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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.

Odd Lots

  • Lazarus 1.8.4 has been released. Bug-fix release but still worth having. Go get it!
  • From the Questions-I-Never-Thought-to-Ask Department: How was sheet music written after quill pens but before computers? With a music typewriter, of course.
  • How to become a morning person. Yes, there are benefits. The larger question of whether circadian orientation is born or made remains unanswered. Carol and I both lived at home during college. We’re both morning people. My sister and I had the same parents, grew up in the same house and obeyed the same rules (bedtimes were set from above and were not negotiable) and she went away to school. She is a night person. Proves nothing, but I find the correlation intriguing. (Thanks to Charlie Martin for the link.)
  • Here’s a long-form, highly technical paper on why human exposure to low-level radiation is more complex than we thought (hey, what isn’t?) and that some data suggests a little radiation experienced over a long timeframe actually acts against mortality. I’d never heard of the Taiwan cobalt-60 incident, but yikes!
  • Sleep, exercise, and a little wine may help the brain’s glymphatic system clean out unwanted amyloid waste products within the brain, preventing or staving off Alzheimer’s. This process may be the reason that anything with a brain sleeps, and why humans (who have more brain matter per pound than anything else I’m aware of) should get as much sleep as we can.
  • An enormous study on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet was found to be profoundly flawed, and has been retracted. The data was supposedly re-analyzed and the original results obtained again, but if the researchers made the mistakes they did originally (assuming that they were in fact mistakes and not deliberate faking) I see no reason to trust any of their data, their people, or their methods ever again.
  • How faddism, computerization, national bookstore ordering, a court case, and New York City cultural dominance destroyed (and continues to destroy) traditional publishing of genre fiction. The good news is that with indie publishing it matters far less than it otherwise would.
  • If you’ve followed the nuclear energy industry for any significant amount of time, you know that fusion power is always 30 years in the future. Now, I’ve also been hearing about thorium reactors for almost 30 years, and I got to wondering why we don’t have them yet either. Here’s a good discussion on the problems with thorium power, which intersect heavily with the problems plaguing ordinary uranium reactors.
  • Long-held myths die hard, especially when governments beat the drum for the myth. Eggs are good food. I eat at least two every day, sometimes more. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study indicating that people on a lots-of-eggs diet lost weight and suffered no cardiac consequences of any kind. Good short summary here.
  • I don’t see a lot of movies, but I’m in for this one, crazy though the concept is. After all, spectacle is what the big screen and CGI are for. Mad Max meets Cities in Flight? Sold.
  • The contrarian in me has long wondered how much of what I put out on the street every week in the recycle can is actually recycled. The answer is very little, especially since single-stream recycling became fashionable. Almost all of it goes into landfills. The reasons are complex (there’s not a lot you can do with scrap plastic, for example) but apart from aluminum cans, the cost of sorting it far exceeds the value of the reclaimed materials.
  • The antivax movement has always boggled me for its indomitably willful stupidity. Having stumbled upon a research paper on who the antivaxers are I boggle further: They are almost all members of the educated elite in our urban cores. This was always a suspicion of mine, and now we have proof.
  • Here’s a fascinating piece on the effects of water vapor and continental drift on global temperatures. The topic is complex, and the piece is long and rich, with plenty of graphs. The comments are worth reading too. The primary truth I’ve learned in researching climate for the last ten or fifteen years is that it’s fiendishly complex.
  • Brilliantly put: “But anger isn’t a strategy. Sometimes it’s a trap. When you find yourself spewing four-letter words, you’ve fallen into it. You’ve chosen cheap theatrics over the long game, catharsis over cunning.” –Frank Bruni, NYT.
  • A few days back I got Leonard Bernstein’s quirky, half-classical, half-klezmer “Overture to Candide” stuck in my head all afternoon. One listen to this was all it took.
  • I got there by recovering an old memory, of a chap who came to SF cons in the 70s with a strange keyboard instrument that he blew on through a hose, which as you might expect sounded like a piano accordion without a bellows. He was a filker and played interesting things, and I always assumed that he had somehow built the device himself. (It was much-used and taped up in several places.) But no, the chap is Irwin S. “Filthy Pierre” Strauss, and the instrument is a melodica.
  • Finally, one of the creepiest articles I’ve seen in a couple of years. I considered and set aside a plotline in my upcoming nanotech novel The Molten Flesh that involved sexbots, real, fully mobile AI sexbots enlivened (if that’s the word) by the Protea device. Maybe I should bring it back. The original 1959 Twilight Zone episode “The Lonely” has always haunted me. Maybe sex is a sideshow. Maybe it’s about having something to care about that cares back, and therefore gives your life meaning. I could work with that.

