Tag Archives: seasons

657. 366 Days

Welcome to 2020. It’s leap year again. That makes it a little more than four years since I started this blog.

Leap year is that calendrical oddity brought about by the fact that the rotation of the Earth on its axis does not neatly coincide with the revolution of the Earth around the Sun, leaving us with a year which is 365 and a fourth (approximately) days long. We compensate for it by adding one day every four years to the shortest month, making it still the shortest, but a little longer. Then we call it Black History Month because we can’t find a shorter month to do the job.

Snarky? Yeah, get used to it.

The last time we had a February 29th — which would be 2016 — I was mentally and morally tired. I had just completed more than a month of writing posts on the morality (actually, the lack thereof) of racism in America, in the world, and in two created worlds. It meant a lot to me, and I was proud of the results, but it wasn’t easy to write and it wasn’t fun.

For a break,  I wrote a comedy piece on February 29th about a kid who was born on leap day and ended up running, against his will, for president. I’ll remind you about the details next Wednesday

I began the Black History Month series on Martin Luther King Day of 2016 with a post called Whiter Than White that stated my position, and continued on to February 25. I was writing four posts a week in A Writing Life at that time, as well as another four in Serial. Don’t ask me how I managed.

The result was twenty-three A Writing Life posts in six weeks, all devoted to Black History. For most of that time, Serial was running in a novel-in-progress called Voices in the Wall, which was about the underground railway. That eventually ran thirty-four posts.

I have spent a lot of time since on issues of race, often Latino and sometimes Japanese, Chinese, or Native American, but those have been mostly connected with the latest stupidities out of Washington, or anniversaries of stupidities past. My position on race — black, white, or purple — was already pretty well laid out by the end of February, four years ago, so I don’t think I’ll have much new to add this year.

If you want to browse those posts, go to any page of A Writing Life, go to the right column and slide down to Archives, January 2016 and then February 2016.

Here is a navigational hint. On days when A Writing Life and Serial both appear, Serial is posted ten minutes earlier. That is part of an organizational scheme that didn’t work, but ended up grandfathered into everything. The result is that the two blogs of this website alternate when you work your way up a month’s archive. Pick AWL or Serial and skip the other, then come back later. Otherwise you’ll get whiplash.

656. Angle of Repose

As a point of accuracy, angle of repose is a civil engineering term referring to how steep a slope is possible without slumping due to gravity. The angle varies according to the material under consideration.

I am completely misusing the term here in reference to axial tilt because it sounds so good. So sue me.

Today is December 30; the year is near it’s end. The solstice was December 22 this year, so the days have been getting longer for eight days now. What we call the first day of winter is actually winter’s mid-point, judged by the inclination of the Earth. The “incorrect” way we measure winter actually works pretty well though, because there is a delay effect between tilt and the weather that depends on it.

“The Earth tilts south in the winter and tilts back north in the summer.” Easy to say and easy to understand, just like saying that the Earth is flat, but of course it’s wrong. I remember teaching the matter to my school kids every year. I would designate a student sitting in the center of the room as the Sun and walk around the classroom with the globe tilted roughly 23 degrees toward the bank of windows to demonstrate that the angle of inclination doesn’t change, only the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun. I’m sure they all forgot it by the next day.

The seasons as we know them are due to the degree of tilt. Tilt further, and the seasons would be more extreme. Tilt less and they would be less extreme. I’ve made a career of writing about that.

My first novel, Jandrax, was set on a world circling a cool sun, with a tilt of something like 32 degrees. That made for seasons like those on Earth, but more extreme. It worked out well for my intentions, stranding a bunch of religious extremists and watching them adapt in two different ways, as a static civilization in changing weather, and as nomads who followed the good season.

The unharmonious planet Harmony was in the middle of an ice age, with the only livable real estate flanking the equator, and of course they had two summers and two winters each year.

No, I know it isn’t obvious, but it is real. I explained the phenomenon in 14. Axial Tilt. Check if you doubt me.

Cyan came later. I set it up as a planet with virtually no tilt, resulting in unlivable cold, miserable cold, too cold for comfort, Goldilocks perfect, too hot for comfort, miserably hot, and too hot to live, all depending on your latitude. That would have made for a perfect climate somewhere (a boring thought for a writer) except that I threw in a 40 hour day so even at the “perfect” latitude you could count on burning your brain and frosting your buns every overlong day of the seemingly endless year.

It also resulted in two virtually independent super-biomes, separated by a dead torrid zone, as Keir lamented when Tasmeen, Beryl, Debra, and Viki . . .; no, sorry, you’ll have to read that yourself.

Okay, what’s opposite of the unchanging, tilt-less Cyan? A planet of Uranian orientation, of course. Stormking becomes the third of the trilogy, lying on its back in orbit, presenting first one pole and then the other to its star. Such a planet would probably not be viable for a human civilization, but as a place for an orbiting civilization to dump its exiles, it’s perfect.

