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Friday, December 31, 2021

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

Just in time for New Year’s Eve, The Pete Wood Challenge presents four, count ‘em, four new flash fiction stories, all keying off the phrase, “[character] could have gone to [event] on New Year’s Eve, but instead, thanks to [other_character], [he|she|they] had been waiting in line for hours.”

Y’know, one of these days I’m going to teach you all how to read Unix command line regular expressions, just so these challenge descriptions make more sense.

Without further ado, then…

Honorable Mention

“The Annual Times Square Paint Dry,” by Larry Hodges » Read it now!

Third Place

“Old Friends, Across Galaxies and the Space Between,” by Jenna Hanchey » Read it now!

Second Place

“That Darn, Dear Cat,” by Melissa Mead » Read it now!

First Place

“Worth It,” by Keyan Bowes » Read it now! 

 

Enjoy!
~brb

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Schedule Update

 

The stretch of free time I expected to have after Christmas failed to materialize. Rather than knock myself out trying to finish SS#24 and get it out on January 1st, I am pushing the release date back to January 15, 2022.

Update to the Update: thanks to Sharon Cherri for catching that I’d published the revised release date as being January 15, 2021. That would have been some serious pushing back on the date.


Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Adieu, Mr. Bond (Part 3)

[continued from Part One | Part Two]


So Who Is This Bond Fellow, Anyway?

If Bond has no place in the world of real espionage, and if the details of his life, his adventures, and even his face may be changed and changed again at the storyteller’s discretion, then where does he belong? Once again, we’re back to the challenge of trying to identify the one true Bond with only mood, tone, and character to work with, so let’s consider the things about him that never change from one tale to the next.

Bond in a warrior. He never serves mere political expedience or convenience. If any government actually had a man like Bond on the payroll they’d be unable to resist the temptation to have him knock off a bothersome investigative reporter or two every now and then, but Bond never does that. Instead, he fights only clearly identifiable villains who are at least his equals, if not more powerful. More to the point, he fights only enemies that can be defeated. In Bond’s world there are no insoluble problems or lingering diplomatic ambiguities.

Bond has a code of honor. He may have a license to kill, but he does so only reluctantly and takes no pleasure in doing it. He will try the disabling knee or shoulder shot rather than the killing shot if he can. (Except when battling his way through mobs of minions and henchmen, but who cares about peasants?) He never kills innocent victims, never accidentally kills the wrong person, and will let a mass-murderer escape to kill again rather than put women or children in the line of fire. In Bond’s world there is no collateral damage.

Bond is a gentleman. He is a master of every form of hand-to-hand combat known to man, but his signature weapon (which has its own name, by the way) is a small-caliber pistol, or as Sir Alec Guinness might say, “A weapon with a more civilized edge.” Bond always meets his adversaries face-to-face and challenges them to single combat: he never strikes first from hiding or without warning, and he would never call in an airstrike to level a crowded restaurant just to get the one evil man hiding in the basement. Bond’s adventures frequently end with götterdämmerung final battles, true, but it’s always left to a Felix Leiter or a Tiger Tanaka to do the scut-work of marshaling the faceless but loyal peasant infantry; Bond himself answers to a higher calling. In Bond’s world there are no drunken and unreliable CIA mercenaries.

Finally, Bond is a romantic. As he travels on his hero’s journey, beautiful women are constantly throwing themselves at him, and while he may have dalliances — in some stories, lots of dalliances — there is always one true love waiting for him at the end of the tale. Admittedly the earlier stories of his adventures were often quite bawdy, but that was more a reflection of then-current social mores and the bawdiness has been toned down considerably in recent years. In Bond’s world there are no sexually transmitted diseases or pregnant ex-girlfriends.

With all the evidence that has been presented, then, the answer finally begins to become clear. Who is James Bond? He’s no noir anti-hero, no shadowy undercover operative, and no brilliant intelligence analyst. He’s no government assassin, no cold-blooded killer, and certainly no spy.

What he is, in truth, is a paladin. He’s a modern day knight-errant, who, mounted on his noble steed DB5, roams the world, righting wrongs, fighting evil, and protecting the weak. He’s a fantasy hero, and the place he truly belongs is in the Land of Make-Believe and Once Upon a Time, standing shoulder to shoulder with Aragorn, Luke Skywalker, Sir Lancelot, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, and Roland and all his cavaliers, defending the borders of the peaceable kingdom from the never-resting forces of darkness that roam out there in the wild lands.

(P.S. And those of you who are still bothered by Bond’s bawdiness should go back and read some of the early chansons de geste, Orlando Furioso, or for that matter an unexpurgated version of the Canterbury Tales. The early aubades and tagelieder in particular are just full of tales of heroic and noble knights who nonetheless are a rather randy lot and never pass up the chance for a good roll in the hay with an unhappily married noblewoman. The idea that medieval heroes were somehow pure and chaste is mostly the work of eighteenth-century bluenose Thomas Bowdler and his imitators, and not an accurate reflection of the actual songs and tales of the Middle Ages.)

Does Bond Have a Place in the Modern World?


Thus we come back to the question we began with: does Commander James Bond, C.M.G., R.N.V.R., have a useful place in the twenty-first century? The answer is yes, but not for the most comforting of reasons.

The truth of the matter is that real deep-cover human intelligence work is a very disturbing, unpleasant, and ugly business. The truth is that in the world of espionage, “truth” itself is a very rare commodity, constantly attended by a bodyguard of lies and veiled by a smokescreen of ambiguities. The truth is that assassinations and executions — those intelligence operations that are euphemistically termed “wet work” in the jargon of the trade — are utterly stomach-turning in their hideousness and frequently result in much blood, screaming, and death or injury to innocent bystanders.

The irony — some might say, the hypocrisy — of western civilization is that we need those modern paladins who walk the wild forests at the edge of the known world, slaying dragons and goblins so that the petit bourgeoisie might sleep soundly in their beds. But the truth of the matter is that a good clear look at the actions of those same paladins will give most people the screaming heebie-jeebies.

And so we need Commander James Bond, Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.

Or to put it another way: If you want a sickeningly realistic and unblinking look at the world of real wet work, go watch actor Daniel Craig portray Mossad assassin “Alan” in the movie, Munich (2005). But if you’d prefer a comforting heroic fantasy instead, go watch actor Daniel Craig portray James Bond in the movie, Casino Royale (2006).

Personally, I know which one I would rather believe is out there somewhere, working day and night with no regard for his own safety, to protect me and all those I hold dear.

[...to be concluded...]

Monday, December 27, 2021

Adieu, Mr. Bond (Part 2)

[continued from Part One]

Will the Real James Bond Please Stand Up?

With the realization that Ian Fleming didn’t even try to keep James Bond’s backstory straight or consistent (much as his own personal accounts of what he did for British Naval Intelligence during the war always remained a bit vague), many smaller realizations finally begin to fall into place. The first is that the real James Bond is not the literary one Ian Fleming created: it’s the ever-changing succession of movie Bonds who have appeared in the decades since. Without the movies James Bond would now be just another forgotten seventy-year-old hard-boiled pulp thriller character, right up there with Sexton Blake or the Black Bat. Ian Fleming may have supplied the original template, but as with the tales of King Arthur or Charlemagne, it is the subsequent retelling and reshaping of these stories by others that has made Bond a legend.

