Books By C. LItka

Books By C. LItka

Monday, June 29, 2020

Thoughts on The Calculating Stars

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This is another entry in my series of remarks and observations directed at the clouds – which is to say, an opinion piece.

Having joined the ebook club, I am occasionally offered a free ebook, usually titles that they are using to promote the release of a new sequel and such. The Murderbot novellas were such books, as were a number of mostly fantasy novels and novellas, which I sampled, and did not get past the first page, or chapter. The most recent free book is The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Kowal’s novel winner of the 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the 2019 Campbell Memorial Award. Since the price was right, the book is speculative fiction rather than fantasy, and very highly regarded, I eagerly downloaded my ebook copy and dived into it.

The book is an alternative history of the American space program of the 1960’s. In this story, an asteroid strikes the east coast in 1952, triggering an extinction event. An accelerated space program is launched that echoes the actual 1960’s program, but with the aim of establishing colonies on the Moon and Mars before the earth becomes uninhabitable. Its premise is a classic speculative fiction story. Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud coming immediately to my mind.

It did not, however, click with me. I found myself, at the halfway point, skimming through the book in the hopes of just getting it done. Not good. Realizing this, I called it a day. I’m not one who feels obliged to finish a book I don’t care for. After giving The Calculating Stars half a book to hook me, I couldn’t find a reason to continue.

Having read only half the book, I can’t really review it. But I will share my thoughts about the first half, just between you, me, and the clouds.

In many ways, The Calculating Stars should’ve clicked with me. I prefer first person narratives. The story is one. I prefer smaller stories. The first half of the story, anyway, is not grandiose. I like to spend my reading time with pleasant characters. The supporting characters are, for the most part, likable, though I confess to having lost track of them, given the very episodic nature of the story structure. Given that my stories are episodic in nature, that too, should not have been a problem. So it had a lot of things going for it. But…

Thinking about it, I think there are two aspects of The Calculating Stars that failed to click with me – the narrator and the premise.

I’ll start with the narrator, Elma York. She was born in Charleston SC in the early 1920’s, the daughter of an army officer, eventually a general. He taught or encouraged her to take up flying. During World War Two she was one of the group of female pilots who flew airplanes from factories and bases to other bases, freeing men for combat duty. She is a mathematical genius, earning a PhD in mathematics and physics, at some point. She is happily married to another PhD, a well known rocket scientist. At the start of the story, she is working in the government bureau, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics doing computations. She has emotional scars from her college years, when she was called to the head of the class and made to shame the male students with her ability to do math in her head that they had trouble doing on paper. This seems to have given her a great fear of calling any attention to herself – at least that is how I read it.

The problems I have with her is, first, both she, and her husband, are comfortable ignoring the fact that she’s a PhD. She’s known simply as Mrs. York (rather than Dr. York) and despite her brilliance, works in a fairly menial capacity, presumably because that’s all women were allowed to do. Yet, I find it hard to imagine that any woman of her accomplishments, even in 1952, would have settled for this situation, especially someone with her bravery and determination. While she is not quite content with her status, she wants to be an astronaut, she doesn’t really ever stand up for herself, nor, for that matter does her husband. Secondly, growing up in the south of the 1920’s and 30’s, in the household of a fairly important army officer, I would think that they would’ve had a black servant or two – a cook, a maid, a nanny, and certainly yardmen and such. She would’ve been familiar with blacks, and would’ve had a definite opinion of them, one way or the other. She is, however, written as if she grew up in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. She treats the black characters as if she is first meeting black people, and their lives are a mystery. Race relations is touched on in the story, but tiptoed around. Her treatment of them, as a southerner just didn’t feel authentic. And lastly, despite her accomplishments, she comes off as rather needy… She simply doesn’t make sense to me, at least in the first half of the book – which is probably due to me being clueless. Perhaps these issues are resolved by the end of the book, but in the first half, she never struck me as being the person she would have needed to be to have achieved what she achieved. I found it hard to relate to her, and the often mundane nature of the story she relates.

I lived through the 1950’s & 60’s, and in reading this story I never experienced even a glimmer of recognition for the time period. The same can be said for the setting and larger backdrop of the times. The backdrop of the post-asteroid world is merely hinted at with a quoted news story at the beginning of the chapters. “Mrs York” doesn’t relate much beyond her immediate concerns. Indeed, even the space program, which she is part of, mostly plays out in the background. Every so often we have a rocket launch viewed from the control room, and that’s it, at least in the first half of the book. And even her focus on everyday life doesn’t seem to bring that life into context. Once you get past the premise, there’s not a whole lot of speculative fiction in this the story – at least in the first half. And that brings us to the premise.

One of the main reasons I stop reading a book is that I find something too stupid to want to continue reading. Given the praise this book has generated, I turned a blind eye to its stupid premise. But in the end, with the story just dragging along, I could no longer ignore its nonsensical premise. That premise is, that because of the greenhouse effects, due to the amount of water put into the atmosphere by the impact of the asteroid, the earth will gradually heat up and become uninhabitable. Well, okay, I’ll give that a pass. Nothing is simple, and I would suspect that there would be a lot of unknown unknowns that might mitigate the effects somewhat, but what the heck, let’s go with it. The solution to saving humanity that the story proposes, however, doesn’t get that pass. The solution we are supposed to buy is that humans need to rapidly develop rocket ships in order to use them to escape earth and set up colonies on the moon and Mars. (Another very old and familiar premise.)

But think about it. Why would we go to all the trouble of developing a space program from scratch so that we could set up self-supporting bases on harsh, faraway, airless and/or uninhabitable worlds, in order to escape our someday uninhabitable world? I mean, if you can establish self-supporting colonies millions of miles away, and only after you perfect a whole new technology just to get there, why would you not set up those same colonies here on the earth? It would be several orders of magnitude easier, far less expensive, and it would save many, many times more people than any moon colony would. I simply can not imagine that establishing a colony on the airless, radiation bombarded moon would be easier than building underground self-supporting underground shelters here on earth – near the poles if need be.

