Tag Archives: time travel

651. Beyond the Toyshop Window

It’s classic, the scene of Tiny Tim and his sister looking through the toy shop window while waiting for Bob Cratchit. The world is cold behind them, but inside it a wonderland for children.

You’ll find this in most movie versions of A Christmas Carol. There is even a scene early in Tim Allen’s Santa Clause which is quick homage, with elves hidden among the children. I don’t think that scene ever appeared in the book. I’m not going to swear to it. I’ve read the book many times, and I don’t have time now to prove it to myself, but I’m pretty sure.

The first time I saw that scene in the 1970 movie musical Scrooge, it hit me hard. I wanted to know what else was going on in that toy shop. I wanted to know who ran it, and who made the toys. They couldn’t have been made by the silly proprietor in the movie. Their maker had to have a story to tell — or a story for me to tell.

I was particularly taken by the toy strong man, who eventually appears in critical scenes in Like Clockwork.

So . . . I wanted the builder to be highly intelligent and troubled. I named him Snap early on, with no idea why; then I had to scramble for a reason later in the process. I decided he should be a clock maker; now, why was he making toys instead? He had been cast out, of course, but from where and by whom? I had no idea when I started writing.

I wrote the first chapter and it fell out like water from a tap, including the name of the toy shop, which became the name of the book. Like Clockwork would start out as the story of a toymaker in a clockwork world. It smelled like steampunk, but I found out later that it was a pure time travel story.

At the end of the first chapter Snap turned around and there stood Balfour.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson is one of my favorite authors, and Kidnapped, the story of David Balfour, ranks right up there with A Wizard of Earthsea and The Old Man and the Sea as one of my three favorite books. As soon as my Balfour appeared unexpectedly on that London street, I knew that he was an avatar of RLS, but I made sure Balfour himself didn’t know it for quite a while.

Do you want to know where Like Clockwork came from? Other than from an image out of the movie Scrooge, and a lifetime of living, imaginatively, in Dickensian London, the answer is — out of left field. It has been a long time since a book has so completely written itself, chapter by chapter, line by line, with little foreknowledge on my part.

There is an exception to that. The ending came early and largely complete, but filling in the parts between was largely sans outline, sans planning, and sans any kind of reason. That may be part of why I like it so well.

Then Chapter 26, titled 62 – 54 = 9, which was the seventh chapter in my screwed up table of contents, fell out onto the screen. The opening sentence read, “Hemmings was a computer.” I didn’t see him coming at all. I just thought I needed a Babbage to balance the Great Clock. I had no idea how much it and Hemmings were going to take over.

It’s been fun. Throughout the novel there are little pieces of cultural reference and homages, sometimes humorous and almost always hidden. Scrooge himself is almost completely absent, except in feel, until near the end of the novel when he appears briefly in a cameo under an assumed name.

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Now that Snap had taken Pakrat with him, and Eve had sent a message that she would be gone today, Pilar was left alone with Lithbeth. She bundled her into a jacket, locked the toy store behind them, and set out to shop. They wandered the streets as if on holiday, talking with the cart vendors, and occasionally buying potatoes or onions. Lithbeth’s eyes were everywhere; she was almost never on the streets in the middle of the day, and things looked different in the strong, filtered light.

Through the grimy windows of an ancient building, Lithbeth saw a small man on a high stool, pen in hand, marking something in a thick ledger. His quick, bright eyes caught her as she passed, and he sent her a smile. She waved back, but then the Ogre came.

He was no larger than the other man, but powerful in his anger. He began to berate the clerk, and Lithbeth turned her face away.

Pilar put a hand on Lithbeth’s shoulder and said, “It’s best not to look into that window. It only makes old Countinghouse treat his clerk even worse than usual.”

“Why does he do that?”

Pilar shook her head. “Some men are like that,” she said. “A master can make his servant’s life a joy or a misery even in small things.”

“Snap would never do that.”

“No, he would not,” Pilar said, and felt a brief moment of peace. Snap would never do that.

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Of course, like Scrooge, Countinghouse has to have his come-to-Jesus moment. It comes on almost the last page of the novel.

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Dickens stopped dead in the street. The old scarecrow Countinghouse stopped likewise, and cringed at the sight of him, feeling a premonition of things to come.

“Who are you?” Dickens asked, in a voice firm with purpose.

