Monthly Archives: May 2018

Serial Education

Continued from last week, when I started to talk about what has already appeared in Serial.

Starting January 20, 2016, I presented a long fragment of the unfinished novel Voices in the Walls. I won’t give details, since you can read for yourself, but it was a teaching event. I interlaced the novel fragment with a chance to look over my shoulder as I worked. That turned it into a how-to for new writers.

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Here is a bit of unavoidable nerdishness. I should have transferred Voices to Backfile. I didn’t. Time is short and work is long, and I never found the time to get it done.

You can still read old multiple posts, but it can be a major PITA (pain in  . . . ) because they are presented in archives last-first, and you want to read them first-first. Worse still, archives does not distinguish between AWL posts and Serial posts, so you have to read every alternate one.

It isn’t really hard if you know the secret. Here’s how it is done. At the bottom of each post are right and left arrows to the next/previous post. If you start with the first post of VITW, read it, then click the right arrow, it will take you to the next post. Unfortunately, in my world that will be the same-day post over in AWL. Slide down through that post and click the right arrow to go to the next day’s post of Serial. And so forth.

It goes quickly after a few clicks to get into rhythm. Try it. VITW is worth your time.

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The entire novel Jandrax followed. It was and is available in used bookstores both locally and on Amazon, so it was not a lost work, but I included it with annotations. If you just want to read Jandrax, buy a used copy. Clicking through 92 posts isn’t worth 95 cents. But if you want to read the annotations in which I discuss why I did what I did, and confess to my screw-ups, it’s all there for you to enjoy.

more tomorrow

487. The Cost of Empire 2

This is the second of four posts from The Cost of Empire. Click here for post 1.

Submarine wasn’t entirely a proper term for the American craft. It had started as an improvement on their Hunley types, using the new engine devised by Rudolph Diesel, but because the engine had a hunger for air, they rarely submerged. The British called them sharks, because the only part anyone ever saw was the narrow fin that stuck above the water. The whole British Navy knew from direct experience was that they were fast while on the surface — faster than any ship in the British fleet.

Her Majesty’s Navy hated that.

America was not an enemy nation — technically. They had taken neither side in the German War. British-Americans and German-Americans had each lobbied Washington, but America had opted for neutrality. Actually, they acted more than a little holy about that.

That didn’t stop American sharks from harrying British convoys. There was no reason for it. It was just another game in which America flaunted her independence and self-righteousness. And any game that the British enter, they have to win. For Queen and Country. And just to prove that they are the best — especially Sub-Lieutenants.

Daniel tossed his canary to David and went down the starboard ladder in the unapproved manner, hands and feet outside the rungs, using friction to keep his descent just short of free fall. He hit the lower catwalk at a run and sprinted forward, past the last gas bag and up a sharply slanting ladder to the Eye of the ship. That was his battle station in this week’s rotation.

The tillerman was already there, of course. When not at battle stations, he stood his watch alone, translating the Commander’s orders into vertical and horizontal movements of the control surfaces. It was no easy task, and the ratings who qualified for the duty were uniformly big men, with bulging thighs and massive deltoids. Daniel slapped the tillerman on the shoulder to squeeze past him. He was a rating whom Daniel knew only as Jons, since his Welsh first name was unpronounceable. Jons nodded and eased aside. There was barely room for the two of them.

The Eye was in the foremost part of the ship, a tiny platform studded with ratcheted levers designed to allow one man’s unassisted strength to move the great rudders and elevators back at the rear of the craft.

Daniel struggled into the half-helmet and fastened the strap beneath his chin. Now his left eye was covered by a powerful monocular and his right eye was free. He could shift from detail to panorama by changing eyes. It took some getting used to, since opening both eyes at once caused a visual blackout. An hour in the half-helmet meant a headache that would last the rest of the day.

“Sub-Lieutenant James reporting, Sir,” he said into the speaking tube at his chin.

Commander Dane’s voice echoed in his ears, calm as always, “Daniel or David?”

“Daniel, Sir. Sorry.”

