Tag Archives: steampunk

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.

629. Lord Darcy

First a note for those who got here following the tag steampunk
this isn’t exactly steampunk, but it tastes a lot like it.

It was in the Jokake room, Westercon 70, in Tempe, Arizona. Science and Technology vs. Magic was the name of the panel, and it seemed to falter from the beginning. Some panels are like that. They look good on paper, but in real life they are too cute to live.

I was a panelist, and I was puzzled by what I wasn’t hearing, so I asked, “Doesn’t anybody remember Lord Darcy?”

Some did, and said, “Oh, yeah, I read those.” Most of the audience had never heard of him.

Although the Lord Darcy series was somewhat successful — it got a Hugo nomination — it was too unique, too “in-between”, and it fell into the crack between the sub-genres. It was exactly what the panel planners had in mind, a set of stories based on magic as something that was studied, understood, and put to work by magicians who were trained in its laws — laws which had been meticulously discovered by scientific study.

The Darcy stories were also gloriously filled with in-jokes, with references to popular literature, and most of all they were great fun.

The series is set in modern times (the 60s and 70s, actually) in an alternate universe where King Richard did not die, John did not gain the throne of England, and magic took the place of science. I could say more, but I’m trying to avoid running this up to novella length.

Randall Garrett, the author, was a supreme practitioner of the punster’s art. If he had been writing about a magical object lost at a circus, he would certainly have called it The Adventure of the Rube’s Cube. He didn’t (sadly) write that, but I will dissect one of his real titles below.

Lord Darcy and his colleague Master Sean O’Lochlainn are often described as a kind of Holmes and Watson. That’s relatively fair, but it only scratches the surface. Darcy was of the aristocracy, tall, lean but strong, able with sword and pistol, brilliant of mind, lovely of body — the pluperfect hero. If that sound like Superman in need of a little kryptonite, forget it. You can be that heroic if the stories have an strong undercurrent of humor. Call him James Bond with a brain.

Master Sean, on the other hand, is no Watson. He is as competent in his own realm as Darcy is in his.

Darcy is chief investigator for Normandy, although he is sometimes called to England itself; he finds things out if they depend on actions, motives, and deception. Master Sean is a forensic sorcerer; he finds things out if they depend on magic. They work together seamlessly to solve murders and political crises for (modern day) Prince Richard and occasionally, King John IV.

There is a pattern to the stories. Typically, everybody is running around, wringing their hands and calling the latest crime an act of black magic. Darcy and Sean arrive on the scene; Sean investigates the magic at hand and passes the actual facts on to Darcy; Darcy sees the connections that no one else saw and shows how the murder was committed by purely physical means.

Master Sean explains Darcy’s technique like this:

“Like all great detectives, my lord, you have the ability to leap from an unjustified assumption to a foregone conclusion without passing through the distance between. Then you back up and fill in.”
                    from A Matter of Gravity,
                   but also repeated in several other stories

The only novel, Too Many Magicians, is particularly full of pop culture references of the day, including appearances by Nero Wolfe and Archie disguised as the Marquis de London and his assistant Lord Bontriomphe.

My favorite story title is The Muddle of the Woad. If it doesn’t strike you funny at first, say it fast three times. Woad is the blue dye used by the Picts when they went into battle. A double agent for the King, investigating a cult seemingly devoted to regicide, is found dead in another man’s coffin, stark naked and dyed blue. A warning from the cult? Everybody thinks so but Darcy.

The only thing wrong with these stories is that there are not enough of them. I first read them in the paperback collections Lord Darcy Investigates (which contains A Matter of Gravity, The Ipswich Phial, The Sixteen Keys, and The Napoli Express) and Murder and Magic (which contains The Eyes Have It, A Case of Identity, The Muddle of the Woad, and A Stretch of the Imagination). I read the only novel Too Many Magicians in the Gregg Press version with the excellent preface by Sandra Meisel.

If I had to replace my copies, I would opt for the 2002 edition of Lord Darcy, edited by Eric Flint, because it also contains the two otherwise uncollected stories The Bitter End and The Spell of War.

All these are out of print, but that is what used bookstores and — dare I say it? — Amazon are for.

As it was with Holmes, there were further adventures after Garrett’s death, written by Michael Kurland. They are on my to-read list.

626. Lucifer’s Cousin

In post 575. Textbook: The Rolling Stones, I mentioned the two interpretations of the asteroid belt that were current when I started reading science fiction. At that time, many believed that it was the result of the fourth planet being somehow blown up. There were plenty of science fiction stories about that lost planet’s civilization, including several which made it the source of humanity and the origin of the Atlantis myth.

The other interpretation was that the fourth planet was kept from forming by Jupiter’s gravity. A logical and prosaic theory and apparently the correct one. Occasionally, ignorance is bliss when writing science fiction. Does anyone else miss a swampy, dinosaur infested Venus?

Oh well, that’s okay. That’s what steampunk, fantasy, and alternate universes are for.

