Saturday, January 31, 2015

Off the Map (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Sometimes, with the best will in the world, a project falls flat. I began the year with the firm intention of finishing Indigo Redemption this month, and then devoting the following months to editing the first two novels of the trilogy.

It didn't happen. I lost my way in the narrative of the third novel, and it is still unfinished. Furthermore, February has its own challenges. I will take up the tale of Indigo's fateful weather again in March.

Meanwhile, Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch has a perfect Flash Fiction Challenge for the week resolutions die:

January 28, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about disorientation. A character could be lost in the maze of the mind or in a storm of unexpected traffic. What are the sounds? The sights? The smell? Explore the different ways confusion can be expressed and how it can create tension, provide relief or move a story forward.

As always, my answer to the challenge lies below the line:

Off the Map

Between one step and the next, disaster. I reach for the map clipped to my pack, and — nothing! Was it an hour since last I checked? Along the open corridor between the trees, no map lay behind me.

Was I still going north-west? My compass needle swings wildly, doesn't settle. Circuiting tree-trunks is another chance to lose my way. In the damp, moss marks tree-trunks all the way around, rain clouds obscure the sun's direction. And I've seen that Amanita muscaria, bright against the duff, before!

Desperate, I tramp on. I must find the marked trail before dark.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Play's the Thing

Mysteries are a brew I rarely imbibe; from small beer to Stout, they just do not often suit my taste. Perhaps I am too fond of stronger tipple: science fiction, history, philosophy.

But once in a while, I find a soft ale with an intriguing flavor. One sip makes me want another. Soon I have finished the glass, and signaled the barkeep for more. Having enjoyed The Cunning Man by John Yeoman, I was eager to have another serving of this frothy goodness. I wasn't disappointed: Dream of Darkness is every bit as tasty as the previous pint.

With the new novel, as I had with The Cunning Man, I mostly ignored the in-linked footnotes that supply the "fictorial" quality of the novel. I actually stopped seeing them after a while. The story was that engrossing. Once again, Hippo Yeoman, the apothecary/coroner and cunning man of previous books, is trying to solve a mystery in medieval London. Someone is killing playwrights; a series of locked-door murders with much blood (but little in the way of corpses) has baffled the magistrates.

As our cunning Yeoman tries to solve that mystery, he is commissioned to resolve another. A half-mad beauty dances in and out of reach, while a forerunner of yellow journalism manages to publicize the details of each murder within hours of their occurrence, complete with woodcut illustrations that must have been prepared before the murder was committed. We also get some glimpses of Hippo Yeoman's past life that tie into the tangled web he is trying to unravel.

The London Yeoman inhabits has still a functional wharf at Queenshythe, and the Globe Theatre has just opened, even while construction is still underway. A new play by William Shakespeare is in rehearsal there (Whatever You Like); and forms part of the mystery which draws Yeoman into the seamy south-bank underworld. The brothels and "low inns" of Southwark (and his supposed familiarity with them) are part of why the fictional Yeoman has been given the commission he pursues. 

John Yeoman has once again given the novel a strong flavor of London of the period, with courtly and religious intrigue, a sense of the common life of urban professionals, craftsmen, and artists (and thieves), and a thrilling conclusion to the multiple mysteries his cunning protagonist must solve.

A most uncommon brew, this. Very enjoyable!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

On the Ceiling (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

When I wake in the middle of the night with an idea screaming in my head, sometimes it is all I can do to stay under the covers. I know there is a class to be taught tomorrow morning, and I need to be fully awake at 6 a.m. to do my best presentation.

But the story... The story demands something other, and the discipline to get my sleep is not as strong as the pull of the keyboard. What time is it? maybe 1, maybe 2 a.m. Four or five short hours away, I must be ready to rise.

But the story... I close my eyes and roll away from the clock. Perhaps I can sleep if I don't realize the time is passing, and the story is dribbling away into my pillow. The words come to haunt me. I pull the pillow over my head so I don't see the time cast onto the ceiling, the red numbers that tell me I must choose.

Sleep? Or the story?

Maybe both: that's the thrust of the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week:

January 21, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a 2 a.m. story. Crazy things can happen after the bars close down, even if you never go to the bar! You might, drown in a pile of snow or wake up to find a black bear in your kitchen.


On the Ceiling

I use a dragon-writer, see, because these stories keep me awake at night. In the light, in the daytime, I can hold them at bay. But at night, they crowd so close! I set the mike on the pillow beside me, and when I wake in a sweat of words, it is ready, and I begin. 

As I speak, the letters stream red across the ceiling, once-upon-a-time and Gerald-was-not-a-hero and I-remember-Manderley. Though the stories always seem to end with "2 a.m.".

This is a better system than the keyboard. I can't type so well anymore.

Not in the straight-jacket.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Beginning of Honor

As an adolescent, searching to inform my sense of the right way to live, I encountered an icon in C.S. Forester’s British naval officer Horatio Hornblower. For decades, Hornblower stood as my fictional ideal of leadership, principle and stoic adherence to duty.

