December 30, 2014


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: Attack of the Killer Whatever

Current Event: “In various Stephen King short stories, he has had people attacked by novelty chattering teeth, paintings, a toy monkey, evil toads... If it can be seen as even vaguely creepy by anybody in the Western world, chances are it's killed somebody in a Stephen King story.”

Liam Johnson held his Kindle, staring down at it.

Sophia Smith, sitting next to him, said, “What are you waiting for?”

The roar of voices in the lunch room was almost deafening. He didn’t hear her – or didn’t respond – until she nudged him.

When he looked over at her, there wasn’t any color in even HIS usually pasty face. His freckles, even now that he was fifteen, still stood out on his face like spaghetti sauce blotches. At least he’d got his hair cut super short over winter break, Sophia thought with approval. The red stuff at shoulder length had been almost too much to stand! He said, “The last time I read a new Stephen King book, I almost died.”

Sophia shook her head and took a bite of her taco salad then made a face. “The food didn’t get any better over break, I’ll tell you that much. Why can’t they just order out from Taco Bell?”

“You’re not listening to me!” Liam said.

 “Sure I am – the last time you read this guy’s book, you almost pissed yourself.”

“I didn’t say that. I said I almost DIED.”

Shaking her head, she toasted him with another forkful of salad and said, “Whatever.”

He stood up abruptly, looking down at her with the strangest look then said, “I gotta go.”

“Go where? It’s the first day of a new semester. You don’t have any homework.” She sighed, he could be almost as dramatic as her friends. She grabbed his sleeve and pulled him down on his chair again. “OK – let’s start at the beginning.”

The cafeteria was jammed and someone had been moving in on Liam’s seat when she pulled him back. If it had been another freshman, she wouldn’t have bothered, but the look the guy was shooting at her was deadly. She grabbed her lunch tray without letting go of Liam and said, “This was making me sick, anyway.” She tossed it into the nearby garbage can and towing him after her, made her way to the stairwell.

The supervisor knew them both and waved them through. When the door shut behind them, muted to a dull roar, she said, “The last story this guy wrote almost killed you…” she paused.

He wouldn’t meet her eye, looking down at his ereader. Finally he lifted his chin and said, “Listen, I know it sounds crazy, but his stories...they’re somehow linked to me.”

“You mean like ‘Stranger Than Fiction’ linked to you?”

He make as if he were thinking, then shook his head, “Not that closely linked.” He pursed his lips, sucked the top one between his teeth then said, “I love reading…”

“Duh!” she said, slugging him softly on the shoulder. “I do, too.”

“Nah, you like your Ebony and Essence,” he held up one hand defensively, “Not that that’s bad! You’re like my only friend that reads as much as me, but,” he looked down again, “When I read a Stephen King book or story, I get sucked into it. I can’t explain it, exactly. It’s like the book is about me, but not about me. That’s why I don’t dare read his newest one...which I got for Christmas...which I can’t NOT read...which, if I do is gonna kill me. Like, for real...”

She grabbed his Kindle, cussing, and thumbed it on. The cover of the book showed a guy who looked like he was delivering mail in a tornado. In bold, red letters across the bottom – smaller than Stephen King’s name in bolder, redder letters across the top, was the word, MAIL…”

Names: ; Most common US names 2014

December 28, 2014

WRITING ADVICE: What Went RIGHT with “A Pig Tale” (ANALOG October 2004), Guy Stewart #11

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote to the left will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

I consider “A Pig Tale” my first real sale to ANALOG. The first was a short piece for a regular section of the magazine called PROBABILITY ZERO, but this time I’d sold a real-live short story.

Probably the “most” right thing I did with this one is that I wrote about something I knew well: farms.

The family had spent an entire summer in the country, and while we were city-folk born and bred, we wanted desperately to do something different. A friend of my brother-in-law owned two farms. One he worked, the other was the farm started by his family. An encounter I can easily describe as a divine appointment, introduced us to the wife of a farmer who was intent on becoming an organic dairy farmer at a time when normal people had no idea WHAT that meant. We certainly didn’t.

We hit it off with the other family, who had three kids older than ours, and we learned LOTS that summer about what it meant to be organic farmers – and doing homeschooling as well. (Like I said, it was an illuminating summer!) We got to know them and their world a bit, so I used the background in this story.

