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STORMY Vs. the AI Doom Kvetchers

I follow the AI discussion to some extent (as time permits, which it hasn’t lately) and from initial amusement it’s pivoted to apprehension and doom-kvetching, as if we didn’t get a bellyful of doom-kvetching as COVID passed through. The AIs I’ve played with have had peculiar failure modes, among them expressing that 128-bit registers are larger than 512-bit registers. Numbers aren’t their forte, even down at level of counting on their fingers, since AI image generators don’t have any clear idea how many fingers a hand is supposed to have. (More on that topic here.)

I get the impression that our current generation of AIs have their own way of proposing solutions to problems. What seems obvious to them isn’t always obvious to us. The danger, if there is any, lies in giving them more responsibility than something that can’t count fingers or toes should rightfully have.

Which brings us to an SF flash story that I wrote in 1990 and published in my magazine PC Techniques about that time. Most of my regular readers are familiar with “STORMY Vs. the Tornadoes.” It was designed as a humor piece, and a satire on the concept of AI as it was imagined thirty years ago. A few days ago I realized that I had, in a sense, predicted the future: That AIs will do ridiculous things because those ridiculous things make sense to the AIs. STORMY, a National Weather Service AI, was asked how we might reduce American tornado fatalities.

And STORMY took the question very seriously.

Here’s the whole story, for those who haven’t seen it, or haven’t read it in a long time.


STORMY Vs. the Tornadoes

By Jeff Duntemann

“Mr. Petter, in the last six months, that computer program of yours cut Federal government purchase orders for 18,000 ‘uninhabitable manufactured housing units,’ to a total of 21 million dollars.” Senator Orenby Ruesome (R., Oklahoma) sent the traitor Xerox copies skittering over the Formica tabletop.

U.S. Weather Service Programmer Grade 12 Anthony Petter winced. “Umm…you gave us the money, Senator.”

“But not for rotted-out house trailers!”

Petter sucked in his breath. “You gave us 25 million dollars to create a system capable of cutting annual US tornado fatalities in half. We spent a year teaching STORMY everything we knew about tornadoes. Every statistic, every news item, every paper ever published on the subject we fed him, and we gave him the power to set up his own PERT charts and plan his own project. Umm…I preauthorized him to cut purchase orders for items under $2000.”

“Which he did. 18,000 times. For beat-up, rotted-out, abandoned house trailers. Which he then delivered to an abandoned military base in west Nebraska a zillion miles from nowhere. And why, pray tell?”

Petter keyed in the question on the wireless terminal he had brought from his office. STORMY’s answer was immediate:

TO KEEP TORNADOES FROM KILLING PEOPLE.

Petter turned the portable terminal around so that the Senator could see it. A long pause ensued.

Ruesome puffed out his red cheeks. “Mr. Petter, be at my office at 8:00 sharp tomorrow. We’re going to Nebraska.”

The two men climbed out of the Jeep onto scrubby grass. It was July-muggy, and it smelled like rain. Petter gripped his palmheld cellular remote terminal in one hand, and that hand was shaking.

Before them on the plain lay an enormous squat pyramid nine layers high, built entirely of discolored white and pastel boxes made out of corrugated aluminum and stick pine, some with wheels, most without. The four-paned windows looked disturbingly like crossed-out cartoon eyes. Petter counted trailers around the rim of the pyramid, and a quick mental estimate indicated that they were all in there, all 18,000 of them.

A cold wind was blowing in from the southeast.

“Well, here’s the trailers. Ask your software expert what made him think stacking old trailers in the butt end of nowhere would save lives.”

Lightning flashed in the north. The sky was darkening; a storm was definitely coming in. Petter propped the wireless terminal on the Jeep’s fender and dutifully keyed in the question. The cellular link to STORMY in Washington was marginal, but it held:

TORNADOES ALWAYS SEEM TO STRIKE PLACES WHERE THERE ARE LOTS OF MOBILE HOMES.

Petter read the answer for the Senator. Ruesome groaned and kicked the Jeep hard with his pointed alligator boot. “Goldurn it, son, you call this ‘artificial intelligence?’ That silly damfool program bought up all the cheap trailers it could find and stacked them in Nebraska to get them away from tornadoes in the midwest. Makes sense, right? To a program, right? Save people who don’t live in empty trailers, right?”

The force of the wind abruptly doubled. Lightning flashed all around them, and huge thunderheads were rolling in from all points of the compass. Petter could hear the wind howling through cavities between the trailers.

“I’m sorry, Senator!” Petter shouted over the wind.

But Ruesome wasn’t listening. He was looking to the west, where a steel-grey tentacle had descended from the sky, twisting and twitching until it touched the ground. Petter looked south—and saw two more funnel clouds appear like twins to stab at the earth.

The programmer spun around. On every side, tornadoes were appearing amidst the roiling clouds, first five, then a dozen, and suddenly too many to count, all heading in defiance of the wind right toward them. The noise was deafening—and Petter could now feel through the soles of his feet that unmistakable freight-train rumble of the killer twisters.

Petter had felt all along that he had never quite asked STORMY the right question. Now, suddenly, the question was plain, and he hammered it into the terminal with shaking fingers:

STORMY: FOR WHAT PURPOSE DID YOU BUY ALL THESE TRAILERS?

The answer came back as a single word:

BAIT.

The winds were blowing him to the ground. Petter dropped the terminal and grabbed the Senator by the arm, pulling him toward a nearby culvert where the road crossed a dry creekbed. He shoved the obese man into one three-foot drainpipe, then threw himself into the other.

A moment later, the tornadoes converged on the trailers, all at once. The sound was terrifying. Petter fainted.

Both men lived. Local legend holds that it rained corrugated aluminum in Nebraska for several weeks.

And it was years before another tornado was seen anywhere in the USA.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Stuff That Works and Doesn’t

As with yesterday, there will be spoilers in this entry. Whole great big bleeding buckets full of them. Spoilers never bothered me much, but if they bother you, stop reading now and come back after you’ve seen the whole series.


All jokes aside, I’ll give you the bottom line up front: I liked this series. Quite a bit, in fact, in spite of a little too much pointless dialog and a few howlers. Some things were just wrong, like Galadriel stating that her husband Celeborn had already died in some war. Celeborn was in LOTR, and in fact Galadriel bailed from Middle Earth before Celeborn did, if he bailed at all. Tyler’s The Complete Tolkien Companion (highly recommended) says Celeborn lived into the Fourth Age, and there is no indication that he ever went back to Valinor. I’m sure there were a few other counterfactuals that I just missed. If I missed them, they weren’t serious enough to bother with.