Then in 1993, I opened my first Honor Harrington novel, On Basilisk Station, and Horatio was unseated by Honor. The two characters share more than initials; David Weber’s Honor Harrington is, like Hornblower, an officer in a royal navy. Ms. Midshipman Harrington, like her 19th century counterpart, is a person of stellar principle and sturdy sense of duty (and is somewhat humorless and politically clueless at first, as serious, dutiful, task-focused youngsters can be). 

The likeness is no accident. Weber created Harrington as a deliberate homage to Forester’s forthright Briton.

We meet Honor and her hexapod treecat Nimitz at Saganami Island, the academy for the Royal Manticoran Navy. This navy is spaceships, and Manticore is the home world of a small empire. These two elements, along with the telepathic treecats of Honor’s homeworld, constitute the primary differences between Horatio’s navy and Honor’s. This frees Weber to tell the story—and Weber is a past master at military SF.

Honor’s days at Saganami Island as a midshipman, told in retrospect, are important to the back-story, and serve to establish her character, as well as that of her nemesis, Pavel Young. Where Honor is of yeoman stock from a “rural” world in the empire, Young comes from the nobility of Manticore. Honor’s innate honesty and courtesy are easily contrasted with Young’s bullying and his sly approach to the truth. It scarcely needs Young's attempted rape of Honor to persuade us that he is vile. Subtler differences between them become more obvious with time. (And we have time; more than fourteen novels will eventually center around Harrington.)

Due to a naively unpolitical choice made by the fresh-from-the-academy Harrington, Honor and the crew of her command are “exiled” to the unpopular backwater posting on Basilisk Station, in a light cruiser whose conventional weapons systems have been gutted and replaced by a nearly-useless experimental weapon. Worse, Pavel Young, in command of a second ship, is posted there as well—and he’s in nominal command of the picket. Honor’s distaste at taking orders from Young is carefully disguised in their interaction, however. She knows where her duty lies, even if he is preventing her from doing it. (Once again, Pavel Young is out to rape Honor.)

Despite the modern technology, the battle action from On Basilisk Station is reminiscent of that of both Hornblower’s navy and the British Army conflicts in South Africa (the Zulu Wars) and Afghanistan (the massacre of the British garrison at the Kyber Pass). This is due in large part to Weber’s constraining definition of space-flight technology in the “Honorverse”; bands of force that allow ships to traverse wormholes also prevent truly spherical battle action. Honor’s Navy, like Hornblower’s, is vulnerable in a single plane only.

This might have made the Honor Harrington novels mere space-opera echoes of the Forester classics, except that David Weber has really considered the spherical nature of a space battle. It dictates the strategy ship captains must consider in battle; if Honor cannot be killed by a hit from below, she can also turn her ship to interpose its invulnerable “belly bands” between her and incoming fire. She must maneuver her own vessel to permit shots which will penetrate her enemy’s bands of force. Further strategic advantage is gained from intelligence in a light-year wide field of battle.

The combination of thrilling battle scenes with a graceful, forceful, intelligent main character with a core of steel make the Honor Harrington novels my favorite for rereading. If you haven’t encountered On Basilisk Station yet, I envy you—you have a wonderful experience ahead of you! 

Prepare to be conquered by Honor Harrington.

On Basilisk Station is currently available for $0.00 in the Kindle edition. How can you lose?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup

I love kale. 

We had half our garden plot planted with it last year, and for a while we ate kale three or four times a week. But it takes a lot of time to trim and shred fresh kale. And it cooks down: four to five cups of shredded kale will reduce to two modest servings after it is skillet-grilled with bacon and diced sweet squash.

I was thrilled, therefore, to find in the Safeway prepared salad section a hefty portion of chopped kale in a "salad kit" from Taylor Farms, with brussels sprouts and arugula among other greens. I immediately bought two bags. With low-sodium beef broth, dried peas and lentils, some pinto beans and a minimum of prep work, we scored this beautiful beef, bean, pulse and kale soup. Cooked overnight in the slow cooker and served with a wedge of jalapeño cheese bread, it was an rousing success.

Prepared salads get a lot of negative reviews from foodies, mostly because they are "highly processed". My feeling is, if it gets more veggies into my diet, it's a great thing! (Also, we do not use the salad dressing or other toppings from the kit in this recipe, and that's where a lot of salt and other processing comes into the kit.)

Prep time using the salad kit is only 30 minutes, and much of that is waiting for the beans to precook. The rest is all slow-cooker: Set it up in the evening, and you'll have an outstanding lunch ready to serve the next day. Do your prep in the morning, and by evening you have a perfect cold-weather supper.

The recipe below makes a LOT of soup, sufficient for a couple for three or four meals, or for a family to have seconds as desired. 

