Tag Archives: time travel

512. Time Jacks

Beginning last July I wrote a steampunk novel called Cost of Empire. It is presently seeking a home. I am now working on a second but very different steampunk novel called Like Clockwork. Besides being weird, it also insists on being about 65,000 words long. I really don’t know what I’m going to do about that; that would be a happy length for a 70s or 80s novel, but today’s market demands 100,000 words. Writing is easy compared to meeting the artificial needs of publishing, but short or long, LC is nearing completion.

(Of course, the post last Wednesday makes some of this obsolete. That is the problem with writing ahead.)

It is time to start thinking about a new novel. I have a time travel trilogy I began outlining about two years ago, just before Empire demanded to be written. I’ve been looking over my notes from then, to get my head in order before plunging in. At that time, I wrote a short first chapter, just to test things out.

Would you like to see it? I thought so. The novel will be called Time Jacks.


In the middle of the continent is a state called Kansas, and in the middle of Kansas is a medium sized town devoted to Time.

Near the middle of the town is a university devoted to the study of time, its mathematical nature, manipulation, inviolability (or lack thereof), and philosophical implications. Bleekman University is the most theoretical of all theoretical institutions, where the finest mathematicians and the finest of philosophers meet and attempt to understand each other, while both are trying to understand Bleekman’s legacy.

On a lintel stone over the entrance to the campus is an engraving of Bleekman’s Theorem. It takes one hundred seventeen symbols, some of which are seen nowhere else in the history of human thought, and some of which are still disputed by those mathematicians and philosophers.

There are three other institutions in Bleekman — surely you guessed that would be the name of the town. Near the university on the north is the Institute of Applications, where the knowledge brought back from alterlines is studied before it is released to the world at large. Scholars at the Institute ask, ”How does it work?” and “What use can we make of it?”

Scholars at Bleekman University do not care for such questions. They spend their time — that statement is almost a pun in itself — poking about on the edges of the Universal Why, knowing that they will never penetrate to its core.

Scholars from the Institute and from the University rarely talk to each other. That may be fortunate for mankind. Opinions differ on this matter.

South of both is “The Academy”. It has a longer name, but no one uses it. Here the brightest and best from all over the Earth come to become Time Agents. Ten thousand are admitted each autumn, having been previously winnowed by harsh competitive examinations. After three years, a few hundred become technicians and a few dozen become agents.

As you might expect, the graduates are a cocky lot.

[I left space here for several paragraphs I wasn’t yet ready to write.]

Oh, you noticed? Not surprising, really. I mentioned the University and three other institutions, then only told you about two.

In the center of Bleekman is a dome, a hundred meters high and a thousand meters across. You can see it from space, but I can’t tell you much more than that. Agents go in through the dome’s only entrance and a year or so later they come out, changed forever. Within the dome are the mechanisms of transference, which anyone is welcome to understand. Just study Bleekman’s Theorem, and good luck to you.

There are many other exits from the dome, but they are all in other timelines; alterlines, most people call them. This Bleekman, this Kansas, this Earth, and this universe constitute the homeline.

Time agents go through the dome to various elsewheres and bring back treasure. They go with the courage of a lion and the stealth of a mouse, changing nothing, and stealing nothing but knowledge.

That is all I can tell you. No one knows more, except for the few who have passed the entrance exams and the three years of winnowing that produces time agents.


Okay, it’s clearly a rough draft, but I like where it is going. This will be fun.


511. Novel or Novella

If you don’t know about <tor.com>, it is a high quality on-line magazine of science fiction. For years they were one of the few places which would take unagented submissions for short stories, although they have recently changed that policy. They have been mostly closed to novellas as well, but they still have occasional open periods, and one has just begun.

Since most submissions end in, “Try again elsewhere,” I have not previously mentioned any of my own submissions in this blog. However this opening for novellas has brought up some things I want to talk about. Again (see also 146. Novella 1).

