November 11, 2018

WRITING ADVICE – Lisa Cron #4: The Reader Expects That There Will Be A Protagonist

In 2008, 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. To learn more – and to satisfy my natural tendency to “teach stuff”, I started a series of essays taking the wisdom of published writers and then applying each “nugget of wisdom” to my own writing. During the six years that followed, I used the advice of a number of published writers (with their permission) and then applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda to an analysis of my own writing. Together these people write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Today I add to that list, Lisa Cron who has worked as a literary agent, TV producer, and story consultant for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency, and others. She is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences, and a story coach for writers, educators, and journalists. Again, I am using her article, “A Reader’s Manifesto: 15 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has for Every Story” (2/16/18

4. The reader expects that there will be a protagonist.
As readers we’re wired to make the protagonist’s experience our own, literally. Our tacit goal is to biologically experience the events in the plot as if we are the protagonist. Yep, story really is the world’s first virtual reality. Which means, first and foremost, there has to be a protagonist.

The protagonist is the reader’s avatar in the novel, and everything that happens in the plot will get its meaning and emotional weight based on how it affects the protagonist, who’s in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal. Without a protagonist, all you have is a plot, a.k.a. a bunch of things that happen.
Ask yourself: Who is my protagonist? In other words, whose story is it?

Wow your readers.

Can you imagine what THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP would have been like without a protagonist?



Why would readers expect a protagonist and why do some “literary” writers deny that expectation? This site
has a long discussion about what “is” and what “isn’t” a novel and what constitutes a protagonist. I’m not going to rehash their discussion. Read it and make your own decision.

I read through it and it’s esoteric and doesn’t really apply to the books we usually read. Books like THRAWN, JANE EYRE, NORTHANGER ABBEY, and the ones listed above are what normal people think of as novels and they all have a clear protagonist.

It’s fair to say, I think, that when normal people read, they expect a main character with whom they can identify. That being said, I’ve violated this rule several times, once in my current novel MARTIAN HOLIDAY, then in my unpublished novel, INVADERS GUILT. I suppose that’s why it’s not published, eh? I violated the convention by hopping between four (in the first case) and at one point FIVE different viewpoints. In my defense, the storylines converge shortly after the middle of the book.

Why does it make a difference? Why do I even need a protagonist? My life is fine without a protagonist! I know I’m “sort of” a protag, but I don’t exactly direct my life the way a story’s character directs their life.

What’s the definition of a protagonist? “the leading character or one of the major characters in a drama, movie, novel, or other fictional text; the main figure or one of the most prominent figures in a real situation. ‘in this colonial struggle, the main protagonists were Great Britain and France’; an advocate or champion of a particular cause or idea; ‘a strenuous protagonist of the new agricultural policy’.”

In the second definition, you could substitute the word “proponent” or even “advocate”. Therefore, a protagonist isn’t just someone who hangs around and lets stuff happen to them, they MAKE stuff in their lives happen. As Cron says, “Without a protagonist, all you have is a plot, a.k.a. a bunch of things that happen.”

It’s safe to say that most of us don’t live in stories. That’s not to say that a person’s life can’t BECOME a story. Certainly THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK started out as a bunch of things happening to a young lady which, when written down became a story. There is, of course, a classification of writing called “creative nonfiction”. Defined as “…a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as academic or technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not written to entertain based on writing style or florid prose.” Other examples include INTO THIN AIR (Krakauer); THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS (Skloot); and OUTLIERS: The Story of Success (Gladwell).

One thing I thought about to add to this question of “Who is your protagonist?” is “Why does it matter to this story and how will it affect you?”

More good stuff to think about!

November 8, 2018

MARTIAN HOLIDAY 135: Aster of Opportunity

On 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 (100,000+ words as of now), drop me a line and I’ll send you the unedited version.

Aster Theilen, consort of the Mayor-For-Life, Etaraxis, was waiting for her good friend and Artificial Human two corridors away, near a restaurant that, while seedy, was well-known for its Old Earth menu. The Mexican-Amish-Italian fusion at Middle Of The Road was so good that both Humans and Artificial Humans ate in the same establishment – of course, not mixed together. Even Opportunity couldn’t buck Martian mores that far! But, there was a bar that ran down the middle of the narrow restaurant so that friends could sit across from each other and talk. While they had to be served separately, once the food was on the bar, there was no stopping them casually sharing their meal.

FardusAH, secretary of Etaraxis, plopped down on a stool across from Aster, grabbed a an authentic scrapple-spicy sausage wrapped in a Mexican algae tortilla and downed it in six bites. She looked across at Aster and sighed.

“Feeling a little Middle Of The Road tonight, Fardus?”

