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Is Substack Special?

Sometime very early this year, probably January, a reader asked me in an email what I thought of Substack, and if Contra would be better off there. She likes my work, and told me she “binged” on my old entries. At the time, I’d heard of Substack but never looked at it. Over the last couple of days I googled on the site, went there, and learned a great deal about it.

The answer is no. I’ll be 70 in three weeks, and I don’t have the stamina to try to blog for money. Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have been sorely tempted. No more. I have my loyal readers, and I don’t need the money that badly. But…but…if I were on Substack, I’d be famous!

No. Anybody can be on Substack. If I were already famous, I might try it. But I’m not. (I do have a certain fame. It’s five miles deep and three inches wide.)

Basically, Substack is Kindle for newsletters. And newsletters in this context are long-form blog entries. You can charge readers a subscription fee, minimum $5/month, or any dollar amount greater than that. (Newsletters can also be free if you prefer.) Readers can then read your entries on the Web, or on the iPhone app. (They’ve been a thing since 2017, and they don’t yet have an Android app? That’s just, well, stupid. They say they’re working on one. Sheesh, I hope so!)

Substack has thousands of newsletters, and as of the end of 2021, over a million paid subscribers. The top 10 writers in aggregate make $20M per year. That’s better money than I’ve ever made doing anything. But if you look at who the top ten writers are, it becomes painfully obvious: All of them were famous working in other venues long before Substack ever existed.

I’ve read Andrew Sullivan sporadically for a lot of years. I read him on the late suck.com back in the ’90s and lots of other places since. He’s the #5 writer on Substack. He’s interesting, funny, and doesn’t bend the knee to partisan bitchlords demanding unquestioning allegiance. I haven’t subscribed yet, but I may. He’s damned good.

Other writers I’ve heard of and read elsewhere include Bari Weiss, Matthew Iglesias, Matt Taibbi, and Glenn Greenwald. (Greenwald is #1 on Substack.) A chap I know, Tom Knighton, has three different Substack newsletters. (You’re not limited to one.) I’m sure other people out on the edges of my circles have Substack newsletters. (Have one? Let me know!) However, I’m guessing that there’s an 80/20 rule on Substack (or maybe a 90/10 rule) stating that 20% of the writers make 80% of the money. That’s the rule in a lot of business models, Kindle included.

That may just be the way the universe works. You have to build a platform, as the agents put it. In other words, you have to promote yourself, especially if you don’t already have a pre-existing reputation and thousands of cheering fans. As some of my self-published author friends on Kindle have learned, you sometimes have to do so much promoting that you don’t have the time (or the energy) to write new material.

So I won’t be there. I’m having too much fun on 20M and writing new SF. What, then, do I think? No question: It’s worth it, if you’re young and energetic and can write interesting text on a definable topic on a regular basis that at least a few people might pay $5 a month for. I have one concern about Substack’s viability: They do not currently discriminate against conservative writers, or centrist writers who don’t care for progressive dudgeon. Apparently a number of progressive writers have ditched Substack because–the horror!–Substack doesn’t censor conservative viewpoints.

Not yet. If they ever start, it’ll be the end of them. In the meantime, you have your choice of a very broad spectrum of very good writers. A lot of the posts are free, and you can sample any author you want. I’m budgeting myself four paid subscriptions, not because it’s expensive, but because there are only so many hours in a day.

Go take a look. I was moderately impressed.

The Publishing Problem That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Last week a friend of mine pointed me toward something I might otherwise have overlooked: Fiction editors at big NY imprints are quitting their jobs at a boggling rate. There was evidently a Twitter meltdown back on March 11 about the Big 4 (or is it 3? 5? 2.7343? ) losing editors and not being able to find new ones. The trigger was evidently a junior editor at Tor (the SFF imprint of Macmillan) writing a longish note on why she was quitting. Molly McGhee loved the work and did it well, but there was far too much of it for what she was paid. And so she quit.