Writing Magical Systems

The first argument I ever had with a girl I cared deeply about involved the nature of magic. As I described back when I first released my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities , Lee Anne thought of magic as moody, ethereal, and completely impossible to predict. I thought of it as a sort of immaterial engineering. This disagreement turned out to be the least of our problems; she was 13 and I was 14, with all that that implies.

Fifty years later, I released an entire novel about magic. It has roots in that argument. I did try it her way: In 1974 I wrote a story (“Whale Meat”) containing Lee Anne-style magic, and although I’m happy with how it turned out, it was murder to write and isn’t one of my favorites among the things I’ve done. Ten Gentle Opportunities explored (among other things) how magic might be similar to software. The key is that magic should (ideally) be an internally consistent system, and not just Harry Potter-style abracadabra in which you can pull any damned rabbit out of any damned hat. I thought long (50 years!) and hard about what a magical system might be and how to create one. If you’re a writer, a distillation of my notes might be useful. Perforce:

There are three Big Questions you need to ask yourself as you take on a task of designing a magical system:

  • What is the source of magical power? Where does it come from and how do you obtain it? In Larry Niven’s Warlock stories, magic is an inherent property of the created world, an essence present everywhere but which may be depleted by use over time, like a seam of coal. Aleister Crowley (a real guy, if an unutterable nutcase) created a system of sex magick, which was powered (as best I can figure) by orgasms. In Ten Gentle Opportunities, magical power emerges from a fully-developed pineal eye, which is present in a small fraction of humanity and must be perfected by practice and study. The magical force itself is drawn from primordial chaos, and is inexhaustible. In some systems, magical force emerges from sacred or cursed artifacts, and in others from alchemical concoctions. Can magic be stored somehow for later use, or use by ordinary people? Stypek stores ten nuggets of magical force in stasis inside a wand made of “wereglass,” which is dense and scary and serves a plot point more than the magical system. (Sometimes you have to do that.)
  • Who is able to manipulate magical power? Magic is sometimes the purview of explicitlty magical beings like elves, fairies, pixies, etc. Sometimes it’s a skill that may be learned by anybody. In my system, it depends on a genetic talent that mundanes don’t have and can’t obtain. Spellbenders like Stypek, in fact, are incomplete magicians, in that they can examine and change magical spells but can neither draw magic from chaos nor send it back when no longer needed. (Unwanted or abandoned magic can cause all sorts of problems, like animating corpses into zombies.) Can one magician do things, or does it take some sort of cooperative effort? (One flashes on Crowley’s sex magic.) Can multiple magicians do bigger or more difficult things working together? (This was the case in the classic Witches of Karres.) Are magicians specialists? (Larry Correia’s are; see below.)
  • What are the limits of magical power? This is the big one, kids. Magic that can do anything is…boring. Stories engage us by pitting characters against challenges and their own limitations. A magician who controls magic without limits can’t lose and so isn’t especially interesting. One of the best modern magical systems is what Larry Correia built into his Dark Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. Magical persons are specialists, sorted into numerous categories by the nature and limits of their power. Some teleport. Some command electricity. Some influence weather. Some heal. Some control gravity, and so on. All of these powers draw on personal energy, which the body creates from food and rest, and when that energy is used up, the powers fail for a time until the body can restore its energy levels. All magical/super powers must have limitations. Superman has Kryptonite. Green Lantern’s lantern doesn’t work on anything colored yellow. (At least this was the case when I was reading my friends’ comics in the first half of the 1960s.) Sometimes magic is tied to the Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Aether. (Brian Niemeier’s magical system includes but is not limited to this.) You can be as clever as you like, but your magic must have quirks and limitations.

Answering these three questions in detail will get you well over halfway to a usable magical system. Create a notefile (what I call a mumblesheet, a marvelous term coined by the late and much missed George M. Ewing) and put your concept down in outline (or at least bullet list) form. If you have any kind of imagination at all, writing descriptions of your magicians and their skills will bring out further insights that will make the system interesting. In my system of magic, the difficulty of creating magical spells depends on the complexity of the spell–though perhaps not the way you would expect. Complicated spells are easy, but simple spells require enormous skill and are almost impossible to change. (Stypek is a spellbender, and changing spells–call it magic hacking–is his one big trick.) One of the novel’s conceits is that Stypek’s magic is literally object-oriented programming: Spells have properties and methods, which magicians and spellbenders can see and manipulate in the air in front of them. Others have drawn the parallel between magic and software before me, especially Rick Cook, in his Wiz series.

