The War for Evermore

A Starter Library of the Fantastic

This is one of those lists where you can be author specific, or title specific. We’ll have a little of both, I think. We’ll be adding to it from time to time. Also, this is just me. These aren’t reviews, aren’t even recommendations. They’re just the books that come to mind when I think of this.

These are big sci-fi/fantasy movers and shakers in terms of my life … no particular order.

We’ll start with the kid:

Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.
Milo, Tock, the Humbug, Rhyme & Reason, the Awful DYNNE, the orchestra that plays all the world’s colors, the Soundkeeper, the Senses Taker … It really wasn’t sic-fi, or fantasy, but – for me – an allegory for realizing the wonder of imagination. Feiffer’s illustrations are beautiful, magic. From Wikipedia: In episode 13 of New Girl, Schmidt states that The Phantom Tollbooth is one of his desert-island books. Cece says that she also loves the book, to which Schmidt replies, “Of course you do. You’re a human being.” Captured my heart the first time I read it and remains the most remembered – and cherished – book of my childhood.

Dandelion Wine– My grandfather. This book makes me think of my grandfather. Of his world, a world I know of only in history and story, but which he knew with the immediacy of being there, watching it unfold. This books conjures that world for me, and a sense of a time lost to us in a way that seems, corny as it might sound, American in the way it speaks to us.Dandelion Wine is a story of imagination, giving substance to the waking dreams of childhood, the perspective of wonder and amazement that color a child’s view of his or her world.

Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers – Total military, reeking of testosterone … yeah, maybe not so politically correct to some ears, but a story well told, creating its world and staying true to it. A story of honor, duty, obligation. And Bugs. Lots of Bugs. Big, smart ones.

The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings… all of a piece: the Hobbit, different in style and substance, is the child’s prelude to the War of the Rings. The former makes possible the latter … and the latter ruined fantasy forever for me, as nothing touches it. Nothing.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress– more Heinlein … A world more special than most I’ve read, immediate, dry, wry, and laced with practical, in-the-moment views of the human animal.

The Illiad and the Odyssey* – What can I say? These books are the core of the soul of Western Civilization. No other characterization is possible. Here, at the end of the day, is the home to which we return, the lost dreams of myth that still stir us, 2700 years later … Preferred translation: Robert Fagles.  “… in the end, the rage of Achilles is stilled only in the bed of Penelope.” – Thomas Cahill

The Hyperion Cantos.Dan Simmons is known to many for his deft touch with terror. And this series … and to a degree its sequel duology … channels a good deal of it. But these two books are more than that, perhaps one of the best SciFi stories ever told… Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion – if you love SciFi, it’s hard to believe you’d be disappointed.

The Mote in God’s Eye is hard sci-fi at its absolute hardest. Larry Niven and David Pournelle created what might be the most perfect First Contact story imagined. Interesting anecdote: edited by Robert A. Heinlein…

Men, Martians and Machines … more than any SciFi I have read, the four novellas collected in MM&M communicated the pure fun possible in the genre, In the years since, I’ve always looked for the fun in the narrative, that the writer is having a party in the middle of their creation. Eric Frank Russell had a gift for dry, self-effacing machismo unparalleled in SciFi story-telling. (Heinlein does pull it off in Glory Road.)

The Last Planet – Andre Norton. In a sense, you could point to any of the stories this prolific sci-fi writer wrote over the years. Her books always delivered, providing incredible adventures for stimulating young imaginations. But this story was special, almost heartbreaking, in an odd way bringing home the concept of loss in a way I could never of imagined….

Cosmos – This is the non-fiction piece. Carl Sagan at his most brilliant and poignant. This book (and companion PBS series) remain current, immediate, making difficult science concepts accessible. An examination of the history of human discovery, this is one of the most optimistic discussions of science – and the human animal – you will ever read.

========

More:

Heinlein. Yeah, he’s got two up there, and I could throw in more without having to think about it. Seriously, almost 50% of his library of writings qualifies, even works as late as Friday and Job. He simply understood. No other way to put it.

John Varley’s complete works. Probably the most important sci-fi writer the mainstream has never heard of (or, at least, seems to have forgotten). His Eight Planets short stories are simply outstanding fun, and the Cirrocco Jones trilogy – Titan, Wizard & Demon – was one of the strongest stories written in the era of its publication, featuring probably one of the greatest, if not THE greatest female heroine in SciFi.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman 75-issue series of comic books – graphic art and storytelling unparalleled. Brilliant writing, a gallery of different artists of varying style and substance, all made perfect by the story being told …

Notable:

Phillip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” series, absolutely mind-bending: everyone who ever lived is reborn on the banks of a river that literally covers a planet. Adventure with Sir Richard Francis Burton, Alive Hargreaves, Samuel Clemens, Herrman Goering, Cyrano de Bergerac, King John and a cast of billions…

Ditto Anne McCafferey and her Dragonriders of Pern stories. The first decade was amazing, and the second was not bad, but after it seemed someone went to the same well too often …

Yes, I know I left out Assimov and Clarke and Silverberg … sorry … More to come…

September 12, 2012 Posted by | Hodgepodge, Tastes, Telling Stories | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sasquatch Deconstructions: Rabbit Hole

“A novel: A long piece of prose with something wrong with it.” ~Neil Gaiman

It’s part five, and we’re in the Magic Theatre, in Nevada City.

