Monthly Archives: July 2019

The Gods of Wind and Air 2

Something moved, far off but heading toward him. Pellan’s eyes followed, hoping for a deer, but finding a man instead. It was not a peasant, in rags. It was not Lord Kafi or any of his followers. This one wore a long cloak of coarse weave, buff in color, warm but plain.

A priest from the menhir then, and of no interest to Pellan. He turned his attention to the edge of the forest, where deer were most likely to appear. Minutes passed, then tens of minutes. There were no deer, but the priest continued to inch his way across the snowy landscape, and he too was bound for the forest’s edge.

How hungry do you have to be for curiosity to die? Hungrier than Pellan, apparently. He grunted in disgust at himself, and moved back under the edge of the trees, then northeastward to intercept the priest.

Deer are meat. Red bears are meat, if you are strong enough to kill one. Squirrels are meat. Krytes, lovely in their purple and gray plumage, are meat. Worms are meat, if you are hungry enough.

Man is meat, for bears and wolves.

Pellan considered the priest, who was not of his caste, and whose gods he no longer worshiped. He would weigh about as much as a deer. If he left the skull and other bones in the woods, by spring it would seem as if the man had met with wolves. The meat he could cut into strips, and dry it over a fire. He could say it was from a deer and his wife would never know.

Hungry men think strange thoughts.

Pellan considered the priest as meat as he ghosted across the snowy land, just under the edge of the forest. Then he grunted, and shook his head. Death is just death. It comes to all. There are some things a man cannot do, just to postpone it.

However, a priest so well provided with a warm cloak would not have left his temple without a sack of food. Dried meat, perhaps. Dried fruits, perhaps. Certainly he would have dried leathers of bitter melon, that staple of winter travel.

Pellan wouldn’t even have to kill the priest, unless he resisted excessively. He could be back with his wife and child in an hour, with some of the afternoon remaining to gather fuel. He could warm the hartwa, give them food, then go out tomorrow to hunt, stronger than he was today.

“Please don’t resist,” Pellan thought, as his fingers brushed the axe that hung beneath his arm. More Thursday.

The Gods of Wind and Air 1

.  .  .  the Weathermistress was cooking up something unpleasant in her cauldron of clouds.
from Valley of the Menhir

When the pot is boiling on the fire
       and cold sits crouching
outside, underneath the trees
       like a hungry beast waiting.

When the howling in the smokehole
       echoes the snuffling at the door,
and the trembling of the walls
       is like the heartbeat of the storm.

Then the gods of wind and air
       demand their portion

1.

Pellan wrapped his furs around his shoulders and touched his wife upon her cheek. The hartwa was dark and cold. The fire was down to embers. The fuel was nearly gone, and it was too late to go for more. He was too weak from hunger, and if he did not hunt now, no amount of fuel would keep them all alive.

He had hunted three times in the last few days, with only a squirrel to show for it. He needed a deer. Nothing smaller would sustain them.

Pellan looked at his son as he lay sleeping next to his wife. The boy was terribly thin. His chest moved as he breathed, and his mouth moved as if suckling. His wife had no more milk for the boy, and would not have it again, not until there was food in her own belly.

He closed the hartwa door tightly behind him.

Outside the sky was gray and smoke-blue with clouds that brushed the treetops. The gods of wind and air had gobbled up the sun. Pellan started down the path to the creek, crossed its frozen surface, and entered the pathless woods beyond. An hour later he topped out on a bluff that overlooked the valley.

There was no sun, but there was a bright spot where the sun hid behind the clouds. There were words to say, gestures to make, that would make the sun appear. That was what the priests said. That was what the old women said. Pellan made no invocations. He had grown too bitter for belief.

He had an iron axe, stolen from his master when he went feral. He had a spear. He had desperation. It would have to be enough.

There were no deer in sight. He stood still, patient as the rocks. He had no energy to waste on wandering through empty woods. He watched. He waited. His belly growled and the valley below misted over, but it was not weather mist, it was in his eyes.

