Lawncare and Leprosy

Just looking for a catchy title for more exasperation.

As a distraction from the steady rain of naked emperors and their fawning sycophants and courtiers and the sheep they intimidate into line, I’m putting in some serious lawn care time, and writing. Only partially effective. What’s sticking in my brain is the awareness that about 90% of my relatives are firmly on the Corona Train of Doom. These are for the most part well educated and intelligent people, who seem to firmly believe they are ‘following the science’ that they’ve never looked at and wouldn’t understand if they did. They just so *certain* they’ve got a bead on things.

This item is something you can buy, in bulk if necessary, from actual trophy retailers. And it seems to be assumed that getting this trophy would not only not increase the juvenile suicide rate but rather actually make a child feel *good*. These people 1) are not from this planet, and 2) have never won anything worth winning in their lives.

A seriously cultivated lack of self-awareness. I’m thinking masks are the ironic completion of the participation trophy culture. You want to be an outsider? Someone who doesn’t even get a participation trophy, that proves that the authority figures love you as long as you, well, participate?

(Aside: I am in some ways a very competitive person, mostly manifested in sports. What seems missing from the equation: Running the real risk, sometimes even near-certainty, of losing is a huge part of what made it fun and satisfying. If you win, it’s worth winning; if you lose, you went up against good competition and got to prove yourself, even if just to yourself. The worst thing: playing in games you’re supposed to win easily. Winning is thus nothing to be proud of, while losing is embarrassing. Didn’t these people ever see “A Nice Place to Visit”?)

Several times now, I’ve drafted letters to the family explaining why me and mine are not panicking, why we don’t wear masks or social distance unless we will get innocent people in trouble for it (like a church or a store – it’s not their fault, but they will be made to pay). But – I always, so far, stop before sending it. I just don’t know if it will do anything other than increase the already significant distance between me and mine and these particular relatives. Maybe it’s an act of mercy? I just don’t know.

Writing suffered greatly this week, as I was busy and distracted after a very productive weekend. Picked it up again this morning, and added another maybe 2,000 words to It Will Work. Started in on the ending, just barely scratched the surface. At 12K words at the moment. I am paying the price for not having done enough thought-smithing up front – the end, which I thought I had worked out, is a little bit gappy, holey like an old rag. Thus, I’m setting myself up for fairly monumental rewrites just getting it to flow and not leaving massive holes. Oh well – first novel, the important thing is to get stuff down. On, Teb! On!

The Saga of the Back Lawn doesn’t get much ink around here, and not only because I can practically hear your eyes glazing over through the interwebs. It’s neither as much fun nor as picturesque as the Endless Brick Project of Doom. Here goes, if you’re feeling penitential: when we bought this house lo these 25 years ago, it had a pretty decent back lawn, certainly adequate for anything you’d want a back lawn for, such as running and rolling around on it with children.

Then, back in 2005, made the large, perfectly clear with 20/20 hindsight, poor decision to put on an addition. At the time, home prices were ridiculous and rising – no matter how well I did financially, a home better enough than what we had to make it worth moving was just too big a stretch. But those same factors made it easy to borrow a ton and add on, so we did – and got it done just in time for the housing market to collapse. So, our starter home is our home, at least until we move out of state.

So, second major error: hired a long time friend of my sister’s as the general contractor. He’d done a bunch of work for her, she seemed happy with him. He lied about his licensing, was always sharing fantasies about timing, and was just a slapdash horror. Part of his style was to simply use the back lawn as his staging area, and just destroy it. Not talking just about killing the grass – the soil here is quite clay, and, when they were done, it was packed down as hard as rock, and covered with crap. I couldn’t bring myself to pay any more money at that point, and so, for several years, the backyard sat, a useless disaster. Finally, maybe 5 or 6 years ago, I was up to tackling it. It’s only maybe 40′ X 30′, so it’s not like a major project. Cleaned it off, amended the soil some – but didn’t, alas, rototill the living heck out of it.

So, every year since, I try to do something to improve the lawn. As of last spring, it looked pretty good – right up until the end of May, when the warm, dry weather kicks in and the 1/4″ root depth before it hits solid clay means it mostly dies off. By the end of the summer, it’s pretty pathetic. It looks great in April!

This year, after surveying yet another dreary looking lawn, decided what the heck, let’s get serious. It had rained enough that I could dig in the clay, so I picked the ugliest patch, about 6′ X 20′, and just dug it up by hand, turned the soil, added manure and gypsum, let it sit for a few days, then seeded and watered it. Total time invested might be 5? 6? hours. So far.

If this works, I’ll do another similar patch next year, and it 2-3 years, should attain lawn Nirvana. Right?

As I type, I can see a bird on the lawn eating seed. This, I can stand – anything short of a significant flock is unlikely to eat enough to make any difference. BUT: if I had the appropriate verminator, I’d be shooting some squirrels. Damn things have to dig anywhere I’ve loosened the soil – garden, planters, pots, and now, lawn. I hate squirrels. At this rate, my new patch of lawn will be pock-marked with squirrel holes. Furry little bastards.

Next week, I’ll see if I have anything less trivial to write about.

Update Schmupdate.

Yes, I’m still alive.

A. Spring is almost here. My seasonal affective disorder – the fancy, victim-centric way of saying sunlight and warmth make me happy – is crashing to a halt. Yay me. California is very beautiful. It’ll be hard to leave.

Doing a little garden prep.

Stuck some flowers in some planters. Yay me.
View from the front porch, soon to be much greener. Turned some beds, laid down some fresh compost and bark.
Like the Dutch angle? Peaches blooming; Apricots working on it. Cherry & pear not yet. Tiny bb sized figs peeking out.

The Insane Endless Brick Project of Doom lurks, but I need to do work on the lawn and paint the house, too….

B. On the writing front, been watching Successful Indie Author Five-Minute Focus by Craig Martelle, the 20 books to 50K guy. He recently did a thing on how many things one should work on at once. Short answer: it depends, but he finds three things the most he can productively work on at once, and must have one as the primary focus with a deadline. This seems about right to me, and pretty much what it has boiled down to.

C. With that in mind, top focus: It Will Work, with a self-imposed deadline of June 30, 2021. Added a couple thousand usable words plus a bunch of outlining and a little research (mostly, looking up names – the names are mostly plays on words from Mauri mythology and Greek. Because they are.) It’s up to 10,000 useable words as of today.

The backup projects are Understanding Science and Black Friday, the first of which is on hold until I get stuck/finished with It Will Work, the second of which I’ve done a little more research on and some additional outlining, but is basically in the bullpen warming up. So, I’m still enthusiastic. My in-bed-as-I-fall-asleep reading is Morte d’Arthur and the Mabinogion, for that Arthurian book, so I’m mentally working on that as well, even if putting nothing in writing yet. And I’m making a habit of thinking through plot points if I wake up at night and can’t get back to sleep. Works both way: by not thinking of the current and accelerating Fall of Western Civilization, I get back to sleep faster, and I have in fact worked through some plot points. Win-win!