The second realization is that there is no one true Bond. They are all true; even David Niven in the 1967 version of Casino Royale. Like all good legendary characters, Bond is profoundly malleable and often allegorical. He is an ageless hero, with no reliably fixed beginning and no apparent end in sight. His movies function as mirrors to their respective times, and the tales of Bond’s many adventures most strongly reflect the worries, hopes, fears, and joys of those who are telling the tales, and those who are eagerly listening. When considering the question of whether the world still needs Bond, then, it’s important not to let the then-contemporary trappings of previous tellings of his deeds interfere with the essential truths he embodies.

But again, we’ll come back to that.

The third realization is that deep down, in his heart of hearts, the real James Bond is not a spy. Yes, he ostensibly is an employee of a real intelligence agency, MI6, and his adventures take place in countries with real names and cities you can find on a map. But disregarding for a moment the oxymoronic concept of a famous secret agent, any attempt to draw a correlation between Bond’s gallivanting about the globe on a seemingly bottomless expense account and the tedious process of real covert intelligence work —

A Smart Slap in the Face with the Cold Wet Washcloth of Reality


Okay, look. We could do the whole Tom Clancy thing here, get bogged down in acronymspeak, and lard this discussion with terms like HUMINT, ELINT, and SIGINT. We could discuss the relative effectiveness of various KGB and Mossad “wet work” methods, debate the usefulness of the Mersenne Twister 19337 algorithm in cryptography, or wander off into a long and tedious explication of cut-outs, dead drops, false flag operations, and all the other baroque feints and shadows that are the tools of the trade in the espionage business. But before we go any further, there are a few essential concepts you simply must understand.

Intelligence is all about discovering what your potential enemy’s plans and abilities are before he can use them against you. Counterintelligence is all about preventing your enemy from doing the same to you. Now, the perfect intelligence operation is one in which the enemy’s secrets are learned without his ever suspecting that his secrets are no longer secret. The perfect counterintelligence operation is one in which the enemy’s plans are disrupted before he can put them into effect and he blames only himself for their failure. Never should you let your enemy know just who exactly it is who has foiled his plans or how, because, like a parlor magic trick, an intelligence method that has been stripped of its veil of secrecy is an intelligence method that no longer works.

And yes, while even “nice” governments have from time to time used assassins as instruments of policy, no one in their right mind would ever employ a man such as Bond in this role, if only for fear that he might someday retire from the service and publish his memoirs. Instead, the grisly truth is that assassins should be disposable people. The ideal assassin in an illiterate and mute suicide bomber: he can’t talk if captured, there’s little risk he’ll abort the mission if he finds his escape route blocked, and if he succeeds there is absolutely no chance of his ever coming back later and demanding more money to stay silent. A passable second choice is a man such as Mehmet Ali Agca, the attempted assassin of Pope John Paul II. While many in the intelligence world believe this operation was run by the Bulgarian Secret Service acting as a cut-out for the KGB, and Agca himself was captured and has talked at great length, there is little chance of ever learning the truth from his testimony. Agca has spun tales of enormous conspiracies-within-conspiracies, and has at various times claimed to be a Bulgarian agent, a CIA agent, a Palestinian militant, an Italian military intelligence agent, an employee of a dissident faction in the Vatican Bank, and the second coming of Jesus Christ, here to fulfill the Third Prophecy of Fatima.

As I’ve said before: when it comes to the world of espionage, the truth is as slippery as a salamander in a jar of Vaseline.

In any case, a well-executed intelligence, counter-intelligence, or assassination operation never requires sending in a lone agent to perform feats of derring-do, effect hair’s-breadth escapes, fight desperate battles against legions of hapless minions, completely demolish the enemy’s citadel in a cataclysmic fiery blast, or end up in a rubber life-raft with a rescued beautiful maiden. Are we all clear on this?

Good, because here is a case in point. In April of 1943, U.S. naval intelligence codebreakers intercepted and decrypted radio messages giving the exact whereabouts and travel plans of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Japan’s supreme naval commander and architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now, if Bond had even a tenuous rooting in reality, the British Secret Service’s Special Operations Executive clearly would have responded to this information by sending in a lone undercover agent equipped with an underpowered handgun. Posing as Dutch East Indian rubber plantation owner, this British agent would no doubt have easily dispatched several dim-witted henchmen, had a quick but torrid roll on the futon with Yamamoto’s personal secretary and mistress, Kissy Suzuki, fought a thrilling katana duel with Yamamoto’s master assassin, Oddjob, been captured and then rescued from certain death at the last moment by the beautiful French Polynesian girl, Improbable Chance, and in the final nick of time completed his mission by killing Yamamoto and narrowly escaping from the subsequent fiery explosion of Yamamoto’s secret lair, to end up floating in a rubber life-raft with Ms. Chance, somewhere in the Java Sea.

As it happened, though, Americans were in charge of this operation, so they instead sent in a squadron of P-38 fighters with orders to blast the living daylights out of Yamamoto’s military transport, the decoy transport, his fighter escort, and anyone else who happened to be in the general vicinity at about the same time. Yet for the remainder of the war the Japanese continued to believe that Yamamoto’s flight plan had been discovered and betrayed by native coast-watchers, and failed to realize that the Americans had broken their naval codes and were reading their most-secret communiques.

There. This is what a successful license-to-kill intelligence operation looks like in the real world.


...to be continued...

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Adieu, Mr. Bond (Part 1)

I’d planned to run a review of the latest James Bond movie, No Time to Die, this morning, but got so tangled up in the writing of it that I decided to drop back and punt instead. Ergo, here for your reading pleasure is “James Bond: Now More Than Ever,” the capstone essay I wrote for the 2006 BenBella book, James Bond in the 21st Century

Understand, James Bond and I go way back. I’ve seen all the movies, and read all of Ian Fleming’s original novels. I thought Connery was terrific in the role, grew to loathe Roger Moore in it, and have even seen the 1967 version of Casino Royale that starred Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. (What can we say about that one? It was the Sixties. Drugs were involved.) My high school chums and I were so thrilled by the Bond books that we even took the time and trouble to learn to play baccarat and played it all summer long one year, which probably explains why I still don’t know how to play sheepshead or cribbage.

The point is, I know Bond, perhaps to the point of obsessive excess, and consider the 2006 Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale to be a brilliant reboot of a series that had become hackneyed, stale, and laughably awful. It wasn’t just a reinvention of Bond: it was a restoration, that included more content from the original novel than any Bond film since From Russia With Love.

And now, fifteen years later, with No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s tenure in the role ends, and James Bond’s character arc is at last complete, in a way that Ian Fleming never lived long enough to imagine but that is completely fitting. No Time to Die is a good movie—perhaps even a great one—but it’s also a long and a weighty movie, that poses unsettling questions, and it deserves more consideration than I can squeeze into one of my typical Sunday morning 500-word reviews.