FardusAH grimaced then said, “You know how much I hate it when you call me that.” She then smiled faintly.

“I call my friends by their names, not their titles.”

“I know. It might get us killed.”

“I’m the Consort of…”

“There’s a certain high-level bureaucrat whose name I consistently try to forget, who would be happy if you gave her an excuse to do away with you.”

Aster’s smile became grim as she nodded. “I know. But I haven’t given her an excuse. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve made a name for myself.”

FardusAH leaned forward, lowering her voice so that Aster could barely hear it as she said, “I’m more worried about those close to you, Consort.”

Her using the honorific startled Aster and her eyes widened. She leaned into the conversation also, “She would never have you killed. You’re too good at what you do! Etaraxis wouldn’t survive a day in Opportunity without you!”

FardusAH’s brows lifted and her eyes widened for an instant. It was so brief, Aster thought for a moment that she’d imagined it. Her friend said, “Not me, Aster. Someone much closer to you than me. Someone not the Mayor.”

Her breath caught. Would Vo’Maddux harm her father? FardusAH leaned back, watching Aster intently. Both of them then knew that the game had suddenly turned into an impending witch hunt. The archaic Earth English term had been resurrected some years ago when a group of Martian citizens had decided that while the old “standard” religions had been banned and were illegal, Pagan practices would be a happy substitute for the religious heart of Humanity. They didn’t bother with applications, fees, registrations, form-filing, and restrictive contracts the others had tried and found strangling to their beliefs, along with another dozen hurdles the United Faith in Humanity had thrown up to discourage casual – or even fervent beliefs. They felt certain that those kinds of things didn’t apply to them.

When they held their first coven, they were warned. Ignoring it because they were certain it was for show, they held an even larger one. UniFiH enforcement shut them down, jailed the entire coven, and fined them into indentured servitude. Cowed, the rest of the organized religions buried deeper underground than ever before. Aster said, “You think Vo’Maddux would try and kill my father?”

Fardus shrugged, pursed her lips, then said, “I don’t know for certain, but it’s certainly something she could do if it suited her plan.”

“What’s her plan?”

“To become First Consort initially. Then to become Mayor-for-Life.”

Aster narrowed her gaze and leaned forward. “Over my dead body.”

Fardus leaned closer and whispered into her ear, “She’d have to step over mine as well.”

The two women sat back as their drinks arrived. They toasted as if they were celebrating their friendship, but anyone who glanced at their faces would have shivered at the cold, calculating gleam in the eyes of both of the women.

Then they would have felt their hearts quail in fear.

November 6, 2018


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: Evil de-evolution
Current Event: (Fascinating article in which an evolutionists tap-dances around the idea that the dissemination of correct information is NOT the responsibility of scientists but, Somebody, Anybody, but ultimately Nobody and CERTAINLY not them…(

Ugnė Mertens flipped her pigtail back again as she stared at the image on her laptop. Muttering, she stepped sideways to the microscope and moved the slide using the X-Y translational control knobs fine adjustment. The image of the chromosome she was studying moved fractionally.

Naranbaatar Todorov picked at his thin, first beard and said, “Staring at it isn’t going to make the genes magically appear, Ug.”

“That’s what you think,” she straightened up, she smiled and added, “Baaaaa,” drawing out the stereotypical sheep sound. “Watch.” She touched a pressure toggle on an odd, goose-necked device standing beside the microscope. The computer’s screen fuzzed suddenly, then the single chromosome lit up as if it was a candy cane.

Baa started, looked at the lamp and exclaimed, “What is that thing?”

“Something I invented and you didn’t,” Ug said, sitting on the lab stool, leaning forward.

Baa swallowed hard, pursed his lips then said, “Listen, I know you don’t much like me...”

Ug reached out and typed an entry into the text box then said, “If I had a choice between dissecting three-day-old roadkill and having lunch with you...” she paused, made a face, then said, “I’m not sure which one I’d pick.”

Baa glanced at the clock on the wall. He still had four hours left of his shift. He couldn’t skip it or Dr. Harber would find out and dock him points. But he wasn’t sure he could keep his feet still and not kick Ugnė in the butt. He took a deep breath and said, “Must be an infrared to ultraviolet, rotating frequency projector.”

She shot him a look then went back to making notes on her computer. Occasionally she tapped her smartphone as well, which lay next to the laptop. “Lucky guess.”

“So that means, ‘yes’. Then you must have bathed the chromosomes in a solution that would...” Naranbaatar hooked another stool with his foot to drag it closer. Shrieking as it vibrated along the floor tiles, he winced and said, “Sorry.”

Ugnė sniffed but didn’t reply. Finally she said, “I used a mix that the older the gene, the less fluorescing compound it would pick up.”

Baa frowned then asked, “What are the chromosomes from?”

