Tag Archives: Jandrax

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.


384. How to Sign an Ebook

I was involved in a book signing years ago, and had/will have two at Westercon. [Two weeks from now as I write this, one week ago as you read it.] Which begs the question — how do you sign an eBook? I’ll answer that below, but first . . .

Jandrax came out in 1978, and the Stacey’s book store in the local mall invited me to do a signing.


After writing that last sentence, I did a quick internet search to see what happened to Stacey’s. I knew it disappeared later, but I couldn’t remember what year. I discovered that my Stacey’s was a spin-off of the well known San Francisco store and I had to work my way through obituaries to that great institution. I finally found someone who knew the fate of my local store. It closed in 1994. To quote my source

 . . . in 1994, Borders and Waldenbooks joined forces – and like a tidal wave of orcs, they swept across the land, mercilessly engulfing independent bookstores. Ashes to ashes, Stacey’s.  RIP, The Bookstore in Modesto.

Waldenbooks? I had completely forgotten them. They used to be at the other end of the mall, but they too are gone with the wind. I liked that store. I also liked both of the Borders stores that were within driving distance. Barnes and Nobel wiped them out years ago.

The upside is that Barnes and Nobel is also a fine bookstore with two local outlets. Today it is beleaguered by Amazon. If they go I’ll miss them, too.

I also miss The Bookstore, a true independent in another location across town. It was replaced by a Christian bookstore. The Christian bookstore went out of business later. Apparently, not even God can fight The Big Book Monopoly.

Because I like old books, and because I am usually short of cash, I shop at used bookstores. There are half a dozen in my five county area, but I also know of another ten, all of which have gone bankrupt in the last two decades. Ironically, when I want an old book that isn’t available locally, I buy from used bookstores on the internet — brokered by Amazon.

If you want to buy my latest novel, Cyan, you have to go to Amazon for now, where you can download it or order it in paperback. On July 17 it will become available everywhere. That is, everywhere on the internet.

The internet giveth, and the internet taketh away. That’s not a battle cry, just a recognition of the reality of change.

So back to what I was saying:  Jandrax came out in 1978, and the Stacey’s book store in the local mall invited me to do a signing. It was great fun, although most people stopped, smiled, looked, and left without buying a copy.

When things got slow, the manager explained some of the financial realities of his life. He said that when books came in, and didn’t sell, it would cost too much to send them back. They simply ripped the covers off and sent them back instead, for full credit against their account. Then they threw the coverless books into the dumpster.

He pulled a copy of Silmarillion, just published, off the shelf, tore off the cover, and gave it to me. He said he would return the cover and it wouldn’t cost him a dime.

I took it. I didn’t want to insult my host, but I felt guilty at the time, and I still do. It sits on a shelf in my library, an odd souvenir of my book signing. I still haven’t been able to force myself through it, so it remains unread. Tolkien without hobbits is a hard go.

I thought of that event three years later when A Fond Farewell to Dying came out with a cover that was — not beautiful. It didn’t sell. I had a vision of book store managers everywhere taking one look at the cover, deciding it wouldn’t sell, ripping it off for credit, and tossing FFTD into the dumpster, as unread as my copy of Silmarillion. Maybe that is just me making excuses.

Maybe not.

So here we are, back in the present. I have two book signings coming at Westercon, and Cyan is primarily an eBook. What to do? EDGE, my publisher, allows me to buy print-on-demand copies, so I ordered 50. I’ll keep some for myself and take the others along.

For the other thousand people at Westercon, I am making up a half-page, double-sided sheet with a thumbnail of Cyan’s cover, the Westercon logo, and a sample of text from chapter one. It amounts to a come-on for the eBook and a weird souvenir for those who attend Westercon. At least it gives me something to sign at the “book” signing.

Still, it was more fun signing a physical book.

Alien Autopsy (3)

Imagined alien life forms can range from nearly human to outrageously strange. They can be imagined to meet story needs, or imagined first, with stories arising from their peculiarities.