“Countinghouse, not that it’s any of your business.”

“It is my business. Mankind is my business, but you in particular are my business. And you only call yourself Countinghouse because you have forgotten your name.”

“If I have forgotten it, let it remain forgotten.”

“There has been enough of forgetting. It is time to remember. You and I have much business together.”

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Poor old codger, people just won’t leave him alone.

640. The Synapse Emerges 1

Life is weird, and strange things happen. It is almost enough to make you believe in a master plan, although it remains questionable whether that would be divine or diabolical. In any case, if there is a plan, it’s a hoot.

I’m going to tell you a story that began in January of 1976 and came full circle on October fifth, about a month ago. I have to warn you though, only old writers, new writers, or wannabe writers are likely to be be interested.

But really, who among you hasn’t either built a world, or wanted to?

In the fall of 1975, I sat down to prove or disprove my ability to churn out 40,000 to 50,000 words and call it a novel. By Christmas I had succeeded, although it wasn’t good enough to publish. Right after New Years, I set out to write a “real” novel, science fiction, with world building and everything. It was to be a lost colony book, so I had to get my people stranded, and that meant inventing an FTL drive. I took all of five minutes to do it.

     A sphere floating in space, silver against a backdrop of stars.
     The stars shift their colors, doppler down, out. The sphere hangs alone in darkness where here and there are concepts yet unborn. Six antennae project; it is not so much moved as displaced. First it is here, then it is there, but it never crosses the space between here and there . . . Synapse drive can cross the galaxy in a heartbeat.

from Jandrax

All done. I blew things up and left my people who-knew-where, and I didn’t have to think about that star drive again.

Synapse? It was just a word that came to mind, with no real connection to brain cells except that it seemed to imply something, without specifying what.

Beware of what you create, Dr. Frankenstein.

I wrote the novel Jandrax, and it was published. Picture a young author leaping with joy.

A few years later I started Cyan and had to invent a non-FTL star drive. (For more, check out the post coming November 20.) This time I put some thought into it so that it had some reasonable underpinnings. Lots of years passed and eventually Cyan was published, but I wasn’t through. I now had a world full of people I really liked, and some of them were young enough to continue exploring on the decrepit old starship Darwin.

The trouble was, I’d blown up the Earth, and I couldn’t count on it to recover for a long while. Someone had to write the Monomythos which had driven/would drive the plot in Jandrax, and someone had to invent the Synapse. I had to find them hidden among the population of Cyan, and I had to find motivations for both of them to do what I knew they had to do.

Writing prequels is like doing a time travel paradox story. He invented this, because he had to, because he used it on page 92 of a previously published book, that takes place in the new book’s future. See, time travel.

There was no problem with the Monomythos. I decided to have its writer be a rational young man who had grown up under the influence of a religious fanatic, either his father or a father figure. That’s right up my alley and the writing of it has been dribbling along recently on days when other writing is stalled.

In fact, the whole sequel to Cyan has been dribbling along in lots of pages of notes-to-self. Darwin is too old to push to previous accelerations, so the next journey will need cold sleep. No problem, there are 60,000 cold sleep units left over from Cyan’s colonization.

But that brings up something else.

I don’t know about you, but loose ends keep rolling around in my head long after I’ve moved on to other books. In Cyan, between 10 and 20 percent of the cold sleepers never woke up. Their bodies were fine, there was just nobody home. I had created that as an unexplained fact, but ever since then I’ve been wondering why things should work out that way. I decided to let Debra and Beryl figure it out in the sequel.

If you don’t know who Debra and Beryl are, for God’s sake go buy a copy of Cyan and read it. (LINK)

Using the computer’s file of DNA patterns from the 60,000 who set out from Earth, Debra and Beryl discover that a certain cluster of seemingly unrelated genes is present in all who died, and absent from all who lived. Further research is indicated, but it provides an absolute predictor of who will die in cold sleep.

One of the people (still unnamed, let’s just call him Frank for now) who is ready to depart on the new exploration finds that he has the deadly gene cluster and can’t go. When the Darwin departs without him, he is motivated to find an answer to faster than light travel.

All of this was worked out during the last six months, well before yesterday’s epiphany.

I’m only half way through this odd tale, and this post is already long enough, so I’ll to finish 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.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.