Therefore, let’s begin with going back to before the beginning.

____________________

 

James Bond: Now More Than Ever


He's been called an embarrassing relic of the Cold War who should have been forcibly retired and put out to stud a generation ago, when the Berlin Wall fell. He's been called a fascist, a racist, a neocolonial imperialist, and at the very least a shameless sexist, if not an outright misogynist. He's been the butt of jokes and the subject of parodies almost from the day he first appeared in public, and he's been described as a two-fisted, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, skirt-chasing, walking talking catalog of every bad behavior that can possibly be exhibited by the human male. It's even been said that all you really need to know about him can be summed up in just two words: Pussy Galore.

With all of this embarrassing baggage, then, how can Commander James Bond, C.M.G., R.N.V.R., possibly have a useful place in the twenty-first century?

To answer this question, we must first ask another: who is he? Who is Secret Agent 007, Mr. Shaken Not Stirred, Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang? Who is that man in the Saville Row suit, smiling with quiet confidence as he sits behind the wheel of that silver Aston Martin DB5, caressing the grip of his .32-caliber Walther PPK? Who is James Bond?

The answer to this question is not as easily found as it might seem. The peculiar challenge in assessing the proper place of James Bond in the modern world is in some respects quite similar to the challenge of picking the best brand of mineral water in the supermarket: there are so blasted many to choose from. Which one of them is the true, bona fide, and only Bond, James Bond?

As I often do with tough questions, I asked my wife. She said, "Sean Connery, no doubt about it. Very macho, very sexy, but with a roguish charm and a sardonic wit. Mm-mmm, Sean." As an afterthought, she added, "Just like you, dear." I decided to cut my losses and went to ask my friend John, the screenwriter.

"Definitely Roger Moore," John said. "Look, Bond is a joke. He's a superhero; a campy self-parody. He's the guy who can save the world without mussing his hair or spilling his martini, and Moore is the only one who got the joke and played him that way." I thanked John and left, and after that I asked more people, and got more answers. Some preferred Connery; others, Moore. Younger folks were more likely to pick Pierce Brosnan, and Timothy Dalton has his fans. No one would admit to liking George Lazenby.

But in the end, all my questioning proved fruitless. Everyone it seems has a favorite Bond, and not one single person answered, "James who?" All that my investigative efforts really produced was a wealth of opinions about the actors who had played the role, and what they'd looked like while doing it, and how they'd played it. Along with a favorite Bond actor, it seems everyone has a favorite Bond villain, a favorite Bond girl, a favorite Bond car, a favorite Bond stunt, and a favorite Bond improbable gadget. None of these opinions helped me to get any closer to resolving the crucial question of just who Bond is, though, and I still had no good answer to the question that lies at the heart of this essay: what is it about James Bond that saves him from occupying a prominent place in the dustbin of history, right next to Matt Helm?

So I went to the source.

The Gospel According to Ian

The portrait of Bond that emerges from Ian Fleming's original novels and short stories is markedly different from the collage that can be assembled by watching a series of twenty-some movies filmed over a span of fifty-some years. For one thing, Fleming's Bond doesn't look much like any of the actors who have ever played him onscreen. In the words of Vesper Lynd in Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale: "He is very good looking. He reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless in his..." (Whatever Mademoiselle Lynd intended to say next, of course, was forever lost in the explosion that blew in the front windows of the Hermitage bar. These sorts of conversation-stoppers happen all the time around Mr. Bond.)


Ian Fleming (l) and Hoagy Carmichael (r)
Projecting a little, Ian?

For another thing, it's important to note that the novels and movies were not made in the same chronological order. Bond's literary life begins with Casino Royale (1953), followed by Live and Let Die (1954), Moonraker (1955), Diamonds are Forever (1956), From Russia With Love (1957), Dr. No (1958), and Goldfinger (1959). His cinematic life, on the other hand, began a decade later with Dr. No (1962), and continued with From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), and Thunderball (1965). In some cases this resequencing of his story merely introduces continuity problems: for example, On Her Majesty's Secret Service was written and set before You Only Live Twice, and at the end of the latter book arch-villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld is not merely dead, he is really most sincerely dead. But in the movies the sequence of these stories is reversed, so it became necessary for the moviemakers to equip Blofeld with the sort of cheesy last-ditch escape devices that Mike Myers later parodied to such great effect in Austin Powers. In still other cases — Moonraker, for example — it apparently proved more expedient to simply junk Fleming's original story completely and start over from scratch, the result being that many of the later movies, and in particular the movies from the Roger Moore era, bear naught but an in-name-only relationship to the eponymous novels. This is a very important point, and we'll return to it in a bit.

For a third thing, though, a reading of Fleming's original novels quickly leads to the realization that Bond's origins and backstory are in constant flux. In Casino Royale, for example, we get this small insight into Bond's private life: "Bond's car was his only personal hobby. One of the last of the 4-litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Amhert Villiers, he had bought it almost new in 1933 and had kept it in careful storage through the war." Two years later, in Moonraker, Bond is described as being only eight years away from mandatory retirement at age forty-five, and yet nine years after that, in You Only Live Twice, Bond's official obituary states that in 1941 he dropped out of school at age seventeen to enlist in the Royal Navy. From these apparent contradictions, and many more like them, we must draw one of only two possible conclusions: either Bond's parents in 1933 were far more indulgent with their nine-year-old son than all but the worst of modern American parents, or else even Fleming himself didn't give a rip about keeping Bond's backstory straight. And if we can't trust the putative facts put forth by his creator, then what hope do we have to know anything about the real James Bond?

What we can know is that which we are left with: his mood, tone, and character. In this regard, Fleming was quite consistent. Bond, as written by Fleming, was neither the wry stud-muffin played by Connery, the smirking quipster played by Moore, nor the smart-but-tough human action-figure played by Brosnan. Bond was a film noir character from the get-go, who had less in common with his later cinematic portrayals than with his literary contemporaries and immediate predecessors: Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Simon Templar, and the Continental Op. Fleming's Bond was a thug. He could pass for a gentleman when required, but underneath the civilized veneer he was a cold-blooded killer in the employ of Her Majesty's government. He could slit a sleeping man's throat or kill someone with his bare hands and feel little more afterward than the need for a good stiff drink. He could make love to a woman in chapter five and shoot her in the back in chapter six. He was, as Fleming described him, "a neutral figure — an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department." He was meant to be an emotionally detached and utterly deadly assassin, a man who got involved in interesting business but was not himself interesting. In short, Bond was — ironically — meant by Fleming to be most like the least-liked of his big-screen avatars: George Lazenby.

What you start hanging about with Bond, you'll note, it is difficult to avoid becoming drenched in irony.


...to be continued...

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Friday, December 24, 2021

Have Yourself a Stupefying Christmas...

 

Just in time for Christmas Eve, The Pete Wood Challenge returns with six, count ‘em, six new flash fiction stories, all keying off the phrase, “After naughty and nice, Santa had a third list.” Without further ado, then…

Honorable Mentions

“The Santa Heist,” by Carol Scheina » READ IT NOW!