Beefy Kale and Bean Soup


  • 1/2 to 1 pound coarse-grind hamburger
  • 1 - 1.5 cups dry pinto beans
  • 1 Taylor Farms or other Chopped Kale Salad Kit (or you can shred 2 cups volume kale, brussels sprouts and cabbage, mostly kale)
  • 2 14-ounce cartons low-sodium beef broth (I use Swanson's)
  • 2/3 cup dried green peas
  • 2/3 cup dried lentils
  • 1/4 tsp curry powder
  • 1/4 tsp seasoning "salt" (this is why you want the low sodium broth; you can also substitute a pinch of paprika, a dash of ground or whole celery seed, and a pinch of turmeric for the seasoned salt)
  • vigorous shake of Mrs. Dash (or other seasoning with coarse-ground pepper)


In a 4-quart slow cooker set on LOW, combine the broth, dried pulses, and spices and set the lid in place.

In a saucepan, put the cleaned pinto beans in 4 cups of water and bring it to a boil. When boiling, set a timer for 30 minutes.

While the beans are boiling, heat a skillet to medium high, and add the ground beef in small chunks. For a whole pound, I brown the beef in two lots so the skillet doesn't get too cool. Brown and season the beef as preferred. (I like a good crust on one side, so the caramelized flavor is obvious.) Drain the fat from the skillet when done.

When the timer goes off for the beans, remove them from the heat, and rinse them with cold water until the water comes off mostly clear. Drain and add the beans, the browned beef, and the salad greens to the slow cooker, stirring to mix them through the broth.

Discard or keep the salad toppings for other dishes; they are not used in the soup!

The soup should be cooked on LOW for at least 8 hours. I often cook it for 6 hours, then turn the heat down to WARM for another 4 to 5 hours.

I have never had success with this recipe cooked on HIGH, but I suppose it would take 4 hours at that setting. I always manage to forget it, and the soup is burned.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Renee's Dash (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Sometimes it seems to me as if I was a teenager last week, newly-married yesterday, and woke up this morning suddenly old. That youngster, fresh to the world, lives in me still, but lately is having problems bringing insights and energy to old problems.

Adding to this sense of abrupt senescence is my recent foray into teaching senior drivers safe driving practices. It is far too easy to think of ways the challenges of older drivers apply to me! Although this helps my presentation of the safety techniques ring true for my students, it is dismaying to realize how much my own abilities have changed.

I clearly remember being a 20-something student engineer, looking forward to realize that I would be almost a half-century old at the change of the millennium, and thinking how old I would be then. A decade-plus past that age, I still look forward to signal years and think, "How old I will be then."

Because now is never old, it's always later on. Until life's end, it's always later on.

Well into this retrospective mood, I checked the weekly Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge, and found a prompt that feeds well from that sense of fleeting, yet unchanging, time:

January 14, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a life span. It can [be] a life of a person as if flashing by or the life of a honey bee. What key elements would show a lifetime in brevity? Does it add to a character’s development or create tension? What is the emotion or is it void?

The human life span is so subjective; it seems a moment long and a lifetime long, however short its existence. And so my flash response is a dash, indeed:


Renee's Dash

Renee rocks; she has discovered her toes. 

She stumbles often; walking with halting steps. 

Renee runs through life. Her boundless energy takes her to school, church, the park where she swings up to the sky.

Renee dances everywhere; her entrechats and battements are perfection, her Argentine Tango passionate.

She runs to lift her child: swings him away from electric cords, into child seats.

Renee walks haltingly toward her husband in the hospital bed, takes his hand one last time.

She stumbles, her tears flowing as she stands beside his headstone.

Renee's coffin rocks as it descends into the grave.

The Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms

Nearly thirty-five years ago in Long Beach, across the street from the office building where I worked was a gooey black-caked field where once had been stored oil-field equipment, used pipes and barrels, all dripping with remnants of oil and refinery waste. It was a barren plain stretching eight square blocks that had been there for decades. We could smell the oil in the dirt all the way from the back of our parking lot as we parked each morning, especially if it had recently rained.

One day, instead of this blasted ground, there were mounds of soil curtained with poly sheets to prevent runoff trenching. It was part of an experiment to see how soil remediation could be performed with one simple ingredient: earthworms.

I revisited that old job site recently. If I had not experienced that oily field so long ago, I would not have known it had ever existed; now there are new offices, houses, cafes and shops on that ground. No measurable trace of toxins or hydrocarbons remains, other that what would be expected in rich soil. The earthworms had accomplished it all. 

I thought again about that transformation as I re-read Amy Stewart's The Earth Moved, a paean to the accomplishments of the lowly earthworm.

An organic gardener, Stewart describes the worms she keeps in a composting bin beside her back door as an opener to this journey through the lives and doings of worms. She has brilliant company on the way: Charles Darwin (who spent the last years of his life studying the way worms produce compost), as well as Thoreau and e.e. cummings and even Friedrich Nietzsche. But it is the worms who have center stage, from the giant Oregon worm (which may be extinct — we simply can't dig fast enough to find out) to the microscopic nematode.

