Friday, March 10, 2017

I'll tell you what good writing is

Good writing is unusual.  Even among professionals, there are very few complex stories populated with three-dimensional characters.  Of course a lot of fine careers depend on cliches.  Mansions and motion picture studios have been built because the authors had simplistic notions about human behavior and moral consequences.  Yes, that is a snob's attitude.  But my particular attitude is a little more nuanced than that.  You see, I don't believe that our species will ever be truly good writers.  And that includes me.  We also aren't gifted when it comes to thinking about imaginary numbers or making plans for future generations.  But we like to congratulate ourselves for being natural story tellers.  That's because each of us inhabits a personal and rather epic life.  This is a trick of the mind, and maybe it isn't just a human trick.  Maybe hawks and fence lizards think the same way.  But the life-as-story narrative does allow each of us to walk through random crap and odd know, everything that happened in life today...and it gives all of us a sense of structure.  Maybe we even find purpose, if that's what we need.  It's the skill that gives us the confidence to imagine our enemies cowering and taste our certain victories.  Even though most battles don't go as predicted, and few of our triumphs play out in ways we would never envision.

Humans are not stellar writers.  But we have a dangerous gift for strong first paragraphs, and sometimes a powerful chapter or two.  Which gets us into so much trouble.

"Our government is corrupt.  We need an outsider who's going to break the wheel.  Mathematics and kindness can be ignored, and the world will turn back to a better age when men were noble and women pure."

This is the story that got us where we are today.

Emotional claws.  They will trap every person.  Particularly those who believe they are too smart or too skeptical to be fooled.

The trouble with story, real story, is that it has no end.  That's what we can't appreciate.  And include me in that ignorance, please.  Real life has too many plots and billions of characters, and each of us is frantic and sloppy and tiny, trying to steer this world where we can only wish it would go.

If I was in charge of education?  I would give up trying to teach calculus to the masses.  Statistics is the better use of neurons.  People who understand odds don't waste their nights in Vegas or deny global warming.  And we must must must be kind to those in need, if only so we don't trigger the kinds of wildfires that make history so bloody and wicked and sorry.  And finally, I would mandate the writing of fiction, but only to the point where people would discover their utter weakness in this critical subject.

Hammer out a good sentence, and another, and ten more.

Finish your first chapter, if you can, building a handful of authentic humans out of old words and ancient hope.

But no author lives long enough, much less can find the necessary wisdom to give those new people the capacity to cast their own shadows.

This is what I'm saying.

Every person is a mystery, and every mystery is painted thin across the endless universe.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


I wrote a giant novel.  The work consumed spare time and far more thought than I anticipated, and there were moments when I thought like a professional writer.  Meaning:  How do I keep readers interested?  But there were also long stretches where I experienced the writer's ultimate rush.  I wasn't the author.  I was standing at a window, watching the lives that were filling another, far more dangerous Earth.

THE TRIALS OF QUENTIN MAURUS takes place in the late 1970s.  An intricate, deeply drawn alternate history, INEVITABLE is the first slice.  All four volumes are available on Amazon, Kindle-only.  And if your head works just a little like mine, the final book, EVERLASTING, will make you glad that your mother met your father.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Raven Dream

I'm working on a knot of old stories.  And by "working," I mean that all of last week and today and maybe for a little while longer, my professional life revolves around untangling 50,000 plus words and the characters wrapped inside.

"Raven Dream" was published quite a few years ago.  I had found this pleasant mind-game:  A near-future world and a secret tribe of Native Americans living on a remote ranch.  The first novelette was surprisingly successful.  Four more followed in fairly quick succession.  My daughter was young and in daycare, which is never cheap, and I was under some self-imposed pressure to produce words and get paid for those words.  Which might be one of the reasons why going back through these five stories has been such an eye-prying experience.