Hartwas, meat sheds, barns, rows of straight-line snowbanks where fences lay overtopped: this was the world he had lived in before hunger and rebellion drove him to the hills. Now he ate his fill in summer and starved in winter. The serfs who lived below never ate their fill. They nearly starved in summer and they nearly starved in winter. But nearly starved is better than truly starved.

He could have raided them, but they were his own people, or had been. He would die before he would steal from his own kind.

That was easy enough to decide — for himself. It was harder to make that same decision for his wife and child.     More Wednesday.

614. Wind and Air

Over in Serial, starting tomorrow, there will be a short story that is technically a prequel to Firedrake and Scourge of Heaven, two novels set in the fantasy World of the Menhir. This short story, The Gods of Wind and Air, offers no insights into the novels. Instead, it exists to tell the story of a serf whose character and philosophy interest me, and to give me a chance to experiment with connecting poetry to prose in a manner new to me.

Short stories come to me rarely. The only other short story from the world of the menhir is set some years after the main action, and can be found in Backstory.

One of the reasons I am offering The Gods of Wind and Air now is that my life is temporarily full of chores. A tree I planted forty years ago has grown into a giant, and now has to be trimmed back one limb at a time, plus lots of watering of other trees and bushes during the long California summer, plus the fact that I am now writing full speed on Dreamsinger. In the next few weeks I may not be able to provide two posts a week, so I am giving you something to tide you over.

                   Now, about the story itself . . .

When Marquart and his little band first entered the Valley of the Menhir, the unseen narrator (me) said:

. . . the Weathermistress was cooking up something unpleasant in her cauldron of clouds.

It is about the only reference to the elder gods in that novel. Unfortunately, that line ended up on the cutting room floor.

The World of the Menhir has always been lousy with god. Most of them are more like Greek demi-gods than like world creators. They live on the ground, brawl and love and hate, and are fairly human except for having Powers. I find them more interesting than omnipotent beings.

First to arrive were the gods of Comai, who entered from another world and dominated the native humans. They were eventually ejected in a string of events too long to even précis. Then came a thousand years without gods.

The events that make up my novels and short stories begin when a new set of gods from yet another world enter the land of the menhir and take up residence, beginning the century long battle between the Damesept and the Remsept. A chunk of that story is found in Banner of the Hawk 1.

Even before the Comanyi arrived, there were home-grown gods like the Weathermistress. The serfs and free foresters still worship them, as well as the Flower of the Waning Day, a trio of Comanyi who helped humans drive out their brother-gods.

Not Pellan, though. He is mad at all the gods, and that is where our story begins — tomorrow in Serial.

Incidentally, if the title sounds familiar, stories called The blank of blank and blank are everywhere. I think they all stem from the classic title The Queen of Air and Darkness which was first a novel by T. H. White, then a novella by Poul Anderson, and recently another novel by Cassandra Clare. It is a title rhythm that sticks in the mind.

Also incidentally, the logo presented at the top of all these posts is a runeboard, which is a means of divination used throughout the World of the Menhir. It doesn’t appear in this short story, but it was the only piece of world-of-the-menhir artwork I had available to me.

Enjoy.

613. Cyan Remains

Late in 2015, I began this blog in order to drum up readership for my upcoming novel Cyan. ‘Upcoming’ turned out to be a long time, so I had placed quite a few excerpts by the time it was finally released. It received good reviews, 4.3 stars on Amazon and 4.6 on Goodreads, but it never found its audience.

Cyan is set in the near future and covers the discovery, exploration and colonization of a planet around a nearby star, portrayed as accurately as possible. In an age of novels about galaxy spanning wars, it is possibly out of fashion, but still an exciting, human, realistic story.

Here is your chance to find out for yourself why it deserved better. The opening chapter crowds in quite a bit of background before the excitement starts, but it will give you  a picture of what is about to happen.