So, long story short. The premise makes no sense to me. I suppose it makes the book more dramatic, and easier to option for a movie deal. But the reality is that the story is not all that dramatic. I have to believe that a similar story could’ve been told against an alternate cold war space race against a more accomplished Soviet Union, with, perhaps, greater effect.

All art is subjective. I don’t write criticisms. I write how stories, TV shows, and art strike me. This story, despite my best efforts, just didn’t appeal to me. Things about it just seemed off. I found that I could not relate to the narrator. It failed to make me suspend my disbelief. And well, the premise is silly. That said, I recognize that this book has much to say about the struggle for equality, something that should be said. I’m glad it found an audience.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

My Library -- Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A Heinlein
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Ah, the elephant in the room. When it comes to speculative fiction fans of the early baby boomer era, the ones who discovered speculative fiction in their youth, there is one dominate figure – Robert A Heinlein. All of us must have read his “juveniles” in hardcover, with those distinctive black & white interior illustrations. And for many of us, he was one of our favorite, if not our favorite speculative fiction writer. I find that I have a dedicated list of the books of his that I either owned or read from back in the day. The two other dedicated lists I have are for the books of Andre Norton, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Starman Jones
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Though I read most of the juveniles as library books, I do have some of those books in mass market paperback in my collection as well, purchased in the mid to late 1960’s. However, I first got to know those books on the Greendale Library book shelves. They may’ve held them all. They were mostly good, even great, and were, along with the works of Andre Norton, they were the perfect introduction to speculative fiction.
Starman Jones was my favorite SF book for quite a while, along with Ben Bova’s Star Conquers. Everyone has their favorite Heinlein juvenile, and it seems that Starman Jones was not a common pick. But it was mine. Looking back, and looking forward, I think it was my favorite for two reasons. The first was its opening set on a farm. Every summer my mom would take us kids back to her childhood home, a dairy farm in Wisconsin for two weeks, so that the farm setting resonated with me. The second reason is that there was just a faint hint of romance in the story. Though, perhaps I just read that into the story. In any event, given the appeal of Edgar Rice Burroughs books had on me, with their common thread of romance, I think this had to be a factor as well.

Starman Jones
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These juveniles were perfect for a very specific age in one’s life. I reread Starman Jones, just six years later, and I was surprised how “thin” the story actually is. When I first read it, I had been making believe all my life as a child, and I suspect that this ability allowed me to flesh out the story with my own make believe. Later, as that ability faded, and I was left only with the book Heinlein had written, I found it rather disappointing. In any event, I read all of his juveniles, and still remember the plot of Tunnel in the Sky, though all others, have left no specific memories. I think I enjoyed Citizen of the Galaxy a lot, and seem to recall that The Star Beast wasn’t very good at all.

Below is my current collection of Heinlein books:

Like my Norton collection, what is missing is telling. So what is missing? First is Stranger in a Strange Land. I did have a paperback copy, but I got rid of it. Now I usually keep all my books, so when I get rid of a book, you have to know that I really, really didn’t like it. Stranger in a Strange Land falls into that category, as does my Science Fiction Book Club edition of Farnhan’s Freehold. I can still remember selecting that as one of my monthly selections, and being really disappointed it when I got and read it. Beginning with Farnham’s Freehold and Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein and I started to part ways. My records show that I finished Stranger in a Strange Land on 24 Jan 1966. Following that, I read Gulf,(?) Podkaybne of Mars, Glory Road, Assignment in Eternity and The Puppet Masters all in 1966.

Glory Road was the last of Heinlein’s new books that I enjoyed. Though, strangely enough, I only recently discovered that I had a copy of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress on my shelves. I have no memory of ever reading it, much less owning it. But there it is. However, I can not find it listed on any of my lists, so I may’ve picked it up sometime in the early 1970’s after I stopped recording books I read. Who knows?

Starman Jones
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Once again, taking out my “Science- fiction Books I Have Read, 1/5/65” list, I find that at that date I had read and rated the following Heinlein books:

Starman Jones E

Space Cadet E (No memory what so ever.)

Double Star A (ditto)

Starship Troopers B (I’m surprised I rated it that high.)

The Star Beast C (I guess I remembered correctly)

Tunnel in the Sky A (I know I read this twice.)

Rocket Ship Galileo B

Farmer in the Sky B

Between Planets A

Time for the Stars B

The Door into Summer B (Another book that I am surprised I rated it this high.)

Citizen of the Galaxy B (Only a B, but on a later list it is upgraded to an E, perhaps I reread it.)

Podkayne of Mars B

Have Spacesuit, Will Travel B

The Rolling Stones B

Waldo & Magic, Inc C & A

The Green Hills of Earth B (I’m surprised that this collection of short stories is rated so high.)

In short, a solid “B” writer. With a couple of standouts, and a couple of average books. By the end of 1965, I had added, but not rated; Orphans of the Sky, Methuselah’s Children, The Puppet Masters, Revolt in 2100, The Man Who Sold the Moon, Farnhan’s Freehold, Red Planet, and Beyond this Horizon to my list of Heinlein books read. And as I already mentioned, I read six more Heinlein books in 1966. I also have an undated list of only Heinlein books – 33 in total – with my ratings. On it, I had rated Waldo, The Star Beast, Farmhan’s Freehold, 6XH, and Stranger in a Strange Land all “C”s None of my lists include The Moon if a Harsh Mistress.

Farmer in the Sky
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From th
ese lists, it would seem that Farnham’s Freehold was the book that started to sour my relationship with Heinlein. But I rated it a “C” so it could’ve been worse, and I continued to buy Heinlein books after Farnham’s Freehold, I guess I took Farnham as just one of those bad apples every writer occasionally produces. I also remember that, while I purchased them, when I came across them, I was never a huge fan of Heinlein’s short stories from the 40’s in those anthology books published by Signet. However, seeing that I seemed to have rated them in my Heinlein only list as “B” books, it is possible that my later falling out with Heinlein has colored my recollections of them. In any event, in 1966 I read five Heinlein books, starting with Stranger in a Strange Land, and only one of his books in 1967. My list of books I read for 1970 has no Heinlein books. Clearly, by the time he wrote I Will Fear No Evil, Heinlein was history.

