Monthly Archives: March 2016

124. We Are Not Alone

“The Blue Book say’s we’ve got to go out, and it doesn’t say a damn thing about having to come back.” Captain Patrick Etheridge, keeper of the Cape Hatteras Life Saving Station.

That could be the motto of space exploration. Not everyone will survive. That is why, in this excerpt from Cyan,  Ramananda Rao is making this report. You will note that I have suppressed a name to avoid a spoiler.

from the Logs of the  Darwin/Cyan Expedition
S.Y. 601, Day 239 (corrected)
entry by Ramananda Rao, acting geologist
at Venturi Station

Today, everything changed.  Our entire outlook on our work and on Cyan can never be the same again.

We have been at Venturi station for three weeks now, doing the work *** should have done.  The working conditions are miserable.  We are too far south and the land is too hot.  We arrange to work by the light of Procyon’s lesser companion, or early in Cyan’s morning, but still the heat is stifling.  Since I arrived here with Viki Johanssen, we have worked like dogs, taking core samples with our mole to map the extent of this ore field.

I can do the work; I have the training.  But I don’t have the inclination.  I would much rather be studying the weather.

When I first saw that Cyan stands straight up in orbit, I thought it would be meteorologically barren. How wrong I was. True, it has no seasons, but her slow rotation brings daily temperature variations of almost seasonal proportions.  Her storms are vast and powerful – and unpredictable.

Yet today, the weather and the ore fields became insignificant in a heartbeat when Viki leaned down to pick up a stone – and saw a row of flakes chipped away from one edge.

We are not alone here.

 When the exploration of Cyan moves into colonization, humans will face critical choices. Our knowledge of ecological consequences will always be incomplete, but we understand enough to know how badly we can screw things up.

Humans will go to the stars. But cattle? Horses? Wheat? Cockroaches and boll weevils? The chances for ecological disaster are huge.

And what will we do if we find a species evolving toward human level intelligence, but not there yet? The explorers of Cyan will have to face that dilemma.


Jandrax 8

If you have been following this blog, you may have seen the rest of chapter one excerpted here and there. This is the piece of writing that spawned Cyan.

“Something you said bothers me. You said that we would be here as long as we survive. What exactly did you mean by that?”

Jan did not answer at once. His restless eyes never stopped their circuit. “Jase, do you know what the mortality rate is for Scouts on a new planet? Trained men whose whole life is dedicated to survival?”


“Ten percent for each new planet.” Jason greeted that with stunned silence.

“Jase, the first planet I explored, three of my twenty companions died; nor was it an exceptionally dangerous planet. On my second planet two of my friends were cut down before my eyes by an innocuous-looking flying mammal whose poison was deadly to humans.

“I came through my third planet with no particular difficulty, but on the last one I tangled with a large, horned herbivore during my first day planetside and left in a coma. I spent a total of two hours on her surface.

“Those were planets which had been properly scanned from orbit. I was working with trained and experienced Scouts and the latest of equipment. Here .  .  . ” 

Jan broke off as something caught his attention. What it was, Jason could not tell, but it apparently posed no danger because the Scout relaxed again and continued, hardly aware of the interruption.

“Here, I’d give odds that there won’t be a human alive inside ten years.”

Chapter 2

Computer printout found folded and
placed in the log of Jan Andrax

Monists. Full title, Universal Monists. A religious group founded by Louis Dumezil in S.Y. 767. The premise of this group is that all religions were founded by the same spirit (deity?) and that a true religion can be found by collating the elements common to all religions while rigorously discarding those elements confined to particular religions or families of religions. The text containing this distillate was published S.Y. 767, hence the founding date, and was called the Monomythos. Dumezil further refined his text through eleven revisions culminating in the Grand Monomythos in S. Y. 801. After his death, further revisions led to the splitting of the Universal Monists into denominations based on increasingly fine points of doctrine. Each sect publishes its own subtly different Monomythos. As of S.Y. 872 four hundred distinct Universal Monist sects were known. Several ecclesiastical wars have been fought among them, the most violent being on Hallam in S.Y. 851-859.

