Tag Archives: time travel

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.

Advertisements

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.

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

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.

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

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.

590. The Road to Corlay

Cold curtains of November rain came drifting slowly up the valley like an endless procession of phantom mourners following an invisible hearse. From beneath an overhang of limestone a boy and an old man squatted side by side and gazed disconsolately out across the river to the dripping forest on the far bank. Suddenly a salmon leaped — a flicker of silver in the gloom and a splash like a falling log. The boy’s eyes gleamed. “Ah,” he breathed. “Did you see him?”

That’s a lot of description for an opening paragraph. Hemingway would have hated it, but it works perfectly to present the quasi-medieval setting and elegiac mood of The Road to Corlay.

The novel came out in paperback from Pocket Books in 1979. I read it some time that year and it made a permanent impression, so much so that I named it as one of my fifteen favorite books earlier this year. The impression, however, was of its quality and was not accompanied by anything like a scene by scene recollection.

I had to read it again, and I am glad that I did.

What appears between the covers of the Pocket Books version is a novella called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Hugo and Nebula nominee for 1977) and a short novel called The Road to Corlay. Together they tell one seamless story, but it will be easier here to talk about them separately.

Beware — I normally avoid spoilers but I can’t do it in this case.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is allegorical, but don’t let that put you off. Allegory is often just a lazy author’s attempt to achieve false profundity, but Cowper does it right. My personal test for allegory is, “Does the writing stand by itself? Would I like it as well if I didn’t know the story it mimics?” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn passes this test easily.

 It takes place on the eve of the new millennium, 2999 AD, in a post-flood England. The waters began rising in the 1980s due to global warming. (Yes, I said global warming, even though this story was begun in the 1970s.) By the time Piper opens, technological society is a thing of the past and the Church Militant rules the land.

Here is the only real weakness in the underlying story. Why revive Catholicism as villain? In the 70s its power was essentially dead in Britain, and its resurgence is merely assumed, never explained. I can only chalk it up to the extreme Englishness of the novel. Brits have been seeing the Catholic Church as bogeyman since Bloody Mary’s reign of terror in the 1550s. If this novel had been written by an American (like Davy was), we would probably have seen cold, heartless Puritans hanging witches instead.

Logical or not, the Church Militant makes a good foil, and offers a medieval tone without needing a lot of backstory.

The story itself — that is, the plot — can be summarized quickly. Tom, a boy of about thirteen and Old Peter, a storyteller, are walking toward York where Tom is supposed to enter a Church school. Tom has the ability, taught to him by a wizard, to play his pipes so that he can control animals and make people see visions. He also knows a lot more about unfolding events than a boy should know. His playing amplifies Old Peter’s storytelling so that by the time they reach York, they are raking in money and followers.

Tom is a very docile and agreeable lad, but every time he gives in to Peter’s schemes, it moves him closer to his own destiny. Peter seems to have no clue that this is happening. We are not told that Tom is manipulating, but he never seems surprised when things go his way.

The world is in turmoil with prophesies of the coming of the White Bird of Kinship at the turn of the millennium. Once in York, at the end of the year, Tom slips away to play his pipes for the gathered crowd. The White Bird descends upon the land, but just at the climax of the event Tom is killed by the bolt from a crossbow.

Piper is allegorical, certainly, but not a true allegory. It is a retelling of the Christ story, but with more differences than similarities.

We have the self-sacrificed innocent, but he has preached no sermons and promulgated no gospel. We have Gyre, who fires the bolt but has no memory of the deed or the reason for it. There is a touch of Judas here, but only a touch, and that lies primarily in his regret.

We have the White Bird, which even a character within the story recognizes as being like the Holy Spirit, but the death of Tom does not bring about any redemption. It only causes the Bird’s descent to misfire.

We have Old Peter who takes Gyre with him to spread the word of what has happened, like two apostles after the resurrection. But there was no resurrection and the Bird has flown away. Peter and Gyre are not actually spreading the word of what has happened, but of what is still to come, and here we find a trace of John the Baptist.