“A narn.”

“You’re kidding!” he exclaimed. Reports had been circulating for years about animals whose genes had suddenly started evolving – a quantum evolution event – from static forms to much, much more intelligent forms.

“These are chromosomes from raccoons killed in southern Minnesota.”

“We have narns here?” Baa exclaimed, backing away from the microscope.

Ug turned to look at him. “The genes aren’t contagious, idiot! This isn’t a disease – it’s animal chromosomes. Dyed and fixed at that! What are you afraid of?”

“Nothing. Nothing!” He spun around and took long strides out of the lab. He didn’t care if he lost hours – all he could see in his mind’s eye was the raccoon he’d nearly run over when he was biking on rural trails near his family’s home in an outer ring suburb of what was slowly becoming the three, four-kilometer-tall towers of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Vertical Village.

He would never forget the look on its face as it held out a mangled aw to him and said, “Help...”

Names: Lithuanian, Belgian; Mongolian, Bulgarian

November 4, 2018

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Philosophy, Aliens, Galileo, Other Stuff, and the “Evil Church” -- Entry One

NOT using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, CA in August 2018 (to which I be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I would jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. But not today. This explanation is reserved for when I dash “off topic”, sometimes reviewing movies, sometimes reviewing books, and other times taking up the spirit of a blog an old friend of mine used to keep called THE RANTING ROOM…

I know I’m a few years behind, but I just checked out a copy of LONELY PLANETS: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon. He does, of course, have a “doctor” in front of his name, but it appears that he doesn’t use it very often. He also has the endorsement of Neil deGrasse Tyson – the quintessential new face of astronomy and the immediate successor to Carl Sagan.

Tyson said of Grinspoon’s book “…brings together what has never before been synthesized…he is a planetary scientist as well as dreamer, born of the space age.”

As is apparent to anyone who reads my blog, I LOVE aliens! I write about aliens! I do (guardedly) believe that there is intelligent life “out there, somewhere” – HOWEVER, I don’t believe that we have any real proof yet and that it is, at this point, an intellectual and philosophical exercise.

Be that as it may, I’ve only read the first 20 or so pages of Grinspoon’s book and skimmed his website (, but I find myself looking forward to following this guy for some time to come!

My main reason for noting him today is that he fully and completely believes that science and faith don’t HAVE to be at war. In fact, he blithely pops the balloon that many, many, many, many science-oriented-Humans float as proof that science is smart and faith is stupid.

Let me go back a few years (…well, more than a few), when I was an 8th grade Earth science teacher. At the beginning of my last two years and then for the next 11 years, I showed an old, old, old (1997) video tape called, "Junk Science: What You Know That May Not Be So", by “mild shock jock”, John Stossel. It’s my attempt to get eighth graders (and later, ninth graders) to THINK and challenge their beliefs.

Later on, we also watched a movie called “Galileo: The Challenge of Reason” – a fairly common subject for middle school and early high school science classes as well as in astronomy classes (all of which I taught at one point or another (“from 5th grade to physics” is what I would tell people, or “from astronomy to zoology”). The particular film I used, available through our school’s media department as a film (in the late 80s and through the 90s), was very hostile to the Church of the time and painted Galileo as a hero of reason and the Church the enemy of intelligence. I tried to point out that even in the movie, Galileo wasn’t tried just because he found planets.

I walked a lonely road for a long time, but Grinspoon offers some evidence that backs what I’ve always believed: “Galileo caught hell from the Church. In what has become a modern myth of science’s collision with biblical authority (italics mine), he was brought before the Inquisition, forced to recant his Copernican beliefs, and lived out his days under house arrest (p 14)…Nicolas of Cusa, a German ecclesiastic, wrote OF LEARNED IGNORANCE, a widely celebrated book that exuberantly rejected Aristotle’s hierarchical, Earth-centered cosmology, advocating in its place, a universe bustling with life on every star…Cusa was made a cardinal. So why did the Church celebrate Cusa and, 150 years later, condemn Galileo?”

“Galileo was a tactless boor…he seemed to go out of his way to piss off the Church authorities with his know-it-all comments on Scripture…in his DIALOGUE CONCERNING THE TWO CHIEF WORLD SYSTEMS…the character who played the role of doubting the Copernican system was a pompous ass…name[d] Simplico…who gave voice to the views of Pope Urban VIII…[making] his claims when the Church was threatened by the Reformation…[and] before the ashes of…a Dominican friar monk…had cooled…[who] believed in an infinite cosmos filled with life virtually everywhere. He is often mentioned in the same breath with Galileo as another martyr for Copernicanism and science in general…[though that] was a minor offense compared to his sorcery, pantheism, and denial of Christ’s divinity…” (page 16)

All of this to make a couple of points. First, there are a number of issues that currently appear to be science versus “stupid”. Among them, climate change, vaccination, organic foods, nuclear power, and “the opioid addiction epidemic”. I might tackle all of them if I decide to write a series, but for now I’ll stick with one.