So let me move on to things that I thought worked. First and foremost are the sets and the settings. Egad, I thought Peter Jackson’s films had a lock on this, and in some instances he still does, like the Khazad Dum interiors. Amazon’s Khazad Dum is less grand. All the wide-open spaces are the mines. Living and meeting quarters are smaller, almost comfy. But the cityscapes are breathtaking. So are the sailing ships. And you can’t beat New Zealand for rugged landscapes.

Celebrimbor, the master smith of the Elves, was brilliantly cast in Charles Edwards. He has the face of an Elf Lord to begin with, and he acted like a guy who Makes Important Things. His workshop was a very nice piece of architecture. Also, the process of crafting the Three Rings in that workshop was excellently shown.

Lenny Hendry as Sadoc, the top Harfoot, is terrific. Lloyd Owen is a very good Elendil, both in appearance and in action. Sophia Nomvete as Princess Disa is the only Dwarf woman we spend any significant time with. People are bitching that she didn’t have a beard. Sheesh, guys, not everybody likes beards. And she has a warmth that one doesn’t generally expect from the Dwarves.

And then there’s Adar, a brand-new invention of the showrunners. Adar is one of the Elves captured by Morgoth in the First Age and turned to the dark side. The orcs of the southlands call him “Father,” and that is in fact what the name “Adar” means in Elvish. Adar was born an elf, but bears all the marks of living thousands of years torn between two natures: elf and orc. He wants to protect his orc children from war and sunlight. He hates and claims to have killed Sauron (untrue), though that might have been a lie to keep Galadriel off his case.

The actor playing Adar, Joseph Mawle, presents possibly the most skilled performance in the whole series. Adar is sad, but more than that, he is weary, weary of fending off attempts on his life while he tries to care for his orcs. His craggy, scarred face projects that weariness in every scene where he appears. He takes no pleasure in anything. His defiance is quiet, and sometimes seems desperate. He is eventually captured and imprisoned, though I’m guessing he will have a significant role to play in future episodes.

Reviewers have rolled their eyes at the rock-cracking contest between Prince Durin and Elrond. I think they missed the point: This is a grin-inducing joke on the Dwarves, who consider themselves the masters of iron, stone and mountains. Well, Elrond, who one might think couldn’t even lift the hammer, swings it hard and cracks the rocks with alacrity. When he stops, I almost think he was throwing the contest to Durin as not to embarrass him in front of his underlings in the audience. Given Elrond’s character as shown up to that point, it’s precisely the sort of thing that the good-natured (to the point of goofiness) Elrond would do.

One thing that didn’t work well was the guessing game Amazon was playing with viewers, putting several contenders in front of them and daring them to guess which one was Sauron. I guessed Adar, though in truth none of the choices seemed likely to me. And I was wrong. Adar is Adar, which is a good thing, as I’m eager to see how he will relate to the southlands’ new boss next season. The answer to the puzzle, Halbrand, made me groan. The most I would grant him is a sort of bad-boy girl magnet type who looks a little too much like Viggo Mortensen, who played Aragorn in the Peter Jackson films.

But maybe that was the point. Like his former boss, Sauron is pure evil, but he’s still a king. He didn’t use the power that a major Maia could conceivably summon. Maybe that’s because he was in hiding. And he rescues Galadriel from drowning. That was a lot harder to figure. Once he establishes himself in the brand-new Mordor, I suspect the facade will fall away, and he’ll look like the nastioso that he is and has always been.

Galadriel? She needs to chill a little, or she’s going to pop an artery. The serene power projected from Cate Blanchett in the LOTR films simply isn’t there. Again, I think this is a fault of the scripting. Morfydd Clark didn’t seem as melted into her role as some others in the series, especially Joseph Mawle. Some of her dialog is too too utterly utter. Her acting wasn’t bad. I think the showrunners’ vision of Galadriel was just lightyears away from mine. That’s fair.

The pace is slow. I would have enjoyed a few more action scenes, and maybe a few more minutes to gape at the fantasy world that Amazon’s billion bux created. It is what it is. My recommendation is positive: Watch it. Enjoy the ride. Don’t pick nits; there are nits allthehell over the place, and if you go off on them too hard it’s you who are likely to pop an artery.

Cautiuously recommended.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Silliness

Yesterday was all overview. Today we get into things that most people would consider spoilers. So if you’re of the cohort that can’t abide spoilers, leave now.


Here and there during the 9+ hours of the first season of The Rings of Power, I rolled my eyes. Every so often, I giggled. I doubt that this is what Amazon intended. I’m a hard man to please on the fiction side. I considered The Silmarillion a waste of time and money. I’d already been to college, and had read quite enough Cliff Notes, thank you very much. I wanted another story.

The Rings of Power is certainly a story. Several stories, in fact, and I enjoyed most of them. I was very interested to see what Amazon could do, given how little they had to work with about the Second Age. We got Ar-Pharazon the Golden; will we get the sinking of Atalante? (Yes. That’s what Tolkien called the Lost Continent underneath Numenor. Really.) Well, they made a lot of it up. What would you do, with a sparse outline of events and a billion bux to blow? You’d make most of it up too.

They did. Some of what they made up was better than expected. And some…I giggled.

First up: The Three Witches Or Something Very Like Them. Here and there in the saga there were these three women dressed in spotless cream-white capes, wandering around the wild country asking every third person they met if they were Sauron. This is silly enough on the surface. But really: Where were the grass stains? Where were their backpacks? Did they camp somewhere, somehow, or just get a room at the Southlands Best Western?

One was a soldier, with a helmet. She threw knives, and nailed one of my favorite characters. Another was a preacher, with her hair under cover, who carried a saucer sled and said a lot of pompous things that didn’t amount to much. But the third…Eru help us…she was another damn deranged albino. I was already tired of deranged albinos in 2008. (There is a whole Wikipedia entry about deranged albinos.) I guessed that she was the boss, carrying around a very Egyptian-looking magical staff and levitating rocks with it. Alas, she eventually picked a fight with the wrong man (also not Sauron) who grabbed her staff and roasted the three of them real good.

