September 29, 2013

Slice of PIE: “Sensa-wunda” – Has Science Fiction Still Got It?

“Sensa-wunda” for me, is a feeling I get when I read a book or story and when it’s finished, I say to myself, “Wow. I never thought of that.”

The author’s name, facility with language, best-seller-dom, college degrees, previous success, and awards are irrelevant. Authors can lose sensa-wunda with one book. They can regain it with the next.

An example for me is Frank Herbert’s DUNE books. The original “first book” made me say to myself, “Wow. I never thought of that.” It is now buried among seventeen books written by Herbert himself, his son, and Kevin J. Anderson.

Don’t get me wrong – the sensa-wunda does not necessarily speak to quality. A book that evokes this sense can be a well-written piece of literature, but to evoke a sensa-wunda this isn’t an essential ingredient.

With my own, personal definition in place then, how would I evaluate science fiction being published today?

Oh, one last thing, this wasn’t my own idea – it was a panel discussion at a small convention I attended recently. The guest was a favorite author of mine who HAS written several books that evoked a sensa-wunda in me. He had several things to say – but the rest of the panel and the crowd had even more to say. One of the things that was iterated over and over…by this group of mostly overweight social misfits…was that of COURSE speculative fiction hasn’t lost its sensa-wunda! Of COURSE everyone in the room was elderly because science fiction is evoking that sensa-wunda in the young people of today! Wasn’t it obvious...

Nope. It weren’t.

Eric James Stone’s “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” (Analog, September 2010) is a recent example. While life forms living in the atmosphere of the Sun aren’t new here – David Brin did them in his first novel SUNDIVER – evangelizing them into the Church of Latter Day Saints did evoke that sensa-wunda in me.

Chen Qiufan wrote “Year of the Rat” in the July/August 2013 issue of F&SF. His dark world of a future that holds bioengineering gone awry is both cautionary and it took me someplace I had not been…in its vision, it evoked my sensa-wunda by creating a place so dark and with characters so real that I couldn’t help but set it down and go, “Wow. I never thought of that.”

As far as novels go – I don’t know. How can you possibly compare anything to James Morrow’s TOWING JEHOVAH for sheer sensa-wunda? The concept there, while antithetical to my own personal beliefs is absolutely stunning. Gene Wolf’s BOOK OF THE LONG SUN does the same thing for me. When I finished the first two books, I had to wait for some time before proceeding on with the last two. I’m still waiting, actually...Mary Doria Russell’s THE SPARROW is another book that evoked a startling sensa-wunda. How about more recently?

One place to start looking is novels that won both the Nebula and the Hugo. The Nebula is the speculative fiction equivalent of the Oscar which is presented by members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Hugo is more like the People’s Choice which is sponsored by Proctor & Gamble after polling the world movie, TV and music public. The link here: presents novels that have won both a Nebula and a Hugo. I’ve read many of them, but since the question above is “Has Science Fiction Still Got  It?”, I’m going to stay within five years of the present.

There are three novels that won both since 2008: THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, WINDUP GIRL, BLACK OUT/ALL CLEAR, and AMONG OTHERS. I read the second and did not personally experience a sensa-wunda. I plan on reading the other three eventually but just haven’t gotten to them.

Since 2008, the novels that have left me with that feeling do NOT include any of the dozens of “military SF” books. I don’t even think their intent is to create a sensa-wunda – their intent is to entertain. I WAS entertained with several of them, but I never thought “Wow. I never thought of that.”

This list ( is made up of 8 dead white guys plus two living white guys. How can THIS be a valid list of the “10 Most Influential SF Writers”???? Where’s Octavia Butler? How about Ursula K. Leguin? Samuel R. Delaney? Sheesh! (All of these have made me utter the sentence, “Wow. I never thought of that.” But since then – AND science fiction?)

Hmmm. Let’s see: though it wasn’t to my taste and I can’t say I “liked” it, LITTLE BROTHER was chilling and definitely evoked a sensa-wunda. Others by a favorite author of mine didn’t evoke the sensa-wunda though they were entertaining. Still others exited the realm of novel and became exercises in axe-grinding, strident polemics, or thinly-veiled propaganda.

To answer the question simply then, I’d say that science fiction still has a sensa-wunda. But I have serious concerns. This year’s Hugo winner, while immensely entertaining and by an author who made me say, “Wow. I never thought of that.” with his first novel makes me worry.

By some definition, science fiction is "the literature of ideas", by others: “…Damon Knight…‘what we point to when we say it’…Mark C. Glassy…‘you don't know what it is, but you know it when you see it.’…Robert A. Heinlein ‘realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method…’Rod Serling...the improbable made possible.’…Lester del Rey…there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction.’” (

Science fiction still has it, but it seems like it is sparking that sense less and less and returning to the old stuff more and more. This won't go very far in drawing new, young readers and writers and it stands on the brink of losing older readers and writers as well.

