Tag Archives: Cyan

415. Life-long Day Job

After twenty some years of teaching
science, I finally got a lab.  SL

Continuing from Monday’s post — Jandrax came out and I went back to writing full time. Those were the years of A Fond Farewell to Dying, Todesgesanga (FFTD translated to German) Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, Who Once Were Kin, and the first iteration of Cyan. I know you’ve never seen half of those books, but you will. I promise.

There is no better feeing than sitting down every day and writing, when the results are good. And they were. However, there are few more frustrating feelings than writing good books that don’t sell. After most of a decade of full time writing, it was clear that I couldn’t go on that way, and equally clear that I couldn’t quit. I needed a day job that would leave me some time for writing.

My wife suggested that I substitute teach. The pay was good (compared to minimum wage) and I didn’t have to look for jobs. I signed up, and the jobs came to me. It worked as a stopgap.

I couldn’t do it again, after being an actual teacher. Substitute teaching is to teaching, as going to the dentist is to being a dentist. The best one word description is probably painful.

However, I didn’t feel that way at the time. Yes, the job was boring, and yes, it was glorified babysitting, but I had made a shocking discovery.

I liked the kids. A lot.

You have to understand, I was an only child, raised on a farm, having little contact with other kids. I never had children of my own — by choice. To me, babies are just pre-humans. Kids under ten bore the hell out of me. But these kids were interesting and fun to be around.

I had discovered that middle school kids are more fun than a bucket of puppies. I realize that I am a minority in that opinion, and I also realize that part of my feeling comes from not having to take them home with me, but there it is.

Most teachers want to teach high school or fourth grade. Not me. My days as a substitute teacher in high school were dismal. My days teaching kindergarten were horrific. But middle school was my Goldilocks age — not too young, not too old.

By that time I had two masters degrees, so it didn’t take long to tack on a teaching credential. I took a job in one of the schools where I had substituted and I was still there twenty-seven years later.

In my mind, it was a day job. I continued writing. I continued working on the novels which weren’t quite right, and I wrote Raven’s Run. Years went by. I wrote a novel about teaching, Symphony in a Minor Key, which is running over in Serial right now.

I could tell you all about my first years, describe my first room, and give you insights into the joys and pains of teaching — except that I already have, in Symphony.

After about ten years, it was obvious that I wan’t going to get back to full time writing any time soon. After another decade, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t just a writer who was teaching. I was a teacher. It took me that long to be able to say it without having it sound like a defeat. I never stopped being a writer. I just became a teacher as well. I had two careers, parallel and simultaneous, and there was nothing wrong with that.

I was a writer, and a good one. I was a teacher, and a good one. Nothing wrong with that. After about twenty five years, I could even call myself a teacher out loud.

Now I am a retired teacher, and a full time writer again, with a new book out and another working its way through the computer. But I wouldn’t trade those years of teaching for anything.

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413. Wherefore Art Thou Steampunk

As they teach us in high school, when Juliet says, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, she means why are you called Romeo, and then goes into a long bit about identity. This post will do the same thing.

I have been writing a steampunk novel since July, and it is going quite well. I am roughly half way through the first draft, and doing my world building as I write. I am also researching what it means to be steampunk.

My justification for writing in an unknown genre is that it really isn’t all that unknown. It is a first cousin to science fiction, to fantasy, to horror, to the novels of Verne, to alternate history when limited to the near-Victorian, to Edisonade (a new name to me for a sub-genre I’ve been reading all my life — think Tom Swift), and to the old west with neo-mechanical devices (a genre that existed long before the Wild Wild West). I’ve been reading all of these, all my life.

The name steampunk was proposed by K. W. Jeter in a letter to Locus. Jetter, James P. Blaylock, and Tim Powers are three big names in early steampunk, but the genre has come a long way since then.

You would be surprised how much research into obscure subjects lies untapped in college libraries in the form of Ph.D. dissertations. I have learned to use the internet to seek them out, since so many of the things I am interested in are quite obscure.

Mike Perschon’s 2012 dissertation The Steampunk Aesthetic can be accessed at https://era.library.ualberta.ca/files/m039k6078#.WbA9kcdllBw. On that page, click Download the full-sized PDF if you want to follow me down that rabbit hole. If not, you could just try Perschon’s website http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com.

No? Neither? I don’t blame you. Not many people have that much itch, so hang on and I will quote a few of Perschon’s conclusions.

Accordingly, this is not a study of Victorians or Victorianism, but rather a study of steampunk’s hodge-podge appropriation of elements from the Victorian period.

Non-speculative neo-Victorian writing is characterized by an adherence to realism that steampunk rarely cleaves to.

Steampunk (is) not . . . historical fiction per se, but . . .  speculative fiction— science fiction, fantasy, and horror, all mixed into one—that uses history as its playground, not classroom.