Blatant plug — available on Amazon. You might as well get on with reading it, because I’m not going to stop talking about it

Chapter One:  A New Planet
CYAN
Standard Year 600
Anno Domini 2092

Driving in from the eternal night of interstellar space, the Darwin stood on its tail, chasing the kilometers-long plasma fountain of the Lassiter drive. Stephan Andrax and Tasmeen Rao had been working for weeks, and lately for thirty-one unbroken hours, to plot the orbits of Procyon’s planets and choose a course that would let their residual inertia carry them rapidly toward a favorable orbit. Now the torch was stuttering as they slipped deeper into the stars’ gravity well. Softvoiced exchanges between Stephan and Tasmeen were echoed by equally quiet observations by the other eight explorers.

Keir and Gus were manning the spectroscope, trying already to determine if Procyon A III’s atmosphere contained the gasses which would indicate life. Tasmeen’s husband, Ramananda, and Petra Crowley were canvassing the asteroid cloud that twisted its Möbius strip around the two stars, searching for any that might be mined for ice — fuel for the journey back. Above them the main viewscreen flashed successive visual reconstructions, multidimensional projections of varying parameters, and flashing strings of calculations as one or another of the pairs briefly preempted its use. Viki, Debra, Uke, and Leia stayed out of the way, watching the screen.

With a final shudder, the Lassiter torch cut out and, for the first time in over a year, they were weightless. In that same moment the masking effect of the torch ended, and Keir yelled, “We’ve got life gasses.” Overhead, unmistakable spectral lines showing hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon flooded the screen.

Spontaneous cheering broke out in the cramped control room.

Stephan switched to a display of the Procyon system. Much was still unknown, but the planets, moons, and major asteroids had already been mapped.

Procyon A, blazing with six and a half time the ferocity of Sol, was surrounded by three planets of her own. A torus of asteroids lay where a fourth planet would have been. Procyon B simmered, cold and shrunken by stellar standards, with half of Sol’s mass, three percent of its diameter, and less than one percent of its light. Snuggled in close were four tiny planets, all useless rock. A second torus of asteroids surrounded Procyon B.

The asteroid belts interpenetrated like two gears meshing, which excited Stephan no end. The prospect of seeing asteroids in collision was not merely likely, it was inevitable. Beyond the asteroids were five gas giants, none as big as Saturn, circling the paired suns in the frozen outer reaches of this complex solar system.

For a minute they looked at the system that would be their home for a year. Then Stephan switched to a real-time display of Procyon A III. It was only a faint disk, pulsing slightly as the computer worked to keep it in focus, but its pale blue color was unmistakable. Tasmeen, who had been too wrapped up in navigating to watch the unfolding story, said, “Keir, give us a quick update.”

“It’s a little bigger than Earth; a little higher gravity. It stands straight up in its orbit — less than a degree of inclination. Day, 40 hours; year, 1242 days — if you want to call it a year. There won’t be any seasons, so the equator and the poles will be uninhabitable, but the area about 45 degrees latitude should have good climate.”

Standing soldier-straight in its orbit, Procyon A III was a planet of small continents scattered across a huge, world-spanning ocean. The equator was chastely girdled with thick masses of steamy clouds, churning up continuous storms that would make a Terrestrial hurricane look like calm day. From ten to thirty degrees north and south, every island and continent was part of a world-spanning zone of desert, separated by hot, dead seas.

Uke asked, “What names did we draw?”

Ever since Neil Armstrong blew his lines, NASA had kept close tabs on what its explorers could bequeath to posterity. The computer contained several hundred “suitable” names for the planets they might find, but it would only give them ones matched to what they actually encountered. No one at NASA wanted a charred lump of rock to be named Eden, or for two planets to get the same name, and nobody wanted a planet named New Earth. Tasmeen keyed in a request, and fourteen names appeared on the viewscreen beneath the planet.

“What the…!” Debra began, then shut her mouth.

Gus chuckled. Petra said, “Someone certainly didn’t think much of our chances of finding an Earth-type planet.”

They were all the names of colors.

“Madder, umber, vermillion…” Keir read out in disgust. Then he stopped short, glanced up at the winking blue disk on the viewscreen, and said, “Cyan.”