Actually we can do even more. We can imagine whole ecologies. And again, we can go from minimalist to extreme. Arzor from Norton’s Beast Master is suspiciously like the American southwest, but Dune is a desert with an ecology quite a bit developed beyond any desert on Earth.

My first science fiction novel Jandrax [see note at the bottom of the page] is set on a deeply frozen planet, with only the equatorial region ice free. The only area I developed was a plain roughly a thousand miles across, centering on a massive freshwater lake. I stranded a starship with a load of fundamentalist passengers and a relatively unreligious crew, and watched the fireworks as they found two quite different ways of coping with the local ecology.

The area in question never sees rain, but during the cold season, snow and sleet falls, then melts during the (slightly) warm season. Viewed locally, this results in a dead season of snow, a brief season of wild plant growth during which massive migratory herds move through, and then a long season of dry, warm aftermath until the churned and destroyed vegetation is covered with new snow, where it and its seeds will wait for the next melt.

Viewed from the starship stranded in orbit, there is a moving line of green, eating up a mass of white, and followed by a growing gray, brown temporary desert.

I won’t tell you what happens to the people. That would be a spoiler to a book I’m hoping you will still read. Instead, let’s look at the alien creatures, starting with the herbivores.

Herbies are burrow bodied, tapir headed, fleet and harmless. Humpox don’t get much description, but don’t need it, with that name. Trihorns are as deadly as they sound. All are mammals, as are the carnivorous longnecks and krats. There are also huge carnivorous toothed birds called leers. They ended up on the cover.

These are the deliberately realistic creatures, all mammals and birds, devised in an era when warm blooded dinosaurs had not yet reached public awareness. In another part of the book, there is an interlude on an island which may be a hallucination or perhaps an encounter with the local version of God. Here the rules of realism don’t fully apply, and we find winged people who would never stand up to the laws of aerodynamics, and an insufferably cute, seal-faced, plump flying mammal called a dilwildi.

The example of Jandrax goes straight to the notion of purpose. Weird critters for the sake of weird critters is entirely valid. I love a weird critter novel. But Jandrax was my first full fledged novel, designed to show human interaction in a harsh, ice-age environment. It contains an entire religion, devised for the purpose of providing conflict. The ecology of the world was central to the story, and it was developed, but the individual alien creatures just needed to look right in an ice age environment. Nortonian minimalism is at work here.

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I was in high school when I  first read Richard McKenna ’s novella Hunter, Come Home. It was a deeply moving, human story of manhood, honor, and love. It also had a second dimension, the description of an entire sentient ecosystem in peril and fighting back.

Here is a brief summary. Mordinmen were descendants of a lost Earth colony which had fought a generations long war against the dinosaur-like creatures which inhabited their planet. Manhood had become symbolized by the killing of a dino, but now the dinos were scarce and poor families, like Roy Craig’s, could no longer afford a hunt.

Mordinmen had now claimed another planet and were setting about to destroy its native ecosystem, in order to rebuild it in the image of their home planet. Red dots (successful hunters) were running the show, assisted by blankies like Roy who was working toward the time he could make his kill on the new planet. Hired as specialists, the Belconti biologists were providing the virus-like Thanasis used to destroy the native life.

When the story begins, the fight to transform this new planet has been going on for decades, and it is failing. Now the Mordinmen, against warnings by the Belacaonti, are about to unleash newer, harsher, more dangerous plague on the planet.

That’s about as far as I can summarize without a spoiler alert. Roy Craig wants more than anything to be a full fledged member of his machismo society, but his blanky status leaves him marginalized and frustrated. At the same time, he is drawn to the relatively gentle society of the Belaconti with whom is is working, symbolized for him by the woman Midori Blake.

Other than the dinosaur like creatures imported by the Mordinmen, there is only one other alien species — the entire planet they are all on. The native life of the planet is totally interconnected, essentially a one-world-tree (shades of Gaia).