Dome cities could survive on a Uranian planet, but why would they want to? Any people, like our exiles, who actually interact with the environment would have to keep continually on the run. That’s a little like the nomads of Jandrax, but where those were a people whose march kept them on the leading edge of a moving paradise, the exiles of Stormking live in an endless hell-storm. All of the water of that planet spends half of the year locked up in north polar ice caps while the south pole is desert. Then all that water has to move from north pole to south to freeze again while the north pole becomes desert. All this will have to happen twice a year.

You can’t imagine the storms. Actually, you don’t have to. I do, and then I have to write them.

This is going to be fun.

655. All the Little Children

What if Santa Claus weren’t white? What if he weren’t back either, or latino? What if he were a mixture of all the races and ethnicities? He could still have white hair; we all come to that in the end.

What if he were cast that way in a new version of Miracle on 34th Street? What might he say to the little Susan Walker (whatever color she turned out to be) when he caught her refusing to play with the other children?

He might use a word nobody uses any more. It rhymes. It fits — but it would probably make the audience uncomfortable.

Miscegenation is a place all by itself, a separate country. You’ve heard of the British nation and the French nation. Now this is the Miscegenation. It’s a wonderful place. How would you like to be able to to play with all your little friends, no matter what their color of their skin and hair or the shape of their faces? You could you know, if your parents weren’t afraid your babies, someday, were going to come out a different color than they are. 

Its odd how the words out of our childhoods that seemed so wrong then, can come to seem different now. And vice versa. We and They used to seem so normal, but now . . .

Merry Christmas to all the little children of the world.

651. Beyond the Toyshop Window

It’s classic, the scene of Tiny Tim and his sister looking through the toy shop window while waiting for Bob Cratchit. The world is cold behind them, but inside it a wonderland for children.

You’ll find this in most movie versions of A Christmas Carol. There is even a scene early in Tim Allen’s Santa Clause which is quick homage, with elves hidden among the children. I don’t think that scene ever appeared in the book. I’m not going to swear to it. I’ve read the book many times, and I don’t have time now to prove it to myself, but I’m pretty sure.

The first time I saw that scene in the 1970 movie musical Scrooge, it hit me hard. I wanted to know what else was going on in that toy shop. I wanted to know who ran it, and who made the toys. They couldn’t have been made by the silly proprietor in the movie. Their maker had to have a story to tell — or a story for me to tell.

I was particularly taken by the toy strong man, who eventually appears in critical scenes in Like Clockwork.

So . . . I wanted the builder to be highly intelligent and troubled. I named him Snap early on, with no idea why; then I had to scramble for a reason later in the process. I decided he should be a clock maker; now, why was he making toys instead? He had been cast out, of course, but from where and by whom? I had no idea when I started writing.

I wrote the first chapter and it fell out like water from a tap, including the name of the toy shop, which became the name of the book. Like Clockwork would start out as the story of a toymaker in a clockwork world. It smelled like steampunk, but I found out later that it was a pure time travel story.

At the end of the first chapter Snap turned around and there stood Balfour.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson is one of my favorite authors, and Kidnapped, the story of David Balfour, ranks right up there with A Wizard of Earthsea and The Old Man and the Sea as one of my three favorite books. As soon as my Balfour appeared unexpectedly on that London street, I knew that he was an avatar of RLS, but I made sure Balfour himself didn’t know it for quite a while.

Do you want to know where Like Clockwork came from? Other than from an image out of the movie Scrooge, and a lifetime of living, imaginatively, in Dickensian London, the answer is — out of left field. It has been a long time since a book has so completely written itself, chapter by chapter, line by line, with little foreknowledge on my part.

There is an exception to that. The ending came early and largely complete, but filling in the parts between was largely sans outline, sans planning, and sans any kind of reason. That may be part of why I like it so well.

Then Chapter 26, titled 62 – 54 = 9, which was the seventh chapter in my screwed up table of contents, fell out onto the screen. The opening sentence read, “Hemmings was a computer.” I didn’t see him coming at all. I just thought I needed a Babbage to balance the Great Clock. I had no idea how much it and Hemmings were going to take over.

It’s been fun. Throughout the novel there are little pieces of cultural reference and homages, sometimes humorous and almost always hidden. Scrooge himself is almost completely absent, except in feel, until near the end of the novel when he appears briefly in a cameo under an assumed name.

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

Now that Snap had taken Pakrat with him, and Eve had sent a message that she would be gone today, Pilar was left alone with Lithbeth. She bundled her into a jacket, locked the toy store behind them, and set out to shop. They wandered the streets as if on holiday, talking with the cart vendors, and occasionally buying potatoes or onions. Lithbeth’s eyes were everywhere; she was almost never on the streets in the middle of the day, and things looked different in the strong, filtered light.