The Harfoots (proto-hobbits) were sweet and sane, and only occasionally silly. I liked Sadoc the Harfoot tribal chieftan, who was well-cast and acted the part brilliantly. He defied The Three Witches Or Something Very Like Them and got a knife in the heart for his trouble. So what was silly? Just this: As best I could tell, their primary source of protein was…snails. Raw. Sometimes shells and all. Ye valar, everybody knows that snails carry a veritable arsenal of parasites, many of which can send you off to that far green country beneath a swift sunrise with barely a burp. The Harfoots haul their whole village around in tumbrel carts. A few dozen chickens in cages wouldn’t weigh that much and could work wonders for their diets.

Ok. Here we get to the more significant stuff. Elrond, one of the Elf-lords who eventually got to wear one of the Three Elf Rings of Power, is a cuddly, huggy, back-slapping round-faced good ‘ol boy who looked like he could do standup and keep the audience in stitches. Ok, this was the Second Age. He still had a few thousand years to develop Hugo Weaving’s gravitas–but probably wouldn’t. The actor did his best with what they gave him. But the casting and the scripting were all wrong.

And now, the biggie: Early in the series, a human teen kid named Theo discovers a weird artifact in his unpleasant neighbor’s barn. It looks like the hilt of a sword minus the blade. It gives him the serious galloping creeps, so being a teen, the only thing he could think of doing is to wrap it up in rags and take it home. It comes out of hiding here and there, with Theo’s blacksmith friend finding that hammers can’t do a thing to it. Shifty-eyed people want it, and eventually get it, without having to kill Theo in the process, whew. I was thinking it was some kind of immaterial magic sword, which would have been way cool, like an Iron Age lightsaber. But no–here there be belly-laugh spoilers–the damned thing is the ignition key for Mount Doom.

Really. And literally. I am not making this up. The shifty-eyed neighbor takes the gizmo, shoves it down into some kind of keyhole, and gives it a twist, just like a car key, if any of you remember what car keys were. Alluva sudden, in an undisclosed location that clearly wasn’t anywhere nearby, hidden machinery opened up a very big dam and sent a megacrapgallon torrent of water roaring toward the dormant volcano. The water goes down into the cracks, meets some lava, and (presumably) boils. Then, boom! Old Orodruin (AKA Mount Doom) suddenly erupts like Krakatoa cubed, and turns the Southlands into…wait for it…naw, you already figured it out…Mordor.

I did not know that you could make a dormant volcano erupt (rather than merely explode) by giving it a good thorough soaking. I was really into volcanoes when I was a kid, and that never came up in any of the books I read about them.

I didn’t giggle. I laughed out loud.

Here and there I also groaned, but those groans were few and far between. (I hope you figured out by now that I’m not being entirely serious about all this.)

To avoid leaving you with the wrong impression, tomorrow let’s talk instead about what works and how well.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Overview

Carol was gone for a week, so after I burned out on updating my assembly language book during the days, I had empty evenings. My path was obvious: Pour myself a drink or two, and binge on the first season (now complete) of Amazon’s Tolkien pastiche, The Rings of Power. I’ve seen various estimates of how much money Amazon is spending on the project, which is projected to release eight episodes a year for five years. Whether it’s 750 million or a billion, that is very serious money.

As best I can tell, Amazon bought rights to The Lord of the Rings…appendices. They pointedly did not license The Silmarillion, which I’ve heard was a rule laid down by the great man himself and respected by his estate. My guess? He really didn’t want The Silmarillion turned into a story.

The Silmarillion is not a story. In a way, it’s the Cliff Notes to a bunch of stories that JRR never wrote. But in truth, it’s a history. It’s like viewing a story on satellite video from Middle Earth orbit: We get to see all the people and the monsters running around killing each other, a continent and a half sunk to the ocean bottom, and much else. But we get inside no one’s head to experience their insights or their sufferings. It’s all Who Did What To Whom (Or What) But Not Why, which set the stage for the extremely rich cultural background behind The Lord of the Rings saga itself. (I consider The Hobbit part of that saga.)

We have Amazon Prime. The series is part of Prime, and thus without marginal cost. Why not? I’d already paid my money. I took my choice.

So what did I get? Here’s quick list:

  • Some of the most beautiful scenery and backdrops I’ve ever seen in cinema, greater than what Peter Jackson managed twenty-odd years ago, and his weren’t shabby.
  • A great deal of interpolation and (mostly) studied invention of a lot of original characters and conflicts. Some of this was very good; I much enjoyed the Harfoots (basically wandering Iron Age proto-hobbits), particularly Nori and Poppy.
  • A certain amount (probably less than you might have read elsewhere) of silliness, none of which we can lay directly at the feet of JRR. I’ll come back to this.
  • Mostly excellent acting, and (huzzah!) no celebrities.
  • A slow, often clumsy, dialog-heavy screenplay, which at times bore more than a whiff of an Iron Age Days of Our Lives. When you have 560 minutes to fill, well, dialog is cheap. Alas, as dialog goes, it wasn’t thin gruel, but gruel so thick it was occasionally impossible to swallow.
  • Wholesale butchery of the Tolkien timeline. This may have been necessary, given the scraps Amazon was able to license versus what true Tolkien fans were sure to expect. The Dwarves didn’t strike balrog until Third Age 1980, but Durin the Somethingeth almost got the booby prize thousands of years earlier, in the Second Age. Everybody loves balrogs, right? They break the Days of Our Lives boredom, fersure. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more balroggery in forthcoming seasons, if Amazon doesn’t run out of money first.
  • A puzzle: Which character is actually Sauron? I guessed wrong, but as with a lot else, I’ll come back to that.

This will have to do for today. I have to leave for the airport pretty soon to pick up Carol.

Progress Report and Excerpt: The Molten Flesh

I’m now about 40,000 words into The Molten Flesh, which is nominally the sequel to The Cunning Blood. It’s a sequel in the broader sense of a story told in the same universe but not focusing on the same characters or planets. The single exception is Sophia Gorganis, who has a cameo in a flashback set a few years earlier than the action of The Cunning Blood. The focus is now on a different nanotech society and device: Protea, a synchronistic combination of the human body and a nanomachine that is present in every part of the body, up to and including the brain. The same general nano/human typography conventions apply: Subvocal human speech to the nanomachine is enclosed in vertical bars. The speech of the nanomachine to its operator is in italics. Those conversations are private; onlookers cannot hear either side.


From The Molten Flesh, Chapter 13

Copyright 2021 by Jeff Duntemann. All Rights Reserved.

Halifax fired its main engines as soon as its shuttle repair bay doors closed behind Hubbardton and sealed. Like everything else about Halifax, the shuttle bay seemed out-of-scale. At least three fourth-generation shuttles could line up side-by-side for repair or storage. Ron eyeballed that in a pinch, it could stuff away five second-gen shuttles.