My takeaway from this is that I need to be on the lookout for and WRITE science fiction that evokes this sensa-wunda. Anyone else have an opinion they’ll share?

September 26, 2013


From where I sit on the back yard steps, I can see a pine tree we left behind after we first bought our house. There were four others, but they’d grown so close together, we had to have them cut down as they were killing each other as they competed for soil space, water and sunlight.

Where we live, at the intersection of Great Plains, Deciduous Forest, and Coniferous Forest, there’s a wild mix of trees and grassland. But what would happen if you went further south? What would happen if a migrating bird dropped a seed of, say, a Jack Pine in Oklahoma City? What if a little boy, from a near-destitute white family, discovered it, found out about it, nurtured it…and that’s what this is about.

The boy could grow no more.

His brothers and sisters and father were the wrong kind.

He was missing something he needed.

He was missing the loving touch of a home.


September 25, 2013


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.

F Trope: Appeal to a pastoral ideal: Much genre fantasy, of all genres, appeals to the pastoral ideal, one reason for the pseudo-medieval settings. Even urban fantasies will quite often depict cities as blots on the landscape, whose denizens are blinded to what really matters by material ephemera. There are some fantasies, however, which either deliberately take the opposite stance or present a more balanced worldview.

Current Event: “The Minnesota Renaissance Festival is a Renaissance fair, an interactive outdoor event which focuses on recreating the look and feel of a fictional 16th Century ‘England-like’ fantasy kingdom.”

Svenja Johannson puttered around the edge of the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. She crossed her arms over her chest, tossed her platinum blonde hair and said, “I was hoping for a bit more authenticity.

Matias Gallagher, strawberry blonde hair curled like a swim cap over his head, shook his head and said, “Then you should have tried out for ‘Castle Life’.”

She snorted – a sound worthy of a horse, Matias thought – “That’s just as fake.”

He scowled at her and said, “Just because you Germans have all kinds of castles...”

“Not ‘all kinds of castles’ – Wartburg Castle. That is the only castle.”

He shook his head and said, “Speaking of Martin Luther, what makes you think you’d even like the real Renaissance?”

“Are you kidding? My ancestors lived then, there was no pollution, no noise, and definitely no people!”

“What’s wrong with people?” Matias asked as a pair of teenaged boys in basketball shorts, wearing high-topped basketball shoes and suggestive slogans, walked past them using an F-bomb every other word. They looked at him and Svenja. One flipped Matias the bird, the other asked Svenja if she wanted to engage in a sexual act. After Svenja fired a crude rejoinder back at him and Matias leaned back and folded his arms across his chest, flashing both his six-pack and expanding his pecs, the other boy waved him away. The two of them faded into the mob of 21st Century Minnesotans stuffing their faces the way they did at the State Fair and pretending they were in the 16th Century, Svenja glared at Matias.

Matias sighed, “Point.” He paused and said, “Let’s just enjoy the RenFest for what it is.”

Svenja scowled as a parade of knights in armor entered the Festival grounds, the earth trembling under the pounding hooves. The steel plate, gold trim, and silver filigree flashed in the brilliant afternoon light. There was a coolness in the air, a tiny bite of autumn hinting at the winter not far away. There seemed to be hundreds of knights prancing by. “There are so many...” she said.

“What?” Matias shouted. “I can’t hear you!”

“There are so many knights! Where did they come from?” The sun abruptly dipped behind a cloud. There was a flash of light and clap of thunder, yet when Matias pressed his hands over his ears, it seemed that only he and Svenja did so. Others around them seemed oblivious to the darkness and cold. “What’s happening, Matias?” she shouted.

“I don’t know...”

An instant later, the sun came out again. Matias blinked in surprise and Svenja stepped closer to him, grabbing his arm, long fingernails digging into his muscle. The first thing he noticed was the stench of open sewer and the legless man on sitting on the ground in front of them...

Names: ♀ German, Swedish ; ♂ Norwegian, Irish

September 22, 2013


I know – what an incredibly self-centered PIE!

What if I told you that the thing I never had that I regret the most is a writer – a real, live, published writer – who believed in me? Your response?

I have several points here. The first one is that when I joined SFFWA, I thought that I would find one of those long-sought-after people. A WRITER. A real writer who would maybe read my stuff and then comment on it so that I could become a better writer. A mentor, perhaps. I KNOW that writers write. I KNOW they are busy! The problem is that not all of them write all the time. Not all of them are busy all the time. I don’t want to monopolize their time. I just wanted someone to reach out to me. I wanted help.

Never happened.

So I got busy. First off, I joined a local writers group that (I think) had a name and is something I’ve written about here – That eventually fizzled out (as practically all writers groups do) and left me high and dry. I tried approaching other writers at conventions or wrote to them asking for advice, but no one was really interested in helping me.

