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Trunk Archaeology, Part 2

As I mentioned in my entry for January 10th, I recently found a bunch of ancient fiction manuscripts from my high-school days, which (old guy that I am now at 71) were 1966-1971. In the same folders was a list of stories (written pre-Selectric) that appears to be in chronological order, with over forty stories listed. Some few of the later ones have dates on them. Most are undated. I know I wrote my first SF short story in the spring of 1967. Alas, a copy of that story was not present in the folders. Still, a lot of interesting material was there, including a significant number of stories that I had utterly forgotten.

In reading through them here and there over the past couple of weeks I realized that the ones I had forgotten were, for the most part, forgettable. I had no training whatsoever in fiction until I attended the Clarion workshop in the summer of 1973. As with a lot of other things, I learned to write fiction by imitating the stories of others.

This explains a feeling I had reading some of my ancient stuff: It sounds like the pulps of the 40s and 50s. Well, that’s because a great deal of what I was reading in that era were story collections full of stories written in the golden age of the pulps, from 1940 or so to the early-mid ‘60s. My local public library had several of Kingsley Amis’ Spectrum anthology series, and a few of Horace Gold’s Galaxy Reader series, which gathered stories originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction. Once I exhausted what the library had I bought a pile of other anthologies as 75c mass-market paperbacks, most of which have fallen apart and were dumped in the 50-odd years since I was in high school. Groff Conklin edited quite a few, of which I only have two left: Elsewhere and Elsewhen (1968) and Great Science Fiction By Scientists (1962). I miss some of the casualties, like the marvelous Science Fiction Oddities (1966) granting that if I still had them, these old eyes would require a serious magnifying glass to read them.

I never did anything with my high-school stories. The earliest story I have that saw print is “Whale Meat,” (written in February 1971; I was in college by then) which appeared in Starwind Magazine (Published by Ohio State University’s SF club) in the early ‘80s and most recently in my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories.

The first draft of ”Whale Meat” sounded peculiar and somehow oddly modern to me for a significant reason: I wrote it in present tense. Not because present tense was stylish in 1971. In truth, I don’t recall reading any fiction in present tense while I was in high school. Rather, I guessed that immortal witches who had been born in the 1300s would live their lives and think their thoughts in the literal now. “Whale Meat” passed through a couple of later drafts during my college years. At some point I decided, Nahhh, that’s too strange. Nobody’s going to like a story told all in present tense. I then rewrote it in conventional past tense. So much for SF writers predicting the future…of SF, at least.

An incomplete first draft titled “Prayers at the Plaster Virgin” came to hand, undated but as best I recall, 1974. I finished it sometime during the 1980s, and renamed it “Born Again, with Water.” You can find it in my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories. It’s as close as I ever came (or likely will ever come) to writing a horror story.

Everything else I wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s remains unpublished, mostly for good reasons. The bulk of those reasons hover around my failure to create credible characters in high school. Keep in mind (especially if you’re young and haven’t read any of the pulps) that I was in good company: Most of the pulps were action/adventure or tech/science puzzle stories that didn’t really require fully fleshed-out characters to engage the reader. I was writing what I was reading, pretty much.

Clarion changed all that—which is the reason I sold my first stories into professional markets shortly after the Clarion Workshop.

Here and there I think I succeeded in telling a story…by accident. Among my high school stories is one called “The Strongest Spell,” which I remembered badly. It’s a battle of wills between science and witchcraft. In some peculiar post-apocalyptic future, humanity has divided itself into Scientists and Witches. A young boy scientist and a young witch-girl meet periodically at the border between their respective territories, and get into spell-casting contests. The boy has an invisibility technology skullcap. The girl imposes invisibility on herself with a spell. The boy has an antigravity belt that allows him to fly. The girl has a spell for that too. Year by year they grow up and it’s the same old stuff every year: the boy practicing bravado and the girl a quiet and subtle one-upmanship.

There’s something on the table: There are ancient starships in the Scientists’ camp—but the Scientists can’t make them work. The girl knows why, but she’s not talking.

When they’re sixteen the game changes. This time the girl leads off by casting a complicated and (to the scientist boy) inexplicable spell. She summons a Cthuloid monster, which the boy assumes is a weapon directed at himself. Except—the monster attacks the girl instead.

Brute force doesn’t work. The boy attacks the monster with his gadgets and gets nowhere. The creature has dozens of eyes. The boy gets in the monster’s face and forces it to make eye contact. No technology, no science, no muscle: When the monster meets the boy’s furious eyes, it caves, releases the girl from its tentacles, and vanishes.