Stewart's passion for the topic is evident as she details the ways, beneficial and not, in which earthworms affect our planet. For example, the toxic remediation I witnessed in Long Beach is one of the promising accomplishments of worms. In digesting organic matter in the soil, worms can balance methane outgassing, eliminate toxins by combining them into less-harmful substances, and erect a chemical barrier against certain kinds of garden pests. They also encourage the growth of molds and the mycelia of fungi, which help the roots of plants take up nutrients from the coil.

On the other hand, non-native worms released in some areas can do great harm: the native hardwood forests in the Northeastern US, for example, are in danger from introduced earthworms. As the worms move in from surrounding lawns and golf courses, or are introduced as discarded live bait, the ground layer or "duff" in the forest changes. Animals and plants that require the buildup of this duff layer are driven out by the action of the worms.

Stewart makes it clear that there is still much to be learned from studying this humble life form that is capable of so much. The lively prose coupled with her passion for these remarkable creatures makes this a fascinating, funny and informative treat.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Down Side of Social [Media] Interactions

I just muted and blocked a poster on Google+. He has way more followers than I do, and a lot longer track record in G+. And I regret having to block him, because he posts a lot of groovy stuff from the early days of computers, TV and the Internet. 

I've joined in many comment-versations under his posts, often disagreeing because, well, his politics and mine are diametric opposites on many issues. He has his opinions, I mine, and that's mostly been the way it's gone.

But I don't like being bullied, and I was astounded (and then appalled) at the way a really trivial difference of opinion got blown up into hate speech today. 

He blew up. I blew up. And then he gloated about my response to his response. And it got idiotically vicious, in the pseudo-genteel way that a conversation can be when neither party is willing to throw explicit names or language.

It's amazing to me that in a discussion about cats, from someone (me) who obviously sided with the cats and their owner, a humorous tale about what really happened 40 years ago to a friend of mine at school was taken as promoting animal abuse. Really!

Like I said, I regret blocking this user, whom I will not name. I'll miss his other posts. But his insistence that everyone who converses with him should agree with his exact POV on this topic, or get lost, is not conducive to anything except higher blood pressure. Especially since I don't disagree with him about animal abuse. 

I only disagree that my anecdote represented it.

Maybe sometime, I'll post here the story that sparked this incident, and ask other people's opinions about how "abusive" it was.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

There Will Be Future Soldiers

In the Intro to the Kindle edition of Dorsai!, the opening novel of Gordon R. Dickson's time-spanning Childe Cycle, David Drake tells us that he doesn't  
"...insist that you believe Dorsai! is the best novel of military SF ever written: one could make a pretty good case for Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. I will, however, insist that those two-novels (first published within weeks of one another in 1959) are in combination the standard against which the subgenre of military SF must be judged."
Notice that these two novels were published in the same year, almost within the same month. In fact, 1959-60 marked the debut of a number of military SF (mil-SF) novels that have since been recognized as classics. Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan, for example, and Pat Frank's Alas! Babylon were also published in 1959, with Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz following in 1960. 

Mil-SF novels before Dorsai! and Starship Troopers were concerned with one of two themes: alien invasion or post-nuclear-war battles. These two novels introduced a new theme to mil-SF: the future soldier.

The novel Dorsai! started life as The Genetic General, and the name is apropos, since it serves as the opening for Dickson's sweeping saga of the perfectibility of Man. All ten or so books of the Childe Cycle share this concept: that Mankind can act to perfect its individual members. As told in Dorsai!, one path to perfection results in a personality born to command, with an instinctual grasp of the arts of war.

I might argue that the fourth book in the Cycle, Tactics of Mistake, is the most approachable presentation of Dickson's conception of the future soldier, in which he focused most explicitly on the future of conflict in the person of the commander, pre-Dorsai tactician-scholar Cletus Graeme. The tactics Graeme touts are equally applicable to ancient weapons and fighting techniques, like fencing, and this too is common with Dickson's future soldiers.

The protagonist of Dorsai!, Donal Graeme, is a descendant of Cletus Graeme, taking command of his contract-troops in a universe in which the fragmentation of the family of Man into septssoldier, religious fanatic, Zen philosopher-mystics and physical scientistsis already well established.

Dickson was concerned with the personality, knowledge and warrior-abilities of the commanders. In his wars, individual soldiers, except where they impinge on the actions of the commanders, are sketchily drawn, as are the weapons of the future. We know they fight because they are contracted to do so; we never learn any more than that about their motivations.

Contrast this with the focus on the trooper in Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Veterans of battlefields from the US Civil War through current-day conflicts (and, I suspect, from Roman legions) would recognize the actions, attitudes, and behavior of the drop-troops Heinlein describes, even while the weapons and tactics they use in their battles are futuristic.

Here, the commander is an integral part of the troop, sharing in their attitudes and emotions, even while he possesses a broader picture of the conflict and the purpose of the battles they fight. Heinlein's future soldiers are fully human, not a fragment of humanity, and each fights for a reason other than his signature on a contract.