The idea itself came from long discussions about my wife’s parents. He father had passed away a few years earlier and her mother was recovering from treatment for lung cancer. Other people we knew had parents suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, so that was a topic for discussion on a regular basis.

It was also clear to me as a science teacher, that brain research into the causes and treatments for Alzheimer’s was gearing up to a frenzy as Americans were aging.

It was only natural to merge these elements into a story that a reviewer at Tangent Online thought was the best of the issue even though it was unusually dark for ANALOG, right?

What, it’s not as clear to you as it is to me?

At its heart, it was a family story; a brutal intersection of an important discovery of a method for treating Alzheimer’s with a woman in the throes of a divorce she felt she caused, and her father’s despair over losing the family farm. Oh, toss in a side order of misusing an experimental medication for personal reasons.

I understood the family interactions – everyone has them. The first line of Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA is “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Science fiction and families has a long history, so this wasn’t an unusual story. More people than I want to count have experienced a divorce; and after living in the country for a summer among people whose families had been planted in their homes in a long-past century; it wasn’t difficult to imagine how they would feel if they were being forced to leave.

As well, science fiction has been generously described as the “literature of ideas” as well as an exploration of how humans interact with future scientific and technological developments. All of the best and worst science fiction – both written and on the screens – does this. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Rolling Stone poll) depicts how humans might interact with artificial intelligence; “Metropolis” (Rotten Tomatoes) does the same thing.

That’s what I did right in this story. In fact, I nailed every one of the tropes with “A Pig Tale”.

Now all I have to do is repeat the performance, and I can start selling MORE than ten percent of my stories!

December 23, 2014

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.

Fantasy Trope: Fantastic Comedy

Aarav Tlak shook his head and said, “Horses don’t talk.”

Kyla Das sniffed and said, “Shows what you know.”

“There’s no such thing as magic; there’s no such thing as a talking ani...”

“To reiterate what I said, you’re showing your ignorance by making such a categorical and sweeping statement. Are you including animals who have been trained or recognize commands?”

“Of course not! Animals can be smart and trainable, they just can’t talk.”

She gave him a long look then said, “So you’re saying that no animal on Earth can communicate?”

“No! You’re twisting my words. Animals communicate in a thousand different ways – some we can’t comprehend, like elephants talking below our level of hearing. But you’re talking about...about...about...talking like we’re talking and animals don’t do that.”

“How do you know?”

“You know what I’m talking about!”

“I could say that you’re a bit of an animal,” Kyla said with a smirk.

“I am not!” Aarav exclaimed.

She snorted then said, “You’ve never had to deal with yourself after you and your gf haven’t had a chance to make out.”

Sputtering, Aarav exclaimed, “That’s not fair!”

“That’s what criminals all say.”

He glared at her, took a deep breath, glared a while longer and finally said, “Proof would be you introducing  me to some animal and then me and the animal having a conversation.”

“You’d accept that as proof?”

He gave her a funny look and she burst into laughter. Blushing furiously, he said, “Of course I’d accept it as proof! I’d hardly be a dispassionate scientist if I ignored an actual animal actually speaking to me.”

“Any animal?”

Aarav scowled, “I don’t like the direction this conversation is taking. What do you mean by that?”

She held out a stethoscope and said, “Put these into your ears.”

His eyes grew wide, he took them in hand, and said, “This isn’t funny anymore.”

“It’s not supposed to be. Warm up the end of that thing and put it on my belly – and prepare to be amazed.”

Names: Philippines, Bangladesh; India, Croatia

December 21, 2014

A Slice of PIE: Is There A “Perfect” Alien?
CS Lewis had a fascinating idea of intelligent life in the universe. While he never explicitly delineated it, it was implied in The Space Trilogy where the Human character, Ransom travels to Venus (Perelandra) and gets tangled up in a “Garden of Eden” situation. On Perelandra, Venusians can go anywhere they want to on their world of floating islands – except to the one that does NOT float.

The Venusians fared better with their temptation than Humans did, and where we are  fallen then redeemed by the Christ (and given a choice to accept the story or not), they never fell and continued to live in perfect communion with God. In a final interview with journalist Sherwood Eliot Wirt, Lewis responds to the question, “Do you think there will be widespread travel in space?”

Lewis replied, “I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and our acquisitiveness, and establish a new colonialism.”