Truth? I have heard the horror stories of writers who offered to help other less-experienced writers, and were stalked by them, hurt by them, or accused of copying them. One of the classic incidents is here – That was NOT what I wanted to do.

Later, with the arrival of the internet, I joined a couple of online writers groups and while the interaction and feedback was good, after a few years, my writing skills had moved beyond most of those in the group and my use of the groups has petered out to simply reading their posts. The professional writers are busy writing and busy with life. However, some of them don’t appear to have any intention of doing anything but promoting their own writing with endless Facebook posts about their next “thing”…

Without any other choice before me, I finally discovered that there was only one thing to do: become the person that I had always wanted to have. I joined an organization that sent writers into the public schools and did that for several years. In the classroom – the science classroom – I kept on the lookout for young writers by occasionally talking about my own writing. I tried starting a writer’s club one time…but that was pretty lame. I got a job by creating a summer school class called Writing To Get Published.

Those things happened some fifteen years ago and since that time, through concerted effort on my part and persistently reading the manuscripts of young people from third grade on up, writers have emerged into the world!

First and foremost is my daughter – both writer and artist (with a BS in psychology now in search of a graduate school), she started submitting work for publication several years ago. Another handful of young men and women have published since I first met them in my WTGP classroom, and I’ve met and helped nurture another handful at my school. Most of them are off to college or college graduates – but all of them are still writing, still submitting, or still planning to begin submitting or looking at pursuing college careers in different kinds of writing.

Since then, I’ve even met professional writers who have volunteered to mentor my pursuit of publication and I’ve written about one above and under the label of WRITING ADVICE over to the right, there are several men and women whose published writerly wisdom I’ve commented on at length.

I suppose then the take away here is that if you want help in your writing, you have to give help in your writing.

Hmmm. That is not where I saw this essay going, but this is a good place to stop!

September 20, 2013


The Cold War between the Kiiote and the Yown’Hoo has become a shooting war.  On Earth, there are three Triads – one in the US, one in India and one in China. Protected by the Triad Corporation, they intend to integrate not only the three peoples and stop the war that threatens to break loose and slaughter Humans and devastate their world.; but to stop the war that consumes Kiiote economy and Yown’Hoo moral fiber and confront the extra-Universe aliens who created the Interstice that may pull our universe through itself.

The Triads are made up of the smallest primate tribe of Humans –two.
The Triads are made up of the smallest canine pack of Kiiote – six.
The Triads are made up of the smallest camelid herd of Yown’Hoo – eleven, a prime number.

The Merger of Human-Kiiote-Yown’Hoo into a Congenic will produce a stable society capable of incredible expansion, creativity, longevity...and wealth.

Humans have tended young Yown’Hoo and Kiiote in secret for decades, allowing the two warring people to reproduce and grow far from their home worlds.

Outside of Grendl, Manitoba; south of Winnipeg and somewhat north of the old Canadian-US border, is a place where both Yown’Hoo and Kiiote can grow together. No one but the Triad Company has ever heard of it and the physical plant goes by the unobtrusive name of Organic Prairie Dairy.

The NA Triad’s never heard of anything they weren’t spoon fed in their luxury world surrounded by a Humanity that has degenerated into a “duck-and-cover” society as the Big Boys fight their war. They don’t care about anything but their own lives. Oblivious, cocooned, manipulated, they have no idea that their privileges are about to be violently curtailed.

The Kiiote pack of six jackal-like aliens led by leaders Qap and Xurf, were hemmed in by the Yown’Hoo herd. The eleven animals of the Herd looked like huge llamas, led by the Herd Mother Dao-hi ran, the Humans on the Kiiote’s backs.

Overhead, the rattle-trap Tribal flier swooped, it’s repellers shrieking as it tried to avoid the police helicopters that roared over the trees. Those two mechanical fliers were deafeningly loud.

The Kiiote muscles under me bunched and stretched as Pack, Herd, and Tribe raced away from the riot.

The Tribal flier followed us despite the fact that Qap, Xurf and Dao-hi ran like crazy. By the time they started panting, the flier was still following us.

‘Shayla shouted, “Left!”

Without a word, the Herd turned, directing the rest of us down a deserted street. A really deserted street. There were boarded up houses and the street had a long, black burn mark down the center. The asphalt had even melted, creating a trench that had filled with sand and leaves. As we thundered down the street, some of the houses were missing, a few burned to the ground; a few more simply holes in the ground.

“What happened here?” I shouted to Shayla.

“I’ve never been here before! How would I know?”

“You know...”

The Kiiote underneath us bucked to get our attention. Xurf shouted, “Lean forward and hold on tight.”

“Why?” I shouted.

A second later it was obvious. The houses ended abruptly, there was a wide open, weedy field edged in front of us by a cracked road and curb. As our triad raced across the field, the Tribe flier emerged from where it had been flying, close to the trees. A circle of searchlight spilled over us, our shadows leaping ahead, racing like we were insane. “Faster!” Shayla called. Low scrub appeared and suddenly, the tops of trees. “Get ready to go downhill. Cut left when we reach Minnehaha!”