Just as he thought about where the future might lead with weapons development, Heinlein considered how the soldier of the future might change, and concluded that he would not. The "army of one" technology he describes for his space Marines does not isolate the trooper from his fellows; rather it tightens the esprit de corps of the troop by giving them an elite power.

There is much more in the novel than this conception of the future soldier, which makes Heinlein's Starship Troopers a much more interesting read than Dickson's Dorsai! New voting patterns in a one-world government, philosophy classes in high schools, levels of citizenship—these are all brought into the mix to support the central tale of the future soldier. But Heinlein's story centers around the starship troopers of the title, and that's appropriate. 

You can read either of these books and enjoy the perspective of 1959 on the wars and soldiers of the future. Which direction will the future soldier take? Whether it is increasingly-perfected genetic powers, or increasingly powerful weapons carried by soldiers essentially unchanged since Thermopylae, there seems little doubt there will be war.

And thus there will be future soldiers.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Don't Be Evil, Guys!

I accidentally started started watching a movie yesterday on cable. I say accidentally, because I knew nothing about the story line; I only started watching because I noticed Cameron Diaz was in it. The Other Woman has a classic theme: woman finds husband is cheating, woman gets revenge, and all his money, and success in his job, and...

Seen The First Wives Club? Then you've seen this theme before, but with three husbands. The Secret of My Success has a little of the same idea, too, with Michael J. Fox helping Christine Lahti to get back at cheating husband Richard Jordan. In The Other Woman, it is one sleazy husband with a wife, and (at least) two different lovers.

First one mistress, Carly, (Cameron Diaz) discovers her lover is married when she decides to surprise him at his "fixer-upper" house in Connecticut. Wife Kate (Leslie Mann) answers the door, and shouting ensues. But then Kate stalks Carly back to the city, and breaks down on her: "What am I supposed to do?" Drunken bonding follows, and Kate returns to Connecticut determined to hide her knowledge from the Sleazeball.

Eventually, the two women discover and connect with a third, bikini-licious babe (Kate Upton). Amber the Bikini-babe knows Sleazeball is married, but only knows what he has told her about his wife. More dishing on the Dirtbag, more drunken bonding, and a plan emerges. 

At its heart, this is a buddy comedy with a sisterly slant. The movie was directed by Nick Cassavetes, who also directed The Notebook, and it shares some of that femme-friendly vibe. (See, honey, I can imply "chick-flick" without actually saying it!)

An almost-unrecognizable Don Johnson plays Carly's father, and Taylor Finney plays Kate's hunky brother Phil. (Yeah, I said the same thing: WHO?!  iMDb gave me the skinny on Finney, he played Mason Lockwood in The Vampire Diaries. And some other roles in movies and on TV, but his TVD role really places him for the purpose of this movie.)

I refuse to spoil a single element of the awesome way the women wreak revenge, save to say that it is deliciously funny from start to finish. I will share that they become best friends, help each other survive the betrayal Sleazeball has dealt them, and win outrageously well in the end. 

All of which has a pertinent motto that husbands should take to heart: Don't be Evil! The woman you sleep with and share a bank account, a medicine cabinet, a kitchen and a closet with knows how to get you back where it hurts!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Academe and Athlete: An Excellent Collection

I "met" Larry LaForge on the Carrot Ranch website, where he must trim one word of his 100-word flash fiction stories to meet Charli Mills' 99-word parameter. I had enjoyed reading his submissions for the Carrot Ranch weekly challenge, so when I got the word that he had released a collection for the Kindle, I bought a copy.

I thought I might be able to get around to reading it in March, maybe. Then I opened it to sample, and found reading this collection was like eating salted nuts, or Lays Potato Chips. You don't eat just one; likewise you don't read just one of these gems. I made the mistake of opening it to read when I laid down in bed. I couldn't put it down until I had finished!

These are not rough gems; each is polished to a gleaming finish. Larry's contention that 100 words is just right may be a justification, but certainly I can't see where one more word would make any of these tales more readable, or more evocative.

The whole collection provides glimpses from an observant life at college, in which the souls of athletes and their professors are painted with sympathy and intimate knowledge, and with 100-word economy.

After you finish the salted nuts, LaForge provides dessert: a longer short story that left me wishing there were more stories yet to read. I will be looking forward to more snacks from his pen.

Friday, January 9, 2015

In the Warm Moment (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Being in the moment is a tough thing for DrPat. There are so many ideas to pursue, so many projects to take on and finish. Each project has multiple steps that must be kept in mind as I move through my day.

And yet, I do possess an engine for peace and disorder—no, not disorder, but non-order, that calm that can be felt in the moment. 

I have only to start it up and allow it to run, and my brain will cease its whirling, relax, find its true center.

In my lap.

I had many ideas about meeting the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week, and unfortunately, they were part of the drive to impose order, to control every minute gear and cog of my life. Then Nimitz leaned against my thigh, and stretched out a paw to Pounce reclining against my chest, both of them purring and content.