The story of where I got the idea of Universal Monists was told last week over in A Writing Life, in 118. Jandrax redux.

123. Trump on Cyan?

This blog is about writing, not politics, but sometimes you just have to speak out. I hadn’t planned to post this excerpt from Cyan, but today’s (March 20) Face the Nation, and an interview with Stephanopoulos on This Week, changed my mind.

For months, the media has become increasingly open in their bias against Donald Trump. Well, so am I, but I’m not sworn to neutrality. On today’s show, Stephanopoulos’s gotcha questioning actually made Trump look like the wiser man, and that’s hard to do. I fear that the media’s abandonment of neutrality will further inflame Trump’s supporters, and that protesters trying to silence him will harden his supporters’ resolve.

It made me think about Saloman Curran.

I created Curran as a villian, or adversary, or strong-man, or malign father-figure in my upcoming novel Cyan. My protagonist Keir finds himself working for Curran, much against his will, and trying to figure him out


“What do you think of Saloman Curran?”

That was the question Keir asked a dozen times during the following days. The words varied with circumstances, and he was careful to ask it when his respondents would feel free to answer honestly. Keir had realized that his own opinion was colored by his needs, and by the power that Curran held over him, and he wanted to know what the other people who shared the Curran International building with him thought of their boss.

They loved him.

They thought he was the smartest, strongest man in the world. They thought he was one of the few men who could help pull mankind out of the mess it had gotten itself into.

Their feelings were close to worship, but it was not like a Christian’s love of Jesus. It was closer to the distant, worshipful fear of an angry Jehovah. Not one person had any faith that his position with Curran was secure. Any one of them could be fired at any time; they knew that; they accepted it.

“Nels got fired last week, but he was screwing up.” What do you expect?

The second sentence was never voiced, but always implied. If anyone was fired, demoted, or punished in any way, it was assumed that that person was at fault. No one ever thought of blaming Curran.

Keir had never seen an organization like Curran International, and at the end of a week he decided that it was not the organizational structure, or even Curran himself, that was different. These people loved Curran, not because he was loveable, but because they had set out to find someone to love.


Jeeze, that sounds familiar, and it scares hell out of me.

Jandrax 7

The three men remained motionless until the trihorns had passed.

Adrian Dumezil wiped sweat from his face and grinned. “Now there goes a beast I wouldn’t like to tackle. I thought this was a desert planet.”

“It is,” Jan replied. Because of the cold, and because most of the planet’s water was tied up in the massive icecaps, it never rained. Much of the year the land was barren desert, but in the winter ice crystals formed in the upper atmosphere and fell as sleet, snow, and hail. Throughout the winter this accumulated and, with the coming of spring, melted to release water for the growth of plants. Within a few weeks of its coming, the melt would pass, leaving desert again.

This was the stationary view. From space the area of the melt was a broad band of green moving slowly southward. Along the route of the green belt moved massive herds of herbivores and attendant carnivores, caught up in a perpetual migration. .

The landing craft had set down on the forefront of the green belt three weeks earlier and already the herds had largely passed by. Within days it would be necessary to move the hunting base southward several hundred kilometers.

They marched in silence then, broken only when Jan or Jason showed Adrian how to recognize siskal, lal, and greenhorn bushes and the tracks of the three major herbivores and their corresponding carnivores: the leers – huge, toothed, flightless birds – and longnecks, whose sinous necks and compact musculature made them particularly dangerous, and the tiny, scavenger krats.


They were ruins. Despite the stats he had studied, Jan had not believed that they would be.

The ruins topped a butte that rose perhaps a hundred meters above the surrounding countryside and extended for about a square kilometer. It took a sharp scramble to reach them and, when they had, there was little to reward the climb. Few of the stone walls remained more than waist-high and most of the city/castle/fortification/whatever was reduced to rubble by time. There was little to show what manner of creature had inhabited the place until Jason found a mural on one of the plastered inner walls. Its faded pigment showed a potbellied, winged mammal with what appeared to be grasping hands. In a corner of the mural, isolated by fractured plaster, were the foot and ankle of another creature. Jan stared long at it, then rummaged without success for the lost pieces of plaster. Adrian joined him, asking “Why so intent?”

