Tag Archives: science fiction

499. Triple Tease

Thomas Anderson of Schlock Value has an ongoing love/hate (largely hate) relationship with blurbs. I mostly share his view, but things have changed since the era, mostly the 70s, which he reviews. When Cyan came out, I had the chance to write the blurbs myself. In fact, I was asked to write three blurbs of 10, 25, and 75 words, from which the publisher would choose.

Squeezing a whole novel into twenty-five-words-or-less is an interesting exercise. I decided to try it again on the novel I’m presently writing, Like Clockwork, but with a variation. 10, 25, and 75 is really hard. I’ll wait until the book is finished for that, but I did write short, shorter, and really short candidates.

Here are the results.


The year is 1850. The year is always 1850. Now it is November and a year’s worth of progress toward understanding is in jeopardy. In a few weeks will come Midwinter Midnight, when the Clock that Ate Time will reset, it will be January first once again, and all that has been gained will be lost from memory.

Snap, who helped to build the Clock and regrets his actions; Balfour who was another man in another life; and Hemmings, formerly a computer, who now figures differently — these three, with Pilar, Eve, Lithbeth, Pakrat, and old man Crump are determined to set Time free again. And if they fail . . .

The year will be 1850. The year will be 1850 forever.

119 words


The year is 1850 — again. A year’s worth of progress toward understanding is in jeopardy. In a few weeks it will be Midwinter Midnight, when the Clock that Ate Time will reset, it will be January first once again, and all that has been gained will be lost from memory.

50 words


The year is 1850 in a this alternate London, where time has no hold. There are only a few weeks left to restart the future.

25 words


How’s that for a tease?


497. A Tangled Web

Last July fourth weekend I went to Westercon and received a gift. While observing a panel, I got the inspiration for a novel. I started it as soon as I got home and finished it in October, which is fast for me. It became The Cost of Empire, my first steampunk novel, and you just got a chance to see the opening pages spread out over the last two weeks.

I call it steampunk, and it deserves that description, but it could as well be called alternative history since it does not have the sense of complete weirdness that many steampunk novels possess. Soon afterward, I began another steampunk novel called Like Clockwork. It is completely different in tone. If you want weird, we’ve got weird in this one.

I placed part of a chapter in a post, but that particular excerpt is almost domestic in tone. Not weird at all.

I’ve been working on Like Clockwork since about November and I am only about 40,000 words in. I have no idea how long it is going to be. I know the set-up and development, and I’ve already written the last few chapters. I just don’t know how many more words it will take to get from where I am to where I am going. Or exactly how I’m going to get there.

If I were teaching a class in how to write a novel, this would get me fired. Nothing I ever write takes a straight path, but this is the most tangled web I’ve yet woven.

Cyan has a fairly large cast of characters, but the novel centers around Keir Delacroix. There are sections of the novel where other characters step up and have their moment, but Keir is the sun around which everyone else orbits. That makes things easy for the reader.

Cyan takes a century (global) or about thirty years (subjective) to occur, but everything proceeds in a linear fashion. There are flashbacks, but not too many. Mostly we get to see things as they happen, which minimizes explanations, although there are a couple of dense pages right at the outset.

Events begin on Cyan, move back to Earth, then end on Cyan again, but the reader goes along for the ride, so there is no confusion.

In The Cost of Empire, Daniel/David James (one person, but he changes names part way through the book as part of a masquerade) is even more firmly the center of the story. He is our eyes and ears; there is only one short paragraph where the reader knows something that he doesn’t.

The action begins in England, moves to Trinidad, moves back to England, then crosses Europe and the Middle East and ends up in India. Like Cyan, it takes in a lot of territory, but the reader takes the trip with David, so he/she never gets lost.

My newest novel Like Clockwork has at least six major characters (so far) and a couple more nearly as important, all of whom have about equal time on stage. That stage is restricted to a portion of London in the year — well, I can’t really explain when things happen. Figuring out when is sort of the point of the novel.