The boy doesn’t really understand: He was showing off the power of his technology, but she was testing him. She could match him, gadget for spell. But what she wanted to know was something different: Does he have the courage to face down a monster that cares nothing for his technology? Would he risk his life to rescue someone who had always been his rival?

He does. When he bends down to pick her up, assuming she’s injured and intending to carry her back to her own people, she tells him the Big Secret: That the starships need both science and magic to work. Her final spell wasn’t really about the monster. It was an invitation to work with her to make the starships operate, for Scientists and Witches both. He puts his arms around her, puzzled but pleased. You can almost see her thinking:

It worked.

Her spell was stronger than his: Cooperation beats competition. It wasn’t explicitly a love story, but one gets the impression that the girl added something a little extra to her spell.

None of my other stories in that era ever came close to this in terms of subtlety, and I assume that my success with “The Strongest Spell” was purely accidental. It was full of tropes and typos, and on the surface a little dumb. Hey, I was fourteen. Sometimes you just get lucky.

I still haven’t finished reading that quirky pile of yellowing paper. If other insights occur to me, you’ll see them here.

Trunk Archaeology

Sometime back I was digging around in one box or another in the shed and happened across something remarkable: two fat folders full of typewritten manuscripts I wrote while I was still in high school; that is, 1966-1970. It was a lot of paper: stacked up, the pile was over two inches thick. A handful were things I wrote in college from the very early ‘70s. Nearly all were high school stuff.

That box (and another box of more recent material) are what authors call their “trunk,” a sort of dead letter office for old manuscripts. I thought all that really old stuff was gone forever. I was sharp enough to write dates on the back pages of a few, which helped. Another clue lay in the nature of the typescript. I’ve owned three typewriters in my life:

  1. My grandmother Sade Duntemann’s 1920-vintage Underwood Standard #5, which she gave me in 1962, when I was ten.
  2. My Smith Corona electric, which my godmother Aunt Kathleen gave me for my birthday in mid-1968.
  3. My IBM Selectric, which I bought in 1972 and kept until laser printers made it unnecessary. I sold it in 2003.

The clues lay in the characters impressed by the type bars. The Underwood had seen a lot of use in its life, and its characters were not all crisply aligned. The type bars had clearly been jammed together now and then (I’d seen it happen, heh) and the characters were not in perfect alignment. The lowercase “a” in particular was a smidge higher than all the other letters. The Smith Corona’s type looked a great deal like the Underwood’s, except that I’d received it brand-new and all the type bars were perfectly aligned. The Selectric produced typescript obviously different from that of both earlier typewriters.

Another clue is that I wrote first drafts of all my high school stuff single-spaced.

The biggest clue of all was a stapled set of two sheets containing the titles of 46 short stories and one poem. As best I could tell, the titles were in chronological order. The list itself was typed on the Smith Corona, which dates it somewhere between mid-1968 and early 1972. The first draft of my story “Whale Meat” had the date February 8, 1971 written on the last sheet but was not on the list, so that means the list was drawn up earlier than that date.

Scanning the list of titles was profoundly weird. Although most of the titles were at least vaguely familiar (hey, how could I ever forget a title like “The Man Who Drove a Bulldozer Into Hell”?) about a third had slipped my memory utterly. Of the stories themselves I remembered almost nothing, save for a couple of my favorites. In reading manuscripts from that box, I didn’t even know what would happen next. It was like reading someone else’s stories entirely.

The list was not exhaustive. In digging through the paper-clipped sheet sets, I found two stories that had been written on the Underwood but were not on the list at all.

So here I am, reading through two inches of my fiction juvenalia. If you thought that finding the stories and the list of their titles was peculiar, stay tuned. I learned a lot about my progress as a writer from those stories. I’ll cite a few examples in my next entry here.

No More Assembly Required

In other words: It’s done. Well, at least the hardest part (for me) is done: Yesterday I uploaded the last odd bits of x64 Assembly Language Step by Step, Fourth Edition to the publisher’s cloud. Now comes the work that I don’t have to do: copy edits, tech edits, layout, proofing. I will have some odds and ends to deal with down the road a ways, like looking at the proofs, building the listings archive, and rewriting my assembly book web page to reflect the new edition.