“I have an opinion,” Sasquatch offers.

“Okay,” I return.

“You mentioned earlier you didn’t select Wonder Woman or Supergirl for your top ten.”

“He didn’t?” CJ is sitting between us, turning from Sasquatch to look at me, expression skeptical. “Why didn’t you?”

Pause.

“And why are we discussing this?”

“We’re trying to figure out Mc’s heroines.”

She looks at her spouse, then turns to me. “Well?”

“Too perfect.”

CJ turns to Sasquatch. “Too perfect.”

Sasquatch: “There’s a problem, then.”

CJ and I look at him, waiting.

“Your girls seem too perfect.”

I nod, and sit back. “You’re only talking the surface things.”

“Being politically incorrect, are we?” CJ teases.

“One way of looking at it. I could always say, ‘Hey, this is my story.”

“You could. That would be impolite, of course.”

“Yup. Which is why I won’t.” I change the subject. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing this flick ever since you suggested it.”

“You’re changing the subject,” Sasquatch observes.

“I am, aren’t I?”

“That’s what it looks like from where I sit.” CJ offers me popcorn.

I munch. “Would you believe I don’t really give it much thought?”

“No.” CJ replies. “I wouldn’t. Sometimes you think too much, I think. You not thinking is unthinkable, actually.”

Magic Theatre, Nevada City …

“You think?” We both laugh. “I don’t. Think, I mean. At least, not when I’m writing, not about much. The characters – the ‘girls’ – and the guys, of course – are who they are; they couldn’t be anyone else, so thought isn’t really necessary in that regard. They tend to tell me how it will be.”

“Which is right and proper,” CJ smiles. “Bad outcomes are associated with arguing with a woman. Ask Bob.”

Sasquatch rolls his eyes and I pause, thinking about the conversation. “Okay, this all started as something much different than what is has become.”

“Yes, I’ve heard,” CJ smiles. “A five page …”

“No, not that. Well, okay, but what it became, in retrospect, is really not much of a departure.”

Her expression is patient.

“It’s rumored I like women,” I offer. “Strong, self-assured women, particularly of the kick-you-know-what variety.”

“Yes. It has been remarked.”

“So the thing started. I started. Writing the story. One guy, one gal, one wild night. Sizzle.”

“Yup.” Bob munches absently on the popcorn, staring at the empty screen. “Sizzle.”

“I wrote a second story, same characters, with several more thrown in. Thing is, there’d been stuff percolating in my imagination for years before that.”

“So you were thinking about where you were going?”

“Yes. No. Maybe. Kinda-sorta. I knew I was going somewhere, knew what that somewhere was and what would happen – sort of. What I didn’t have was a good idea as to how. Only touch-points, scenes I saw in my imagination, snapshots of moments of significance. I just had this story – these stories – and stuff was growing, percolating. And a lot of ideas and concepts started to flow. Not all at once. Things didn’t coalesce all at once, not even vaguely. But I had all these things out there: ideas, rough drafts, several chapters of something here, a few chapters of something there.”

“Okay …” CJ lets it hang.

“Third book changed everything. Dunno what it was, exactly. Each part of this was originally supposed to happen in a 24-hour stretch … and the stories do, mostly … but the third was different. More characters, more thoughts, ideas … and things started to suggest themselves … not earlier stuff, not exactly … I started touching on myth, things I’d picked up through time, in college, stuff that’d tickled my fancy, waking creative things up … and one night, smack in the middle of the narrative I sat down and began a chapter where a character was going to tell a story … and I had no idea what that story was going to be.

“Think about it a moment. Up to this point, the focus of the stories was informed by the tension between Sam, Sienna and Melanie. They were the through-line of the action, the story was invested in their story. And then Obsidian Raine tells his story and everything changes. Only I don’t realize  – at this time – there is a change – I just keep telling the story.

“And maybe it really wasn’t a ‘change’, not when I first conceived it. It’s only later I start getting how Obsidian’s story has opened a door – the door, actually. It set the beginnings of the story’s underlying mythology. Suddenly all the earlier sketches and writings – all sort of began to orbit and gravitate to a universe where this weird construct that came to be known as The Worldship existed – started to shape themselves, work themselves into the ‘story’, building a history, a mythology.” I look at her. “Before Sam and Sienna and Melanie were ever written, I realized, I’d done a first draft of the first few chapters of the final age … and they became part of the final series because I made a conscious decision all these little sketches and drafts were events in a history I was looking for that would make this all much more than a romantic triangle.”

I pause, catch my breath. I note the woman sitting to my right is eyeing me suspiciously. “It’s a weird process,” I offer, smiling at her. Her return smile is tentative.

I think a moment.

