n’dragons thing to die out for fifteen years or so, but by this time, them having taken over 80% of the SFF shelf space at Border’s, I’d say it ain’t gonna happen.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to start writing zombie stories, apart from (perhaps) Ten Gentle Opportunities, which treats zombies only in passing. I will only raise for my fellow writers the possibility that unless you’re big enough to have your own wagon (as Charlie Stross certainly is) it probably makes sense to grab the first one past that you know you can ride–and if the other passengers’ arms come off as they pull you aboard, so be it.