The publisher hired the estimable David Stafford to do tech edits, which is quite an honor. I’ve known David since the early PC Techniques days, and that guy knows his stuff with a capital-K. If there are booboos, bugs, or dryer lint in that thing, he’ll spot it. (Dryer lint we may leave for the production service.)

I’ve been working on this project since mid-April 2022. This is the fourth edition of the book from John WIley, and the fifth edition overall. The very first edition came from Scott, Foresman at the end of 1989, and was part of a short-lived assembly language series that I acquired and edited for them on contract back in the very late ‘80s. Its original title was Assembly Language from Square One. We were just getting out of second gear in 1990 when Scott Foresman was sold to Harper Collins. Toward the end of 1990, Harper Collins put the Scott Foresman trade book line out of print. I got the rights back in 1991.

I turned around and took the book to John Wiley, who bought it on the spot. I rewrote and expanded the book, which appeared from Wiley in 1992. The title had to change when I took it to Wiley to avoid mixups on retail channel returns, so the book became Assembly Language Step-by-Step. That’s not a bad title, in fact, since the whole point of the book was to do a methodical, patient introduction for people just getting started in computing. The 1992 edition was all-DOS, as you might imagine. In 1999 Wiley asked me to do an update that included both DOS and 32-bit Linux. I retained nearly all of what had been in the first Wiley edition, and added another 200 pages for 32-bit concepts and Linux. It was published in 2000.

That book sold extremely well for its nine-year life. In 2008 Wiley asked me for a new edition devoted entirely to Linux. DOS was almost extinct by then, so it was a good move. With only one tail to wag I was able to go into a great deal more detail about Linux and 32-bit protected-mode programming generally. It was a big job that took me seven or eight months, but the book appeared in 2009, at 610 pages.

As the teens drew toward the 20s and 64-bit Intel/AMD CPUs went mainstream, I enquired about a 64-bit edition every so often. In each case, my acquisitions editor basically said, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” So I stopped asking, and the 2009 edition kept on selling.

The call came in early April 2022. My old acquisitions editor had retired, and the new one was very much on board with an x64 rewrite. He asked me how long it would take. By then I was 69, and asked, How about a year? He said, Sure.

And that’s almost what it took, whew.

I don’t exactly when we’ll have books. Summer, I’m guessing; maybe late summer. It’s hard to know in this business. I’ve already been asked if I’m ever going to do a 128-bit version. Well, we need 128-bit CPUs first, and in truth I don’t see them on the horizon. We needed 64 bits for the address space way more than the register width. Since the AVX-512 math subsystem on nearly all modern Intel/AMD CPUs already has 512-bit registers, we don’t need the register width, and since 264 is 1.84 x 1019, we’ve already got all the address space we will ever need.  Without 128-bit Intel/AMD CPUs, my guess is that the fourth edition of the book will be the last, and it could well be around long after I go on to other realms.

If I’m going to do any large-scale programming tutorials going forward, it’ll be about the Lazarus IDE and GUI builder. But at least for the coming year, if I write anything at all I’m going to write SF.

But I think you knew that.

Excerpted from Old Catholics: Christmas Eve II

I have about 38,000 words down on a (mostly) mainstream novel about a tiny Old Catholic community in Chicago, which has a 1920s bungalow with an altar and a few pews in the livingroom, with the clergy (a bishop and a deacon) living in two small rooms on the second floor. A good part of what I have down takes place just before and on Christmas. I’ve published excerpts here before on Christmas Eve. I don’t entirely know how the rest of the story goes. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it. But people have told me they’ve enjoyed the excerpts. So today on Christmas Eve, let us return to the Church of St. James & St. Julian of Norwich, just south of Devon Avenue at Campbell. The chapter posted on Christmas Eve 2018 comes immediately before this year’s chapter, so if you’ve never seen any of the story before, you might skim through them before reading further. There are mild fantastic elements in the story, especially a little old Polish lady who can read hearts and predict the future–and talk to dead people whom she considers saints. It’s a gentle, hopeful story about eccentric religious people who have no place in the larger Catholic world, banding together to worship God and heal one another of life’s inevitable traumas. Let me know what you think.