Hit my first (since getting on this current writing jag back in January) wall: On It Will Work, got stuck on how to deal with the inescapable infodump I need in the middle chapters. There’s just some critical backstory/worldbuilding that has to take place, no way around it. I’ve tried to be clever about working needed information into the story more or less naturally, but this was not happening here. After sleeping on it, just had one of the minor characters tell the protagonist something about the history of my aliens, then will have some action, and then have some other character tell him the rest. All in all, it’s going to be about 3,000 words of backstory/worldbuilding spread across maybe 10,000 words of story. Just reading it back, it doesn’t seem like too much – but what do I know about writing books? The 1.5 million+ words I’ve written over the last decade are 90% blog posts…

D. Speaking of blog posts, keep adding to the drafts folder. I was, in fact, writing posts over the week I’ve been gone – just not finishing and posting posts. Because I started thinking, and, well, what good ever comes of that?!?

Minutia and Writing Updates

No excuse for boring you, my loyal readers, with this, but here goes:

A. Trying to keep up the momentum, I’m switching back and forth between 3-4 writing projects. When I get stuck on one, just switch. Don’t even think about, just keep writing, with the goal still being 2 novels and 2 collections of short stories ready to go (to an editor, most likely) by end of June. And that science book. Anyway, what’s in the hopper:

Layman’s Guide to Understanding Science: Right around 10,000 words, on temporary hold. The comments, especially from Dr. Kurland and some of the commentators here, made me think – always dangerous. The question is not so much what science IS – which can be approached, I think, from several valid angles – but rather, in what sense should a layman care what science is. It will do little good to be technical accurate if my imagined reader doesn’t see any point to it. Ya know? So, I’m letting that one stew for now.

Working title “It Will Work” the first 6,000 or so words of which appeared on this blog as a series of flash fiction posts. (CH 1   CH 2   CH 3   CH 4   CH 5   CH 6 CH 7) I couldn’t seem to stop writing this, right up until I could, and it got the second most positive comments of anything I’ve written here, (1) so it seemed primed to become a short novel. It was one of the three novels-in-development in the Novels folder I set up back in January. At about 8,000 words at the moment.

Always told myself I needed to settle on an ending, so I knew where I was going with this – even though the 7 fragments were each tossed off totally seat-of-the-pants. Well, just today I started outlining what the kids these days might call the Boss Battle, the final test of Our Hero – and, it rocks so hard. Want to talk stupid? I was getting choked up telling my wife about it. I wrote it long before the current insanity, but, given the current insanity, it all makes so much more sense. As far as a “things done got blowed up good” by bombardment from space and aliens in power armor scene set on a distant moon of a far-away planet can be said to relate to current events. (answer: quite a bit, really.) Anyway: got the finale & denouement outlined, and am in the middle of the middle section. My only fear, if you can call it that – if I keep the pacing such as it has been so far, I’ll wrap it up in +/-30K words. Don’t want to stretch it simply for the sake of stretching it, but do want at least 40K words – Pulp Era novel length. Not a real problem until it is….

The White-Handled Blade – the Arthurian YA novel set in modern day Wales, the first 25% of which is the novella several generous readers here beta read for me a couple years ago. Currently sits at about 13K words. This one is exciting, but I want to do more reading in Arthurian legends and outline a longer path, as in, a potential series, before maybe writing myself into a corner. The story as it stands now is little more than a free retelling of the Lynette & Lyonesse story as told by Malory, ending right before Gareth makes his untoward advances toward Lyonesse. So, obviously, I would continue along those line BUT I want to introduce more stuff that will let me go in any number of Arthurian directions. I already have several of the important knight (reimagined as middle-aged academics, because I find that amusing), so, in future works, it will be easy to take some side-trips to Scotland or the Orkneys or Cornwall or France. I want to keep Lynnette as the heroine, because I like her, and she was designed from the ground up as someone the reader could relate to: she’s fiercely devoted to her older sister, loves but has trouble communicating with her dad, gets snubbed and bullied at school, can hold a grudge, but never gives up and is as brave as needed to rise to the occasion. And is otherwise a blank slate, so there’s nothing in the way to seeing yourself in her shoes.

So I’m rereading Malory and reading the Mabinogion for ideas. The farther back in time one goes, the crazier the legends become, such that getting a glimpse into Malory’s world – 15th century retelling of much older stories -is a lot easier than getting into the world of the Mabinogion, which are thought to be older still. Even Malory requires a bit of gymnastics to get into the moral mindset of people who seem to kill each other rather gleefully at the drop of a biggin, but not like the Welsh tales. And then there’s the French version…

Speaking of writing something I didn’t set out to write and would have never imagined writing, it seems YA fiction is mostly characterized as follows:

  • no sex
  • no swearing
  • not too much gore

Which, frankly is a pretty fair description of anything I’m likely to write. On the other hand, Hunger Games is about children killing each other for the amusement of the powerful – I’d take a lot of sex and swearing before I’d consider that entertainment…

Anyway, it seems to be common industry knowledge that YA readership includes large numbers of adults who are just sick and tired of all the gratuitous sex and swearing and violence in mainstream stuff. So, from that point of view, pretty much anything (well, except this) I write would qualify, but I have never consciously tried to write YA. I’m putting in plenty of what I hope to be interesting non-childish philosophical and political and moral stuff. So – huh? Anyway, I’ll have to be careful of how I market this stuff. Studying up on that in parallel. Hope to get back to it soon, but it’s It Will Work is on the front burner at the moment.

Longship, the working title of the Novel That Shall Not Be Named (wait! doh!), some sections of which I’ve thrown up here on the blog, is the one that has both been percolating in my mind for a decade or two AND the one I’m having the least success in hammering into a actual novel or 4. On the back burner.

Finally, Black Friday is another bit of flash fiction fluff (well, 1400 words, so not exactly flash fiction…) that seemed ripe to expand, so I’ve been outlining that one, too. Have put in some work on it, but not in the form of adding to the wordcount.

B. This brings me to another consideration: The science and education stuff (remember that education stuff? I seem to have forgotten) I will publish under my own name. However, if I’m hoping to actually make a little money off the SF&F stuff, it would seem prudent to market under a nom de plum. I’m under no illusions that I’m anybody important, but underestimating the pettiness of our self-appoint betters is a fool’s game.

On a related note, I’ve taken a few baby steps towards hardening my superversive presence online, including a Brave/Duckduckgo browsing combo, a protonmail account and staying off Google as much as I can. I want to go :

  • secure VPN
  • secure website hosting

Just want off, as much as possible, the Bidenriech’s surveillance network. A know I guy…

C. The 16 year old Caboose just mentioned that his favorite books include a book on spiritual teachings from the perspective of a demon, a book on politics from the perspective of rabbits, and a post apocalyptical novel about a monastery.

Kids these days. I asked him what about that book about the short dude with hairy feet trying to return some stolen jewelry? He laughed.

D. Slept 8+ hours straight last night, the first time that’s happened in months. Felt very good. Been getting 4 -6 hours most nights since the Crazy Years became manifest – wake up, can’t go back to sleep, get us and try to do something. I could get used to that.

E. Got a few hundred more bricks. The neighbors who I, being a solid California suburbanite, hardly know, have twice now over the last few years of the Great Front Yard Brick Insanity and Orchard Hoedown, have, unbidden, offered me bricks, because I’m the guy with the brickwork. So, dude around the corner had this pile of bricks he wanted gone – 6 1/2 wheelbarrows full. Maybe a short block away.

One Load 3, I think it was, I came off the curb a little too hard and bent the metal wheel supports (it’s a cheap and old wheelbarrow) such that the wheel now rubbed against the underbelly of the tub section. I was able to brut-force them straight enough so that I could limp that load home.

