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Ghosts from the Trunk: Jeff Invents Selfies in 1983

Earlier today, one of my Twitter correspondents mentioned that he much liked my conceptual descriptions of wearable computers called jiminies. I did a couple of short items in PC Techniques describing a technology I first wrote about in 1983, when I was trying to finish a novel called The Lotus Machine. I got the idea for jiminies in the late 1970s, with elements of the technology dating back to my Clarion in 1973. (I wrote a little about that back in November.) A jiminy was a computer that you pinned to your lapel, or wore as a pair of earrings, or wore in the frames of your glasses. Jiminies talked, they listened, and for the most part they understood. I remember the first time I ever saw an Amazon Echo in action. Cripes! It’s a jiminy!

1983 was pre-mobile. Jiminies communicated with one another via modulated infrared light. Since almost everybody had one, they were almost always connected to an ad-hoc jiminy network that could pass data from one to another using a technology I surmised would be like UUCP, which I had access to at Xerox starting in 1981. I never imagined that a jiminy would have its own display, because they were supposed to be small and inobtrusive. Besides, our screens were 80 X 24 text back then, and if you’d told me we’d have full color flat screens soon, I’d have thought you were crazy. So like everything else (except the big bulky Alto machine in the corner of our lab) jiminies were textual devices. It was spoken text, but still text.

I never finished The Lotus Machine. I was trying to draw a believable character in Corum Vavrik, and I just don’t think I was emotionally mature enough to put across the nuances I planned. Corum was originally a rock musician using a technology that played music directly into your brain through a headband that worked like an EEG in reverse. Then he became a ghost hacker, where “ghost” was a term for an AI running inside a jiminy. Finally he went over to the other side, and became a cybercrime investigator. Something was killing everyone he ever cared about, and as the story opens, he’s pretty sure he knows what: a rogue AI he created and called the Lotus Machine.

The story takes place in 2047, with most of the action in Chicago and southern Illinois. I realized something startling as I flipped through the old Word Perfect document files: I predicted selfies. Take a look. Yes, it’s a little dumb. I was 31, and as my mom used to say, I was young for my age. But damn, I predicted selfies. That’s gotta be worth something.


From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)

Against the deep Illinois night the air over the silver ellipse on the dashboard pulsed sharply once in cream-colored light and rippled to clarity. Corum’s younger face looked out from the frozen moment into the car’s interior with a disturbing manic intensity, raising a freeform gel goblet of white wine, other arm swung back, hand splayed against a wood frieze carved into Mondrianesque patterns. His crown was bare even then, but the fringe at ear level grew to shoulder length, mahogany brown, thick in cohesive waves.

“Please stop tormenting yourself,” Ragpicker said.

“Shut up. Give me a full face on each person at the table.”

“Ok.” One by one, Ragpicker displayed each person sharing the booth with Corum that night. Three faces in tolerable light; one profile badly seen in shadow. When people congregated, their jiminies cooperated to record the scenes, silently trading images through infrared eyes, helping one another obtain the best views of vain owners.

A slender man with waist-length black hair. “Dunphy. Dead ten years now.” Steel grey hair and broken nose. “Lambrakis. Dead too, was it four, five years?”

“Five.”

A lightly built Japanese with large, burning eyes. “Feanor. Damn! Him too.”

The profile…little to go by but thick lips and small, upturned nose. “I’m pretty sure that was Cinoq-the nose is right. How sure are we that that’s Cinoq?”

“Ninety percent. You began sleeping with him some months later. Of course, if he had had a jiminy…”

“Damned radical atavist. I often wonder how he could stand us.” The car leaned into a curve. Corum’s fingers tightened on the armrest. “He died that year. Gangfight. Who else heard us?”

“In that environment, no one. It was four A.M. and nearly empty, and the fugues were playing especially loud. At your request.”

Corum stared out at the night, watched a small cluster of houses vanish to one side, tiny lights here and there in distant windows. “An awful lot of my friends have died young. Everybody from the Gargoyle, the whole Edison Park crowd-where’s Golda now? Any evidence?”

“Not a trace. No body. Just gone.” The ghost paused, Corum knew, for effect only. It was part of Ragpicker’s conversational template. So predictably unpredictable. “She hated it all, all but the Deep Music.”