Before we begin, here is a piece of information. SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), the professional organization which awards the Nebulas, breaks stories into these categories:

short story    under 7,500 words
novelette       7,500 – 17,500 words
novella         17,500 – 40,000 words
novel            40,000 words and up

In the last few years, most people would add very short, or flash fiction, to this list.

I have been working since January on a novel called Like Clockwork, but it has been fighting back. It wants to be 65,000 words long. That would be just right for a submission in the 1970s or ’80s, but is too short to sell in today’s market, unless you are self-publishing.

I’m not. I have considered it seriously, but it calls for a skill set that I don’t have, and don’t want. So I continued soldiering on, hoping for inspiration. Then I became aware of the novella opening at Tor (dot) com, which left me with a choice — try to make Like Clockwork longer than it wanted to be, self-publish it at its natural length, or cut it drastically to create a novella.

My own first publication was a novella, To Go Not Gently in Galaxy in 1978. It was roughly the first third of the novel A Fond Farewell to Dying which I was then in the process of writing.

Cutting TGNG out of FFTD was easy. There was a natural break in the action that allowed me to end the story without leaving the reader feeling cheated.

Cutting Like Clockwork down to size would be another matter; I would have to remove about a third of the book. That would be painful, but would not be a new situation. The floor under my computer is already metaphorically knee deep with good writing that didn’t fit into various novels.

First I had to cut out a long section that took place before the main story. That was easy enough, except that it meant dribbling the necessary backstory into the rest of the book a sentence here and a paragraph there. Smoothly, you understand, and without letting the seams show.

There were four main characters and four lesser characters in Like Clockwork, all paired off. One pair had to be dropped. Some of the things that they did for the plot had to be shoehorned into the lives of the remaining pairs. Smoothly; without letting the seams show.

Much was lost. The Great Babbage, companion to the Great Clock, simply went away. It was reduced to a couple of off-hand references, and that really hurt.  Altogether, it took me a month to chew 65,000 words down to 39,000 words. I submitted it earlier this week, retitled The Clock That Ate Time.

Will you be reading it soon? The writer’s psychotic optimism says yes, but I didn’t destroy any of the files that I cut, and everything that was removed can always be restored if necessary.

That’s my recent history, but it is only worth telling because it points out a larger problem.

Only certain lengths of story can find a market in today’s world. There are homes for flash fiction and for short stories, and novellas can occasionally find their place, but the lengths between 40,000 words and about 90,000 words reside in a wasteland. That is really unfortunate, since most of the best novels in the history of science fiction were in that range.

It’s all a matter of fashion. The best of today’s science fiction would have been rejected unread as too long to publish just a few decades ago.

To put it bluntly, then and now both stink if you have a good story that is the wrong length.

All this is somewhat malleable but there are stories that need to be a certain length. If you are a young writer, this profiling by story length is one more reason self publishing may be your future.

499. Triple Tease

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

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

Here are the results.


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

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

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

119 words


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

50 words


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

25 words


How’s that for a tease?

479. Snap at his Bench

Here is a peek at Like Clockwork, the steampunk novel I’m working on now.

Snap worked every day in his shop, sometimes on maintenance, sometimes on new toys. Day after day, the children cleaned and polished and wound the mainsprings on the toys that he had already built. It would have been cacophony if all the toys had all run all the time of course. Even a good thing can be overdone. Still, every day at least ten of the clockwork toys whirred, clanked and blatted (if it was a clown) or sang (if it was a doll).

The ships whose sails shifted with the wind were entirely Snap’s. So were the several kinds of self-bouncing balls, and the elfin forest of trees that waved their branches to an unfelt, fairy wind. The toys which had faces were his and hers — the mechanism was by Snap and the wood or porcelain flesh came from Pilar’s hands. The dolls which cooed and snuggled in a child’s arms had hands and faces of of clay that Pilar had moulded, fired, and glazed.