I'm polishing the old stuff, preparing them to be published.  Probably on Kindle, and I don't know when.  But I'm finding that the language needs an embarrassing amount of work.  I don't change the stories themselves, but I rework dialogue and do a little more with standardizing names and my logic.  The original "Dream" was the best written of the bunch.  This might be because I wasn't convinced anyone would want it, so I went over it and over it.  And then out of caution, I set the manuscript aside.  That would have been a physical manuscript, and it was brought out of the drawer months later and reworked again.  A good slow way to write.  But success is a hazard to writers and to human beings.  Success means that you think you understand something well enough.  Instead of running as hard as you can, you trot.  Instead of sweating the phrases and the logic, you let your fat mind drift.

I'm also polishing these five stories in preparation to writing a sixth, and a seventh.  Maybe an eighth.  Because if I don't do this today, this minute, it might never get done.  And there's a small tribe of people scattered across the world who want to have this story done.

The fine people at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for instance.

Anyway, today's focus is a Lakota teaching rich people to build fire, and meanwhile, the entire world is about to turn to flame.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What I Do

I know I should blog.  It's good for my business, which is professional writing.  A popular blog will generate new fans and build interest.  Maybe I won't ever meet any of you.  Two strangers or ten million readers.  Either way, I need you to read these griddle-hot words and then say to yourselves, "I wonder what else this quirky voice has written."

But suppose nobody reads what I post:  There's still the benefit that comes from practicing your craft.  If the author doesn't screw things up too badly, he might  improve.  But I haven't done any posting in quite a long while.  My blog muscles have turned to mush.  Maybe that's a story onto itself.  Why can't a disciplined fellow like me hold to a simple task?  And maybe I should tell you about it some day.  But not today.  To make myself post and post frequently, I need to pick up some tiny subject and write about it quickly.  I'll show you something, and you can say, "Oh my, isn't that interesting?"  Or, "Tedious is too soft a word for this self-absorbed bullshit."

I have been a money-making author for more than thirty years.  I accept that both of those responses are guaranteed, as well as polite shrugs and total indifference.

But here's your glimpse at my mind:

To Do

Weed aquarium
Water window
Dismantle brush pile
Order rubber
Comb compost
Rejuvenate pump
Steal hoses
Butt cradle
Patch vandalism
Start talking
Unveil tubs

It's Sunday, and we're having lovely April weather in early March.  I started a to-do list in Google Keep, and the first item came out with an interesting tone.  So I just kept inventing unexpected ways of defining very ordinary tasks.

I won't explain any of them, but the "Start talking" offering.

That's blogging.

I'm talking.

And no, it's late afternoon, and I haven't done more than a few of these chores.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Hot Worse Than Hot

Pick a moment in history.  1880, say.  And then increase the 1880 temperatures by one degree Celsius.  (Or one degree Kelvin.  With its nonarbitrary zero, Kelvin provides the only sensible scale.)  A single thin degree brings us to 2015, or nearly so.  The hottest year on record.  Arctic sea ice battered.  A monster storm hitting Mexico.  And a November where my elephant ear taro was still happy in its outdoor pot.  One degree brings obvious challenges to the world. Glacial melt. Wicked storms. Prolonged droughts. And even if the impossible happens and we hold the thermostat exactly where it is today, these challenges are not going to end.

People like to talk about two degrees. "Oh, if we don't go past that arbitrary point, we'll be just swell!" But to me, two degrees looks like a bumper-sticker on a Humvee, a fancy ad during the Super Bowl, and a political wet dream.  First of all, we've already crossed half of that recognized danger zone. Secondly, individuals and institutions don't seem to care enough to do the necessary work. And finally, without black swan technologies, I think it's deeply unlikely that we'll even slow down the warming before we hit two degrees.

I’m 59. With clean living and the acceleration of greenhouse effects, I might live to see two degrees. But not four and six and twelve degrees.  Various scenarios consider those maximums. When they arrive, our Earth vanishes inside a new, much hotter planet.  Of course some colonists will make it to the new planet.  Some species will prosper.  Jellyfish and turtledoves, to name two projected champions.  And if climate change is the only challenge, then several billion humans will also make the grade.  Or at least several million of us.  But twelve degrees looks like a pretty wicked world, and at day's end, our jellyfish overlords might not want many human slaves.