“It’s not music.” Not the way he had played it, nor Feanor, nor the talentless dabblers like Lambrakis. Golda wanted to reach into the midbrain with the quiet melodies of the New England folk instruments she made herself from bare wood. It didn’t work-couldn’t, not in a medium that spoke directly to the subconscious. Rock could be felt, but true music had to be listened to.

She loved me, Corum thought. So what did I do? Sleep with men. Sleep with teenage girls.

“She took drugs,” Ragpicker reminded. “You hated drugs.”

“Shut up. Dead, like everybody else. All but me. And why me?”

“It isn’t you!”

“It is. We’ve got to find the Lotus Machine, Rags.”

Silence.

“We’re going to start looking.”

Silence.

Ragpicker!

The ghost said nothing. Corum reached up to his lapel, felt the warm black coffin shape pinned there, with two faceted garnet eyes. A ghost, a hacked ghost, hacked by the best ghosthack who ever lived, hacked so that it could not assist in any search for what Corum most wished to forget.

“I hacked you a good hack, old spook. But it’s time to own up. I’ll find the Lotus Machine myself. And someday I’ll unhack you. Promise”

Guest Post from Brian Niemeier: Here Comes The Secret Kings

Before I turn it over to Brian, a note or two on what this is about. First of all, if you haven’t read what I wrote as intro to his first guest post, it’s here and worth reading. Brian’s making quite a stir in the business, and it’s in part his success (and the success of other indie writers that I hang with) that led me to scrub traditional publishing out of my life last year. A key element of my long game is to create a new blog that follows the same general functional model as the Mad Genius Club, with posts from several indie writers on the process of writing, the tech of self-publishing, news and announcements, excerpts, odd lots, and pertinent gossip about the industry as a whole. When this happens is unclear, but I’m working on it. It’ll be 100% trad-free and 277.79% contrarian. No fake news, some commentary, and (I certainly hope) a near-daily posting schedule. Watch This Space. And now, heeeeeerrrrrreeee’s Brian:


The Secret Kings-cover-15.jpgGreetings, Contrapositive Diary readers! Jeff has kindly lent me his blog to announce the launch of my new SFF novel The Secret Kings, Soul Cycle Book III. This book is the follow up to Souldancer, the first–and so far, only–indie novel to win a Dragon Award. But whereas Souldancer took the Best Horror Novel prize, the sequel fits much more comfortably into the space opera genre with a more straightforward plot that’s even more focused on action. The Secret Kings is also the point in the series where events and concepts from prior books really gel. Characters from Nethereal and Souldancer get drawn together in ways that early readers found highly intriguing, and plot threads spun in earlier installments find satisfying conclusions.

This isn’t the end, though! Leave it to the guy who bypassed the traditional publishing path altogether to also buck the trilogy trend. I can divulge right now that there will be a Soul Cycle Book IV, and inf fact, a preview of what’s in store next is included at the end of The Secret Kings. It’s an understatement to say that this series has exceeded expectations. Nethereal earned me a Campbell nomination. Souldancer won a Dragon. By all accounts, The Secret Kings marks a new series high point. There’s no telling where this ride will take us, so get on board!

Thanks again to Jeff for helping out with my book launch, and for all of his sterling advice. You can be certain that I’m just getting warmed up.

Merry Christmas,
Brian Niemeier

Odd Lots

I’ve been low-energy for a month or so, following the worst chestcold I can recall. Still coughing a little bit; still low-energy. I’m working up the nerve to write a a series on health insurance that will doubtless infuriate everyone, but since I’m also furious, I guess it factors out. Stay tuned.


Kreepy Klown Kraziness

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Attention Mr. & Mrs. America and all the ships at sea! The White House has issued a statement on the Creepy Clown hysteria now gripping the nation. Although the Press Secretary wasn’t sure the President had been briefed on the Clown Crisis, he did say that the White House defers to the FBI on clown issues. A Bay Area paper has an interactive map of clown sightings. Police in Utah have warned the public not to shoot random clowns. (There’s been no mention of polite, orderly, or non-chaotic clowns.) It’s still three weeks to Halloween, and clown costume sales are up 300%.