You are the experts at being in the moment, I thought. And there it was...

January 7, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that describes a moment of being.It can be practical, such as what it’s like to be a traveler on a crowded plane or a working parent trying to get breakfast served. It can be reflective, such as what it’s like to experience prejudice or a pilgrimage. It can be silly, scary or surreal.

In the Warm Moment

I am the expert. I find the Warm and occupy its center. That is my enduring task, that, and being in the tiled place when food arrives.

I move from Warm to Warm, until it is time to eat. Some Warm is hard and brightly lit, good for stretching out to maximize the fur that is heated. Some Warm is soft and kneadable, good for curling up and being groomed. 

I hate when the Soft Warm moves away from under me, but then I find the Soft Warm place that was hidden beneath it, and I am again content.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Darker World of Stephen King

I had already read the Stephen King story "Big Driver", so when I learned it was included with three others of similar vein in Full Dark, No Stars, I knew what I was getting into. The grim tale of a competent, confident woman caught alone on a side road by a rapist was a fair indicator that these would not be tales of monsters living in sewers or embodied in cars. 

The monsters in these tales are far more grim and frightening, for they lie hidden beneath the skin of the doting father, the good Samaritan, the best friend, the loving husband.

A common thread weaves through the stories in this collection. Faced with overwhelming stress, fear and pain, or imminent death, each of the main characters makes a dire choice. Choices have consequences, always; what each chooses will define them from then onward.

In "1922", a farmer's choice is driven by a desire to keep a local hog butcher's poisonous spillage out of his stream. What he chooses will poison his home life, his son's spirit, and ultimately, his grandchild's life as well. 

In "Big Driver", the urge to return home in time to feed her cat leads the author and public speaker off the beaten path of benign competence and into the darker paths of vengeance. 

"Fair Extension" is both the lightest and the darkest tale in the collection. Harry is dying of cancer when he makes his deal with the devil. What he gets in exchange is not the typical "sup with a long spoon" outcome of such bargains. To say more would spoil the story, but I enjoyed reading it. It made me very uncomfortable with my own pleasure at how things worked out for Harry!

The final tale, "A Good Marriage", is the cherry in this dark sundae. 

Speaking about his writing (even while wryly observing that we should "never trust anything a fiction writer says about himself"), King says he feels that "the best fiction [is] both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face... as both a reader and a writer, I'm much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations."

In "A Good Marriage", the main character is living an ordinary life, but how she handles her extraordinary situation reveals that she herself is anything but ordinary. And in retrospect, the same is true of each of the other stories. Faced with an overwhelming crisis, some people crumble, some overcome it. 

All are changed by their passage through the dark time.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Open-Source, DRM and Techno-Terrorism

When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold will be legislators. —P.J. O’Rourke, quoted in The Syndrome Rule

For anyone who has ever occupied a dot-com cubicle, Chris Jones’ elegant techno-thriller The Syndrome Rule will seem terrifyingly possible. His debut novel supplies a wild ride through conflicts between commercial vs. free software, capitalism vs. socialism, and the interplay between the government and a fictional computer colossus located in Redmond, Washington.

Similarities between Jones’ fictional Sky Software, “maker of operating systems, office suites and laser mice,” and real-world Microsoft are probably due to Jones’ former employment with the Redmond-based computer giant.

Sky Software is the 600-pound gorilla in Chris Jones’ Redmond, employing so many people that it can skew local fashionsSky employees all wear fleece jackets with Sky product logos. The company has so much capital that it can drop a billion on a single acquisition, and it wields enough power to define legislation that will mandate use of its products. Driving many of these power-moves is James Hollinrake, a corporate weasel by any definition of the word.

Hollinrake has just concluded the greatest career-move of his life. Challenged to find the next “cool techno-toy,” he identifies a Silicon Valley firm manufacturing an “organic” computer case, acquires some prototypes, and puts a “crash team” to work reverse-engineering them. The result is destined to be the "next big thing" in portable computing, the BizTop. Having proven the concept and acquired the Silicon Valley firm for Sky, Hollinrake is basking in the glory of a promotion to vice-president, and an appointment to head SkyPAC, the company’s lobbying organization in Washington, DC.

All Hollinrake has to do now is make sure every BizTop includes the soon-to-be-mandated Digital Rights Management chip. If the organic case-makers disagree with that inclusion, well, he still has his crash team ready to go to make sure it happens. The product is released on time, and sells faster than Sky can supply it.

Meanwhile, local entrepreneur Weel Traverse is hunting for his missing wife. Weel connects with Sky employee Cale Hewney, and eventually they discover his wife had been part of the BizTop crash team. But there the trail goes cold. Weel reports his wife missing, and is told that she’s “probably just taking some time off.”