Jons pointed off the starboard bow, keeping him from a second embarrassment. Daniel managed to focus on the shark by the time the Commander asked, and was able to answer instantly, “I have it in sight, Sir. Bearings follow.”

He reached overhead and pulled down a head cage of silver, brass and mirrors. He slipped his half-helmet into the cavity and magnets snapped it into place. David looked at the ten foot red band on the flagmast of the nearest cargo vessel, set his verniers, chose another ship further back and to his left and repeated, then focused on the moving fin and pressed a button to finalize. The cage had monitored his head movements with great accuracy. Now the hundreds of gears in the babbage spun and sent the result down to the repeater in the control car. more next Tuesday. To jump straight there click here.

Serial History

Over the years, those who have been with me from the start have seen a lot of fiction appear in Serial. Newcomers may be surprised at the list which follows, here and over the next two days. The level in the well of unpublished work is dropping, and I have been agonizing for about six months on what to do next. I’ll tell you what I’ve decided as soon as I decide.

Cyan doesn’t belong here. You can buy it at Amazon, — and why haven’t you? — so there is no point in serializing it. A Fond Farewell to Dying won’t work either since the novella version, mentioned below, was already presented. Besides, it is still available used, although somewhat hard to find.

Since I began Serial, I have published my few short stories, and my poetry has been scattered about A Writing Life. I have one additional short story which is under construction and another which was written for an upcoming anthology, but nothing is available to publish here now.

I have non-fiction on science fiction relating to my appearance at Westercon 34 in Backfile, and relating to Westercon 70 scattered throughout May and June of 2017, in both AWL and Serial. Go to Westercon in the top menu for links.

Five pieces of long fiction, from 30 to 130 posts each, have been serialized here, starting with the novella To Go Not Gently, from Galaxy. TGNG consisted of the first third, slightly modified, of my then novel-in-progress A Fond Farewell to Dying. John J. Pierce of Galaxy magazine bought the novella version, but he didn’t like the name and suggested To Go Not Gently. I presented it in Serial, then transferred a more readable form to Backfile where you can still find it.

more tomorrow

Take Me With You

A few days ago the local cattle drive went by. Because it is timely, and the novel excerpt was already in place, I’ll just shoehorn a brief observation in between Cost of Empire posts.

I have mentioned the drive before; it is an institution in the corner of the foothills where I live. Every spring about this time a local cattleman drives a few hundred of his cattle from pastures here in the lower foothills to others higher up the Sierra. Local cowboys and would-be cowboys (and cowgirls) volunteer to ride. Wouldn’t you?

A few dozen of us who don’t have horses always line up to watch. Every spring, and every fall when they return, my wife and I jump into the pickup, watch the herd go by, the drive backroads to leapfrog their progress and watch again. We usually manage a third time before they move out of range.

It may seem like cheap entertainment to you, but I grew up on a dairy farm, and every farm boy wants to be a cowboy. No exceptions.

This year, on our third stop, about a dozen dairy cows in an adjoining pasture ran to the fence, bawling, to watch the herd go by. It was almost as if they were saying, “Take me with you!”

I had a vision of a half dozen ill-dressed farm kids in the 1860s, standing outside their sod schoolhouse, watching a covered wagon moving west and wishing that they could share in the Great American Adventure. I’ll never write it, but I’ll bet there’s a good novel in there somewhere.

486. The Cost of Empire 1

These next two weeks I am devoting four posts to an excerpt from my new steampunk novel The Cost of Empire.

Chapter One — Tick, tick 

There was a light haze over the sky above. The sea five hundred feet below sparkled, but the glare was easy on the eyes. It was typical North Atlantic weather for May, in the Year of Our Lord 18—, and of the Reign of Queen Victoria, year forty-seven, aboard Her Majesty’s Consort Class Dirigible, Anne of Cleves.

Daniel and David James saw none of this. They were busy clambering over, under, and about the two McFarland engines, looking for cracks or pinholes, and sniffing for the distinctive smell of leaking fuel. It was a bit of tricky business, since the engines continued to snort and whirl all the while. They were a maze of polished brass and shining gears, with shafts of oiled steel feeding power to massive cranks that sent power to the air screws. You could lose a finger — or a head — if you put it in the wrong place while crawling about.

