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The Odd Lots Project

Every so often someone sends me an email to ask, “Is there any place I could find your story ‘Our Lady of the Endless Sky’? I read it years ago and it was a really good story. I’d like to read it again.” Swap in the title of any of several other stories or idea pieces that I published in PC Techniques / Visual Developer what seems now like decades ago–because it is. Some of my idea pieces and humor from the magazine are already up, linked in an archive page that you can find here.

Still, it’s only a few of them, mostly because for those few I still had the original word processor files. Most of those files have been lost. All that remains are the magazines themselves.

Five or six years ago I sketched out an idea for a book containing some of the old BEGIN / END / The Vision Thing / Breakpoint pieces, plus some of my better Contra entries. For almost four years I was occupied with my new novel Dreamhealer. (The paperback edition is now for sale on Amazon, so that project is finally complete.) With Dreamhealer out of the way, a week or so ago I started building a TOC and searching out files for as many pieces as I still have. Some had to be scanned and OCRed from the magazines. Some were buried in odd folders in my data drive. All of them needed cleaning up. Quite a few I have only in WordPerfect format. Fortunately I can convert these using a handy utility called QuickView Plus. The Contra entries are copy’n’paste.

I work on it when time permits. I now have 45,000 words in the master Word file. My target is 75,000 words. There’s still plenty of scanning and OCRing to do, plus introductions to put all this ancient stuff in context.

The book will have seven sections:

  1. Essays and Editorials
  2. From Contrapositive Diary
  3. Poetry (maybe)
  4. Parody
  5. Memoir
  6. None of the Above.

The Poetry section may not happen. I’ve only written three poems in my life that I would show to the general public. Two of them are e.e.cummings pastiche and one Robert Frost pastiche. When God was handing out poetry genes I was standing in the Whimsical Tutorials line. (Fortunately, it was a short line.)

One thing that won’t be included in Odd Lots is “STORMY vs. the Tornadoes,” which appears in my AI SF collection Souls in Silicon . There are a few items that fall in the forbidden zone between fiction and nonfiction, which is what the “None of the Above” section will capture.

I will publish it in both Kindle ebook format and trade paperback. I don’t have a timetable yet, but in nice round numbers I’d like to see it laid out and ready to publish by the end of the year. When I flesh out the TOC a little more, I’ll post it here, and if you remember something that you liked but don’t see in the TOC, let me know in the comments.

The biggest task for now is simply reviewing Contra to remind myself what I’ve done. This is a challenge, as I’ve been publishing Contra now for 22 years and have about 5,000 entries. I’m working on that. So stay tuned. This will be fun. I don’t expect to sell thousands of copies. Mostly what I want to do is put a lot of my mostly-forgotten work back in the public eye. This’ll do it.

Looking for Cableton

I’m gathering miscellaneous items I’ve written down the years into a collection called Odd Lots. A fair number of those are editorials or END/Breakpoint pieces I wrote for the magazine across its ten years of publication. I no longer have the source files for a lot of my earlier material, though I do have most from about 1996 on. I have a complete run of PC Techniques / Visual Developer on a high shelf…

…or at least I thought I did, until I was scanning the spines for August/September 1993. It wasn’t there. And that issue included something I wrote called “Cableton,” which I had included in the tentative table of contents for Odd Lots.

I tore the house up, and opened a few previously unopened boxes from our move down here in 2015. No Cableton. It may still be around here somewhere. However, I looked in all the obvious hiding places, and quite a few very non-obvious hiding places, like under my big reading chair. Hit a wall, I did. So let me put out a request to my friends and readers who may actually have a copy of that issue: Could someone email me a scan of “Cableton”? Once I have a scan I can OCR it, like I’ve done with a lot of other items in those very old issues.

What else will be in Odd Lots? Some humor pieces, most of which were never published. A fair number of editorials and idea pieces from the magazine that I think may still be important. A little memoir, some of which I’ve published here on Contra. A few important Contra entries. It won’t be a huge book, and it won’t be expensive. If nobody has that issue, I’ll call it unfortunate and move on. But if you have it and a decent scanner, please email me a page image.

Thanks!

And as a postscript, if you’ve enjoyed some short item that I’ve written, let me know. I’m not always a good judge of what my best work is. Then again, nobody ever is. It’s a blind spot that may be baked into the human mind.

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.

Birthdaywander

68 today. About this place in each decade there are a couple of years where it’s not immediately obvious to me which birthday I’m having. 2020 being what it is and will likely continue to be, I have had no trouble remembering that this is my 68th birthday.