The lock pumps had the repair bay pressurized in less than ten minutes. Cory Ellis went down the ladder from the shuttle’s lock. Ron jumped. It was hard for the big ship to be in a hurry. Acceleration was only half a gee. The air in the bay still held the flinty scent of bare metal and fresh plastic. “New starship smell,” Ron said, chuckling.

No sooner had the pressure all-clear horn sounded than five crew entered the repair bay at a run. Three men and two women, all young-Ron pegged them at under thirty, a couple of them way under thirty. A reasonable security detail, he supposed.

Ron blinked. The tall blond woman had the captain’s golden galaxy over her heart. The shorter, dark-haired woman had the drivemaster’s braided golden ring. |Something funny is going on here.|

The captain is Bronya Azarova, born in Kraznoyarsk. 27 years old. The drivemaster is Sally Ann Gildea, from Cincinnati. 25. Both are Star Academy graduates. I cannot identify the men with any certainty.

|Neither was in the top ten of her class, or I’d have heard the names. You’d think they’d send someone a little more seasoned to run a starship the size of a small town in Nebraska.|

There’s not much running to be done. The whole point of the fourth generation was to allow AIs to do nearly all of the decision-making. No more human error. Safe.

|I guess Star Academy was one way for a girl to get her ass out of Siberia.|

Ron was bemused but pleased. A more seasoned captain like Sophia Gorganis could have caused a lot more trouble. He walked behind Cory as they approached the detail. When Cory got a few meters from Bronya, the rest of the detail stepped back. Bronya stood her ground.

“Mr. Ellis, what do you think you are doing?” Her accent was pure, her face a blond-framed sneer that suggested contempt painted over terror.

“I’m saving my life and yours.”

Chush sobachya. Give me the keys to the drive.”

Cory tilted his head toward Ron. Ron dug in a pocket and held up the keys like a hand of cards.

Bronya reached into a hip pocket, and pulled out a 9mm sidearm. She stepped around Cory and with both hands aimed it square at Ron’s sternum.

|Mush matrix, full torso. Fast!|

It’s mostly still there. Give me two minutes. Keep her talking.

Cory ducked to Ron’s left. “Bronya! Stand down! What did Star Academy teach you about firearms in a spacecraft!”

She didn’t move. “Ron Uhlein taught me starships are tougher than that. Keys, Mr. Uhlein.”

Ron tucked the keys back into a pocket. The heat of Goop’s rearranging his body was bringing sweat to his forehead. Not ideal, but unavoidable. Keeping her talking might be hampered by his not knowing Russian-but he would try. “I like your style, kid. Come work for me and give 1Earth a spanking. You know damned well what they’ll do to you when you go home without Halifax.” He pointed at her left breast. “You earned that galaxy. I suspect I helped you earn it. I’ll let you keep it. I’ll send you to star systems nobody else has ever been to.”

The pistol quavered in her hands. “Give…me…the…keys.”

“How about revenge? The Canadians stomped your nation and killed several million of your people. They stomped my nation too-and now they’re so scared of us they don’t travel outside the cities. I’ll bet it’s the same in Russia. Let’s you and me put together a new alliance: Rural Russia and rural USA, against 1Earth.”

Bronya licked her lips. “You are a thief and a traitor.”

“I’m a free man.” He took a step forward. “Are you a free woman?”

“I am a citizen of Earth.”

“A planet that’s mostly turned its back on star travel. However it was you got lucky enough to take this monstrosity out of Earth orbit, you’ll never be that lucky again. I’m your last chance to use your galaxy, kid.”

Long seconds passed. Bronya’s face showed torment. Ron kept his hands in his pockets. Close-range slugs would do less damage to a mush matrix in his chest than to his arms and legs.

Then, from Hubbardton, behind them. “Bluster! Fake!”

Ron cursed. He had ordered Alyssa to stay on the shuttle. The girl walked directly toward Bronya, yelling, “Orphan! Forgotten! Lonely! Bitter!”

Bronya is indeed an orphan, and has been since she was fourteen. The matrix is now in place.

Bronya swung the pistol toward Alyssa. No way! Ron jumped. The half-gee fake gravity threw off his aim. He stumbled, his shoulder lowered and aimed at her ribcage. The woman had reflexes; she dodged, spun back and pumped two rounds into his chest before he connected. The kinetic energy of the slugs slowed Ron a little but caused him no pain beyond a strong thumping where the mush matrix absorbed the rounds’ energy. She tried to side-step but not quickly enough. Ron caught her free arm and kicked Bronya’s legs out from under her. She hit the floor ass-first and fired again. The slug went ching! against the metal deck.

“Drop it!” Ron yelled. Bronya, grimacing, tried to swing the pistol back toward Ron. He grabbed her wrist and squeezed hard. “I said drop it!”

She reeked of sweat. “I know what you do! You are a monster!”

“I do what I have to do.” |Pain #4. Thirty seconds’ worth. Go.|

Goop squeezed the neurostimulant into Bronya’s arm. The woman inhaled a ragged breath, and screamed. The pistol hit the steel deck. Ron shoved himself to his feet. Bronya thrashed on the deck, holding one arm in her opposite hand, whimpering between full-throated screams.

The three men from the detail fled the repair bay. Sally Ann stepped backwards several meters, but continued watching. After thirty seconds had passed, Bronya let herself fall flat on her back, breathing quickly, tears smeared across her face. Ron looked her in the eye as he picked up the pistol and tucked it into another pocket. He cupped a hand below his ribs. Goop expelled the spent slugs. Ron reached out his hand and let them fall half-gee gently on Bronya’s chest. “Captain Azarov, I believe you dropped these. Oh…and I withdraw my offer.”

Now Available: Dreamhealer on Kindle and KU

Dreamhealer Large Cover With Type-500 wide.png

Some time last night after I hit the switch and the sack, Amazon approved my upload of Dreamhealer to the Kindle store and KU. So it’s ready to rock–go get it! I’ll have a trade paperback edition in a week or so, unless Amazon decides to arm-wrestle me over it, like they did with Firejammer.

Unlike most fiction these days, the cover is a from-scratch painting that represents a scene from the book itself. (It’s Larry healing a man’s falling nightmare–falling from 90,000 feet. See Chapter 1.)