Between Planets
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I did try, in the 1980’s or 90’s, to read several of his later novels, but I found them so bad – sorry soapboxes for Heinlein, the self-styled philosopher, to preach his strange philosophy from – that I couldn’t get more than a couple of chapters into them. A sorry end, in my opinion. If he aspired to be a philosopher, he should have published his ideas and insights in non-fiction books, not plow them, into fiction “stories.” These days, the more I learn about the man, the less I like him. So, unlike Andre Norton, I no longer have any fond memories of this pillar of my early speculative fiction reading. I guess that rereading my favorite story only half a dozen years after I first read it, and finding it lacking, tells the story of Robert A Heinlein in my life.

Robert A Heinlein
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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Let's Topple "Science Fiction" as a Genre

This is another installment of my series of remarks and observations directed at the clouds, which is to say, just my opinions. I have resigned myself to the fact that I am never going to be king of the world, and be in a position to put things to right. Never the less, I feel it is my duty to at least spell out what the world is doing wrong. In this episode, I intend to spell what should be done with the genre of science fiction.

Using the term “science fiction” to describe what is a very broad genre of fiction is both misleading and often divisive. It needs to be replaced with a more accurate label. Calling a book “science fiction” is like labeling a can “food.” It doesn’t really tell you much of anything about it, and indeed, in the case of the can, it could be a can of dog food, baked beans, or little wieners. About all the term science fiction tells a reader, is that the book is genre rather than literary fiction, and that it is likely to be set either in the future, or in some make believe place and/or time. Actual science, as advertised on the label, even that of the hand waving, magic behind a “science” mask sort, may or may not be a feature of the story. It is entirely optional.

Compare this state to fantasy, or, for this comparison, “Fantasy Fiction.” (Fiction, in this case, being redundant, because fantasy is always fiction, science, is usually not.) One fantasy fan site on the web lists 64 different subgenres of fantasy, from allegorical fantasy to wuxia (Chinese or Chinese inspired) fantasy. But even with so many variations, most readers understand the type of story they can expect to find, since almost all fantasies share a set of common elements, though their importance and treatment will be vary by subgenre and author. The same can not be said of science fiction.

The fact that science fiction both lacks a set of common elements, and is a more diverse genre than fantasy, can not be blamed on the label “science fiction.” However, there should be some truth in labeling, and calling a whole genre “science” when stories using science in some way is not a requirement of the label, makes a lie of the label. If a genre, currently labeled “science fiction,” is going to be used by publishers as a catch-all for every sorts of unconventional, experimental, or weird story that does not comfortably fit other, more defined categories, like literary, horror, thriller, etc., then the label should be broad enough to reflect that fact. And if actual science has little or nothing to do with the vast majority of stories in the genre, then a better descriptive adjective should be found. And the thing is, you don’t have to look very far to find it. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

I should add that it is not just publishers who sow confusion in the genre. It’s its readers and scholars, as well. Not only can science fiction fans not agree on what is science fiction, but they bring into the genre all sorts of stories that were never intended to be science fiction, simply because they use some common science fiction motif or another. For example, science fiction claims as its own, at least some of the works of such authors as, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, L Frank Baum, Jack London, Mary Shelley, Jules Vern, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling who were not, at the time, writing science fiction, if only because the term did not exist when they wrote their work. The term only came into use in the mid-1920’s, originally as “scientifiction” in Hugo Gernsback’s pulp magazine Amazing Stories. And yet, some fans and scholars will push the date of ‘science fiction” back even further, into ancient times. Looking in the opposite direction, we see the same thing happening. SF fans claiming George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, and other literary writers as science fiction writers, whether they like it or not.

There is nothing wrong with being inclusive, but this loosey-goosey description of what constituents, science fiction leads to disagreements and conflicts within the science fiction fandom. Everyone has their own definition of what constitutes the “true” or “real” science fiction. And what doesn’t. Often, especially in the silly season of science fiction, when the PR extravaganza of awards time rolls around, these arguments spring up, and complaints are aired about the lack of “true” science fiction being honored. And what actually is “true” science fiction. Plus the fact that it seems that, these days, fantasy dominates what were once science fiction awards, annoys science fiction purists as well.

As I see it, these problems arise out of the fact that “science” is used in the genre label, when it was never a requirement. It has always been quite optional since the invention of the term. Sixty years ago, Judith Merril wrote in a forward to one of her “SF: The Years Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies:

SF is an abbreviation for Science Fiction (or Science Fantasy). Science Fiction (or Science Fantasy) is really an abbreviation too. Here are some of the things it stands for... S is for Science, Space, Satellites, Starships, and Solar exploring; also for Semantics and Sociology, Satire, Spoofing, Suspense and good old Serendipity… F is for Fantasy, Fiction, Fable, Folklore, Fairy-tale and Farce; also for Fission, and Fusion, for Firmament, Fireball, Future and Forecast; for Fate and Free-will, Figuring, Fact-seeking and Fancy-free. Mix well. The result is SF, or Speculative Fun.”

So it would seem that nothing much changes, even in a genre that is future focused. And back then, as today, this definition of science fiction would be challenged by a significant section of the science fiction community as being too broad, to be the “true” science fiction. Which is the second major problem with science fiction as a genre. The term brings with it too much baggage. Too much of the mythology of science fiction is tied up – at least in the minds of readers and writers of a certain age – in the short story, pulp era, gadget fiction, of 80 years ago. The genre has evolved, as any viable genre should. The genre name, however, has not, and simply cannot. And that must be fixed.