It isn’t a Christ story, but a slightly Christlike story. And it is not an ending, but a beginning. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the most emotionally unified and satisfying part of the overall story, but it demands the follow-up provided by The Road to Corlay

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

I sometimes hear reviewers say that, while they are ready to meet the characters in the opening chapter of a novel they don’t want to have to do it all over again on page fifty. My novel Jandrax caused great irritation to one reviewer for that very reason, but sometimes a complicated story requires a rotating cast of characters.

The Road to Corlay is that kind of work. It begins eighteen years after the boy Tom’s death. Old Peter and Gyre have been spreading the gospel of the White Bird of Kinship, but they remain mostly off stage. All the characters are new, and many of them won’t live to see the end of the book.

The Church Militant has tried to absorb the new religion into itself, but now its leaders change tactics. An proscription for heresy is released, and all the people we will come to care about become the hunted.

In researching for this post, I ran across a review of another Cowper novel which contained the lines, “This novel has real people in it that you can care about . . . just don’t expect too many laughs.” He could have been talking about The Road to Corlay.

The novel begins with two fishermen dragging in body bound to a spar. It is Thomas of Norwich, the second of three Thomases in the book. That is a little confusing, but a necessary part of the story. He is alive, but he shouldn’t be after all his days in the water. It will take the rest of the novel to answer why this is and what it means. He comes into the hands of Jane, who is gifted with huesh, which is something like ESP crossed with foreseeing. She enters his mind, but finds two men there, one being Thomas himself, the other a stranger she can barely touch.

It is in chapter two that the disaffection starts for most reviewers, including Joachim Boaz and Thomas Anderson, two reviewers I enjoy and respect.

In this new chapter the scene changes to 1986, a decade in the future from Cowper’s perspective. It is a familiar world of cars and hospitals, and of scientists working at the edge of current knowledge. A scientist name Carver is having a chemically induced OBBE (out of body experience) and his colleagues can’t wake him up. No one is worried at first, but then he sinks fast and the chapter ends with him in danger. We know from what Jane said in the last chapter that Carver is the other man in Thomas of Norwich’s head.

And it is raining — has been raining for months. Without ever saying so, Cowper has let us know that the rising of the waters has begun.

Let’s dispose of this 1986 intrusion, if it is an intrusion, before we get back to 3018. Everybody seems to hate it, but I didn’t mind it at all. On a visceral level, it was a relief every three chapters to spend a few pages somewhere that my new friends weren’t being hunted down.

More importantly, 1986 is a counterpoise to the future. It isn’t there to give backstory; that could have been done in a few carefully chosen sentences of authorial omniscience. It shows that the past and the future are the same. The scientists with their machinery basically don’t know what the hell is going on. The people like Jane who use and are used by huesh, don’t know where it comes from or why it works. The central purveyors of the new religion basically don’t know how any of it works, or what is going to happen next. Confusion is the human norm in all eras, which perfectly agrees with my prejudices.

Meanwhile, back in 3018: Thomas of Norwich takes refuge with Jane’s family. Only a small portion of the population has embraced Kinship, but those who have take care of each other. Jane is troubled, not only by the other man inside Thomas, but because she hueshed Thomas washed up on the beach, drowned. In her experience, huesh foreseeings never fail, and she has become fond of Thomas.

(Speaking of things to hate, I hate this kind of foreshadowing, but once again, Cowper made it work.)

Thomas has a mission, to find Gyre, who killed the boy Tom and became his greatest advocate, and to carry the boy’s pipes and written testament to safety in France. Jane takes him part way on that journey by boat, and is later attacked, then rescued. She learns that her family has been killed and she is herself now a refugee. She and Thomas come together again and he comforts her in her grief. In their days together, fondness has already turned to love, and now that leads to a night of lovemaking. Shortly after, they are captured together, and held for those who are hunting them.