In an essay called, “Religion and Rockets” (see THE WORLD’S LAST NIGHT AND OTHER ESSAYS) it was Lewis who asked the question, “How can we, without absurd arrogance, believe ourselves to have been uniquely favored?” and “...if we discovered that no form of redemption had reached them, then the human task might be to evangelize them…redemption, starting with us, is to work from us and through us [to the extraterrestrial beings].” He continues, “Those who are, or can become His sons, are our real brothers even if they have shells or tusks. It is spiritual, not biological, kinship that counts.”

So many SF writers create universes in which hidden somewhere or just out of our reach or WE...are the “perfect aliens”, godlike but ABSOLUTELY biological, (just like us, so we can ascend to their level of perfection just as soon as we get our act together [This is sometimes implied by the writers and believers in The Singularity, or the Transcendence of Humanity]).

In David Brin’s UPLIFT universe, the Progenitors established the practice of Uplift in the Five Galaxies back when they were much closer together. Klatuu in the movie, “The Day The Earth Stood Still” represents another, wiser race of aliens capable of interstellar travel. Julie Czerneda’s Sinzi from her SPECIES IMPERATIVE series would also be of that same lineage. Julian May’s MILIEU books are another. Octavia Butler’s brilliant XENOGENESIS books are another example still, of this. Gene Rodenberry wanted the Federation to be a benevolent, perfect, winningly positive democracy as well.

Yet few of these deal with the possibility that Humans are not just immature, but actually mired in sin and evil by choice. They especially do not admit to the possibility that we are not perfectible by hard work, genetic engineering, or merging with our electronic devices. The idea of needing help seems to be OK; the idea that we can’t do it ourselves does NOT seem to be OK.

Most SF writers would be appalled at CS Lewis when he said, “I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin...” While many SF writers would agree with the idea that we are nasty and “they” are good, the idea that we can learn to do better seems to be something of a Human pipe dream. Ruthless European expansion into North America; freed American slaves forming Liberia and in turn enslaving indigenous Africans; the brutal Chinese liberation of Tibet; the Muslim conquest of Egypt...this seems to be the norm and not limited at all to the brutality of Europeans.

Conquest, violence, cold-heartedness seems to be a universal Human condition and one peculiarly recalcitrant to virtually any form of “rule” we’ve tried. Why do we hold out such positive hope for our interstellar endeavors when we have yet to settle our Earthly endeavors?  


December 18, 2014

MARTIAN HOLIDAY 63: Stepan in the HOD a well-settled Mars, the five major city Council regimes struggle to meld into a stable, working government. Embracing an official Unified 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  and I’m sorry, but a number of them got deleted from the blog – go to SCIENCE FICTION: Martian Holiday on the right and scroll to the bottom for the first story. If you’d like to read it from beginning to end (40,000 words as of now), drop me a line and I’ll send you the unedited version.

Stepan had once been Natan, one of the Heroes of Mars during the ascent of the Unified Faith In Humanity. He’d defended seventy-two children in an elementary school from Christian and Buddhist gang members caught up in inter-gang warfare. His smile was wan before he said, “It was close, dad. If you wanted to listen, I’d have talked your ear off – and maybe even stuck with you.”

“Your mother listened,” Stepan’s father, known in the HOD – the Home Owner’s District – as Old Man Gillard had taken off his hood as they spoke in the main room of the adobe. He hung it on a hook embedded in the wall. Built against the outer wall of Burroughs Dome, through two meters of brick, mortar, and steel; was the nearly non-existent atmosphere of Mars.

Stepan nodded, “She did. But I wanted you to hear me. You’re my hero.”

OM Gillard opened his mouth, then turned away abruptly. His voice came weakly, bouncing off the wall. “Just go.”

“I didn’t come to open old wounds, Dad.” When his father didn’t respond Stepan turned away and started walking.

“I guess it doesn’t matter what you came here for. The wound is open.” He father sighed, the added, “You can borrow the anti-grav plate. I’d let you take the community antigrav lifter, but I doubt your friends on the Rim would trust you any more if you brought something like that.”

Stepan sniffed, “I’d have to agree with you.”

“There’s a first.”

“Nah, Dad. The first is that you’re still my Dad and you’re still my hero.”