“What’s Minnehaha?” I said. Then suddenly we were going down, plunging into the woods. The canopy must have grown tight together above us because the low lying growth disappeared and the Kiiote were scrambling to keep a foothold on the hard ground. The Herd plunged past us, whistling in excitement. Even Dao-hi screamed her supposed war cry. Into a small canyon, I smelled the water before we hit it.

“Left! Left! Left!” Shayla screamed as we turned into a shallow stream. The bushes and brush was suddenly thick, hanging over the water, slapping me in the face before I hunkered down, face pressed to Qap’s pelt. It was strange. We’ve wrestled a hundred times – it was the only way me and Shayla had established our places in the Herd-Pack-Tribe. We had to use our Human penchant for tricks to beat enough of our Triad mates to win their respect.

But I hadn’t been this close to Qap’s body since we’d both become sexually mature. It was strange.

And all of those thoughts disappeared as the Tribe flier overhead began to shoot at us. I shouted, “Don’t they know who we are?”

Dao-hi, no longer whistling with joy, called, “Maybe that’s why they’re shooting! They know exactly who we are!”


September 17, 2013


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.

H Trope: Alien Geometries – “Even the very body of a particularly squamous thing may exhibit this, though more often it shows up in architecture as physically-impossible buildings—occasionally sentient themselves.”

Xiaoyan Tahtawi shook her head and said, “Egypt hardly qualifies as the originators of architecture! They’ve only been building things for five thousand years! China is the true parent of the science!”

Murad Sūn harrumphed and said, “I am sorry to disappoint you, but the ‘Chinese Dynasties’ didn’t even begin until fifteen hundred years before the Common Era began.”

“I’m not talking about official dynasties! I am, however talking about Civilization.” Murad rolled his eyes, he could hear her tone of voice capitalizing the word and ascribing it solely to her forebears. While he was prepared to admit that Chinese architecture was impressive in its own ancient and pretty way, they had nothing like the Pyramids at Giza.

Of course, technically the Egyptians didn’t actually have them at this time, either. He said, “That’s beside the point!”

“This stupid class we’re taking is talking about the civilizing influence of architecture – how can the fact that the ancient Chinese built the Great Wall to protect their civilization...” Xiaoyan said.

Murad laughed, “Your ancestors built your Great Wall to keep the barbarians from stealing their food and women!”

“I wouldn’t call constructing tombs for dead old guys the pinnacle of an evolved intelligence.”

They stared silently down from the highest point of Jingshan at the Forbidden City. Their tour group was out running around the city today, leaving them behind – most of the group figured they were going to…Murad snorted. He wasn’t “that” kind of guy. Xiaoyan wasn’t his kind of girl, either. The thing he loved most about her was her razor-sharp mind and uncharacteristically Western way of speaking her mind. “Let’s walk over,” he said abruptly.


“To the Forbidden City. Let’s go.”

“That’s reserved for the last day of the tour.”

He grabbed her hand and pulled her along, “Then they shouldn’t have put us up in this apartment and they shouldn’t have left us alone.”

She said, “They put us up here because it was cheap and they left us alone so that they could have something new to gossip about.” He thought for a moment that she was going to resist, but she said instead, “You’re right. Let’s for over there.”

They bounded down the steps to the first floor when Xiaoyan said, “Wait! What if they left someone behind to watch us?”

Murad paused and scowled. “You’re right. Come on.” He grabbed her hand. One of the other guys in the group had discovered a sub-basement when they were poking around the house. They weren’t technically supposed to go down there, but most of them had anyway. They’d come up with talking about stacks of covered furniture and an entire wall of books. “Who reads books anymore?” He said.

“Down into the library? There’s a door there?”

“I think so. Come on.” They rattled down the stairs and into the library. It was dark. Cool. It obviously smelled of books. Xiaoyan flipped on the lights and the room seemed to suddenly lean into them. She cussed in Chinese. Murad cussed in Arabic and they took a step backward to the stairs and were suddenly staring across the room, looking at the open basement door they’d just come down. The door closed.

“What...” Murad exclaimed.

“What did you do?”

“Nothing! You were with me! We walked down the stairs and into the library and now…”

“I know, idiot! I was here, too! Let’s get back upstairs before…”

There was a knock at the basement door across the room from them…

Names: ♀China, Egypt; Egypt, China

September 15, 2013

WRITING ADVICE: Julie Czerneda’s Writing Workshop! #3 -- The Problem

In 2005, whilst perusing the shelves at the Hennepin County Public Library, I stumbled across CHANGING VISION by Julie Czerneda (say it: chur-nay-dah), an author I'd never heard of, and was intrigued by the aliens on the cover by artist Luis Royo. It didn’t matter that the book was the second in a series, the cover entranced me and so I read. The book was spectacular, I read others, and fell entirely in love with another series of hers called SPECIES IMPERATIVE for its fascinating aliens and superior characterization. A teacher deeply at heart, Julie Czerneda shares ideas and methodology wherever she goes. On her website, she shares ideas for writers. I want to share what kind of impact her ideas have had on my own writing.  They are used with the author’s permission.