A lot of this is the virus, which from the demographic stats clearly has a target on my forehead. (See this compendium of stats as of June 23.) My age bracket represents 21% of COVID-19 deaths, and COVID-19 represented 9.4% of total deaths from all causes in my age bracket between February 1 and June 17. Them’s bad odds, at least from where I sit. So we’re staying home, and the most human contact we’ve had in a couple of months is talking to the neighbors out in the middle of the street.

I have some bitches about the numbers. In a lot of places, anyone who dies with tested SARS-CoV-2 in their bodies is listed as dying of the virus, even if they died of cancer, alcohol poisoning, car accidents, or lots of other unrelated conditions. Granted, it’s often hard to tell what actually causes death. So although I’m willing to accept the huge numbers of newly identified cases (where a “case” is anyone who tests postive for the virus) the mortality numbers are almost certainly higher than they would be if people who caught the virus but died of something else were not counted.

Bit by bit the numbers improve, especially now that tests are easy to come by. An awful lot of young people are carrying the virus, but an awfuller lot of those are completely asymptomatic. Whether they’re contagious is still under heated discussion.

Catching the virus outdoors is unlikely. I’m not one of those who blame the protests for the rising number of cases in young people. Oh, I’m sure it helped raise the case numbers a little. But in watching the appalling videos of the riots, what I see is a lot of people in fast chaotic motion, outside, probably with a light breeze. What this means is that the spreaders are unlikely to be in close proximity to the same people for more than a few seconds. This is not what happens at choir practice, really.

A lot of the protesters were wearing masks. Forgive me for thinking that a lot of them weren’t worried about acquiring the virus half as much as a police record.

Oh–masks. Let’s talk about masks. What I’m seeing in recent weeks is a peculiar psychology of constant harping about masks that does two things:

1. It makes a certain number of otherwise reasonable people annoyed enough to refuse to wear masks in public.

2. It makes a larger number of reasonable but naive people feel that with a mask on, they’re invulnerable and cannot catch the virus. This is major magical thinking.

I wear a mask to keep peace in the valley, mostly. Getting yelled at by every uberkaren in the supermarket is not on my bucket list. Nonetheless, I am under no illusions that the masks will prevent me from either catching or spreading the disease. There is plenty of research showing that SARS-CoV-2 spreads in aerosol form. (That is, as free particles rather than inside mucus or saliva droplets.) The masks available to the public will not stop isolated virus particles drifting in the air. For that you need properly fitted N95 masks or better, and I’m among those who think that front-line health care personnel should get them before the rest of us.

Consider this article, by a skeptical MD with 36 years of clinical experience. He knows medical masks. Woodworking masks or cowboy bandanas are of zero effectiveness, and even surgical masks are not effective in filtering aerosols. The virus itself is 120 nm in size; basically, a tenth of a micron. Your workaday snotrag is not gonna stop that. Droplets, possibly–at least big ones. But let me ask you this: What happens when a droplet that was stopped by your bandana dries out? It seems to me (I’ve seen no research on this issue) that absent their droplets, individual viruses can be inhaled through the cloth, or blown out into the invironment again by exhaled air.

Especially here in Phoenix, where the humidity is often in single digits, those droplets will dry out fast. Maybe they’ll remain stuck to the cloth fibers. Maybe. Bet your life on it? Not me.

So, again, we’re staying home. I’m trying to work out how to get the ball rolling on my new novel The Molten Flesh. The first chapter is a flashback, to twelve years before The Cunning Blood takes place. We’re focusing on a different nanotech society this time: Protea, which is designed to optimize the human body. Sangruse 9 can do a little of that, but Protea literally rebuilds the interior structure of the body to make it much more resistant to trauma, radiation, cancer, infectious microorganisms and aging. It’s not as smart as Sangruse 9, nor as good with physical chemistry. Still, once you understand the full reality of what it can do, it’s a pretty scary item. And that’s the canonical Protea. In 2354, Protea was forked. A renegade Protea Society member breaks with the others and starts tweaking the device. The story emerges from that.

I’m trying to put together an action scene where renegade Ron Uhlein steals the 1Earth starship Vancouver. He succeeds (with Protea’s constant assistance) and in the process demonstrates to Sophia Gorganis that starships can be stolen. What she does with that knowledge is told in The Cunning Blood.

I need to catch up a little on Contra entries here. I have one partly written involving my All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything idea, and another about the COVID-19 coin shortage. Really. Remember: The universe is stranger than you can imagine…and I can imagine a lot.