As Dave Barry used to say (often): I am not making this up.

Ok. I have an interest in scary clowns. I was still in Chicago when John Wayne Gacy AKA Pogo the Clown was strangling teen boys and stuffing them into his crawlspace. In fact, I lived a little less than two miles away from him. (One of Carol’s high school friends lived only three blocks away.) A guy I met once but didn’t know well (he was the friend of a friend) used to go to movies with Gacy, but somehow managed to stay out of the crawlspace. I saw portions of Killer Klowns from Outer Space on TV once, in part because it was filmed in Santa Cruz, California, while Carol and I lived there. I consider It to be Stephen King’s best work; so much so that I’m planning to lampoon ol’ Pennywise in a future Stypek novel.

In 2011, I finally realized a longstanding goal of building a short novel around scary (if not evil) clowns. In Drumlin Circus, circusmaster Bramble Ceglarek has four clowns who are also his bodyguards. In the first chapter we get a very good look at how scary they can be, when they capture an assassin sent by the shadowy Bitspace Institute. The novel can be seen as a sequel to “Drumlin Boiler,” though the only common character is Rosa Louise Kolze, the tweener girl who has a peculiar rapport with the mysterious Thingmaker alien replicators, and the “drumlins” that they produce. It’s available on Kindle for $2.99, and includes a second short Drumlins World novel, On Gossamer Wings, by Jim Strickland. (You can also get a paperback for $11.99.)

So what precisely is going on here? Is it just the latest moral panic? If so, why clowns? Why now? Or is it something entirely different?

There are some theories. One is that our secular society rejects traditional religious images of devils/demons/evil spirits, and somebody had to be the face of Demonic 2.0. Clowns were handy.

Another: Clowns may scare small children because they violate the template of what a human being should look like. We’re hardwired by evolutionary selection to recognize faces (which is why it’s so common to see Jesus’ face in a scorched tortilla, or generic faces in smoke marks on a wall, etc.) and as a consequence we’re repelled by facial deformities. Clown makeup is calculated facial deformity.

Yet another: We’re watching the emergence of an archetype in the collective unconscious. Evil clowns are not a brand-new thing. Pennywise, Stephen King’s evil-incarnate clown from the fifth dimension, got a whole lot of play in the midlate 80s, and started the nasty clown idea on its way to cultural trope. He may in turn have been drawing on “phantom clown” sightings, popularized by Loren Coleman, who wrote several book-length compendia of “unsolved mysteries” and other weirdnesses in the early 1980s. Coleman lent support to the notion that clowns are the new demons, though the whole business (like much else in his books, entertaining though it might be) sounds like a tall tale. He’s on Twitter, and has been covering the clown thing in recent days on his blog. (Coleman figures into this in another, more serious way that I’ll come back to.)

But first, I have a theory of my own: The nature of humor is changing. What most people think of as “clowning” is physical comedy, which goes back to the dawn of time. A lot of physical comedy down through history was hurtful. In our own time, the Three Stooges were considered hilarious, and most of their act was slapping or poking each other in the eyes. Much humor involves pain. “Punch & Judy” goes back to the 17th Century, and a big part of it is Punch slugging people with a club. Tormenting animals (often to death) as entertainment was common in past centuries. A lot of people saw it as funny.

Why? Humor appears to be a coping response to pain and suffering, confusion and disorder. (“Twenty years from now, we’ll all laugh about this.”) At least in the West, we’ve gone to great lengths to minimize pain, suffering, and disorder. At the same time, we’ve achieved near-universal literacy. In consequence, a great deal of humor is now verbal rather than physical, and much of it stems from incongruity and confusion rather than pain.

So the image of guys in exaggerated costumes and facial makeup tearing around being random, honking horns, falling on their faces, and sometimes engaging in sham mayhem among themselves is just not as funny as it used to be. It’s a short tumble from “not funny” to “nasty,” and that’s I think what lies at the core of the fall of clowns from grace.

Now, there’s something else. Loren Coleman published a book in 2004 called The Copycat Effect. It’s not about clowns or Bigfoot or urban legends, but about the media’s ability to take a concept, twist it toward nastiness for maximum effect (“If it bleeds, it leads”) and then be surprised when reports of violence or other crime take on a life of their own, sometimes spawning violence or criminal activity of a similar nature.