“Because,” Jan answered, “that foot looks uncannily human.” They did not find the missing plaster, nor anything else to identify the masters of the ruin.

It was well past noon when they left the site, intent on returning to the camp by nightfall. Jason seemed troubled and managed to fall back slightly to speak to Jan alone.

“Something you said to Dumezil bothers me. You said that we would be here as long as we survive. What exactly did you mean by that?”


The precursors, as the makers of the ruins come to be called, are here because I felt that a survival story alone would be a bit dry and uninteresting without some hint of mystery. When I wrote these paragraphs, I had no idea how much this decision would influence the second half of the book.

Also, regarding the krats –  Wild Kratts, the PBS nature show, was years in the future when my krats were born.

more tomorrow

122. First-in Scout (post 2)

Cyan, the novel about this planet, will be out shortly from EDGE. Here is a sample from the opening minutes that the crew spend on the surface.

Tasmeen cut the jets.  Silence came in to fill the landing craft, and she said, “All right, Keir.  It’s yours.”

“Acknowledged.”  His response was recorded, and at that moment he became commander of the expedition.  Stephan had brought them here.  It was up to Keir to keep them alive until Stephan could bring them home again.

Practically, he had been in command ever since Tasmeen put the landing craft into polar orbit ten days earlier.  Now he slipped out of his couch, moved sideways toward the door and cracked the seal.  There was a faint hiss of incoming air as the pressures equalized, and for the first time they smelled Cyan.  Keir shoved the hatch back and pale morning sunlight entered the cabin.

Big Bug, a combination automatic bacteriological laboratory and homing beacon, sat a hundred meters away where it had landed five days earlier.  It had already determined that no Cyanian microorganism would harm them.  The base DNA of the planet’s creatures was too dissimilar.  Now Keir sat in the hatchway, getting used to the light, the smells, and the vegetation.  He had spent hours studying the images sent up by Big Bug, but reality was always different. He scanned the flash perimeter where their landing jets had scorched the earth, then let his eyes move slowly outward to the still living vegetation. There were grasses — or what passed for grasses on Cyan — within thirty meters of the landing craft, and they were half a meter high.  Crawling, crushing, fanged and poisoned death could be lying in wait.  There was no way to know.

Keir’s eyes moved on over the grasses, noting the direction of the wind, seeing how they moved and looking for discontinuities in the pattern of its motion that might tell of unseen things waiting in hiding.  They were in the center of a meadow that stretched away for nearly a kilometer in every direction.  Keir had chosen this place for its clear field of view.

When he could no longer stand the discipline of searching just for danger, Keir looked about with a tourist’s eye.  Points of light scintillated in the trees along the river.  He had no idea what they were.

“Petra,” he said, “rifle at the ready.  Stay in the hatch and stay alert.  Leia, you go out first.”

There was a smell of tension in the cabin.  Leia was the smallest of them all, the fastest, the meekest, and the most likely to run rather than fight.  Those were the reasons Keir had chosen her.  She squeezed past Keir and started down the chain ladder.  Keir went down on his belly with his pistol out while Petra stood over him with a rifle.  Leia worked her way down and dropped to the ground.  No one made any historic pronouncements.  Keir and Petra were too intent on watching for danger, and the others were holding their breaths.

“I’m down,” Leia said and her throat mike carried the words into the cabin.

“Walk straight away from the craft ten meters,” Keir said.

Leia complied.

“Do you see anything?” Keir asked.

“Nothing that looks dangerous.”

“Ten more meters.”


“Petra, watch Leia, not me.  Gus, take my place.  You watch me.”

Keir swarmed down the ladder and dropped to the ground.  Burned grasses crunched beneath his feet.  He cradled his 12 mm. automatic pistol at the ready and moved up beside Leia.  Nothing moved in the grass but fleet and tiny insect-like creatures.

Leia took a deep breath and said, “My God, it’s beautiful.”

Keir nodded.  He smiled to himself as he noticed that her pistol was still in its holster.  No matter.  That was why he was here.  “Be ready to run back to the ship,” he said, “and if I give the word, don’t look back.  Don’t wait for me.”