“The Undeliverables,” by Allison Mulder » READ IT NOW!

“The Santa Paradox,” by Mark Vandersluis » READ IT NOW!

Third Place

“Santa’s List,” by Melissa Mead » READ IT NOW!

Second Place

“You Better Watch Out,” by Jason Burnham » READ IT NOW!

First Place

“Christmas Collections,” by Matt Krizan » READ IT NOW!


___________________________

About that illustration…

That, friends, is a piece of original artwork by Jeff Doten, who we have worked with on many projects and who is both a talented artist and a pleasure to work with. (A rare combination, believe me.) In fact, we like Jeff so much, we commissioned him to redo the cover art for the entire Scout series. (Never mind the July 20 on the banner below; that was July 20, 2021. I really need to get an updated banner.)

If you like what we’re doing here at Stupefying Stories and want to support us, check out these books. They make great gifts for that YA reader you know who’s just starting to get into science fiction, and grown-ups love ‘em too!



Thursday, December 16, 2021

Minor Status Update

It’s been a complicated week here at Casa Calimari, but then Chemo Week always is. This is just a quick note to let you know that I’m not at WorldCon, nor have I dropped off the face of the Earth. Work on Stupefying Stories #24 is proceeding, although not as smoothly as I would like, and the regular blog posts should resume tomorrow. 

~brb

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Snow Day, Reprise

The storm is at last over The skies this morning are clear, and the snowblower serenade has begun. In a few minutes I need to get out there and join in, so while I’m working on digging out from the storm, here are some seasonally appropriate stories from the archives for you. Enjoy!

* * * * *


SEARCHING FOR HOME • by Lance J. Mushung

I watched the view screen, horrified. Navigator and Pilot to my side looked as frightened as I felt. Our emergency capsule was bathed in orange flames and plummeting to the surface of the planet like a meteor.

When our ship first approached the planet, it was a beautiful white and blue globe hanging in the darkness. Later, from the orbit of its single mottled light and dark grey satellite, we saw it was in reality a bleak frigid world covered in large part by glaciers. With the ground approaching I could see green vegetation in places along with the ice and snow. To my regret the green didn’t make it appear any less forbidding.

Our capsule hit hard and tumbled, and we were whipped around in our seats and heard shrill crunching sounds. When we came to rest, Navigator’s head was wet with blood. I opened the hatch and with Pilot’s help pulled Navigator out. We were on a long sheet of ice and snow that was gouged by our landing. Woods lined its sides and the ice twisted out of sight in both directions. It was a frozen river.

“Commander,” Pilot called out, pointing to the horizon over the trees. “Look at that. Is it the ship?”

My eyes followed his arm and saw a column of black smoke boiling into the sky. “Very likely,” I said.

Pilot went back into the capsule and I did what I could for Navigator. She was conscious, but acted confused. I joined Pilot when he yelled out that the computer still worked. It confirmed that the smoke was the aft part of our ship, which had crashed about two days’ march away. A few of the ship’s systems remained functional, so it was clear where we should go. We gathered the survival supplies of rations, weapons, and various gear. I was thankful we had good cold-weather garments. It was freezing.

“We have plenty of nutrition wafers,” Pilot said. “They taste awful, but we will not starve.” He sounded quite cheerful, considering the circumstances...

» Read the rest of the story
[P.S. If you enjoy this one, you might also want to read “No Accounting for Taste,” “Shapes of Power,” or going way back into the archives, “Space Program,” which is the kind of story I really like but rarely see: science fiction so hard it clanks.]
* * * * *

ABOVE THE ICE • by Matthew A. J. Timmins

[Nota bene: Like “Cold Beyond White,” this story was published on SHOWCASE in the transitional period between the original weekly webzine format and the later WordPress site, and thus has been nearly impossible to find until now. Enjoy!]
ChaaSooNiik had never been this far above her home vents before. Her mother-sister had told her what to expect but the reality of it was still shocking. She pressed a splay of fingers against the lifter’s speaker-window and wriggled uncomfortably inside her heat-skin as the vehicle’s echo showed her the water outside: no spheres, no movers, no people, not even any fish; just a lumpy composite mass drifting slowly downward, probably a dying reef-colony come loose from the ice.

The lifter too was empty, save for herself and the operator. The lifter had emptied quickly at first and then more slowly as it ascended, the other passengers disembarking at anchor-cities, hunting platforms, or isolation spheres. At each stop, as the chattering females peeled away from the lifter’s passenger column, collected their luggage, and swam out of the dome, the vehicle grew quieter and quieter until ChaaSooNiik could imagine herself one of the sacrificial mourners of legend who had escorted the floating dead up to the impenetrable ceiling of ice.

Which was where she was going, in fact....

» Read the rest of the story
[P.S. If you enjoy this one, you might also want to read Matthew’s story, “Playing God.”]
* * * * *

UNDER THE SHIMMERING LIGHTS • by Jamie Lackey

[Nota bene: I bubbled this one to the top because, a.) it has figure-skating in it, b.) it’s a good excuse to put in a plug for Jamie’s excellent short story collection, A Metal Box Floating Between Stars, published by Air and Nothingness Press.]
Kirima’s ice skates hissed as she glided across her frozen pond. Four smooth strokes, then three crossovers, her left foot over her right, then four more strokes. Her skates left gouges and a trail of ice shavings. Her hair clung to her temples, and her breath misted in the cold air.

She hated the cold and the short hours of thin gray sunlight. As a child, she’d dreamed of hot winds and brown mountains and regularly spaced days and nights.

But she had always loved the dancing lights, and she came home when her grandmother wrote to beg her to save them...

» Read the rest of the story

* * * * *

ON THE POND • by Jake Doyle

Look at our breath rise in the crisp, cold air. Look at the moon reflecting off the black ice. Look at the snowflakes melt into the ice. Look at that ice, there’s something about it. It’s bumpy, with an occasional crack. It’s not anything like man-made ice—it lets you know where you are, let’s you feel the bumps and cracks transfer from your blades to your shoes to your feet. Listen to the sounds—the sweet, sweet, mellifluous sounds of our skates gliding, slicing and cutting as they draw abstract art in that rough, frozen pond. Listen to the sounds of our wooden sticks—with snow on the blades and tape dangling from the shaft from hours and hours of use—echo off the woods to the north as they slap against the ice, the puck, or other sticks. Watch the way we all have our signature way of shooting and passing and skating. Watch the way a game can go from serious and intense to laughs and jokes in a matter of seconds. Or watch Andy Potter skate that Saturday morning in early January, when his blades did more dragging than slicing, almost like the wind was the only thing pushing him along, and you would know, from that day on, that playing pond hockey would never be the same.

That first day of pond hockey. Joy is a feeling that comes to mind. Not Christmas joy, not Easter joy, not Thanksgiving joy, rather, the first-day-I-met-my-brother joy. We wait and wait and wait, staring at the little thermometer hanging from the homemade bird feeder west of the pond. Is it under thirty-two? we’ll ask. It’s a bucket full of memories that we reminisce about on those beaches or around those bonfires during the summer months. You must think we’re crazy! How could anyone enjoy such a horrid time of the year over such a sun-filled, beach-living season? How could anyone think about memories from winter while sitting around a bonfire wearing shorts and flip-flops and tank tops?