“Maybe it’s what I imagined writing to be, basing what I thought to be its process on reading comics during the Silver Age, where you detected a seat-of-the-pants quality to the continuity of the growing universe of characters and their common history. You’d read a story and sense the writer and artist got together, trying to McGiver or McGuffin their way out of a jam they created for themselves and start incorporating references to other stories and fictional events, making them relevant and urgent to the story being told, changing elements of context. ‘We already have this great idea, so let’s add it to …’ Or someone really stinks up the joint, taking a book in a direction that is at odds with the continuity of what follows and you watch these guys develop story arcs that would correct the discrepancy, smooth out the wrinkles. Next thing you know, the world building becomes more complex, more sophisticated. Pretty soon it seems to be a self-perpetuating process.

“That’s sort of what happened with me, I think. I was filling in the blanks, fitting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle and seeing the big picture slowly revealed itself. Is still revealing itself, but now I’m at a place where I am very confident what the finished image looks like, and I am assembling the pieces with greater and greater surety.”

Next: The Adventure Continues

November 24, 2011 Posted by | Sasquatch Deconstructions | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sasquatch Deconstructions: Heinlein’s Women

“All you fuckers are going to die anyway, so you might as well write the truth.” *

—–

So Sasquatch Bob and I were returning from an early morning constitutional in the Sierra foothills. We were discussing our favorite subject: Women …

“Heinlein’s fault, of course, exposing us to all those incredibly smart and self-sufficient women who were more intelligent and talented than the males they chose to attach themselves to. He ruined us.” His expression became thoughtful.

“In Stranger in a Strange Land, the section of the book after Gillian kidnaps Mike and takes him to Jubal Harshaw is probably the best part of the book for me, and perhaps his best sequence of writing in any of his books. This is where we get the real sense of Mike’s alien-ness, and where it lives in him, and how that alien perspective reacts to the new reality of his existence … and to the women who inhabit that reality, four incredible females of varying talent and abilities, smart, competent and opinionated.”

(And, yes, before we go any further, we are discussing characters using their first names, as one would speak of old friends, because in many ways, that’s just what they are: old friends.)

Russian edition of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”

“Look at the juveniles,” Sasquatch continues. Heinlein wrote a number of what were termed ‘juvenile’ sci-fi novels in the 50s. “All were populated with strong females. There are three that particularly stand out: Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones, and Time for the Stars. Tunnel in the Sky featured memorable female characters. Two in particular, Caroline and Jacqueline, are as competent – often moreso – than their male counterparts.” He looks at me. “Caroline is definitely cut from the same cloth as a couple of your girls.” Sasquatch has read my drafts. “A real warrior, fierce and loyal. And Jacqueline has her own brand of kick-ass, just softer, a little more of a … thoughtful … brawler.”

I nod. This is not a point of contention, but a statement of fact: Heinlein permanently marked both of us in the sense he nurtured the perception that females are the stronger, dominant gender. Kidding aside, (if you actually think I’m kidding) there was this subversive and pervasive view of gender roles woven into the stories he told, one where women are rendered as equals, capable of rising to the occasion with a competence and ferocity that rivaled and surpassed their male peers.

No one individual was necessarily dominant amongst his characters. All had strengths and flaws. When he wrote in the first person, as in the case of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the narrator, technically the ‘hero’, reluctantly so, operates more as a participating witness to events than as an initiator of action. Everyone could – and would – be wrong, mistaken, surprised. Everyone contributed; male, female, young, old, everyone acted as part of a team.

Seriously, this was a powerful message, with the added benefit of being threaded into a well-told adventure. Powerful Juju for a young adolescent male.

Slight aside: The hero’s reluctance was another element that peppered Heinlein’s plotting, the desire of the protagonist(s) to stay out of trouble and mind one’s own business, guided by a general philosophy that often the worst outcomes result from the best of intentions – and have a way of getting your ass shot off in the process. Put another way, he understood the principle that ‘Good deeds do not go unpunished’.

“Greatest female characters?” I ask.

He looks at me, then swerves to avoid slower moving traffic. Bigfeet (Bigfoots?) have depth perception issues. At least, that’s what Stu says. No profit in arguing with one imaginary critter about another.

“Wyoming Knott at the top.”

“Yeah, no question.” Lots of strong fems in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, like Hazel Meade, the girl-child who would grow to be the matriarch of the Stone Clan. (See The Rolling Stones)(Not the group; the book.)

But Wyoming is head and shoulders above the rest, probably top three all-time, if not number one. Smart, driven, a valiant woman of honor.

“Also the quartet from Stranger.”

“Uh-huh. Podkayne?”

“Ugh.”

“Yeah. Eunice?”

“Now you’re talking his ‘crazy period’.”

I drop back a book. “Maureen Smith?” He nods, but doesn’t say anything. Maureen is difficult, as is Time Enough For Love, the book where she appears. While there are varying arguments about when Heinlein decided to make his females as sexually self-assured as his earlier fems were in all other aspects of competency, it is fairly obvious Time Enough For Love takes this self-assuredness to a new level in a variety of characters and situations. It doesn’t help that Maureen ends up opting for a roll in the hay with an immortal time-traveler from 2000 years in the future who also happens to be her son. And that is not the only neo-incestual relationship in the book

We pull up to the house. The conversation ends and we go inside to prepare for the day.