“Are you sure?”

“If you hesitate, I’m going to make cleated tracks up your backside when I run over you.”

Leia chuckled and said, “Sure you would.”

Jandrax 6

“How long before Captain Childe admits that we’re stranded?”

Jason held his peace, not wanting to criticize the captain. Already lines had been drawn, separating the seven living crew members from the colonists. Andrax was supernumerary, a Scout hitching a free ride from Banex to Aleph Prime via New Harmony. He did not fit either classification but Jason was thankful to have him aboard. How they could hope to survive without his professional expertise was a question he preferred not to face.

“Well,” Jan continued, “if the announcement hasn’t been made yet, I intend to explore those so called ruins tomorrow. Once Childe starts ferrying down colonists, there won’t be any time. Want to come along?”

Jason said that he did, but later, as sounds from the temporary jungle that surrounded them kept him awake, he wondered why.


The landing craft descended with the sunrise, carrying half a dozen new colonists. Jan met them at the ramp, giving concise orders and turning them over to their more experienced comrades. There was something vaguely familiar about the fourth colonist, but a closer look did nothing to spark Jan’s memory. The man was named Adrian Dumezil, of indeterminate middle age and pleasant, but undistinguished features. Jan motioned him out of line, for no other reason than that he had caught his eye, and he had already intended to take one of the new colonists with him.

Jason and Dumezil carried packs; Jan did not. It was Jan’s order, strictly enforced, that those whose job it was to guard should not be burdened otherwise. More than one colonist had felt Jan’s anger after relaxing his guard momentarily to help a companion.

It takes only a moment of inattention to bring death on a new planet.

Jan set the pace, stepping out sharply. The land rolled gently and their vision was restricted by the fast-growing bushes, but not so restricted as it would have been even a week earlier. The herds of herbys, trihorns, and humpox had battered and browsed the bushes into a thick, tangled, dying mat.

Jason quizzed Adrian, seeking out the climate of opinion overhead.

“No one knows what to believe,” Dumezil replied. “The official word is that there was a computer malfunction, but rumor says that it was a major explosion and that we are stranded. Frankly, rumor is more convincing.” He looked sideways at Jan to ask, “Which is it?”

“Explosion,” Jan answered. Jason winced. “We are here for as long as we survive. Childe is a fool. When he gets around to telling the truth, he will have alienated all the colonists just when he needs them most . . . hit the deck!”

The Scout’s sudden change of tone caught his companions flat-footed. Jan had already gone to cover beneath a siskal bush with his express pistol at the ready. Jason and Dumezil tumbled in to join him.

There was a rustling in the brush and a coughing grunt, then a group of trihorns came into sight. They were magnificent beasts, fully two meters high at the shoulders with shaggy manes sloping away to low, naked rumps. Their heads were massive and sported a single central horn projecting forward and trifurcating, one point up and two down.

They were mammals, of course. Hair, live birth, warm blood, and suckling are all characteristics evolved in just such a harsh, cold climate. It was clearly a family group: a monstrous bull, an uddered female with two hornless suckling calves at her side, and a monopointed adolescent.

The three men remained motionless until they had passed. more tomorrow

121. First-in Scout (post 1)

When Kirk, Spock, and an anonymous crewman in a red shirt beam down onto an unexplored planet, things never go well. Whether you view the events that follow as high drama or low soap opera is a literary judgment, but did you ever consider what you would really face if you were the first down on a new planet?

The closest thing in history would be Captain Cook landing at Botany Bay (Australia, not Ceti Alpha V). The natives were as black as Africans, but otherwise resembled them very little. The animals couldn’t run, but they hopped at super speed. The trees shed their bark instead of their leaves.

But these were humans and animals and plants. Explorers of other planets won’t find that level of similarity. I considered this in my first novel Jandrax. Jan Andrax, a Scout, is stranded with a group of untrained colonists. Talking to a friend among the crew of the damaged starship, he says . . .

”Jase, do you know what the mortality rate is for Scouts on a new planet? Trained men whose whole life is dedicated to survival?”


“Ten percent for each new planet.”