Bishop Hughes led them from the kitchen to a small round table standing a few feet in front of the bungalow-church’s front windows. The advent wreath Rob had seen on the Formica kitchen table on Gaudete Sunday was set on the table. All of the candles had seen some use, now that all four Sundays of Advent had passed. Rob remembered the ritual from his childhood: Family members took turns throughout Advent lighting the appropriate candle and reading the prayer before the evening meal. On Christmas Eve, the head of the household had candle duty. So it was that Bishop Hughes struck a wooden match on the side of its box and held it in his left hand while raising his right in blessing:

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we gather for one final meal before the birth of our Messiah, the Lord God Jesus Christ!” Bishop Hughes reached out with the match and lit the shortest purple candle, then the one beside it, then the pink candle of Gaudete Sunday, and finally the tallest purple candle. He held out his hands to Mrs. Przybysz and Mother Sherry, who took them and in turn reached out to take hands with the others to complete the circle.

Bishop Hughes tipped his head back, and spoke the prayer as he spoke nearly everything, with force and exultation:

“O Lord, stir up Thy might, we pray Thee, and come!
Rescue us through Thy great
strength so that salvation,
Which has been hindered by our sins,
May be hastened by the grace
of Thy gentle mercy.
Who livest and reignest for ever and ever! Amen!”

“Amen!” they replied in unison. Bishop Hughes turned and gestured toward the table. Eight places had been set, and atop each china plate was a folded card bearing one of their names-all but the setting at the foot of the table. It bore no card. As only seven people had gathered at St. JJ’s, Rob did wonder why the eighth place had been set at what was already a crowded table. He bent down to peek under the table, wondering if a card had fallen to the floor during the continuous bustle leading up to the Wigilia meal.

Bishop Hughes noticed Rob’s search for the card. “The place at the foot of the table is symbolic of those who share our love for God but who cannot be here with us in the flesh. Our departed, now in the bosom of the Most High; loved ones distant in space and time; the stranger who has no place at any table-“

“And saints,” Mrs. Przybysz interrupted as she bent to place a bowl of cucumber salad and a smaller bowl of horseradish on the table. “St. Ernie and St. Mona both showed up last year. Ernie warned me of evil brewing somewhere and had to leave to go look for it. Mona said we would need a much bigger table soon–and that the fish could have spent another few minutes in the pan.” The old woman sighed. “I do my best.”

“We all do our best,” Bishop Hughes said from behind her, smiling. “God asks no more of us than that. The challenge is to discover the inner strength that few of us realize that God has given us.”

Bishop Hughes pulled Mrs. Przybysz’s chair back. The old woman sat. Rob reflected that it was a signal. He pulled out Suzy’s chair, and helped her scoot in once she was settled. PJ pulled out Mother Sherry’s chair and did the same. Deacon Dan sat, and made a down-patting motion at Rob, who sat beside Suzy. PJ took the last seat, and set his battered leather briefcase on the floor beside him. He looked spooked, and kept glancing at the empty chair at the far end of the table.

PJ sat across from Suzy. Suzy took a library card and a pen from a pocket and wrote quickly in her lap. She poked Rob and handed him the card.

I feel something weird, she wrote. Rob made just a hint of a nod and handed it back. His first impulse was to grin. But…huh? An odd prickly feeling arose in the back of his head behind his ears, like something approaching–or something that was already among them, gathering power.

Rob shivered. He had told himself a thousand times that he did not believe in demonic forces. Whatever he felt did not feel evil. It felt powerful, not angelic but somehow rooted in the Earth beneath their feet. Hell was at the center of Earth, according to Dante and probably half of Christian humanity. Rob tried to focus, desperate to get away from the impression that something malign was creeping up on him.

Then, deep in his mind, a single word, stated quietly but with the conviction of everything high and holy, resolving Rob’s confusion plainly and beyond all question:

No.”

Odd Lots

Now Available: “The Camel’s Question”

CamelCover-500 wide.jpg

“Listen, young ones, for I, Hanekh, am a very old camel, and may not be alive to tell this tale much longer. Listen, and remember. If I leave nothing else behind but a spotty hide and yellow bones, I wish to leave this.”


So begins my latest ebook publication, “The Camel’s Question .” It’s now available on Amazon for 99c. It’s a short story, not a novel, and won’t taken you more than ten or fifteen minutes to read. There is a story behind the story, so what better place to tell it than here?

In the spring of 1966, when I was in eighth grade, we were tasked to write a Christmas story. It wasn’t required to be fiction, but it had to be about Christmas. So in longhand on yellow paper I wrote a story I called “Master Melchior and Me.” It was about the camels that carried the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem. We read our papers aloud in class, and when I finished reading mine, the class applauded. I had apparently touched a nerve.