The inspection never took less than twenty-five minutes, and they repeated it every three hours. There was no slacking of discipline as Her Majesty’s airships, filled with hydrogen and fueled by naphtha, were floating bombs.

Daniel climbed the short ladder to the catwalk as David did the same from the other side. Their first words were scripted by discipline. Daniel, who was senior by one week, asked, “Starboard engine report?”

David replied, “Starboard engine clean and tight. Port engine report?”

Daniel said, “Port engine clean and tight.” And he added, “Tick.”

David grinned and mimicked, “Tick.”

The ratings below glanced up from their work. Two smiled and one shook his head. The two cousins moved forward to a pair or racks and picked up canaries to continue their inspection. Canaries were not birds, although canaries in mines had carried out the same function fifty years previously. These canaries were thirty foot long poles of hex bamboo, with heavy glass syringes capped with valves, on one end. Daniel and David ascended the port and starboard ladders, with one hand for the rungs and the other for the canary, and managed to turn their ascent into an entirely unnecessary race.

Sub-Lieutenants are more than a little like puppies when no higher rank is watching. When they rejoined at the upper catwalk, David, who had arrived half a rung sooner, said, “Tick,” and Daniel responded in kind. They separated, Daniel going forward and David aft, then worked back toward each other.

The ring ribs divided the dirigible into many small coffers, any one of which might accumulate hydrogen leaking from a gas bag. The upper catwalk was high enough that the canaries would just reach the upper arch of the ship. Daniel dropped the lower half of his canary over the handrail so that it rotated to vertical, then shoved it up to within an inch of the outer skin. He pulled the lanyard connected to the syringe and it sucked in whatever gas was at that high arch. He then lowered it to his level and triggered the sparker inside the syringe.

Ratings called this making the canary fart. If there was leaked hydrogen in the heavy glass syringe there would be a brief, contained explosion; then everyone would be on instant alert until the leak was found and fixed.

No explosion occurred. It almost never did, but vigilance never let up. Daniel moved to the next coffer to repeat, and shouted down the catwalk to David, “Tick.”

The reply he got was unexpected. Full Lieutenant Ennis, all of twenty-seven years old and called Grandpa behind his back by the Sub-Lieutenants, stuck his head above the upper catwalk and shouted in his quarterdeck voice, “Damn your ticks, Mr. James. We all know we are on a vessel full of hydrogen and naphtha. We don’t need your infernal tick, tick, tick to remind us that we live inside a bomb. Now get below, stow those canaries, and man your stations. We’ve sighted a sub.” more Thursday. To jump straight there click here.

Symphony 136

John Teixeira stared at his son, slowly shaking his head.  He said, “Son, I am proud of you. Why haven’t you been doing this kind of work all along?”

“Now,” Neil interjected quickly, “the favor you offered. I’m taking you at your word, and asking one. I am asking you, ‘Don’t spoil the moment.'”

John reached out for his son’s hands and said, “Of course. I am just surprised — and pleased,” he quickly added.

“Do you remember the last conversation we had, about how Oscar wants to be proud to be Chicano. Today he was, and if you were proud of him as a Chicano, I don’t think he’ll ask much more.”

John Teixeira swallowed hard and smiled to cover his feelings. He said, “I am proud of my son as anything he really wants to be, as long as he does his best at it.”

Oscar Teixeira looked eleven years old and eleven feet tall.

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Carmen came to relieve Janice at the wheelchair, and managed to push him across the playground with one hand on the handle and one hand holding his hand. The children were milling around with their parents or wandering off toward the buses. Most of them had already come by to say hello to Neil, but a few more drifted in to welcome him back. There was much hand squeezing and hugging. It made him uncomfortable; it always did. But at the same time, it thrilled him.

