Tag Archives: steampunk

674. The Voice of a Scholar

This will be short, an excerpt from The Cost of Empire, set in the year 188-, in an alternate universe. It refers in part to what was published in Old Lascar.
Sometimes a writer drops a clue to his personal philosophy into conversations between his characters. Take this as a hint from a guy who could never get enough of learning.

Very little in an ordinary dirigible is asymmetrical, but the King Class had been designed to carry bombs or troops, and only given diplomatic quarters as an afterthought. As a consequence, in making room for the dining hall and the staterooms there had originally been no place for the passengers to gather and watch the view below. A second design had pulled the passageway from the center to the port side, lined the outboard wall with windows, and lined the inboard wall with benches. It had been unpopular while crossing the Arabian Sea, but now interesting scenery was back and so were the lounging passengers.

David had begun to spend his off hours there, answering the passenger’s questions and enjoying the scenery himself.

The fleet of eight had followed the coast down to Mangalore, circled the city without landing, and headed inland following the Netravathi River. Normally, Harry could have jumped the Western Ghats, but with an overload of passengers, cooks, servants, fancy food, and the added mass of the walls and fixtures of the passenger’s quarters, the ship’s altitude capability was considerably reduced.

This morning, Kalinath was seated on one of the benches, with his bodyguard sitting stiffly beside him. There was no place for Singh to stand and it clearly made him nervous. He looked on suspiciously as David approached, put palms together, and said, “Namaskar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Namaskar, Mr. James. Sit.” He gestured to the place beside him, and David took it. “How is it that you know to say namaskar, instead of namaste?”

“You are from Bengal, are you not?”

“I am. Have you been to India before?”

“No. I learned the difference from an old man in London, a displaced lascar.”

“A servant?”

“No, just an old man. He sat every day in the sun on the street near where I was living while they were building the Harry. I talked to him occasionally. He taught me the difference.”

“I don’t know many Englishmen, Mr. James, who talk to old men on the street whom they do not know.”

David shrugged. “I don’t normally, either, but I knew I was going to India and I wanted more than I could read in the newspapers. This old man was clearly a Sikh, and he seemed so calm and — I suppose the word is dignified — that he seemed like someone worth knowing.”

Kalinath only nodded, and chose not to pursue the subject. The river below was brown and slow. The countryside was green and heavy with trees. The air moving through the dirigible was still warm, even at a thousand feet of altitude, and carried a trace of the smell of vegetation. As they talked and the dirigible moved inland, there was a rapid change from coastal plain to foothills and forest gave way to plantation. David asked, and was told that these were crops of tea. Kalinath knew tea, and gave a brief description of its cultivation.

“You see, Mr James, even though I am a son of scholars and a man of the cities, when I knew that I would need to go to England to plead the case for my homeland’s freedom, I had to become an expert on many things. One cannot champion a land he does not know intimately. You understand, I know.”

“Not personally.”

“Come, Mr. James, one scholar knows another when they meet.”

“I’m no scholar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Is there anything about the construction and management of this craft that you do not know?”

“No, but that’s my job.”

“And you asked an old man about India, and the proper form of address.”

David shook his head and said, “I just wanted to know.”

“I just wanted to know,” Kalinath repeated. “That, Sir, is the voice of a scholar.”

671. Old Lascar

Early in January I was taking a break from writing Dreamsinger to write posts for the blog. At the same time, I decided to re-read Cost of Empire. It has been floating from publisher to publisher for a couple of years now, longer than reason would expect but not longer than reality dictates. I wanted to become reacquainted with it.

As I read, I was reminded again how much India lives in my writing. That led to my February fifth post. I had particularly enjoyed writing David James’s encounter with an old Sikh man in London. Indians in British literature are so often spear carriers, villains, or Gunga Dins that it was a pleasure to present a character who was just a nice old fellow worth knowing.

This takes place just before the launch of the dirigible Henry V and it’s subsequent journey to India.

*                     *                     *

There was an old man who sat in the sun every day in a nook against the south side of a rooming house. David had seen him since he first took a room in the city, as he was on his way to where he slept. There were plenty of street sitters, mostly beggars, so at first David paid him no mind. 

Once he became aware of the man, David realized that he never begged or harangued any passers by, but sat with quiet dignity, enjoying the sun and minding his own business. He seemed as isolated as David felt, so David nodded to him in passing, and the old man smiled.

The old man was never there when David walked to work, but he was always there as he returned. The evening after the nod, David touched his palms together as he passed and said, “Namaskar.” Startled, the old man did not reply.

The next evening, David again saluted the old man with namaskar, and received a head bob, palms together, and a reply of, “Namaste.” And a smile.

The following evening, the old man was not alone. A scrawny, dark skinned youngster sat beside him. This time the old man saluted him first, and the boy said, in passable English, “My grandfather greets you. He asks why you take time to notice an old man?”