There is a three way contrast in Hunter, Come Home. The Mordinmen, from a macho society built on killing are placed in contrast to the Belaconti, scientists who understand and treasure the ecosystem they are trying to destroy, and they in turn are contrasted to the interlocked, semi-sentient native life of the planet. Roy and Midori are each caught in conflicting loyalties as the planned apocalypse moves forward.

This is one of those cases where world building, culture building, and alien species building work together seamlessly. more tomorrow

Click here for next post.

[You can find Jandrax in used book stores. It is also available on this website, in an annotated form. Eventually it will be placed in Backfile, but I’ve been busy. I you want to read it here and now, your best bet for navigation is to begin by clicking the March 2016 archive and find Jandrax 2, then read and slide up, skipping every other post — archives alternates posts from the two blogs on this site. It is a bit of a pain. You can get Jandrax most days through Amazon’s cadre of used book stores. If you want the annotated version, in which I explain the various foibles of a young author, I plan to put it into an easily accessed form in Backfile, as soon after Westercon as I can find the time.]

253. Handgun Accuracy

2-gunsOver in Serial, the chapter Raven’s Run 42 came out yesterday. This post was supposed to stand across from it, but Leonard Cohen’s death caused me to push Handgun Accuracy back a day to make room for an appreciation of what he meant to me.

Everything in the night drive through Martigues and the Barre Lagoon in yesterday’s post is from research. I was never there. But I was in Marseille and everything there is from experience. You have to have some first hand knowledge, mixed with research, if you want to look like you know everything.

The bit with the .45 automatic is also accurate, and from experience. I only fired an M1911A1 once in the Navy, in boot camp, but years later I acquainted myself with it and a large variety of other handguns at a firing range near my home. I spent an hour a week there, every Tuesday for a year, and became proficient with the two dozen styles and calibers they had for rent. That was partly for writing research, and partly because we live in a dangerous world.

You have to be able to describe handgun usage accurately for the kind of fiction I write. And yes, this post title has that double meaning, like the NRA bumper sticker that says Gun Control Means Using Both Hands. I could never resist a bad joke.

Accuracy is important in science fiction weaponry as well. In Jandrax, Jan’s “express pistol” was a technologically advanced weapon that was fairly fully explained, while the other weapons were nineteenth century technology because they were meant to be repairable on a frontier world.

In Cyan, due out soon, the explorers are operating in the near future. I decided to give them handguns only slightly advanced over the present day for their initial exploration, as in:

“Gus carried a comped 12mm magnum semi-automatic in a cross draw holster.“

This led the proofreader at EDGE to highlight comped and write “?”. (See 134. The Long Road to Cyan (2) for details on proofreading in the modern era.)

Comped actually refers to mid-twentieth century technology. I replied:

Comped, pronounced compt, not comp-ed, is a standard term. It comes from compensated, and refers to a series of slits on either side of the front sight of a heavy handgun, which redirects some of the expanding gasses upward, counteracting muzzle flip. Gun nerds will know the term; others will just be puzzled.

The cross draw holster is reasonable, but it is mentioned early because it sets up a plot point I would need about forty pages later.  And 12mm magnum will certainly ruffle the hackles of purists, but again, it is so named for a reason. The largest caliber presently designated in millimeters is 10mm and magnum is applied to a new, more powerful version of an old caliber. This means the 12mm magnum is two generations away – which is what I was looking for, a near-future version of present day technology.

I made these automatics obsolete during the colonization phase by introducing a handgun called a fletcher which was, in essence, a hand held rocket launcher. If you need a powerful, hand held weapon with little recoil, replacing bullets with mini-rockets is the simplest way forward.

You can only use phasers in Star Trek novels and no self respecting science fiction author will ever say “ray gun” again, but fletchers – certainly under a different name – will probably be available within a decade or so. High caliber handguns have just about reached the limits of human hand strength, even though all of them are comped today.