The most useful thing Perschon said, from my perspective, is that steampunk is not a genre, but an aesthetic. I had largely come to the same conclusion. The question for me has become not, “is it steampunk,” but rather, “does it taste like steampunk”.

I found that the more carefully I researched the Victorian past, both historically and technologically, the more I was attempting to make my novel fit a set of limitations. I was approaching it the same way I approached Cyan, where I first created a world with certain characteristics, then worked my story around it.

Steampunk doesn’t seem to work that way. In steampunk, an author has an idea of what his world looks like, then comes up with some quasi-magical dingus to make it work. Do you want your airship to be able to lift more and go faster? Invent a gas that never existed. In science fiction terms, it’s more Star Wars than Heinlein. There is nothing wrong with that, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

In addition to academia. I am also half-way through a half-dozen recent steampunk novels. I would be further along, but I’ve been a bit busy writing my own. I’ll clue you in on those novels as I finish them.

Blatant Commercialism

Greetings, new friends.

Recently, a number of new people have found their way to my website, and I am glad to see you. All my old friends have already heard this.

I began this website two years ago, shortly after finding out that my novel Cyan had been picked up by EDGE publishers of Canada. The original idea was to make myself and my writing known in order to find new readers for my novel. The website has grown well beyond that since.

Cyan came out in April as an ebook, and later became available in paperback as well. If you just found this website, you missed all the build up.

Cyan is a realistic, near-future science fiction novel about the exploration and colonization of a planet around a nearby star. With complications, of course.

If you click here, it will take you to the Amazon page where you can read reviews, see the blurb, and even use the Look Inside function to read a chapter or two. You can also click and buy.

If you do buy and like what you read, please take time to write a review. That way publishers will buy my next book. And then so can you.

End of commercial. Thanks for listening. SL

394. Today, everything changed

Today, everything changed. Those were Ramanda’s words when Viki picked up a chipped stone and the explorers of Cyan discovered that they were not alone.

Today, things will change in this blog, but perhaps more meaningfully for me than for you.

On the last day of August, 2015, I released the first post in A Writing Life and the first post in Serial. I immediately began a program of five posts of fiction and four mini-essays each week. It wasn’t long until I trimmed Serial to four posts a week to keep the two halves of the website in synch, and I have kept that schedule with very few breaks for nearly two years.

The early AWL posts were short, about 350 words, but they quickly grew and now they are typically about 700 words. Occasionally I repeated old posts, for various reasons, so my best estimate of how much I have written for A Writing Life (the blog) has reached over 200,000 words.

That’s the equivalent of a long novel or two short ones. I have never run out of material, but there have been times I have come close.

The content of Serial was already written, but even that takes a lot of time to convert into serial form. (see 245. Serializing)

I started preparing A Writing Life six months before its rollout. And yes, I know that it was dumb to name the overall website and one of the two posts with the same name. But I didn’t know it when I started, and it’s too late to fix it now. AWL (the website) came about when Cyan was accepted for publication, as a way to see that it didn’t die quick and quiet like A Fond Farewell to Dying had done. FFTD was a good novel. It deserved an audience, but it never found one.

It took a long time from acceptance to publication, but Cyan finally came out this April. In July, I went to Westercon to tell everybody who would listen that they ought to buy it. That’s how we do things these days. Hemingway would puke.

Where was I — oh yes, changes. I have spent so much time on this website that it has curtailed my actual writing. That can’t go on, but this site is how I met all of you, so I can’t quit it either. So here is the plan.

Starting today, I will no longer post on A Writing Life (the blog) to a schedule. When I have something to say, I will. For example, there will be a post August first about bears, and why they are in Spirit Deer.

If you haven’t followed me yet, this would be a good time to start, so you will get notification when I post. I will still have a lot to say, just not four days a week. This will get the schedule monkey off my back. I have a couple of sequels to Cyan that are calling me.

Serial will continue. Spirit Deer will be finished in early August. I will follow it with one of my favorite Harold Godwin novels from my childhood, now largely forgotten and in public domain. That will carry us most of the way to Christmas. Then we’ll see. There will be a post explaining all that on August 14, here in A Writing Life.

I’m not going away, I just won’t be around quite as often.

Download Cyan, or order it in paperback. If you like it, write reviews for Goodreads and Amazon. Tell your friends. Then in a year or so, you can tell them about the sequel.

In many ways, A Writing Life (the blog) has been less of a blog and more of a magazine. From now on it will be more like most blogs, with news, events, and updates of ongoing writing. But the magazine style mini-essays won’t disappear. They will simply stop dominating my life, so that I can get back to my novels.

388. Cyan Released Everywhere

Cyan was released in a sequence. First it was available in March for pre-order from Amazon.

On April 17, it was released, but exclusively from Amazon.

Today, it becomes available everywhere.