I have a hunch that this sort of feedback loop is behind Kreepy Klown Kraziness. The concept has gone pedal-to-the-floor viral, to the point where Penn State students went out on a frenzied nocturnal clown hunt that only lacked torches and pitchforks to be considered a lynch mob. Social networking barely existed when Coleman’s book appeared in 2004. Today, Facebook and Twitter turn the dial up to 11.

Between the transformation of clowns into unfunny secular demons like Pennywise and the amplifying effect of clickbait sites and social media, we find ourselves with a genuine case of national hysteria. It may take some time to burn out, but if #ClownLivesMatter becomes a real thing, the phenomenon may be gone sooner than we think.

In the meantime, leave your rubber nose in a drawer until the heat dies down.

Monthwander

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Where the hell have I been?

Here. Working like a sumbitch at 6700 feet above sea level, on things that may or may not be interesting to anyone but Carol and me. There is a lot of money tied up in this house, and the goal is to untie it as quickly as possible. On most days, come suppertime I am toast, and have not had the wherewithal to post anything interesting here on Contra since mid-May. Contrary to rumor I am not dead, nor anything close to it. I’ve been rearranging my sock drawer, for very large values of “sock drawer.”

It’s old news to my Facebook readers, but my garage floor has been cracked up (see above) and carted out, after which they brought in a dump truck full of road base fill, thumped it down very thoroughly, and then re-poured the concrete slab. It has to sit curing for five weeks before they can do the epoxy floor coating, but the worst of that task is out of the way.

The restorative surgery on Phage House continues. The painting is done. We’ve had the linen closet doors straightened. The ill-fitting cattle pen/dog run has been dismantled and donated to All Breed Rescue. We sold our snow blower on Craigslist, thinking that we won’t need it much in Phoenix. The granite counters and new kitchen fixtures are in and they’re drop-dead gorgeous. (Why didn’t we do this five or six years ago?) The staging lady has been hired and is ready to roll as soon as we get everything not required for staging into boxes. So as time and energy allow I’m boxing up all the stuff that didn’t go down to Phoenix back in December. We’ve given a lot to Goodwill and our friend Deidre who has an indoor flea market table. There’s more than I thought. (More, and heavier. Think vintage power transformers and filter chokes.) Lots more.

But then again, isn’t there always?

We should have been a little more forthcoming with our friends. Yesterday, a woman we’ve known since college and haven’t seen in several years sent me an email to say, “We’re in Colorado Springs on our way home from New Mexico. It’s so sad that you’re not here anymore.”

Gakkh.

No writing has been done, though I occasionally take notes on The Molten Flesh. Instead I’ve been reading copyedited chapters on my Raspberry Pi book, which would have been much easier if I weren’t trying to load half a house into boxes. (And no, I cannot explain SSL in two paragraphs. Sorry.) I still don’t know when it’s going to be published. Hell, I don’t even know who my co-author is. I do know that writing chapters in 2013 to be published in early 2017 is a really dumb way to do things, especially for computer books. Not that it was my idea.

One of my early readers of Ten Gentle Opportunities asked me to write a side-story about Bones, an AI animated skeleton who worked the crowds in a screen at a big amusement park until he was archived because he scared little kids too much, even though at heart he was a gentle and sensitive soul. The idea appeals to me. Later in the year. We’ll see. Side-stories are something I’m not used to and may have to practice a little to get right. This might be a good, er, opportunity.

The Sun has been completely blank for four days. This is peculiar, given that the solar maximum was in 2014. I would expect this in 2019. I do not expect it now. It does make me think that moving to Phoenix was the right things to do.

I am reading in the evenings, and watching a few movies. Carol and I saw Inside Out for the first time last week. It is hands-down the strangest animated film I’ve ever seen…and one of the best. I knew Sadness in college; she was in a lot of my classes. (Actually, there were considerably more than one of her.) If I hadn’t been dating Carol then, well, I would have stood in line to go out with Joy. And when Bing Bong faded out for the last time in the Chasm of Lost Memories, I caught a tear running down my cheek. If you’re going to have an imaginary friend, well, he’d be the one to have. (Mine mostly asked me to drop silverware down the cold-air return.)