Keep your eye on future issues of Field and Stream for new developments.

234. Revisiting Columbus

A year ago today, I was anticipating a January 2016 release for my novel Cyan. Since Columbus had a brief appearance there, I published an excerpt on Columbus Day as a teaser. The novel’s release has been delayed, and very few people were reading that early in the blog’s history, so here is a reprise

*             *             *

Poor Columbus; he has taken a beating over the years. We don’t see him for what he was, with all his strengths and weaknesses, but through the lens of our own times. Here is a picture of how we might view him a century from now, when we have had to change our calendar to meet the demands of the rest of the world.

Anno Domini
A Latin phrase meaning the Year of our Lord.

Before sunrise on October 12, 1492, Anno Domini, a lookout for Columbus’ expedition sighted land. Columbus had found two new continents (although he did not know it), following his own powerful vision of how the Earth was constructed (a vision that was wrong), and began a five hundred year reign as king of explorers.

Half a millennium later, Columbus was dethroned. Even school children were now being taught that Columbus was not the only one who knew the world was round. Sailors and scholars had known that for hundreds of years before him.  Columbus’ great vision was that the Earth was small, and in that he was wrong. By the late twentieth century, it was certain that the Vikings got to America first, likely that St. Brendan beat Columbus there, and there were a dozen other putative explorers who had their champions.

Besides, American popular thought was in one of its Noble Savage stages, and it was politically correct to echo the Native Americans who complained that Columbus was a destroyer of races and cultures.

But even at the height of Columbus bashing, it was apparent that his voyage had differed in one significant detail from the other explorers who had preceded him. After Columbus, America was never lost again. After Columbus, and those other explorers who sailed close on his heels, the Earth became entirely known and entirely interconnected for the first time.


In the year A. D. 2037 (as Christians measure time), at the Conclave of Mecca, the Islamic world announced that they would no longer recognize, speak with, acknowledge, or deal with any person, nation, or document which forced them to use a calendar based on Christianity.

At the International Bureau of Weights and Measures Convention in Buenos Aires two months later, a new calendar was established, based on a sidereal year. It would have neither weeks nor months since Islam and the rest of the world could not compromise on the issue of lunar months. It could not start at Jesus’ putative birth, nor at Mohammed’s, and it quickly became apparent that the new Standard Year should date from the midnight preceding the day the Earth became one planet for the first time.

This whole Standard Year business came about by accident. When I wrote Jandrax thirty plus years ago, I had no idea that I would write other stories in the same universe. After all, I stranded all those poor people so far out that no one would ever find them.

However, I began wondering what circumstances, beyond what I had already written, might cause Dumezil to invent his pan-Earth religion, and I wondered what Jan Andrax’s ancestors were like. That led me to make Stephan Andrax, Jan’s multi-great grandfather, spaceside commander of the Cyan expedition.

In Jandrax, I had pulled the date Standard Year 873 out of thin air. Now I had to backtrack and make it work for Cyan, which I did my making Standard Year Zero start with Columbus’ discovery of America.

Jandrax 92


Standard Year 904 and of the colony,
Year 36

When Jean reached the hilltop, Snowmelt had already come and gone. He leaned heavily on his staff and looked first at the rough stone marker, then upward and outward across the endless melt to the lake. After a time, tears came and he let the precious moisture fall upon the earth that covered his father’s body. Farewell, Jandrax. No man on this planet has made a mark so uniquely his own.

Snowmelt approached then, shyly, much as Isaac must have approached the altar. Jean smiled down at him, and reached out his hand. Snowmelt touched him fleetingly then withdrew. He scuffed the damp earth with his moccasin. He was slim, brown and powerful. The perfect savage. “Son,” Jean said, “I am leaving for a while.”

Snowmelt flashed a resentful look. “I know. Back to the island. Everyone is talking about it.”

Jean frowned his distaste. “The tribe is making me a prophet, and I never wanted that.”