So, had to repair the wheelbarrow. Two bolts that hold the handle arms to the tub section, which I had replaced a few years back with a couple far too long bolts I had lying around, had worked themselves very loose then rusted into their new loose positions. This made the load likely to shift from side to side as you rolled – no biggie with a load of dirt, dangerous and tiring with a load of bricks. But the bolts were carriage bolts, so there was no easy way to grip the head from the top. After a applying a bit of WD-40, tried to grip the excess bolt with plyers while using a crescent wrench to tighten them up. The first nut moved a little before the plyers had shredded the threads on the bolt and would no longer prevent it from turning; the second budged not a whit. Jury-rigged the ugliest solution: took some heavy wire, bent it unto a U shape, then crimped it onto the bolts between the nut and the tub – one on the side I’d gotten a little tighter, and two one the side I’d been unable to move.

And – it kinda works. Reality often fails to suitably rebuke me for my stupid ideas, thereby encouraging me to keep coming up with more of them. It’s going to get me killed someday…

Next, for the bent arms: Cut a scrap of walnut into two maybe 8″ pieces, placed them behind the bent arms, clamped them until the arms were more or less straight and in contack with the wood, then drilled some wholes and put in some tiny screws to hold it all together.

And – that worked, too. Now have a much more stiff structure and a couple inches of clearance between the tub and wheel. See what I mean? If these slapdash ideas keep working, I’m going to keep doing them.

Next step: replace the 16+ year old cheap and falling apart wheelbarrow. Once some stupid repair idea fails to work, that is.

Picturesque old wheelbarrow, with lots of freshly stacked bricks in the background. Those with sharp eyes can perhaps spot the much too long bolts where the handles first encounter the tub, and even the thick wire crimped on them; the gratifyingly straight struts connecting the wheel to the tub. Yes, I took a picture of my wheelbarrow. At night. Just to throw up on the blog. Yep. Really did that.

F. Got the front yard orchard cleaned up, pruned, fertilized, mulched, copper-sprayed, and watered, not in that order. So, that’s done for now. Next, finish the brickwork, paint the house, get it fumigated for termites, replace the dying major appliances, put in this year’s vegetable garden, marry off a son on the East Coast in May, and goodness knows what else. And teach a couple history classes. Shaping up to be a busy Year 63 for me. And write two novels, put together two books of short stories, and write a book on science – in my spare time.

Yes, I am freaking INSANE.

  1. Most positive comments: One Day. Heck, even Mike Flynn liked it enough to comment – I’m still blushing.

Writing Update, etc.

A. Now am working on the “What Science IS” chapter for the Understanding Science book. The first three preliminary chapters are or soon will be posted here for your review, dear readers. Probably combine them into one chapter, edit them down a little to remove repetition.

The What Science IS chapter is challenging. What I want is to engage my laymen target audience, and give them an understanding of science that will allow them filter out the high-level nonsense. I doubt the utility of going the Popper route of falsifiable propositions for my purposes – you gotta think too hard, and have more philosophy than your average bloke to really get your head around the basic concepts – at least, I think you do. If I start right in laying on the philosophy, years of government training – schooling – will kick in and their minds will perform an auto-shutdown. I think. (Math triggers the same routines in the properly schooled.)

Along a similar vein, I wrote a little ‘three kinds of knowledge’ section, then set it aside – as basic and, indeed, essential as this distinction is, I fear I will loose my imagined target audience one sentence in. Can I frame up a discussion of necessary truth, conditional truth, and art (techne) that doesn’t trigger a flight response? The necessary truth part I’d limit to math and logic – no need to go any deeper for my purposes. The important part is the recognition of CONDITIONS on all scientific knowledge, and, more subtle, how those conditions (mostly) need to be expressed in order for science to have any weight.

Then comes the point that art/techne/technology is really, really good and, for most of us, much more true – more BELIEVABLE – than science claims. Our computers and cell phones WORK – that’s their primary characteristic of interest. That working is far more convincing and interesting, for most of us, than any scientific syllogisms based on conditional observations of more abstract, less immediate phenomena.

I can say that observation of the orbit of Mercury or of starlight bending around the sun during an eclipse proves relativity – OR I can say: without relativistic adjustments, the GPS in your phone wouldn’t be near as accurate. Which is more convincing? I could say: some thermodynamic laws govern how much a given gas will cool down when it expands, and show some math – or I can point out that refrigerators work. Which is more convincing?

I gather from a lifetime of interactions with people that few wondered, as children, how that refrigerator worked, or how those huge generators in dams worked. The fridge was totally baffling to me; I figured dynamos must make sparks or something. That all these man-made things work is probably as much a driver of my curiosity as the wonders of nature. But is that pertinent here?

So, in the current draft, I went with: Science is the study of the metrical properties of physical bodies – a sound, if subtly complex, definition that seemed better to address my goals. What this definition does is put the focus on the observation of physical things, specifically, things that can be measured. Not our opinions or feelings about what we observe, not things such as other people’s feelings, which can be (maybe) observed but not measured.

I planned to use this approach to hammer home the (obvious?) point that science simply cannot dictate policy. There is no “this is what we came up with when we measured some properties of physical objects, therefore you must do X.” There are a whole lot of steps being left out in such an assertion, chief of which is a clear statement of the value judgements and moral assumptions that always underlie claims we must do something. The laws of physics say we must fall if we jump off that cliff, but they don’t and can’t say if we should or should not jump off that cliff. Falling once you jump is science and outside any subsequent act of your will; deciding to jump is not.

The subtilty lies in cases where sciences have developed by studying the metrical properties of physical objects without overtly measuring those properties. Geology is an example suggested by a reader. Early theories were developed without too much explicit measurement. Example: for plate tectonics to be true, the Atlantic Ocean must be expanding. And so it is – at exactly some number of millimeters per year, within some plus or minus. Once that measurement has been obtained, we now can back into how old the Atlantic Ocean is, within limits. Similarly, biology started by simply observing the difference between various plants and animals and describing the different characteristics, but soon moved on to measuring those characteristics, such that we know African and Indian elephants differ in size: height, weight, ears, tusks, etc.

Even the historical sciences are looking at measurable properties, even if they don’t start of measuring them, they eventually do.

The above is the sort of thing I might throw in an appendix or end note.

Anyway, I need a bit of a break from this science stuff, so:

B. Turned to the Novels in Process folder. On each of the three items in the stack, I need more planning done. An honest (as honest as I can be) assessment: one I could conceivably finish in a few months – it just needs some outlining to get it from where it is at to where it needs to go, so I don’t meander too much getting there; the other two are going to need a daunting amount of planning and research. On the one that’s been percolating for a couple decades now, I work as I try to fall asleep at night – I try to wrestle it into a series, chop it into 3-4 pieces, deal with the already large cast of characters, and try to make the ‘science’ less ridiculous. Mostly, it’s a matter of organizing the various climaxes, or inventing some, to get it into manageable stories. I add to my notes when I think of it.

So, I thought: I need another short novel to put into the hopper from the ‘ideas’ pile, one that I can get done in less time with less anxiety. (hahaha.) So – picked a flash fiction (1400 word) story that reads like the first chapter in a “world’s going to hell, unlikely heroes rise to the occasion” adventure. Our Heroes hunker down from an evil government takeover, jury-rig some awesome tech, outwit the government lackies, and overcome impossible odds, culminating in a glorious showdown – that sets up a sequel.

My model, from a structure POV, is just good ol’ Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit Will Travel, which is a pretty solid Dent style story I’ve always loved and admired: every chapter, Our Heroes are put into deadly danger, each worse than the last, with the stakes getting higher with each turn of the page, until THE ENTIRE PLANET is threatened!