Every iteration of the year, a dozen new creations were added. Hundreds of toys lined the shelves and a few each day clanked, chirped, crawled, waltzed, rolled with laughter, and bounced in acrobatic arabesques. Their motion came from Snap; their expressive faces came from Pilar.

Rarely did anyone buy them. Once a year, perhaps — almost never twice in one twelvemonth — someone from the other London made his way to the street outside, saw the sign that said Like Clockwork, looked through the window at the wonders inside, and entered. Then one of Snap’s and Pillar’s clockwork offspring would reach the outer world, and for a time there would be meat in the pot, and new brass, paint, clay and springs for future creations.

Their daily bread came from Pilar, who worked alone in a back room with a spring pole lathe and carving tools, making nutcrackers, jester’s heads and crudely carved puppets. She had no more than six or seven patterns, and she produced them quickly in the time she could spare from other work. They sold for a shilling, but they sold. There were thousands of children in Luddie London without toys, and a few parents who would set aside a penny here and a penny there until they could buy one of the toys Pilar made.

Eve, Lispbeth, and Pakrat were an integral part of the enterprise. Snap called them his sweepers and dusters and winders. They kept the place spotless. The delicate machinery of the toys demanded it, and Pilar demanded it. The children worked continuously, but joyfully. No one made them come each morning.

Outside the toy shop lay hunger and cold, fog and soot, bullying and torments. In the streets and alleys and tenements life was lived by the law of strength, augmented by the rule of want.

Inside was warmth and kindness. Even Pilar’s stony look seemed a mask over a beating heart — but it was such a good mask that the children were afraid to take chances with her wrath. Snap was a massive presence at the workbench, short and thick with muscle, with fingers that were always bleeding a little from scrapes and punctures given to him by slivers of brass or steel or wood, but ignored in his fierce concentration. From time to time he would look up and smile, at Pilar or one of the children, but his eyes always turned quickly back to his task.

Inside there was food, simple and not plentiful, but always there, always to be counted on.  And work, unending, undemanding, unpaid. In the mind of each child there arose a formula, as sure and unrelenting as algebra — work equals warmth, work equals food, work equals safety from the world outside the shop, work equals acceptance.

Work equals self-worth.

A Timely Note

I found it amusing to set my clock to Daylight Savings Time on Sunday, then turn on the computer and write a critical chapter in my new novel about a device called The Great Clock. That entity is also known as The Enemy, The Clock That Swallowed Time, The Clock that Put Time in a Cage, and quite a few other names.

I’m about a third of the way through the book, and it finally has its proper name. It’s called Like Clockwork. Of course. I should have known that from the beginning.

My computer must have been amused as well, because as I was typing in the title of this note, I hit a wrong key and it activated Time Machine, which is Apple’s name for the backup program I use.

Although — can there be any irony without surprise, and can there be any surprise in a multiverse where everything that can happen, must happen?

Yeah, it’s that kind of book. I have a short excerpt scheduled for April 11.

437. Steampunk Clockwork

A great deal of the charm of typical (if such a thing exists) steampunk is that it replicates the sense of wonder of early science fiction, something that is missing 147 years after its beginnings. My math refers to the publication of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870. There have been a lot of stories in that century and a half, so it is just a little hard to come up with something new.

Fortunately for science fiction, there is a new crop of readers every generation. Things that seem old and overdone to long-time readers, seem new to them. When I first saw Weir’s The Martian I thought, “Again?”, but a half million readers on Goodreads rated it highly.

In old fashioned science fiction, the hero could do anything. And therefore, so could the reader.

Among that “anything” was a world of inventions that any boy genius could whip up in his basement. When I first read Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle (published 1911; it was left behind by my grandfather and I found it in the early fifties), Tom was just putting the finishing touches on his electric rifle, but before he headed for Africa with it, he whipped up a new flyer which was half aeroplane and half dirigible to use on the trip. Easy; any boy wonder could do it.