At the beginning, the reader doesn’t know where or when she/he is; just that it is London, or sort-of London, and a strange London at that. The characters in the book know more than the reader knows, but they don’t know much either. The reader and the characters have to figure everything out as they go along together, and the storyline shifts from one character to another with every short chapter.

In a way, it is like a mystery novel, with clues in abundance, but without a villain. There is a prime mover, but he is in deep, deep background and — sorry, that would be a spoiler as well.

Like Clockwork is also a book length clinic in how to explain a situation without resorting to a narrative dump.  It’s been a lot of fun so far. Now if I can just figure out what the hell is going on, I’ll get this thing finished.

495. Everybody, Two Jobs

Everything about Cyan was designed to give a picture of what might actually happen in the early days of extra-solar exploration. No ray guns, no hovercraft of the Marty McFly type, but hovercraft in the sense of ground-effect machines instead. Some of the technology I chose to give my people was not too far advanced over what we have here, early in the millennium. Why? Because if you are light years from home, you want your gear to work. It is not particularly important that it be up to date, but it needs to be indestructible. (see 253. Handgun Accuracy)

They walked a lot on Cyan. Feet don’t need new batteries.

In real exploration, you can’t expect everybody to survive. That means that you don’t want just one medic, or pilot. Someone has to be ready to step up in case of tragedy, and that needs to be planned in advance.

Which brings us to today . . . I mentioned last week that I have been cleaning out a house I used to live in. Today (May 11, actually, since I write these things ahead) I found an old ms. of Cyan with some notes I hadn’t seen in years.

I wrote the first half of Cyan on a typewriter. Go google it; it’s a crude instrument from ancient days. You actually had to spell words right without spell check, and if you lost something, it stayed lost.

That is why I am posting this now. I had intended to talk about this during the run-up to the publication of Cyan, but I didn’t want to trust my memory for details. Now I have the details right in front of me on a sheet of paper I typed up decades ago.

Except for Keir, everybody on the roster of the starship Darwin had a specialty, and one or more back-up specialties. Here is the list, alphabetically.

        Stephan Andrax    captain (spaceside) – astrophysicist
        Debra Bruner        microbiologist – astronomer – medic
        Petra Crowley       geologist – soils scientist
        Keir Delacroix       groundside crew leader – generalist
        Viki Johanssen      anthropologist – paleontologist
        Gus Leinhoff         zoologist – biochemist – medic
        Leia Polanyi          paleontologist – geologist
        Ramananda Rao  meteorologist – cartographer – geologist
        Tasmeen Rao       first officer (spaceside) – pilot (starship and landing craft) – engineer
        Uke Tomiki           botanist – biochemist – medic

In fact, only weeks into their exploration, a tragedy forces two of the crew to take on the job of one who has died, with unforeseen consequences. You know what I’m talking about, or you will as soon as you download Cyan from Amazon.

In the original iteration of Cyan, the expedition was from a united Earth with crew members from many nations. Stephan and Viki were Scandinavian, Petra was Greek, Keir was French, Gus was German, Debra and Leia were American, Ram and Tasmeen were from Trinidad, and Uke was Japanese. That hopeful future died along the way. In the world that Cyan eventually came to represent, the ever voracious United States, following a world wide financial crisis, gobbled up Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The crew members were now all from the United States of North America, but with their various ethnic backgrounds intact.

I like the idea of a peaceful, united world, but even when I began Cyan, America looked hungry. Today — well let’s not open that can of worms. Let’s just say that the less than peaceful Earth that ended up in the novel Cyan represents another attempt at realism.


Last Friday, I added this to the post Machine Porn, and to the post How to Get Readers for your Blog.      Just so you know . . .

Friends, I am amending this post as of June 1, 2018. I am changing it’s title from Machine P o r n. I have had more hits on this post than on anything I have written, but I have obviously just been generating frustration among those who clicked on purely because of  the word P o r n. You will notice that I have also hidden the word itself from the view of search engines.
I like hits as much as the next blogger, but I’m not into misrepresentation. I am leaving the post otherwise intact, since it does have something non- p or n ographic to say.

If I had made a list of “Things I expect to happen now that I am a blogger,” this would not have been on the list.