She was not alone. This appears to be a trend: Fiction editors at NY imprints are bailing in droves. A number of other articles on the topic have appeared in the days since. (Beware: Google the topic and you’ll find a lot of articles about editors resigning due to racist accusations and other weird things, but that’s all old news, going back to the last years of the oughts. This is something much more recent, and completely different.) People aren’t screaming about racism or sexual assault. It’s all about too much work for too little pay. The New York Times asks, “When Will Publishing Stop Starving Its Young?” (paywalled) What they don’t ask is why they’re starving their young to begin with.

Indeed, there is this peculiar air of mystery hovering like a grim gray cloud over the whole unfortunate phenomenon. Why are the big NY imprints treating their staff so badly? Nobody seems willing to even venture a guess. Question marks buzz around these articles like wasps from a poked nest. Want an explanation? I can give you one, an explanation that none of those articles mentions at all:

Indie authors are eating NY’s lunch.

And their hors d’oerves. Not to mention dinner. And their bottomless bags of Cheetos Suzettes. It’s the publishing problem that dare not speak its name: Basically, Kindle is detroying the NY publishing business model. So far it’s just fiction. Technical nonfiction can be a gnarly challenge for ebooks. But I’ve also read a lot of indie-published textual nonfiction ebooks in the last couple of years. For titles without a lot of diagrams or source code, it’s no greater a challenge than novels. Once you know the tools well, a reasonable text-only ebook can be laid out in an afternoon. (I do it all the time.) It doesn’t take weeks or thousands of dollars of hired help. The NY presses lie like rugs: Ebooks are not as costly to produce as print books. And once produced, there’s no printing costs or warehousing costs. Unit cost for the product is zero. Sure, indies have to pay for freelance editing services, and probably cover artists. I maintain that anyone who can write can lay out their own damned ebooks. Lots of people I know are doing it all the time and have done it for years. The cost of entry isn’t zero, but it’s a lot less than New York City.

A huge part of this is the peculiar business model that has grown up around hardcover editions since WWII. I’ve written about this at some length. We had to cope with it at Coriolis back in the 1990s. We did as well as we did for as long as we did in large part because we were not located in luxury pestholes like New York City. Publishing is a low-margin business. It cannot succeed in the cores of monster cities. Rent is soaring in most large cities. You can’t pay staff enough to afford local rents. These days, a publishing company can be spread out among several small towns, or anywhere Zoom-capable broadband is available. NYC culture is its own worst enemy: Smaller cities don’t have the nightlife that huge urban centers have. People who demand that nonstop nightlife won’t be happy in Des Moines or Omaha–much less Flagstaff. But those are the sorts of places where publishing can thrive in 2022.

Will Molly McGhee move to Omaha? Somehow I doubt it.

This doesn’t mean I don’t sympathize. Big companies need to pay their people well, or staff will quit and start careers in other industries. Amazon has trained its customers to feel that ebooks should not cost more than $9.99, You have to operate somewhere that a $10 ebook will pay your bills. That is not NYC. Or San Francisco. Or Chicago. Or LA. Alas, it probably isn’t Phoenix anymore either, though it certainly was when I created Coriolis in 1990.

There are other issues: Spreadsheets now run traditional publishing. Editor instincts matter a lot less than they did 30-40 years ago. The people who make decisions at big publishers (as a friend of mine said years ago) are people who don’t read books. There is also a sort of near-invisible good-ol-boy/girl network in NY that decides who gets promotions and plum positions. It’s gotten to be more who you know than what you know. Choosing the right parents and getting into Harvard now matter a lot more than talent and hard work.

In the meantime, NY publishers who are short on cash are cancelling recently acquired books and putting more muscle behind their existing midlist. They claim (and lie, as do other businesses) that they can’t find anybody to fill positions of those who quit–and then pile the work of vanished staff on staff who remain. Not hiring people is a great way to save cash, and you can always blame the pandemic, or supply chain problems, or the Russians. (Everybody else does.) Rents are up hugely in the big cities. Editors can’t work for peanuts when rent is caviar.There’s a deadly feedback loop here that I don’t need to describe in detail. Do the math.