Jason greeted that with stunned silence.

“Jase, the first planet I explored, three of my twenty companions died; nor was it an exceptionally dangerous planet. On my second planet two of my friends were cut down before my eyes by an innocuous-looking flying mammal whose poison was deadly to humans.

“I came through my third planet with no particular difficulty, but on the last one I tangled with a large, horned herbivore during my first day planetside and left in a coma. I spent a total of two hours on her surface.

“Those were planets which had been properly scanned from orbit. I was working with trained and experienced scouts and the latest equipment. Here . . . I’d give odds there won’t be a human alive inside ten years.”

The day I wrote those lines, I decided the life of first-in scouts deserved to be to explored further. Three books later I began the novel Cyan about a group of them. More about that next post.

Jandrax 5

It had been a close thing for D’Angelo – a two-shot weapon simply was not adequate for an untamed world.

Jason wiped blood from his face. It had been that close. Express pistols were a specialty tool issued only to Scouts. By twisting a dial with his off hand, Jan could tailor projectile size and velocity to the target at hand. If the dial was not touched the maximum charge was sufficient to stop a terrestrial elephant three times over. Jan had not dialed.

Jason searched for an appropriate response to the situation, but could only say, lamely, “Thanks.”

Jan smiled, but his eyes never left the perimeter of the clearing. “When I was scouting on Lando, I nearly got myself killed a couple of times, and – you know what? You never get used to it.

“However, you do learn not to let it throw you off. Put it out of your mind and get back to watching so that I can help get this carcass back to base.”

Stung, Jason turned his attention back to duty. They slung the field-dressed herby on a pole and returned to camp, passing through the tangle field that so far had kept the native carnivora at a reasonable distance.

The landing craft was in orbit, having carried up a load of meat to feed the colonists on the Lydia. In the early years of star travel each ship had been a self-contained ecosystem, but with the advent of the Synapse and nearly instantaneous interstellar travel, ships turned to processed food and mechanical recirculation of air and water. Three weeks in orbit had completely exhausted the Lydia’s food stores.

Jan Andrax dropped onto a camp stool made from the stems of a tough, fast-growing bush and began scraping from his boots the mucilaginous substance exuded by the local ground cover. Jason relinquished his rifle and another pair of colonists left to hunt. Hunting was a full-time occupation for those who had to supply meat to the many overhead.

Jan stopped scraping long enough to assure himself that they were not going to be overheard, then asked, “Any word on the computer?” Jason shook his head. Jan swept the area about him with a searching look before returning to his boots. Jason realized that he probably was not even aware of that mannerism. Jan was a Scout, trained for just such an environment; Jason was the ship’s astrogator. He had never felt more out of place or useless.

“They’ll never fix the computer,” Andrax continued. “You know that, don’t you?” Jason nodded. Both of them had seen the computer bay after the explosion. The Synapse jump had lasted over four seconds; the longest previous jump, under carefully controlled conditions, had been of less than a second’s duration and it had driven a ship clear outside the galactic lens. Instantaneous travel had its complications. “Jase, how long before Captain Childe comes to his senses and announces to the colonists that this is to be their new home – and ours?”

“It’s awfully hard for him to accept.”

“Humph. It’s hard for me to accept. This is one hell of a final landfall, but facts are facts.” more tomorrow

120. Still Inclined

Six months and four days ago, this site was new. I was making my best efforts, knowing that no one would be reading yet, and knowing that if I didn’t make a start, nothing good would ever come. The post below was first placed at the time of that equinox.

The novels Cyan and Jandrax were involved in that post. Since Cyan is coming out shortly from EDGE and Jandrax is being presented in its entirety over in Serial, its time to try again.

Axial Tilt

Earth’s inclination causes our seasons. It would be hard to find a more ordinary fact, or one less valued. Yet everything about the Earth derives from that inclination, even our religions and our philosophy . . .

Those were the words of Gus Leinhoff from the novel Cyan.

