Tag Archives: steampunk

Coulter and the Gray Man 2

The gray man wandered about the coach, talking to the other passengers. He settled in near two heavy men, passed them a bottle, and set out a deck of cards. The man in buckskin, Coulter, watched for a few minutes, then settled himself in to sleep.

The gray man won the first hand.

Later, the gray man got off at a tiny village which lay beneath the smoke of recent pogroms. Eighteen people got on the train. The gray man was the only one to get off.

The conductor said, “Where?” He didn’t need to ask why.

The leader was bearded and old, stick thin, and stooped. He said, “Anywhere.”

The conductor didn’t bother to tell them that they would not like where they were going. They were Jews. They already knew what life held in store for them.

#            #            #

In a green, soft land, by a lovely bay where seabirds swirled, they loaded men and women with pinched and hungry Irish faces.

#            #            #

In a shattered town in Czechoslovakia, they loaded displaced Germans, who were running from mobs that were celebrating the end of the war by killing the relatives of their oppressors.

#            #            #

In Tasmania, they loaded Aborigines who had been hunted like wallabies.

#            #            #

When Coulter awoke next, the gray man was back. He had come aboard during the night. Coulter stood by the window, watching the striped horses and the massive gray, long nosed — whatever they were — and the tall, powerful, naked black men with long bladed spears who were hunting them.

“Damnedest Injuns I ever saw.”

The gray man chuckled.

“Damnedest buffalo, too.”

“Come on, Coulter,” the gray man said, “playing the fool won’t do. You may not know what they are, but you know they aren’t be beasts and men of your own home.”

“It’s been a long time since I saw home,” Coulter said. “Where are we now?”

“We are on the railroad of Cecil Rhodes’ dream. Cairo to Capetown on a single railway. Three and a half feet between the rails, with an SAR Garratt 400 up front; one boiler, two bogies, the best articulated there ever was, even though your country never used it.”

“Is it real?”

“Stupid question.”

Coulter was not offended. He watched the herds in their migration for a while, then said, “Whatever it is, it’s making me homesick for buffalo. It looks wild and free.”

The gray man smiled and said, “It is wild. But nothing’s free.”

#            #            #

They stopped in a village at a tiny station which said Jerusalem on its signboard, in a green and pleasant land. The engine was in Midland Railway livery. The coach was upholstered in horsehair and illuminated by gaslight.

A single woman got on board, dressed in long gingham gown, with lace at the cuffs and an infant in her arms. A rake in top hat, wearing a Reynard smirk, descended to on the platform.

The conductor said, “Where and why?”

She said, “London,” and gestured at the child to answer the second question.

The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.”

She smiled at the conductor and said, “I’ll make do.” And he believed that she might. last post tomorrow

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618.1 Over There

Things are still busy here, the posts I had planned for this week are not quite ready for prime time, and I have one more short piece of fiction ready for you. It was originally scheduled for next week. I’m going to swap the posts and the fiction, then I’ll bow out of the regular posting business for a week and let you read Coulter and the Gray Man instead. This link will carry you to the first of three posts over in Serial

Coulter and the Gray Man 1

Coulter and the Gray Man

The engine purred into the station, all glittering bright and new in the midst of an urban nightmare. Sixteen driving wheels the color of bronze, in four articulated sets. Smooth and slick and painted like a rainbow with a single coach following. Every driver was powered by a flux engine activated by the thorium pile that ran along behind.

Two persons were holding hands in the shadows, sheltered by fallen beams and girders. The wind that swept the platform was harsh and cold, and smelled of decay.

In the side of the pristine coach, a door appeared, with soft light and inviting upholstery beyond. The two rushed forward, darting glances behind them. The conductor stepped aside as they entered.

He looked at them carefully, but he could not tell which was man and which was woman, or even what either had been when they started out. Not that it mattered; there was affectionate touching as they stood together, and a clear mutual regard.

The conductor asked, “Where and why?”

One of the pair spoke up and said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it is earlier. Life is not worth living here.”