Your magicians should be quirky too. In my system, a fully developed pineal eye opens in the foreheads of magicians once they hit puberty. The eyes begin as red, and then with practice and study progress through the spectrum toward violet and then adamant (diamond-clear.) Expertise classes are named after gems that show the color of the class.The further toward adamant the eye is, the more powerful the magician. Adamant magicians are the baddest-assed; ruby-classers are poseurs, or dabblers of little power who can force mice to dance and that’s about it. In spellbenders, the pineal eye never erupts at all, and at best looks like a birthmark in the middle of the forehead.

Magical systems need quirks and limitations, but be careful not to make the system so complicated that readers have a hard time grasping it. I got a couple of emailed complaints about Stypek’s magic being hard to follow, but my beta readers had no trouble with it. (One did advise me to quit tinkering with it, and he was right: My first impulse is to throw new ideas into a story every time I go over it.) Some of your readers will just roll with it, especially if the plot and characters are compelling. Others will complain. That’s how writing fiction works. Roll with the criticism, and learn what you can from it.

It helps to ask yourself what sensory impressions accompany the generation and/or use of magic. Does magic make noise? Stink? Cause migraines? Shake the floor? Radiate colored light? Probably the best way to get a handle on this is to write a couple of scenes of your magic system in use. Not everything will work, but the stuff that does work, add to the description of the system. With some luck, the scenes may later find homes as short stories or scenes from a novel.

Finally, the three words that ought to be on every writer’s wall: Just write it. Trust your subconscious. If you’ve laid enough groundwork, you’ll get a story out of any reasonable system of magic. Be diligent and you’ll get several. Throw your back into it, and you’ll get as many as you want. Skills, challenges, discoveries, and interaction with other people are the building blocks of all fiction, especially genre fiction, and double-especially SFF. Magic embraces all of these.

Go for it.

Ten Gentle Opportunities in Trade Paperback

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I’ve been promising to do a trade paperback edition of Ten Gentle Opportunities for over a year now. Printed books are always good to have around for promo purposes, but I’ve gotten eight or ten explicit requests for paperbacks since the ebook edition was first released in January 2016. Why disappoint customers?

Buy Ten Gentle Opportunities from the CreateSpace store.

Buy Ten Gentle Opportunities from the Amazon store.

Sorry it took so long, guys.

Anyway. Why two sales links? It’s yet another peculiar kink in the increasingly kink-y world of independent publishing. Simply put: I make significantly more money per sale on books ordered from the CreateSpace store than from the conventional Amazon store. I’ll lay it out for you, though you can calculate it yourself using the CreateSpace royalty calculator, with a detailed explanation of how it all works on their Understanding Royalties page.

The book’s specs are these:

  • Black and white interior
  • 6″ X 9″ trim size
  • 310 pages
  • $12.95 Cover price

Basically, my share of the book’s cover price is the cover price minus the portion that CreateSpace takes. Their share is the sum of three things:

  • The sales channel percentage
  • A fixed per-book charge
  • A per-page charge

The sales channel percentage is basically the retailer’s discount. There are four sales channels available through CreateSpace, each with an associated discount:

  • Amazon US: 40% of cover price
  • Amazon Europe: 40% of cover price
  • The CreateSpace store: 20% of cover price
  • Expanded distribution: 60% of cover price

Expanded distribution is basically retail wholesaling to B&M stores and libraries through distributors like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and NACSCORP. As you can see, orders coming in from Amazon take twice the amount off the top as orders coming in from the CreateSpace store. I get so little from each expanded distribution sale that I decided not to both with expanded distribution. Sure, it would be cool to see the book on the shelves at bookstores…but the chances of that happening at all are pretty slight.

The fixed per-book charge is a sort of minimum charge for manufacturing the book. For b/w books having 110-828 pages, the fixed charge is $0.85 per book.

The per-page charge is the rest of the manufacturing cost, and depends on page count and whether the interior is b/w or color. For a b/w book in the 110-828 page count range, this charge is $.012 per page; i.e., 1.2 cents per page.