David stopped. He didn’t want to stand over the old man, but there was no way he could contort his legs into the position the fellow favored. He compromised by sitting down on the lowest of the steps leading to the boarding house and replied, “Why shouldn’t I notice you? Will you tell me why you said namaste after I had said namaskar?”

The boy translated, then replied, “Grandfather says that only the people of eastern India say namaskar. Grandfather is from Maharashtra where they say namaste. It is the same greeting. He asks how you know to say either?”

“I learned namaskar from a friend in Trinidad. His grandfather came to Trinidad to work, after the African slaves were freed. His grandfather was from Bengal.”

They began an intermittent relationship. Sometimes the boy would be there when David came by, and he and the old man would talk through him. But the child was restless, and most evenings he was absent. Sometimes David would salute with namaste (now that he knew the difference) in passing, and sometimes, especially when he was particularly weary, he would simply sit quietly with the old Sikh and watch the people passing by.

It felt natural. David normally shied away from crowds or strangers; to have to say something when he had nothing to say was hard for him. Sitting with the old man and saying nothing, even when he had much to say, was a quiet comfort.

Piece by piece he learned the old man’s story. He was a lascar, as Indian sailors were called. He had first sailed out of Bombay as a young man, forty years ago. He had reached London, and had been paid off. He had no English to seek work or a berth on a ship, so it took him two years to find his way back home to his wife.

He made more journeys, and spent far too much time starving in port between them. His wife had a son during one absence, and died during another absence. Finally his son, now the age he had been on his first trip, shipped with him.

The docks of London were full of lascars looking for a berth, or just existing; a few worked in Britain, although it was illegal. His son gave up on finding a berth, found work with a ships’ chandler, and eventually saved enough money to buy the boarding house where his father took the sun. He married a half-Indian girl, the daughter of another lascar, and his son was now his grandfather’s translator.

The old man longed for his home. His son worked day to night, and hoarded his pennies like an Englishman. His grandson had never seen India, and lived the life of the despised, in the land which had conquered his homeland.

667. My India

I am frequently blown away by what I am doing here. I came to the internet late, and the magic of it has not worn off. I know that most of you reading this don’t remember a world without the World Wide Web. Even the phrase has fallen out of use, if not out of memory, and has become a basically meaningless www at the start of urls.

Not me. I grew up in a house without a telephone, without plumbing, and didn’t have a flush toilet until I was seven. Still, I have had decades to get used to the changes so I am as blasé as anyone about most of them, but one thing still knocks me out.

Here is an example: On January 6th, I had visitors to this site from nine countries; Canada, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. More than half of those visitors were from India.

That isn’t a typical day. There is no such thing as a typical day, actually. However, if I were to tally all my days, the US would come in first in number of readers and India would come in second.

I would never have anticipated that when I began this blog, but there is some logic to it. To start with, India is a big country, second in the world by population, with five times as many people as the US. China is bigger, but I get few hits from China. There is a reason for that too, beyond politics.

Although the official language of India is Hindi, English is widely used. That is a legacy of hundreds of years of British domination. When India achieved independence in 1947, there were dozens of major languages. If any one had achieved dominance, it would have given its speakers a major political advantage, so English became a “subsidiary official language”. There are vast number of English speakers in India, and a lot of them are on the internet. Of those whose sites I’ve seen, many are in one of the Indian languages plus English.

I get a kick out of all the hits I get from distant countries, but India is special. I have had a relationship with India since 1968. When I switched from Biology to Anthropology at the start of my Sophomore year in college I had just taken Introduction to India and had already found my area of specialization. During the last three years at MSU I was a member of the Indian studies group, researched overseas Indian colonization, and took a year of Hindi (of which I remember little, all these years later). I made friends among Indian students studying at MSU and among returned Peace Corps volunteers.

My wife and I signed up for and were accepted to the Peace Corps for assignment in India, but lost out when the deferment was cancelled. Then I spent four years in the Navy, before entering the University of Chicago for a masters degree. Again India was my area specialization, and my thesis was on Indian village economics.

All of that makes me an expert, right? Not on your life it doesn’t. I’ll give you an example. I once took a graduate level class in Indian history. The first day we were asked about our backgrounds. One young Indian woman said that she was only auditing the class. She was in America with her husband who was a student in another department, and she was just coming by to fill in a few details that she might have missed in her high school history class.

I was in my late twenties with a B.S., enrolled in a top graduate school, and right out of high school she knew ten times more about India than I ever would.

It’s enough to keep you humble.

When I started writing, I put that knowledge to use. My second published novel, A Fond Farewell to Dying takes place in a post nuclear war, post flood world where India is the only remaining modern technical civilization. My main character was an American scientist who had moved there because North America was so backward after being heavily nuked. Because of his research, he becomes embroiled in the rising conflict between India and a pan-Muslim neighbor.