New York City is too expensive for book publishers. Really. There is absolutely no reason for publishers to remain there, now in the age of Zoom. The city’s fixed costs are astronomical. To make any money at all, publishers have to keep ebook prices just a hair below hardcover prices. Making ebook prices higher than trade paperbacks is nuts–unless you simply can’t abide the idea of ebooks and are privately terrified that they will drive those essential hardcovers into a relatively limited luxury market. Which they will. And then Boom! goes their business model.

I still see articles online claiming that ebooks never really took off, and indie publishing is a tiny little corner of the publishing world. Tracking indie ebook sales is essentially impossible, so a lot of publishing pundits simply ignore them. If you can’t plug a number into a spreadsheet cell, the item in question might as well not exist. My conversations with indie authors gives the lie to that delusion. They’re making money. Few are making their entire living from indie publishing–but how often did authors make their entire living writing under traditional publishing? Damned few, and only the most famous.

There is middle ground, in the form of small press. Coriolis was a small press, even at our biggest, because, well, everything is smaller than Macmillan. My hunch is that many editors who bail out of the Big Apple may be quietly hunting down jobs at smaller presses in smaller cities. (The editors are not alone.) Enough of that, and the notion of Manhattan Publishing will quietly fade into the background, obscured by the taps of tens of millions of fingers moving to the next indie ebook page.

Odd Lots

Strictly Bespeaking

A year or so ago, Carol and I were driving somewhere, and we passed a bus stop shelter with an ad for condos on one side:

The Gildersleeve
Bespoke Apartment Homes
Starting at $200,000

Huh? What the hell did that mean? (I made up the word “Gildersleeve” and the price, but it’s a species of ad we see a lot of here, on bus stop signs and elsewhere.) To my recall, “bespoke” was a verb. Not one you see often, and when you do see it, it’s usually where somebody is trying to sound old-timey. I do not recall ever seeing it used as an adjective.

I grabbed my 1936 New Century Dictionary, which is my closest dictionary and within arm’s reach. It simply said, “Preterit and past participle of bespeak.” Looking up to the entry for “bespeak,” all definitions were as verbs, and the one of interest was “to give evidence of or indicate; fortell.” Ok, sure. That’s how I understood it. Nothing about condos. I had to go down the hall to fetch my 1974 New World Dictionary. Here, “bespoke” had its own separate entry. Its first meaning was the same as New Century had it. The second meaning, as an adjective, meant “custom or custom-made; making or made to order.” The entry did tag this usage as “British.”

Heh. Not anymore, evidently. (At least with respect to condos.)

So the matter rested until a few nights ago, while I was curled up in Chairzilla reading Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years. Early in Chapter VI, Poul writes:

“A short, somewhat tubby man with a pug nose and a scraggly beard turning gray, he was given to self-importance. Yet leathery skin bespoke many years of faring, often through danger, and goodly garb told of success won by it.”

Like I said, old-timey. The odd thing about all this is that now, at 69, and having read untold numbers of books since I learned to read at 4, I have no recall whatsoever of seeing “bespoke” used as an adjective, to describe condos or anything else. Ever. This is odd. Hell, I used to read the dictionary for fun. My father told me early on when he bought me my first dictionary (I might have been eight or so) “Every time you look up a word in the dictionary, read the whole page.” And I did. After that, nobody at school could beat me at vocabulary or spelling.

Running across a use of a word so different from the one I knew was jarring. I take some comfort in the adjective form being a Britishism. After all, they call car hoods “bonnets” and trunks “boots.” They spell jail “gaol,” which somehow sounds Halloweenish, or at least mildly diabolical. There are plenty of examples beyond that.

In poking around online, I see the word used a lot in custom tailoring, as in “a bespoke suit.” This seems peculiar. A custom-tailored suit does not give evidence of its being custom-made (I have one) so it does not bespeak anything. Yet it is bespoke.