Turning the crank, it comes out like this:

  • $12.95 X 20% = $2.59, calculation of channel discount
  • $12.95 – $2.59 = $10.36, cover price minus channel discount
  • $10.36 – $0.85 = $9.51, minus per-book fixed charge
  • 310 pages X $0.012 = $3.72, calculation of per-page charge
  • $9.51 – $3.72 = $5.79

My share of each sale through the CreateSpace store is $5.72. For a sales through the Amazon store, the channel charge is 40%, or $5.18. With all else being the same, my share would be $12.95 – $5.18 – $0.85 – $3.72 = $3.20. So by ordering through the CreateSpace store, I get $5.72 rather than $3.20.

However….there is a significant gotcha: You have to set up an account with the CreateSpace store. Also, Amazon Prime shipping does not apply to CreateSpace sales. I recognize that these may be show-stoppers for some people. That’s ok; I won’t be annoyed if you order from the Amazon store.

Mostly, I wrote this entry to provide a little insight as to how authors are paid for paperback editions of books offered through CreateSpace. Because I don’t expect to sell a great many copies of the paperback, it’s a matter of no great importance. Like it or not, we’re hurtling toward an ebook future at most of the speed of light. The ebook is $2.99 and it’s delivered Right Damned Now rather than sometime next week. The ebook is selling well (considering I haven’t been pushing it much) and I’m happy with the money I’m making. Even $3.20 per copy is about par for royalties I’ve received on traditionally published technical books, and this is fiction.

If you still like printed books, I’d be honored if you’d buy a copy. And on that note, I’m going back to writing my latest novel. There are worse ways to be retired than this!

Odd Lots

The Problems of Excessively Rich Worldbuilding

The Cunning Blood

Many people who have read The Cunning Blood have complimented me on how rich the worldbuilding is. Well, it is rich. In fact, it’s extravagantly rich.

It may be a little too rich.

So. I had a sort of peak experience in July of 1997. While literally sitting with my feet in the pool early one evening, my idea machine went nuts. In the space of half an hour, I got the framework for a hard SF saga that I’m sure I’ll be working in for the rest of my life. As close as I can tell (the experience is hard to put into words) the core insight was a classic “What if?” hypothesis:

What if the cosmos is actually made of information? What does that imply?

Back then I’d been recently reading all sorts of interesting and sometimes speculative things: nanotechnology, programmable matter, chaos theory, extropianism, zero-point energy, etc. I’d been reading things bordering on New Age weirdness as well, including Michael Talbot’s book The Holographic Universe . Weird, but fun. And it played right into the concept of universe-as-data.

The next day, I sat down and took inventory of the ideas that had come roaring into view down by the swimming pool:

  • The universe is a Game of Life matrix that recalculates itself a billion times a second. (“Billion” here means “Lots-n-lots.”)
  • A big enough Game of Life matrix running fast enough for long enough could evolve patterns complex enough to think and become self-aware.
  • Information density can bend space.
  • Bent space disrupts quantum pair creation, emitting energy.
  • Make information dense enough, and the universe can’t express it. Odd things then happen. (Instantaneous travel, for one.)

Emerging from these major points came ideas for a zero-point generator that bent space by creating very complex fractal patterns in magnetic fields. (This is Jeff Duntemann SFnal hokum, but it’s been very successful hokum.) The same mechanism pushed a little harder becomes a hyperdrive.

More pertinent to this entry was an older notion I’d had, that our three-dimensional universe might exist as the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. That had occurred to me in high school, and became part of my senior-year science fair project. In my new schema, the interior of the hypersphere is a four-dimensional domain called metaspace. This is the self-recalculating game matrix where intelligence originally arose, in the form of conscious automata, which I named noömata. I had fooled with the Game of Life quite a bit twenty or thirty years ago, and I noticed how complex patterns would evolve to some point and either stop evolving or vanish entirely. So perhaps there was a limited window within which automata could become noömata. At some point, noömata might move out of that window and lose their conscious awareness. This is what the two factions of noömata are arguing about in my previous entry. One wants individuality and the other wants uniformity. The individuality faction (the Ruil) concocts a plan to inject their minds into the “boundary space” (our universe) and then withdraw after a certain period of individuation. Because the boundary space was empty, they figured out a way to fill it with constantly changing patterns that you and I call “matter.”

So they blew it up. It was a very Big Bang.