I’m not done with it yet, but in The Big Fat Surprise, Nina Teicholz finally drives a stake through Ancel Keys’ heart. You will live longer by eating more saturated fat. Keys and his shitlord minions murdered millions. Don’t be one of them.

I have too many power transformers. Some of them are going to have to go. I see a few of them (like the old Collins items that I’ve had since the ’70s) are going for $100 and up on eBay. Smells like easy money to me.

Anyway. I’m working very hard doing boring things, harder things and more boring than I’ve seen in one period for a very long time. I guess this is just what it takes. With any luck at all, the move to Phoenix will be done by August, and I can start being interesting again. Nobody’s looking forward to this more than me.

I Should’ve Been a Jedi

Hey, country music fans, find yourself an overripe banana (or in Sarah Hoyt’s universe, a ten-pound carp) and get your swingin’ arm ready. I used to write a lot of filk songs but got out of the habit twenty or thirty years ago. Well…guess what?

Just in case you’re not familiar with the original, it’s on YouTube.


I Should’ve Been a Jedi

(By Jeff Duntemann; to Toby Keith’s “I Should’ve Been a Cowboy”)

 

I’ll bet you never heard ol’ Luke Skywalker say:

“Princess Leia, have you ever thought of runnin’ away?

Settlin’ down, would ya marry me?

(or at least get me the hell away from Tatooine..)”

 

She’d’ve said “yukkh!” in a New York minute;

Incest’s against the law; there’s no future in it.

She just stole a kiss as they swung away;

Luke never let his hormones…get out of place.

 

Refrain:

I should’ve been a Jedi

I should’ve learned there is no “try…”

Wavin’ my light saber, knockin’ the arms right off some ugly guy.

Blowin’ them Empire ships

Right out of the sky;

Nukin’ those Death Star cores;

Oh, I shoulda been a Jedi.

 

I mighta had a sidekick with a fuzzy mane,

Flyin’ blind by the Force, just like Ben explained.

Takin’ potshots at a Tusken Raider;

Givin’ a hand to your daddy Vader…

 

Blast off, young man, ain’tcha seen them flicks?

Outer space is full of rayguns, wookies, and chicks!

 

Sleepin out all night inside a tauntaun’s guts,

With my dreams in the stars instead of freezin’ my butt…

 

(Refrain X2)

I should’ve been a Jedi!

I should’ve been a Jedi!

Sad Puppies 4 and the Doomsday Slate

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Earlier today I sensed a great disturbance in the Internet, as though millions of heads had suddenly exploded in anguish. Oh, wait–today was Hugo Nominations day! So I took a quick look around, and…

…the Puppies had done it again.

I would try to analyze the numbers here, but the folks over at Chaos Horizon have already done it for us. Check back there over the next few days; I suspect a lot more analysis is coming.

My first insight: Only novels get any respect in the SFF universe these days. 3,695 people nominated in the Best Novel category. The next category down only got 2,904 nominations (Dramatic Presentation, Long Form) with ever-slimmer pickins’ after that. Barely a thousand people nominated for the Best Fan Artist category.

The really good news is that there were 4,032 nominating ballots cast, roughly twice what Sasquan got last year. It’s impossible to tell where those new people came from, but whatever their provenance, I’ll bet MidAmericon II isn’t complaining about all that delicious money. That was the idea, after all: The subtitle of Sad Puppies 4 is “The Embiggening.” I was not alone last year in suggesting that the only thing really wrong with the Hugo Awards is that almost nobody participates. 4,000 ballots sound like a lot, but when you consider that 100,000+ people routinely attend events like DragonCon and ComiCon, the Hugos start to look like a rounding error. If 25,000 people registered for Worldcon, and 20,000 nominated, there wouldn’t be enough logs in the Western Hemisphere to roll any single faction to victory.

By my counts (starting with a nice tally on Breitbart) only ten nominees out of a total of eighty were not on one of the Puppy ballots. 70 of 80 is 87%. Obviously, a lot of those 87% were just really good people and works that probably would have been on the ballot anyway. However, one must consider finalists like the TV cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and (egad) “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle. The works are real, and not hoaxes (though I had to check on Chuck Tingle to be sure) but the nominations sound to me like shows of force.