An hour later I send a message to Sasquatch at his Real Estate office.

“We forgot about Star.”

At the end of the day, we’re barreling down the road again, this time to Auburn and dinner. CJ, (Mrs. Sasquatch), sits in the back, eyes closed, relaxing. He picks up the thread of conversation.

“You’re right about Star.” Sasquatch goes silent. “I think she’s closest to the archetype your girls represent.”

“Some of them.”

He nods.

Glory Road is a light-hearted, sexy swashbuckler of a Sci-Fi Fantasy if ever there was one. A satire laced with irony. As a character, Star is tough, weak, beautiful, sensual, sophisticated, a genius, a clotheshorse, sexpot and spoiled brat who could – and would – brawl alongside the boys … and who also happened to be the Empress of Twenty Universes. HELL of a character and, like all Heinlein women, in control even when she didn’t appear to be, always one step ahead of her leading man.

There is one particular irony that really stands out at the end of Glory Road – the Hero gets the girl and discovers … she has a career! And while she loves him and cares deeply for him, two things are very clear: career comes first, and he isn’t necessary to her success … at least, not any more – his job was completed once he insured Star could retain her title. As written, she’s not being a bitch, and she’s not ‘miming’ male behavior. She’s a creature of choice and duty, not a stereotype informed by some myth of hormones and traditional gender roles acting against her best interests (riding off into the sunset with the Hero), but instead someone – someone female – acting as an individual with priorities that don’t necessarily include the Love Of Her Life.

Eventually the Hero gets a clue, accepts what can’t be changed, lets go and gets on with his life.

Neat role reversal.

As I said: powerful juju … heap big medicine. Maybe not from the perspective of 2011, but in a 1963 world, this was a pretty out there concept, even for science fiction that wasn’t trying to be heavy or epic, but fun.

* = Overheard at a writers’ conference.

Next: Urgent Supers.

July 10, 2011 Posted by | Hodgepodge, Sasquatch Deconstructions | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Maxfield Parrish – An Appreciation

Maxfield Parrish is the Man. Seriously.

When the last century turned, there he was. Both in reflection of what was and presaging what would follow. Every modern illustrator of the fantastic owes something to his work.

January 15, 2011 Posted by | Imagery | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lady Ice

Of wandering heroes, women perched on pedestals, and unrequited love …

Lady Ice – Thomas Canty

This is a poem that graces a print hanging above one of the many bookshelves that populate Dartmouth Manor. The author is Eric Kimbell, and the poem is a rugged, rhythmic piece meant to be recited over deep and potent draughts of ale. ‘Tis the story of a weary traveler, an ideal of desire, and the lengths to which men (and women) will go for these prized dreams of imagination and libido … and the peril that awaits their hearts when they do.

Or, more simply put, this is a song of unrequited love …

Every now and then I search for this poem on the net and turn up nothing and so, as a public service  (‘mongst other things) I am reproducing it here.

And should you ever catch me in a tavern with a few ales under my belt, I might be persuaded to share my own redention of the good poet’s tale …

LADY ICE

If Time is a circle, then in a circling of Time,
I came to a highway in a midnight of rain.
Another Soldier of confusion in a murderous clime,
Another prisoner of misfortune with no word to explain.

So I rode for the border and I searched for a light,
And I was thinking I was lost when I first heard her voice.
So when she asked me to trust her, I thought that I might,
Though I knew from the beginning I really had no choice.

And she said she could tell I was a desperate man,
But she pleaded she was caught in some bad situations.
And she said, Every one of us must do what he can,
And if I did my best for her, she’s return the obligation.

At the edge of a hurricane only hunger makes sense,
And though I knew I really shouldn’t, still I rode where she called.
I surrendered my suspicions to the brittling winds,
And the next thing I knew, I knew nothing at all…

She is the Lady of Diamonds, She is the Lady of Ice,
Mysterious Enchantress, the Madonna of Sorrows,
And if she calls you to find her, you cannot think twice,
For what she says once will mean nothing tomorrow.

So I came to a tower all of glittering white,
And when I saw her in her window I prayed for control,
Her hysterical radiance unraveled my sight
As the fingertips of her beauty touched ice to my soul.

And I stood before her silence like a thief caught in flight,
There was thunder on the road, all the hillsides were shaken.
I said “Lady! You have called me! I have traveled all night!”
And she smiled as she replied, “I believe you are mistaken.”

And I stood beneath her window like a scarecrow in rags,
With my heart in my hands, with the rain in my eyes.
And when I begged her for mercy she cursed me and laughed,
And her laughter was like diamonds, and her voice was like ice.

And I stood within her shadow like an angel in chains,
There was a wicked storm rising, I was more dead than alive,
And as I turned to find the highway, I asked her for a word,
And as she barred up her window, she whispered, “Survive!”