Well, maybe we are crazy, for waking up at the crack of dawn to shovel the snow off a freshly frozen pond in the middle of December. Maybe we are crazy for playing till two, three in the morning just when our toes are on the edge of frostbitten and we have no choice but to stop. Maybe we are crazy because we don’t wear shin guards or elbow pads or helmets. Logan Campbell will agree. He crushed his left elbow and tore his ACL in the same day on the pond. Nicholas Pano will tell you we’re crazy and he’ll smile as he says it. He’ll tell you we’re crazy because four years ago all ten of us rushed him to the hospital in Andy Potter’s dark green Jeep as blood painted his brown hair after his skull crashed into the January ice.

But maybe it’s the only time of the year we get to do that one thing that we think about every time someone brings up the dreaded, frigid Michigan winter. Pond hockey...

» Read the rest of the story

 

 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Today's Free Story Idea

Stealing this from Joseph Cautilli, who asked the question:

It is 2041. By 70 years of age most people are cyborgs with implants for heart or blood pressure or…?

My initial answer was “blood sugars,” as it’s only 2021 and owing to my lack of a functional pancreas I already have an implant that does that. After giving it further thought, though, the better answer was obvious. By 2041 most good subjects citizens will have a tiny real-time streaming editor—let’s call it a “SED” chip—implanted in their brain, probably in the arcuate fasciculus, between Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area. Thanks to this wonderful little invention our citizen of the future will be completely unable to either intentionally or inadvertently blurt out any career- or life-destroying BadThink, or even to understand any such words, if somehow heard.

Obviously the SED processor will need to be Internet-enabled via something akin to Bluetooth or wifi, as it will need frequent updates, given that the definition of BadThink seems to change almost daily.

Okay, here’s your free story idea. Now run with it!






Snow Day

 

Hastily reshuffling this morning’s priorities in order to be ready when the storm hits. It’s already snowing heavily further south. According to the forecast we’re right on the boundary line: if the storm track shifts in one direction we’ll get an easily manageable few inches, but if it shifts the other way we’ll get buried.

In the meantime, for your entertainment, here’s one from the SHOWCASE vault: 

COLD BEYOND WHITE • by Beth Cato

READ THE STORY ►


Thursday, December 9, 2021

Working Day

 

No significant blog post today. I’m elbow-deep in work on Stupefying Stories 24, which is still on-track for release on January 1, 2022, and am trying to shut out all other distractions. 

One particularly tempting distraction lately has been the new FB group, Cyberpunk Books, which as you may have guessed from the name is about print fiction, not anime, gaming, movies, or whatever else falls into the catchall bin labeled cyberpunk. It’s a public group (for now), so if you want to talk seriously about the genre, it’s worth checking out. The folks over there have been asking me lots of good questions, so my answers to some of those questions will be emerging in future “Ask Dr. Cyberpunk” columns and perhaps even in Cyberpunk and Cyberpunk Revisited, when I get back to working on it.

In the meantime, while I’m working on Stupefying Stories 24, do me a favor and at least think about buying a copy of Stupefying Stories 23, wouldja? Or if not that, buy a copy of THE LOST PLANET. Now available in hardcover, THE LOST PLANET makes a great Christmas gift for that bright young reader you’re trying to encourage to put down their cell phone and try reading a book for a change.

~brb 


 

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Son of the Return of Ask Dr. Cyberpunk

And the morning is off to an exciting start. I woke up to learn that yesterday the BBC ran an article on its web site entitled, The Matrix and the sci-fi stories that became a reality, and the article leads off by mentioning me and my particular little contribution to the genre. (I wonder what secondary or tertiary source they’re quoting?

Then it mostly segues off into being an article about The Matrix and Bill Gibson, mashed up with an interview with Neal Stephenson. But the point is, these kinds of mentions usually produce a sudden gush of interest in me and that story, which quickly turns into a secondary flood of queries from people wanting either to option the film rights or reprint the story in exchange for…

Recognition. Of my contribution to the history of the genre, or something like that. What a shame Chase Mortgage doesn’t accept recognition as legal tender when I make my house payment.

If you have a question you’d like to ask me, go ahead. I can’t guarantee that I’ll answer it, but if I like the question, I may even use it as a springboard for an Ask Dr. Cyberpunk column. There are quite a few of those columns out there already, which you can browse through by clicking this link: Ask Dr. Cyberpunk. If you’re wondering what sort of questions I find interesting, read this one, or better yet, this one.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to productive work.

Cheers,
~brb

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 8: Aliens Only Have To Be Different In ONE Way To Make Them Alien!

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction.

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 years...so...I have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...

When I create aliens, I have to make sure that they ACT differently. To do that, do I have to change EVERYTHING about them, or can I tweak a single Human characteristic to make an alien?

STAR TREK is guilty of flaunting this to extreme degrees. For example, the ALIEN Vulcan, Sarek, father of Spock, talks to his son about his emotions and gives fatherly advice, even though his dad is fully alien Vulcan and bleeds green blood and Spock is some sort of unbelievable “half-breed”…

The Nova Corp of the Marvel Universe “Guardians of the Galaxy” shows a Nova Prime where rainbow-colored alien bipedal parents walk around on two legs, holding the hands of their children -- exactly like Humans in makeup and funny suits.

STAR TREK, in a rare display of originality shows a silicon mother whose entire civilization has died out and she is the last one alive. When the zillions of eggs she has been guarding hatch, she becomes the mother of a new civilization…My question has always been when she passes on the wisdom of the old civilization, can she change it? Can Mother Horta alter the way things have been done?

In Marc Steigler’s award-winning short story, “Petals of Rose”, a Human works with the incredibly short-lived Rosans, whose entire life is lived in hours; and the Lazarines, whose lifetimes span millennia. Rosans, Lazarine, and Humans are working together to create a way of communicating faster than the laws of physics would allow; creating a sort of LeGuin’s “ansible”. He accidentally becomes the founder of a new religion – based on an idea he had about how memories are passed from Rosan generation to Rosan generation -- they eat a parent and receive their body and much information. He suggest the young eat the brain of one and the body of another...

While aliens need to behave differently, even among HUMANS fathers behave in vastly different ways, varying from loving to brutal to indifferent to entirely absent. Animal “father” behaviors vary just as much. Some males help keep the nest warm while the female hunts. Some males and females mate for life. Some animals perform gang rape…

How different would an alien have to behave in order to be truly alien?

Turns out, not that much. It turns out that I’ve traveled a lot, mathematically slightly more than half way around the Earth. I didn’t just “stop in airports”, either. I spent more than three weeks at the two end points – from Fambé, Central African Republic to Incheon, South Korea, and three months in Nigeria and a month-and-a-half in Cameroon and Liberia...NOT in a hotel, but living with indigenous people who were Lutherans.

