Tag Archives: literature

649. Sorta Lost, Sorta Not

I started this as a note to myself on November 25, but it morphed into something else.

I have been writing Dreamsinger since July, following my usual foolish technique of jumping in with both feet and stomping around until things start to take shape. I knew the basic outline of the novel, but finding secondary characters to carry it on and portraying the culture without narrative dumps has been a bit difficult.

At this point, Dreamsinger is something of a tangle. There are about 25-30 thousand words of good writing, but things are misarranged (deranged?). It doesn’t properly hang together yet.

Richeal is part of the problem. I know you don’t know who she is, but let that stand; explaining her would force this into two posts, and I’m not ready for that yet.

I have avoided Richeal and pushed her into the background, despite the fact that she is a main character. She could be the big time villain; better still she could be the well-meaning and ruthless seeker after the wrong star, somewhat like Curran. I have finally chosen the latter, and that means I need much more of her, much earlier.

Dreamsinger now begins with the prolog and Antrim’s initial response to a suicide. That much works well. We still need to see and come to value Antrim before anybody else takes the stage, because we will see the story primarily through his eyes. However, Richeal is his primary adversary and should be present and a major force by the very next scene. I will do that, but it will require rearranging the sequence of a dozen smaller scenes.

My underlying error is the failed idea that the culture of the spacebounds is of small interest, and the culture of the planetbounds should be the novel’s main focus. I have been trying to present the spacebounds in as few words as possible in order to get on to the meat of the story. It turns out, that is the wrong way to go about it.

The reason Dreamsinger has gone adrift is the same reason that I’m living in the foothills today.  I hate crowding and I hate cities. I want to get down onto the planet Stormking where I will feel comfortable as quickly as I can. That would make the act of writing more pleasant for me, but the story would suffer.

The hyper-city, Home Station, is the culmination of an escape from Earth and the starting point for everything else. If I want to write this novel, instead of an Andre Norton style struggle in the wilderness, I have to follow its internal reality and suppress my distaste. Otherwise I need to write a different novel.

I have to write about a place I would hate, from the viewpoint of a character who finds it quite normal, and who has no real idea of how artificial it is.

Antrim needs to eventually be able to see the plight of the exiles on Stormking from an understanding and sympathetic viewpoint. To build that character, I have to build the history, culture, and physical layout of Home Station, along with the personalities of those who formed him and those who are trying to turn him into something else. Thirty thousand words hasn’t done it yet, because they aren’t quite the right words. Yet.

Close, but not close enough. Yet.

This all comes down to the author’s experiences and values. I say the author’s experiences instead of my experiences because it is also true of you, you authors and would-be authors out there in the blogosphere reading these words.

Home Station, like the overcrowded Earth in the middle section of Cyan, comes from the nine months I spent on the south side of Chicago. You may live there and love it for all I know, but for me it was a hell of claustrophobic fear, trapped inside a tiny apartment, cut off from the nature that I love, and surrounded by a place where bodies showed up on the streets every night. The University of Chicago itself was a joy; everything else was horrid. I got the MA I went for and couldn’t leave fast enough.

On the other hand I find Stormking relatively easy for me to portray. I grew up in a land of powerful winds, extended droughts, dust, heat, cold, and tornadoes. I worked outside every winter in sub-zero cold and every summer in sweltering, humid heat, all before anyone had air conditioning and central furnaces. I loved it, except sometimes in the worst of winter, and it all seemed perfectly natural.

Now I have to live inside the mind of Antrim, for whom the claustrophobic Home Station seems right and natural, and for whom Stormking will be a near-killing shock to mind and body. I have to create, then live with, someone whose reactions are the complete opposite of my own.

Weird how things work out. Oh well, no one ever said writing would be easy.

648. Limits of Accuracy

The Limits of Accuracy
in World Building

I’m sitting here on October 15th with half a dozen files open on my computer, calculator at the ready, and a page of scratched calculations. I’ve been world building again.

In full disclosure, my last math class was college calculus and I don’t remember much of that. I’m no astrophysicist. I know that because I bought a book on orbital mechanics in hopes of cribbing a few formulas to use in my writing. It didn’t take long to realize that I was out of my element.

My primary source of world building math has always been How to Build a Planet by Poul Anderson. I have kept a xerox copy on hand since I first used it while writing Jandrax back in the seventies of last century/millenium.