In Dreamsinger, I’ve managed to retrieve just a tiny touch of the old glory of an asteroid belt from an exploded planet, and it only came to me within the last few weeks. I had already tilted Stormking, way back when I was writing Cyan. The culprit was a rouge body passing through the Sirian system. I didn’t have to invent that; scientists believe that’s the way Uranus got tilted. I recently decided to make further use of it the rogue body by having it do major damage to planet number two.

I gave it a near miss. I may change my mind about that and give it a bullseye. I may even have my page-people discover that their scientists were wrong; that it wasn’t a near miss but a hit. Or maybe a so-near miss that the rogue was captured and is now part of the Swarm.

Here’s how it fell out in today’s (August 28th) rough draft.

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

Dreea was assigned to the cargo ship Typhoon. It seemed a silly name for a ship of space, especially one completely without streamlining. If it ever encountered a typhoon, it wouldn’t last thirty seconds.

Sirius was massive, and it’s system reflected the fact. The distance to the Goldilocks region was about five times as far as Sol to Earth, but it wasn’t a blown up model of the old Earth system. Having a second, shrunken star was enough to see to that, but it did have a hot planet close in and a more-or-less Earth sized planet in the third position. The planet which had held Venus’s position had been broken up by the same rogue body that had tilted Stormking.

That was important, and it was the reason that the Swarm was Typhoon‘s first destination.

The fourth planet in orbit of Sol had never coalesced because of perturbations from massive Jupiter. Consequently, all the asteroids in the belt were more or less uniform in composition. The beltmen of Sol had made a living there, but it had not been rich pickings.

The Venus-position planet circling Sirius had fully formed, with a core and tectonic plates. For billions of years gravity and convection has stirred the stuff of the second planet, and accumulated various minerals in their various places. Then the rogue body had passed so close that tidal stresses had shattered number two.

Pebble sized, and rock sized, and boulder sized, and mountain sized and continent sized chunks of the planet had been torn apart. The heat released had been tremendous. The outward force had been tremendous, but so was the combined gravity of all the pieces. Coalescence began at once, but gravity had to fight tidal forces, lateral velocities, and new heat energy when the pieces crashed together again.

After half a billion years, it had still not fully coalesced. It was still a mess, but it was a rich mess. It was as if someone had picked the Earth up, hit it with a giant hammer, and left all it’s mineral riches out in the open for easy exploitation.

Typhoon was to drop in, pick up a cargo of various minerals, and then proceed to Forge, the innermost planet where Sirius’s heat was abundant and open-air factories would turn Typhoon’s cargo into the goods needed throughout the system.

If you can call a factory open-air, on a planet whose atmosphere was long ago boiled away.

Coulter and the Gray Man 3

Coulter approached the conductor, once the train was in motion again, and said, “I don’t understand.”

“What?”

“Anything.”

The conductor looked annoyed. He said, “What do you want from me.”

“I want to know why I’m here.”

“You had a need. We only go where someone has a great need. That’s all I can tell you. I let people on, I let them off, and I warn them of the future. That’s my whole job. I’m not here to explain.

The conductor went on, “You could tell me why you are here. What was your need, that was so great?”

“Need? I was stark naked, without a weapon, and I was being chased by about a thousand Blackfeet who wanted my scalp. All of a sudden, there was a station and a steam train with a single coach. Of course I didn’t know that was what it was. I had never seen one before. But you threw open the door and I jumped in about two steps in front of those braves. Don’t you remember?”

“Somewhat.” Then, for the first time, the conductor smiled a little. “I have opened that door for more people than you could count, but you were running faster than anyone I ever saw.”

Coulter looked around the coach. It was smaller now, older, ill-painted and groaning over the uneven rails. The gray man was on board again, drinking with some of the other passengers. HIs hand held a watch that had, moments before, resided in the pocket of his companion’s waistcoat. The gray man smiled and the watch disappeared. His companion never noticed.

“Gray man,” Coulter shouted, “riders get on and riders get off. I never see them again. But you come and go. Why?”

“This train is the best place there is,” the gray man replied. “I do sometimes get off, but I always come back. You could learn from me.”

Coulter turned back to ask, “What happens to the others, when they leave the train.”

The conductor shook his head. “I don’t know. It isn’t my business to know. They are mine as long as they stay, but when they leave, they go out of my protection, and out of my knowledge.”

“And if I leave?”

“You will know how your story ends. I will not.”

“And If I don’t leave?”

“Then your story will never be complete.”

Now the coach was swaying badly on the unballasted rails. The diamond stacked 4-4-0 American up front was boiling black smoke and a lonesome whistle echoed across the prairie. There was a station ahead, just a dismounted boxcar on crossed ties with a water tank and a flag to stop the train. Crouched in the grass were several hundred Blackfeet, mostly naked, and well armed.

“They’re still there,” Coulter said, “and they’re still pissed.”

“It is your choice.”

Coulter drew a deep breath, and then he whooped. All the other passengers jerked in surprise. He said, “Go to the windows, folks. This is going to be a show.”

He grinned at the conductor and shouted, “Open the door, Son, and give me room to run.”

The gray man just shook his head, and dealt the cards again.

finis