This one was a long time coming. Part of it was starting a novel in the middle of a move that included renovating two houses 850 miles apart.I’m sure part of it was just starting a novel at age 64. Part of it was the…peculiar… nature of some of the background concepts. There is tension between witches and lightworkers. I worked some of that tension into the plot. I bought a whole book on the “etheric double” as understood by Theosophists. I read and reread a lot of material from the late Colin Wilson. Oh, and material about tiger moms, phantom pregnancies, Elk Grove Village, steampunk mechas, the bicameral mind theory of human evolution, and more. Way more. (I actually explored Elk Grove Village back in 2017 and chose the street where Larry the Dreamhealer lives.) Of course, I invented as much as I borrowed, especially regarding the Elemental Cycles of the Canidae and the quantum computational substrate underlying dreams. Researching the background is the fun part of creating a novel. The writing itself is butt-kicking hard work.

I was going to summarize the plot here, but there’s always the problem of spoilers. So I’ll be brief: Larry gets on the wrong side of what turns out to be the Architect of All Nightmares. He finds his true love, who has a thing for chainsaws. The spirit of Isambard Kingdom Brunel builds one helluva mecha. Dogs. Dogs everywhere. Talking dogs. Dogs who eat the creatures that create nightmares. Fights, more fights, a skeletal flying saucer, searching for calculus class, imaginary friends…hey, what more do you want? Whatever it is, it’s probably in there somewhere.

Go get it. Have fun. Write a review. Tell your friends. And…thanks.

Dreamhealer: The First Draft Is Done!

Earlier this afternoon, after literally three and a half years, I finished the first draft of my first new novel since 2012. Oh, there’s lots still to be done; editing, finding a cover, thinking about prices and promotions, all the usual. But without a first draft, none of the rest of it matters.

The novel is Dreamhealer. It’s what I call “suburban fantasy,” by which I mean no grittier than Chicago’s suburbs. The action spans Elk Grove Village, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, Park Ridge, Arlington Heights, and South Barrington. Oh, and the subtle planes of dreams, imagination, and memory. Here’s my logline:

A lucid dreamer discovers he can enter and heal the nightmares of others, and declares war on the mysterious creatures living in the collective unconscious that create nightmares and then feast on the terror they evoke.

And the back-cover hook:

Meet Larry. He’s your worst nightmare’s worst nightmare.

It’s not entirely serious, though it’s not humor in the strictest sense. I was looking for a sort of Secret Life of Walter Mitty, played out in what the esotericists call the subtle planes, or the Akasha. By day, 51-year-old IT nerd Larry Kettelkamp maintains a room full of ancient PDP-8 minicomputers for a dying industrial bakery in the shadow of O’Hare Field. But by night, he busts nightmares. The thing is, nightmares aren’t some accidental consequence of human psychology. Nossir. They were invented 15,000 years ago. The inventors were creatures living in the collective unconscious, called archons. Archons feed on human emotion. One particularly powerful and nasty archon developed a scheme to keep himself and his minions well-fed: Scare the hell out of sleeping cavemen and harvest their terror as emotional energy. It worked well–until Larry, having read stacks of esoteric works touching on everything from Theosophy to Persian Dualism, figures out how to enter other people’s nightmares, banish the archons, and inoculate the dreamers against that particular nightmare. This process involves an ancient symbol (everybody loves ancient symbols, right?) that restores at least part of the ancient bicameral mind.

And then the Boss Archon decides that his scam is in jeopardy, and begins fighting back.

My goal is to publish it before the end of June, and in truth as soon as I can manage a cover and some editing. But in the meantime, to give you a flavor for what I’m doing, allow me to present Chapter 1 of Dreamhealer:


1: Larry

Larry Kettelkamp slipped out of his body and dove into dreamspace. There was no down and no up in dreamspace, only focus. He did not consciously choose the focus. The rational mind could focus only on itself. Those dreams-his personal dreams-were good and necessary, but they were for other nights.

Tonight, this night…was for war.

Slowly dreamspace coalesced into light and darkness. Tiny glints like stars lay in every direction. Each glint was a dreamer. Each dreamer lay at the center of an aura that was a dream. Each dream was a color: red for warm comfort; orange for pleasant wanderings; yellow for joyful exuberance; green for study and discovery; blue for anxiety, shame, and sadness; indigo for fury; violet for terror. What had been indistinct clouds grew sharper. Larry closed his rational eyes. He knew his deeper mind was choosing. He felt the decision when it was made, as the silent emergence of up, down, time, and motion.

Larry opened his rational eyes, and saw the nightmare his unconscious had chosen, burning in violet below him.

 

A man was falling from a great height. His silver hair whipped in the vertical wind as he thrashed with all his limbs. This, one of the commonest of nightmares, Larry had dealt with many times. He dipped one shoulder, stretched out his arms, and banked toward the dreamer. Below them lay the entire United States, still wrapped in night, its great cities and small towns jewels scattered across the velvet darkness. The two men were high enough that Larry could see the curvature of the Earth, the blue layer of atmosphere, and the bright arc of the approaching dawn in the east.

The dreamer clearly knew what the Earth looked like from 90,000 feet.

That was a clue from Larry’s unconscious, which he needed to trust as his navigator, even if it had no language and could only speak in hints and symbols. He had gotten fairly good at interpreting what his deeper mind sent up to guide him over the thirty-odd years he had been invading other people’s nightmares. Ten thousand nights and thirty thousand dreams had proven that the collective unconscious was indeed collective, and included a universal symbology and grammar.

The dreamer, eyes wide and mouth agape, watched Larry approach. He wore a dark blue business suit, jacket buttoned, wide tie flapping over one shoulder. Larry’s unconscious sent up the insight that he was highly educated and used to getting his own way. Falling dreams symbolized lives that were out of control. For such a man, that could be an overwhelming fear.

The fear wasoverwhelming, and where there was overwhelming fear, there were archons. Larry couldn’t yet see it, but the bitter reek of a feasting archon was everywhere. Over the past year they had gotten better at hiding from him. Later, later. Larry pulled himself up and crossed his legs beneath him, as though sitting taylor-style in empty air. The dreamer was an arm’s length away.

“Help me. Please help me,” the man said. His words were clear to Larry even against the blast of air past their ears. That was good: Dreamers who asked for help were easy to help. The man lived by reason rather than emotion.

Larry reached out his right hand. The man frowned, hesitated, then reached out his own hand and took it. At once the roar of air passing around them ceased, as did its chaotic motion. They still fell, but now in silence and stillness. Only the man’s tie continued to flap, in a wind that was no longer there.