I’ve long wanted to try my had at something like that. Once, many years ago, I wrote a fairly long outline (long hand, in a notebook) for a crazy story along these lines, with bad guys pretending to fund deep-sea research out of the goodness of their hearts, using Our Gullible Hero to find some valuable mineral deposits around some deep sea vents, then abandoning the submersible with him and the girl he’s long had a crush on at the bottom of the ocean, once they got what they wanted. A wacky escape, with proper heroics and comeuppances ensued. Boy gets girl. It was stoopid fun – at least, writing the outline was. Wonder what happened to that? I think we started having kid right around that time, so I set it aside…

Anyway, along those lines. So now I’m reading a Homeland Security document on shopping mall vulnerabilities. Because of course I am. For essential background! I swear!

C. The front yard orchard & garden needs pre-spring prep: cleanup, fertilize, copper spray, lay down some more mulch, repair/improve some raised beds. Get a few more flowering plants for the boarders. Last year, lost all my front yard viny vegetables to an insane aphid/white fly infestation followed by that nasty mold that seems to love squash. So, no front yard squash, cucumbers, etc. this year, as that stuff tends to linger in the soil for years.

Back yard needs work. Lawn needs aerating and reseeding; garden needs weeding/prep; need a few flowers for some planters. The usual.

D. Meanwhile, deferred maintenance keeps piling up: the sun beats on the house’s south-facing walls, which are now peeling and cracking. I got paint, but now I need to clear away obstructions, get some scaffolding (2-story), do a ton of prep, and then get on it while I still can. Sure, you can hire a painter, but I figure this is the follow-up to the Great Brick Insanity: something I can do for a few hours at a time, finish a wall, clear and prep the next, so that, over a summer, with my son’s help, I can get it done. A lot less hands and knees work than bricks. (Still have some brickwork to finish too, but I’m not thinking about that now. I. Am. Not.)

I’m insane.

E. I need to write two history test, one each for the 8th and 9th graders, for tomorrow. What I’m I doing writing here? Later!

On a Lighter Note: UPDATE

Taking Sunday off from worrying over the current state of post-Weimar Germany our fine nation, at least until I go to Mass and am forced to assume the face diaper of compliance in order to not get our parish fined out of existence…. Let’s talk writing! Huzzah!

“I knew it!!”

A. Now have 6 short stories finished, as in: not going to edit any more unless at an editor’s instruction. Three are bleh, 1 is OK, and 2 I really like. The two I like add up to over 20K words – half a pulp novel’s worth. One, The White Handled Blade, a modern-day Arthurian YA type story that a couple of the Loyal Readers critiqued for me a couple years ago (Thanks again!), is almost begging to be the first part of a series of stories featuring Lynnette Redlands, a 15-year old American living in Wales in the heartlands of Arthurian lore with her older sister Ness and their father, who teaches at a nearby university on a fellowship. They discover, in the words of Commander Peter Quincy Taggart: It’s all real. Adventures ensue.

I’ve lavished a lot of care on a bunch of characters who I now love, seems a shame not to have them do more stuff. Write three more of these roughly the same size, and I’d have something I never dreamed I’d write in a million years: a YA novel(ish) starring a teenage girl. Tempting, Hammy, very tempting…. (Yes, I mixing movie references. Sue me.)

The approach: take one or more of the (very weird) Welch Arthurian stories, and reimagine them in a modern world (yea, real original idea) where the Roundtable still exists – as a standing committee at a small Welch college. Heck, the last story could be fighting the daemons of Diversity – fell, indeed – as they attack the College! Cliffhanger!!

The problem, here, is that while I’m a fan of Mallory, and enjoyed White’s Once and Future King a lot, I’m hardly some sort of Arthurian geek. This whole YA-based on Arthurian legend stuff seems to be a well-trod and highly worked field. Do I run a risk of violating some sort of canon? Not losing sleep over that. The comforting, if absurd, though: maybe I could be the Raymond Chandler of the genre? You know, the bored and highly educated Englishman, who, being a great writer and all, took detective pulps and made them into literature? Ya know? Humor me. Of course, he’d read a bunch in that genre first…

The other is a little fairytale called Seed Music, set in the same universe as my generations ship novel but a couple centuries after the colonists arrive at the Systems. I’m using fairytale in roughly the same sense C.S. Lewis used it to describe That Hideous Strength.

They’re both highly superverse, if that even needs saying.

Of the 4 remaining short stories fragments, two are fairly far along. I should finish them up, on principle. Then there are two others little more than Ideas with a couple pages of text attached; then there’s another folder and a list containing maybe a dozen ideas or very rough sketches. Plenty to work on.

B. Novels, on the other hand… Percolating in the back of my mind for 2-3 decades now is not exactly a story, but a world. Within this world, I’ve come up with ideas for a number of stories, 2 of which I’ve even written. BUT the big framing story, the who, what, how, and why of the whole thing, is not coming together for me.

I’ve mentioned rabbit holes and the hard science vs handwavium issue. I would like whatever science I throw out there to be plausible enough to not take the 1% of my potential readers who care about such things out of the story.

Which brings us to rocket science. I would really like it if my generations ship could, via acceleration to near-light speed and the resulting time dilation, get my colonists where they’re going before the people who set out as children are all dead. Because reasons. One can play with calculators that do the math: pick a distance, plug in an acceleration factor, and they will spit back how long the trip will take from both the on-board (dilated) and home planet view, and what your top speed will be.

Nice. The one I was playing with today also spits out how much fuel you’d need to accelerate and decelerate a ship of specified mass – you must flip your ship and fire your drive for as long as it took to get up to full speed in order not to simply fly by your target system. The more massive the ship, the more fuel you’ll need – and mass is going to be almost equal to fuel for any near-light speed ship.

If your trip takes 100 years, you’ll be firing your engines for a good portion of 100 years. At least, that’s the assumption. I’m going to play with it, to see how long at a given acceleration to reach a speed where the time dilation is enough to keep my young characters alive long enough to arrive at their destination as old people. That’s what I’m concerned with.

Then: how much fuel do I need, which almost translates to: how massive is my ship? In hydrogen fusion, about 0.008% of the mass is converted to energy; in an antimatter reaction, it’s 100%. So, we’d need some sort of antimatter creation thingy that can crank out a lot of the stuff – or something else.

I spent hours reading up on this. Creating antimatter, turns out, is almost trivial if you happen to have a nice big accelerator, and are happy with unimaginably tiny amounts that, with the proper application of superconducting magnets, you can hang onto for about 0.17 seconds before it annihilates itself by contact with regular matter. So, how about this – spit-balling here – you start with millions of gallons of nuclear salt water and a set of nuclear reactors. Some small portion of your reactors’ power is used to get your nuclear salt water drive going, but most of it is used to power accelerators and anti-matter rifles, let’s call them. How it works: (very well, than you) is that the accelerators are bombarding something – the walls of the hollowed out asteroid in which all this is located? – thereby creating a bit of antimatter. That antimatter is captured by magnetic fields that fire it (thus, antimatter rifles), in its microseconds of existence, into the combustion chamber of the nuclear salt water drive. You then have an antimatter drive: the nuclear salt water fuel is replaced by (much, much more efficient) antimatter annihilation. The mass of the ship itself is consumed as raw material as it is superheated and flung out, equal but opposite wise , in the matter/antimatter annihilation.