The solution as I see it, is to reduce the label, “science fiction,” to a description of its core meaning; fiction built around known science, or a reasonable extrapolation of known science. Replace it as the broader genre label with the far more inclusive, and accurate label: “Speculative Fiction.” “Science Fiction” would become one of Speculative Fiction’s subgenre, essentially replacing “Hard Science Fiction” on the list. In this way, science fiction would have a definite meaning and the old purest would have a safe haven for the stories they like, while writers of speculative fiction could continue to push the envelope, without some old guard grousing about how they don’t understand what science fiction is, even though it was never, ever, what they claim it to have been.

The beauty of just renaming the genre Speculative Fiction is that it would not involve a massive sea change in the field. The term “speculative fiction” is already commonly used to describe science fiction in its broadest sense, so that it simply makes sense to officially give the broad genre the label that more accurately describes it. And since the term is commonly used already, making the change would mostly involve getting used to using it as the formal label of the genre. Some organizations would have to change their names – but not their initials. And, finally, SF would always be SF, no matter what the “S” stands for in the mind of the reader.

Of course there is no governing body that can make this change. It must come from the grass roots up. Still, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. I, for one, have changed the genre label to speculative fiction. Going forward, I will only use “science fiction” when I am discussing the former subgenre of “Hard Science Fiction,” which I can’t imagine me needing to do, or when describing something with that label, to avoid confusion. So I say to you, join me in this crusade to free speculative fiction of its pulp origins. Speculative fiction existed before “science fiction,” so let’s free ourselves of that confusing and restrictive label. Let’s continue to read and write inclusive, imaginative stories.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Origin Stories -- The Lost Star's Sea

Artwork for a possible cover -- used as an interior illustration in print version

In this series of blog posts I talk about why, and how I came to write my stories. This book is the sequel to The Bright Black Sea, and I find that I have referred back to that book rather frequently in this post. Which, I guess is natural enough, since many of the narrative threads begin in The Bright Black Sea

This origin story is, simple. Soon after completing the first section of what became The Bright Black Sea, I decided that Talith Min was not for Wil Litang. And since I had a lot of fun with Wil, Nadine, and the duel, I decided that Nadine and Wil would, eventually, be THE couple. I figured that I could have a lot of fun building a romance that began with a failed assassination. With that in mind, I gave Nadine, a new name, Naylea Cin, and invented the Order of St Bleyth to give her a much more complex and complete backstory. Originally she and her partner were just hired assassins in my mind.

However, in The Bright Black Sea episodes that followed, Nadine, now, Naylea Cin would make only two appearances in Wil Litang’s narrative. Just enough to form a comradeship of sorts. And just enough to set up a believable courtship in the sequel I was planning centered around that courtship. I wanted them thrown together, dependent on the other for their survival. I felt that the tension between the two of them – that of a strange mutual attraction beneath the surface of their adversarial relationship – together with putting them into the position of needing each other to survive would make for a fun story to write.  

Castaways Book Cover as a stand alone book

The problem was that, as the story progressed the idea behind the Four Shipmate’s secret evolved, and in the end the Archipelago of the Tenth Star grew to be far larger than I had initially conceived it to be. Indeed, I had first envisioned the ambush at the end of The Bright Black Sea taking place on a derelict spaceship, perhaps in orbit around some drift world, since I had not, when I decided to write a sequel, determined exactly what the secret of the Four Shipmates was. One possibility, for example was that the secret involved the smuggling of darq gems.Or it might have involved the politics of a small moon world in the distant Alantzia system. Indeed, early on, I had the Taoist adept, Floating Cloud Hermit, seemingly suggest that possibility. (I located the Taoist community with the link the Pela in the Alantzia system to cover what turned out to be a red herring.) But, in the end, the Pela blossomed into something far more than I had originally imagined it to be.

The Archipelago of the Tenth Star’s origins can traced back to the Edgar Rice Burroughs' story Beyond the Farthest Star. The planets in that story had a shared atmosphere. There were also album covers (for the group Yes) back in the day with floating island motifs, and I believe that the movie Avatar also had them as well. However, it was ERB's book that inspired the Pela for me, beginning with a series of paintings I starting in 2012 entitled “The Archipelago of the Three Lovers.” They depicted floating islands suspended in the space between three planets or moons rotating around a fixed point who shared a common atmosphere. I’ve used some of those painting to illustrate this post, since I lifted the Pela from that concept. I am actually using a detail from one of those early paintings as the current cover of The Lost Star’s Sea. In any event, as the Pela grew ever vaster, it became increasingly hard to imagine how Naylea and Wil would ever find their way back to the Nine Star Nebula. Clearly it would take more than my original shipwreck story to round out the book.

Everyday life on an island in the Pela

So with the expansion of the Pela, I had gotten Naylea and Wil into a situation where I had no idea how to get them out of it. Still, even if I hadn’t, I would've needed a much longer story simply because I did not care to have the two volume set of The Bright Black Sea and The Lost Star’s Sea to look like the Laurel and Hardy of books – one very fat volume, the other very thin. So one way or another I had to write more episodes after the castaway episode. At least, with the vastness of the Pela I had given myself a wide canvas to work in.

The first issue I had to deal with was that I did not want to stretch the Naylea/Wil romance out over three hundred thousand words, for the fear that it would get tedious. I needed to find a way to put their romance on hold, yet again. As with many things during the writing of these stories, I found that in the backstory I had created for Cin, I could be used to make a reasonable case to throw a spanner into the gears of romance, and so I used it. Just another case in which some seemingly unimportant details, her background, and her father, inserted for to flesh out her motives, proved useful in ways I had not anticipated.


And speaking of things not anticipated, we have another great example of this in the character of Siss. She was tossed in for a spot of color when first introduced at the cave entrance back in The Bright Black Sea. She, and her kids, made a second appearance aboard ship in the Talon Hawk attack which I wrote just for laughs. The same could be said for her first appearance in The Lost Star’s Sea. But it seems that she steals every scene she’s in, and quickly blossomed into a full fledged character on her own.