Which brings us to the Big Ugly: Which Puppy list was the most influential? Another count from the Breitbart results tells me that 61 out of the 80 nominees were on the Rabid Puppies list. 76%. 36 out of the 80 (45%) were on the Sad Puppies list. I grinned to see that, as much as the Puppies claim to loathe Mike Glyer and his fanzine File 770, both are on the final ballot–and both were on the Puppies lists. Anybody with an IQ greater than 17 knows what’s up with that: Last year’s tactic of voting against anything on the Puppy lists will be…complicated…in 2016.

What the anti-Puppies seem to be saying is that they’ll kiss off 2016 and bide their time, confident that E Pluribus Hugo will be added to Worldcon rules next year, and the Puppies will henceforth be out of luck. I’m not going to explain EPH here, though I’m willing to give the new rules a fair chance, knowing that they will be analyzed to death by people way better at number crunching than I. (I doubt I’m alone in thinking that changing the rules after you get your butt whipped sounds, well, weak-king-ish.)

The problem is this: The Puppies may not dominate the ballot in years to come, but one particular slate just might. Nothing in EPH makes the No Award slate difficult to use. (As I suggested earlier, having several anti-Puppy favorites on the Puppy lists will indeed make it a little tricky.) Last year the anti-Puppies encouraged their followers to vote a slate of one–No Award–against any category dominated by the Puppies. It worked: Five categories were reduced to irrelevance via the No Award slate. I suspect it’s going to happen again this year.

What happens in the wake of EPH? Well, c’mon. Do you honestly think Vox Day won’t use No Award too? He’s said straight out that he intends to burn down the Hugo Awards. Last year the APs pretty much did it for him, but if he can get his recs into three quarters of the slots, he can burn down as many categories as he wants via No Award. This isn’t the place to get into all the usual fistfights about Vox and where he gets his power and why we all need to condemn him. (That’s been done to death.) This is the place to realize that what one side can do, the other side can too.

It’s a mess, eh? Well, I have an audacious suggestion: Change the Hugo rules again so that No Award is outlawed. If EPH works as designed, the APs won’t need No Award. And if No Award is outlawed, somebody like Vox can’t use it.

No Award is The Doomsday Slate. Unless it’s outlawed, people on one side or another will use it until there’s nothing left of the Hugo Awards. Think hard now: Is that really what you want?

Now Available: Souls in Silicon on Kindle and KU

Souls in Silicon: Tales of AI Confronting the Infinite

I am pleased to announce the Kindle ebook edition of Souls in Silicon, my second short fiction collection, containing all my stories about strong AI, plus excerpts from both The Cunning Blood and Ten Gentle Opportunities. It’s available for $2.99, or as part of your Kindle Unlimited subscription. No DRM.

The POD paperback edition has been available since 2008. I’ve updated the cover to a more legible font; the same font used in The Cunning Blood and Cold Hands and Other Stories. I’m evolving a line look here, and so far, I like it a lot. The original cover type font for Souls in Silicon was a little more atmospheric, but it didn’t read well on Amazon thumbnails. The cover art is the same 2008 drawing by Richard Bartrop, created specifically for the book.

The stories inside are all the stories I’ve written about strong AI that I’m pleased with:

  • “The Steel Sonnets”
  • “Guardian”
  • “Silicon Psalm”
  • “Marlowe”
  • “Borovsky’s Hollow Woman” (with Nancy Kress)
  • “Bathtub Mary”
  • “STORMY vs the Tornadoes”
  • “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs”

People who have followed my work closely since the beginning (there are a few) will notice that “Ariel” from Burchenal Green’s Tales of the Marvelous Machine isn’t here. It wasn’t in the POD paperback either. The reasons are complicated. “Ariel” centered on two characters from a failed novel that I was tinkering in 1980 and eventually abandoned as untenable. The theology, furthermore, is dicey. I know more now than I did then. A modern priest who grew up with computer technology would not have the reaction that Fr. Fiocca did to Ariel the AI.