Meanwhile, in a separate strand of the story, Brother Francis is sent by Cardinal Constant, head of the English Church Militant and prime mover against the Kinsmen, in search of knowledge about the boy who died. Francis travels from place to place, tracing the boy’s history, and hearing from those he has touched. He is slowly converted to Kinship, so as he nears the end of his journey, he changes sides. When he finds Gyre, he does not turn him over to the Church, but chooses to help him.

Gyre offers to play on the boy’s pipes, so Francis can hear an echo of an echo of the melody that is converting the world.

Raising his head abruptly the dying Kinsman gazed up at the vaulted ceiling and cried with a voice so strong it seemed almost as if it must be coming from some other throat than his: “Boy, show now at the end that I am forgiven! You know that I shot in ignorance of what I did! Speak you now through my darkness that his darkness may become light!”

He drew a deep, panting breath, raised the twin mouthpieces to his lips, and fixing the Advocate Sceptic with an unwavering gaze he began to play.

The Road to Corlay is a long and complicated story, but none of it would mean anything if it weren’t so beautifully written.

Gyre passes the pipes and testament to Francis and dies. Francis goes on, now looking for Thomas of Norwich to deliver them to him, but he finds him captive of the Church. Using his standing as a priest, since no one knows of his apostasy, he effects a rescue, but Thomas is killed.

Jane, with her unborn son, the pipes and the testament, escapes to France where her coming son Tom will fulfill his destiny.

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

Tom the boy who died by crossbow, Thomas of Norwich who inherited his pipes and testament, Tom the unborn son in Jane’s womb at book’s end (who I’m told is the primary figure in the two sequels) — clearly we have a reincarnation sub-text going on here unexplained.

We also have a sub-text of repetitions. The birth of Christianity, medieval days, the rise of technological hubris smashed back by a flood (again, just like Noah), the rebirth of a quasi-medieval society and a new Church Militant, followed by the birth of Kinship (the primitive, original Christianity?). From what little I know of the two sequels, Kinship wins out, becomes the great power, and is itself corrupted.

To my eye, this all looks very Hindu, with age after age, and avatar after avatar of basically the same Gods, repeating variations of the same myths. I’ll say more on that in a month or so when I deal with the Earthsea books.

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

Now I’m going to take you down the rabbit hole of my Southern Baptist childhood by way of this quotation:

. . . midway out in the Somersea a three masted barque, its white sails drooping like tired petals, floated becalmed above it’s own reflection. High above it a solitary star twinkled, a silver drop suspended from an invisible thread.

There are white boats in the offing in several places in this novel — white like the White Bird. In this case with “white sails drooping like a tired” (bird?). A three masted barque — where else have we seen something that looks like three upright wooden masts crossed by yards? Oh, yes, on the hill at Calvary? And where but above the manger did a solitary star twinkle?

You doubt me? I don’t blame you, but this is the world of types and symbols scattered through a sea of parables that I grew up in. This book speaks to me the same way, with little hints and teases that float untethered through the text. No? Then tell me, if that barque is not symbolic — even if my reading of it was not precise — why was it there? It had no place in the plot.

These are the little touches — images and turns of phrase — scattered throughout The Road to Corlay which make it read like a new scripture to those of us who spent our childhoods reading the original Christian scripture.

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

I don’t understand all of The Road to Corlay; I’m not supposed to. If all its meaning could be reduced to reason, Cowper could have nailed it to some college door like the ninety-five theses, and it would have been mummified in a philosophy text.

Instead, he gave us a fable. I understand that impulse. In 1975, fresh out of graduate school, I wrote my first novel, and was seduced. I could say things in fiction that I could never say any other way.

Thomas of Norwich, trying to explain how it felt to play the song of the White Bird, said:

“I knew the supreme joy of possessing something that can only exist in the giving.”

I get it. That’s how it feels every time I write, but it seems too arrogant to admit, so let’s just keep it between ourselves.

554. Midwinter Midnight

Last night (Dec. 6), I watched a PBS special on the Highwaymen and heard Kris Kristofferson singing Me and Bobby McGee. One familiar line jumped out at me, and I added it to the page of short quotations that opens Like Clockwork.