Through the grimy windows of an ancient building, Lithbeth saw a small man on a high stool, pen in hand, marking something in a thick ledger. His quick, bright eyes caught her as she passed, and he sent her a smile. She waved back, but then the Ogre came.

He was no larger than the other man, but powerful in his anger. He began to berate the clerk, and Lithbeth turned her face away.

Pilar put a hand on Lithbeth’s shoulder and said, “It’s best not to look into that window. It only makes old Countinghouse treat his clerk even worse than usual.”

“Why does he do that?”

Pilar shook her head. “Some men are like that,” she said. “A master can make his servant’s life a joy or a misery even in small things.”

“Snap would never do that.”

“No, he would not,” Pilar said, and felt a brief moment of peace. Snap would never do that.

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

Of course, like Scrooge, Countinghouse has to have his come-to-Jesus moment. It comes on almost the last page of the novel.

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

Dickens stopped dead in the street. The old scarecrow Countinghouse stopped likewise, and cringed at the sight of him, feeling a premonition of things to come.

“Who are you?” Dickens asked, in a voice firm with purpose.

“Countinghouse, not that it’s any of your business.”

“It is my business. Mankind is my business, but you in particular are my business. And you only call yourself Countinghouse because you have forgotten your name.”

“If I have forgotten it, let it remain forgotten.”

“There has been enough of forgetting. It is time to remember. You and I have much business together.”

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

Poor old codger, people just won’t leave him alone.

650. My Friend Charles

When I was a junior in high school, I was force-fed Great Expectations and it was the most excruciatingly boring experience of my young life. It put me off Dickens for years.

Then I started seeing adaptations of A Christmas Carol on television every Christmas. That led me to read the book itself, and it was even better than the movies. That led me to his other four Christmas books and they were also wonderful.

Maybe this Dickens fellow could write after all.

Somewhere in there, fully a decade before I became a writer, I started to want to write a Christmas book. That’s hard in a world where every other writer has the same idea. You see them on every book rack, paperback equivalents of made-for-TV movies, all asking, “will the girl get the guy by Christmas”? Really, they have nothing to do with Christmas, but that doesn’t keep them from being competition.

No one is every going to match A Christmas Carol, but to sit on the same shelf any book would have to meet a certain level of gravitas. And it can’t be a grumpy old guy who finds redemption; once Dickens got through with his version of that story, every other one would be pastiche.

Ultimately, I found my story, although I have not yet written it. In Philadelphia, in 1790, during the brief period that it was the American capital, Ethan Gunn, a merchant seaman, returns from a year’s long journey to find that his wife has died in his absence. His children were taken in by his brother, living inland, where they died in a house fire. (Or so he is told.)

It is Christmas time and the poor of Philadelphia are in great need. Gunn has money from his voyage, but he counts it as nothing compared to the loss of his family. Through a friend he contributes to those in need, giving us access to a series of brief views of the lives of a series of minor characters.

Gunn himself gains nothing from his charity, because he is not giving of himself. His only ties to humanity are his friend, and a seemingly orphaned girl he has rescued from a shipwreck and taken under his wing. She is of about the same age as his lost children; in trying to ease her grief at losing her parents he comes to love her.

Every scene of a poor family rescued from the brink by Gunn’s aid only drives him closer to despair. The seemingly final blow comes when the parents of the girl he has befriended turn out to have also been saved, and are looking for her. He faces his demons when he considers hiding her away to keep her for himself, then relents, and finally gives away the only thing that has real meaning for him.

Whereupon his own children turn out to have been living with a Moravian family after escaping from the house fire, and are reunited with him.

It’s the unwritten books that will haunt you.

Incidentally, Gunn’s daughter becomes the mother of Titus Young. See 636. Half Breeds, Various.

*            *            *

Like Clockwork, which I finished about nine months ago, also owes a lot to A Christmas Carol. It isn’t a Christmas book, but it is Dickensian, and it owes it’s origin to a scene in Scrooge, the musical adaptation. I’ll tell you more about it on Wednesday.

Like Clockwork isn’t really my Christmas book but it is as close as I have come so far. It’s out looking for a publisher right now. Maybe by next Christmas you can see for yourselves.

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.

647. A Prayer For Those Who Need it

A Prayer for Those Who Need It

Dear God,

We thank you for the food before us
We thank you for those who grew the food
We thank you for those who keep us safe
We thank you for our freedom,
         and for our Constitution.

Forgive us for the ways in which we have failed you
          by failing our fellow man.

Help us reunite the families we have separated
Help us succor the allies we have abandoned
Help us accept our own children,
          born beyond the border,
          but ours since childhood
Help us to accept the refugees,
          crying out just beyond the wall
Help us to free those incarcerated
          guilty of believing
          that we would give them
          the refuge we had promised.

Help us to see clearly,
          all the ways that we have failed you
          by failing our fellow men.

And forgive this nation.
          God knows we need it.