The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.”

They were jostled aside by a young man who leaped to the platform and looked around. He was skinny, with buzz cut hair and wearing a black Westercon tee-shirt. The skin that showed was heavily tattooed. His face was a study in apprehension and wonder, but he looked ready for anything. He would need to be.

Just before the door closed, another figure, all in gray, slipped aboard and hurriedly took a seat beside a figure in buckskin. There was a whine from the pile and a hiss as the door slid shut. The train began to move, through the darkness and the smoke.

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Morning dawned on the taiga. The rails curved between the pines. The Russian P36, 2-4-2 laid a smoke trail across the sky, and tore needles off the trees to send them spiraling down into the snow as it passed. The sky was dark with storm, and flurries of sleet rattled against the windows.

In the dim light of morning, the train broke out into a miles long clearing that flanked an icy river. Ahead was a village, onion domed, brightly painted. The brakes sent a shiver through the coach that caused the gray man to slump against his companion and awaken. The man in buckskin had been staring out the window. He said, “It looks like the Madison.”

“It isn’t.”

“I know that! I’ve seen a thousand rivers since I last saw the Madison. I would hate to leave them behind, but I would love to ride my own rivers again.” He scowled at his seat mate. “How many times have I seen you, and I still don’t know your name.”

“You don’t need to know,” said the gray man.

“I always need to know. That’s what got me into this.”

The train screamed into a station and stood panting impatiently. Three young men, bundled into anonymity, came aboard, and two more left the coach. The conductor said, “Where and why?”

The youngest newcomer said, “Anywhere, anytime, as long as it isn’t Russia. Life is cold and short here.”

The conductor said, “All right, but you won’t like where you are going.” more tomorrow

609. Alternate Universes

During the Golden Age, most of Heinlein’s short stories linked together to make a complete future world. I didn’t know that at the time, since I wasn’t born yet. I discovered his Future History as his short stories began to be reissued in collections, when paperback books were relatively new. In the opening pages of several of them there was a chart of future history, showing times, scientific developments, and social changes, all keyed to the stories built around them.

Future history in science fiction is a first cousin to alternate history, which is sometimes seen as SF and is sometimes shelved with ordinary historical fiction.

Historical fiction isn’t history. Studies of history may be inaccurate, even deliberately so, but they aren’t fiction. Sometimes they may be as far away from truth as deliberate fiction, but that’s a whole ‘nuther can of posts.

Historical fiction may be romance, adventure, war, moral advance or moral decline, or any other type of story, just as contemporary fiction can be. It simply uses history as a place for things to happen, just like a boy meets girl story can take place in Palestine or Paducah.

Alternate history does the same thing, but with an additional twist. The author makes a choice of where and when to make a historical change, and then invents a fictional world based on that change. After that, as with science fiction, the story the author tells may resemble ordinary fiction, or it may depend on events special to the created world.

Almost all science fiction creates some kind of future history. Heinlein gets first mention because he coined the term, but his buddy E. E. Smith’s Lensmen series creates an even bigger, badder, and bolder alternate universe. Gordon Dickson had his Childe Cycle (known to ordinary mortals as the Dorsai books), and there are dozens, probably hundreds, of other examples.

Alternate history does the same thing, but starts earlier in time. Fantasy, from Tolkien to Diskworld, creates entirely non-ordinary worlds. Only contemporary and historical fictions are impoverished by a lack of world building.

Once a writer creates a universe, there is a temptation to return to it. After all, much of his work has already been done. The result may be an enriching of the imaginary world, or a steady decline in quality due to self-repetition. It depends on the skill of the author.

My own writings live in two variant futures, one variant past, and a variant past created by time traveling meddlers from a variant future. And a fantasy world.

The variant past story is The Cost of Empire, which could be shelved with science fiction (at a stretch), steampunk (easily), or alternate history. A dishonest capitalist steals a new type of engine; he also talks the British government into starting a spy organization which he then uses to sabotage other engine types, skewing industrial development. That’s backstory; if you are curious about the actual story, the opening pages were presented in posts 486, 487, 488, and 489.