Sigh. No wonder my Polish grandparents never learned to (be)speak English.

Progress Report and Excerpt: The Molten Flesh

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


From The Molten Flesh, Chapter 13

Copyright 2021 by Jeff Duntemann. All Rights Reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m saving my life and yours.”

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

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

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

|Mush matrix, full torso. Fast!|

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am a citizen of Earth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt: Complete Sentences

5

Three flashlight beams lit the campground road. With Charlene to his right and Marianne to his left, Eric led the way to where the road swung toward the lake and the sand came right up to the crumbling edges of the asphalt. A slow breeze like a soft warm breath came off the lake, heavy with the scent of summer, and gentle water sounds joined with the August cricket song. Charlene’s left hand gripped Eric’s right arm just below the end of his T-shirt sleeve. Her touch was still magical, perhaps moreso because she was putting her weight on his arm whenever she took a step. She could walk because he was there to help. He tried to drive the thought out of his head, but with each tightening of Charlene’s hand on his bare arm, the intoxicating thought returned: She needs me!

The trio walked out onto the beach until they had gone midway across the sand, within several yards of the water. Eric scanned the horizon. “This should be good, right here.”

Charlene squeezed his arm one last time, and pulled herself against him. She tipped her head until her temple touched his shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Whatever I can do to help,” he whispered in reply. He looked up again as she drew away. “Turn off your flashlights.” The three lights flicked out, leaving them in darkness.

No one moved nor spoke as their flashlight-dazzled eyes gradually adapted. Above them, in an order Eric had witnessed under many dark Wisconsin skies since he’d been a small boy, the stars were coming out. First, the brightest of the brilliant: Antares, Spica, Vega, Deneb, Altair, all torches of the night. And one more, in their league but not of their kind: Saturn, a steadfast untwinkling pale yellow in the southeast. As his eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, the second-string stars appeared. Eric could name some but not all, and they were everywhere, the framing members of the constellations, not torches but-he grinned-two by fours. Soon after emerged the multitudes of lesser magnitudes, down to the limits of his eyes to discern. Finally, meandering down the sky toward Sagittarius in the south, a river of pale stardust, the Milky Way.

“Wow!” Marianne said to his left. “I’m lost already!”

Charlene tsked. “Nobody’s lost with Eric around.”

“Especially you,” Marianne muttered.

It was a girl thing; Eric guessed that he wouldn’t understand. He shrugged, and knelt beside Marianne. “We’ll start right here. Turn toward the north.” He gripped Marianne’s hand and pulled her around until she was facing the same way he was. He noted that there was no magic in Marianne’s hand, as there was in Charlene’s. “Right over the trees in the north. Look hard. You’ll see the Big Dipper.”

He felt her hand tense. “Yes! It’s there! I see it! It’s really big!”

“Yup. That’s why it’s not called The Medium-Sized Dipper. Now look at the bowl of the Dipper. Find the two stars at its left side.”

“I see them.”

“Now draw a straight line between those two stars, and extend it upward until the line hits another star.”

Marianne remained silent for a few seconds. If she had never looked up at a sky as crisp and clear as this, she might have trouble separating the Dipper’s canonical stars from the clutter of fainter lights everywhere around them. So he was patient. She was only nine.

Charlene placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed twice. Eric suspected she was thanking him for catering to her bratty little sister. Again, he felt Marianne’s hand tense as her eyes learned the skill of separating the brighter lights from the fainter.

“Yes! It’s there! What star is that?”

“Polaris. The pole star. The whole sky revolves around it.”

“Wow! And that’s really because we’re rotating, right?”

“Right. And Polaris is the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. It’s harder to see because its stars are fainter. It’s about the same shape as the Big Dipper, but smaller and aimed the opposite way.” Eric lifted lifted Marianne’s hand until it pointed to one side of Polaris. “See it?”

Eric could almost feel the epiphany that came upon Marianne. “I do! Wow! The Little Dipper! How do you knowall this stuff?”