Suddenly, BizTops begin failing, emitting a “pus-like white substance” and people exposed to that emission get sick with a SARs-like illness. A dozen die, then 50. Soon thousands of people are dying from the substance emitted from the BizTops. The CDC labels this disease “BizTop Syndrome” or BTS, and commands Sky to collect and incinerate all the BizTops, failed or not. Hollinrake claims the white emissions are the fault of the organic cases; Sky’s CEO, Charlie McCrae, thinks BTS may be a terrorist act by IFS, a “somewhat-militant free-software advocacy group.”

And people continue to die as the finger-pointing progresses. The question becomes, Did Sky Software know BTS would result from the product release?   Traverse’s missing wife, a vanished Wall Street Journal reporter, and Sky’s DRM chip all play into the thrilling answer to this question.

Jones avoids the easy stereotypes; he makes Sky CEO McCrea and entrepreneur Traverse sympathetic characters, and paints Traverse’s powerhouse wife as willing to drop her career for the prospect of motherhood. A veteran fiction-writer might have done more with the mysterious recruiter who hires Hollingrake for Sky, and had less problem with verb tenses than does Jones. But these are minor quibbles with an extremely enjoyable, and very exciting tale.

Save a good chunk of time once you start this novel—you won’t be able to put it down!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Christmas in Genovia

The Princess Present is a short novel in the delightful Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot. Those who have not encountered these books about the American girl who discovers she is Princess of Genovia obviously have no pre-teen or teenage girls in their life (although it would be hard to have missed the ads for the movies made from the series.)

I ran across my copy (acquired when we still had young girls in the house, hence the slightly aged publication date) while I was working on one phase of The December Project. The book is short, and re-reading it made a perfect excuse to delay house cleaning!

Plus it made a perfect argument for my spouse in the ongoing battle about never opening a book during a chore, since I have been known to stand in one spot, aimlessly polishing a hole in the counter (a la Jeff Daniels in Pleasantville), as I read.

The action in this book has irrepressible Mia (played by Anne Hathaway in the Disney movies) in Genovia for Christmas. The bad news is, she has princess duties to perform: shaking a traditional olive branch in the fireplace to bless the hearth, entertaining other young royals (including Britain's Prince William), and helping her Grandmère (elegantly portrayed in the movies by Julie Andrews) rule Genovia.

The good news is, she gets to invite her American best friend Lilly, and her heart-throb, Lilly's brother Michael.

As always with Princess Mia, her plans go awry. Lilly's rude t-shirts and casual approach to palace protocol set Grandmère's teeth in a grim line. Michael doesn't seem the least bit jealous, even when Mia dances with Prince William. She has a little problem with a stray cat. And she's having trouble finding the perfect Christmas present for Michael.

With notes of O. Henry's Gift of the Magi, and many sly allusions to the movies ("...movies that aren't strictly FACTUAL, if you know what I mean..." the young lady reminds us), The Princess Present is an excellent choice for the bookshelf of your daughter, niece or grandchild—especially if she is already familiar with Mia, Princess of Genovia.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Right to Buy Weapons

People always have the kind of government they want. When they want change, they must change it. —A.E. Van Vogt, The Weapon Shops of Isher

When I was a youngster, I saved the money I made mowing lawns, shoveling snow and babysitting the neighbor's kids for a very special purpose: I bought books. Paperback books, almost exclusively. I went to the drugstore downtown, which had a rack of novels just inside the front door, and I scanned the wire shelves searching for the prize.

Usually I found nothing, but every so often they would have one: an Ace Double. I never knew doubles came in mysteries and westerns, I only saw the science fiction. I almost didn't care who the author was: I read Asimov and Leinster and Brackett and Tubb, and when they were in Ace Doubles, I got two books for the price of one!

The first I bought with my own earnings was an Ace Double by A.E. Van VogtThe Weapon Shops of Isher. At this remove, I did not remember what was on the flip side of the tête-bêche book; I had to look it up. (It was Murray Leinster's Gateway to Elsewhere.)

Leinster's opus is apparently only available as the Ace Double, used, for $8–$14 now. But I was pleased to notice that Van Vogt's novel is available on Kindle, so I downloaded it and read it again in one gulp.

This was the story I remembered, with the poor hapless reporter swinging helplessly from past to future, the doppelganger of the rebellious son making it big in the stock market (because he had transported himself several months into the past, and had records of the market's performance), and the weapon shops themselves. 

When a people lose the courage to resist encroachment on their rights, then they can’t be saved by an outside force. Our belief is that people always have the kind of government they want. —A.E. Van Vogt, The Weapon Shops of Isher

For a child of the fifties, the motto of the weapon shops, THE RIGHT TO BUY WEAPONS IS THE RIGHT TO BE FREE, resonated. And today, the position of the weapon shops in opposition to the government—whether tyrannical or benevolent—and their capability to provide each individual with the means to resist aggression, accords well with my own mostly-libertarian philosophy.

Van Vogt's science was radical for the time, and not very well explained by the novel, but his political stance was obvious. His weapons were defensive technology only: they could not be used to murder, but could be used to kill an aggressor. They could also benefit the criminal in evading arrest, and not just because Isher was a culture where the laws and police were organized to suit the rulers more than the citizens.