I have experienced strange behavior everywhere; behaviors that seem inexplicable, performed by Humans.

Two examples. In West Africa, we shared a meal with a group of doctors and nurses. They prepared a regular lunch for us of pounded yam fufu in soup. Fufu has the consistency of uncooked Bisquick (pancake and baking mix). The soup was the thickness of chicken gravy sometimes with a bit of chicken in it, sometimes not. One notable soup was made from okra and had the color and consistency of mucus. Fufu and soup was standard fare, but it was eaten one-handed. We had learned to pinch a small ball of fufu from the larger one it’s served as, roll it into a small ball, swipe it through the soup, then pop it in your mouth, SWALLOWING IT WHOLE. As I said, strange, but we’d learned how to do it.

Our hosts had set the table with Western-style silverware and when we sat down together and said our prayers, they also started to eat – cutting small pieces of fufu, dipping it in the soup – and CHEWING the fufu.

It took only a moment for use to realize that both groups had set out to make the other comfortable by adhering to the customs of the other group – in this case, the SUPPOSED customs of the other group…

In South Korea, it was customary that when adults meet for a meal and the children were not at table, that Soju would be the traditional drink. Soju is a distilled spirit from Korea that’s traditionally made from rice, though it can also be made from sweet potato, barley, tapioca, wheat or any combination of those ingredients. Sometimes called Korean vodka because of its neutral flavor, Soju and Japanese sake are similar, though Sake is fermented and brewed like beer and soju is distilled like vodka.

I’ve been a teetotaler since before most of my peers started drinking, mostly because of familial pressure – they did, I refused. But a shot of Soju was customary in South Korean society. When I was with my son and his best Korean friend, I shocked my son by drinking Soju.

Creating truly alien behavior is impossible – because we’re Humans and we can’t imagine doing things another way. But authors like CJ Cherryh have given us a clue about how that might be done. In her world of the Atevi and Humans, she has altered one behavior: her Atevi had no concept of love. In Atevi the biological drive is expressed by association. Even in an Atevi family unit, there are associations. Love between a couple is an alien concept to the Atevi. They have studied love, of course, because of a large refugee Human population living on their world, but they don’t understand it. It’s this single, foundational and by all appearances insignificant change that has given rise to Cherryh’s exploration of Human-Atevi interaction…for the past 27 years!

One change and figuring out how a civilization would develop based on that SINGLE CHANGE appears to be one important way of creating alien aliens. It might be expressed best by looking at one of the photographs taken of a celebrity and the statement made that the rest of us recognize only the dominant side of the celebrity’s face. If a photo is cut in half, and he NON-dominant side of the face is joined to a mirror image – we don’t recognize the celebrity! (https://www.buzzfeed.com/eglantinerbd/symmetrys-weird-you-guys) One change, and they are ALIENS!

I’ve been working on developing alien civilizations for years. OTOH, I didn’t realize until recently that to create truly alien aliens, all you need to do is change one thing about Humans. That seems to make the weirdest aliens of all. (I just realized that in the WALKING DEAD series, the only difference between Humans and zombies is that the zombies are dead…)

The aliens in WAR OF THE WORLDS? Humans are physically strong, but (let’s face it!) mostly mentally weak; the Martians are physically weak and mentally strong.

How about DUNE? It has no aliens in it. It has altered, sometimes drastically altered (the Guild pilots) Humans and strange Human societies, but everyone pretty much behaves as Humans; even the Fremen, who are in fact…Human.

In STAR TREK, the aliens look weird, but behave in perfectly understandable Human ways – the Klingons represented the Soviet Union, the Federation represented the United Nations. The ice blue Andorians were jealous and angry, but had honor. The Klingon Empire was subsumed into the Federation because…well, because America always wins! The Changelings were supposed to be aliens, but in the end, they just turned out to be Humans in makeup…

SOLARIS was different. It was an intelligent ocean. Now THAT was a weird one! Lem’s intent is best given in his own words: “‘The peculiarity of those phenomena seems to suggest that we observe a kind of rational activity, but the meaning of this seemingly rational activity of the Solarian Ocean is beyond the reach of human beings.’ He also wrote that he deliberately chose to make the sentient alien an ocean to avoid any personification and the pitfalls of anthropomorphism in depicting first contact.” He changed one thing: a Human brain, small and simple; became a planet-spanning intelligence. Despite what the movies presented, Solaris couldn’t understand Humans; we couldn’t understand it.

How can I take my WheetAh – plantimals – and change one thing in them to make them alien aliens?

Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg



Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp. He thinks out loud in print at: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/

Monday, December 6, 2021

Reading "The Rebel of Valkyr" • by Bruce Bethke

 

Savagely, the Valkyrs closed with them, and the air rang with the metallic clash of steel. No mercy was asked and none was given. Kieron cut a circle of death with his long, outworld weapon, the fighting blood of a hundred generations of warriors singing in his ears. The savage chant of the Edge rose above the confused sounds of battle…

Okay, everyone got that? The Valkyrs are savages. Are we all clear on this point? Good.

I’ve been making a study of interstellar empires in science fiction lately. Why is something I will talk about another time, but for this study I’ve been delving into my ludicrously large personal library and pulling lots of books I’d forgotten I had off the shelves. I probably should downsize the library one of these days. If there’s an obscure book from the 1950s through the 1980s that you’re looking for, let me know. I probably have a copy I’d be happy to part with.

My primary source for this research, though, has been Galactic Empires, the massive two-volume hardcover anthology that Brian Aldiss put together in the mid-1970s in an attempt to do a comprehensive survey of the subject. Some of the stories in this collection are brilliant: for example, “Brightness Falls from the Air” by Idris Seabright (Margaret St. Clair) or “All the Way Back” by Michael Shaara. (See “Michael Shaara: Wishing for the Killer Aliens” by Guy Stewart.) 

Others range from being merely embarrassing to downright awful now, with the worst so far being “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov. No, not the heavily edited and revised first novel, but the very first short story in the series, as published in Astounding in 1951. For starters, it isn’t even a story. It’s a history lecture that segues into a talky vignette with a few two-dimensional characters, and then doesn’t so much end as just sort of come to a stop in mid-air. While not Exhibit A, this story definitely would be one of the primary exhibits I would cite in making the case that John Campbell’s long tenure at Astounding was on the whole very bad for science fiction as a genre.

But this too is an argument for another time. Today I want to focus on The Rebel of Valkyr, by Alfred Coppel, a 1950 short novel that I stayed up reading way too late last night—not because I was hooked on the story, but because I wanted to finish the damned thing, so that I could check it off my list and move on.

I found The Rebel of Valkyr to be perversely fascinating. If you want to read it, it’s in the public domain now, and there are plenty of places where you can find it: for example, on Project Gutenberg, or on Comic Book +, a facsimile site that can easily turn into an enormous time-sink. I found the original cover art on ayay, another site that along with PulpCovers.com could easily chew up the rest of your day if you let it. Hell, I could publish an edition of The Rebel of Valkyr if I wanted to, which is the sort of temptation that can only be dispelled by making the Sign of the Cross and saying, “Get thee behind me, Campbell.”