Eric released her hand and stood. “I read books. Lots of them.”

 

In one rapid-fire lesson, Eric took Charlene and Marianne through the hallmarks of the late summer sky: Scorpius, the teapot of Sagittarius, the Summer Triangle, Delphinus, the Great Square of Pegasus, and all the bright stars from horizon to horizon. Halfway through the tour, he felt Charlene’s soft, small fingers wriggle their way between his. He lost his train of thought, and caught himself wondering where Achernar was. No, wait-that wouldn’t be visible this early until October. Only one thing was clear in his mind:

A beautiful girl was holding his hand.

“Please show me Lyra,” Charlene asked. Eric’s heart was pounding. “In the book I read, it actually looked like a harp.”

Lyra was almost at the zenith. Eric craned his neck back until he felt it pop. “Straight up. A very bright white star with a touch of blue. That’s Vega, Alpha Lyrae. You can’t miss it.”

“Yes! It was so bright and beautiful in that book. I wanted a T-shirt with ‘Lyra’ on it, printed in gold ink on black above the constellation. I wanted it to be my symbol.”

Eric pointed at Vega. “Lyra is a parallelogram, with Vega above and to the right of it. Four stars. It would be easier to see if it wasn’t straight up.”

“That’s easy to fix,” Charlene said, and sat on the sand. She stretched her legs out toward the water, and lay down. “I see it! Perfectly! It’s better even than the book!”

“No picture of the stars ever does them justice.” Eric pointed again, almost to the zenith. “To the right of Lyra is Hercules. It looks like a keystone.”

Charlene grabbed Eric’s ankle. “Don’t look straight up like that. You’ll hurt your neck. Lie down like me.” She turned to her sister. “Marianne, you too.”

“I dunno about this,” Marianne grumbled, but complied.

Eric hesitated, looking back toward the trees that separated the beach from the tent sites. He had done plenty of observing flat on his back. It was certainly a more comfortable position for looking at the zenith. But he’d never done it with a girl-or anyone else-beside him.

Once Marianne was stretched out on the sand, he sat down between the two girls, took one more nervous glance toward the road and the trees, and lay down himself.

The lecture began again. He explained how you could follow the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle and “arc to Arcturus” and later, following the same general curve, continue to Spica. He showed them the close pair of stars called the “cat’s eyes” at the stinger end of Scorpius. Wistfully, he told them that if he had his telescope finished, he could show them the rings of Saturn.

Eric heard Charlene wriggling toward him on the crunchy sand. Her hand gripped his right arm. The next thing he knew, her head was on his shoulder, her body pressed against his side. He had the intuition that she was paying but a fraction of the rapt attention that she had shown only minutes before. His tour of the sky stopped abruptly.

A slow, silent minute ticked past. Eric oscillated between elation and dread.

Dread won, in the form of Marianne’s agitated voice. “Hey, Shar, what are you doing over there? If mom sees us lying down like this, she’ll be mad.”

“Your mom is always mad.”

“You’re lying down and hugging a boy!”

Charlene looked over Eric’s recumbent body at her sister “I’m hugging my friend.”

“He’s a boy. It’s not like hugging mom.”

Charlene’s voice grew sharp. “Your mom hugs you. She’s never hugged me. Ever. And your dad never hugs anybody. Who am I supposed to hug?”

The last thing Eric needed was for the girls to get in a screaming match across his ribcage. The pale green luminous hands of his watch showed 9:41. He had promised Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer to get their daughters back to the site before ten. This was as good an excuse as any.

“Um, we have to go home now. It’s quarter to ten.”

Eric helped Charlene to her feet, with Marianne standing nearby, her arms crossed. Charlene rubbed her eyes and cheeks against the sleeves of her T-shirt. Once their three flashlights were lit, they walked back to the tents without another word. Charlene’s limp was still obvious, but she did not take Eric’s arm. And one faint smile was her only reaction when he finally said ‘G’night”.