Now there’s a cold wind blowing, and it cuts me like a knife
As I remember those words and I call back those hours,
And I count the man lucky who escapes with his life
From the casual cruelties of ladies in towers…

She is the Lady of Diamonds, Glad Lady of Lies,
Proud Mistress of Ruins with a conjurer’s heart,
And if she calls you to dance you had better think twice,
For in intricate bits she will tear you apart…

But … if Time is a circle, then, in a circling of time
I expect that that woman is going to call me again,
And as I listen for her voice, still I’m wishing she’d find
Some other highway in the midnight…
Some other desolation soldier
For her hollow crucifixions…
Another rider in the rain…

~Eric Kimball

Goddess – Barry Windsor Smith

August 26, 2010 Posted by | Hodgepodge | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Momentum …

I think I want to write on truths now.

Personal truths. Truths we keep tucked away because, frankly, we really don’t want people to see certain parts of who we are. The weak parts. The failed parts. The lie-awake-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-stare-at-the-ceiling parts.

We don’t want people to sense our own view of ourselves as having fallen short.

Sometimes it – life – is all about movement … momentum … momentum that creeps into your existence, wending its way into your affairs, dictating progress, obscuring goals, moving you in directions you may never have intended, taking on a life of its own …

… and then a moment happens, an unheralded, unexpected, a stop-in-the-middle-of-the-whirlwind-of-your-day-to-day-life sort of moment … and everything changes …

The Monster…

I recently traveled to the Sierra Foothills to visit an old and treasured friend. I’d finished the last two parts of Ronin, the second cycle of the series of books I’ve been working at on-and-off for the past decade. It was the stereotypical, metaphorical weight being released thing; the heavy sigh accompanying the long overdue resolution, and I was going to his place, to relax, visit with him, with his wife, enjoy their good company – and turn over the manuscript for impressions.

The monster had other plans, of course. Woke me up in the early morning hours before we set out, whispering softly she wanted to play. On the drive out she came and went, slipping in and out of the periphery, never quite disappearing. By our destination she rose, as if from slumber, stretched and settled in. A beautiful, sun-shining day gone gray, my time in this wonderful place informed by regular retreats to the comfort of shadows and quiet and the medications that could only blunt the assault, but never drive her off. Two days, long days, one side of me clear, unaffected; the other subsumed in a blanket of dull – and sometimes sharp, throbbing – pain.

2:00 AM, Sunday morning, waking from a featureless, distant dream. Darkness. I sit up, ignoring the accompanying thickness that floods my head. The monster wants to be clear with me: she likes it here, and plans to stay past the normal expiration date.

We know each other well, the monster and me. Headaches … the kind of headaches I get, migraine headaches … the headaches that I live with (there really is no other way to describe the condition) … have a life all their own. They become a constant, occasional companion in your life. There is this dance we do, this Monster, the headache, and me, something of a game: she likes to try to sneak up while dropping clues to let me know she’s coming … playing fair, so to speak. And if I’m paying attention, if I’m really listening to the soft murmurs of my body, I can head the bitch off, or at least blunt the arrival and the misery to come.

Not this time, though. Like I said, she’s there for a long haul, an unusual occurrence. Considerations of ice picks and do-it-yourself brain surgery slip in and out of my thoughts, and I breathe again, deep, the effect a dull knife inside as I feel her talons dig in from the base of my skull to the dull socket of my eye, streams of persistent fire that make me dizzy and sometimes nauseous (though, thankfully, not this time). In fact, my right eye has a mind of its own; a long tear slips free, tracing its way down the side of my face, unbidden, followed by another, and another, a small stream of salty moisture. There is no controlling the flow; the right side of my head is pretty much operating in its own reality. The phenomena will repeat itself throughout the morning and afternoon, coming and going.

I get up, putting on sandals, and go outside. Nighttime, summer in the Sierras, the weather unseasonably cool, but not so that I’m uncomfortable. The coolness softens things, helps release the tension, but it is an illusion. This will make the monster stronger, of course. Doesn’t matter.

I look up into the night sky, and for a moment, a very brief and happy moment, I’ve got the universe to myself. I forget my unwanted guest and take it all in, behold the stars as they arc across the night sky. So many stars, stars I never see … the sky is blazingly beautiful.

The beauty is marred, and I feel the energy drain as she bears down, throbbing pulses coursing through the right side of my head, and I finally give in, turn and head back.

The next day arrives and I shamble through, making the best of things until it is time to go. The journey home to my city is a study in quiet agony and traffic frustration, but as we near our destination I feel the pain ease off as she finally begins to relent and I am thankful for the sleep that awaits.

… and so the week began and I never catch this other thing that was talking to me in the foothills, ’cause the Monster was busy dancing with me …

Something…

I’d been watching the Civil War again. Just finished, actually. I keep going back. Ken Burns’ documentary is one of those films that never loses its power; it’s 20 years now, and still it retains the ability to draw you in, to stir your heart as it brings to life its long-dead actors. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ fault, this time. I read his achingly powerful blog piece written upon completing Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir and started feeling the scratching in the back of my consciousness. It took a while, but I finally gave in. As always, it was well worth the visit.