If you happen to own the first ebook edition of The Bright Black Sea, you’ll find that the sentry serpent is described a feathered snake. When I started writing Castaways, I realized that Siss being a snake would be too limiting, so that I revised her into a feathered crocodile and then had to go back to The Bright Black Sea and revise my description of her. The reason for all this work was that, as I said, she steals every scene she’s in, being such a fun character to write – a Harbo Marx with teeth. And when it came time for her and Cin to exit stage right for a few episodes, I felt compelled to bring on a replacement, in the form of Hissi, who’s a chip off the old block, and with a character all her own. And she proved to be just as much fun to write as Siss was. I have avoided having “aliens” in my stories, as they’re needless complications to the types of stories I write and they don’t really interest me. However, that said, the dragons of the Pela somehow, without trying, became my aliens, though I can’t rule out more aliens somewhere in the Pela.

One of the Archipelago of the Three Lovers paintings

To fill out the rest of what would become The Lost Star’s Sea I wrote episodes that drew on all sorts of things from my past. I felt that Wil needed to be on his own, away from the security of the ship’s boat. So I brought in some South Sea type natives to do the job.

Since I try to use as much dialog as I can to tell my stories, I also needed a new companion for Wil. Enter, KaRaya. KaRaya began life in my imagination as the stereotypical carefree, roving Irishman. A free spirit who gets into and out of trouble, one way or another. However, I try very hard to turn old stereotypes on their heads when I can. I also try to make an effort to include female characters, and female characters who have just as much agency as my male ones have. So I recast the role of Wil’s pal as a female carefree, roving spirit who seems to get into and out of trouble. One way or another.

It is always telling how, when I come to putting in minor characters into the story, that the default is always to use the traditional sex in the role. For example, when Py, KaRaya, and Wil would arrive at a community, the natural tendency would be for it to be ruled by a monk, a man. I tried to keep that tendency in mind. Thus, for one example, most of the people in charge of the communities were woman. I probably don’t always avoid falling into the old default roles, but I try.

Another Archipelago of the Three Lovers Paining

The first episode after Naylea’s departure was a sort of South Sea Adventure. And then, the episode after the crash landing and meeting the Laezan Magistrate LinPy, I had kung-fu movies and some books I read about exploring China in the early years of the last century. With a little bit of Scotland thrown in for good measure. The following episode, the gold rush episode, was inspired by a couple of books I read about the Yukon gold rush of ‘99. And a Donald Duck Little Big Book. Somehow I recall this children’s book, with Pegleg Pete, set in Alaska, and I think involves a treasure in a totem pole. In any event, I have this image of a sort of western town set against the backdrop of dark pines – an image I used to construct in my head, the town of Chasm Lake. It is little bits of memories like that that get mixed into my stories.

A cover I cobbled together for the beta reader's version of  The Mountain of Gold

The next episode, a sea story inspired piece, dealt with the discovery of the great ship from somewhere, and a mutiny. At the core of this episode was yet another one of those strange happenstances where a rather trivial item tossed into the story for color, in this case the darq gem, became a key ingredient of the story. So too, were the red feathered visitor early in Castaways, and their reappearance later on with the great ship. Once again, they were tossed in to the story for color and mystery with no definite purpose other than that in mind. I figured I could use them down the line, maybe, but if not, well, I’d have been content to let them remain a mystery of the Pela. In any event, all these random little ingredients came together quite nicely.

At this point in the story, I figured it was time to bring back some early characters and settings, so Py, Naylea, Siss, Captain EnVey, and Blade Island all made their reappearances. This reunion was followed by yet another sea story inspired story line that ended with the reappearance of an old nemesis, the Talon Hawks.

Another cobbled together cover for the Floating Jungle Episode, a detail from an Archipelago of the Three Lovers painting modified in Gimp

It was about this point in the writing process when I finally figured out how I wanted to wrap this book up. I must admit that I thought the ending I came up with was rather brilliant. It allowed me to tie up a whole slew of loose ends that happened “off camera” and suggest a solution to the mystery of the Dragon Kings, and how humans, and feathered humans came to the Pela. Plus it gave me the chance to bring back almost all of the main and a minor character from The Bright Black Sea, most just for cameos, but in the case of Botts and Trin, for major roles.

This narrative line leading to the story’s end, began with another trek across a slightly more Chinese inspired landscape, along with meeting a classic Taoist inspired “immortal” in the form of Tey Pot, and, of course, classical bandits from the barbarian side of the island. And then, finally our heroes make it to the escape hatch from the Pela, The Hermitage. I had always considered the best way to get my characters back to the Nine Star Nebula was via a secret connection to the Pela by the order of Taoist in the Nine Star Nebula. And the Hermitage provided a much more formal link, to not only the Nine Star Nebula, but to the Laezan communities of the Pela.

The thing is that, by that time my heroes made it to this escape hatch, there seemed no reason for them to return to the Nine Star Nebula. They had established new lives in the Pela, and I could come up with no compelling reason to return them to the Nine Star Nebula proper. At least not yet.

The Hermitage did allow the reappearance of Botts. Botts was another one of those character who was just tossed in at the time of its initial introduction with no plans to use it, only to blossom into a very major character as the story progressed. In fact, its major role in the flight from Despar was basically improvised – Botts was a “Yes! Why, of course!” sort of moment while I was writing the escape from Despar, when I realized just how I could use Bott to make their escape through the reef plausible. So I had Botts back in the mix, and with him, the Machine Directorate, and with no need to get my characters back to the Nine Star Nebula, I had time to explore yet another couple of mysteries that I had tossed in at the end of The Bright Black Sea – the great “Dragon Kings,” and the feathered people of the Pela.