Then he saw Lisa Cobb. She was standing with two strangers, waiting by Carmen’s car. As he rolled up, Lisa stepped forward, very proper and terribly embarrassed. She put out her hand for an adult hand shake, and Neil used it as a lever to pull her in for the hug she really needed. She backed away, biting her lip, and simply said, “Thank you.” Then she rushed to the woman and hid her face in her skirts.

The woman enfolded her in the kind of totally safe embrace that Neil could never provide. She said over Lisa’s head, “I’m Mrs. Bowman. The county uses me as a short term foster mother, so I see it all. Lisa told me a lot about what happened. She is one lucky little girl that it was stopped before things went any further. And she is lucky to have people who care for her like you two.”

“We are lucky to have kids like Lisa to care for,” Neil said.

“Coming here today was completely her idea. She didn’t know if she could go through with it. She’s still embarrassed by the whole thing. I told her the sooner she started living a normal life, the better. Then when she saw you, she had to talk to you even though that embarrassed her worse than anything.”

Lisa slipped under Mrs. Bowman’s arm and stared at Neil from its shelter. He said, “How do you feel, Hon?”

“Okay. I’m okay now.”

“How is your mother?”

“She’s getting better. They let me see her yesterday.”

She dropped her head and said, “I’m sorry about your jaw and all.”

Neil said, “Look.” He drew back his lips and showed her the wax covered wires. “I never had braces before.”

She giggled and then slipped around behind Mrs. Bowman, looking very young indeed.

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On the way back to his apartment, Carmen said, “You just added another member to you fan club.”


“You just hurry up and get well, and I’ll show you how jealous.”


485. Uhura With a Dagger

Imagine Lieutenant Uhura in a different outfit, with a dagger at her belt, looking even sexier than usual. Actually, you don’t have to imagine, just check out Mirror, Mirror, which is simultaneously a pretty good piece of original Star Trek and one of the worst Star Treks ever.

How’s that? From the viewpoint of drama Mirror, Mirror is good television. From the viewpoint of logic, it stinks. Even though the alternate universe version of the Federation is completely changed and utterly barbaric, every member of the Enterprise crew is still at the same post, and the Enterprise is still in orbit of the same planet, going about the same business on the same day. Really?

Usually I don’t worry too much about accuracy in Star Trek. It is best viewed as  allegory, or as an attempt to make a decent SF program with minimal cost. I forgive a lot, but this one keeps me groaning more loudly than most.

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As Mirror, Mirror shows us, building an alternative universe is no occupation for the lazy. But it sure can be fun. And if that universe has a steampunk attitude, all the better.

I spent the last half of last year writing a steampunk novel called The Cost of Empire, set in an alternate world in “the Year of Our Lord 18—, and of the Reign of Queen Victoria, year forty-seven”. It could be called an alternate history, but I made sure that most of the alternatives taste like steampunk, even though it doesn’t have werewolves or zombies or Jack the Ripper. Or automatons, although the sequels will. In fact, the whole intent was to provide a steampunk world that doesn’t depend on magic or unsupportable science.

Here’s the setup. After the Austro-Prussian War (real, 1866), a ruthless English businessman named McFarland (imaginary) stole an obscure type of engine (real, but forgotten today) which allowed him to produce useful dirigibles long before the Germans. He also started an organization of spying, disinformation, and assassination (imaginary, we hope) which allowed him to provoke and win a war with newly unified Germany, bringing England to universal power. In the process of suppressing German inventors, McFarland has skewed the course of science, prolonging the age of steam and clockwork.

To make this work, I had to shift a few dates, but not many and not by much. That is the reason, besides mimicking Victorian style, for the vague 18— date in the quotation. The challenge I gave to myself was to make big changes through the introduction of a single character.

So our story begins with England as the world’s most powerful nation (even more and sooner than in our reality) but hated by everyone, and with a fatal hidden flaw at its heart. England’s fleet covers the oceans, with dirigibles as eyes-in-the-sky above.

Our hero is about to fall afoul of the secret organization of assassins, escape, and spend the rest of this and hopefully several other novels fighting to free his nation from their grip.

The next two weeks will be devoted to the opening pages of that novel here in A Writing Life. As has happened a few times before, Serial will be tied up with other things.