Tears come easier these years. It’s something I’m noticing, testosterone is dropping a touch, I guess. Well, I know what can be done for that. Kidding aside, I’ve always been something of a softy, afflicted or gifted – depending upon perspective, I guess – with a gentle core that allows the emotion to play out. Of course, we live in a culture where such tears are frowned upon, even thought a sign of weakness, so my tears are oft reserved for the darkness, for the quiet, private places I retreat to to contemplate my karma and wrestle with my demons. It’s funny, in a way, and perhaps sad, this unspoken prohibition on emotion we seem to value as Americans. I recall how earlier cultures had no such curb, like the ancient Greeks, who felt that two men, sharing grief and emotion together, created a powerful bond between them. Then again, they didn’t have indoor plumbing, so I guess we’ve got something on them there …

It hurts to watch this thing unfold, to see the wrongs that fed it, the determination of Lincoln to save the Union, the sacrifices on both sides for their beliefs. You thrill all at once at both the courage and insanity that led so many to slaughter, sense the ache bubble up, seeking a release, feel those those forbidden tears spring unbidden from the heart. There’s something here in this story, something deep and profound that goes far beyond trite stereotypes and strikes deep into your soul. North vs. South, brother against brother … yes, yes, I’ve heard it all before.

This is something beyond that, far beyond  … I just don’t know what that something is.

The not knowing is troubling …

How Do You Feel?

It’s kinda crazy out there, these days, in this world we find ourselves in. Uncertainty is the watchword of the hour … things we’ve taken for granted and assumed, ideas and institutions – foundations we built upon – are shown to be vulnerable to failure. The culture is in what seems a perpetual state of upheaval and fear and anger. And we’re all in the middle of it, caught up in the details – or ignoring them altogether – and losing sight of the bigger picture.

May you live in interesting times …

I grew up in a world that is increasingly distant and alien to the world I live in. I look for it from time to time, occasionally catch glimpses, but such sightings are increasingly rare and illusory. I’m not sure what this means. Everything now is familiar and strange, comfortable and disquieting. I look at places I’ve known for decades and it’s like seeing two realities superimposed upon one another – that which once was, and that which is.

Lately I find myself wandering dank alleyways of the internet, poking my nose in the dark places we humans tend to live. Message boards, Facebook pages, blogs and news reports that seem to share a commonality … an increasing sense of the unhinged. I’ve noticed there are a lot more of these places – these dank alleyways and dark places – and it feels like people are gravitating to them in growing numbers. I wonder at this … sometimes. I’m not a Pollyanna, not by any stretch. I “get” the human condition, I know what we’re capable of, the nuttiness that can inhabit us, the madness that can carry us off on wild tangents, the nightmares we can conjure from the best of intentions. It’s all there in the history books, for one thing, hard to miss, and it seems like we’re watching a familiar story playing itself out right now. Everything feels like it’s taken on a life of its own, the pettiness, lunacy, bigotry – it’s all on display, everywhere you look, tearing things up, and no one seems to be aware or care – they’re just letting it all carry them along.

Momentum. You don’t even feel it sometimes. It picks you up and transports you places, places you never dreamed you were going …

Sleepwalking…

It was a week. On Monday, the Monster tried to make an encore performance, making for a loopy kind of day with little sudden explosions going off in the mess she’d made of my head over the weekend. But her heart wasn’t in it; it’s no fun when there’s nothing left to ruin. Tuesday was the living dead day Monday was supposed to be as the exhaustion of fighting the Monster for three days settled in. Wednesday was okay, but only just. Things are picking up at work, which is good in terms of employment, but there is inevitable baggage. Thursday things got busy. Really busy.

Meanwhile, we’re plotting out a renovation at Dartmouth Manor. This is a good thing, as school resumes for the Elektric One, and I prepare to go to war again – and try and get some blog posts in, some editing, and a few new chapters for the third cycle underway. The editorial staff huddled over floor plans for weeks, drawing up schemes to make the best use of the space – for themselves of course. Critters are like humans – self-interest comes first. Got so bad I rolled everything up and threw it in the trash. We’re upending things: the Elektric One is moving upstairs and she’s commandeering my room, I’m moving into the study, and the downstairs becomes the new study/entertainment room. In the process, we plan to downsize more than a little bit. Of course, the boys have their own ideas about what happens with the downstairs, leading to the inevitable negotiations and drama. It got to where the Elektric One threatened to get a real dog.

That shut ’em up.

But the project is on hold … we’ve not been able to do prep work around Dartmouth for the reorganization ’cause both of us are busy with our day jobs, so we’re putting it off for a week or two …

And still I sleepwalk through it all, ignoring everything I’m telling myself that I can’t hear.

It’s right there.

Right there.

And I can’t see it.

Until…

Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?

“… what you witness happened long ago in the here-and-now, in a time and place that never will be, where neither you nor Sienna ever existed,” she replied in a matter-of-fact manner, like she was discussing the weather.

“Say what?”

“Did you look at the stars yet?” I nodded. “Did you see anything unusual, anything strange?”

“Well, it is a bright night,” I replied slowly, looking up.

I heard her chuckle. “Indeed. Look at the sky carefully, Sam. Very carefully.”