“The Problem… is where you pick an imagined consequence to the ‘What if’ to explore. (Plus a good story needs something for characters to face.)”

In my June 2000 ANALOG story, “A Pig Tale” (You can read it for free here:, I asked, “What if a cure for Alzheimer’s was discovered and it acted by ‘re-wiring’ the brain?”

While I was tempted to show the effect this might have on the entire world, I knew I had come to loathe such world-spanning stories. I even had trouble reading one of my favorite author’s novel MOONFALL (Jack McDevitt) because it had an enormous cast of characters and covered the horrendous, pulse-pounding possibility of a comet striking the Moon and destroying all life on Earth...It was impossible for me to really get to know any single character.

Another one of my favorite authors manages other major events by focusing on one or two characters and viewing the horrendous, pulse-pounding possibility of – in this case – the invasion of another world. In BARRAYAR (Lois McMaster Bujold) views the war not from the front lines but on a sideline as the story plays out between two characters whose world might very well come to an end. I got to know the two of them and fell in love with both.

Of course, “A Pig Tale” was a short story. So, I shrank the scale, used a place I knew well, and a time only a few years from now. I chose a deeply important subject – Alzheimer’s – and then added another layer of intensity: an attempted suicide by my character’s father.

My main character Rachel (named after one of my nieces), is one of the researchers who discovers an effective treatment. But the success has come at a price. She is getting divorced and has returned to her rural roots to escape everything...

As she and the other researchers developed a protocol for the treatment, they discovered that the patient was very, very susceptible to suggestion. At its most effective, when recordings of memories told by a patient’s family are played during the treatment, the memory pathways leading to those memories are restored. Powerful, indeed.

 While she has brushed away concerns both the left and the right have raised about how the drug might be misused, she suddenly comes face-to-face with those concerns and the tale becomes one of the conflict between professional ethics and family. Tangent Online reviewed the issue of ANALOG and said of the story, “…Stewart tells a story of quiet desperation, of memory and betrayal and one woman’s attempt to change her life and the lives of those around her. Interesting and sobering, and as dark as it is, it’s my favorite short story this issue.”

Why did this strike such a note with this reviewer?

Because not only did I craft a story based on the clear consequences of the answer of a “what if”, I was able to make it personal.

While I didn’t discover Julie Czerneda for another five years, I can verify that her advice is sound and I was applying it even before that time.

September 14, 2013

MARTIAN HOLIDAY 46: DaneelAH At Station Vogel

On a well-settled Mars, the five major city Council regimes struggle to meld into a stable, working government. Embracing an official United Faith in Humanity, the Councils are teetering on the verge of pogrom directed against Christians, Molesters, Jews, Rapists, Buddhists, Murderers, Muslims, Thieves, Hindu, Embezzlers and Artificial Humans – anyone who threatens the official Faith and the consolidating power of the Councils. It makes good sense, right – get rid of religion and Human divisiveness on a societal level will disappear? An instrument of such a pogrom might just be a Roman holiday...To see the rest of the chapters, go to SCIENCE FICTION: Martian Holiday on the right and scroll to the bottom for the first story.

HanAH stared into his teacup for a moment then looked up and said, “So you believe the United Faith In Humanity is a political tool rather than an attempt at religion?”

Dorje Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, looked up from his own teacup and said, “That is exactly what I believe. It is a tool that the Mayors are now prepared to use to bring all of Mars under their united control.” The Dalai Lama was regarded as the principal incarnation of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion and patron deity of Tibet. What exactly he was doing on Mars was anyone’s guess. He looked directly at HanAH and said, “I have come to Mars to prevent that. If it means that I forge alliances with Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus, then it is what I must do.”

MishAH shook his head, “Most people believe that anyone with religious beliefs belongs in the same category as child molesters, rapists, murderers, thieves, and embezzlers.”

AzAH pursed her lips and said suddenly, “And Artificial Humans.”

No one said anything for a while until DaneelAH spoke up. “Why are we here, Sir?”

The Dalai Lama took a deep breath and said, “I have something for you.”

DaneelAH frowned. “For who?”

“You, Daniel.”

AzAH, MishAH, HanAH, and DaneelAH all said at the same time, “DaneelAH.”

Dorje nodded, saying, “Your names are all based on the characters from the Ketuvim book of Daniel.”

“Of course,” said AzAH. An organic translator, her brain had been designed for compartmentalized memory. She could consciously translate between four and sixteen languages simultaneously, depending on how closely they were related. “All of them are plays on the character’s name and the initials for artificial Humans.”

“Then you’re familiar with the story, correct?”