For now, I want to point out that each of the subjects above have served to divide the people who LIVE in a technologically advanced civilization and the scientists and engineers who regularly produce the scientific and technological advances that CREATE the small slice of the world that holds a technologically advanced civilization inhabits.

Grinspoon attempts to shine a bit more light on what at first seems to be a simple situation of the irrational Church lashing out against the truth of Science in the issue of the centricity of Humanity in the universe.

I’m going to apply this attitude liberally to anthropogenic global warming (the phrase has been toned down in this second decade of the 21st Century to climate change, though the argument and rhetoric. First, I will say that “Of course Humans have an impact on the planet, contributing to global warming. However…I don’t think Humanity has CAUSED it.” I think we give ourselves far too much credit. Fact: when in sunlight, there is no visible evidence of Humans on Earth from orbit. Night is a different story; and there is abundant evidence that “something” is here on the EM spectrum.

Many in the scientific community attribute the “Livers” with immense stupidity, claiming that they must take the “Creaters”’s words without question because Science is smarter than anything else. Creaters, like Galileo, dismiss their own attitude as having any sort of impact on Science.

Proponents of AGW ignore that facts. FACT: The UN Climate Change Conferences are held in world class cities (the list: While I am sure that they are held in these cities because they are easily accessible, some of the places – Kyoto, Buenos Aires, Bali, Cancun, and Paris are ALSO well-known vacation spots. If I can ask this question (I’m no PhD, just a science middle school and high school teacher; and in case you were wondering, a labor union member since I was 16), I’m sure others can think of it. Another question that leaps to mind is “How did they get there and what was the carbon footprint of the COP/CMPs?” At a bare minimum, the Paris conference hosted two individuals who appeared there after flying in private jets. None of the participants addressed their own impact on the environment – it appeared (at least to me) that because they were so concerned about AGW, their actions were excused.

The fact that the Creaters community has maintained and promoted the fiction that Galileo was persecuted by the Church for no reason except his evidence that the Sun was the center of the Solar System, holding him up as a hero of science and identifying him with whatever cause they wish to. It seems to me however, that us science TEACHERS had done our job too well. Whenever we did an experiment in my science class, I insisted that observation and evidence was of paramount importance. Speculation was welcome as far as it provided questions to answer. But once the experiment was over, EVIDENCE was supposed to either support or NOT support the theory.

If the Creaters spent more time patiently presenting evidence and less time suggesting that Livers were stupid and wouldn’t understand the evidence anyway, we might have come a lot farther (I was told once by a once-popular science fiction writer who also had a PhD, that because I wasn’t convinced that AGW was Science, and HE UNDERSTOOD THE MATH, that I was supposed to, therefore take his word that it was Science Truth, and that was that.)

Flying back to aliens, Grinspoon has taken the time to explain; he is funny and relaxed; and at this point, he appears to be one of the best kinds of teachers. He seems to count himself as not ONLY a Creater, but also a Liver…we’ll see, but that’s my thought right now.

November 1, 2018


On Earth, there are three Triads intending 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. All three intelligences hover on the edge of extinction. The merger of Human-Kiiote-Yown’Hoo into a van der Walls Society might not only save all three – but become something not even they could predict. Something entirely new...

The young experimental Triads are made up of the smallest primate tribe of Humans – Oscar and Xiomara; the smallest canine pack of Kiiote – six, pack leaders Qap and Xurf; and the smallest camelid herd of Yown’Hoo – a prime eleven, Dao-hi the Herd mother. On nursery farms and ranches away from the TC cities, 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.

“We had nearly fallen into stagnation when we encountered the Kiiote.”
“And we into internecine war when we encountered the Yown’Hoo.”
 “Yown’Hoo and Kiiote have been defending themselves for a thousand revolutions of our Sun.”
 “Together, we might do something none of us alone might have done…a destiny that included Yown’Hoo, Kiiote, and Human.” (2/19/2015)

Dao-hi, temporary Herd Mother of her tiny group, shuddered.

Por-go-el, a potential male, had given a good response; in fact, precisely the response a mature male would have given. He didn’t apologize, instead asking how he might serve the Herd – small as it was.

Dao-hi suddenly realized that there would be more to being a Herd Mother than simply punishing stupidity. If she had thought first, then acted second, Lan-mai-ti, whose body was potentially both male and female, and only a bit larger than an Earth badger, might have died back in the snowbank. They had very little capability for trapping heat in their bodies.