494. We Can Have Archaic and Eat it Too

Marquart rode into my life on horseback. The day after my epiphany, I had a couple of hours off. I was in the Navy at that time, working as a dental technician in an oral surgery, and we had back-to-back cancellations. I wasn’t a writer yet, just an over-committed reader, but I had written the first chapters of a dozen novels. That was usually as far as I got before the impulse ran out.

I took that two hours to write Marquart and his companion’s entry into the Valley of the Menhir. You can see what it eventually became over in Serial today, but it took a long time to reach that level of sophistication.

When Marquart first rode into the valley, forty-six years ago, he was riding a horse. It was all very medieval because I hadn’t done any world building. All of the religious aspects aspects of the story, enreithment, the relation of souls to bodies, and both to ai — even the existence of ai — were nowhere in my mind. It was just a bunch of soldiers in armor riding horses into a valley populated by deer and dotted with oaks. The only fantasy element was a werewolf. I didn’t even know then that shapeshifters were not native to the world of the menhir, having been brought in through the Weirwood menhir from the world of Lorric by the Shambler. I didn’t even know there was a Shambler, nor any of the other gods that you met during the last two weeks.

After two hours I had a short chapter, and the next customer knocked on the door, ready to have his wisdom teeth extracted. I put the chapter in a drawer. I wasn’t a writer then, and had no intention of becoming one.

Three years later, I decided to give writing a try and got hooked. Two years after that I pulled out that chapter, dusted it off, and started world building.

All this was about the time of the fantasy revival led by Ballantine, and there was no lack of books on how to create fantasy worlds. Purists were arguing that a simply medieval world hardly qualified as fantasy. I could see their point. Although it never kept me from enjoying fantasies that did not rise to that standard, I decided that horses just weren’t going to work for me.

During those Navy years I had lived near the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. On one trip there I had seen okapi, had fallen in love with them, and now added them to the book. That lasted about a week before I realized that I needed a true fantasy creature, not just a real one most people had never heard of, so I created kakais in okapi’s much jazzed-up image. Their heavily sloped backs — much sharper than okapis —  gave me the need and opportunity to design strange saddles which would require unusual practices for troops in the field. They also gave me reason to design a harsh culture for the riders of the plains, the Dzikakai (literally, men of the kakai) who were going to be the perennial enemies of the people of the Inner Kingdom.


Eventually, I populated the world of the menhir with a mix of “normal” and created critters. Besides kakais, I brought in tichan as bovine substitutes, added krytes (described and used for plot purposes)  and jaungifowl to my list of birds, made my bears red, and kept ordinary squirrels and deer.

Plot building, world building, and language building all took place as I wrote successive drafts. I don’t recommend the technique. Not only did it take me decades to finish the project, but I ended up with at least a hundred thousand words of text that had to be cut out as the project grew out of hand. Maybe a few chunks of that will end up in Serial late this year, but most of it will never be read by anyone but me.

Still, I doubt if this particular fantasy could have been written any other way, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. At least that’s what I tell myself.

During all this, I went to Westercon 33 in Los Angeles in 1980. I sat in the audience of a lugubrious discussion of what the magic horses in Lord of the Rings ate, and whether it was Tolkien’s responsibility to tell us. (My answer, unspoken as I gritted my teeth, was, “No, you damned fools, it wasn’t!”)

This was followed by a spirited but deeply nerdy debate on the use of language in fantasy. The language of the Inner Kingdom in VOTM was just beginning to come together for me, so I perked up my ears. The idea of archaic language was floated, and someone said that it should only be used as a spice in regular English. The concept spice morphed into general food terms, and the metaphor had become almost embarrassingly labored when one member of the audience stood up and said:

“Are you trying to tell us that we can have archaic and eat it too?”

I wish I had said that. Maybe sometimes we do try too hard.

489. The Cost of Empire 4

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

Jons had locked the lever, so Daniel gripped the rail in front of him and looked for the shark. By the time the Anne of Cleves had turned far enough to see it, the American had almost reached the outer line of ships. It seemed to be headed toward the narrow gap between two freighters. Daniel took bearings continuously, sending them to the Commander as fast as he could refocus. He marveled at the American’s audacity, and wondered how soon he would shear off.