“It’s the best of a bad lot.” Uke said.

“No,” Keir said, “it’s perfect.”

612. Zelazny Squared

Isle of the Dead, painting by Arnold Böcklin

Two of Roger Zelazny’s novels have been floating around in my interior conversations recently, Doorways in the Sand and Isle of the Dead.

A month or so ago I re-read Doorways in the Sand. It isn’t my favorite, ranking about half way down the thirty or so of Zelazny’s that I have read, but that still puts it into the top five percent of lifetime reads.

I was struck by how absolutely goofy its structure was. Every chapter starts in medias res, and then backtracks to fill it what the reader has missed. It is a common way of starting a fast moving novel, but in this case every chapter began with some kind of peril, then backtracked to fill in, extracted our hero from his trouble, and ended with things moving smoothly.

Weird — and I have to confess to a failure of imagination on my part. It took me forever to realize the trick Zelazny is playing.

He is taking us through the novel with serial style cliffhangers, but he is putting them at the beginning of each chapter instead of the end. It’s normally a technique to make a reader keep going so the writer doesn’t lose him, but Zelazny is forcing us to come to a full stop and start over (in terms of momentum) with each chapter.

It’s all inside out. And by the way, the machine that is central to the plot turns things inside out as well.

Zelazny likes to play games with us, and he isn’t afraid to skirt the edge of absurdity, assuming his readers will stay with him. The aliens who follow Doorways’s main character around are extremely not humanoid; to avoid being recognized, they wear disguises — a kangaroo, a wombat and a donkey, to name a few.

There aren’t very many writers who could get away with that without having me slam the book shut and move on.

Isle of the Dead came up when JM Williams asked for a book recommendation reciprocal to having cued me in to Small Gods. That lead me to re-read Isle for what would be the third or fourth time. What strikes me this time through, in view of discussions in recent posts, is Zelazny’s use of conversation.

Long before I was a writer, I read an advice-to-writers article titled “Multiply by Two,” which suggested that most fiction should start with two characters, because conversation is the easiest and reader-friendliest way of introducing a situation. I consistently ignore that advice — it doesn’t fit my personality — but I understand it.

You might think Zelazny is also ignoring that advice since Isle of the Dead opens with a long, philosophical monolog about Tokyo Bay. No, not really. This “monolog”, because of its loose, informal structure, is actually more of a conversation between author and reader. As in the following excerpt.

Of course everything in parentheses is an imagined reader’s response, which I have added to unfairly push my side of the argument about first person’s ability to snag the reader.

Life is a thing — if you’ll excuse a quick dab of philosophy (sure, go ahead) . . . that reminds me quite a bit of the beaches around Tokyo Bay . . . like Time . . . Tokyo Bay, on any given day, is likely to wash anything ashore . . . a bottle, with or without a note which you may or not be able to read, a human foetus, a piece of very smooth wood with a nail hole in it — maybe a piece of the True Cross (good, good) . . . it also used to be lousy with condoms (what?), limp, almost transparent testimonies to the instinct to continue the species (where are you going with this?) but not tonight (okay, now I get it) . . .

To be fair to Zelazny, the original, without all the ellipses and all my parenthetical comments, is much better. If you ever find the book and don’t have time to read it all, read the first three pages anyway.

This kind internal, self-referential conversation is storytelling within the storytelling. Zelazny excels at it. So does Louis L’amour, and Heinlein couldn’t write any other way.

Zelazny inhabits (I almost said owns) the shadowland between science fiction and fantasy. Trying to shoehorn his novels into either genre is futile. In Isle of the Dead, the protagonist and his opponent are a human and an alien, in purely SF fashion. However Sandow, the main character, is also a world shaper. In becoming one, he allied himself with one of the Named Gods of the Pei’an religion.

Gringrin, his enemy, is a Pei’an who didn’t quite make the cut as a world shaper. Why he didn’t is told two ways, one early and one late. Figuring out which reason is true it part of the mystery of the enemy’s motivation, and part of Zelazny’s skillful storytelling.