Yes indeedy: We are somebody’s science fair project. In fact, our universe was created because the Ruil needed better random number generators. The Ruil evolved us to make them a little more random so that they might remain noömata longer. After we die, our minds are uploaded back to metaspace, and we again become Ruil. (I described this happening to Jamie Eigen.) Because every point in our universe is immediately adjacent to metaspace (the interior of the hypersphere) the noömata can mess with us, and in fact can mess with anything material, like the Sangruse Device.

The two noömata factions (Niil and Ruil) are indeed fighting, hence the “grudge match” that Magic Mikey describes to Jamie Eigen. The fight is over whether our universe is to be open-ended or closed. How that works is too complex to go into right now, which brings us willy-nilly to the point of this entry: How do I put all this stuff across in a story?

Nobody likes infodumps. I practice what I call “infoscatter,” which means dropping hints and little bits of backstory here and there throughout the plot. The trouble with infoscatter is that people who read quickly or skim will miss some of it, and then misinterpret elements of the story. This is especially likely when the story contains elements that contradict their personal worldviews.

Note that I was extending the Extropians’ notion of uploading, not to our computers but to the fabric of the cosmos itself. In doing so I was postulating a sort of physical afterlife. For some people, any least hint of an afterlife is a triggering event, probably because an afterlife usually comes along with the existence of God. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not sure that God requires an afterlife, nor that an afterlife requires God, even though I’d prefer my afterlife to be under the governance of an infinite God.) Hence I got some comments (read the Amazon reviews) that things got weird and “acid trippy.”

Actually, no. It was all part of a minutely planned and purely physical Jeff-concocted fictional universe. The God I believe in doesn’t appear in the story at all. (Well, ok. He perhaps created metaspace and started it recalculating, which suggests that we are somebody’s science fair project’s science fair project.)

It doesn’t help that I wrote The Cunning Blood twenty years ago and haven’t yet written the two other Metaspace novels I have in mind. The argument between the Niil and Ruil is the prolog to The Molten Flesh, which I really ought to finish one of these decades. If people could read all three novels back-to-back and didn’t skim too much, they’d have no excuse for assuming that I’m trying to weld the supernatural to hard SF.

It’s not supernatural. It’s just a very rich subcreation with a huge number of moving parts. And it’s my fault for not spitting it all out by now. Bear with me. This writing stuff is hard damned work. But you knew that.

Daywander

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There’s been an unexpected irruption of normalcy here, while we sail upon the whine-dark seas of modern American life. (I’ve been wanting to use the word “irruption” here, correctly, for some time.) What this means is that I’ve been able to do some of what I want to do, and not merely what my do-it list tells me I have to do. It won’t last, but while it does I’m going to make the most of it.

A number of people have suggested that I write a few short novels to get the size of my list up a little. I wrote Drumlin Circus (53,000 words) in only six weeks, after all. But as I recall, those were very full weeks. So a month or so ago I got an idea for a new short novel, and I’m glad to say I now have 6,300 words down on it; figure 12% or so. It’s whimsical, and whether or not it’s fantasy depends heavily on whether you believe that the collective unconscious is real or not. I’d like to bring it in at between 50,000 and 60,000 words, so don’t expect all-new built-from-scratch universes a la The Cunning Blood. However, I do promise a trademark Jeff Duntemann mayhem-filled action climax.

And a dream repairman. I mean that: A guy who drops into your nightmares and hands you your pants while he gives you directions to calculus class. People who have nightmares love him. The nightmares, well, not so much.

My old writer friend Jim Strickland and I are going to attempt something interesting to keep our productivity up: a chapter challenge. Starting February 1, we’re going to dare each other to get a certain amount of story down in a week, and then exchange that’s week’s worth of story for some quick critique. He’s working on the sequel to Brass & Steel: Inferno and needs a gentle noodge. I need one too, though sometimes what I really need is a two-boot noodge right in the glutes. Neither of us has ever done anything quite like this before. I’ll post reports here as things happen.

Even the do-it list has yielded some things that are actually fun, including a bit of metalwork to make an aluminum grating for my particle board shelves to rest on out in the pool shed (against the several times a year when a hard rain gets under the door and soaks the floor) and mounting some Elfa hardware on the opposite shed wall.

Drilling three 8′ pieces of U-channel for the grate took a little finesse in my slightly cramped workshop. The drill press is where it is (close to the center of the space) for a reason. (See the photo at the top of this entry.) The next major project (as time allows) is getting a solid ground for my station and antennas. I have an 8′ ground rod. I need some bentonite, and a post hole digger. After that, le RF deluge…