But to get back to the book…

[SPOILER ALERT!]

The Rebel of Valkyr delivers just what it promises: a formulaic quasi-Medieval swords-and-princesses romance, only with starships and planets instead of sailing ships and kingdoms. The prologue (yes, it has a prologue) explains that a new barbaric empire has grown up in the ruins of the First Terran Empire. Ancient starships remain operational, but no one understands how they work, only that they do. (I suppose if you’re going to solve the problem of FTL travel using FM, you may as well go whole-hog and make it real FM to your characters.) Other ancient technologies remain in dark places, but the people who study and try to use those technologies are reviled and hunted as witches and warlocks, as their evil magic is blamed for bringing about the fall of the First Empire and the new Dark Ages. (Does this begin to sound familiar?)

Our hero is Kieron of Valkyr: for all practical purposes a space viking. The babe on the cover is his love interest, the beautiful Princess Alys, daughter of the beloved and recently deceased Emperor Gilmer and rightful heir to the throne. Alys actually spends most of the novel running around half-naked, as topless gowns are in fashion in the Imperial court this year, but I suppose in 1950 Planet Stories didn’t dare put that on the cover. The villain is Alys’s wicked and scheming stepmother—oh, she has some other title, but that’s what Lady Ivane amounts to; a Disney princess’s wicked stepmother—and after that we have a large cast of extras, most of whom behave exactly like movie extras, right down to not even bothering to have names or make noise when they die.

There are plots; machinations; hairsbreadth escapes; stupid and obvious traps the heroes fall into nonetheless; the eventual reveal, telegraphed well in advance, that Grima Wormtongue—excuse me, Freka the Unknown—is actually an android, and that Lady Ivane’s treacherous right-hand man is in fact the very embodiment of evil forbidden technology, which means that by extension she’s a witch—

In the penultimate dramatic scene Princess Alys finally gets some clothes on and rides into the scene on a white horse, wearing her steel battle panties, a chain mail hauberk, and a freakin’ winged helmet, thus causing the opposing army to instantly accept her as the rightful heir to the throne and change sides…

[LARS: You want proof she’s the rightful heir to the throne? Check out that hauberk!

[OLAF: Dude, I’ll pledge allegiance to those breasts any day of the week and twice on Sunday!]

And yes, of course, the plot climaxes with a sword fight in the throne room, as all the extras stand back respectfully and give Kieron and Freka room to settle with swords the question of who is the rightful Empress of the Galaxy. 

Yeah, wonderfully romantic. Totally nonsensical. I would have loved this story when I was twelve.

___________________

My curiosity engaged, I decided to do more research. Alfred Coppel (real name: Alfredo Jose de Arana-Marini Coppel) turns out to have been a fascinating character. A World War II fighter pilot and combat vet, after he was discharged he took up writing fiction, and under a stable of pseudonyms was an incredibly prolific writer from the late 1940s right up through the 1990s. While best known in the insular and introverted world we call the science fiction community for the pulp sci-fi he wrote in the 1940s and 1950s, he wrote all kinds of material, for all kinds of markets, and apparently had his greatest commercial success as a writer of mainstream military thrillers in the 1970s. 

As I said, part of the challenge in figuring out what he wrote is that he worked under a bevy of pseudonyms. For example, I have on my desk right now a copy of The Sentinel Stars, by Louis Charbonneau, which I picked out of a thrift store used-book bin because I thought the cover looked liked a good candidate for my Gallery of Awful Cover Art and then was hooked by the tag line on the jacket copy: “THE SENTINEL STARS—a novel of our world run as the Bureau of Internal Revenue would run it!”

Imagine my surprise at learning that “Louis Charbonneau” too was actually Alfredo Coppel.

I meet a lot of writers who seem to think you can make a living and a lifelong career out of writing nothing but science fiction. That’s a nice dream, and I have known a very small number of people who actually managed to do it, but a career like Coppel’s is more common. Don’t let yourself get pigeonholed. Read omnivorously. Try to write in other genres. Know that the winds of literary fashion are extraordinarily fickle, and be prepared to become someone else should the need arise. 

~brb

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Coming 01/01/2022


 

_____________________________________________

In the meantime, while you’re waiting…


stupefy (ˈstü-pə-ˌfī) to stun, astonish, or astound

Available now on Kindle or in print. Coming in December to Nook, Kobo, Apple Books, and all the rest.

On Amazon now ► STUPEFYING STORIES 23

Interface with Stupefying Stories!

kudos and complaints to feedback@rampantloonmedia.com

 

 

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Editors and You • an open query

 

Yesterday’s column seems to have touched a nerve. Judging by the readership numbers and the back-channel communications, a lot of writers seem to have a lot of questions about the care and feeding of these strange creatures known as “editors.”

As it happens, over the course of forty-some years in the writing racket I have gotten to know a lot of editors, some quite well, and eventually became one myself. This morning I began to write a column on the subject but it quickly mushroomed beyond containment in a single column. There are so many different kinds of skills that fall under the job title of “editor”—acquisition, development, managing, copy, production—and the people who fill these roles can themselves be so very different from each other.

I have worked with good editors; great editors; a few absolutely brilliant editors; as well as a few who ranged from merely bad to unspeakable. I have worked with editors who had absolutely no business working in SF/F, because they despised the genre, despised the people who wrote it, and looked down with contempt on the people who read it. (Why then were they working for a genre publisher? Well, they wanted to work in publishing but couldn’t land a job at St. Martin’s or Little, Brown.) As I have worked to develop my craft skills I have done a lot of reading and made something of a study of the seminal editors who deformed shaped this genre we call… whatever it is that we call it. (Hugo Gernsback wanted to call it “scientifiction” but no one else did.)

My question for you this morning is: do you find this subject as interesting as I do, and would you like me to write more about my experiences with editors and what I’ve learned? 

The lines are now open. Let me know.

Thanks,
~brb

Friday, December 3, 2021

Files found while looking for something else


Well, golly. While looking for the original source for the shareware beta version of Cyberpunk—which I still haven’t found—I found the files for the 2011 version, which was being developed under the working title of Cyberpunk 1989 for a book deal that fell through. I have some affection for the proposed cover art: →

Ten years ago it probably would have been considered very edgy, although it looks kind of silly and amateurish now.

Of more interest to me is that the folder contains the prelude and postlude that I wrote specifically to go with that version of the novel, and it contains some things I’d forgotten I’d written. Without further ado, then…

___________


“Cyberpunk” as originally written was very short, and ended at the point where Mikey took control of the situation, with the line, “Dad? There’s going to be some changes around here.” George Scithers, then the editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, liked the story in general but disliked the ending in particular, because it ended with the punk winning. At his request I tacked on a coda, in which Mikey gets his comeuppance and ends up packed off to a military boarding school, and the name of the school came to me in a moment of inspired improvisation: The Von Schlager Military Academy. From the German verb  schlagen: schlagen, schlägt, schlug

The past participle form is left as a challenge to your linguistic skills.