A major sub-plot in Cyan concerns parallel colonization efforts by Indian and North American groups.

The Cost of Empire is primarily built around actual Indian history, somewhat modified since it is taking place in an alternate universe. The various durbars in which Britain announced its imperial claims on India are collapsed into one, watched over by a fleet of dirigibles flown there to overawe the Indians who are agitating for independence. David James, the main character, learns from overseas Indians in Trinidad and later in India itself that maybe his country shouldn’t be ruling the whole world after all.

I you are a writer, you use what you know.

653. Eve Learns to Sing

If you want to put this excerpt from Like Clockwork into context, read Monday’s post. It takes place in the deserted shell of St Matthews Church, London, in the recurring year 1850.

The pocket London of the novel hangs uncomfortably between utopia and dystopia — pretty much like real life. It is a place where everyone lives forever in a peaceful world, but where alternative thinking is strictly avoided.

It is also a place where no one sings.

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

Eve asked, “What are songs?”

The question hit him like a blow to the heart. Balfour said, “Didn’t your mother sing to you?”

“My mother was so desperate to live forever that she hardly lived at all. She held me and comforted me, but she lived for her work.”

“So she never sang?”

“Not to me. And I have never heard anyone singing here in Luddie London. Do they sing in the outer city?”

Balfour shook his head.

“Thank you for the book of songs, but these are just words on a page to me.”

“May I sing for you?” he asked.

For a moment her youth shone through her eyes and she nodded.

Balfour did not apologize, or say, “I’m not much of a singer.” This was not about quality, but about sharing. He found a familiar song and sang in a scratchy tenor:

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see

Eve said, “I don’t like that song. I’m not a wretch. Don’t sing me a song about self-loathing. Sing to me about a garden.”

Balfour ruffled the pages. He said, “I don’t know this one. Give me a moment to work out the notes.” She watched him, head bobbing slightly, lips moving as he read the staff twice through, then sang:

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

“Thank you. Oh, thank you,” Eve cried. “But that last line is wrong. If God gives the joy, then everybody would know it. Please go on.”

Balfour continued:

He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

I’d stay in the garden with Him
Tho’ the night around me be falling;
But He bids me go; thro’ the voice of woe,
His voice to me is calling.

Eve said, “Don’t sing that last verse any more. I don’t want to leave the garden. I’ve never seen a garden, and I so much want to.”

“Could you sing it?” Balfour asked.

“I don’t know. Repeat it a time or two more and I’ll try.”

So Balfour repeated, dropping the last verse, and changing the last line of the chorus to All others shall ever know. Eve squeezed her eyes tight and her head moved to the music. After he had sung the song twice more, he said, “Now you.”

She sang. There was neither hesitation nor shyness in her manner, and her voice was pure and light. Balfour knew she was not singing for him, nor for herself, but for God. It was so beautiful that it almost made him believe again.

Eve shook her head at the end; there were tears in her eyes as she said, “How can I have lived my life, and never have heard a song?”

She remained silent for a time, then said, “I do thank you, but I don’t think you brought these songs just to please me.”

“No, although I would have if I had known how much you needed them. I have been trying to talk to my friends about Before, but they won’t listen. The direct approach to changing their minds is not going to work.”

Eve smiled and said, “So?”

“So we’re going to be sneaky. I’m are going to entertain them with excerpts from A Christmas Carol and you are going to sing sad love songs to them.”

“What good will that do?”

“Everything. It’s an formula that storytellers have used since the beginning of time. Tell them a story, and hide the message. They’ll listen to the surface, and then spend days trying to figure out what you really meant.”

Balfour and Eve do that thing with little visible results until other events intervene. Then Balfour says to Eve:

“The people are milling about and angry today. I don’t know if it is safe to go out.”

“We must. You need to read the third stave where Scrooge embraces a new life and I need to sing songs of change.”

“They are in no mood to listen.”

“They always hear, even when they don’t listen.”

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

Obviously, since this is a blog by a writer on the subject of writing, Eve’s criticism of the two hymns is my criticism, which I hoarded for a lifetime until I found a place to express them.

There is one more song in Like Clockwork, the only song remaining in this London. Everybody sings it at Midwinter Midnight. That song turns out to be new lyrics to an old melody, and when Eve decodes it, she uses it to drive the last nail into the coffin of that pocket London.

Meanwhile, even an ex-Christian can feel the joy of carols and can miss hymns like In the Garden. Right or wrong, they express human longing for goodness.

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.

635. That Many?

It’s hard for me to believe that I am two months into the fifth year of this site. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that I’ve done this much writing in only four plus years.

According to WordPress, this will make 1289 posts. Some were longer, some shorter, a few quite short like this one, and others were quite long. They probably average roughly 700 words. I’ve made a few repeats, so by a rough estimate that’s about 800,000 words.