I’d trade all of my tomorrows
For one single yesterday

That line encapsulates one of the strongest human sentiments, the fear of loss and the nearly insane clinging to that which cannot last.

What would you do if you were given the chance to relive the prime year of your life? Would you take the chance, or would you proceed into the unknown future?

Like Clockwork asks — and answers — that question. It begins and end at midnight on the last/first day of the Only Year.

Here is the Prolog to Like Clockwork. Or is it an epilog? Or something else altogether? You decide.

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

“Tonight Snap has gone down to the Clock for Midwinter Midnight. In just a few minutes, the reversion will occur and I will forget writing this note. It will be midnight of January first, 1850. Not next year, nor last year, but the only year there is.

It isn’t a bad year and it isn’t a particularly good year, but if it is to be my only year, I want more.”

Pilar laid down her pen and listened, straining to hear the song they always sang at midnight:

The year that ends, but never ends,
That ‘ere again unfolds,
We live that year forever and
We never shall grow old

It was probably her imagination. Surely voices could not be heard over such a distance. She rose to move closer to a window and as she did, the note she had written ceased to be. All her memories of the past twelve months ceased to be. Her body sloughed off a year of age and it was January first of the last-this-next-only year.

Again.

553. The Babbage Bureau of Accountancy

Yesterday was Christmas. Today is the 26th of December. Happy Boxing Day.

If Boxing Day is just something British you’ve vaguely heard of, let me explain. It is the holiday on which various workers expect to receive their Christmas-box from those they serve.

I have never written about the commercialism of Christmas. That notion has been done to death, and besides, even Santa’s elves get paid in cookies. Christmas gifts don’t make themselves, you know.

So you can imagine my surprise when, seven chapters into Like Clockwork, the Dickens-inspired steampunk novel that turned out to not be about Christmas, Hemmings appeared without warning and dragged me into exploring the commerce of my pocket London. Take a look.

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

Throughout the main building of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy, ten thousand human computers were required to keep up the constant cross checking of the Great Babbage, as it kept track of every transaction in all the factories and warehouses of London.

It was late November. Christmas was coming, the warehouses were nearly full, and the remaining raw materials had to move through the system to produce the goods, neither running short of materials too soon, nor finishing the last needed item before the final day.

Full employment, full consumption. Everybody has a job. Everybody consumes the goods that everybody else makes. Every tally book balances. The capitalistic ideal.

A single employer. Every job suited to the person who does it. All those tally books replaced by the Great Babbage. The communistic ideal.

Either way, it was no place to be unemployed.

The ten thousand computers counted themselves lucky. They were Time’s Favored Ones. They worked seated, in gentleman’s clothing. They returned home at night unstained. Not for them was the curse of Adam, to work by the sweat of their faces. The middle fingers of their right hands all bore the honorable callus that came from holding a pen. The skin on the rest of their bodies was smooth. Time moved crisply for them, to the smooth rhythm of numerals filling up little blue squares.

In the factories, time moved differently, slowing down and growing more resistant to human movement as the day wore on. That does not seem possible, but young Albert had done work in time dilation according to theories of his own. Time moved smoothly for the computers; time dragged on more slowly as the day progressed for those who bent their backs.

It had always felt that way, throughout the history of mankind, and now it actually was that way.

Morning, morning tea, and luncheon all rolled by with stately grace. It was at 2:18 in the afternoon, November 27, 1850, that Hemmings the computer hit a reef.

His whole job was to check by hand the calculations made by the Great Babbage, looking for errors. On November 27, he found one. Did they thank him? Of course not. The Babbage was incapable of error — even though Hemmings had found one — so they fired him.

Hemmings stood on the street in front of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy and stared upward, considering the machine which had just become his nemesis. He had never seen the Great Babbage itself, but he imagined it as a massive collection of repeating components, interlaced with walkways where the technicians came and went to clean and oil and inspect. There were a trillion gears, cams, and escapements in his mental image. There were Jacquardian punch cards by the waggon load, as many cards as there were oysters in the ocean.