So I’ve wondered here and there down the years if I should rewrite the story. If I did it would be a pretty radical rewrite. That decision will have to wait for another day; there’s too much to do in the meantime. I have one more significant story, a longish novella, that needs to be dealt with and posted on Kindle, but it has its own share of problems, which I’ll talk about in a future Contra entry.

In the meantime, Souls in Silicon is up there. Go get it. Don’t forget to drop a review on Amazon when you can.

Right now, I have stuff to write. Lots of stuff.

Ten Gentle Opportunities: Go Get It!

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In case you hadn’t gotten the word yet, this morning Amazon cleared my upload of Ten Gentle Opportunities, and it’s now in the catalog, ready to buy for $2.99, or as part of your Kindle Unlimited subscription. No DRM. Cover by the utterly amazing Blake Henriksen. It’s in a genre that barely exists anymore: Humorous SF and fantasy, with a pinch of satire for those with ears to listen. I tried to shop it to tradpub imprints for a couple of years after I finished it in 2012. An editor at a major press told me that Douglas Adams did SF humor so well that nobody else can ever hope to compete.

Huh? That’s like saying that Heinlein did hard SF so well that nobody else should bother to try. Well, dammit, I’m competing. More than one of my beta readers said the book kept them up all night, and one called it “pee-your-pants funny.” Me, I consider that a win.

The book has an interesting history. I’ve been fooling with it for almost fifty years.

Here’s the story. Back in 1967, when I was 15, I got an idea: What if there were a sort of partial or incomplete magician who could change magical spells, but not create them? What sort of mischief could he get into? I called him The Spellbender, and started writing a story about him. I shared it with the writer girl down the street, and we talked about collaborating on it. Nothing came of that, because she and I had utterly incompatible understandings of magic. She saw it as a sort of moody, ethereal, hard-to-control spiritual discipline. I saw it as alternative physics. (We had other issues as well; when I finally meet God I’m going to ask him if He could please flash the human firmware and get rid of puberty.)

Not much happened on the story. I had a short catalog of gimmicks and little else. The Spellbender had a sidekick who was an incompetent djinn named Shrovo. Not only could he not remember how many wishes he gave people, he simply couldn’t count, and so had had his djinn license revoked for reckless and excessive wishgranting. Sure, it sounds dumb. I was 15.

I eventually got bored with it and tossed it back in the trunk, where it stayed until 1978. That year I read it over, dumped Shrovo, and told another tale about the Spellbender, which I presented at the Windy City Writers’ Workshop, in front of luminaries like George R. R. Martin and Gene Wolfe. Nobody liked it. Back in the trunk it went.

Come 1983, I had become a close friend of Nancy Kress, and we surprised one another by collaborating on a novelette that was published in Omni and drew a surprising amount of favorable buzz. If we could pull off “Borovsky’s Hollow Woman,” well, what else could we do? Nan suggested a contemporary fantasy, and I was quick to sketch out still another take on the spellbender concept, adding in the sort of universe-jumping gimmick that Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt had used to such good effect in the Harold Shea stories. A spellbender who had gotten on the wrong side of a magician jumps universes to finds a place to hide, and lands in a small-town advertising agency in our near future. Nan was working for precisely such an agency at the time, and told the story of a staff meeting at which someone was talking emphatically about tangential opportunities, which Nan heard as “ten gentle opportunities.” I knew a great title when I saw one, and grabbed it.

I also drew on a novelette I wrote in 1981, which centered on a war in a robotic copier factory, and an AI named Simple Simon.

We tried. We really did. But as it turned out, Nan could move in a hard SF world a great deal more nimbly than I was able to move in a fantasy world. Shades of Lee Anne down the street. (Puberty, at least, was no longer an issue.) After a few thousand words she ceded me what we had and we decided to set it aside. Back in the trunk it went, this time for almost 25 years.