Another cobbled together cover for the beta reader's version of the last episode

The episode with the storm and the great black cave with the black serpent dragons was inspired by another childhood memory. I have this impression of watching a kid’s TV show (B&W in the 1950’s) that must have been showing the old movie serial adventures from the late 30’s and 40’s. It had a host, and a frog, that was commanded to “Twank your magic wand, Froggy!” or some such tag line, to start the old serial episode. In one of those old episodes, I seem to remember the floor of some sort of lost jungle temple opening up underneath the feet of the heroes, revealing a black pool with crocodiles swimming in it, just waiting for their next meal to fall down to them. It was this memory – the ancient temple and the crocodiles below that inspired the black serpent episode.

And then, in the spirit of bring back old companions, I brought back good’ol KaRaya, a little older and wiser, while dropping off Py, Trin, and then Naylea and Siss for the final adventure of the Dragon King that would bring word of fate of Litang’s old shipmates from the Lost Star.

After this episode, I felt that ol Wil Litang had earned the rest – and perhaps even that cha garden – that he been long longing for. So, with the promise of Naylea Cin as his in the not too distant future, I gave him a couple of years to get bored all on his own, after meeting a few more old shipmates.

Another Archipelago of the Three Lovers painting

I give my characters in this universe a 200+ lifespan to allow them to have a couple lives worth of adventures, if I can think of them. So there is always a possibility that more of their lives will come my way, and I’ll write them down. But that’s not a given. If I do, I will write and release them episodes by episode, this time around, rather than waiting to string ten of them together. Indeed, I have a setting for another Litang episode, but I don’t really have a story, as such, yet. And I’m not sure just were I’d like to place the story – is he on his way to meet Naylea, or does it take place after they are reunited? We’ll see.

Next up in this series is my origin story for Beneath the Lanterns. This was to be my foray into fantasy. But I found that I could not, in good conscious, write a fantasy story. I have read fantasy books, and still have a number of them on my book shelf, but there is something about fantasy these days, that don’t appeal to me. has given me a number of free fantasy books, but I find that I simply can’t – or don’t care to – get more than a couple of pages into them. I guess that I want to read, and write, are stories closer to real life. With magic, anything goes, and I just can’t buy that… But more on that in the next episode. Stat tuned.

The full painting used for The Lost Star's Sea's current ebook cover

Saturday, June 13, 2020

My Library -- Andre Norton

Andre Norton in the 1950's

I thought that I would start the exploration of my library with the books of Andre Norton. Over the past year or so, has been running a series of articles discussing the books of Andre Norton. Plus, I’ve run across a number of other articles about her books as well. What I found amazing was all the Andre Norton books that I had no clue existed. She was one of my favorite writers when I first began to read science fiction, but given all the books that I missed, it seems that we must have had a falling out at some point rather early on. Something happened, and I think I know what, so let’s explore what that was.

First; a time line. I began reading science fiction books from the library and paperback books probably in 7th Grade, which would be 1962. (I was a rather slow starter as a reader). This would be the point where I discovered Andre Norton books. Presently, I have 28 of them of them in my collection, pictured below. However, just for a point of reference, Night of Mask was copyrighted in 1964, and all the books to its right were copyrighted in 1964 or later.

In the ten years from 1962 to 1972 my passion for science fiction was white hot. I recorded reading 100 SF books in 1966. And yet, the vast majority of those 28 Andre Norton books I read were written in decade before I started reading science fiction. However, I know know that she wrote several dozen books during my white hot decade, but I only read a handful of them. And further, I have no recollection of ever coming across all those books of hers that I must have passed on. (That’s not too surprising, as I have a very poor memory of my life.)

Arranged in copyright date order. Ace periodically reissued these books, so that this would not be the order I acquired them. The final two books had her name, and the Solar Queen, but little else of Norton, I suspect. 

So, what happened?

I think what happened can be narrowed down to two words; “Witch World.”

I still have a typewritten list of books that I read as of January 6th 1965. Below is the list of Norton Books with my letter grade rating for each book.

The Stars Are Ours E (Excellent)

The Crossroad of Time E

The Time Traders A

Galactic Derelict B

The Defiant Agents B

Key Out of Time B

The Beast Master B

Lord of Thunder B

Sargasso of Space A+

Plague Ship A+

Storm over Warlock B

Catseye B

Star Born C

Star Gate C

Starman’s Son C

Judgment on Janus C

Witch World F

Web of the Witch World F

I also have an upgraded list from September 1965 without grades that lists 7 more Norton books, but they were more of her earlier books. It seems that I got rid of the Witch World books, since I don’t have them in my collection, which is something that I usually don’t do, unless I really, really don’t like a book. Though, perhaps they were library books – I noticed that in one book, I marked the books I had read, and the books I owned from the books listed, and there were more that I had read then I owned at that point, so it is possible.

Given my opinion of her Witch World series, and the fact that I picked up only a handful more of her books over the following decade, I think I can clearly lay the blame for our breakup on Ms Norton. She moved on as an artist, moving more and more into fantasy, while as a reader, I didn’t, or at least, I didn’t move with her into fantasy when she moved on. My impression is that I’m far from the only one who puts a line under Witch World, as a turning point in her writing focus. She became more focused on exotic world-building and fantasy elements than she had been in her earlier books. And while I have some fantasy books in my library, they are a distinct minority. And, indeed, today, I have no interest in reading fantasy – even if gives them to me for free. But my issues with fantasy can be another post, someday.

Andre Norton 1990's

Looking back, I can now see that what I liked about her early books was that they were largely “boys’ adventure stories.” Ms Norton had reliably delivered these male-orientated adventure stories – even changing her name to do so – before moving on by expanding her horizon with a wider range of characters and more fantasy settings. Now, this is all to the good. Artists of all sorts should evolve and explore the extents of their talents and interests, even if they risk alienating old fans by doing so. So I have nothing to complain about. I enjoyed her boys’ adventure books, and I moved on as well, by eventually outgrowing her target audience. And to be fair, I have never abandoned my taste for adventure stories. Indeed, I write them now. So all, in all, I have fond memories of her books – the early ones, and would like to read some of her non-SF adventure books even today. But I’ve no desire to revisit the ones I’ve read. I’ll leave that for new readers or readers who are more nostalgic than I.