As many as there had been oysters, when there was an ocean.

Now the picture in his mind had changed. Not much, really, but enough. There was rust on some of the gears now, and some unidentifiable ooze coming out of some of the housings. Hemmings shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He knew the rust was hatred and the ooze was envy, and that they were in him, not the machine.

Still, here he was, with no place in the world, ripped out of the one thing he had been trained to do. With no money to buy his food or pay his rent, no companions, no usefulness to stabilize his identity.

Every stone and brick in London was unchanged, but Hemmings was changed, and suddenly he was as adrift as a chip of wood floating somewhere on the ocean.

When there had been an ocean.

There was no fight in him. He ate his supper where he always did, but this time he sat alone. There were very few coins left in his pocket. Then he walked.

All the streets were well lighted by gaslight. There was no refuse in the gutters. There were few pedestrians, and they all were moving purposefully toward someplace they belonged. He looked at their faces. He had never cared before to look into the faces of the strangers he passed by each day, but now he chose to examine them.

Their faces were calm and peaceful, but there was no joy in them.

He wandered into darkness. By that time, he owned the empty streets. He needed sleep, but it was hard to choose a place to lie down. Every place was identical to every other place. It clearly did not matter where he slept, but that was why he couldn’t choose.

Every clock-face on every building-face in all of London said 3:35 when he could no longer stand. He crawled behind an ash can and let go of everything.

He dreamed of whirling gears, and rust, and ooze.

On the third day, his coins ran out. He did not eat on the fourth day. He had never been hungry before, and the misery of that condition frightened him. He considered stealing. He could go into the place where he had always eaten, scoop up a loaf of bread, and walk away. They probably wouldn’t chase him, at least not far.

Then what? Would the — bobbies, peelers, cops, pigs, police — come to get him? He realized that all the names he had dredged up from deep memory were without weight or taste. He had never seen a policeman, not in a thousand iterations of the year.

What kind of place is so smug, so self-righteous, so self-certain that no one breaks the law? How could there be no rebellion?

He could probably become invisible to the machinery of the state and make his living by simple theft. Could the Great Babbage find him? How? Track him by arithmetic errors, by all the places which reported one less loaf of bread than the Great Babbage had predicted?

Try to find me, you bucket of rusty gears and ooze.

He considered the possibility of living by theft, outside the norms of the rest of mankind, and it tore at his heart. The thought hurt him more than hunger.

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

Now, back to our world.

There I was, sitting at my computer, comfortably contemplating my novel of a variant Dickensian London, when suddenly Hemmings appeared. Now my pocket London was split in two. Half would have looked familiar to Scrooge, and the other half was as four-square and linear as an equation. One half was under thrall to the Great Babbage and the other half to the Great Clock that kept turning time back on itself.

Weird. I’ll let you know when you can read it for yourself and see just how weird.

547. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (2)

Continued from Monday.

In the movie Scrooge, just after Bob Cratchit leaves Scrooge to return home on Christmas eve, he meets his two youngest children outside a toyshop. Inside is a wonderland of toys, including mechanical marvels. Most notable is a clockwork strongman who lifts himself horizontally and then holds himself suspended by one arm. You’ll no doubt see the movie on TV sometime this month; you can watch for the scene.

When I saw it — and every time thereafter — I found myself asking who, in an obviously poor corner of London, would buy such toys? Who would make them? Why were they there?

I buy into Christmas and its magic 100%, but I also look behind the curtain. If you are a writer, you know the feeling.

Clearly, historically, these were late Victorian toys. Their existence was a product of Dickens’ push for humanity, kindness, and his desire to make childhood the joy it never was for him. In short, these toys existed in the 1970 version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol precisely because Dickens had called them forth by the writing of the novel in 1843.

If that confused you, don’t try to write time travel stories.

As I saw the toyshop, and the poor children outside who would never have such toys, I said to myself:

Let’s write a story about the toyshop, and the man who inhabits it. Let’s make him the toy maker, not simply the proprietor. How does he feel when he see children pressing their faces against the glass, knowing that they cannot afford the toys he makes? Why is he in this poor part of London? What is his backstory?