In one of my variant futures a scientist named Lassiter discovers a glitch in our understanding of physics which allows easy total annihilation of matter. That means a star drive for nearby star systems, with all the complications of near light-speed travel, but no FTL. This led to world building for all the stars within about five light years of Earth, and to the novel Cyan which explores one of them.

Such multiple world building calls for other novels, including the one alluded to in Monday’s post.

Not to belabor a point, but the world building in Cyan and the world building in The Cost of Empire are both based on a technological innovation. The only real difference is that one change took place in the past and one will take place in the future. SF and alternate history are often two faces of the same coin.

Incidentally, the Cyan universe came about after I wrote my first published novel Jandrax. I asked myself, where did this universe come from? How did it start? What were the ancestors of the people in Jandrax doing a few hundred years earlier? Then I filled in the missing pieces, and Cyan emerged.

My other early published novel, A Fond Farewell to Dying, is based on a historical change and a technological development. The world in general comes into being through a confluence of nuclear war and rising oceans, ending with the northern hemisphere devastated, and India as the last best hope of scientific culture. The technological event is the creation of a practical, artificial immortality. That world called for two sequels which have been outlined, but not yet been written. One of them has recently been calling my name, so maybe soon.

In FFTD, the bombs fell in the future, so it is clearly SF. If the bombs had fallen in 1957, it might be categorized as alternate history — but probably wouldn’t be because of the immortality theme.

Writers write. Putting novels into categories is the job of editors, critics, and booksellers. We do make life hard for them sometimes.

My latest novel, Like Clockwork, takes place in a quasi-Victorian pocket London and won’t have any direct sequels. It could be published as steampunk, but it is actually a straight SF time travel story.

However the future world of the time traveler who is Like Clockwork‘s hidden prime mover has infinite possibilities. In that world Einstein got it right, there can be no FTL, and only century ships are a possibility. Adventurous souls need not despair, however, because there is sideways travel in time. For fear of destroying their own existence, time travel in this culture’s own timeline is forbidden, but travel to alternate universes is the order of the day. 

My fantasy novels all take place in one created world, but that’s a whole different set of posts.

602. What Story Next

Every writer writes about writing eventually, and Balfour is my way of doing that. As his name might suggest, he both is and is not Robert Louis Stevenson. In what follows from my novel Like Clockwork, Balfour has just had a vision, and now he is seeking privacy to think about it. The vision was sparked by his visit to Snap’s toy shop, where he has met Snap’s wife Pilar for the first time.

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With the fog and the waning of the day, the streets had become dark. There were lighted windows here and there. Occasionally there were beckoning gaslighted rooms of grog shops, where warmth and noise spilled out into the street, but these were few and widely spaced.

When he walked with Snap through Inner London, Balfour found himself surrounded by friendly faces. Now that he was alone in the fog and dark the pedestrians around him drew back from him. Their movements seemed furtive and the shadows seemed full of danger.

All the things which passed before his outer eye were noted and flagged for memory — peering faces, vendors shouting their wares, signs plastered everywhere with messages like “Now is Forever” and “You Can Turn Back the Clock.” But mostly his mind was full of an inner vision of Pilar which, if nurtured, might become a story.

It was not of the real Pilar which he saw, but a Pilar whom his mind had abstracted and made symbolic. She stood tied between two coarse ropes, fighting both of them. It was not an image of sexual bondage. These ropes were forces, made manifest in his mind, which were tearing her in opposite directions.

Balfour knew from experience that if he could hold the image now, without understanding, it would morph and change over the coming weeks. Pilar herself would probably disappear. Someone else would a take her place, and the forces would be manifested in new ways. When the process had ended, and the story was completed, Pilar would be gone; yet without her the story would never have been triggered.

He walked far and long, mind racing, lost in thought, but eventually the world outside his mind reclaimed him — violently.

A ragged ruffian stepped up to block Balfour’s way.