The old man lifted his hand weakly but didn’t turn around. Stepan nodded and kept walking. As the door behind him, he said, “See you, Dad. I still love you.” Outside the adobe, Stepan stopped as a disciple of his father’s stepped up to him and handed him a large, jagged-edged piece of plate metal. He nearly dropped it until the disciple held it on either side and bent it slightly. Then it weighed nothing.

The woman said, “To make it rise up, stomp on it once, to make it sink, stomp twice. When you’re done with it, sent a message with your servant and we’ll send someone after it.”

“I don’t have a servant...”

Quinn waved over her shoulder, who said, “I thought they’d killed you and roasted you.”

The woman turned to him and said, “We don’t do that!”

He shrugged, “You’re not going to tell me you don’t think I’m some sort of animated furniture?”

“We made you – just like we built these houses! You’re a thing!”

“I’m a kid, just like your kids! I’m not a thing!”

The Disciple looked scandalized and exclaimed, “You are nothing like a real person!”

Stepan shook his head, grabbed Quinn’s shoulder and said, “Come on. We have work to do.”

What he didn’t see was his father, shadowed in the adobe’s window well shake his head sadly and turn away.

December 16, 2014

Ideas on Tuesdays 188: Practicing Evolution...

Into the deep_COSMOS science magazine
A regular feature on POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS, rather than irritating you, I'd like to both challenge and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative 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..." 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 -- and that you can post in the comment section.

Summers I teach a class called Alien Worlds. So many kids took the class that I had to create an ADVANCED Alien Worlds; and my "kids" are getting older and older.

Part of the class involves creating an intelligent alien from a simple creature using logical, realistic changes that take place over time.

Here's a recent discovery about deep sea life research into something called a "dark energy biosphere". Give yourself a couple of characters and write me a STORY!

(PS -- the reason for the brevity is because I'm going in for skin cancer surgery this morning! Later!)


December 14, 2014

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Christmas Lights, The Star of Bethlehem, and “The Star” – Another Interpretation
I love Christmas lights! If you ask my family, I would leave them up all year and light them as the mood struck me. I did that very thing one particularly busy year.

Why do I like them? Because they bring to mind the glory of the heavens and connect God and the Universe with the science of astronomy and in particular, they remind me of the Star of Bethlehem that led the Wise Men from the East to the nativity of the Savior.

Christmas lights were not the impetus for Sir Arthur C. Clarke to write “The Star” –“...Clarke noted that he wrote the story for a contest in the London Observer on the subject ‘2500 AD.’ ‘I realized that I had a theme already to hand. The story was written in a state of unusually intense emotion; needless to say, it wasn’t even placed among the ‘also rans.’”

However, the glory of the heavens and the connection between God, super novae, and Christmas certainly was. While Clarke was an outsider [someone who does not hold that the tenets of Christianity are factual; Kinnaman, Lyons, UNCHRISTIAN] when it came to Christianity (“I don't believe in God but I'm very interested in her.”; “It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God - but to create him.”), he was well aware that as he wrote this (@ 1954) the vast majority of Europeans and those of European descent at least gave lip-service to Christianity, so he wasn’t going to be openly antagonistic.


Maybe he wanted to torpedo the faith of people like me. Maybe he wanted to slap God in the face. Maybe he wanted to win a contest and wrote the most notorious thing he could think of – calling into question the existence of a loving God. By his own admission, he wasn’t dispassionate when he wrote it, though he doesn’t give an indication why he was in “a state of unusually intense emotion” – at least not that I can find (if the reason is written elsewhere, LET ME KNOW AND I’LL INCLUDE IT HERE!)

The story has certainly been dissected (see below). It certainly won the Hugo (science fiction’s Emmy award) in 1956 for best short story. I certainly remembered it. But why I remember it and why others remember it may be for markedly different reasons. I’m pretty sure that when I think of it, it’s in a way I’ve not run across elsewhere.

Most people look at it like this: “Before his journey to the Phoenix Nebula, the priest clearly ‘believed that the heavens declared the glory of God's handiwork,’ (303) but now he has learned that the supernova seen as the star of Bethlehem wiped out a whole civilization when it exploded. Before his journey he could visualize the star as ‘a beacon in that oriental dawn,’ (307) that is, as a symbol of hopefulness and of new life. Now that he has learned the scientific truth, he no longer can see the star as a positive symbol and when…’” “I stare at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI Computer...for the first time in my life I wonder if it is no more than an empty symbol.”