Slowly standing to get a better view over the parapet walls, I did as she asked. The stars were blazing, everywhere I looked filling the night sky with a tapestry of brilliant colors that ranged across the spectrum. I took my time, scanning the heavens, trying to figure out what it was Charmayne was getting at. I was about to ask her when understanding finally dawned.

When you look up in the night sky in a city, you see only a few of the stars that would otherwise be visible because of the light pollution. Only when you get really far away from cities and towns do you see the night sky as the ancients did. In those empty places the heavens are a vision of white and amber lights that really bring home a sense of the millions and billions of stars that are out there. I recall seeing the Milky Way while camping with my parents in the Sierras as a child, the bright belt of stars streaming across the heavens, brilliant and glowing, and knew that what I saw then was nothing compared to what I beheld now. There were too many stars, too many colors, and so many of them far too large and close. I squinted, trying to sharpen my focus. I could actually see what appeared to be a glowing haze, green and red and purple, that stretched in places across large swaths of the sky, and in a few areas where there were no stars to be seen, I realized I was seeing black dust clouds, tens, maybe hundreds of light years across.  And with that realization came another, suddenly frightening in its implications.

“Charmayne,” I asked slowly, trying to keep my voice calm, “where are we?” She stood up to stand next to me. I pulled my gaze from the sky and looked directly at her, feeling dizzy and disjointed. “I know this sounds stupid, but we’re not on earth anymore, are we?”

She didn’t flinch, didn’t try to ease me into it. “No, Sam,” she replied evenly, “we’re not. Actually, we’re not even in the same region of your galaxy.”

“Oh,” was all I could come up with. I looked up again. “How far?”

“Very far. Um … about sixteen hundred light years, actually, give or take a few.”

“Uh- huh.” I paused again. The panorama really was breathtaking. “Am I going to get to go home again?”

She stifled a giggle and I looked back at her.

“This isn’t funny, you know…”

=====

When I started The War for Evermore and Dark Puppy, I had an idea of where I was going, what I was trying to do. Still do. They’ve been on hold for a while, but things are sort of falling into place and there will be more “stuff”, as Stu likes to put it, coming up soon. It’s something to look forward to, the writing, the creating.

Small pleasures.

Finishing Ronin was a pain. There were a lot of characters I fell in love with, and I ended up doing terrible things to them. This might sound odd, or even funny to you. I would understand if it did; after all, you have not lived with these “people” for a decade, chronicled their adventures, their loves and hates, successes and failures, thrilled at the discoveries made of who they were, found joy in how they became part of – and worked within – the greater tapestry of your creation.

And you didn’t kill any of them off.

That’s the odd psychosis of writing I’ve increasingly been aware of, the attachment that grows alongside the cold-blooded service to the story a writer is committed to. Even in fiction, there must be truth or, at least, what you perceive as truth.

Truth can be painful. One chapter I wrote involved the death of a beloved character, one I became attached to early on, almost from the moment of her creation. I found myself writing around the event, delaying the inevitable moment of pulling the trigger, so to speak. When I finally did, the event was short, concise and violent, as deaths can often be, and I found myself feeling both satisfied with the ‘truth’ of what I put down … and inhabited by the weird sense of loss and grief that accompanied that satisfaction.

And here it comes again as I write this, bubbling up from nowhere …

Everything springs from your imagination. You craft characters, imbue them with life, learn their histories, grow into their passions and desires, until you know them as you know yourself because, in truth, they are a product of something that lives inside you that you have developed and polished and learned about with naked intimacy. They are a part of who I am; I don’t think I could ‘write’ them any other way. I’m not sure this is how others write fiction; I don’t really care: this is how I write, how I create, wrapping myself around my character, immersing myself in their realities.

Writing those last few chapters was in some ways an exercise in closure. Normally, when I write a chapter I know where I am starting from, and I know where I want to get to – how I get there, however, is never really known until I take the journey. I don’t plot things out beyond a general understanding that certain things need to occur before we – my characters and I – reach our destination. It is a fun way to work.

But in the case of the entire cycle, I knew how it would end, knew who would die, who would be crippled and changed, what would be lost. So the closer I came to the finish, the more difficult it became, as the events were more delineated, the room for exploration more limited.

What I really wanted to do was get started with the next cycle, to move on in the adventure now that I knew the stage was set in my head, the backstory understood, pieces in their place, mysteries laid out.

But, first, there was a blood debt to be paid.

And I paid it.

And there I was …

Speed Trap…

So I finally caught up with myself.

It was Friday. Friday the 13th. Not that it means anything. The date, I mean.

I missed the insight all last week, just let it slip right on by me. It was right there, right in front of me, but the Monster had my attention.

And I would have kept missing it.

Except … I stopped.

Momentum. Sneaky summabitch. Bad as the Monster is, at least she’s upfront.

But momentum, that’s different. Like I said, you don’t even know it’s happening. You pick up speed, moving along, and everything on the periphery fades, becoming blurred shadows lacking form or meaning. And pretty soon you lose all meaning.

It’s all so perfect. Insidiously so.