Hey, it’s *something*, as in: not just a bunch of handwavium. There’s a tiny spec of science in there! No, really! makes it all better.

And (almost) nobody will care.

C. Grabbed a military sci-fi series for $0.99 off Amazon, written by one of those 20 Novels to $50K people, just to see what it was like. Very much Dent, Lester Dent style, full of sound and fury, with the protagonist in a world of hurt by about page 3, which is about as far as I’ve gotten. While I do love me some stories where stuff done blowed up good, I also love me some Canticle for Leibowitz style storytelling – slow-paced, but full of character development and table-setting. Can’t we all just get along?

Slightly more seriously, the story starts with Our Hero already in a tough spot, and engaging in playful banter with her crew, and getting out of it by blowing the living heck out of some aliens. Like, by paragraph 3. Then, we have some exposition, some by way of telling us what people are doing, some just flat out ‘here’s how it works’ sections. More banter to establish the heroine as a Tough Broad with a sketchy past, who takes no guff and has trouble with authority. Then, disaster #2 – oh, no! How do we get out of this?

Judging by this very short sample, the writing is perfectly workman-like and functional. Dude can write, in other words. And, if I picked up a book expecting Mil-SF action, I’m getting what I paid for. So, there’s that, and that ain’t nothing. There’s probably a bigger audience for it than there would be for the more – introspective? complicated? amateurish? – stuff I like to write.

Basically, setting the obvious disparity of talent and skill aside, on a conscious level, I want to be a blend of Cordwainer Smith, Heinlein (from his non-dirty-old-man period) and maybe Mike Flynn? Capturing wild ideas, adding some action, but allowing room for some love of history and melancholy to occasionally shine through?

The muse, however, goes where she may, and fights against the goad. I’m probably the worst judge of what I’m actually doing.

Finally, need to make sure I don’t let a day go by where I don’t write something new, in addition to whatever rewrites and research I may fell compelled to do. All this is stuff I should have learned 45 years ago. Better late than never. As a friend pointed out, if I start now, by the time I’m 82, I will have been at it for 20 years!

D. The Caboose, our youngest, is trying in this time of (insert lighter description of our current time than any I can come up with), to reach the rank of Eagle Scout. Since the bulk of normal, healthy activities that might otherwise occupy a Scout’s time are banned or severely circumscribed, he’s working on some cooking activities. His troop, which of course can’t meet in real life, are holding virtual ‘Chopped’ style cooking contests.

While as a contest it doesn’t really work – how are you judging food you can’t taste? – as dinner it is excellent. A couple nights ago, our 16 year old prepared a dinner of pork tenderloin roast on a bed of wild rice covered in a savory cranberry sauce, with creamed spinach on the side.

It was really yummy. The cranberry sauce, for which he sautéed onions and herbs, then added and reduced chicken stock & red wine, then added fresh cranberries, was way good, prefect on the pork. The spinach – well, as son pointed out, any recipe that starts with melting a cube of butter its pretty likely to be good.

As the youngest by quite a bit – 6.5 years – he had older siblings cooking around him while he grew up, which, as sometimes happens, seems to have unconsciously disinclined him to cook himself. Now that his siblings are not around much anymore and he’s a little older, he’s following in their cook/foodie footsteps.

And we get to enjoy it.

Updated Writing Update

A week ago, before the dawn of the Crazy Years and all his pomps and vanities, I posted an update wherein I recounted the gripping tale of having spent 20 hours going through all the fiction I’d written over the last roughly 5 years, finding, formatting, and organizing it. It’s now all tidy. Got everything in OpenDocs on my slightly more secure laptop and on a 2T backup drive.

Yay me.

In the past week, I have gotten more fiction written than in the previous year, for a gain of maybe 4-5K words net, with some fairly extensive rewrites.

I also grabbed some files for the education research projects I go on about here, but have not gone through them. Huge number of notes, drafts, and sources. I think I have more stuff on GoogleDocs, I need to do a thorough search. The amount of work needed to get all THAT stuff organized will be in the same ballpark as the fiction. Sigh.

The goal is to have everything organized, not in GoogleDocs, in a more or less consistent format, with local backup. So far, so good. Not to be a drama queen, but I want to be able to go full samizdat in the unlikely event that becomes necessary. I don’t want anymore stuff out there where our tech lizard overlords can look at them.

The big question: how soon and how well will our new Winston Smiths do their jobs? I often do download and format* the old books I find on the web – the internet is really cool, sometimes – but mostly I just have links. Part of me is going: oh, come on! Nobody is going to take down all that old boring, stuffy stuff with single-digit downloads, of interest to only the geekiest of geeks! But – could some pensive child, in an excess of zeal and caution, cause the Internet Achieves to cease to be? Or, like Herod, decide everything that might someday be a threat needs to die now?

But that is for another day.

Finished one old short story, about 5,000 words, and just have the denouement (if that idea even applies to a short story) to put in on another of about 8,000. Somehow, the first two I choose to finish are both about guys pining after their gals, more or less – in space! Alas, in neither does anything much blow up good. Spaceships and robots do get smashed – that’s got to count for something, right?

On the novel front: Yikes. On the one, got a ream of references, notes, outlines, characters names and arcs, and descriptions of planets, ships, and so on. But, reviewing this stuff, noticed what I don’t have is any clear outline. What I do have is more or less vague ideas for a story that might take place over 3-4 books, describing the goings-on on a generational starship and the planets the colonists settle. I’m torn between looking stuff up to get the science more or less plausible, and just ladling on the handwavium. The Heinlein vs. Bradbury approach. How does it work? Very well, thank you.

Ex: What’s important for the story is that the ship works, that it can get a 100,00 colonists to strange new worlds to colonize within a couple centuries. How it does so just needs not to take one out of the story. Buuuut: the design of the ship does figure into the story. A lightsail or magsail is appealing, but isn’t plausible for the kind of acceleration needed; having orbital lasers push it is kinda a fun idea – but also doesn’t work in the story for reasons. So I started with the sort of not-quite plausible set up used on the Sparrow – an asteroid hollowed out as a ship, that consumes itself in some sort of fancy ion drive.

Nuclear Salt Water Engine. Like the 50s vibe to this illustration.

Handwavium. But then, read up on nuclear salt-water rockets (NSWR), which I had somehow not heard of before. Very cool, and produce the level of thrust to at least within an order of magnitude or two that one would need to get up to the significant percentage of light speed – which is what you need. So: what I’ve done so far is create a sort of hybrid ship, a nickel-iron cigar a couple kilometers long, with nuclear reactors being used to ionize and accelerate the asteroid itself as fuel. But for near sun work and help braking when they get where they’re going, add a lightsail and maybe a magsail as well. Do I work NSWR drive into the story? So that I and the 1% of potential readers who might appreciate a little plausibility are a little more happy?

If so, this morning after a cup of coffee, I’d probably stick with the hybrid idea: inside the hollowed out ship are nuclear reactors, a million tons of water, tons of salts of enriched uranium and plutonium. Maybe they unfurl the solar sail and mag sail (one or the other? Do more research and decide? AHHHH!!!) while still in the inner system, then, once they have slowly spiraled their way out a bit, fire up the NSWR drive….