Are these Gods real, or psychological constructs that allow Pei’an worldshaping? Making a choice on that question would push Isle into SF or fantasy. Zelazny leaves it open, taking one side, then the other, leaving the question unanswered at the end. Meanwhile, the other 95% of the novel reads like pure SF. This is Zelazny’s basic MO.

Stripped to essentials, Isle of the Dead is the story of an enemy kidnapping loved ones, and the hero going to their rescue. Of course there is a twist at the end; Zelazny would never make it quite that simple. Nevertheless, the structure of Isle is extremely primitive. The novel’s charm lies in the telling. Given a choice between plot and style, I’ll choose style every time, which accounts for this being my favorite Zelazny stand-alone despite its somewhat disappointing ending.

611. Living Through History

I never worked for NASA. I have no actual connection with the space program, but I love it. These days, everybody is talking about the moon landing, but I’m not going to post about it directly. There is no need. I’m no expert, but every real expert left alive will be on your TV.

My connection is personal, and I first wrote about it when this website was new, in October of 2015. I don’t normally like to repeat old posts, but I can’t say it any better.

===========

It was pledge week at PBS. They ran the biography of Neil Armstrong for the upteenth time. My wife and I watched it for about the third time, and when it was over, she said, “That was my childhood.”

I knew exactly what she meant. She and I were soul mates long before we met. Pardon the corn, but it’s true. She grew up in Michigan and I grew up in Oklahoma; we met in college. But when we were children, we were both science nuts long before Sputnik. We both repeatedly checked out Vinson Brown’s How to Make a Home Nature Museum and followed the instructions. We both checked out books on how to grind the lens on your own reflecting telescope, but neither of us made one because we didn’t have the money to buy the glass blanks.

On October 4, 1957, Russia orbited their first satellite. I was in fifth grade when the teacher went up to the front of the room and wrote Sputnik on the board. She said it meant Earth-moon in Russian. It didn’t, but we knew almost nothing about the Russians then. A few days later, she wheeled a cart into the room. It had beakers beneath, a tiny sink, and a hand pump. Oklahoma schools had instituted science as a middle school and elementary subject for the first time.

I kept track of every satellite we launched and every rocket that blew up on the pad. There were a lot of them. When the Russians launched Muttnik (the nickname was American) I was fascinated to see a living creature in space. All my schoolmates said only the stinking Russians would send a dog up there to die.

I watched the Mercury astronauts first press conference and quickly got to know them all. I was thrilled when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth. Everybody wrung their hands because a Russians got there first, but I didn’t care. We were in space — and we meant people, not Americans.

I watched Shepard’s and Grissom’s launches, and cheered when Grissom didn’t go down with his capsule. In Michigan, my future wife was collecting every magazine that covered the Mercury program.

I was at school while John Glenn was in orbit, so I missed something monumental in our family history. My father, who thought the space program was a waste of money, got off his tractor and came in to watch the televised coverage. He later said, “I just couldn’t work until we got that old boy back safe.”

The rest of Mercury, Gemini, the beginnings of Apollo — I followed every mission.

I had discovered ecology, at a time when nobody knew what the word meant. I spent my junior year building an Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness for the regional science fair. It was complicated, cutting edge, and more than I could actually complete by fair day. I won’t bore you with the details, but it helped get me a Fleming Fellowship the following summer. That gave me a chance to work with real scientists and to see some of the world beyond my tiny town. Those were the people who suggested I should apply to Michigan State.

At MSU the Biology department cared nothing about ecology. I was a few years too early; if you didn’t need an electron microscope to see something, it wasn’t interesting — to them. The closest thing to behavioral biology was Anthropology, and that is where I ended up. And where I found my wife.

We married in 1969 and took off for a long drive around the US, visiting relatives and national parks. We got back to to East Lansing in mid-July, following Apollo 11 on the car radio. On July 20 went went in to the student lounge of her old dorm and sat with dozens of college students watching a grainy black and white TV as Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon.

You should have been there.