My Library

Monday, June 8, 2020

Lines in the Lawn

My, that went fast. The simple illustrations that I planned to do didn't take more than three or four hours to complete, and with proofreading done, blurbs written, and, a sample epub version looking as well as it is going to look, I uploaded Lines in the Lawn to Smashwords today, 8 June 2020. We'll see if it makes its way to Apple, Kobo & B&N in the coming days. I will probably wait to see if it passes muster for those stores before submitting it to Amazon.

This little story is sort of a joke. I hated (note the past tense) mowing my lawn. As a kid we moved the the 'burbs when I was eight, and so I knew how the great game of having the greenest, most weed-free, most uniform lawn in the neighborhood is played. (Cutthroat) And so, when we moved into our house on a new street in a small town, I wasn't about to play that game, even though I had nice neighbors who did play the great lawn game. They'd mow twice, if not three times a week, put on fertilizer and weed-killer themselves or having a lawn service.Weed-wack every edge. Blow the grass clippings off the sidewalk and driveway, before the wind did. On the other hand, my grass grew just fine without any help from me at all. I'd put some week-killer down ever so often to keep the "creeping charlie" in check, but it never hurt all my wild violets in the grass. Nor those bright yellow spring flowers, were my hose couldn't reach. And there was some tall grass around my trees. And I only mowed once a week, and only if it needed it. As I told my neighbors, there's always at least one snake in any suburban paradise, and when it came to lawns, I was theirs.

This story was sort of a my response to the great game. I actually mowed my lawn like Roy. It provided a little amusement in an otherwise dreary chore. Given how much I hated mowing the lawn, I rather hoped to die doing it. It would be so ironic. But last year we moved to a condo, so that not only do I not have to mow the lawn anymore, but I'll have to find another ironic way to die.

Below is the blurb for Lines in the Lawn: 

A SHORT STORY of some 4,000 words, with illustrations, written to be read by a grownup for a child

Young Roy Williams liked to look down from his bedroom window on to the front yard, with its neat, precise lines made by the wheels of a lawnmower his father used to mow. He couldn’t wait for the day when he too, could make lines in the lawn

But he had to wait, for what seemed like forever. He had to wait until he was old enough, and big enough to be able to push the lawnmower, and not cut off his foot with it. And when that day came, he discovered that he had to start mowing in the what his dad called “the minor leagues.” Which is to say, the small, flat backyard of the Williams’ home

After some setbacks, Roy makes it to the major league of mowing – the long, sloping front lawn. He discovers that mowing the hilly front yard of the house was hard work. He also discovers that his style of mowing – his lines – rather clashed with those of his father’s 

Ah, but is there more to Roy’s style than just artistic temperament

Lines in the Lawn was written to entertain the grownup as well as the child. As a consequence, there are words that the grownup will have to explain. Words like “diagonal,” and “pantomime.” However it is felt that this is a plus, since it encourages a conversation between the grownup and the child or children, enriching the experience for both.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Lines in the Lawn -- Coming soon!

Lines in the Lawn has been sitting in the "drawer," which is to say a file in my computer, for probably a dozen years awaiting its illustrations. It is a 4,000 word short story that I wrote for a grownup to read to a child. My original plan was to illustrate it with a dozen drawings, but well... I'm not an illustrator and I never quite got around to even trying to do the illustrations. While my original idea for the illustrated book would've worked for a print book, illustrations in ebooks, with their flexible type sizes and layouts, makes illustrations rather clunky. It would certainly loose its original formatting, unless I released it as a PDF. But as a PDF the print would be too small to read. So it sat for these dozen years. Until now.

Now I've, rewritten the story to my current standards, and as, as you can see, I've worked up a cover for it. I still have three or four simple simple interior illustrations to do, but I'm going to keep those very simple, stand alone illustrations that are a map of the yard showing the lines in the lawn left by the lawnmower as described in the story. They will probably take up one page each.

I'll have more to say about the story, in a future blog post, but suffice to say that I wrote the story with the idea of entertaining the reader as well as the child being read too. It's a bit of a mystery story...

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Exploring My Library

I find that writing is a wonderful way to fill one’s time, and well, I have a lot of time to fill these days. I can’t blame that on the pandemic, as that hasn’t affected us in any significant way, i.e. my wife only allows me go grocery store once a week, and only to the supermarket a minute away, and at 5 in the morning. Being both the household cook, and a former grocery store clerk, I rather like grocery shopping. I miss the deals and imported food of Aldi and the vast selection of everything at Wodemans. Sad, but we all must soldier on, I guess.

Anyway, I find that time really flies when I’m writing. Hours go by unnoticed. However, I am not writing fiction at present. I am, however, running the beginning of what I hope will be my next story through my head -- for a few minutes at a time all through my waking hours. But writing it, if I get an actual story out of it, is still months away. However, since I have the time and I enjoy writing, I’m focusing my typing efforts on this blog. Now, I don’t think I’m very good at this type of writing, but on the theory that practice makes perfect … I’ve decided to launch yet another series of posts, this time featuring the books in my library. Contain your excitement.

My library is pictured above. It used to be spread out along two walls, but having moved last year, I had to condense everything into just one wall, floor to ceiling, with many of my old paperback SF stuffed along the edge and along the top of the actual shelves. A little awkward, but I don’t think I’ll be re-reading most of those old SF books anytime in this life. They’re still with me, not as books to be read, but as loyal, lifelong companions. Some of them have been my faithful companions for the better part of 60 years. They’ll see me dead. Hopefully they won’t end up in a land fill when that time comes.