“I’m surprised you are,” said HanAH, crossing his arms over his chest.

The Dalai Lama smiled and stood in one fluid motion. Though he looked old, he behaved young. He laughed at their surprise, “Remember that I was born and raised on Earth. I’ve only been here for a single Martian year. The gravity here is very comfortable for me. I can do things again that I haven’t been able to do since I was thirty years old.” He disappeared into a tree and the four artificial Humans startled.

He came out a moments later with a crystal player. “Didn’t my young aide mention that we had botanists, environmental engineers as well as artists who work in several media – including holography?”


He walked back to the tree and passed his hand through it. “This isn’t real – obviously – though it looks as solid as you and I.” He looked at all of them, adding, “Which is a parallel to you and your friends, Daniel. You know what happened at the end of the story?”

“Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den,” DaneelAH replied.

“What happened later?”

None of them spoke until suddenly, HanAH said, “They were executed in a monstrous furnace.”

“That’s what you’ve been told?”

DaneelAH nodded. The Dalai Lama held out the crystal and said, “This is a Bible I brought from Earth. It contains the complete Book of Daniel – as well as the rest of the complete Bible.”

MishAH scowled. She’d remained silent as usual. Agricultural secretaries didn’t have much intrigue to deal with on an average day in a Dome. She said, “We don’t have complete Bible’s here?”

He shook his head. “No one on Mars has a complete holy book. The Koran here has been tampered with as have the Analects, the Aqdas, the Kojiki, the Tao Te Ching, the Torah, the Tripiṭaka, and the Vedas. Others less well known but just as important to their adherents have also been tampered with.” He held up the crystal, “I’ve come to Mars with a holy library. I’ve come to bring you your words.”


September 10, 2013


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.

Current Event:

Fernanda Rabten shivered in the fog of deep night, the damp cold penetrating through her nylon jacket.

Yeshi Uehara said, his voice hoarse in the cold, “Did you see that coming?”

“See what?”

“The car. It was heading straight at us.”

“What do you mean?”

“The car. You were driving.”

“I wasn’t...” Fernanda began.

Headlights appeared in the distance as the sound of a high horsepower engine muttered, rolling toward them like miniature thunder. Yeshi said, “I think we’re dead.”

“What?” Fernanda exclaimed. The sound of the engine grew, the headlights sharpened. “We have to run!” She turned and started down the incline and suddenly stopped.

Yeshi tried to follow but found that his feet would not move. Fernanda was returning to the shoulder of the road in jerky motions, as if she were being manipulated, pulled to stop beside Yeshi.

“Stop that!” she screamed at him, swinging wildly. “We’re not dead!”

Yeshi squeezed his eyes shut, unable to back away or run into the road – the highway.

The roar of the engine grew until the headlights were bright as twin suns, and the shadows of the two humans stood behind them like holes in the road.

Like the prow of a yacht, a silver grill coalesced out of the fog, pushing it aside to be followed by a car so black it seemed to soak up what dim light dripped from the dark gray sky.

“We can’t...” Fernanda whispered.

The car was so long that the rear wheels were invisible. Feet suddenly released from the ground, Yeshi slammed the open passenger door and went to a door farther back. “This is a limo. We don’t have to ride up in front with the chauffer!”

He reached for the door and opened it to find that he was looking into the passenger side door. “What?” he exclaimed. He looked back along the side of the car. He slammed the passenger  door and stalked to the rear compartment door, reached and jerked it open again.

He was standing at the passenger seat at the front of the limo. This time he looked back at Fernanda. She was leaning away from him. “I can’t move my feet,” she whispered. He looked into the limo, leaned down to see the chauffer.

There was nothing there – not exactly. He stared hard and suddenly found he couldn’t breathe and heard a hollow voice say, “You and your friend. Get in.”

 He tried to back away. Tried to slam the door. Tried to scream. Instead he found himself saying, “Fernanda! The chauffer said he’d take us back home!” He knew he was lying; knew he was not speaking his own words. He was being manipulated by the chauffer – or whatever it was. He stood back while his old friend, her feet free, ran to the door, shouldering him aside.

When he looked in again, she was bouncing on the seat, looking at the chauffer then back at him. She said, “Yeshi, this is my old next-door-neighbor! He was old when I met him and he had this old car…” she kept on while Yeshi was drawn into the car though he tried to step back. He squirmed, struggling and felt the invisible bond holding him begin to slip.

Fernanda spun then and lunged, grabbing him by the front of his shirt. She screamed, “You’re coming with me whether you want to or not!”

Yeshi staggered backward, shouting, “But what if I’m not dead yet?” For an instant, he thought he saw the sky overhead lighten...

Names: ♀Bolivia, Tibet ; ♂ Tibet, Alaska

September 8, 2013

Slice of PIE: Living In An iPod World

Seven billion people live on Earth along with 350 million iPods and 55 million iPads.