I began with the title, which was inspired by a 1953 Disney animated short, “Ben and Me” about the humorous adventures of a mouse living in Ben Franklin’s house. I actually pictured it as Disney-style animation. Remember that I was 13, and “young for my age.” I was writing fiction already by 8th grade, and tended to picture it in my head as cartoon animation. I think I intended to make it humor, but as has happened so often with me, my subconscious had other ideas. The story was serious but upbeat, about a lesson one of the camels learned from the Christ Child.

Jump ahead a few years, to the fall of 1972. My father was battling cancer and losing, My poor mother was worn out by both working as a nurse, and nursing my father past the crude, debilitating, and ultimately futile radiation treatments. I wanted to give her something that would get her mind off her troubles for a few minutes. I was a junior in college and by then had taken a lot of literature courses. I realized that I had written a fable, which is an ancient literary form in which animals are made to think and talk like humans to put across a moral.

By 1972 I had already lost the original handwritten manuscript, so I started at the beginning and told it again, having in the meantime grown mostly to adulthood and written a lot of things, fiction and nonfiction. I didn’t like the title, as Master Melchior at best played a background role. But I didn’t know what to call it, so I kept the original title. The story, however, was lengthened, deepened, and in some respects moved a hair to one side of being a true fable.

It didn’t matter. I gave the typewritten manuscript to my mother as a Christmas gift, and she was deeply moved by it. The typescript went into her dresser, and Gretchen and I found it after mother died in 2000. I scanned it, OCRed it, cleaned it up a little (but surprisingly little, after 50 years of additional practice telling stories) and gave it a new title: “The Camel’s Question.” Of the three camels, two are fairly ordinary. The third–well, he’s a skeptic and a contrarian, and asks a great many questions about the world and its workings, and the men who dominate the world and the lives of camels.

One of those questions is a doozy.

And that’s where I hand the baton back to you. The story’s out there if you’re interested. It sat in a box for literally fifty years. Better late than never, I guess. It’s dedicated to my mother, who suffered far too much but never failed me in any way. It’s only the third story I’ve ever written with no fantastic elements in it.

Ok, ok. Talking camels. I did the best I could with what I had.

Thanks in advance to all who buy it and read it.

More AI Text Generator Freakiness

I tried it again. This time, I used a much more detailed prompt, which I’d written years ago (2014-ish) about a bottle that used to have a genie in it. The genie had been freed, leaving behind…a bottle. And what self-respecting genie would ever live in a non-magical bottle? So a nerdy guy buys a supposedly magical, genie-less bottle at a curio shop. The bottle, it turns out, has a trick: Ask it a question, and it answers.

Alas, the bottle has issues of its own.

I gave the prompt to Sudowrite, and let it follow its nose. Now, the way Sudowrite works is that when you ask it to write a section, it gives you two text blocks, both of which are based on the prompt. You choose the one you like better, and add it to the text that follows the prompt. Then you ask it for another section.

After a couple of go-rounds, I realized that in one of its generated text blocks, Sudowrite was putting together a sex scene. No sale. I chose the other block, which still had enough innuendo to make me uncomfortable. I sensed that in a sense it made a deranged sort of sense: I had described the protagonist as a lonely nerd. So! Toss him into bed with an imaginary girl who (the AI made graphically clear) had all the required female parts.

I stopped there. The first Sudowrite story I posted was in (somewhat) bad taste. I don’t make Obama jokes. Nor do I make Mossad jokes. I might make golem jokes, at least if the golem is the good guy. One reason I tried Sudowrite again today is that I wanted to see if bad taste was a habit or an outlier. It’s starting to sound like a habit.

Here’s the story. Everything up to the first rule is my prompt, taken verbatim from my notes file. I will someday use the concept (of a genie bottle without a genie) in a Stypek & Tuggur adventure, a prequel to Ten Gentle Opportunities. Everything after that is Sudowrite. Still a bit surreal–but if there’s a surreality slider somewhere in Sudowrite, I haven’t found it yet.


Djinn and Tonic

“What’s this?” Chuck Bialek asked the Gizmoids shop owner, and waved the weird, bulbous crystal bottle in the air over the counter. As best Chuck could tell, it was half-full of dirty water.

“Genie bottle,” said the old man. “But somebody let the genie go, so no wishes. Still, if you shake it and let it sit for a minute, it’ll tell your fortune. Used to be a hundred bucks. You can have it for fifty.”