Don’t bother to google it. There are so many resources available for world building on the internet today that it gets pushed to a back page. I don’t use the new stuff myself; it looks like a black hole you could fall into and never escape. World building can easily eat up all the time available for writing. Besides, there is a limit to the accuracy we need.

When I set up the solar system around Sirius, a long time ago, I popped in a few inner planets, more or less following Bode’s discredited law, and set their distances after calculating i, luminosity, for the most important planet.

Sirius A, for the record, has about twice Sol’s mass and produces about 23 times its radiation. I calculated the distances from it to where there would be a luminosity of 75% of Earth’s, 100% of Earth’s, and 125% of Earth’s, then dropped Stormking into the middle of that range. That gave me an orbit roughly the equivalent of Jupiter’s, so I took the length of Jupiter’s year and called that the length of Stormking’s year.

That was good enough for then, but not now that I’m actually writing. I have political exiles on Stormking (which has a Uranian tilt) who have to walk for their lives, continuously, to stay in the middle of that planet’s temperature extremes. I have to know the real length of the year on a planet that distance from Sirius, to see how far I have to make them walk.

The exiles have to proceed southward for most of a half a year, rest for a few weeks, then turn north again, forever. It provides all kinds of plot possibilities, but I owe it to the reader to get my figures straight.

Sirius is a double star, and that other star provides complications I can only approximate. Since I began seriously contemplating returning to Dreamsinger, I came to realize that the perihelion of Sirius B would, on some orbits, coincide with Stormking’s position on its orbit in a way that would cause a superheated event. Big trouble for the exiles; great opportunities for the puppet master. (That would be me.) I can’t calculate how often this will happen or how severe it will be, given my skills, so that will be a hole in my accuracy.

I moved the orbit of Stormking out to the 75% luminosity distance of 828 million kilometers to make my exiles slightly more likely to survive, and calculated the year length (in Earth days) from that, using formulae I don’t totally understand, and came up with 4493 Earth days. That is fairly close to my ballpark estimate of 4335, which is Jupiter’s year in Earth days.

Why do all this? Partly it is because you have to consider your audience. If you try to write hard science fiction, set around known stars, a few of your readers will be scientists, and a much larger number will be people who wanted to be scientists, or at least love science. You have an obligation to them not to do something dumb.

Actually, a lot of science fiction writers are scientists or engineers, and can easily do the math I struggle with. I admire them, but I don’t feel inferior to them. I got here by a different route and I know things they don’t know. In all likelihood, you know things I don’t know. It all comes out even in the end, or at least even enough that we can all share the same fraternity of people who enjoy science fiction.

Careful world building is a rule of the game. You wouldn’t play chess with two white queens. You wouldn’t write a western where Wyatt Earp carries a luger instead of a Buntline special. You might, however, give Earp a luger if you were writing steampunk. Different games, different rules. If you take the science out of hard science fiction, all you have left is . . . basically nothing.

Nevertheless, there are limits. I am not good enough at calculating orbits to know for certain what Sirius B would do to my scenario, but I know what has to happen in the story, and by God that’s what is going to happen, no matter what physics says. You have to draw the line somewhere.

Now it you will excuse me, I have three other planets to calculate, so my people can follow reasonable orbits traveling between them. I wouldn’t want to embarrass myself.

You know, sometimes I do miss warp drive. Punch a button, and there you are at Vulcan. It would be so easy.

644. Annotated Nostalgia

A few mementos from a well
misspent childhood.

Here is your Christmas list for any young people in your life, assuming that you want to help them to move beyond Star Wars. This also assumes that they can get past the anachronisms that are inevitable in books which are about the future, but were written decades ago.

Some of these are great; others are painful to read if you have adult literary sensibilities, but won’t necessarily be painful for kids.

It is nearly certain that some modern kids will find these intolerably restricted to reality. It’s your call. I’m just providing the list I promised in post 642. And since a simple list would be useless, I am adding annotations.

Tom Swift — Various characters named Tom Swift have been around in multiple incarnations, so let’s sort out their checkered history.

From 1910 through 1941, TS the original made inventions and had adventures that are basically unreadable today. If you want to see for yourself, try kindle.

From 1954 through 1971, Tom Swift Jr., the original TS’s son, did the same thing. These are the ones you are most likely to see. They were my bread and butter before I discovered libraries, but now I find them painful to read, although the inventions themselves are still great.