Gotcha!

Larry released the dreamer’s hand. “My name is Larry Kettelkamp. I fix bad dreams. Take off your tie.”

The man pulled his legs up beneath him in imitation of Larry’s posture. “My tie?”

“It’s not a tie. Take it off. Then give it to me.”

The man glanced down at his tie, which still flapped over his right shoulder. He shrugged and reached up with both hands to undo the knot. The tie writhed in his hands like a live thing. It was still writhing as Larry took it in his right hand. Larry stared at the tie, gathered inner strength, focused his attention on the tie, and squeezed.

The tie screamed. As it screamed it melted, contracting and flowing into a pale, blank human figure as long as Larry’s forearm. It had no face, ears, or mouth, nor any other features. The scream was not sound, but a polyphonic disturbance appearing directly in his mind. He had wondered often if it was an expression of pain, fear or perhaps anger. His unconscious had given him no clues on that question.

No matter. “Begone, archon,” Larry said in a soft voice. The scream ceased, and the creature vanished. With it vanished the smell of fear.

The man squinted at Larry’ hands where the archon had been. He smiled. “Hey, thanks. What the hell was that?”

“Archon. Emotional parasite. It creates nightmares, and then feeds on the emotions that the nightmares cause.” Larry held out his hand again. “I’m Larry Kettelkamp. Tell me your name.”

The dreamer took Larry’s hand and shook it. “Erwin McKinley, Ph.D. Astrophysics. Did thirty years in satellite guidance and space navigation. Wrote the textbook on it.”

“This dream tells me you need to take control of your life.”

Erwin wrinkled his brow, and was silent for a few seconds. “Life? Do I have a life?” He sighed, and looked down past his knees. “My wife’s dead. I haven’t had a job in ten years. They just put my book out of print. My kids ignore me. I’ve been forgotten, pretty much.” He looked down again. “By the way, we’re still falling.”

Larry shook his head. “No, we’re not. We’re flying.”

“Flying?”

“Yes.” Larry reached over one shoulder to the backpack he always wore when he battled the archons. The end of something like a roll of cloth protruded from under the flap. He grasped it, pulled it out, and shook it. It unrolled to a long, narrow rectangle of deep blue, printed with the constellations and the pale band of the Milky Way. “Like Superman.” Larry handed the cape to Erwin. “Put it on.”

Erwin took the cape, chuckling. “Hey, I saw The Incredibles. ‘No capes.'”

Larry shrugged. “Stay away from aircraft. You’re in satellite guidance. You can manage that.”

Erwin took the cape’s two clasps and brought them around his neck, snapping them together. “I can.”

“Now let’s fly!”

Larry stretched out horizontally with his arms in front of him. Erwin followed suit. The rush of air returned, but was now a headwind that rustled Erwin’s cape.

“Look down there,” Larry said. Below them, across the shadowed vastness of North America, the jewels that were city lights had vanished. Instead they saw a dusting of softer green lights plus a few brighter ones in yellow-orange. “Every light you see is someone with an emotional connection to you.”

“Huh! Like friends? I don’t have that many friends. And most of the friends I have are in Omaha.”

“Not friends.” Larry stared down at the lights, listening to his unconscious for clues. “I think they’re people who’ve read your book, and liked it. They admire you, respect what you know, and learned from it.”

“Ha! I’ve sold a hundred thousand copies over the last twenty years! No other textbook on guidance and navigation ever got anywhere near that kind of sales. The publisher says it’s obsolete, even though I’ve updated it every few years. They won’t say the rest of it, but they’re all young punks and I can tell: They think I’m too old.”

Larry banked to the right, toward where a constellation of many yellow-orange spots dotted Omaha. Erwin evidently had more friends than he thought. “Well, they’re wrong. Screw ’em. Build a new life. Get the rights to your book back. Update it. Turn it into a seminar series. Give lectures. Don’t just lie around the house.”

Erwin nodded. He twisted his body back and forth, as though testing himself against the strength of the wind. “Flying, heh! I can do this!”

“You already are. In fact, you’ve been flying by proxy your whole career. Don’t stop now.” Larry felt more clues bubbling up from his deeper mind. He pointed with his right hand. “Down there, west of Omaha. Lincoln, I’d guess. See the bright yellow light?”

Erwin nodded.

“A woman lives there. She rejected you a long time ago. She changed her mind.”

“Lincoln? I don’t know any women in Lincoln. I haven’t lived there since I left home for MIT, and…wait a second! Diana?”

“I’m not getting her name, but it sounds right.”

“Diana Zaborski! That was over fifty years ago!” Erwin’s voice softened. “She told me I was too weird for words.”

Larry swallowed hard. Did he understand that or what? “So? Maybe you were. You’re not anymore. And maybe she grew up a little herself. Fifty years will do that.”

“I can’t imagine she likes me that much…”

Larry pointed again. “Look how bright her star is. Maybe you treated her better than the boys who came after you. So send her a card. A letter. Look her up on Facebook. Ask her to get in touch.”

Erwin was doing barrel rolls. “Yeeee-hah! I can! And I will! I’m…flying!” He turned skyward and did a tight spiral loop around Larry, before vanishing into the rising dawn.

Larry watched Erwin’s contrail drift eastward. He raised his right hand and made an ancient symbol in the air. “Erwin McKinley, go in peace. Build yourself a new life. You will never have this dream again.”

Grundig Blaupunkt Luger Frug

The other day I was thinking back to what written material I had found the funniest in my life. A lot of it was Dave Barry, some Hitchiker’s Guide, some Keith Laumer, some Gene Shepherd, some Terry Pratchett, a crazy little ancient item called The Silly Book by Stoo Hamble, and then–words of fire appeared unbidden in my head:

Grundig blaupunkt luger frug
Watusi snarf wazoo
Nixon dirksen nasahist
Rebozo bugaloo

OMG! Unbeknownst to me, I had memorized a part of Bored of the Rings. And this is a good time to take up the topic of humor in fantasy and SF, since Bored of the Rings is now fifty years old.

I see in the book’s Amazon reviews that a lot of people thought it was hilarious when they were 12, and it falls flat now. Quite a few others had no idea why the book was supposed to be funny to begin with. Yes, it was funnier fifty years ago, granted. It was published when I was 16, in 1969. I was quite a Tolkien devotee by that time (I first read the trilogy in 1967) and not only did I think it was funny, I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

I still have the 50-year-old MMPB. And I’m reading it, falling to pieces though it may be. Yes, it’s still funny. But I have the unfair advantage of an excellent memory for trivia. The problem with the book’s humor is that a lot of the things they’re making fun of no longer exist.