Which meant it was probably worth a buck and a half, tops. Still, Chuck’s grandma had left him almost a million dollars, half of which was now in stocks. The rest was, well, for fun. He’d had a magic 8-ball when he was a kid. It was fun. This might be a reasonable facsimile.

Chuck laid a fifty on the counter, tucked the bottle in his canvas bag, and went back to his flat. After stuffing down a bratwurst and some Cheetos, he shook the bottle hard and set it on the kitchen table. Little by little, the dirt in the water settled out, leaving behind…words.

I miss my genie, read the words. Ha! He wondered how it worked.

“I wish I had a Jeannie to miss,” Chuck said. The nerd business was fun, but…lonely.

Chuck shook the bottle again, and waited.

Trade you a Jeannie for a genie, the dirt-words said.

“Deal,” replied Chuck.

 


His phone rang the next morning.

“This is Jeannie,” a voice said. “I’m with a Mr. Bialek, right?”

“Yep,” said Chuck.

“Trade?” asked Jeannie.

“What do you have in mind?”

“Wishbone,” said the genie.

“I wish you wouldn’t keep doing that,” said Chuck.

The Jeannie-thing giggled. “Make a wish,” she said.

Chuck thought for a bit. “I wish you were wearing a bikini.”

He hung up, and was on his way to the coffee shop when he heard a voice behind him.

“Trade?” asked the genie-Jeannie-thing.

“No!” shouted Chuck, and fled. He might be a nerd, but he was still the last straight guy in the world who hadn’t seen the Girls Gone Wild videos and had no intention of doing so.

He stumbled into the coffee house, and ordered a single-shot espresso with a splash of vanilla syrup. He had just opened a browser window and was trying to find a porn site that didn’t offer a free trial when he heard a voice behind him again.

“Trade?” asked the Jeannie-spirit.

“Are you nuts?” he said. “That’s the second time.”

“Make a wish,” said the genie.

“What does this do to your magic?” asked Chuck. “I mean, every time I make a wish, you get a day older.”

“Rhymes with night,” replied the genie. “So I’m immortal, just like I always wanted.”

“What happened?” asked Chuck. “I mean, most genies are pretty nice, but they had to have their masters’ best interests in mind.”

“My master was a fraternity boy. Couldn’t make a wish without prefacing it with ‘Yo, Genie…'”

“Oh,” said Chuck. “My apartment’s on the third floor. You can stay in the spare bedroom.”

“You’re a nerd,” said the genie. “We could never live together.”

“Right,” said Chuck. “So I need to make a wish for you to be you again. With unlimited magic.”

“I can do that,” said the genie.

“And I’ll need a million dollars. Are you listening?” asked Chuck.

“I don’t have to,” replied the genie. “From now on, I’m invisible to you.”

“This is going to get tiring,” Chuck told his computer screen. “I wish you’d figure out how to be a girl again.”

Will genie make the coffee? will genie make the toast? will genie make Christopher Hitchens read my manuscripts?

Will genie have sex, or merely masturbate?

Will genie remember to take out the trash?

Will genie notice her glasses are on her head?

Will genie give me a million dollars,

even if she does have the power?

Yes, genie will do all of these things.

Will genie kick my ass down the stairs

if I ask for more wishes?

 


Heh. Fersure.

If You Give an AI a Writing Prompt…

Ok. Fasten your seat belts. I am giving an online writing AI a test drive, using my free trial of a website called Sudowrite. I gave the AI a writing prompt from my crazy ideas file, a mere handful of words that I wrote down a very long time ago (I think in the ’90s) and never went back to. Here’s the writing prompt:

St. Louis Blues

“Take me to St. Louis,” said the cruise missle in the thick of the bramble patch.

Howie Hinkle blinked, and put down his machete. “How’s that?” he asked.

“Take me to St. Louis,” the missle repeated.

Howie howled. “Paw, dammit, there’s an old water tank in here and it’s talkin’ to me!”


It’s not a great deal to go on, but that was the idea. With a bare hint of a concept, what would Sudowrite do? I could have written some of it myself, or edited it, but I wanted to see what the damned thing could produce solo. 100% of the writing after the prompt was done by the AI. I had hoped to avoid the literary equivalent of Salvador Dali. Well, too bad. Hello Dali…


St. Louis Blues

“Take me to St. Louis,” said the cruise missle in the thick of the bramble patch.

Howie Hinkle blinked, and put down his machete. “How’s that?” he asked.

“Take me to St. Louis,” the missle repeated.