My plan for this series of occasional posts is to pick an author, show the books of that author that I have in my collection, and talk about them and what they mean, or did mean, to me. The first author I am planning to feature is Andre Norton. The reason I wanted start with her is that I’ve been follow the Norton re-reads on and I am amazed at all the books of hers that were published in my white-hot decade of reading SF (1962-1972) that I have never heard of. So why did I stop buying Andre Norton’s books? I still have fond memories of her books, though I know… Well, we’ll save those speculations for the first blog post in this series, coming soon. Stay turned.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Origin Stories -- The Bright Black Sea (Part Three)

A cover featuring the arrival of Cin in the nick of time on Despar

In this my third and last, I promise you, post on how The Bright Black Star came to be written, I want to talk about the things I did and why. And the things I learned along the way.

Rather than starting the story like a scalded cat right out of the gate, (as it seems to be how many writers do it today) I decided to spend some time setting up the premise, the story’s setting, its economics, and then introduce the ship, the Lost Star, its acting captain, and crew. Because I don’t have a visual mind, I see my creations only vaguely, out of the corner of my eye. So, to give them some sort of concrete existence, I imagine all the little, everyday details of life in the universe I create, to build a scene and a setting, piece by piece. There is a lot of that in my writing. For instance, if I wanted dogs aboard the ship, they would need to have magnets surgically implanted into their paws so that they move about when the ship was in free fall, which was much of the time. On the other hand, cats, with their claws, might not need them. And so it goes, lots of little details, that might be considered non-essential, but contribute to my understanding of my world.

I also wanted to create a well rounded world of the “spaceers” central to the story. I tried to imagine how they lived both aboard ship and downside. Side stories, like the moon buggy racing, were borrowed from stories about old sailing ships in anchorage waiting for their cargo. Unlike today, here turnaround times are kept to an absolute minimum, in the old days, idle crews would stage contests – boat races, cricket matches, etc to pass the idle time. I also tried to make interplanetary trade economically realistic. Ships like the “Firefly” that carry a couple of pallets of cargo from planet to planet make no economic sense. And since the days of break cargo are long since gone even today, it would make no sense to move cargo between the planets in anything but prepacked containers. I even thought about how credit might work between mostly economically independent planets. The central story could’ve been told without these sidelights – and I am sure some readers would argue that it should’ve been – but I disagree. I want my readers to look back and have the feeling that they actually visited the Nine Star Nebula. I want them to believe that the Nine Star Nebula is real.

Battle scene art with the Lost Star and a jump fighter

And yet, because I don’t have a visual mind, I had only the vaguest impressions of what my characters look like – at best. I did do some sketches of them, but in the end, I decided that less was best. Rather than piece together some sort of manikin of a character, I just gave each a vague characteristic or two – perhaps a body shape, or a hair color, and build my characters on what they said and did. I am quite content to let the readers to fill in these blanks themselves. If someone is pretty or handsome, I’ll leave it to the reader to picture in their mind what they think pretty or handsome looks like. I was careful not to give any character a skin color. That too, is entirely up to the readers. And because the story is set so far in the future, and so far away in space, I did not give any character any sort of ethnic homeland on earth. In these stories, those homelands have long since been consigned to ancient history.

I felt going into the story, that the idea that they would have some sort of different adventure on every planet they call on, wasn’t all that realistic. Realistically, the spaceer’s life should’ve been pretty tedious – one orbit like another, cargoes loaded and discharged, around and around they go – even the spaceer dives would be almost the same. Of course, there could be small adventures when downside, but I felt that eventually I’d have pushed my imagination to the breaking point, by having to come up with some new danger or adventure for every planet and every story. To smooth over, as it were, this sticking point, I suggested early on in the story that there was some mystery connected to the ship and its former owners, the “Four Shipmates,” as they called themselves. I figured that that mystery, whatever it was – and I had no idea what it was – could serve to drive the story when an adventure a planet got stale. It could be used to explain at least some of the adventures as the story progressed. As it turned out, I turned to it almost right away, and it became the central theme of the whole book. That was not planned, it just evolved that way. And to tell the truth, the mystery, also evolved as the story went along. It was never clear what the mystery was when I was writing the first three or four, or five episodes. I had several possible candidates in mind, and only settled on the final one, as I went along.

My 2020 cover

This is the way a lot of the story worked. I’d toss things in just for some “color” since, as I said, I focused on little details to build the set and setting. And then, these little color items, like the ghost, Glen Colin, or the Travel Book of Faylyen, or the grandmother from the drifts, or the darq gem ring, somehow became very important and useful, if not essential, later in the story. It was almost spooky how many things that I just tossed in for color, turned out to be essential to the story. It is really the magic of writing.

As I said earlier, I intended to write a variety of different types of stories. I think I succeeded, somewhat. We have an eerie story, a “war” story, a pirate story, some lighthearted times within the stories, some romance, adventure, and sense of wonder, discoveries. But the thing is, I only wanted to write small stories. Stories about people. I believe that one can write thrilling stories where the stakes are only the life of the hero or his friends. You shouldn’t need greater stakes. It seems, however, that I’m in a minority on this issue, with both writers and readers. Almost every SFF book I read about has some great conflict central to the story, even if the story focuses on one character. I suppose I shouldn’t make such a sweeping statement, but that’s the impression I’m left with. Anyway, that is what I tried to do. I guess in the end, they did find something big and important – but only to the characters.

An alternative title and cover

About halfway through writing the story, I came up with the story’s ending – but not just the ending, but with the story I really wanted to tell after the ending, which dragged me into writing its sequel, The Lost Star’s Sea. The locale I created for the ending became ever more expansive as I went along. What was once imagined to be an abandoned space ship with some sort of secret onboard – perhaps a treasure in darq jewels or something – became a floating island in a sea of air, and a revolution. And that sea of air became the Archipelago which continued to grow ever more expansive, so that by the time I got my characters shipwrecked for the story that I thought would be great fun to write, getting them out again became an almost impossible problem. Indeed, I have yet to do so, but that’s the next installment's story.

I think I will take a break from this series of post for a week or two. Coming up next, I will explore my library and talk about some of the books in it, and their importance to me.

Previous cover art