Announcing Complete Sentences

cs_3-500 wide..jpg

And now for something completely, totally, top-to-bottom (for me at least) different: I present Complete Sentences, a short novel about two very articulate high-IQ 12-year-olds. Not in space. Not in the future. Not on some other planet nor in some unlikely fantasy world. No hyperdrives. No monsters. No magic. Nossir. On Earth, our Earth, our timeline, in Wisconsin. In 1966.

I’m not even sure the term is still used, but when I was first making my name in SF, we called such fiction “mainstream.” In other words, a story about ordinary people in the here and (approximately) now, with no fantastic elements at all. Yes, I wrote mainstream fiction. I’ve done this only one other time in my increasingly long life, back when I was in college in 1972. I wrote a short story about two guys my age who were sweating bullets about the draft lottery during the thick of the Vietnam meatgrinder. My Modern American Literature prof loved it and told me I should try selling it. The story is grim. One guy pulls #244. He’s free. The other one pulls #6. He runs. Mainstream literature is full of stuff like that, which is why I now mostly avoid mainstream literature.

So what’s it about? Let me borrow the descriptive text I uploaded to Amazon with the book:

It’s late summer 1966. Family camping is the rage. Boomer kids are everywhere. Star Trek is brand-new. Smartphones and social media haven’t even been dreamt of yet. So summer crushes happen the old-fashioned way: young face to young face.

While scoping out sites for stargazing at Castle Rock Lake, 12-year-old Eric meets a girl from the next campsite over. Charlene and Eric are both gifted, highly articulate kids: Eric in math and science, Charlene in art and composition. He shows her the constellations in the ink-black Wisconsin night sky; she sketches him and writes him poems. An attraction neither has ever felt before soon blossoms between them. Eric’s sensible parents caution him that 12 is too young to fall in love, while Charlene’s parents barely speak to each other, let alone her. She aches for the love she sees in Eric’s family, and takes strength from the attention and kindness that Eric offers her.

For Charlene has a secret, one that cuts to the heart of who and what she is. When the conflict in her family threatens to end the campout early, she must explain that secret to Eric, and begs him to accept the vision she has of her own future. Facing the possibility that they may never see each other again, Eric and Charlene struggle to put words to the feelings that have arisen between them. They discover the answer in the language they both speak, and had spoken together all along: Complete sentences.

I’ll post a sample chapter tomorrow.

In the meantime, you all might reasonably ask, Why? For the same reason I wrote whacko humorous fantasy like Ten Gentle Opportunities and Dreamhealer: To prove that I could. Before I wrote Complete Sentences, I didn’t know that I could write mainstream fiction. Now I know. Before Kindle made self-publishing possible, I had to write what publishers wanted. I first tasted the forbidden fruit 25+ years ago, when Coriolis established a book publishing operation and I was the one who decided what to publish. Could I have sold The Delphi Programming Explorer to Wiley or Macmillan? That was a gonzo book. It was also the Coriolis book that sold the most copies and pulled in the most revenue for all of 1995. I (maybe barely) sold Assembly Language Step By Step (under its original title Assembly Language from Square One) to the late Scott, Foresman in 1990. That was just as gonzo, if not moreso. (My four-fingered Martians are standing up and cheering.) A guy once sent me an email telling me that that book saved him from flunking out of his computer science program. Yeah, that book is nuts. But I have independent evidence that it works, in the form of hundreds of fan letters. Not to mention the fact that it’s been in print now for 31 years.

These days I write what I do largely to push back personal boundaries–and sometimes try things I’ve been wanting to try for literally decades. I always wanted to write a love story where the nerd gets the girl in the end. It took awhile. Then there was Dreamhealer. I don’t call it a love story. But it contains one–in fact, two.

In writing Complete Sentences, I drew on bits and pieces of my own history. (Just bits and pieces. It is pointedly not autobiographical.) When I was 12, I found myself longing for female company. Not love, nor, lord help us, sex. I didn’t know why, exactly, but alluvasudden I wanted girls to be my friends. I remember that feeling clearly. I didn’t know what to call it, and for the most part it was an annoyance, at least for the next couple of years. I now know what to call it.