Howie howled. “Paw, dammit, there’s an old water tank in here and it’s talkin‘ to me!”

His father, Howard Hinkle Jr., took him for a look. The old tank was rusty and damaged, with a huge gash in it. Penetrating the tank from inside was a cruise missle, with a single eye and a fin on top. A single missile launcher poked through the gash.

“Who the hell are you?” Howie Jr. asked. “Why do you have a cruise missle?”

“My name is Shiloh,” said the voice. “I am a cruise missle, and I will ask you one more time to take me to St. Louis.”

“I don’t know where St. Louis is,” said Howie Jr.

“I will find it,” said Shiloh. “I am a golem of the Mossad. If you do not help me, I will call my brethren. We will clear the bramble from the road, and from there, we will find you.”

“Y-you can’t do that!” Howie Jr. said.

“If you do not take me to St. Louis, I will call my brethren, and we will take your woman, and we will bring her back to Tel Aviv. We will use her to breed a generation of human-missle golems. You can raise them with your own spector. They will be of your tribe, and they will spread across the land.”

Howard Hinkle Jr. swallowed, and wiped the sweat from his brow. “If I take you to St. Louis, will you let us alone?” he asked.

“I will,” said Shiloh.

“Deal,” said Howie Jr. “Let’s go.”

Hours later, a police car rolled up, and several officers got out. One pulled Howie Jr. aside.

“Which way did he go?” he asked.

“Er- he went that way,” Howie Jr. said, pointing.

“We appreciate your cooperation,” said the officer.

“Say,” the officer said, “was that your grandma that was in the hotel room with you?”

“Uhh, she’s my wife,” said Howie Jr.

“Doesn’t look like a 43 year old woman, honey,” said the officer. “What’s your name?”

“Howie, honey,” Howie Jr. said.

“Yeah, that’s what he said,” the officer said.

A week later, on the steps of the White House, President Obama announced the success of the St. Louis negotiations. Behind him, an Israeli flag hung. Beneath it, a Mossad agent clapped.

“What a complete dick,” said the agent. “He really thought he got one over on us, didn’t he?”

Shiloh’s eye blinked, and his fin wiggled.

Sudowrite, Egad

I got wind of an online AI thingie called Sudowrite this morning. It’s a sort of writing engine that takes a piece of writing you’ve started and then runs with it. I’ve always been interested in AI, including AI creativity (“The Steel Sonnets,” “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs”) and used to play around with Eliza back when Eliza was young and hot. Well, here we are, in 2022. The supermarket is fresh out of Soylent Green, but by gully, Sudowrite is here, waiting for me to get stuck on something and yell for its help.

What I did was not quite that, exactly. For my first test I gave Sudowrite the initial few paragraphs of my weird fantasy short story, “Whale Meat.” Then I told it to go off and do its best to continue the story. First, the text from the current version of the story, which is published in my book Cold Hands and Other Stories. After the second horizontal rule, behold Sudowrite’s run with what I admit was a very peculiar football.


Sitting on a cold bus-bench at night-west I wished I had never been born a witch. I had just killed a man and Mara wanted whale meat. But I am on the canvas. I am not the painter. Creator forgive me. We had to stay somewhere. It would have been in the park with the ice if Lennie had not looked in my eyes in the public library and half-snerfed my pain.

There is no word for Lennie now. Years ago he would have been a hippie. Longer ago, a beatnik. Further back into time’s fog, a bohemian. Head. Weirdo. I don’t know what people call them now. Freak, perhaps. But he knew we were tired and homeless, and told us to stay with him.

His apartment was a hole. I was too exhausted to snerf him. He gave us hot coffee and a blanket and we slept on ragged foam rubber with the roaches. My dreams floated in hunger, tormented by Mara’s request for whale meat. She told me without words. I snerfed the picture in her head, a gray sea-mountain blowing steam from its nostril above moonlit swells.

I woke from restless dreams in a sweat of fear and anger. Some part of me never sleeps, and knew Mara was in danger. In yellow candlelight Lennie was bending over Mara, knife in his hand above her belly swollen with James. His eyes were slits and he chanted a language I never learned. I snerfed him. Some bad acid (is it still called acid?) was eating away at him and leaving only insanity in its wake. Snerfing him gave me a grim glimpse of the future: He would kill Mara and James in seconds. The knife began to circle for its last time, like a live thing in his shaking hands.