The four lines quoted above are what is written on the parody version of the One Ring. Every single word is real, and every single word meant something to most people in 1969. Fifty years later, I’d wager that all but the legendary Nixon have simply been forgotten.

The whole book gallops along that way: one 1969 cultural reference after another, interspersed with really obvious substitution parody and frat-boy crudities. I still enjoy it, but in a slightly guilty way that rubs my nose in the fact that I’m now 67. The best parts are in fact the original poetry and songs, which were parodies of style more than actual poems and songs. Another example, excerpted from a longer work that still makes me giggle:

Fearful were the chicken dwarves,
But mickle crafty too.
King Yellobac, their skins to save
The elves he tried to woo.

Sing: Twist-a-cap, reynoldswrap, gardol and duz
The elves he tried to woo.

Youngsters might be excused for being puzzled, even though they can look up all that crap on Google. The kicker is that they didn’t live the context, and in certain types of humor, context is everything. Broadcast TV ruled the world in 1969. There was (almost) no cable, and certainly nothing like our streaming services. The whole thing was supported by ads for minor products like toothpaste, not just luxury sedans and expensive pharmaceuticals. Ads seen several times an hour tend to stick in your head. So even if you never even once bought the products, you damned well knew what Gardol and Duz were. (I believe Reynolds Wrap is still a thing, though you don’t see TV commercials for it anymore.)

There are lots of ways to get a laugh. For simply exaggerating Tolkienesque imagery into absurdity and beyond, there’s little to match this longish paragraph, which comes at the climax of the story:

Black flags were raised in the black towers, and the gate opened like an angry maw to upchuck its evil spew. Out poured an army the likes of which was never seen. Forth from the gate burst a hundred thousand rabid narcs swinging bicycle chains and tire irons, followed by drooling divisions of pop-eyed changelings, deranged zombies, and distempered werewolves. At their shoulders marched eight score heavily armored griffins, three thousand goose-stepping mummies, and a column of abominable snowmen on motorized bobsleds; at their flanks tramped six companies of slavering ghouls, eighty parched vampires in white tie, and the Phantom of the Opera. Above them the sky was blackened by the dark shapes of vicious pelicans, houseflies the size of two-car garages, and Rodan the Flying Monster. Through the portals streamed more foes of various forms and descriptions, including a six-legged diplodocus, the Loch Ness Monster, King Kong, Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Beast with One Million Eyes, the Brain from Planet Arous, three different subphyla of giant insects, the Thing, It, She, Them, and the Blob. The great tumult of their charge could have waked the dead, were they not already bringing up the rear.

Admit it: That’s funny, though it’s not a species of funny people do much anymore. In the book the authors dip into every humorous mechanism ever invented, right down to breaking the fourth wall, as was one character’s habit almost every time he appeared:

“We cannot stay here,” said Arrowroot.

“No,” agreed Bromosel, looking across the gray surface of the page to the thick half of the book still in the reader’s right hand. “We have a long way to go.”

This brand of humor is almost dead, which is a shame. Depending on my mood, I variously blame the Flynn Effect, more people going to college, political correctness (where nothing is ever funny) and a remarkably sour zeitgeist, considering that the economy is in better shape than it’s been since, well, Bored of the Rings was first published.

In truth, I think the core problem is that there is no longer a single culture in the US. Social networking (and networking generally) has allowed us to find our own culture among the dozens on offer somewhere or another online–and if we don’t find one to our liking, we just invent one. We all once knew what Gardol was. Today, hell, there are liberal and conservative grocery stores, and forty shelf-feet at Safeway dedicated to different balsamic vinegar SKUs.

Basically, when a hundred different cultures exist side by side, nothing will be funny to all of them because nothing is common to all of them. So cultural references are fraught. I’ve actually had to explain some of the gags in Ten Gentle Opportunities to its purchasers and while writing it I consciously avoided having the humor too closely tied to any one culture or era. Sure, I included a veiled reference to Flintstone Vitamins, which are themselves a cultural reference to a cartoon show that ended in freaking 1966. And “sweets baked by elves.” I’m sure we all know what that refers to. Don’t we? Don’t we?

Maybe we do now. In fifty years, we won’t. By then, people will have as much trouble with any and all 2019 humor as people today are having with Bored of the Rings. I’m certainly sure of one thing: A thousand years from now, J. R. R. Tolkien will be having the last laugh.

Firejammer: Go Get It!

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I’m not the fastest writer in the world. If I were even modestly faster than I am, I would be a lot better-known. So as a side project while I hammer on my new fantasy novel Dreamhealer, I went back to a short novel that sat in a box for forty years. After rather more work than I expected, I uploaded it to Kindle yesterday, and Amazon approved the ebook edition last night. (The print edition is still awaiting approval, since I had to fix an issue with bleeds and the cover image.)

Behold Firejammer. I hate to call it my “new” novel, but I’m sure it’s new to all but a vanishingly small number of my readers. $2.99 from the Kindle Store, no DRM. It’s a humorous romp very much in the style of Keith Laumer, the author I imitated heavily while just getting out of first gear as a writer, back in high school. I dedicated it to him, since no other writer (with the possible later exception of Larry Niven) influenced my fiction as much as he did. Firejammer‘s mission is pretty much the same as the mission of most of Laumer’s writing, especially his Retief stories: Give the reader a wild ride, with some laughter thrown in for good measure. No sermons. No literary pretensions. Just good crazy fun.

As with most of the things I write, the story has a backstory. In 1977, I began selling stories to the late George Scithers, editor at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (IASFM). Some time in 1978, he told me that he and his publisher were about to launch a new SF magazine, one slanted to a slightly younger audience, and intended to capture the atmosphere of some of the better SF pulps, like Planet Stories. It would be called Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine. He asked me if I had any suitable concepts. Inside my head something was screaming hell yes!!! but I politely answered that I did, and would get to work on it immediately.

I did. I had gotten an idea in high school while turning into the parking lot at a Target-like store called Turn-Style (now long extinct) at Harlem & Foster Avenues in Chicago. (Yes, I remember the moment that clearly.) I was 16 at the time, and took some notes on it, but never actually started writing.