In the summer of 1980 Scithers decided he didn’t like the rewritten version of “Cyberpunk” after all, and definitively rejected it. Two years later, after he’d jumped magazines to become the editor of Amazing Stories, he changed his mind and decided he now liked it again. In July of 1982 he bought it, and the story was published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing Stories, which per the publisher’s practices of the time was actually released in September. And that was the end of it.

Or so I thought…

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Eric’s Writing Updat…No, Editing Upda…No…• By Eric Dontigney

So, for those of you who got accustomed to my mostly-weekly writing updates, you probably wondered what happened.

“Didn’t that Eric joker say something about an urban fantasy? Where are the updates?!”

It turns out that I’m not the only writer in my family tree. I mean, yeah, every family tree has amateur authors and the like, but it’s a bit more serious in my family. I’ve got two aunts who have written books that, in my humble opinion, were publishable at the last drafts I read. One is a Civil War-era novel, and the other is a non-fiction memoir about a real-life boat trip down the Amazon River. Yet, even before all of that, there was my great grandmother, who published two memoirs about her life in the same rural neck of the woods where I grew up. If memory serves, I even read a much-battered copy of one of her books I found hiding on a bookshelf as a teenager. Yes, the writerly instincts run deep in my bloodline.

This is where things get interesting. Earlier this year, my great aunt was going through some things of my great grandmother's and ran across a typed manuscript. Not shocking for someone who wrote two books, except this manuscript wasn’t a leftover copy of either of those published tomes. It was a completely new book that exactly nobody in the entire family knew existed. Given that my great-grandmother died in 1996, this was a shock to everyone. The manuscript made the rounds and the decision was made to publish it. This is where I come into the story.

My mother used some piece of technology to convert those typewritten pages into digital files. The book was written in 1977, so there were no native digital files. Then, she passed the files along to me. The idea was that I would format them for print and digital publication via the almighty ‘Zon or Amazon for those who don’t appreciate my shorthand for our digital overlords. It sounded simple enough on the surface, or so I thought. When the files came to me, they were in RTF format. RTF is a perfectly serviceable file format, but it’s not Amazon’s favorite thing. So, I made the decision that I would convert them over to Word files and work from there.

Little did I realize what an undertaking that would become.

For one, whatever process converted those original typewritten pages into RTF files didn’t generate them with consistent formatting. Some of the files were single space. Some were double space. Some used single and double spacing. Some of the files had hard returns at the end of paragraphs, some of them didn’t. Some of them used widow and orphan control and some of them didn’t. Even the font and font size varied from chapter to chapter. Thus began an extended process of manually formatting those chapters, sometimes by page, sometimes by paragraph, and sometimes by individual line. It took a goodly while just to get the files to a point where each chapter had extremely basic, but consistent formatting across the entire book.

Then, I got to take those files and begin the process of formatting them all over again. One version for print publication and one for Kindle. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you can use one version for both. You can’t. Even with the consistent basic formatting I had in place, there were still hours and hours of manual formatting to get the print version ready to go. Why the print version first? I come from a family of people who like dead tree editions. Hell, I’m a person who likes dead tree editions. I use a Kindle because it’s convenient and usually less expensive, not because I find it preferable. Plus, my great aunt is 90+ years old. If she was going to see a copy of this, it was going to be a print copy. So, print is where I started. Once I got that version finalized, included a few cool vintage images right in the middle of the book like they used to do for all the non-fiction books that included pictures, I got it uploaded. Then, because I’m the publisher of record, I had to take on the role of fulfillment agent for author copies to be delivered to family and an interested historical society.

I finally got those details squared away and so began the work on the Kindle edition. Kindle Create helps a lot with converting text-based files into Kindle-ready eBooks. It’s monumentally less helpful if you want to include images in your eBook. To be fair, Kindle eBooks are not a natural medium for images, which is likely why the image tools in the Kindle Create software are virtually non-existent. For the record, I’m still not happy with how those images look in the Kindle edition. But…but, you have to declare the book done at some point, so I eventually did that.

So, all of that was a very, very long-winded explanation of why there haven’t been any Eric’s Writing Update posts. The time I would have devoted to writing got siphoned away for this project. I’m not sad about that either. The book is a memoir about my great grandmother’s time as a teacher in one-room schoolhouses in rural New York in the early 20th century. It picks up in the mid-teens and covers the time of the First World War and the 1918 Influenza among other things. I found it a fascinating look at the time period through the lens of rural farming communities. It was like a snapshot of a culture that’s almost alien to contemporary sensibilities in terms of social expectations and the norms of education. It was also a little piece of family history I didn’t know that much about. Time well spent, I think, even if all that formatting did suck so very mightily.

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Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.


SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!

 

The Ongoing Email Saga

 

Quick update on the email situation. Thanks to GoDaddy’s unilateral decision to move us to Microsoft Exchange, a product that deserves to burn in Hell, and to force us to use Microsoft Outlook 365, a product so vile it warrants having everyone associated with creating it consigned to the foulest depths of some place even worse—probably the Garfield Park neighborhood in Chicago—the behavior of all rampantloonmedia.com and brucebethke.com email addresses is now erratic at best and goes downhill from there.

If you need to contact me, use the submissions@rampantloonmedia.com email address and no other.* This one seems to be the most reliable, or at least to have the best understood weaknesses and malfunctions. We can work around its known problems for now.

[* Unless you are one of the very few people who knows my personal email address. Guy, Pete, Ray, Eric; you know which one I mean. Please don’t share it without asking me first.] 

Most aggravating to me until yesterday was that brb@rampantloonmedia.com has become wildly unreliable. For some idiotic reason Microsoft cheerfully passes through every vapid message from Twitter but blocks all the important business-related email from Amazon, Ingram, and the bank where we have the RLP accounts! Fortunately it doesn’t auto-delete any messages—at least, so far as we know—but it does consign important messages to the spam or trash folders seemingly at random, and fishing out a message and tagging it as not spam does not seem to make any difference when the next message comes in from the same sender. 

Microsoft also exhibits the same behavior with messages sent to brb@brucebethke.com—I just had to fish a contract from a UK publisher out of the trash—but as I said, this was only the most aggravating thing until yesterday, which was when I discovered that GoDaddy unilaterally disabled several email accounts associated with my personal PayPal account. Apparently they did this about six months ago, but as they did this when my wife’s medical crisis was approaching its dramatic peak, I was preoccupied and didn’t notice. 

One particularly irksome aspect of this is that they disabled the PayPal email account specifically associated with the shareware version of Cyberpunk I put out about twenty years ago, that has been floating around the Internet ever since. It’s never generated much income; perhaps one in a hundred readers reads the book and then actually bothers to send in the suggested shareware license fee. But about six months ago the slow and feeble trickle of PayPal deposits to that account stopped completely… and now I know why.

As of this morning, the account is semi-reactivated. PayPal payments sent to brbethke@spedro.com get through now. But that’s the only functionality I’ve able to restore: all other email sent to any spedro.com email account simply vanishes into /dev/null, never to be seen again.

A damn pity a spedro.com email address in the one printed on the back cover of every U.S. mass-market copy of Headcrash