“You claimed to speak to God. Prophet or liar; you left yourself no third alternative.”

“I suppose not. Well, I was warned.”

“Why are you going? Why must you leave me?”

Jean squinted at the distance and turned his face away to hide the depth of his feelings. “That I cannot answer. Rather, I will not. I will not burden you with it all, though you know part.”

Now his son turned away, for to acknowledge that his father was a cripple, to acknowledge that no woman chose to bed with him, was to acknowledge shame on them both. Yet the knowledge would not go away. “Was there never a woman of the tribe who looked favorably upon you?”

“Yes, Son; once. Briefly.”

“The winged girl was very beautiful?”


“But she too will have aged.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

“And if you go to the island, there will be no way to reenact what happened before. You said yourself that the presence rejected you.”

“I can only try.”

Snowmelt turned blindly toward Jean, unaccustomed tears streaking his face. “If you loved me, you would stay.” Jean reached out to him and, for once, Snowmelt allowed himself to be embraced.

“My son! If I did not love you, I would not have stayed these twelve, long, hungry years.”

Snowmelt pushed away and turned his back. For a time, Jean let the silence lie between them, then he said, “Will you come to the lakeshore to see me off?”

He shrugged without turning. “I suppose.

“See that you do!” Without looking back, Snowmelt began to descend the hill. Jean let him go. Soon only his shaggy head showed occasionally above the siskal.

(page break)

Excerpt from the DUBOIS HIEROS.
Manuscript discovered on the planet
Jandrax, galactic coordinates 11C 927C84.

1. In the morning of the world, the hero strove with the winds and cast down the mountains. The wind walker and the cloud dancer moved into the open air and there was rain, and from the rain, grasses, and from the grasses, cattle, and from the cattle, men.

2. The hero lay upon Sinai at the world’s edge and dreamed himself a dream.

3. First from the dream came the walker of winds, and he cleaved her to wife.

4. And from out of her loins came all manner of things, both good and evil . . .



One last comment —- Is this reality? Fantasy? Hallucination? The true hand of God?

You decide.

Jandrax 91

Anton. A question, out of curiosity. Did the primer actually fail?”

Dumbly Anton shook his head.

“I have been advised by better men than either of us that I own your life. That I can kill you and feel no qualms of conscience.” Jean smiled. “I think you would not even resist me much. But I will not kill you.

“You wanted the antler; you have it. I need it no longer. But I will take my son.

“You, I will let live. Your life would be more punishment than death in any case. Your crippling of me only made me stronger and the prize that you took from me was a thing of no worth – have you enjoyed Chloe?”

Anton trembled at the taunt, but did not advance. “I will take my child now.”

Why Anton did it, Jean never knew. Perhaps he saw his life laid out before him, a half-man who let his own son be stolen. It was the first and last manly act of his life. He leaped forward, his blade raised. Jean slapped it away and thrust his own knife deep between his ribs.

Anton’s knees hit the dirt floor with a quiet shock and his eyes were wide. Death came rushing in on him and he turned toward the bed, his hand reaching out for Chloe. He died there, stretched toward that for which he had strived so hard, from which he had received so little. He was stretched thus when she woke to the light of morning and her screams alerted the colony to come see this latest wonder, the returned antler, the bloody floor, the empty crib.


Maybe this is where Jandrax should have ended. Certainly, if it were a simple adventure story on a science fiction world, this is all that needed to be said.

I didn’t feel that way. Even though I was a young writer, I had ambitions to tackle larger problems than “Who won?” and “Who lost?” The nomad and the oasis. Man and God – who was the created and who was the creator? Simple materialism vs. wrestling with whatever it is, that is larger than a man.

What really constitutes manhood? How do you balance personal independence against the need for human companionship, particularly when you can’t find a society that thinks and feels as you do?

In any case, I didn’t stop when things were settled, but went on one more step to stir them all up again. final word Monday