Now that I had a nibble on it, I started writing. I wrote. I wrote. And I wrote some more. I was still writing when the first issue of the new magazine appeared. I was still writing when the second issue appeared. I finished it in early 1979. I sent it to George Scithers, who informed me that, alas, the magazine had been canceled. I did due diligence and sent it to all the other existing SF magazines, all of which rejected it. The reason (where stated; I got a form slip from Fantasy & Science Fiction) was that it was just too long, by about, well twice. Maybe more. And yes, at 27,000 words, it was sitting square in the middle of what I would come to call “that hideous length.” It was too long for the magazines and too short to call a book. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. However, in 1979 I had other things on my mind: Xerox had offered me a promotion and relocation to Rochester, NY. So it went into a box of manuscripts and didn’t see daylight again for a long time.

It came out of the box in 2000, when POD services like Lulu.com began to appear. I trimmed it down to about 25,000 words and did some heavy edits. I even started talking to artists about a cover, figuring that I could throw in enough of my previously published short works to bring it up to a book of about 70,000 words or so. I played with that idea for a year or two. Then Coriolis collapsed, and once more, I had other things on my mind, like moving to Colorado. So back in the box it went, where it stayed until several years ago. I did some more rewriting, then had to set it aside (back into the box it went) because we had decided to move back to Arizona. That was a multi-year endeavor, and so totally involving that I had completely forgotten I rewrote the story in Colorado in 2015. I expected to take a piece of what (by now) I considered juvenalia, and rewrite it for the modern market. When it came out of the box earlier this year, I realized that I had already rewritten it.

So what was I waiting for? As time permitted, I created a print book design, tinkered with the layout, made some more edits, laid it out as an ebook, and finally found a cover image on WikiMedia. The image is an eruption of Stromboli, in Italy. Stromboli is my all-time favorite volcano. (Can anyone guess why?) I resisted my temptation to keep tinkering with it, but resisting temptation slows me down even when successful. So more tinkering happened.

Which brings us to yesterday’s uploads. Amazon approved of the ebook cover and body. I’m still waiting for approval on the paperback. The ebook is up there on Kindle and ready to (molten) rock.

Now it’s back to work on Dreamhealer, which is well on and should be finished this summer. So in the meantime, have fun–and don’t forget to leave a you-know-what.

Thanks!

The Cunning Blood Is 20 Years Old

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Hard to believe: I finished the first draft of The Cunning Blood twenty years ago today, on March 27, 1999. I created a progress spreadsheet and used it to store a word count for every day that I added to the manuscript.The spreadsheet does not cover the whole novel. I created it when I was about 50,000 words in. There is a date on every entry, which allows me to gauge how often I wrote, and how much I wrote on any given day. My maximum word count was 5,162. My minimum was 33. The median was about 1,800. The total finished word count for the first draft was 135,680, which grew to about 143,000 after some edit passes and a couple of added scenes for continuity’s sake. I don’t remember when I started writing it, but I’m pretty sure (based on some emails I shared with friends about the project) that it was sometime in October 1997.

That book was hard work.

What boggles me today is how much of it was concocted without my conscious knowledge. Through most of the story I was not just flying by the seat of my pants; I was flying without any pants at all. I frequently had no idea what a chapter would contain until I started writing it. It got worse than that: I did not know that Geyl Shreve would detonate a long line of LPG gas tank railroad cars with a pocket missile until three paragraphs before she did it. There was a little planning here and there, but not much. As best I can figure, the novel self-assembled somehow in my subconscious, and came out pretty clean with almost no outlining or planning ahead of the current position of the cursor. I had to exert some force-of-will toward the end, when I was way past my target length of 100,000 words and part of me still wanted to toss in new story arcs and new characters. (That’s a problem I have to this day.)

I learned a lot about how to write a novel, that’s fersure.

I mention all this history here because a lot of people think that because the novel was first published in hardcover in the fall of 2005, that I wrote it in 2004. Uh-uh. I sent it to several publishers between 1999 and 2005 without much luck. Betsy Mitchell of Aspect (an imprint of Time Warner now belonging to Hachette Group) was polite and encouraging, but ultimately turned it down. Tor responded to a query and requested the manuscript–and then ghosted me. Really: After I sent the manuscript to them in March 2001, I never heard from them again. Ever. I sent email queries, which were never answered. I finally sent a written letter withdrawing the manuscript from consideration in July 2002. I didn’t get a response. They did not return the manuscript. Just silence. Dead silence. My long, gradual entry into the SF indie camp began that summer, and I’ve never looked back. These days, Manhattan needs writers way more than writers need Manhattan.

I eventually sold the novel to a small press in the Chicago suburbs, and they did a pretty good job with it, especially in terms of getting reviews. I got a rave in Analog, and a strong endorsement from Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, along with other very good press. However, I’m not entirely sure that the hardcover ever saw the inside of a bookstore. (The Colorado Springs public library did buy two copies, which astounded me.)

Some of the problems selling the novel may have been due to what little politics I put in it, which had a libertarian slant with a huge footnote: I’m willing to admit that there is no such thing as utopia, and did not portray either Earth nor its prison planet Hell as fiat utopias. Nor were they dystopias. All societies have problems of one sort or another. As the Sangruse Device put it in the story: There are different kinds of freedom, and different kinds of imprisonment. I’m not sure I could state the novel’s theme more concisely than that.

It doesn’t matter. I was exploring ideas. I was not preaching any sermons. I had a big potful of ideas and was having fun with them. I had set out to write the ultimate action/adventure hard SF story. Judging by reader reactions since 2005 and (especially) since the ebook’s release in 2015, I think I succeeded.

Publishing a trade paperback edition through CreateSpace at the end of 2018 finally brought the project to a close. It’s sold well: up in the thousands, all editions taken together, and probably made me more money as an indie title than it would have under a big Manhattan imprint.

The big question, of course, is what to do next. I’m 77,000 words into Dreamhealer, and starting to pull all the plot threads together. I hope to finish it before the end of May. After that, well, it’s either something about the drumlins or The Molten Flesh. People have been pestering me for a sequel to The Cunning Blood since it first hit print in 2005. (My alpha readers have been pestering me even longer.) I have a couple of characters and a concept, plus a growing pot of ideas. I don’t have a plot. I tried to outline it. My subconscious basically said, No deal. (Right brains can be funny that way.) I may not know how any of the story goes until three paragraphs before I write it. That strategy has worked before. It’s worked (with greater or lesser success) all through Dreamhealer, though I’ve had to take a whip to my right brain here and there to keep it on task. Do I trust my subconscious enough to try it again?

Do I have a choice? Heh. We’ll damned well see.