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More AI Text Generator Freakiness

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

Alas, the bottle has issues of its own.

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

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

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

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


Djinn and Tonic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chuck shook the bottle again, and waited.

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

“Deal,” replied Chuck.

 


His phone rang the next morning.

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

“Yep,” said Chuck.

“Trade?” asked Jeannie.

“What do you have in mind?”

“Wishbone,” said the genie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trade?” asked the Jeannie-spirit.

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

“Make a wish,” said the genie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do that,” said the genie.

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

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

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

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

Will genie have sex, or merely masturbate?

Will genie remember to take out the trash?

Will genie notice her glasses are on her head?

Will genie give me a million dollars,

even if she does have the power?

Yes, genie will do all of these things.

Will genie kick my ass down the stairs

if I ask for more wishes?

 


Heh. Fersure.

If You Give an AI a Writing Prompt…

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

St. Louis Blues

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

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

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

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


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


St. Louis Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will,” said Shiloh.

“Deal,” said Howie Jr. “Let’s go.”

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

“Which way did he go?” he asked.

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

“We appreciate your cooperation,” said the officer.

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

“Uhh, she’s my wife,” said Howie Jr.

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

“Howie, honey,” Howie Jr. said.

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

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

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

Shiloh’s eye blinked, and his fin wiggled.

Sudowrite, Egad

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I was just defending myself, I snerfed.

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

I walked faster. She didn’t snerf me.

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


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

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

I’ll let you how it goes.

SASM Crashes on “Section” in a Comment

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

Until today.

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

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

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

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

;         .bss sections.

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

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

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

section.bss
section.data
section.text

; section

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

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

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

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”.