Next year, the total number of active cell phones on Earth will surpass the total population of that same planet.

We have seven billion people who spend more time on their phones talking to people far away than they spend physically talking to the people they live next door to.

The generation to which my two adult kids belong to has even made a sort of “game” out of the dilemma. Ask your nearest twenty-something if they’ve ever played the game where a group of friends gets together at a bar, a restaurant or a party and they pile their cell phones in the center of the table. The first person to give in and answers their phone during the face-to-face event pays…the tab, the bill, for the next party…whatever.

My guess is that even if they have never played it themselves, they know people who have and almost universally they find the idea offensive, horrifying, unbelievable, or ridiculous.

It is not at all uncommon for my kids to come home with friends and have the entire group sitting in the living room not interacting with each other at all, but hunched over their cell phones incidentally not talking to each other. In fact, they are not even really communicating in English but in a dialect that has replaced “you” with U; “to” with 2; and has created LMFAO for…well, I have no doubt that you know what that stands for.

What does this have to do with the writing life?

Everything. While people are still reading – more and more are moving to ebooks, but that’s a completely different issue that I addressed in a published short story I wrote ( – they are reading less and reading shorter.

It’s also nothing new. Teaching a writing class to young people, we do a brief unit on journalism. The journalistic writing style is best defined as an inverted pyramid:

It would be easy to say that today’s text language is simply a logical growth from this style.

The question remains: what does this mean for writers? For me?

What would it have meant for Tolkien? What kind of impact did it have on the Harry Potter books? How does it affect a midlist writer?

It is my belief that among other things, the “novel” will shrink. The move to “shorter” novels has already begun as young adult fiction sales have experienced a tremendous upsurge – and the people who are buying and reading YA fiction are full-on ADULTS. In September of 2012, over half of the consumers of YA fiction aren’t young adults. ( My guess is that number has grown.

There’s all kinds of speculation about why adult adults read young adult novels. Young adult author and professor of English, Marie Rutkoski summarizes them neatly: “…adults like YA because young people feel things very strongly, and the representation of this makes for a potent read…YA is ‘easy,’...adults these days live in an unnaturally prolonged state of adolescence... Perhaps the best explanation given to me, though, is that readers are drawn to stories about first experiences...readers...want to behold a transformation. First experiences draw us in because they are the crucible for change.”

While I’m sure all of these factors come into play, I believe that the main reason is that adults began to read “little” stories in programmed reading books; they graduated to newspapers; then online news sources mostly supplemented by Youtubes and video clips. This condition was exacerbated by television programs in which every event is compressed into a slice of thirty minutes – which is actually 22 minutes of programming. An hour-long television show like BONES (one of my favorites), solves a grisly murder in 44 minutes.

Even when directors strive for reality in movies like Warren Beatty’s REDS (compresses two years into 3 hours and 25 minutes) and Richard Attenborough’s GHANDI (compresses seventy-nine years and the lives of nearly one billion people into 3 hours and 21 minutes) or Fox Television series 24 (24 episodes, each one 44 (“one hour”) minutes long) which attempt a realistic representation of a twenty-four hour event – they compress time into watchable bytes.

Why would ANYONE be surprised that adult adults have embraced generally short YA novels?

If what I believe is true, then Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME is the end of an era and the Harry Potter books are the last time we’re going to experience extended stories of nearly two million words.

What we once called a novella (17,500-40,000) will become the New Novel (surprise! This is how long the average YA “novel” is!); and the categories will change name and move backward until what we think of as a “long” novel will be what our forebears thought of as a longer short story.

As a writer, I need to plan several things:

1)   Write shorter
2) Show dramatic transformation with a “first experience” sensibility
3) Drop big words which, while making for precise ideological communication, take too long to read and are subsequently skipped
4) Make the characters adult, but younger – even the old folks (oh, that’s right, there’s no such thing as “old adult” fiction – ‘cause even though they can read, they can’t see)
5) Don't do anything TOO new

There you go. Comments?


September 5, 2013


This series is a little bit biographical and a little bit imaginary about my dad and a road trip he took in the summer of 1946, when he turned fifteen. He and a friend hitchhiked from Loring Park to Duluth, into Canada and back again. He was gone from home for a month. I was astonished and fascinated by the tale. So, I added some speculation about things I've always wondered about and this series is the result. To read earlier SHORT LONG JOURNEY NORTH, click on the label to the right. The FIRST entry is on the bottom.

They drove for what seemed  like forever.

Freddie Merrill said, his words a bit slurred from lack of sleep, “Why ain’t ‘ey followin’ us?”

“We’re in a foreign country,”  Edwina Olds, Lieutenant, WACS (ret.) said from her position, holding the huge steering wheel of the logging truck riding empty to Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. She yawned and both of the boys riding on the bench seat of the truck would have been terrified if their eyes had been open. She wasn’t supposed to be tired. She was supposed to be a rock.