Plaguewander

How serious is this lockdown thing? Well, I’ve won all 1600 boards on Mah Jong Titan. That includes all available premium board packs. If there were more I’d buy them. There aren’t. That doesn’t surprise me, given the work it must take to produce another 300 boards that only the occasional crazy like me will ever play.

I’ve played Mah Jong for decades, and not just to kill time. For me it’s a sort of mental palate-cleanser: I play a board or two when I need to shift gears from one project to another. When I move from working on Dreamhealer to some construction project out in the shop, I play a board to stop me from thinking about Dreamhealer, or at least to pull me down from obsession territory. It does work. I’m not sure why, given that Bejeweled doesn’t provide the same benefit, nor do any of several other games I’ve tried. My theory: Mah Jong depends to a great extent on memory. Playing well requires remembering which tiles are where on the board. You’d think that that would be no big trick, given that the board is already laid out in plain view. Not so. A few tiles stand out from the crowd. Most do not. If a move uncovers a four of bamboo, you had better know if there’s a four of bamboo elsewhere on the board. The games I play, at least, are played against a clock. You don’t have a minute to scan the whole board to spot that four of bamboo over in the lower-right corner. Dead-time adds up, and each board has a time limit. To win the board, you have to empty it within that time limit.

The creative life is all about memory. This is true of fiction, especially the fiction that I write, which is heavy on ideas, foreshadowing, and gradual reveals. Getting away from fiction means remembering other things for awhile. And because Mah Jong is a shallow memory challenge, it takes little or no effect to push a board full of tiles out of the forefront of my mind when it’s time to turn to something else.

-…- -…-

Carol and I did some shopping at Wal-Mart today. I don’t know if this was their innovation, but aisles at Wal-Mart are now one-way. This makes it easier to stay away from other shoppers, though it can be a nuisance at times. I tend not to go shopping when I’m feeling impatient. Mercifully, I was not feeling impatient this morning.

-…- -…-

While at Wal-Mart, we looked at Polish sausage and other sausage products. I typically eat a bratwurst or some other similar sausage for lunch. There was a run on such things for awhile, and I was unable to find the Hillshire Farms smoked sausage that I’d been lunching on for some time. We saw them at Wal-Mart today. I picked up a pack, and scanned the list of ingredients. Yikes; they now put MSG in their smoked sausage products. I originally chose them because they did not include MSG. Johnsonville sausage products, on the other hand, have been nonstarters here for years, because all their sausages contain MSG. Well, since I was reading labels anyway, I picked up a package of Johnsonville smoked bratwursts and scanned its ingredients. No MSG! So I bought some.

It is a puzzlement. Given how many people react badly to MSG, I have to wonder why sausage companies insist on using it. Does a sausage really taste better with MSG than without? I can’t tell the difference and never have.

-…- -…-

Cutting Board Before-500 Wide.jpg

54 years ago, I took wood shop at Lane Tech in Chicago. We built a number of projects, but the only one that survives is the heavy oak cutting board. My mom used it while I stilled lived at home, and I took it with me when I moved out and married Carol. So it’s been in use for all 54 of those years. The board’s saggita is now half an inch, so we flipped it over and now cut on what was the bottom face.

Alas, the two outer oak layers on the board started peeling away from the rest a few years ago. Food was getting caught in the resultant cracks, and I was afraid I’d have to toss it out. Not so: A little careful work with my chop saw and some belt sander time yielded a narrower but now far more hygienic cutting board. This may not last, and the day may come when I can’t cut any more layers off the edges. Still, 54 years is a long time to be using an artifact that you built yourself with your own hands.

-…- -…-

My fellow hams don’t need me to tell them that the bands are dead right now. The very occasional sunspot is so small I often wonder if it’s dirt on some telescope’s lens. Propagation is lousy. Working Wisconsin was a delight. Working Seattle almost knocked me off my chair. But beyond the current sunspot dearth, what really annoys me is the noise level. I thought for a long time that this was caused by the crappy switching power supplies inside every LED bulb in the house, which would be all of them but two. (The two incandescents are grow lamps for Carol’s African violets.) So I did the experiment last week: I shut off every piece of electronics (including the AC) and every damned lightbulb in the house.

The noise level did not change at all.