Balfour had moved on past most of the light, and the few pedestrians who remained nearby were all scurrying for cover as if they knew and feared this man.

Balfour gripped his cane loosely, ready to parry or thrust, and felt a rush of adrenaline that washed away the picture of Pilar.

The man was massive, short, and angry. It wasn’t a transitory anger that could be avoided or worked around. This anger came from deep in his past and now encompassed his entire being. His heavy brows were furrowed above deep-set eyes and his mouth was set in a permanent snarl.

Balfour did not notice those details in the moment, but an internal photograph of the man was burned into his memory. He had a few coins, and he would have gladly have given them up, but robbery was not the reason for this encounter. Robbery was the excuse. The reason lay much deeper, and no amount of money would assuage the hatred in those eyes.

The mouth came open; words came out. Balfour only heard the roaring in his ears and his eyes focused on the man’s right hand as he reached beneath his loose coat and withdrew a blade.

It was a moment of deja vu. Balfour had known that the blade would be there. He was already moving when it emerged.

Balfour was no physical match for the man, but he was well trained in the use of a gentleman’s cane, and he had that momentary advantage conferred by precognition. He did not try to strike at the man’s wrist, but brought the cane across in a swinging, two-handed blow to the temple. The loaded head did the rest. There was a wet crunch of crushed bone as his assailant crumpled to the cobblestones. The blade clattered from his hand.

Balfour was already backing away, but the attack was over.

This man had been too full of wrath to have companions, and the dark street was empty of witnesses. Balfour turned away and walked back toward the gate to Outer London. There would be no outcry. There would be no inquest. Some time in the night, the body would mysteriously disappear.

Balfour knew all this because it had all happened before.

And it would all happen again.

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It’s perversely comforting to find that I am not the only one struggling to find the best next story to tell. If this seems a bit familiar, it is a precursor to my Halloween post last year, October 29 and 31.

600. Christmas in Paradise?

Back in November I finished Like Clockwork and made mention of the next novel in line. I’m still looking for it. I have nearly a dozen in the pipeline; some have fully developed characters, some have well developed worlds, but not one of them has a solid story. Yet.

Story isn’t everything, but if you don’t have one, you can write for a long time without ever getting anywhere.

A few days ago, I took time to reread The Cost of Empire, and now I’ve started rereading Like Clockwork. It is a way of jumpstarting a balky imagination. This morning I ran across a piece of writing from Like Clockwork, chapter 25 — which is actually the sixth chapter in a somewhat twisted book — and decided to show it to you.

And despite the title, this post — like the novel itself — is only a tiny bit about Christmas.

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Across Division Street, in the half of Outer London where the factories are, everyone was hard at work. They always were, but with more energy now than any other time of the year. It was late November and Christmas was only a month away.

Christmas Day is the most important day in Outer London. It’s odd that this should be so, in a place so aggressively secular, but it is true. On that day all the millions of candle sticks, and candles, and candied fruit cakes, and all the perfect white faced dolls in their perfect pinafores with their perfect pink ribbons in their perfect blonde hair, pass from the warehouses where they have been stored to all the Captains of Industry to be given to their perfect children. Their boys get toys, too, and the children of the workers get lesser toys, appropriate to their station.

The toys are played with ecstatically for a month, but by the end of January, most of them have magically and mysteriously disappeared. Those which remain are carefully programmed to degrade. By October, they are tattered. By November they become fodder for the ashcan. Thus want is artificially introduced. There arises a hunger for toys and games to fill the children’s empty hours. From want, comes anticipation, and on Christmas Day, want is relieved.

It is a beautiful system, a kind of circle of life. And by this late in November, want was keenly felt.

The day after Christmas every warehouse stands empty, but then the stream of merchandise begins again. Chairs and beds and blankets, dresses and trousers and coats, toys and games and diversions, fill every space as the year winds on. Everything is planned for. Every need is anticipated. Everything will be ready for that one day when all dreams are fulfilled.