If you do your reading on another tablet, in EPUB or another format, you can finally download.

I thought the only hard copies available would be the fifty print-on-demand copies I took with me to Westercon, however once I made the POD order, they became available to everyone. I didn’t see that coming.

Enjoy.

367. Alien Autopsy (5)

The other four Alien Autopsy posts were in Serial last week. After they were finished, I realized that I needed to give you a better picture of the Cyl. They are kind-of my favorites.

On Cyan, the dominant alien species of the torrid zone are the Cyl.  Viki Johansen, the scout specializing in Anthropology.—

. . . began a campaign of attrition and, after eight months, managed finally to enter the Cyl camp without disturbing them. They had become so used to her presence that they largely ignored her, and first-hand she confirmed her suspicions that the Cyl were of Australopithecine level intelligence

Their ears, she discovered, conveyed a complex emotive language that no one could hope to translate. Every position, every nuance of stance, was replete with meaning, and immense complexities of feeling could be portrayed by counterpoising irreconcilable emotions against one another. Yet there was no communication of ideas.

The Cyl are physiologically incapable of speech. After some changes you’ll have to read the book to find out about, “they” are taught to sign. Much later, Keir Delacroix meets up with a Cyl leader, and describes her —

The leader was an old female. Her scale filaments were sparse and shaggy, and her gel glands were puckered and no longer functioning. It was the first close up look Keir had had of a living Cyl. When she squatted at rest, her powerful hind legs jutted forward at a sharp angle and she rested her tiny forearms across her huge, scarred knees. Her mouth was broad and toothy, her bare facial skin stretched taut over massive bones and utterly impassive. She had no need of facial expression while her ears played symphonies of feeling.

Still later, Viki and her Cyl come to Beryl, Debra, and Tasmeen, needing help, and there is a dangerous moment of interspecies distrust.

The Cyl heads swiveled back toward Beryl and Debra again. There was no change of expression. There never would be, never could be, any change of expression on those bony faces. That fact alone would always keep humans and Cyl from completely trusting each other, for the humans, with their immobile, underdeveloped ears were as expressionless to the Cyl as the Cyl were to humans.

It comes near to a bloodletting as Beryl stands, armed, between the Cyl she has never seen, and her child. But then . . .

The Cyl ears moved in a symphony of sudden understanding, and of appreciation for the humanity of these strange creatures who would die — just as a Cyl would die — to protect their young.

The lead Cyl leaned forward and placed her darts, crossed, on the floor in front of Beryl and Debra. Her two companions quickly copied the motion, then all three shuffled backward. They were awkward inside the dome where the furnishings of the place made a maze for them to negotiate. As bounders, they were creatures of the unobstructed open plain. This human habitation was utterly foreign to them, not because of the steel from which it was made, or the interlocking triangles of its geodesic construction, but because it was cluttered. How could one hope to move about in it?

Beryl just stared at the Cyl. Their huge heads, their stone faces, and the heavy teeth showing through the thin slash of their lips, were too much for her to trust.

Cooler heads prevail, and Viki explains their need. Tasmeen is quick to come to their defense.

Viki was signing to her Cyl as Tasmeen spoke. It was not a translation. Cyl thought was too different for that. What she signed were a string of independent concepts. Had she been Cyl, the positions of her ears would have placed the concepts in an emotional context and tied them together into a rich and complex whole. When the Cyl spoke to Viki, that was what she received, the great subtlety of hands and ears in concert, but when she spoke, it was, to the Cyl, as if she were a halting child. She said:

WOMAN. LEADER. POWER. (my) PRIDE. TRUST (her).

The lead Cyl signed that Viki’s trust in Tasmeen was like the trust of the entire Cyl race for Viki; that in trusting Viki, they therefore trusted Tasmeen; that they too recognized the power in this woman; and that it was a lovely irony (the Cyl live for irony) that the sister of the mother of the race of Cyl was of an age to be the daughter of the mother of the race of Cyl, and therefore this woman of power who was their mother’s-sister was also their agemate-sister, so that the emotions of love and respect that they must necessarily have for her as the savior of their race were also the emotions they would choose to have for one who was both mother and sister to them all.

This she said in a three-second flurry of ear and hand motions.

Beryl watched, wondering if this hulking, stupid-looking creature was really of human intelligence, or if Viki was merely fooling herself.

A little irony never hurts.

The best aliens not only look different, but think differently as well.

Alien Autopsy (4)

In Jandrax, I was happy to use modified mammals and birds. That was all the story needed. When I wrote Cyan, I faced a different situation. My crew was set down on an alien planet for one year, with the task of coming to understand its weather, geology, and ecology in order to prepare for colonization. They were all scientists, so their actions and conversations called for a deeper understanding of their new world than any other kind of science fiction novel would have required. That challenge was half the fun.