I can’t shut off the security system and really don’t want to. But I’ve had security systems in every house we’ve lived in since 1990, and have never had noise levels like this. The houses here are widely spaced (this is the land of half- to one-acre lots) so I suspect I’m not hearing the neighbors’ stuff. All the more reason to buy a 12V battery pack and enable the Icom IC-729 to run on battery power. If the power ever goes out in our neighborhood, I’ll make a beeline for the shack, to see if the noise level drops. That won’t help me work Wisconsin once the power comes back on, but at least it’ll narrow down the culprit list a little.

-…- -…-

Dreamhealer is coming along. I’m still doing some edits, but in truth, I’m waiting for the artist to finish the cover. I was going to release it at LibertyCon in June, but there will be no LibertyCon this year. My deadline, being dead, no longer has much force.

-…- -…-

Arizona is opening up. Carol’s going to her hairdresser to get her hair done on Tuesday for the first time in quite awhile. The next time I need a haircut (I know, I know, during the next Ice Age) I’ll be doing the same thing. We’re being careful, but we’re no longer cowering at home. I’m watching Arizona stats for a number of reasons, the main one being that we’re already most of the way to a long hot summer. Viruses in the Sun die in seconds. No data on how long they last in triple-digit air out of direct sunlight, but I suspect it shortens their viable stage by a lot. Viral load is, as best we can tell, a factor. So we don’t go to concerts or political rallies. (Actually, I have never gone to a political rally. Viruses are not the reason.) We used to go to sit-down restaurants maybe once a month. We have carryout service accounts now and know how to use them. Total Wine is open, as are most other stores that we frequent. My motto remains what it is and has always been:

All will be well. And all will be well. And every damfool thing in the universe will be well!

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.

Public Domain Day 2019

January 1 is Public Domain Day in the US. By that I mean, according to current US copyright law, old material will begin entering the public domain again yearly. On the first day of 2019, all works published in 1923 will enter the public domain. This quirk in the law is due to provisions in the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act of 1998 and unless Congress starts screwing with copyright terms again (and they probably will) works produced in 1924 will enter the public domain in 2020, those produced in 1925 in 2021, and so on. You can read lots more about it here, though in truth I’ve known about it since 1998. Funny how fast twenty years go when you’re having fun!

Now, I’ve just finished a recent original ebook called Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood. It’s the first of a series of YA boys’ books taking place in the Yankee Republic, which is a sort of alternate history America where boys are still taught traditional values and aren’t kept prisoners in their homes until they’re fifteen or sixteen. In Wood’s book, a group of young teen boys (12-14ish) built a pirate radio station to serve their little town in the mountains. There’s some truth here: Turn young teen boys loose, and they can do amazing things. I’ve been building radio transmitters since I was 12. I built a junkbox telescope at 14 that helped win Carol’s heart three years later when I showed her Saturn’s rings in her driveway. Several of my friends were doing a lot of the same. Today, you get in trouble for letting your kids walk to school or to the park, or (in some places) ordering chemical glassware for chemistry experiments.

But I digress. The point I’m making is that “boys’ books” were very popular in the 1920s. A lot of them (along with an enormous amount of other material) will now be going into the public domain yearly, unless the law changes. When I read Pirates of the Electromagnetic Spectrum, the first thing that came to mind was a book on my shelves called Boy Scout Electricians or The Hidden Dynamo that I got at an estate sale for 35c. It was published in 1913, and has been in the public domain for some years now. It’s a potboiler, a little breathless, and awkwardly written, like most boys’ books of that era, and in truth until the era came to an end in the 1950s. Being in the public domain means that we can do any damned thing we want with them. So…why not edit them to improve the writing and make them better books? Far too much current YA fiction cooks down to dystopian bummers. Some people enjoy those. Many don’t. I certainly wouldn’t give that stuff to my kids, if I had any.

This is not a new thought of mine, and I suspect others have thought of it too. A lot of pulp-era material fell into the public domain years ago for lack of copyright renewal. On reading some of the pulp scans I’ve downloaded (remember my series on the pulps?) I reflected that with a few days’ work I could make them much better and more readable. It would be a very interesting experiment. Note that I don’t mean merely republishing them as-is (this is done all the time) but improving the writing and possibly (where it makes sense) updating them a little.

A lot of the stories from the pulp era were written quickly, paid their authors very little, and can be painful to read. But they’re also full of action and ideas, and cardboard characters can be fleshed out with a little skill. Some that I’ve read evoke a place or a period very well. They could become engaging entertainment with a little work. I’m sniffing around Project Gutenberg’s SF bookshelves for an experimental subject, and it’ll be interesting to discover what pulp-ish fantastic fiction goes into the public domain this coming Tuesday. Suggestions welcome.