And again, in another review: “What the narrator has learned but not yet communicated to the others is that the supernova that destroyed this civilization was the Star of Bethlehem, which burned brightly in the sky to herald the birth of Jesus Christ. His discovery has caused him to reexamine and to question his own faith.”

Maybe the reviewers are people of faith. I don’t know, but it seems to me that they ascribe an unwarranted fragility to Christianity – that once these incontrovertible, scientific facts are discovered, the entire faith will collapse in on itself and be no more.

Another incontrovertible fact is that I look at the story as something that Clarke may not have intended; something that might not even be acceptable. Maybe the Jesuit priest has tunnel vision; maybe he’s simply exhausted from his journey to the farthest reaches of the known universe. I will argue that instead of dashing God against the rocks of scientific reality, “The Star” foreshadowed the sacrifice that the Son of God would make at the end of His earthly life. Given Clarke was an outsider, I doubt that this was his intent. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time words launched in one direction ended up hitting an entirely different target.

I’m for the serendipitous interpretation. Besides, it’s not entirely out of line with Clarke’s view of the universe: “I don't pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”

December 11, 2014

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 clips, click on the label to the right, scroll down to and click OLDER ENTRIES seven or eight times. The FIRST entry is on the bottom of the last page.

“Nah,” said Freddie Merrill, “The lady truck driver wasn’t no nurse, she was a mechanic!” Tommy Hastings elbowed him.
“A girl working on trucks…” Charlie Fairlaine started. From down the hill came the roar of a truck climbing the hill. Over the grinding of gears, they heard shouts. Curses. Charlie said, “That doesn’t sound like it’s in English.”

Tommy said softly, “It’s not English. It’s Finnish. The Socialists found us…”

Freddie whispered, “We’re dead.”

Charlie grabbed the shirts of both boys and dragged them after him, saying, “Neither one of you’se is dead yet! Let’s go!”

Tommy let Charlie drag him along. Freddie pulled back, “We have to hide! You’re running in the wrong way! You want us to get caught!”

"I’m not giving you to the socialists!” Charlie exclaimed. The truck ground its gears again and more cursing poured from the street.

A voice shouted in perfectly good English, “The boys won’t be anywhere but here! We grab them, torture them, find out where the picture is!” The lights from the truck suddenly bounced up the hill, sweeping wildly over buildings, the tower, the houses across the street.

Freddie shouted, “That’s not the Socialists!”

“It is! They were talking Finnish…”

“Why would somebody talk American if they’re with the Socialists?”

“There’s American socialists!” Tommy said, “Come on! We have to...”

“We don’t need to be afraid! It’s Americans!” Freddie shouted, pulling away from Tommy and Charlie. He pulled away from them, running backwards.

“Come on! It’s the Socialists!”

“It’s not!”

The truck swung into the gravel parking lot, headlights swinging, hitting the creamery. Charlie stepped next to Tommy and said, “When I say ‘throw’, hit the headlights.” Freddie ran toward the truck. “Trip him!” Charlie whispered. Tommy stuck his foot out, knocking Freddie’s feet out from under him, sending his life-long friend sprawling in the gravel and dust. Charlie shouted, “Throw!” Tommy let fly. Glass exploded from one headlight, then the other.

Finnish cursing poured from the back of the truck as the sound of people trying to get out without knocking each other over – which they were failing to do – rumbled over the dark parking lot.

“Grab him!” Charlie said, pushing Tommy forward. They scooped up Freddie. “Hit the truck!” They ran across the lot, Charlie found the door and opened it.

Pysäyttää heidät! Tappakaa heidät!”

“They want us to stop so they can take us home!” Freddie cried out, struggling against Tommy and Charlie. “They’re here to take us home!”

Charlie shouted, “They want to kill you!”

“How do you know?”

“My girlfriend is Finnish! I can speak it!”


“They’re gonna kill you guys! Get in!”


Tommy grabbed Freddie’s face and shouted, “Get in or we’re gonna die!” then shoved him into the truck and shouted to Charlie, “Go! Go! Go!”

The truck roared to life, Charlie turned the headlights on and swung the truck around, charging the Finns and their truck. The Creamery truck fish-tailing on the loose gravel, Finns leaped to save their lives, and with a tremendous BANG! The truck was suddenly sliding in the other direction. For a moment, it hung at the edge of the abyss...