But now, it was running with her, last in the Herd, but keeping up with herself and Por-go-el as they worked out their relationship. She would have to reflect on this. Por-go-el had no need to know how close the Herd’s least had come to death, so she said, “Por-go-el, you are potentially male, so your nose is the only one among us that can detect the microscopically small amounts of Ji-hi, Mother of All. I cannot as I am female; Lan-mai-ti cannot, for it is simple potential. This is the reason the Lieutenant Commander Patrick Bakhsh sent you with us. This is your destiny.” She surged ahead and was gratified when the smaller Por-go-el followed the surge and kept up with her. For a moment, she thought that it had actually grown larger in the past few days since they’d left Minneapolis-St Paul.

That was impossible. It took a gorging feast for the growth hormones to activate. It needed to feed in order to initiate the growth spurt that would…

Por-go-el stopped abruptly, nose lifted in the air. It puffed out a white cloud of hot, moist air, then drew in deeply. A moment later, it said, “I smell something that did not grow on this Earth, Herd-mother. It does not smell as the rest of us do. It smells…alien.”

Dao-hi held a howl of laughter in, coughing instead. Yown’Hoo and Kiiote were both alien to Earth, though every one of them living now had been born on Earth. She thought for a moment, then snorted again. She had never met a member of a Herd other than the one on Earth, divided into three parts as it was. She vaguely remembered being swapped out at birth, some of her foal-sisters were surely among those of the other two Triads – one in Russia, another in China. The rest were of no import.

“Are there others who are not in Herds on Earth?” said Lan-mai-ti.

“Of course, we are…”

Por-go-el leaped to her back and snapped, “There is another! It is here!”

She shook hard, shaking the potential male loose. It grabbed her foreleg as it fell, clinging to the joint. It was as if someone had suddenly splinted it. She stumbled, tentacles snapping free and grabbing the impertinent nothing. “Are you insane?” she shrieked.

The ground beneath them began to tremble then. She would have shouted, “Earthquake!” on the home world, but in this part of North America, earthquakes were so rare and so weak as to be virtually unheard of. But even the potential and the immature moved to cling to her back as she began to zig-zag rather than hold a steady, solid pace. Slipping ground cover, earth, and ice had been common on Y’eh One of Seven Hundred and Thirty-nine, the world that had given birth to the first Herd. Quakes, while they did not experience them often, triggered a reflex run.

From a pine and oak wood, burst an immense white-tailed buck, sixteen points of stone-hard, twisted antler bone. He led his harem that came after him, a thundering animal herd that, for whatever reason, stirred Dao-hi’s blood, reacting to the buck as if it were a powerful female. She wanted to follow them…

An instant later, what she thought at first was a deformed deer followed the animal herd.

Suddenly she realized what it was, turned her forward leap into a stiff-legged stop. The potential and the immature dropped to the cold, frozen ground. The elder Yown’Hoo, its long fur dragging over the snow, looked at her then strode, every step difficult, stiff. Either she was decrepit or moved with ultimate dignity. For a moment, Dao-hi stared  unable to choose between decrepitude or dignity.

Her decision flipped back and forth until the bass voice of a Herd Mother, deeper than any voice she’d heard on Earth or in recordings, said, “Daughter. Your presence is long-awaited. Welcome at long, long last.”

October 30, 2018


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: Halloween!

Snow-dusted, dark alpine slopes reminded Nazar Ionescu of a tidal wave frozen solid an instant before capsizing a crowded luxury liner on the North Atlantic. The TITANIC, perhaps. He said, “This is not going to end well.”

Giorgia Lukić shook her head and said, “Sad sack.”

Nazar looked over at her, frowning. “What does that mean?”

“Nineteen forty-three, World War Two, an old comic book character whose name was a euphemism for a much more vulgar term. But you’re someone whose very presence lowers the tone in the room – a sort of the human equivalent of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.”

“I am not!”

She swept an arm to include then entire four hundred kilometer long range of mountains. “They’re moody this morning. Yesterday morning, they were divine. How can a conference in the Alps...”

“These are not THE Alps. They are Alps – and do you know it’s a Latin word that means a place in the mountains where cows eat?”

“It does not!” she exclaimed pushing him away from her. “It can’t. It’s got to be more romantic than that!”

He shrugged. “I was born not far from here and shipped out about ten hours after when the Soviet Union shattered. This is not a romantic place.”

Giorgia took a deep breath, exhaled then said, “All right. It’s November and miserable. But we’re not here for romance, are we?” She fixed him with a long look. He blushed and turned away. “We’re here for an experiment that has the potential to change the face of physics…”

“Or open a gateway to another realm,” he said. She shot him a quelling look. They’d had the conversation before. Many times. With many people. He was well-known for his beliefs. Some had even named him ‘Marburger’ – as well as a having a fast food named after him at a nearby restaurant – after the early 21st Century report1  that nudged a controversy just before the first activation of the Large Hadron Collider.