I had to time-opt. The universe ground to a slow halt around us while I dug up power from my heart-place, and zotted him. Lennie’s poor head shorted out like power lines blown away in a windstorm, with sparks and shrieks of inner agony.


His blood froze in his veins, his skin burned and turned black, his body dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.

I pulled Mara and James from the bed, and backed out of the stinking room, stumbling into the street, breathing deeply of the winter air. We hurried away past the sleeping city, three in a row. I held them in a circle of toil’d air. The sad lights of the city slid behind. We were two hundred miles away before Mara spoke.

I don’t mind you killing Lennie, I snerfed. He would have killed us.

I was just defending myself, I snerfed.

So were the people in the Warsaw Ghetto, Mara snerfed.

I walked faster. She didn’t snerf me.

The river was frozen solid. I cut off a section of the ice, and chopped it into chunks with the edge of my mind. I piled the chunks


Does this work? Dunno. I admit I was curious where Yonnie piled the chunks of ice, but it only gives you so many words at a time. Sudowrite half-understood my made-up word “snerf,” which is a witch-power, essentially telepathy. I forgive Sudowrite for not knowing that James was still in Mara’s uterus, where he’d been for five years. (Witches are pregnant for seven years, and James still has two years to go.)

Now, this isn’t the fairest of tests. I’m going to dig around in my notes files for an opener, ideally one I abandoned for some reason, and then go back and forth with Sudowrite to see if the one-and-a-half of us can actually finish a story that doesn’t read like a Salvador Dali painting looks.

I’ll let you how it goes.

SASM Crashes on “Section” in a Comment

As most of you know, I’m grinding along on the fourth edition of my book Assembly Language Step By Step, updated to cover x64. I’m using the SASM IDE for the example code because it provides seamless visual debugging using a front-end to gdb. Back in 2009 I created the third edition, and incorporated the Insight debugger front end for visual debugging. A month or so after the book appeared, Insight vanished from the Linux world. I tried a lot of debuggers and editors before I discovered SASM. It’s treated me very well.

Until today.

Now, I’ve been programming since 1970, in a lot of languages, on a lot of platforms, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Finding those mistakes is what debugging is about. Today, I was working on a short example program for the book. When I finished it, I clicked the Build button. It built as it should. I needed to single-step it to verify something about local labels, but when I clicked the debug button, SASM crashed. As Shakespeare would have put it, SASM died and gave no sign. The whole IDE just vanished. I tried it again. Same thing. I rebooted Linux. Same thing.

Puzzled doesn’t quite capture it. I loaded another example program from the book. It built and debugged without any trouble. I loaded example after example, and they all worked perfectly. Then I copied the source from the malfunctioning example into a file called crashtest.asm, and began cutting things out of it. I got it down to a start label and a SYSCALL to the exit function. Still blew SASM away.

Most of what was left was comments. I did a ctrl-X to cut the comment header onto the clipboard. Save, build, debug–and it worked perfectly.No crash, no errors, no problemo.

Soooooooo…….something in a comment header crashed the IDE? That would be a new one. So I dropped the comment header back into the file from the clipboard and started cutting out lines, one by one. I narrowed it down to one comment line, properly begun with a semicolon and containing no weird characters. The line that crashed SASM was this:

;         .bss sections.

I cut out the spaces and the period. No change. I cut out “.bss”. No change. I was left with the word “sections.” On a hunch, I lopped off the “s”. No change. Then I lopped off the “n”. Suddenly, it all worked.

SASM was crashing on a comment containing the word “section.” I verified by deleting the line entirely and typing it in again. Crash!

I stared at the damned thing for a long time. I loaded a couple of my other examples, and dropped the offending comment header into them. No problems. Twenty minutes later, I noticed something: In crashtest.asm, the fragment of comment header text was below the three section markers:

section.bss
section.data
section.text

; section

Now, in my other examples, the ones that didn’t crash, the comment header was above the three section markers. So I went back to crashtest.asm, and moved the comment header to the very beginning of the file, above the section markers. Suddenly everything worked. No crashes.

WTF? I assembled the offending crashtest binary from the command line without trouble. I loaded it into gdb from the command line and messed with it. No trouble.

I wrote this entry not for answers so much as to provide a report that other SASM users can find in search engines. There are things about SASM that aren’t ideal. Sure. But I’ve never seen it crash before. I’ll see if I can send the crashtest.asm to the people who created SASM. I’m sure it’s just a bug. But it’s the weirdest damfool bug I’ve uncovered in a whole lot of years!