Complete Sentences is not a love story, not in the usual sense of the word.

Or…maybe it is.

You tell me.

 

Watch This Space…

(Something interesting coming soon to a Contra post near you…)


By the time Eric reached the road, his mother was already headed back to their campsite. He had to trot to catch up.

“She’s an interesting girl,” Marcia Lund said, when Eric drew alongside her.

“I think so too. But how did you…”

“No, I mean interesting.”

Eric’s mother had used that word with that emphasis before, sometimes of things she didn’t entirely approve of. “Mom, c’mon.”

Marcia laughed. “She came up to me and introduced herself. Dad came over and she introduced herself again. She said she wanted to meet you. I said you were down at the beach. Then your father invited her to have lunch with us.”

Eric grimaced. “Just like dad.” He took an uneasy breath. “Um…will she?”

“If her parents don’t object. And why would they?” Marcia grabbed her son’s forearm and squeezed it.

Eric waved her hand away. “Ok, ok. Now, what makes her, um, interesting?”

“Everything she said, she said in complete sentences. You could learn a few things from her.”

Eric groaned. “You’re an English teacher even on summer vacation.”

“I get paid year-round. And my kids will not be illiterate.”

They left the road and rounded the family’s big blue tent.

Charlene was already sitting at the campsite picnic table across from Eric’s younger sister Lisa, with a bright orange Melmac plate in front of her and a very big grin on her face.

Announcing the Publication of Odd Lots

Odd Lots Paperback Front Cover - 500 Wide.jpg

It is with considerable pleasure (and a great deal of relief) that I announce the availability of my newest book, Odd Lots. It’s available in both ebook ($2.99) and trade paperback ($12.99) format.

I announced the project here last October. It’s taken a lot of time to put together in part because I had to OCR so much of it, and I hate OCRing. The other time-consuming element was trying to decide what-all should be in it. The bulk of what I’ve written on programming is now obsolete, and what isn’t obsolete is in published books that are already available. But my DDJ columns? DOS programming? Modula 2? Extinct. I suffered over those decisions more than I should have. I gave myself a 250-page topstop for the paperback. It came in at 235 pages, so I could have thrown in another Contra entry or two. At some point I simply had to say, “It’s done.”

What’s in it? Five topical sections:

  1. Essays, idea pieces, and editorials from PC Techniques/Visual Developer.
  2. Entries from Contrpositive Diary
  3. Parody (most of which came from the magazine)
  4. Memoir
  5. None of the above.

Part 1 contains pieces from the magazine that I felt had lasting interest, like “The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything,” a few essays about the wearable computers I called Jiminies, “Pay Them Forward,” and “Hail the Millennium!”

Part 2 contains entries from Contra, again items I felt had lasting interest. I threw in my oddball series “50 Days’ Meditation on Writing,” which I posted on Facebook on fifty consecutive days way back in 2014.

Part 3 contains humor and parody, some of which was originally published in the magazine, and some in fanzines that now go back almost fifty years.

Part 4 contains excerpts from my memoirs, along with the very first written item I ever sold for money, which ran in 73 Magazine in December 1974. Some of that appeared here on Contra. A great deal of it is published in Odd Lots for the first time.

Part 5, well, some things don’t categorize well. Whatever didn’t fit in the first four categories ended up here. A couple are funny, including one that might be considered a parody of myself. The others might be classified as “inspirational,” depending on what inspires you.

The cover photo, some might remember, came out of a 2015 Contra entry called “Samples from the Box of No Return.” I think it qualifies as a collection of odd lots, just not written ones. It’s a shame I couldn’t photograph everything in the box, which has a lot more stuff in it than shown here.