“You cannot be really serious, Nazar. Really?”

He stared up into the mountains for a long time before saying, “Science is full of unexpected developments, Giorgia. No one working at Bell Labs in 1958 could have predicted that their device would be used to play movies in people’s home. Certainly no one watching Enewetak would have predicted the Bussard probe on its way to Alpha Centauri. No one...”

“I get it. We test a new application of a scientific law and don’t necessarily know exactly what will happen.”

“I’m not talking about the purely physical results. There is another dimension, something beyond what we...”

She held her palm out to him and turning around, headed back to the lab where a team of nearly a hundred scientists from all over the world had gathered at the foot of the iron-rich mountain range to create a microscopic wormhole that would take power generation to the next level.

“Giorgia! Wait for me!” She stopped but didn’t turn around. When he caught up with her, he said breathlessly, “If nothing happens with the first power up, you’ll never hear another word from me.”

The sunlight faded as clouds drifted over the Transylvanian Alps. Giorgia shivered as she nodded. “Make sure of it.” Still without turning around, she headed for the lab.

Padding footsteps made by his rubber-soled, signature blaze orange Converse All-Star high top tennis shoes followed after her. She said, “They should be powering up right around now.”

Under their feet, the ground trembled. Giorgia squeaked in surprise and Nazar grabbed her elbow to steady her. She was looking directly at the lab, slightly upward so that she could see the archaic crenellations of the roof. Something appeared over the building. Immense, winged, it appeared to be hovering over the lab and for the briefest instant seemed to coalesce into an apparition that she could only call a ghost dragon...

Names: ♀ Italian, Serbian; Ukraine, Romania

October 28, 2018

Slice of PIE -- Michael Shaara: Wishing for The Killer Aliens

Guest Columns: The Ranting Room (Bruce Bethke) (December 13, 2008)

Guest Column

"Old friend Guy Stewart regularly blogs at Possibly Irritating Essays. A while back I gave him an unusual book and a challenge. Herewith, the result."

He never won any awards with us. No Hugo, no Nebula (oh, that’s right, he’d stopped writing SF by 1966 and gone on to pen seventy stories for people who read those silly magazines like RedbookCosmopolitanPlayboy, and The Saturday Evening Post), no Locus Poll (oops, those didn’t start until 1971, and Shaara was long gone by then); he left us almost nothing to remind us that we’d had a great writer doing his apprenticeship among us, the SF community. Somewhere around 1954 he wrote a story that GalaxyF&SF, and Astounding rejected out of hand after publishing seven other stories of his; Shaara himself thought, “…this may be the best I’ve ever done.” But we didn’t want it. Published finally, grudgingly, in Fantastic Universe in 1957, Shaara had already started moving toward people who enjoyed what he was writing.

That story, “Death of a Hunter”, wasn’t the best he could do. Twenty years later, the world saw the publication of his Civil War novel, The Killer Angels

An intimate novel of the Battle of Gettysburg in the style of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of CourageAngels became his best. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the award came as a stunning surprise because the book had been a commercial flop — and then went on to become a full-length feature film after his death in 1988, and has been required reading for more military organizations than you can shake a stick at ever since.
The SF world lost Michael Shaara because in part, the editor at Galaxy thought his readers wouldn’t like “Death of a Hunter”. They wouldn’t like it because he thought it was, “too serious, too gloomy.” Of course, the SF of the time tended toward the positive salvation of humanity through the application of technology. Shaara’s work didn’t flow in that vein — it wasn’t about glittering machines and conquering the planets, the stars, and the galaxies. His work was about people and their responses to the forces in their lives. That phase of popular SF didn’t arrive for another twenty years.