From 1981 onward, there were fourth, fifth and sixth series, about which I know almost nothing.

Tom Corbett — Tom Corbett Space Cadet never came to the hobby shop where I bought my early books, but I got a copy just a few years ago to give it a try. I couldn’t summon the energy to get very far without the added impetus of nostalgia, but it seemed better written than TS, and the protagonists actually got out into space. You see them occasionally in used book stores. There is an additional tidbit below.

Rip Foster — This is a single book with multiple names and is a forgotten gem. None of the other books on this list come close to its quality. See A Forgotten Classic, which also has details on where to get it.

The Heinlein Juveniles — Between 1947 and 1958 Heinlein wrote a dozen novels which were marketed as juveniles. I read the last ten. They are almost universally praised as the best in SF juveniles; I concur in that judgement. See 311. Boys at Work: Starman Jones.

Here is a double tidbit of trivia. The success of Heinlein’s juvenile Space Cadet helped Joseph Greene turn an unpublished radio script into the Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. Greene also later wrote the Dig Allen series, below.

Bullard of the Space Patrol — Copies of this book have been rare. I bought mine during the fifties at a stationary store that also sold a few odd books, but lost it over the years. Once I was an adult, I tried to find a replacement. After ten years I saw one copy in an antique store for a price I couldn’t afford, and ten years after that I found the copy I have now. In terms of quality, BotSP is second only to Rip Foster and ranks above the Heinleins. Although you are unlikely to see a copy in your local used bookstore, you can buy it used or on Kindle at Amazon. Finding lost treasures is much easier in the age of internet.

It isn’t technically a juvenile because of its adult protagonist, but I thought of it as one when I was young. I plan to write a full post on Bullard some time in the future.

Dig Allen — This series of six novels was published between 1959 and 1962. They are well written and well thought out, and I loved them as a kid. However you have to be prepared to accept that the heroes are going to find intelligent life everywhere in our solar system. Check at the very bottom of this post for more information.

Mike Mars — File these under blatant exploitation, but they were still a lot of fun. Published between 1961 and 1964, these books parallel the early manned space program. The premise is that there was a program called Quicksilver, using very young pilots, which did what Mercury did, but sooner and in secret. Anyone who thinks Area 51 houses dead aliens would have to love that.

Veteran SF writer Donald A. Wollheim was hired to knock these out (the first four came out in one year). They have something in common with Tom Swift Jr. in that half of each book is about the mission at hand and half is about chasing saboteurs and other baddies. Book five was my favorite because Mike got to fly the Dyna-Soar just before the real craft was cancelled.

Rocket Man and Starship through Space — If you find either of these, count yourself lucky. I read them in my high school library and have never seen another copy, despite decades of looking. They were written by G. Harry Stein under the pseudonym Lee Correy. They count as two of my all time favorites, despite the brainless ending of STS. See 194. Boys at Work: Lee Correy.

Rick Brant — I lived on Rick Brant when I was young, but it was a series based on then-contemporary cutting edge science, not SF of the future. As a consequence, it is extremely dated. As much as I would love to, I can’t recommend it for most modern kids, and their granddads already know about it. The Rick Brant series and the Rip Foster book were both written by Harold Goodwin under different pseudonyms.

==========

If you are looking at this post for your own nostalgic reasons, I suggest that you drop in on this Tom Swift info site and wander around. There you will also find a link to a sub-site on Dig Allen. I would go there at once as it may disappear. It doesn’t seem to be current and parts of it are already inaccessible, but it is a treasure trove.

642. The Green Fields of Mars

European Space Agency

First a note on timing. My normal Wednesday post will be pushed forward to Thursday to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 12.

I was a bright kid in a very small school, so sometimes they cut me some slack. In 1964 I was allowed to take both junior and senior English because there wasn’t much left for me to take, and they knew I was such a nerd that all I would do with this unexpected freedom was study harder.

As a result, I took senior English a second time the following year, not because I needed it, but because what else were they going to do with me? That was the year I wrote a long paper on “The Probability of Life on Mars”, based on such things as the advancing and retreating color changes during the Martian year. The scientists speculated on tough, low growing plants; I suggested tall grasses, because the changes persisted despite all those dust storms.

Life was good.