Van Vogt foresaw a time where majority rule would be so powerful that the opposed individual (however moral or immoral) would have no recourse against it, without the Weapon Shops. Yes, he said, guns can be used in support of crime, even configured not to be used in aggression. And that's all right, when laws can be used in support of aggression against the individual who is opposed to the majority.

Because the right to buy weapons is the right to be free.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

First Step (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

It has become proverbial: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 

Actually, Lao-Tsu's philosophy is more correctly translated, "The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one's feet." 

This philosophy is behind New Year's resolutions and every anti-addiction program, from AA to Weight-Watchers. Yet more important than the first step is the second, and the third. Broken New Year's resolutions and gym memberships left to lapse after January 5th are legion.

Though the thousand-mile journey is begun, it must continue in order for you to arrive. Thus when I learned the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge for this week, I immediately thought of the pain of taking physical steps on that trip to the goal:

December 31, 2014 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about steps, stairs or a staircase. Where do they lead? Who is walking or avoiding them? Are they clearly defined or ancient? Why are these steps important? Lead us on a 99 word discovery!


First Step

She swam carefully up onto the beach. Sitting waist-deep in the waves, she twisted her hair to remove brine, delaying the moment she must stand.

That step onto dry sand would be a turning point for her; she could never return to her former world. Sighing deeply, she turned her back on the ocean and rose.

Each painful step took her further. At last she reached the rocks lining the shore, and sank into a huddle on the sun-warmed surface. 

Turning, she triggered the bloom of light, watching as her starship vaporized, and left her stranded on Earth forever.

Under Her Green Skin

Sir Winston Churchill said: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

But L. Frank Baum's classic "history" of the Land of Oz was most unkind to the Wicked Witch of the West and her sister; it showed Dorothy Gale as an innocent gently tricked by the Wizard and Glinda the Good. But what if this is a biased story? Isn't it fair to give the Witch a chance to set us straight?

Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked, does just that. According to Maguire, the Witch who tormented Dorothy and her friends was once an infant, born with a green skin and vicious teeth, and a violent allergy to water. Elphaba yearns all her life for the approval of her father, but it is given instead to her armless sister, Nessarose. She is Glinda's roommate at a nearly-Hogwartian academy, where she is the butt of jokes perpetrated by the "good" Glinda and her noble friends. Her one friend, Doctor Dillamond, is a Goat trying valiantly to find a scientific basis to fight the Wizard's denial of Animal Rights. 

Shortly after Doctor Dillamond is murdered, the three girls—Glinda, Elphaba and Nessarose—are recruited by the politically-connected Headmistress, Madame Morrible, to become sorceress-ministers for the North (Glikkus), South (Quadling Country) and East (Munchkinland) quadrants of Oz. The west (Vinkus or "Winkie" Country) is considered too rural to be a threat to the empire-building Wizard. Elphaba escapes this geas (perhaps), hiding in the Emerald City, abetting the terrorist rebel forces, engaging in a long love affair with Fiyero, Prince of the Vinkus. 

Fiyero is murdered by the Gale Force (the Imperial Storm Troopers of the Wizard), and Elphaba eventually makes her way to the Vinkus with a young boy who may be his son. As the muledriver observes on this trip, To the grim poor, there need be no pour quois tale about where evil arises; it just arises; it always is. One never learns how the witch became wicked, or whether that was the right choice for her—is it ever the right choice?

Part of the fun of the novel is recognizing elements from the Baum series or from the 1939 movie. A misdirected Life Powder animates a mounted rack of antlers on the wall—and foreshadows the wonderful Gump from the second book of the series. Madame Morrible's murdering manservant Grommetik is Tik-Toc of Oz. Young Elphaba is disgusted by an experiment on a Lion cub too young to have been removed from its mother—when she frees the Animal, we know this cub will grow into the Cowardly Lion. When Elphaba rescues a snow monkey, we see the origin of the flying Monkey squadrons that will eventually carry off Dorothy, Toto and the Lion.

But much of the story is darker than Baum's tale ever wanted to be. Glinda's award of the silver slippers to Dorothy is a coldly-calculated propaganda move designed to help the Wizard crush the Munchkinland rebellion. The Emperor Wizard's emblem, a balloon and basket with crossed bars beneath it, looks like a skull and crossbones at first glance. The Wizard himself is revealed as a tyrannical Satanist who hints at having performed human sacrifice to get to Oz from the Other Land in order to retrieve an earthly Grimmoire. (And who he sacrificed is one of the surprises at the end of the book.)

Elphaba castigates herself as a failure, seeking redemption from her sins even while she vehemently denies that redemption is possible. The evil of this Witch, it seems in the end, is in squandering her love on the inanimate and unconscious, while ignoring or rejecting the people that surround her. Her final baptism (remember, we know how this story ends) releases her at last from her unhappy life.

This is no child's tale. Read it, and I guarantee you'll never see the Wizard of Oz in quite the same way again.