Admittedly, Shaara also wrote better after 20 years of practice. Compare these two descriptions of the alien:
“It was a great black lump on a platform. The platform had legs, and the thing was plodding methodically upon a path which would bring it past him. It had come down from the rise and was rounding the gorge when Dylan saw it. It did not see him. If he had not ducked quickly and brought up his gun, the monkey would not have seen him either, but there was no time for regret. The monkey was several yards to the right of the lump on the platform when he heard it start running; he had to look up this time, and saw it leaping toward him over the snow.” (p. 32, “Soldier Boy”, 1954)
“To be alien and alone among white lords and glittering machines, uprooted by brute force and threat of death from the familiar earth of what he did not even know was Africa, to be shipped in the black stinking darkness across an ocean he had not dreamed existed, forced then to work on alien soil, strange beyond belief, by men with guns whose words he could not even comprehend. What could the black man know of what was happening? Chamberlain tried to imagine it. He had seen ignorance, but this was more than that. What could this man know of borders and state’s rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? What…” (p. 180, The Killer Angels, 1974)
Both passages are one hundred and eleven words long, but it is clear that Shaara had come into his own by the time he wrote Angels. The prose vibrates like a quartet’s string bass played in an intimate curtained chamber, while “Soldier Boy” twangs like a banjo in a clapboard dance hall.
Is there anything we could have done to keep him with us — perhaps allowing the growth of an early Mary Doria Russel, or Stanislaw Lem? Unlikely. SF hadn’t matured enough by then to admit to literary aspirations. Shaara himself alludes to this in the afterword of Soldier Boy, the only collection of his science fiction ever printed. He says, “Very little I wrote has ever moved me so much as being with Neilson when he killed those two in the mountains. I felt for the first time in my writing life, that maybe I was growing up, and maybe I’d done something truly worth doing…”
Fifty-eight years later, Shaara’s work has stood the test of time, as The Killer Angels enjoys consistent sales and continues to illuminate one of the bloodiest battles in American history. As good as it is, though, I cannot help but wonder what Michael Shaara might have given the SF community, had we encouraged him to explore the darker reaches of humanity’s battle with technology.

October 25, 2018

MARTIAN HOLIDAY 134: Stepan of Burroughs

On 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, 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 (100,000+ words as of now), drop me a line and I’ll send you the unedited version.

“Sorry. I forget you’re not a normal person,” QuinnAH, an artificial boy who may or may not have become a Christian convert, hung his head,

Stepan Izmaylova laughed and stood up. Gently toeing the rigidly frozen spacesuit, he said, “We have to move this, probably bag it up, and send it to DaneelAH and his vatmates. They have the cetacean spacesuit now, and one of them has access to a Virtual Reality unit that fits it. I have no doubt that there are other artifacts scattered over Mars.” He pursed his lips then leaned down to QuinnAH, “And I think something big is brewing on Mars. Something that will change everything on the Red Planet.”

“You mean like what your god did to Earth?”

Stepan met his defiant gaze then slowly nodded, saying, “He did change Earth. But people grabbed what he said, twisted it and used it for personal gain.” He sighed. “It’s what Humans do as easily as breathing.”

“Ain’t only Humans do that,” Quinn muttered, then squatted, staring at the suit. “You want me to help you carry it down?”

Stepan sniffed, sneezed, then said, “Yeah,” Quinn reached out and Stepan said, “Hang on.” Quinn didn’t move. A moment of thought later, he said, “I think we’d better get a body bag and put the suit. Then we can move it down to the office…”

“…an’ hide it.”

Stepan raised an eyebrow then nodded, “You have Rim-stincts.”

“You bet your…” he paused, looked up at Stepan in the dim light, and revised his exclamation, “Backside I have ‘em. If I didn’t, I’d be dead now.” He raised both eyebrows, “You’d be dead now.”

“Good point. Do you know where the place has…”

“…body bags? Yeah.” He started down the stairs, halted and said, “I’ll get ‘em. I don’t want you getting hurt coming up and down these things, they’re liable to…” The step he was standing on snapped with a crack like an old-fashioned rifle. The lower gravity of Mars – about four tenths that of Earth – made him fall in slightly slower motion. Slow enough that Stepan had just enough time to lay spread-eagle on the remaining steps and grab the boy’s hand as he fell. Quinn screamed as Stepan’s grip tightened like a vise and kept him from falling through.

Stepan cried out, “Grab the edge with both hands!”

A scrabbling few moments later, the boy had done as he’d been asked and started to pull himself out of the void beneath the steps. After what seemed like an eternity to both, he sat beside Stepan back up on the landing, their knees pressed together. His gasping breaths were loud in the enclosed space and after a few moments began to stutter. Stepan put his arm around Quinn, conscious that the boy was not Human in the eyes of the Dome. Conscious that he’d never before touched an Artificial Human to comfort them. Conscious as well at the same moment of his own, appalling bias. His prejudice against artificial life. At first Quinn shrugged him off, but even as his shoulder jerked, he grabbed Stepan’s hand and held it in a crushing grip. His voice shuddered as he said, “I wasn’t afraid.”

“I know. You’re a tough young man. Nothing scares you.”

There was a long pause then Quinn began to shake, exactly as if he were crying. Stepan didn’t move, just keeping his arm lightly across the boy’s shoulders – as if he could move his arm, the grip Quinn held him with as hard as his own when he’d grabbed the blue hand just before it vanished into whatever lay at the bottom of the darkness. Finally, Quinn said, “Nothin’.”