It gives the workers a reason to work. It gives the Captains of Industry a reason to watch. It gives the Masters of Accountancy a reason to record what the Great Babbage calculates.

Just watch the flow of raw materials into the factories, watch the coal move down to the basements where it becomes steam, watch the steam engines turn it into motion, watch the motion flow from shaft to pulley to belt to shaft to belt.

Watch the lathes and spinners and looms and cutters and sewers as they produce the goods. Watch the painters and polishers and packers and finishers as they store it all away for the glorious coming of Christmas.

In every block east of Division Street there is a factory with vast spaces for workers to work, and near every factory there are tenements with small rooms where the workers live. Above every factory are boardrooms where the Captains of Industry oversee it all, and across town the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy keeps track of every tool, product, planner, and worker.

Every morning workers arrive, in their brown trousers and blue shirts, folded back to the forearm, all as alike as the bricks in the walls of the factory. Every morning the planners and counters arrive, as alike as all the zeroes in a million. With frock coats and waistcoats; with white shirts and blue ties and hard, flat-topped hats of silk.

They go in each morning at 7 by the Great Clock and leave in the evening at 6 by the Great Clock. They march in by the thousand every morning and leave again every evening like bats coming out of a cave. No matter how long the line becomes coming and going, they all check in at exactly 7:00:00 AM and out at 6:00:00 PM. A youngster named Albert manages this miracle, utilizing a fine point of difference between the mathematics of Newton and Leibniz.

And somewhere a man named Adam Smith smokes his pipe, rocks his chair, and smiles in contentment. Over his head is a framed sign that says, “Today is the Perfect Day.”

Perfection? From human hands?

Human hands pull the handles of the drill presses, but jigs and fixtures assure that every hole goes where it is needed. A human hand pull the lever that frees the stamp, that the steam drives down onto plaint clay, and every doll’s head comes out wearing the same smile.

Humanity and machinery and a Babbage to oversee it all. Perfection.

that’s all, for now

579. Guilt

How many times have you seen it: the massive city, the grinding machinery of the state, the downtrodden under the wheels of the machine — it’s a classic dystopia. One man (or, rarely, woman) fights back, foments a rebellion, and it all comes crashing down, ushering in a new day.

End of movie or novel.

Well, maybe . . .

It seems to me that this trope has been overused. I have no real argument with all those stories that end with the destruction of a dystopia, but I was looking for something a bit more subtle in Like Clockwork. There is something resembling a downfall (you’ll get no spoilers here) but it doesn’t come at the end, and those who bring it about have to face the reality of what they have done. Here’s a taste.

(Hemmings) laid his head on his crossed arms. His heart hurt.

Life may be nasty, brutish, and short. Life may be eternal in the lap of Jesus. Or life maybe a recurring year, extended far too long, but it is still life. And Hemmings had taken the lives of men who had done him no wrong.

He had not known the others who had died, but he clearly remembered the guard at the waggon door. He grieved for him.

I know exactly where this scene originated.

I was a young teen. I had recently discovered the local public library and my hundredth-or-so book was Underwater Adventure by Willard Price. Overall, it was a good book, although no better or worse that the average I was reading at the time. However, one scene knocked me out.

The villain, posing as a friend, went for a dive with the mentor. The two brothers who were the heroes of the book were elsewhere. The villain contrived to have the mentor trapped underwater, and left him there to drown.

Two things about this affected me. First, the mentor did not make a brilliant and heroic escape. He actually did drown. Second, the villain — who was pretty scummy and eventually came to a well deserved bad end — came up out of the water full of remorse. Not enough remorse to go back and save the mentor, but enough to be shaken.

The scene was told from the villain’s perspective. In that moment, I identified with him far more than I had identified with the cardboard heroes. Through him, I came to an understanding of how it would feel to take the life of a good man. It was something worth knowing, and something a bit more real than most of what I was reading at the time.

So here I am, decades later. I have a debt to Willard Price for that moment of clarity, and I’m paying it forward.