Then NASA sent out all those probes and took all the fun out of the solar system. Suddenly Venus was not a swamp where dinosaurs might lurk and if you wanted to dream of running your feet through alien grasses you had to go on out to planets around other stars.

Now exoplanet research is taking away the nearby stars from the realm of the imagination, and dropping them one by one into the crucible of reality. A pox on all your probes!

There is a reason for this rush of nostalgia. I love science fiction and I have been writing it for decades, but nothing has given me half as much pleasure as the books about space exploration I read when I was young. The good ones, that is. I’m going to provide an annotated list on November 18. It will be too long to append to this post, and the post between will be taken up by the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 12.

For years now, I’ve wanted to write some new space exploration juveniles/YAs, and I have worked out a few possible plots, but nothing seems to work for me. I also don’t see any good ones coming from anyone else. If you know of any, let me know.

I do see a lot of nostalgia. One fellow is writing a series of reimagined Tom Swifts, disguised as fan fiction for legal reasons. I won’t name him in hopes that he will continue to fly under the radar. I tried one and they aren’t bad.

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozios have produced a pair of anthologies of new stories in the old style called Old Mars and Old Venus. John Michael Greer and Zendexor have a similar anthology called Vintage Worlds. I won’t be reading them since I have long since lost my taste for short stories, but I don’t see anything similar in juveniles — except for the one mentioned above which the courts may remove any moment.

Anyway, nostalgia isn’t the path to take. Today’s kids aren’t yesterday’s kids, and nostalgia is for my generation. What we need is juvenile/YA space exploration literature as good as the best of the old, but modern in outlook.

In one sense, it is remarkable that we don’t have a hundred good space exploration juveniles each year. Even the best imaginations of the past could not begin to equal what NASA has actually discovered in the last decades.

Perhaps the best thing to do is evaluate what worked then, that doesn’t seem to work now. These are the things which come to mind.

Most of the older books I loved were written before space exploration was a reality; only a few were written as things were happening. The death of exploration in 1972 has to be part of the problem, since the space shuttle and ISS were basically just politics, not exploration, IMHO.

All of the young protagonists in those old books wanted to become adults in a futuristic world. The need to become an adult — or at least get out from under the thumb of adults — hasn’t gone away, but the futuristic world doesn’t seem as accessible or as exciting as it once did. Dystopia rules the day, but that won’t last. It never does.

Education isn’t helping. Kids now put together robot kits that are no more individualistic than their soda and vinegar volcanoes used to be. What joy is there in that? Robots used to be laughed at, but kids still made them out of cardboard boxes and goldfish bowls. Now they are prepackaged and shoved down kid’s throats in middle school.

In the old stories, there was intelligent life everywhere in the solar system, and it seemed like those young people couldn’t step out of their ships without finding a new or lost race. Now there may be bacteria under a dozen miles of ice.

The old spaceships worked. They got places quickly. They didn’t have to put up with the utter stupidity of trying to explore the solar system in craft depending on burning gasses, essentially no different chemically from your kitchen stove. See post 402. Nuclear Spacecraft.

I’m sure that someone is going to solve this conundrum and there will be good new space exploration juveniles/YAs for another generation. I’m equally sure that they won’t be written by old fogeys. The people who will write them are in their teens and twenties now, and I hope they hurry, because I want to read them.

===============

My, my, how strange is life. I finished writing this post late afternoon of Oct. 7th. When I turned my computer on the following morning, the new EDGE newsletter was in the inbox. (EDGE published Cyan.) They were advertising a new book, The Rosetta Man by Claire McCague. It appeared to be a juvenile/YA. At least one of the quoted reviews said it had a “well crafted story, amazing hero’s and not one ‘bad’ word or adult activity!”

So I bought it and started in. It isn’t a juvenile/YA because the protagonist is an adult. That is a critical point that was simply assumed in the post above. It is good clean fun; it reminded me in that way of Michael Tierney’s To Rule the Sky. Either of these would be great for kids, but they aren’t juveniles. Perhaps we need a new category. Let’s call it IETCNHAAA, which stands for Innocent Enough to Cause No Heart Attacks Among Adults.

Then again, maybe not.

641. The Synapse Emerges 2

This concludes the post begun Monday.