We’ve been living under cloud cover for weeks now, here in the City by the Bay, including my small corner of our hilly metropolis that does get sun even when when the rest of the place is covered in gray. At night the fog settles, thick and moist, and the world around us shrinks to a couple of blocks bathed in dim amber light. As it is, if not for the trip to the Sierra Foothills, I would not have not seen the stars in weeks. “Are they still there?” Reggie asks, his discomfiture obvious. Dogs need the stars, I think. Little holes in the sky through which they search for their dreams …

And all the while I’m living a waking dream, existing in a comatose consciousness, leaving important bits and pieces of myself behind, it seems, to pursue …

What?

What is it I’m pursuing?

Silence.

I don’t know.

I know the things I want to pursue … but all of that seems distant, disconnected from my existence as momentum carries me forward, as I make ends meet and keep my eye on the ball and all the rest of the cliched crap, worrying at the future as the center increasingly does not hold and things appear to be falling apart all around us.

The future.

What happened to the future?

Our future?

My future?

I realize there are days now where I am more weary than others, and the road I thought I traveled seems lost in a maze of detours and dead ends. I’m sure on some level it is a byproduct of aging, of seeing the world with older eyes, with a sense of growing understanding of the finite nature of everything.

I mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on Grant that brought me back to that war that did so much to define this land I live in. I mentioned tears, as well, and how I missed something and nearly forgot that I’d done so as the week progressed and I fell into the rhythms and momentums that seem to have a hold of my life these days. Coates put up something else, unrelated, but equally powerful. He talked about a lot of things, current events surrounding civil rights, people resisting bigotry and exclusion and related matters … and he wrote of the oddity of being of the city and visiting, living in the woods; of the fear he felt at what might seem simple things, fed by imagination, like the idea he could not see the animals at night, but knew they could see him; at the fury of nature as it cut loose around him. He talked about having less internet interaction than normal, and about breaking his iPhone, being cut off suddenly from everything and not minding.

And one line stood out:

“But out here in the great green, I’m not convinced that any of it matters.”

And the momentum crashed to a stop, fading out, disappearing as if it never were.

And I suddenly realized what the Monster had obscured that night a week before, even as I stared up into the star-filled sky and traced the faint line of the Milky Way and saw all the clues come together for me.

And then the tears came, and they still come, unheralded, unexpected, uncaring …

Something needs to change …

Something …

Postscript

I woke up in the morning
With an arrow through my nose …

~Neil Young – Last Trip to Tulsa

The Monster returned a week later, Saturday morning. Faint, distant, I could hear her whisper, and as I lay there, thinking on her, I wondered at my life and this thing that shares it with me. I got up and, as always, mounted my defenses, shrugged on my armor, and prepared for the new battle. There followed a shower, coffee, and  soon I was in the Buddhamobile and cruising the wet and misty pre-dawn shadows of San Francisco, rolling over slick, reflective streets, winding my way around the City’s periphery until I was at Ocean Beach, by the Zoo, and I drove on, past the Sunset District where I grew up and then the Park where I played with the 40th Ave. gang and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Bar at Beach Chalet where I drank and shot pool while in college, on past the foot of the Outer Richmond, where once upon a time I worked the carnival midway of Playland at the Beach, a ghost that lives on in my memories, now climbing up and around the cliffs where nestled the new Cliff House on the graves of the older incarnations of that structure, finally parking above the ruins at Sutro Baths on 48th Ave.

San Francisco Headlands, near China Beach

My walking companion was waiting, and we talked a while in the Buddhamobile while I finished my coffee, and then we were off, treking through the wet along the paths that hugged the coast, through some of the last remnants of wild that still exist in San Francisco. A pleasant walk, if a little tiring as we climbed and descended rough trails and stairs, skirting the edges of Lincoln Park golf course and the Palace of the Legion of Honor, making our steady way through the at times heavy mist, and as we did the darkness faded, giving way to gray.

We lingered here and there a while on our journey, taking pictures and talking of this and that. Before we knew it we were at China Beach, having passed some of the elegant and expensive homes of the Sea Cliff district, and there below us a man was flowing through his Tai Chi, greeting the day in his fashion.

And then it was time to go …


August 15, 2010 Posted by | Hodgepodge | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Al Williamson – 1931 – 2010

Al Williamson passed recently, in June. I’ve been so preoccupied getting the first draft of Ronin completed that I wasn’t even aware until the past couple of weeks. If you want to know more about the man, you can go here. Beyond that, for me, with comics specifically and fantasy in general, it’s always been about the art, about the worlds these folks bring to life in their work, in their visualizations of places just beyond our realities. So, as with the late Frank Frazetta, one of many artists with whom Williamson collaborated, I’m going to let his art do the talking from here.

August 10, 2010 Posted by | Imagery | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Frank Frazetta is gone …

2010.

This is the year we lost the artist who may have been the most influential fantasy artist of his era.

In tribute, a revival, of sorts, of an earlier post:

Golden Girl

Nightwinds

Luana

Rouges in the House

Castle of Sin

At the Earth’s Core

Encounter

Wild Ride

’nuff said …

May 10, 2010 Posted by | Imagery | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

   

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