He didn’t.

The American sub plowed along, passing before the Brixham, causing it to waver and turn partially aside, then turned hard to port and took station inside the convoy.

No, he didn’t take station. The shark did not slow down. It forged forward between the Naesby and the Bamburgh Castle, slick as a knife through butter, far faster than the freighters on either side. Then it made another hard turn across the Naesby’s bow and left them all behind, heading due north. Daniel continued taking readings on its retreating fin as it shot away, twice as fast as the ships in the convoy.

#                   #                   #

Old Ugly was a small ship with a small crew. Even Commander Dane was only in his mid-thirties, but that made him the oldest officer aboard. Daniel and David, just out of the Air Academy, were the youngest and least experienced. That made them the dogs of all work aboard the dirigible, constantly shifting duties through engines, gas bags, navigation, communications, ranging, and munitions. It was a great way to learn a lot, fast.

That night in the officers’ mess, Daniel and David took places on benches opposite each other at the bottom of the table. Commander Dane was in the single chair, bolted to the floor at the head. He mumbled some pleasantries until they had all begun to eat, then said to the assembled officers, “Today we had another demonstration of what the Americans are capable of, and what they are willing to risk. Mr. James, what was the top speed they demonstrated?”

There was a trace of a smile as he asked, and Daniel sighed softly. He was reminding Daniel of the two slight errors he had made today. It was Dane’s way of keeping all his men on their toes. Daniel answered, “Thirty-one knots, Sir.”

“Do you think that was their actual top speed, or were they holding something back from us?”

“No way to know, Sir.”


By now Daniel knew it was better to be wrong than to be timid. He said with no apparent hesitation, “Probably not their emergency top speed, but their operating top speed, Sir.”

“Why? What is the basis for your estimate?”

“They were showing off, Sir. They always seem to be showing off, but this was more than audacious. This was actually dangerous, yet they did it anyway. Given that it was a show, and that they are showmen, if they could have gone faster, they would have.”

Dane nodded with no further comment and turned his attention to his next victim. Every meal at the officers’ mess was like an oral exam.

This evening Dane worked his way down the table, with a different mental task for each officer present, and ended with David.

“Mr. James — Mr. David James — tomorrow you will take your cousin with you — or he can take you with him, damned if I can tell you apart — and inspect the entire ship from bow to stern.”

“Yessir,” David interrupted, “but its easy to tell us apart. I’m the good looking one.”

“Debatable. As I was saying, you will inspect the entire ship from bow to stern, outside the gas bags.”


“You do know how, don’t you?”

“In theory, Sir.”

“See Lieutenant Ennis about putting that theory into practice. But don’t waste more than ten minutes of his time. You won’t really understand it until you’ve done it.”

That’s all you get for a while. I’ll sound trumpets and send up fireworks when it gets published. SL

Serial Novels

Continued from earlier this week, when I discussed the Serial posts that were also writing how-tos.

I’ve been writing a long time, with some publishing success, and long years of drought. I’m not going to say, “But the things that didn’t get published are still good!” If you have been reading Serial, you already know that.

Here is the full list of my novels, not counting fragments.

Contemporary novels: Spirit Deer, Symphony in a Minor Key, and Raven’s Run.

Science fiction: Jandrax, published 1979,  A Fond Farewell to Dying, published 1981,  (and the novella To Go Not Gently which was extracted from it in 1978) and Cyan which is presently available

Fantasy: Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, and Who Once Were Kin.

Steampunk: The Cost of Empire and Like Clockwork.

The Cost of Empire is freshly finished and looking for a publisher. Like Clockwork is in progress as we speak, and a little more than half done. You won’t be seeing either of them in Serial, but I’ll tell you when to start looking at your local book seller.

Valley of the Menhir and Scourge of Heaven are a single story, long enough for two novels, with a natural break in the middle. You won’t be seeing them here, but you will be seeing just the opening section of VOTM, Marquart’s story, starting Monday.