To be fair, about half of that was material in the form of old stories from my long and checkered past, mostly presented in Serial. Let’s call the rest a bit more than 400,000 new words.

No, I didn’t believe it either, so I checked my figures twice.

That’s the equivalent of three or four modern novels, or about seven novels the length they were when I started writing. Truthfully, it’s easier to write a post than the equivalent number of words from a novel, but still . . .

Oh, by the way, during that time I also spent a lot of effort playing editorial ping-pong getting Cyan into print, and wrote two new novels, The Cost of Empire and Like Clockwork, and to date about twenty percent of the novel Dreamsinger.

Retirement from teaching middle school has been fun, but not relaxing.

All this cogitation came about as I was considering a novel I didn’t write (yet) which I plan to tell you something about on Wednesday.

633. Good Books for Kids

When I was a child, I read as a child,
I thought as a child, I understood as a child:
but when I became thirteen,
I switched to Clarke and Heinlein.

That pretty much screws up 1 Corinthians 13:11. And it isn’t exactly true. When I was a child, i.e. about twelve, plus or minus, I read what was available, and it wasn’t always great. It was primarily science fiction and mysteries, by which I mean Tom Swift, Jr. and the Hardy Boys. You could buy them in a toy and hobby store on the main street of Coffeeville, Kansas, one of the towns we shopped in. There were no bookstores; there were libraries, but I didn’t know that yet.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate, which ground out novels for kids like Hershey’s grinds out chocolate bars, was actually the best thing that ever happened to rural American youth for most of the twentieth century. I read them, my grandfather read them, and kids were still reading them when the millennium rolled over. They weren’t very good. In fact, a lot of them were terrible, but they were there. For a kid out in the sticks who liked science fiction, the choice wasn’t Tom Swift or something from Arthur C. Clarke. It was Tom Swift or nothing.

When I started going to libraries a couple of years later, my possibilities were expanded, but it was still a small library. I read a lot of things that I would never have touched if more had been available. I read a lot of books meant for adults, but that’s the goal anyway. I also read books way below my level, because they were there.

I recently remembered a book I hadn’t thought about since those days, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Elanor Cameron. I was too old for it when I read it, but I still loved it, so much that I tried to find it again. No luck, but I did get a copy of the sequel.

I couldn’t read it. I could barely read it when I was thirteen, but if I had gotten to it when I was eight, I would have been in love.

That got me to thinking about what makes book a juvenile, as they were called then. The Mushroom Planet books would not have qualified. They were for children. Juveniles were for boys who were anxious to become men.

Of course there were juveniles for girls, but girls and boys were separate species in the fifties, so I can’t report on their books.

Heinlein did a lot of juveniles which I’ve already talked about. (See posts 311 and 513) My real favorite juvenile writer was Andre Norton, and I’ve done a few reviews on her as well. (For science fiction see posts 262 and 263, or others see posts 260 and 261.)

What Heinlein, Norton, and many other juveniles authors had in common was that their characters were not yet adults but were given adult roles by the author. The Heinlein characters were often learning a futuristic trade under an adult. Norton’s characters were often being stranded on an alien planet. Outdoors and with no other kids in sight — she was channelling my childhood.

Today’s young adult books seem to be quite different from yesterday’s juveniles. First, they are targeted for slightly older audience, and second, 2019 isn’t 1959. The audience itself is different.

I can’t imagine a modern kid reading the early Nortons I loved so much. With only slight exaggeration, those Nortons were about a young person alone in a wasteland, trying to survive the dangers of nature, and modern kids live in crowded cities trying to survive the dangers inflicted by the adults around them.

I wouldn’t want to be a modern kid, and I understand why the books of my childhood probably wouldn’t mean much to them.

I taught middle school for twenty-seven years and I tried to keep abreast of what was available for my students, but I’ve been out of that loop for a while. I used to go to every Scholastic book sale to see what was new and good. The answer — damn near nothing. The few good books the kids had to choose from were mostly reprints from way back when.

Those book sales were where I found Fog Magic by Julia Sauer. It’s a wonderful book but it was published in 1943. Later I found A Storm Without Rain by Jan Adkins published in 1983. That’s still almost four decades old. Both were time travel stories of the old style; that is, without a time machine. The kids just went back in time and never understood how it happened.

I also stumbled across a fine steampunk novel, before I really knew anything about steampunk. That would be Airborne by Kenneth Oppel, published 2004. At least we are getting into the right millennium.

Harry Potter? Tried it, couldn’t read it. Twilight and the Hunger Games? Don’t want to, and if you don’t know why, I could never convince you.

Good books for kids are rare. Fortunately they stay around forever.

Why didn’t I mention A Wizard of Earthsea? You can’t pigeonhole it as a juvenile or a young adult book. It’s literature. Buy it for your kids and read it yourself.