And, there you go: HOURS will be spent getting this right – and it doesn’t actually matter to the basis of the story. BUT IT’S COOL!!! Multiply this by some factor for other tech and science I don’t understand (I’m Rocket Maaaan!!) and, um, I could be tied up for a while. Meanwhile, the actual plot is laughable. Stuff happen. In space. To loveable and hateable characters. I think. Probably better figure it out pretty soon.

Anyway, something I didn’t expect: as the political scene spirals deeper into 1984-land to the applause of the bleating sheep, I find writing a great distraction and comfort. When the world gets to be too much, I can retreat (with an inner chuckle) to a world where a hapless engineer finds himself hanging from a wire a thousand meters above a canyon floor on an ice moon named Flee orbiting a gas giant called Tough Nut, because it seemed like a good idea to this woman art critic, who is falling for him but he’s clueless, as a means to help him get his music degree while rubbing the noses of some pompous artists in their own stupidity. Or a world where a beloved mother of 10, who happens to command an army of drones and bots called spiders helping to construct a spaceship, is hiding a dark secret with a deadline. Or where a fat man in his underwear, who happens to be heir to an empire, is exiled by the queen mother to a planet completely covered in a single life-form that tastes like mashed potatoes, and is awaiting his next shipment of butter.

You know, the usual.

To stay sane and not hate anyone, I try to keep in mind the helpful image of sheep without a shepherd. That’s us, me as much as them. I may have a clue or 2, but, still, I’m a dumb sheep like everybody else. Castigating people who have been terrified by their false shepherds for not thinking things through is like blaming panicked sheep for running the flock off a cliff. It’s horrible, but they are (mostly) not to blame. Those false shepherds have a millstone or two in their furfures, however. If they’re lucky to get off that easy.

The thoughts of many hearts are being revealed these days.

“And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; 35And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35

Holy Mother of Mercy, pray for us! Heavenly Father, remember your promise of mercy. For Your Name’s sake, for the glory of your Son, in the Power of Your Spirit, have mercy on us!

* I’ve grabbed key old books that have been scanned into electronic form from some library copy with all sorts of marks, smudges, and stamps on the pages, not mention hard line returns. They are messes. In very bad cases, I will have the pdf and the OCR versions open side by side, in order to better verify my guesses at the text. While trying to read them, I will often start correcting & formatting as I go, because the messiness drives me crazy. This only doubles, at least, the amount of time it takes me to read these books. Obsessive much? Me?

Couple Links & Observations

Apropos of nothing.

First off, SF&F has a long and often even noble tradition of describing dystopian futures. Here’s Zachary Denman, a British guy making short sci-fi videos – that’s what they say they are – on the 2nd Person Tube. Wild speculations that, were they said seriously about right now, instead of a distant made-up future, might get one into trouble. Nonetheless, like all made-up fictional type stuff, they might provide some small insight into how people are thinking and feeling now. For example.

Second, a bit of conventional wisdom, I’ve heard, is that one should fight to the death, if necessary, when first being kidnapped. While in some traditional circumstances, your kidnappers will need you alive, and so you might bet on getting ransomed or released eventually, in other, more pathologically or politically motivated grabs, chances are poor you’ll ever get out alive once you’ve been stuffed in the back of the black SUV. Besides, “The initial phase of a kidnapping provides the best opportunities to escape.”

Third, for some reason this thought from Solzhenitsyn springs to mind:

“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

Gulag Archipelago

You’re checking in to see what Sarah Hoyt and William Briggs are on about these days, right? John C. Wright happened to be taking a little walk with some friends on the 6th when some possibly interesting stuff happened.

Funny how unimportant the virus seems at the moment. In and of itself, I mean.

One last thought: although I have not slept well since March, one thought, a feeling, really, I can’t shake: this will all turn out better than we have any right to hope. Watching the Hindenburg go down in slow motion for going on 10 months now, seeing predictions of political, financial, and social doom come true, watching – most depressing of all – a large percentage, probably a majority, of people just go along and get angry with you if you don’t – well, it’s been interesting. But as I mentioned before, I had this vivid dream (I am a Joseph after all) where something utterly unexpected occurs just as all hope is lost. Weird. And, when I can focus enough to really pray, calm settles in. So, make of that what you will. Maybe it’s days, maybe it’s years, but everything is alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.

Updates: D&mn Virus, etc.

A. When I say ‘functionally innumerate’ I mean unable or unwilling to understand what a set of numbers mean. This is distinct from the ability to do math, but obviously related. Thus, you do get model builders and people with the title: scientist, who may have learned a lot of math, but are nonetheless functionally innumerate: they lack the ability or, worse, the interest, to try to understand what it is they’re looking at.

I’m guessing 99% of people are functionally innumerate in this sense. To such people, a thousand, a million, a billion and a trillion are just big numbers, with maybe a vague notion that each step is bigger in some unclear manner from the one before it.

Thus, when you say: “100,000 Americans may die of COVID 19,” all the innumerate hear is: big, scary number. The functionally numerate immediately think: “accross how big a population?” And: “compared to what background death rate?”

Then, we perform a little math – in our heads, because we’re just trying to get an idea of scale. We also suspect with near-certainty that any such numbers are going to be sloppy, so getting the result accurate out to a bunch of decimal places isn’t worth the trouble. Just ball-park it, see what we’re talking about.

So: the US population is about 330M. The 2020 background death rate is about 0.888% (that’s a UN estimate based on trends over decades, prior to the COVID 19 outbreak.) So, let’s see: a 0.1% risk of death = 1 in 1,000 Americans dying – from COVID 19 which would mean 330,000 dead, right? So, if we think 100,000 people will die this year from COVID 19, then our COVID death rate is right around 0.03%.

Thus – and this is an absolutely simple minded analysis, since no disease affects every group in a populations the same way – 100,000 COVID 19 deaths would increase the imaginary typical American’s risk of dying this year from 0.888% all the way up to 0.918%.

The functionally innumerate cannot grasp that this is trivial, that we’ve gone from just under 9 people out of 1,000 dying to just barely over 9 people out of 1,000 dying. The hypothetical average American’s risk of death has not increased to any meaningful degree. They still see that big, scary number, 100,000, which, in their minds, might as well be 1,ooo,000 or even 100,000,000. It’s just a scary thing, that is all.

This is before the obvious caveats: e.g., that 60% (most likely; not all states report this, but based on the rest of the West) of the deaths are nursing home patients. Not *just* the elderly, but the elderly who are sick enough to be incarcerated, and have a median 3 to 15 month life expectancy once they become incarcerated. In other words, COVID 19 is generally killing people who were, sadly, going to die soon anyway. So, reduce that 0.03% by, say, 50% – now (remember, we’re just ballparking here) that’s around a 0.15% increased chance of death – from a background rate of 0.888% up to a COVID-added rate of 0.903% – this is what the functionally numerate would call ‘noise’ – a level of change that’s probably well within the sloppiness of the underlying numbers.

And the most obvious caveat of all, something known from the very earliest analysis done in China, and confirmed EVERYWHERE: If you’re younger – like under 65 – and healthy, your chances of dying of COVID 19 are, effectively, 0.

BUT: not zero! So the occasional seemingly healthy person will catch (or be more or less plausibly assumed to have caught) COVID 19 and, tragically, die.

These deaths, of seemingly healthy people, is, at most, 5% of the deaths. I get this number by looking at something reported out of New York: 95% of the victims had (usually multiple) pre-existing morbidities. That would mean 5% of COVID victims are otherwise healthy. Again, we’re spitballing here, could be off, but, based on everything I’ve seen, not by a whole lot.