I haven’t seen that schtick since I was a kid in the fifties, and then it was usually in books from the thirties. I think we can blame Apollo. We all saw an entire nation spend a decade of time and billions of dollars to get to the moon. Thousands of workmen (and women) in all parts of the nation made the billion parts it took to undertake a moonshot. It no longer seems possible, even in science fiction, for Sheldon to build a moon rocket in a shed out back of the house.

When I was a kid, if I wanted to build a robot, it would have been made from tin cans, old sewing machines parts, and imagination. Now kids can build real ones (if their parents have enough money) out of plug and play components. Is that better? Is it worse? Decide for yourself, but it is different in a fundamental way.

It is all part of the digitalization of the world. And no, I’m not complaining. I’m writing this while sitting in front of a computer that makes my present life not only better, but possible.

Let’s hop into our time machine and watch it all happen. Let’s make it an even century.

In 1917, if you wanted to listen to the radio, the first thing you would do was build one, out of wire, a variable resistor, a capacitor, an appropriate piece of crystal, and a set of earphones. If you were really ambitious (or more likely, really poor) you could build the variable resistor and the capacitor as well. Everything would be in plain sight there on a pine board in front of you.

The next step was tube radios (that’s valve radios in the land of Britain). Tubes were an offshoot of incandescent light bulbs with more parts inside. Like light bulbs, you could see everything through the glass casing. Things had become more complicated, but you could still see the parts and follow their wiring.

Televisions worked like this as well, and as late as my childhood, hardware stores had a device with hundreds of sockets on top where you could plug in a tube from your TV or radio and check to see if it was burned out. They burned out frequently. If it was bad you could buy a replacement right there and fix the radio or TV yourself.

Then came printed circuits. You could still follow the wiring, but you had to turn the board over and look at the back side.

Then came transistors. They took the place of tubes, but they were tiny, anonymous nuggets with three wires and you could no longer see what their guts looked like. It was the beginning of major progress, and the beginning of the end of understanding.

Finally, integrated circuits arrived, and now you could no longer see the parts or the wires that connected them.

Now if something breaks, you throw it away. That isn’t really a problem, because things are cheaper, and the replacement is usually better than the thing discarded. In terms of practicality, things are better than ever.

In terms of understanding how our machines work, much has been lost.

But steampunk brings it all back. (more Wednesday)

423. 85 Pages: a review

This was supposed to be a review of The Map of Time, by Felix J.  Palma, a book of 609 pages. Instead, it is a review of the first 85 pages because I am going to bail, give up, leave; because life is short and Time is precious.

Mind you, there is some quality in this book. If it were irremediably terrible, I wouldn’t waste a post on it.

Heinlein did time travel, often and occasionally well. Let me retrodict (retrodict: neologism, the opposite of predict) how Heinlein would have written the first 85 pages of this story in, say, 1955.

A___ stood over the torn body of his lover, heartbroken, feeling that his life was over. Then C___, his cousin said, “You can fix this. Just go back in time and kill her killer before he can kill her.

That, folks, is the entire thrust of the fist 85 pages of The Map of Time.

And that’s not all. We already knew exactly what was going to happen by the second or third page. How? Because Palma spends most of his pages foreshadowing events. And, since he calls in every cliché known to Victorian England — Jack the Ripper, ruthless rich father, cowardly wimp of an heir, H. G . Wells and his Time Machine, a hero who thinks he is sensitive but is actually just a clod chasing whores in Whitechapel — we know from the start where this story is going.

The only surprise along the way is that there wasn’t one single surprise along the way.

The writing style is Victorian appropriate. The “hero” never becomes quite so bad that we don’t think he might be salvaged. The “Dear Reader” asides are cleverly handled. The description of London carries the story well. These are all the reasons I stayed around as long as I did. I thought it might get better. I thought something would eventually reward me for my perseverance.

No luck. I’m out of here.

Did I leave just before the story got good? I’ll never know.

If you stuck with The Map of Time all the way through, and you think I’m wrong, tell me. But, spoiler alert, I’ll be hard to convince.