The Cunning Blood came out in hardcover in 2005, and garnered enough rave reviews (including one from Glenn Reynolds and another from Tom Easton at Analog) to make me feel like I should start something else. As was my habit, I went digging around in my trunk for concepts. Three aborted novels came to hand: My cyberpunk experiment, The Lotus Machine; a gimmicky hard SF concept called Alas, Yorick; and Ten Gentle Opportunities. The Lotus Machine went back in the trunk almost immediately; by now I understand that, as cyber as I might be, punk remains forever beyond my powers. I spent a fair amount of time reading and meditating on the 14,000 words I had of Alas, Yorick, but ultimately went with Ten Gentle Opportunities. Why? I like humor and I’m intrigued by the challenges of writing it. I had an ensemble of interesting characters, and the very rich vein of “fish out of water” humor to mine. And–gakkh–it was fun! Can’t have that now; we’re serious SF writers…

Basically, I went with fun. And it was.

I wrote three or four chapters in 2006, then got distracted by another concept that I’ve mentioned here, Old Catholics. TGO didn’t exactly go back in the trunk, but I didn’t touch it again until February 2011. That’s when I took it to this new writer’s group I’d joined. I submitted the first thousand words or so for critique and asked them if the concept was worth pursuing. The answer was yes, and it was unanimous.

I took it to Walter Jon Williams’ Taos Toolbox workshop that summer, and got my momentum back. After that it was my main writing project until I finished it in November 2012. I asked my nonfiction agent to shop it, and some shopping got done, but there were no nibbles. So several months ago I took it back and decided to publish it myself.

Oh–and then we kicked into high gear with our move to Phoenix. Writing of all sorts went on the back burner.

Which brings us to the current day. There’s a lot to be done yet here in the new house, but the end is at least in sight. We’re far enough along that I can afford to take a couple of days a week to Just Write. Which brings me (again) to the question of what I do now.

Truth is, I don’t know. But I’ll think of something.

Daywander

Dead Rat and Squid - 500 Wide.jpg

We had another estimator come out today for the move. After she was gone, once again Carol and I collapsed on the couch and didn’t say much for awhile. The reason is interesting: After working on this move for as long as we have (and with about 150 boxes stacked up to prove it) we get worn out thinking about how much we still have to do. We’re going to drive down to Phoenix in November with a small U-Haul trailer and no dogs, to make sure all the work on the new house was completed and done correctly. Then we fly back and kick into high gear on packing in preparation for a December move.

A fair amount of stuff will remain in this house so that we can come back in the spring to finish repairs and stage it for sale. That will take a couple of months, and we’ll have to have the ordinary machineries of life available while we work: clothes, a bed, a kitchen table, a coffee maker, a couch, kitchen implements, etc. Resistors and capacitors, not so much. So we’ll need to have a second (much smaller) truck bring down what’s left when the house goes on the market.

Among (many) other things, we packed the stuffed animals today. Some people have knicknacks (and we have our share) but a lot of the odd items on our shelves are stuffed animals. Not all are animals; I have a stuffed Space Shuttle, created by my very brilliant seamstress sister Gretchen Duntemann Roper. Decades ago, in the Age of APAs (google it; blogging didn’t come out of nowhere) I wrote an APA called “A Dead Rat and a String to Swing It On.” So she made me a dead rat, complete with a string to swing it on. (Above.) Nearby was the closest thing to an action figure that I own: a giant squid with posable (is that the word?) tentacles. I’ve never actually handled a dead squid and it’s not on my bucket list, exactly, but I’m wondering how well one would hang together if swung in a circle by one of its long feelers. (I suppose it depends on how long it had been dead.) However, someday, perhaps in some saga I have not yet imagined writing, somebody will grab a giant squid by a tentacle and swing it in a brawl. The image smells a little like a Stypek story back in his ancestral Realm of Tryngg, but no promises.

A book came to hand on its way to a box today that I think I’ve mentioned before: Conjuror’s Journal by Frances L. Shine. (Dodd-Mead, 1978.) I see that numerous hardcovers are available on Amazon for 10c plus shipping. Read the first review of the book, which is mine. If you want a quick, cheap read that will, at the end, both bring tears to your eyes and make you want to stand up and cheer, this is it.

Tomorrow is Halloween, and we’re having our first and last Halloween nerd party here at Phage House in Colorado Springs. I’m of way more than two minds about leaving here, but the little box I just clipped to my finger says my blood oxygen is at 88%. Better than nothing…but it’s not enough. And so the move goes on.