The Cyan sequel, unnamed, has remained in the upper left corner of my brain all the time that I’ve been writing Dreamsinger. Dreamsinger is not a sequel to Cyan; it is sideways, starting at the same point and diverging into an empty corner of the Cyan/Jandrax universe.

Today (I’m writing both parts of this post on October 5, 2019) everything fell together. Hang on, this get’s complicated.

Humans have colonized the space around Sirius. The main population center is Home Station, in orbit of Stormking, a basically uninhabitable planet. Directed dreaming is used to keep the population happy and easy to control. (See 621 and 622.)

Okay, good enough, but how does this directed dreaming work? How can you create and store a dream, then implant it into a living brain? What technologies are involved, and how much do I have to tell the reader? I will certainly tell less than I know, but I have to have it well in hand to tell the story effectively.

REM sleep was discovered in 1953 and sleep studies were in all the science magazines I was reading through high school. Consequently, I already know more than people who came onto the scene after it had faded from prominence. Still, research is a writer’s best friend so I went to the local library, sorted through the books on dreams and dreaming, and dumped the ones which were astrology, self-help and wishful thinking.

In one book there was reference to a researcher sending visual images to a dreaming colleague. (See Our Dreaming Mind by Robert Van de Castle, pp. xxii and xxiii.) It seemed legitimate, and not believing anything is as futile as believing everything. Besides, I don’t have a Ph.D. reputation to uphold, so I decided to go with it. Now I have to explain it. Here’s a bit from the (very) rough draft of Dreamsinger.

     In the misty olden days of the twentieth century, Van de Castle demonstrated that thought images could be projected into a dreaming mind. That tiny bit of knowledge did not fit into the world as it was then understood, and was forgotten for nearly a hundred years. When it was discovered again, it pointed toward revolutionary changes in our understanding of the brain.
     Basil Kendrick demonstrated that events similar to brain to brain transmission seemed to occur continuously within the brain. He theorized that transmissions of information took place not only by synapses, but also by means of what he called K-waves, which were so short as to be undetectable and, incidentally, travelled faster than light.

K-waves, are you kidding? That sounds like something E. E. Smith would have used. Hang with me a while. The idea of telepathy taking place at FTL speeds goes back to Heinlein, and I always liked it. I needed some entrée into FTL, and this seemed like a good way to get it. As for the term K-waves, Kendrick named them after himself in order to get his name into the history books.

The name Kendrick came out of the air, and I was prepared to keep changing names until I found one that didn’t have a (K or B or D or whatever)-wave connected with it in the real world. As it happened, I got lucky on the first try.

I Googled. There are real K-waves, but they refer to long cycles in economics. I could ignore them. However, there is also a K-complex, so I checked that out.

Without getting into things that are above my pay grade, the K-complex is an EEG waveform associated with memory consolidation, which occurs during a non-dreaming stage of sleep. K-waves (imaginary) and the K-complex (real) are unrelated, but they won’t be when I get through writing Dreamsinger.

Now picture an old writer jumping for joy, just not as high. Things are coming together, or at least close enough to use.

They used to say, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”. I would add, “. . . and in writing science fiction”. It is fiction, after all, and you have to at least go beyond our present knowledge, probably in a direction future reality will not support. I work hard at world building, but I’m not obsessive about it. (Reading these two posts, you might disagree.)

My Kendrick, on Earth just before colonists departed for Cyan and for Sirius, stirred up controversy with his theories and then the nukes came down. All his studies were in the massive databanks of the computers that went to Sirius and to Cyan. Under Sirius, they led to directed dreaming. On Cyan . . .?

Suddenly, I have a way of connecting the unconnected all over the place.

I already know that Louis Dumezil, who will later write the Monomythos, and “Frank”, who will invent the FTL drive, have met while waiting to go on the new Darwin expedition. Now I simply add one conversation. In a bull session during training Dumezil will tell “Frank” about K-waves, and their purported FTL speed. He will know this because his father (the religious fanatic, remember?) was a nut on telepathy. Dumezil will also tell his life story, which includes the white powder on the blue berries that lead to a psychedelic experience. (I wrote all this a couple of months ago in a short piece called Children of the Hollow Hills, which you haven’t seen.)

When “Frank” gets washed out of the trip on the Darwin by Debra and Beryl’s new research, he sets out to study the supposed connection of telepathy with FTL, but there are no known telepaths on Cyan. However, he finds the remnant of the cult Dumezil escaped, who are still sucking fungus powdered berries and talking mind to mind.