Thus, out of our 100,000 assumed deaths, 5,000 would be people who weren’t already seriously ill. Thus, we can cut the risk of a healthy person dying of COVID 19 down to 1/20th of that .015% – now we’re really in background noise territory.

BUT: our intrepid ‘news’ media is stone guaranteed to find every one of those deaths and make sure we all know about them. And the functionally innumerate will see those incredibly rare cases as PROOF we’re all going to die if the government doesn’t save us.

And even this is before the issues around what is being counted and how, which puts another level of downward pressure on any risk numbers. The risk to anyone not already toeing the threshold of St. Peter’s Gate is: 0. As in, nada. As in, wear a helmet, because a meteorite might hit you in the head level risk.

So, we have our well-schooled yet functionally innumerate population absolutely terrified COVID 19 will kill them unless the government forces all the mean people to behave like political prisoners – just as they, themselves, are proudly behaving! – or else we’re all going to die!

And don’t get me started on much fun it is to get lectured about ‘the science’ by the scientifically illiterate, who are basically the same people.

Bottom line: if we were believably talking about half a million dead, maybe – maybe – we could justify the so far hidden but not therefore any less real cost of the lockdown on the health of all those millions of people who have lost their jobs, strained their relationships, and had their risks of stroke and heart attack raised with their anxiety levels. Kids getting beaten by stressed out unemployed parents; old folks needlessly terrified into a heart attack; borderline alcoholics going all in due to despair; depressed people killing themselves. These are just as real risks, and more widespread and serious, than anything posed by COVID 19.

B. Possums. Got possums in the backyard. When I turned the compost, which is in a box set on bricks on the ground to keep it more level, and got to the ‘floor’ which becomes the ‘top’ when you flip it, I flushed out 3 young possums hiding there. I was startled, and said a bad, bad word.

I like nature’s little creatures as much as the next suburban kid who never had to deal with them on a farm, but – nah. I’ve put in a nice garden, and don’t need possums deciding that my fruits and vegitables look good, once they’ve finished eating the oranges off our neighbor’s tree. Judging from the peels under the compost bin, that’s what they’re now living on.

A few years back, I paid unconscionable money to have an expert trap and remove a family of possums from under my shed. Don’t want to do that. But the options do not inspire confidence. Maybe I should borrow a dog for a week or two?

C. Regular reader J. J. Griffing commenting on my review of John C. Wright’s Phoenix Exultant, recommended The Far End of History, a story by the same author, that involves one of his best characters from the Golden Age trilogy: Atkins, the last soldier. I recommend it, but only after reading a bit of the trilogy so you have a better idea of Atkins.

So, was thinking I’d list some of my favorite John C. Wright characters, and ask you all: who’d I miss?

Order is not a ranking. Maybe we could do that later?

You?

D. Less concerning than the possums, but more immediate: something is eating a lot of my little plants, but not the usual suspects as far as I can tell. Little holes in the leaves, which, in the worst cases, leave lacework leaves that then die. Don’t see any caterpillars, or any bugs at all, really, but do see vast numbers of sow beetles and pill bugs – we seem to have both in great numbers. In our compost bin, they have found their perfect environment, and have bred accordingly. Thus, when I sift out some compost to add to the plants, I see thousands of them crawling around in it. Then, I imagine, removed from their copious supplies of rotting materials in the compost bin, they start in on the live leaves.

Or maybe it’s some other bug? There are sure plenty of suspects around. Earwigs, some other crawlies I don’t recognize. I tend to go very light on the chemicals.

Franco Folini / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Sow beetles and pill bugs, known by a hundred local names, are cool in themselves – not insects, but crustaceans more closely related to lobsters than bugs. Also found out your basic garden varieties can live 3 years, and that closely-related species, some huge, live in the oceans.

Nonetheless, I may have to find a way to reduce their numbers pretty soon, while I still have live seedlings in the ground. Or figure out what else is eating them.

Book Review: John C. Wright’s Phoenix Exultant

Short & sweet: a lot of fun, full of adventure, heroics, and romance, and a little more readily accessible than the first book in the trilogy. By this second book, the large cast of characters and mind-blowing future world had already been introduced, allowing the reader to focus more on characters, whodunit, and stuff blowing up – the last being the hallmark of good space opera. Go purchase and read the trilogy!

Following the Golden Age (reviewed here), the first book of his Golden Age trilogy, in The Phoenix Exultant Wright plunges our hero Phaethon, fresh from being condemned by the College of Hortators, shunned, and banished from the Golden Oecumene, into deeper and deeper trouble.

Minor spoilers ahead.

The story picks up after Phaethon has climbed down a space elevator – his shunning means no one in good standing with the Golden Oecomene will help him in any way – from geosynchronous orbit to earth’s surface over the course of a few months, and found himself in the middle of the celebration of the upcoming Transcendence. Trouble is, without the help of the mentality and its sense-filters, he sees not the elaborate and beautiful representations, but the crass and dull ugliness of unfiltered reality.

If people knew who he was, he would be immediately shunned and heckled and otherwise abused and driven away; as it is, the tradition is to celebrate the Millennial Transcendence with a masquerade – nobody knows who anybody is, unless they deign to tell him.

Based on what the detective sophotec Harrier told him at his exile, Phaethon needs to get to Ceylon, to a town called Talaimannar, where fellow outcasts live an impoverished existence outside the mentality. Trouble is, no one can offer much help to someone disconnected from the mentality, and his question – where am I and how do I get to Talaimannar? – would be nonsensical to anyone in the mentality, as that sort of information would be supplied by the matrix as soon as the question was formed.

Phaeton causes a ruckus, his identity becomes known, and he somehow finds his way aboard an airship run by the Bellipotent Composition – a disbanded and disgraced group mind, also outside the mentality, who dumps him unceremoniously at his destination.

Manor born and previously wealthy beyond all imagining, and bereft of the help of the Radamanth house sophotec he’d taken for granted his entire life, Phaethon has to navigate and negotiate with the sort of riff-raff who get themselves exiled. He needs to stay alive, find a way off earth, and regain his starship, all while broke and shunned by virtually everyone who could help him. It does not go well, at least at first.

The book becomes part Swiss Family Robinson (I suppose people might today think “MacGyver” but I’ve never seen that show) and part whodunit, as Phaeton jury-rigs a life, makes contact with unlikely sources of help, extricates himself from the snares of his new ‘friends,’ and plans his escape – all the while trying to avoid being discovered and killed by an unknown enemy who everybody else seems to believe is part of an elaborate fantasy devised by Phaeton to escape justice.

While the first book is set in a future Utopia of vast wealth, luxury and freedom, the second explores the underbelly of that same society. I most enjoyed the characters. Daphne, a clone of sorts of Phaeton’s wife which she made before she descended into a fantasy world from which there is no escape, is in many ways a classic dame from a Raymond Chandler novel, desperately in love with the man she believes is her husband. She accepts exile and the risk of death to help him. Harrier, the sophotec detective, is a nice touch, a little bit Sherlock Holmes.

Best of all is Atkins, the last soldier in the Oecomene, who steals the show whenever he’s onstage. Atkins takes a stern military joy in having and even, very rarely, using weapons of unimaginable power. Phaethon’s predicament provides Atkins with the first chance he’s had in millennia to be what he is: the last defender of the Golden Oecomene. Daphne observes that he and Phaethon are having a little testosterone competition, and that Phaethon is woefully outclassed.