She might have fallen asleep if Tommy Hastings hadn’t said, “We ain’t in ‘nother country. ‘s jus’ Canada.” He laughed uproariously, waking both Ed and Freddie with a start.

Ed cleared her throat, shook her head hard and said, “Thanks for waking me up by saying something so stupid I couldn’t possibly have remained asleep.”

“What?” Tommy said, his head jerking up.

Ed shook her head and said, “Son, I fought in the war and I fought with Australians, New Zealanders, men from the Republic of China, Brits, Philippinos,  Netherlanders, Mexicans, the French, Latinos, and Canada. All of us are part of the United Nations now. Nations. Like Canada. Like us. It’s a completely different country up here. Nothing like the US of A. They never did declare war on Germany – for moral purposes.”

“What’d they ever do, then?”


“What?” Freddie said.

“They ran the radios! The Canadians were the best danged radio operators in the whole Pacific theater!” said Ed.

“So they didn’t actually fight?” Tommy said.

Ed snorted, “I wouldn’t call what you did back at the American-Canadian Border exactly fighting...” she began.

Tommy exclaimed, “Hey! We’re just kids!”

 “No disrespect, son, but you boys did what you could do. The Canadians did what they could do with a much, much smaller population. 'Course some of them fought! But being radiomen don’t make ‘em cowards no way, no how. Just like you tricking that silly youngster back there into thinking this here truck was empty don’t make neither of you cowards.”

Tommy sat back the same time Freddie did. Tommy nudged Freddie, who elbowed him back and from then on, despite how tired they were, the boys alternated between horseplay and listening to Edwina Olds, Lieutenant, WACS (ret.) as she told the wild, crazy stories she’d lived and heard while she fought the war in the Pacific from New Guinea.

Freddie asked, “Is New Guinea where they get guinea pigs from?”

She laughed, “No, guinea pigs are from South America.”


The conversation was interrupted as the truck ground its way around a curve. Barely making its way into the summer sky, the sun lit a city still full of lights.

Freddie said, “Where are we?”

Ed said, “Welcome boys, to Thunder Bay, Ontario – in the foreign country of Canada. And good-bye boys, it’s been quite an adventure.”


September 3, 2013


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.

SF Trope: Absurdly Sharp Blade
Current Event:,

Zahra Gourian stared up. Straight up. Into the cloudless sky. The base of the space elevator, Zulfiqar was fifteen kilometers across and had roots that extended half that down into the ground and three times that in all directions. Plastic injected sand formed a massive block anchoring the largest object ever engineered by Humanity. Where she stood with her new friend, it was still the dark before dawn. “Isn’t it blessed?” she said faintly.

Hydar Aualgeath shook his head, “Why did they name it after the Prophet’s sword?”

She looked over at him and said, “It’s symbolic.”

“Of what?”

Zahra snorted and said, “You’ve been away too long.”

“I was born in Minneapolis just like my dad. I’m as American as Taco Bell®.”

“That’s American?”

“F0unded in southern California in 1962.”

She grunted and said, “I love Taco Bell.”

“Me, too.”

“But you hate the Sword of the Prophet?”

“No need for Islam United to threaten the rest of us with a sword hanging over our heads.”

“The world’s been threatening us for hundreds of years!”

Hydar sighed then said, “I chose Allah not because He was stronger but because He is better than any other faith offering I have ever studied. Besides, Islam has threatened various parts of the world for just as long – we’ve proven our staying power. Now we need to prove our building power.” Zahar didn’t realize she’d clenched her fist and raised it until Hydar stared at her and softly said, “So you are in favor of killing all Humans who don’t agree with you in order to go to the stars and kill all the aliens who don’t agree with you?”

“You’re Muslim!”

“I am. But my intent isn’t to subjugate infidels, it’s to emancipate them. The same will hold true when I’m on the first ship out there.”

“You’re only fifteen,” Zahar said.

“Yeah, but I’ll be twenty-five, then thirty-five, then forty-five. Then I’ll be out there somewhere.” He gestured to the infinite depths of space. “I’ll bring the emancipation of Mohammed to the Universe.”

She stared at him then turned away, shaking her head. Without looking at him, she said, “Emancipation only allows others to enslave us – just as they’ve always done. We need to subjugate the wrong thinking of the infidel, no matter what world they come from or what their shape.”

“What are we subjecting it to?” Hydar said softly.

“The same thing the superior has always subjected the inferior to – the undefeatable logic of our faith and our lives.”

“I suppose superior technology is proof of Allah’s greatness?”


He nodded sadly. “Then the Koran is unnecessary to demonstrate Allah’s greatness?”

Zahar spun around, looked up into the morning sky. The sun’s rays were racing down the razor straightness of the Sword of the Prophet eventually to touch the Earth. That was the moment the Sword began to sing, and the song it sang was of power...

]Names: ♀Iran, Afghanistan; Iraq, Sudan