“Frank’s” study of telepathy, using the cultists as subjects, proves the FTL nature of K-waves. He also discovers K-waves are the actual carriers of all information inside the brain, as Kendrick suggested. The previously measured energies of the synapses are only a side effect, a sort of down-cycle echo of the true energies. “Frank” renames the K-waves as Synapse waves, and goes on to invent the FTL drive I used in Jandrax, and which will allow him to go exploring after all, bad genes notwithstanding.

He names it The Synapse, which I knew he had to because that was what I called it back in 1976.

Don’t you  love it when everything falls together?

Was intuition at play here? Maybe. Foreknowledge? Don’t be ridiculous. I think it was pure, dumb luck, augmented by self-training in grabbing anything good as it floats by, and letting nothing escape that might further the cause.

640. The Synapse Emerges 1

Life is weird, and strange things happen. It is almost enough to make you believe in a master plan, although it remains questionable whether that would be divine or diabolical. In any case, if there is a plan, it’s a hoot.

I’m going to tell you a story that began in January of 1976 and came full circle on October fifth, about a month ago. I have to warn you though, only old writers, new writers, or wannabe writers are likely to be be interested.

But really, who among you hasn’t either built a world, or wanted to?

In the fall of 1975, I sat down to prove or disprove my ability to churn out 40,000 to 50,000 words and call it a novel. By Christmas I had succeeded, although it wasn’t good enough to publish. Right after New Years, I set out to write a “real” novel, science fiction, with world building and everything. It was to be a lost colony book, so I had to get my people stranded, and that meant inventing an FTL drive. I took all of five minutes to do it.

     A sphere floating in space, silver against a backdrop of stars.
     The stars shift their colors, doppler down, out. The sphere hangs alone in darkness where here and there are concepts yet unborn. Six antennae project; it is not so much moved as displaced. First it is here, then it is there, but it never crosses the space between here and there . . . Synapse drive can cross the galaxy in a heartbeat.

from Jandrax

All done. I blew things up and left my people who-knew-where, and I didn’t have to think about that star drive again.

Synapse? It was just a word that came to mind, with no real connection to brain cells except that it seemed to imply something, without specifying what.

Beware of what you create, Dr. Frankenstein.

I wrote the novel Jandrax, and it was published. Picture a young author leaping with joy.

A few years later I started Cyan and had to invent a non-FTL star drive. (For more, check out the post coming November 20.) This time I put some thought into it so that it had some reasonable underpinnings. Lots of years passed and eventually Cyan was published, but I wasn’t through. I now had a world full of people I really liked, and some of them were young enough to continue exploring on the decrepit old starship Darwin.

The trouble was, I’d blown up the Earth, and I couldn’t count on it to recover for a long while. Someone had to write the Monomythos which had driven/would drive the plot in Jandrax, and someone had to invent the Synapse. I had to find them hidden among the population of Cyan, and I had to find motivations for both of them to do what I knew they had to do.

Writing prequels is like doing a time travel paradox story. He invented this, because he had to, because he used it on page 92 of a previously published book, that takes place in the new book’s future. See, time travel.

There was no problem with the Monomythos. I decided to have its writer be a rational young man who had grown up under the influence of a religious fanatic, either his father or a father figure. That’s right up my alley and the writing of it has been dribbling along recently on days when other writing is stalled.

In fact, the whole sequel to Cyan has been dribbling along in lots of pages of notes-to-self. Darwin is too old to push to previous accelerations, so the next journey will need cold sleep. No problem, there are 60,000 cold sleep units left over from Cyan’s colonization.

But that brings up something else.

I don’t know about you, but loose ends keep rolling around in my head long after I’ve moved on to other books. In Cyan, between 10 and 20 percent of the cold sleepers never woke up. Their bodies were fine, there was just nobody home. I had created that as an unexplained fact, but ever since then I’ve been wondering why things should work out that way. I decided to let Debra and Beryl figure it out in the sequel.

If you don’t know who Debra and Beryl are, for God’s sake go buy a copy of Cyan and read it. (LINK)

Using the computer’s file of DNA patterns from the 60,000 who set out from Earth, Debra and Beryl discover that a certain cluster of seemingly unrelated genes is present in all who died, and absent from all who lived. Further research is indicated, but it provides an absolute predictor of who will die in cold sleep.