I like axial tilt as a means of individuating planets, so much so that I have run the bases, hitting all the possible extremes. Cyan has no axial tilt and no seasons; Stormking, around Sirius in the as yet unwritten sequel Dreamsinger, lies back at a Uranian inclination and has seasons you wouldn’t believe. Harmony, from the novel Jandrax has a tilt of 32 degrees resulting in heavy glaciation with a narrow habitable band around the equator; it has two summers and two winters each year.

So does Earth – at the equator.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that. One of the great pleasures of world building is finding things you should have realized, but missed. This is one of them.

Let’s imagine the changing tilt of the Earth as the seasons progress. Of course I know the tilt doesn’t change; it only appears to do so from an earthbound perspective. But three decades of teaching science to middle schoolers has taught me that casual language gets the message across better than an excess of formality.

Today is the equinox, autumnal in San Francisco, vernal in Sydney (In September, it was. All this is reversed today). The sun lies above the equator at noon, and will (seem to) move southward in the coming weeks. I won’t waste your time telling you what you already know, but consider these facts from a new perspective.

Today at the equator the sun is overhead (call it summer) and for the next three months it will move southward until it gets as low and ineffective as it will ever be (the equivalent of winter), then it will come north for three months until it is overhead again (summer), and continue northward to its other lowest position (winter again), and so forth. Two “summers”; two “winters”.

Earth’s dual seasonality is masked by local conditions, at least in its oceanic regions. The world in the novel Jandrax has a stronger tilt and its oceans are tied up in glaciation. The refugees naturally settle at the equator, where summer and winter really do come twice a year.

Jandrax 4

51jbN0bvqRL._AA160_Jason D’Angelo was on watch, his 10~mm double-barreled rifle cradled across his arm, when the leer broke cover. He heard its splayed webbed feet splatting on the muddy ground before he saw it. Lucien Dubois saw it at the same time and leaped back from the carcass he was gutting, bringing his knife up in futile defense.

Jason fired as the leer began its final rush toward the unprotected colonist. The leer staggered and turned on his new tormentor. Blood discolored the bird’s iridescent pink feathers, but did nothing to slow its charge. Jason aimed more carefully this time and shot it fair in the chest, just left of its massive sternum. The leer went down like a felled tree and Jason broke open his rifle.

The dead leer’s mate broke cover before he had time to reload. Jason spun around in time to see the bird explode soundlessly, scattering flesh and entrails across the clearing. For a moment Jason was too stunned to react, then he realized that Jan Andrax stood beside him holding his express pistol.

“You’d better finish reloading, Jase,” he said and turned away. Jason punched two new shells into the breech of his rifle and was grateful that there was no one to see how his fingers trembled.

Andrax swallowed hard. It had been a close thing for D’Angelo and through no fault of his own. The lO-mm rifle was part of a small consignment for New Harmony; it was designed for simplicity and reliability, not firepower. A two-shot weapon simply was not adequate for an untamed world.

He holstered his express pistol. Dubois had returned to gutting the herby, but the violence of his motions showed the degree to which he had been frightened. That was good; the fright was inevitable but he continued to function in spite of it. Jan made no move to aid him, but continued to scan the surrounding bushes.


I’ll say this from time to time since readers may discover this serial at any point. I am making my comments under the assumption that many of my readers are new or would-be writers and want the nuts-and-bolts behind the story.

As I said yesterday in the other blog, brevity was the order of the day when Jandrax was written. Books were short and you had to talk fast to get your story in. I think I overdid it sometimes.

The technique used here is called in medias res, literally, into the middle of things. It works here because the prolog and few previous paragraphs have already told us, in large, where we are. The action in the first two paragraphs tells us more specifically where we are without slowing the story for landscape description.

These first two paragraphs work, but at the beginning of the third paragraph, the second leer comes at Jason (and the reader) too fast, and Jan’s actions come out of nowhere. Jason knows that Jan is nearby; the reader doesn’t. The paragraph should begin Andrax saw the dead leer’s mate . . . Then the reader wouldn’t get lost.

The third sentence in the fifth paragraph should have been saved for later. It slows the narrative.

Don’t expect this point by point exposition to continue. It isn’t sustainable. I insert it here because this is a classic case of a new author, a first book, and a first chapter that isn’t as good as the rest of the book will be.

We all have to start somewhere.