When I began Cyan, I had been studying ecology for about twenty years, starting back when I had to explain what the word meant. I later came to understand the essence of Earth’s taxonomy in the most rigorous possible way — I had had to condense it to a level which middle school students could understand without dying of boredom.

Terrestrial taxonomy looks something like this:taxon

Drop a salmon egg on the gunwale of your canoe and it will dry out in minutes. A chicken or turtle egg would survive the same treatment. This is the meaning of amniote egg (although there are other, competing meanings). Creatures who lack them, must lay their eggs in water. The rest of the chart should be clear, although simplified. For example, birds have scales on their legs as well as feathers elsewhere, and I skipped Dinosauria altogether.

I built up Cyan from the taxonomic level. If I had hadn’t been showing the planet through the eyes of a team of scientists, I would never have started out there.

It had to be weird but recognizable — that’s the key to all science fiction invention. It also required restraint. You can only explain so much to your reader without losing them, and beyond a certain point, your backstory is wasted effort.

I took grasses and weeds for granted. I gave my trees multiple trunks bound together, like a strangler fig without its victim. For something like insects, I made Chitropods – chitro sounds like chitin, and pod means foot, so the reader can be expected to infer an exoskeleton. Continuing the idea of inference, if we call the flying creatures who eat the chitropods pouchbats, the reader will draw a better picture in his mind that we could on paper.

The number of legs is important to Terrestrial arthropods, but I bypassed that by giving all chitropods many legs, but with only one joint each where each meets the body. This gave them a rolling gait “like caterpillars on crutches”.

These are throw-away inventions. They could have been applied to any ecosystem and they are not systemically related to each other. They alone would be good enough for most science fiction novels, but not for one about scientists teasing out the essence of their planet.

Here we need a key differentiation, from early in evolution, from which a thousand lesser differences can be derived. I decided that on Cyan, early in the development of chordate life, the vertebral column doubled at the posterior, giving Cyanian sea life twin tails. That changed everything. Earth fishes evolved legs from their fins. Cyanian “fishes” evolved legs from their split tails, so every Cyanian land creature is a tail-less hopper, fundamentally different from anything on Earth.

On Cyan, the classes are Pseudo-pisces, Amphibia, and Inturbia. No reptiles, no birds, no mammals, no dinosaurs. The Amphibia are cold blooded. Inturbia are inefficiently warm blooded. The term Inturbia should imply “internal body temperature un-perturbed by external changes”. Not every reader will get that, but writers should reward their best readers by not spelling everything out.

There are a thousand other details, but for that, you will just have to download Cyan.

All this is not to say that I didn’t invent interesting alien creatures. Kavines are incredibly fierce. Dropels, especially after they became domesticated, are cute and tasty. In the southern part of the upper continent, the Cyl developed something close to sapience, leading Viki to . . . nope, sorry, that’s a spoiler. I just started with taxonomy so they would all fit together.

Of course, too much consistency without outliers would be boring, so I added the globe wombs. The explorers see them shining in the treetops from their first minutes on the planet, and it takes a while for them to figure out what they mean.

Inturbia have live birth. Cyanian amphibs have to return to water to lay their eggs, except for one group, the Sphaeralvids, who produce globewombs. When a Sphaeralvid mother comes to term, she moves to a sunny spot in the treetops and exudes a transparent, leathery sac filled with a clear fluid like seawater. Into this she deposits fertile ova, then defecates. Algae from the Sphaeralvid mother’s bowels convert the feces into biomass and the Sphaeralvid nymphs fed off the algae.  When the feces are gone, the globewomb walls break down, leaving the now sizable nymphs free to face Cyan on their own.

Neat, huh? That is entirely too much detail for most books, but Cyan was written to show, realistically, what exploration of a new world might be like. This is just the kind of detail a crew of scientists would be recording.

Aside:      Shortly after posting this, I received a digital copy of the print-on-demand version of Cyan to proof. I spent May 29 and 30 in close reading of all 315 pages. The taxonomy and ecology of Cyan are backstory, dribbled out in bits here and there, but what the reader sees up front and in their faces are the individual alien beings. I realized that I need a fifth Alien Autopsy post to devote to the Cyl (the cover critter), but there is no space for it here. You will find it next Thursday over on the A Writing Life side of this website.

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I began Cyan a few years after I wrote Jandrax, and set it in the same universe but hundreds of years earlier.

I also have in mind a third novel set in the same universe, but very different. It will take place on Stormking, a prison planet with a Uranian inclination to the ecliptic. The people who make up its population are not scientists, but outcasts. They have no interest in taxonomy. They meet the creatures native to their world one by one, and all they care about are which ones can they eat and which ones want to eat them. This time I’ll stop worrying about how these alien creatures make up a logical system, and just weird them up big time. That ought to be fun, too.