Again, I assembled the book because I regularly get emails from people asking where they could find one or another editorial or idea piece from the magazine or Contra. I posted a few on my site. I don’t have word processor files for most of them, and had to OCR them. It’s almost a private publication for my fans, some of whom have been reading me since I launched Turbo Technix at Borland in 1987. I freely admit that some of it sounds like bragging. Hey, I really did predict Wikipedia in 1994, using technology we had in the early ’90s. Keep in mind that I wrote a great deal of that early material with a grin on my face. It was blue-sky stuff, satire, and primarily entertainment. I’ve never been one overly given to seriousness. Please read it with that in mind.

And I once again thank all my long-time readers for giving me a reason and a forum for writing interesting and funny stuff, and for (finally!) having a place to put it.

It’s done. Whew. Go get it! And if you think Odd Lots was odd, heh–just wait until you see my next publishing project. (Stay tuned.)

Odd Lots

  • Mercury has a tail. Whodathunkit? With all that solar wind blasting over it, the poor planet’s already thin atmosphere is constantly being driven outward, forming a tail over 24 million kilometers long. That makes ol’ Merc the biggest comet in the Solar System. You can’t see it visually; if you’re used to astrophotography, shoot through a sodium filter to make the tail more visible. Some good shots at the link; check it out.
  • NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe has left asteroid Bennu and is headed for home as fast as limited fuel and orbital mechanics allow. It’s got 300 grams of asteroid dirt to drop, after which it will head into a parking orbit. NASA is considering another mission for the probe. Nothing crisp yet, but there’s still some life in the device, so why waste it?
  • Having listened carefully to 60 million stars in toward the galactic center, the Breakthrough Listen project has found no sign of alien intelligence. We may be the one impossibly unlikely fluke that solved the Drake Equation.
  • Relevant to the above: Our dwarfy next-door neighbor Proxima Centauri spit out a flare a couple of years ago that was 100 times more powerful than anything we’ve ever seen out of our Sun. If too many dwarf stars are in this habit, it could bode ill for the chances of life elsewhere in our galaxy, where we have red dwarf stars like some people have mice.
  • I stumbled across a British news/opinion site whose USP is going against the grain of conventional wisdom. Given the current drain-spiral of American media, it can be useful to have a few overseas news sites on your bookmarks bar. This one is definitely contrarian. It’s also sane and not prone to the often-comical frothing fury we see in news outlets here.
  • Tis the season to be stumbling, in fact: I stumbled upon Reversopedia, which is a compendium of things that we don’t know or can’t prove. The entries are odd lots for very large values of “odd.” E.g: “Why is space 3-dimensional? And is it?” I love that sort of thing because it makes me think about matters that could easily become the central gimmicks of SF stories.
  • Bari Weiss posted a solid article on Substack saying what a lot of people are thinking but afraid to say out loud: That vaccinated people don’t need masks, especially outside. Social pressure against mask skeptics is intense. Masks have become a culture-war thing, which is both absurd and dangerous: Antivaxxers are asking what is actually a sensible question: If the vaccines are real and not just saline solution, why do we have to keep wearing masks?
  • Substack (see above item) is an interesting concept, rather like a blog site that you can get paid for. A lot of articles can be read for free, and subscription fees for many writers are $5/month. It’s not a gumball machine for articles, but rather a gumball machine for writers. A lot of writers who would be anathema in big national vehicles can write there, gather a following, and make a living.
  • Is sleeping with your TV on ok? Short answer: No. (And I’m wondering how old the stock photo in the article is, given that it shows a glass-screen TV.)
  • IBM has just created a proof-of-concept chip with a 2NM process. IBM’s published density numbers for this node are 333M transistors per square millimeter, whew! They say 2NM will improve performance by 45% at the same power.
  • I haven’t said much about my book project Odd Lots lately. It was a classic “odd moments” project accomplished in moments scattered across the last year or two. I just got the first proof copy back from Amazon and will be cleaning it up as time allows. Most of what’s wrong are OCR errors of old writings for which I no longer have disk files and had to scan out of magazines. I expect to post it on Amazon before the end of May.