One of the people (still unnamed, let’s just call him Frank for now) who is ready to depart on the new exploration finds that he has the deadly gene cluster and can’t go. When the Darwin departs without him, he is motivated to find an answer to faster than light travel.

All of this was worked out during the last six months, well before yesterday’s epiphany.

I’m only half way through this odd tale, and this post is already long enough, so I’ll to finish on Wednesday.

639. In The Canebrake 3

“Cotton, how come you’re so pale?”

The older man said, “Shit!”, and grinned. He wouldn’t have answered anyone else, but he had known Titus all the boy’s life, and had known his parents before that.

“It’s a long story, passed down,” he said. “My mother’s mother’s mother was a pale, good lookin’ woman. I suppose she had some white in her, I don’t know how much. Her master caught her one day in the fields and that’s how my granny came about. She was half white plus whatever her mother already was.

“My granny got sold to her master’s cousin, and he caught her out when she was washin’ clothes in the creek. That’s how my mother got to be three-quarters white, and then some.

“She got sold too, when she was still young. She grew up to be a rare, beautiful woman, so they made her a house slave and she had six of us. She never got married, but the boss’s son spent a lot of time in her room, so we all came out pale as cotton. That’s how I got my name.

“He kept my sisters and sold me to Bullfrog.”

Titus said, “I always wondered.”

Cotton shook his head, not so much angry as bemused. He said, “Hell, I’m whiter than half the so-called white people in Tennessee, for all the good it does me.”

Titus was quiet for a while, then he asked, “So you’re going north to freedom. How far are you going to go?”

“How far would you go?”

Titus chuckled. “Cotton, if you want my advice, keep walking north ’til your feet freeze to the ground. Then thaw them out and go further.”

“Sounds right.”

“You going to stay black, or pass for white?”

“What do you think? If I say I’m a free negro, what’ll that get me? If I say I’m white, they’ll treat me like a man.

“I’m going to find me a poor, good-lookin’ white woman, and we’re going to have a batch of pale colored kids. And I’m never going to tell her. And I’m never going to let my kids know that their daddy started out life as a nigger.”

=================

The night wore on. There were worse things than bogles in the night around the two of them.

For Titus, there were soldiers; men, true enough, but full of evil intent. They were of his own people, his own race, his own nation, but they had come for the Cherokees that his parents had devoted their lives to, and that he had lived his life among. They had come for them and had carried them away, out of a country which had been theirs since before the white men ever came, and toward a land none of them had ever seen.

And for Cotton, there were men who looked like Titus — looked like Cotton, near enough, though they would ever acknowledge it — men who would take him into captivity and sell his body as if it had no soul. As if he were not almost entirely white. As if some of those soldiers were not at least as black as he was, but don’t say it! They would kill you if you said it.

And what if Cotton had been all black, not mostly white. And what if Titus were a Cherokee, instead of Scots and German. And what if those soldiers were as white as they claimed to be. What then? Would it matter? Really matter?

So the wind made its noises in the canebrake, and the trees moaned. So Titus’s eyes were wide in a white face and Cotton’s eyes were wide in an almost-white face. So the waterhorses frolicked in the swamp, and the moccasins slithered through the stagnant water, and the frogs croaked like the toads of Armageddon.

So the darkness was filled with all the fearful creatures out of Scotland — and out of Africa as well, for that matter. Cotton too would have his own demons, brought with his people from their old home across the ocean, and now hiding in the canebrake with the bogles, and the soldiers, and the rattlesnakes.

Even if it weren’t All Hallow’s Eve — even if the barriers between Earth and Hell had not thinned and broken — they might as well have.

Cotton raised his cup and drank the tea made of herbs he had found in the swamp. He handed it across the fire, and Titus’s lips touched the same cup as he drank the same liquid. Cotton said, “In the morning I go north.”

Titus replied, “In the morning I go west.”

They would not meet again. They both knew it, but neither said so.

Fire and death and the hangman. The slave catchers and the block. They are all real, but a man goes on.

Still, it had been good to see Cotton one more time.

======================

Not a Halloween story, you say? No ghosts? I disagree.

These wraiths of fiction never lived, and the men of that era who did live are long gone to wherever souls go. But they still haunt us today, and they will probably haunt our children as well.