“Good. It’s best to ignore all of the scary things in your life. That way they can’t…”

Quinn turned, through his arms round Stepan and began to sob, squirming until he sat on Stepan’s lap. The pastor didn’t pat him, or murmur, or do anything but hold him tight. As the sobs decreased and Quinn wiped his very Human, snotty nose on Stepan’s shirt, he finally said, “Good thing I didn’t fall all th’ way, huh.”

“A really good thing.”

Long pause. “‘Cause if I’d-a-died, I couldn’t o’ told you that I think I’m gonna follow your God.”

Stepan didn’t leap to his feet to thank his God. Instead, he held his breath, counted to ten then said, “Yep, then. It was a good thing. Should we go back up to the roof and take the disk down like we came up?”

Quinn wiped his nose on Stepan one more time, then stood up – though he held tightly to the pastor’s hand – and said, “Smart man. You learn quick. Make a Rimmer of you yet, I think.” They walked up the stairs, hand-in-hand, reached the stop, stepped lightly along the edge of the roof, then lowered themselves to the floor of the warehouse.

Outside, the sounds of riot were growing louder. Quinn said, “You hide inna office. I’m gone go out there and see what’s up.”

“Not through the door!”

“Duh, preacher-man! I got my ways.” He threw both arms around Stepan, adding, “You hide. There’s a little door under the third window over. Push in, slide right. Go in. It’s tight, but it’ll keep you safe ‘til I get back. I whistle comin’ in, then knock twice, stop and knock once.” Stepan didn’t move. “Go, man!”

Stepan cleared his throat, “I’ll run as fast as I can as soon as you let go of me.” Quinn did, and Stepan ran.

October 23, 2018


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. Regarding Fantasy, this insight was startling: “I see the fantasy genre as an ever-shifting metaphor for life in this world, an innocuous medium that allows the author to examine difficult, even controversial, subjects with impunity. Honor, religion, politics, nobility, integrity, greed—we’ve an endless list of ideals to be dissected and explored. And maybe learned from.” – Melissa McPhail.

F Trope: Fairy Tale

"Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already because it is in the world already. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St George to kill the dragon."
—GK Chesterton

 Leyla Manghirmalani wrinkled her nose at the overpowering smell of onions and called out, “Jie? What are you doing?”

Jie Busiri leaned back from his dorm room desk, holding a chopping knife and said, “What’s it look like?”

“That you’re stinking up the whole dorm floor on purpose?”

“No, not stinking up anything. I’m calling the onion fairies,” he said it like he was  a little kid.

Leyla shook her head, “Another one of your lame attempts at recreating ancient fairy magic?”

“Hey! That’s not fair! Didn’t I make it rain last week after I did that Lakota rain dance?”

She snorted, “After checking the weather report for three weeks straight and then picking a day even the weather divas all agreed had a greater than ninety percent chance of rain.” She waved her hand in front of her face and backed up, “I don’t want to weep over spilled onion juice. I’ll come back...”

“No! Wait!” Jie grabbed something from his desk and strode across the room, chopping knife in one hand.

Leyla laughed, “If I hadn’t known you since pre-school, I’d have just gone running down the hall dialing 911 and telling them a freshman U of M student had just gone crazy.”

Jie shook his head, handing her a piece of pink gum. “Chew this, it’ll keep your eyes from watering.”

“Why didn’t you just soak them in cold salty water?”

He looked at her like she was crazy and said, “They won’t be magic then, stupid.”

“Hey! Don’t call me stupid! You’re the one they’d throw in the loony bin if they asked why you were chopping onions!” She chewed and stepped into the room and her eyes didn’t tear up automatically. “Hey, it works.”

He blew a bubble and said, “Why do you think I’m doing it?”

“I thought you wanted to be struck by your onion magic?”

He sniffed in disdain and went back to his chopping board. “I’m not interested in helping myself. I’m going to place the slices of onions with a slice of mushroom on top...”
Leyla cut in, “If I get a pain hamburger from Mac’s, can I just put them on and make a Whopper?”

“Ha, ha, ha,” he said, chopping again. “Just wait and see how well our floor does on finals – then we’ll see who has the last laugh!”

They hung out the rest of the night and Leyla helped him place the mushroom and onion slices in the rooms of the people willing to go with his craziness. By the time they were done studying and onion-placing, it was past two in the morning. “I gotta get some sleep,” she said, “I have a chem final first thing.”

Jie gave her a hug, saying, “I made sure I put the biggest onion slice in your room and I piled the rest of the mushrooms on top of it.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” she dead-panned. “Thank you so, so much for your fairly wonderful generosity.”

He smirked then said, “Just you wait, Leyla Higgins, just you wait.”

She smiled at the MY FAIR LADY jab and headed for bed.

Names: ♀Iran, India, ; China, Egypt