Let’s not make him a simple fellow like the one in the movie. Let’s make him a brooding figure. Let’s unfold his story slowly, and let him find his own kind of redemption. Let’s not make him anything like Scrooge, but the product of some irreversible tragedy outside himself. And then let’s reverse the irreversible, but slowly.

The skeleton of this idea floated about in the ether for decades. The final connections came when I was writing The Cost of Empire and getting acquainted with steampunk traditions.

Clockwork. Steampunk worlds work on steam and on clockwork. The toys in the toy shop are clockwork. Clocks are clockwork. Clocks measure time. Steampunk is full of time travel. Time travel is based on unsupportable science, so it touches on fantasy. A Christmas Carol is full of fantasy, if you count ghosts impinging on the “real” world as fantasy.

Remember, the subtitle of Dickens’ story was Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

When you come right down to it, A Christmas Carol is a story about time travel. Three ghosts take Scrooge to the past, present, and future. And it displays the most cliché time paradox, that Scrooge goes back in time (from the future to the present) and becomes a different person than he would have been if he had never seen the future.

So suppose a time traveler from the future goes back to Victorian London to — no, I don’t want to tell you that yet. I have to leave something for the book.

Don’t think of all this speculation as something that moves in linear order, like an outline. Think of it as ten thousand bees in a swarm inside the author’s head. Nine thousand of those bees will be blind alleys and will never appear in the final product.

The ones that made the cut were dragged out of the cosmos by hard thought and reflection over the year it took to write Like Clockwork. Those are the “ideas” no one ever asks about, but they are the ones that really count.

The ironic thing is that Like Clockwork ended up not being a Christmas story at all. In fact, it takes place in a universe where Christmas has been all but forgotten. The part of the novel actually dependent on the toy shop ends up as about ten percent of the whole.

So if, on some future date, you are reading Like Clockwork and you ask yourself, “Where the hell did all this come from?” — the answer is, “Dickens made me do it.”

Or the answer could be, “Out of the ether.” Both answers are true.

538. Not Like Clockwork at All

I have been writing my latest novel Like Clockwork for ten months and today (October 17) I called it “first draft done”. But it’s not that simple.

I have a file on my computer called ???When???, where I keep track of starts and finishes because I would never remember dates otherwise. I went there to make note of the tentative conclusion of the first draft and took time to remind myself how I got here.

It’s a tangle. I’ve had books that took longer to write, and books that grew well beyond the size I had intended, but I have never before had a book that refused to tell me ahead of time what was going on. I decided to share the file of my progress(?), edited to remove irrelevant family matters.

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

January 2, 2018. I began the first page of a novel/novella with the working title Clockwork Christmas.

Jan. 13, 2018.  Clockwork Christmas is now titled Like Clockwork, after the toy store where Snap works. As of today, I am about 12,000 words into the thing. I hope it will reach at least 60,000 words to be sold as a novel, but it still could possibly be finished at novella length.

(For reference, SFWA sets novella length at 17,500-40,000 words. F&SF sets 25,000 as the largest piece they will publish.)

Like Clockwork is being constructed of (minimum and approximate) 1000 word chapters.

From roughly 17 to 22 January, 2018, I paused Like Clockwork to write posts for the website. (There were several pauses for colds and other minor illnesses which I will not record.)

On Jan 31, I wrote chapter 10 in which Balfour gets the idea for Jekyll and Hyde. He does not yet know that he already wrote it in another life.

Mar. 6, 2018, things are coming slowly. As of today, about 25 chapters done. That’s a large number, but each chapter is short.

March 11, 2018  Today Stevenson emerged into consciousness, absorbing both Balfour and Hyde. That lasted about a day, then Balfour realized he can’t be the actual Stevenson because he remembers Stevenson’s tombstone. What exactly  is he? As of now, I have no more idea than he does.