This middle book ends with Phaeton having solved many of his problems with the help of an unlikely and amusing cast of characters, but still not fully knowing who his true adversaries are, nor his enemies’ goals and powers.

A lot of fun. On to book 3, The Golden Transcendence.

Flash Fiction: Unwanted

“Let’s just do it, man.”

That’s Jeremy, just do it. Just tinker up some trash and head for the stars.

What, I’m gonna say ‘no’?

We headed out to the Strew, started rounding up some trash, see if it’s doable.

“Whoa, man, this looks like an Hitachi 2800X T-drive.”

Jeremy had climbed over the wreckage of a mid-2000s micro factory rig. Those things had gotten dropped in the Strew like last week’s guacamole, generally intact, a hundred robot arms akimbo. Obsolete overnight. Sometimes, you could pull some sweet servos, maybe an idiot AI unit from those things, but mostly they got incorporated into Burning Men, ‘art’ for the sake of bored wack jobs. They were everywhere, the rigs and the wack jobs.

But a T-drive? Intact or close? That’s something!

“Take a look, man!” Jeremy had climbed down into what looked like a shallow crater, at the bottom of which lay a chunk of the smooth composite skin of a Lifter, maybe late 90s vintage. Peeking out from under one end was the unmistakable stylized “2800X” of an Hitachi T-drive, embossed on the slick black sheath of a thruster cowling.

I was impressed.

“So let’s get this junk off it, man, take a look.” I was trying to sound casual. Jeremy has a death lock on the out of control enthusiasm part of our friendship. I’m supposed to be the cooler head.

If the 2800X works, this whole thing works. Or should.

“Johnny-Bees is on it,” Jeremy said as he squinted and nodded into some invisible heads-up display. In a minute, a swarm of lifting drones appeared, and quickly arranged themselves to spell out “Johny-Bees” in a swirling light show, while blasting his theme song, some relic from the 50s – the *1950s*. The drones descended on the junk pile, and quickly removed the trash obscuring the T-drive. Then, with a flourish and a blazing guitar lick, they were gone.

“I promised him a six-pack,” Jeremy watched the swarm disappear over an horizon of broken machinery.

“We’re going to need Syd on this.” I clambered down to the T-drive.

“Why her? She’s a pain.”

“I heard that!” A voice was heard in the wilderness. A lone drone hovered a hundred meters up. “Now you’re going to have to talk real nice to me, if you want my help.”

Jeremy and I exchanged glances. “Is Johnny-Bees broadcasting this?” I asked no one in particular. A couple guitar notes confirmed. Well, at least only the usual suspects, the folks we’ve goofed with, are likely to be on Johnny’s feed. And we’ll need their help, so it’s cool, I guess.

The reason the 2800X is such a great find is that you can reason with its AI. Most of these old space rigs have either idiot AIs or military, and you’re lucky you if you can even strike up a conversation. Stories say some of the old space force units will kill you if you even try; nobody I know has ever tried. But an old Hitachi? Practically invite you in for tea.

It’s a few steps from getting one to talk, which any fool can do, to getting one to power you to the stars, which takes some finesse. That’s where Syd comes in.

I found a port, jacked in, hooked up some audio – never pass up a chance to learn, that’s practically the motto of us slappers – and talked nice to Syd. “OK, dearest Syd, I’m talking nice – can you see if this rig works, and get it to play with us? Pretty please?” I added, “I know you’re the best on all the interwebs, a legend, no one else…”

“Cut the crap.” She was on board, dying to strut her stuff. To be honest, she really is the best at this, she could talk an old industrial AI into a foot rub and making her a cup of coffee. At least.

Syd did some fiddling. “Hello sweetheart, how you doin’?”

The Hitachi AI spun back to life, after lo these decades of sleep.

“Well, thank you.” The AI spoke in a standard feminine voice, known for reasons lost in time as the Majel.

“Listen, honey, I’d like you to run a date check, tell me when we are.”

Pause. “2146. April.”

“That’s plenty, thank you. So, sweetheart, what’s your name?

“Roxanne. May I ask you name?”

“Sure thing, Roxanne. I’m Syd. Would you mind if I called you Roxi?”

The back and forth continued for almost an hour. Syd first had the AI figure out how long it had been inactive, what this meant about its mission, had it look up the companies and people it had worked for, had it survey the surrounding area, all the while expressing sympathy and concern. These old Hitachi units were built during a time when hyperrealism was all the rage, when the jocks thought they could code in intuition. With the proper approach, you could talk them into doing what you wanted, just so long as you didn’t trigger any safety protocols.

Jeremy, who had little patience with this sort of stuff, got some other slappers to help him identify and gather other pieces. Lifting drones were deployed across the Strew. Scans were run. There were inevitable distractions.

“Dudes! There’s a *Chevy* *Impala* in here! Almost intact!” gushed a slapper going by Dogberry, whom everyone assumed was a kid.

“What the hell’s a Chevy?”

At the same time, the CADdies were generating mods and modeling up transition pieces. Arguments, banter, really, broke out over proposed solutions.

“Sure, you can fab a slab that’ll get that Medex unit to stick to the Hitachi, but it will look like crap.”

“What are you gonna do, paste a navsys on the nose?”

“A big gross flyin’ GI-tract!”

“C’mon, man, it meets spec. It’ll look funky-cool.”

“Sure. Stick the head on the fuel tanks. Have to suit up to take a leak.”

“Speaking of – anybody looking for some suits?”

Drones were dropping off finds. I threw up a holo of the CADdies’ ideas. The image changed as the polling numbers came in. I froze a few I liked. Nothing I saw was going to win any beauty contest. But, so far, it was looking doable: a functional spaceship from a couple centuries of trash and abandoned scrap.

“Wow! Found an old Mech-era envirosys, off a cruiser!” one of the drone pilots chimed in. “You boys think you might want to take a 100 of you close personal friends to Arcturus?”

“The Hitachi could power that, but just barely,” a CADdie offered. “Spec says you could do it. I wouldn’t.”

Syd broke in. “Well, you doofs, I’ve convinced Roxi here to take you to the stars. Roxi, meet Steve and butt-face.”

Jeremy sighed. “See? What did I say about her?”

“Careful, monkey-boy. Show some respect. I could probably convince my new bestie Roxi here to drop you off in deep space someplace.”

“Hello?” Roxi said. “I don’t think I should drop Mr. Butt-Face off in deep space, Syd. It would not be proper. Do you really want me to?”

“See?” Syd triumphed. “I better hear some grovelling from certain parties…”

In the end, we skipped the huge envirosys, went with something off an old space yacht. Sleep 10 comfortably, although only Jeremy and I seemed committed to the trip. I’ll probably miss them, even if Jeremy is the only one I’ve seen face to face.

We were able to find everything we needed on the Strew. The CADdies estimate about 2 weeks for assembly, using a couple recycled assemblers the lifting drone team had found. The best antimatter factor we could find will take almost a month to fuel us up anyway, so that’s not a problem. In the meantime, the team would occupy itself with fighting over suggestions on furnishings and decorations – an exercise in good-natured mockery.

Roxi was running diagnostics. She seemed in good shape, just a little slow and underpowered by modern standards. She would incorporate the infotech systems of the other components as they were added, all, in the end, becoming her. Then she could fly us anywhere we might want to go. All for free, not counting the six pack Jeremy promised Johnny-Bees.

It’s crazy the stuff people will throw away. But when they took to space, they threw away a whole planet, I guess.