April 3, 2018, writing on the chapter Slow Time, I began to show Bartleby’s dogged determination to follow any task to its completion. The question occurred to me for the first time, is Bartleby human, or a robot or android. As of this date, I hadn’t decided if he is a person or an living story character with Melville as Fabulist, and now here is a third possibility.

April 4, 2018, writing the final paragraph of the chapter Slow Time I came to the realization that Like Clockwork is the story of a whole cadre of people who made a Faustian bargain, got what they asked for, and now are suffering from buyers’ remorse. I also came to the realization that yesterday’s question, “Is he a robot?” is answered this way — he is a cold, detached, hard boiled detective type who can’t be pushed aside from a goal or puzzle. He doesn’t need a personality any more than Sam Spade did. Not a machine, but thinks like one.

(Aside — Bartleby’s name changed as the writing progressed. First he was named after the Melville scrivener. Then he became Helmsman. I liked that name but it implied that he was a leader type, which he wasn’t. Finally he became Hemmings, because it’s just a name with no hidden meanings.)

About here, some time was devoted to my personal life, plus the completion of an unrelated short story.

On about June 28, I became aware the Tor would accept novellas beginning July 30. Like Clockwork had been nearing its end at about 70000 words. That doesn’t work for today’s publishing industry, and some of that was less that compelling writing in a long flashback section. I had three choices. Shorten and go for Tor novella publication, stretch even further and try to reach salable novel length, or let it find it’s own length and self-publish. I have opted to make it a Tor novella, although the other choices remain if Tor rejects it.

On July 14, 2018, I finished the Tor novella version of Like Clockwork, now retitled The Clock that Ate Time. I still have to do some e-formating to match their submission engine. The novella version runs 39,365 words. I had to cut out everything relating to Hemmings and Crump, which means cutting out the Babbage and Hemmings’s brief career as a sweeper in a factory, along with the extended memory-retrieved-as-flashback that details how the Founder set up the whole thing and why. I really hated to let go of all that.

I would enjoy the long version better, but the short version is less discursive. If the novella doesn’t fly, I may try it elsewhere (if there is any elsewhere — F&SF maxes out their novellas at 25,000 words) or I may go back and finish the long version. For now, I’m just glad to be at least temporarily done with it.

The novella version went off to tor.com.

You have to understand that writing is schizophrenic. I was sure that it would be accepted. No other outlook would allow a writer to retain his sanity. I was equally sure that it wouldn’t be accepted. The market being what it is, everyone on Earth with a novella ready is going to jump into the tor.com window of opportunity.

From the end of July until the beginning of October, I worked on other projects.

Oct 2, 2018   tor.com rejected The Clock that Ate Time, resulting in disappointment followed by relief. Now I can complete the novel version. Bear in mind, it is not insanity to carefully edit out feelings of irritation and disappointment, as long as you know that you are doing it.

Now I am expanding Hemmings part of the story and grafting it back onto the whole. It is called Like Clockwork again and it is taking forever to complete.

October 17, 2018 I finished both part one and part three of Like Clockwork months ago. I have recently been filling in the middle third, which amounts to a long flashback that explains how reiterant London came to be. Today I wrote the last line of the middle section. I still have several  half-page long dialogs or descriptions to fill in, and I still haven’t quite finished deciding how to integrate Hemmings and Crump into the big finale, but I am calling it “rough draft finished”.

Still, it feels (and is) very unfinished at this stage. I think I need to fill in more of the Founder’s personality. That may take only a few touches here and there, but they have to be the exact right touches, and that can take a long time. I also have four versions to integrate: beginning, middle, and end of the latest version, along with the tor.com version which is the least extensive but most polished.

I need to find something to write next, or perhaps finally decide to begin self-publishing; it may take a long time for all the finalizing of Like Clockwork, a few hours here and a few hours there.

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

See what I mean? This is my fourteenth book, and the only one that has driven me this crazy. I know that I did a lot of character name dropping, but that was unavoidable. I don’t expect you to understand anything except the level of madness this book has engendered.

Today I started deciding which potential novel will be number number fifteen. I plan to outline this one.

I think.