But no trend is the only trend.

The Beatles weren’t just the Beatles.  They lived beside Vietnam and the Cold War and the moon landing too.

I have a list.

What can put an end to the human species?

Some rather significant thought went into drawing up this membership list.  And several mighty fine candidates didn’t make the cut.

Global warming is fifth on my list.

Being fifth means that another four villains are worse.  At least from my point of view, sitting at home, contemplating human nature and our approach to great muddy problems.

And my fourth critical threat to humankind?

The hot worse than hot.



Fort Calhoun and Brownville.  These are Nebraska’s two nuclear reactors.  Each stands about eighty minutes from my front door, but in rather different directions and different power companies holding the keys.  Each company owns exactly one water-cooled nuke, which might make a nervous man worry more.  How good is any organization when they have the absolute minimum of experience with something so large and complicated, and so very old?

As a citizen of Nebraska, I hear shit.  These reactors are elderly.  They have sketchy safety records, and the facility north of Omaha had to change management.  After a lot of years of mounting expenses and safety violations, OPPD finally brought in outsiders who know shit.

Good for them.

But even badly run and falling apart, those reactors are nonthreats to me.  The worst imaginable meltdown might cause me to become a refugee.  But death is almost impossible, save for getting run over by other refugees driving 100 miles an hour towards Denver.

The genuine nightmare stands between the reactors.  The Strategic Air Command used to defend the Western World, and it did its noble work from Bellevue, Nebraska.  Global politics and Air Force hierarchies have dramatically changed the role of that old air base.  But through most of my life, as a child and as a man, I lived with the much larger odds of being killed by superheated slurries of deuterium and tritium.

Global warming is a testable beast, slow in its effects but relentless.  Our climate has been changing slowly and sometimes very stubbornly.  It’s even possible that in the future, with shifting winds over the Pacific or cold meltwater in the North Atlantic, parts of the Earth will suddenly grow colder for a decade or two.  In some sense, global warming is that disease that your doctor names two seconds before he tells you, “But with care, you can live a long and productive life.”

Nukes are an entirely different hazard.

Picture a set of basement stairs. These are stairs you climb every day, and they happen to be steep and sometimes badly lit.  Humans say “climb” because the effort makes the stairs memorable.  But the downward journeys are more dangerous, statistically speaking.  Up and down you go. Up and down.  And then one day, you're carrying an overloaded sack of groceries when one foot hits the sleeping cat, and the surprise as well as the canned goods pull you over, leading to a series of rapid impacts that transform your life.

That is the drama of nukes.  The promise of an instantaneous nightmare. Hiroshima and Nagasaki might remain outliers.  Mabye Chernobyl won’t ever be duplicated.  But each day brings the possibility, however small, that you will never finish reading this blog.

I grew up a few miles north of SAC.  I remember one day when my grade school practiced for “tornadoes” by packing everybody into a tiny basement, and because I remember being a very small boy at the time, I suspect this puts us during JFK’s 1000 days.

Granted, that Cold War feels like history.  American and Russian stockpiles have been trimmed and modernized.  The world-killing confrontation of my youth has been deflated, and one of the nation-states transformed.  Our world still has two nuclear juggernauts, but as a storyteller, I can’t find an obvious plot where one of them intentionally fires everything because of a misunderstanding on a radar screen.

But there is hope for catastrophe:  Right now, ill-tempered souls stand inside important rooms, and bad mistakes can be made by countless players, including the elaborate software operating at light-speed.  And now imagine Putin and Trump standing at the top of the stairs together.  Two boys who like excitement, flinging elbows and insults.

Miami drowns in the next fifty years, and that novel reads as a slow multi-generational saga.

But hit Miami with a homemade uranium bomb...well, that’s a piece of ugly that calls for easy drama.

And what are the odds of disaster?

Ask me, and you’ll see an authoritative shrug of the shoulders.

I do have a few ideas about which nuclear scenarios are most likely.  But this isn’t the place.  Not yet.  I’ve decided to list my five humanity killers, and this is my Number Four, and I promise to get back to you shortly with the rest.

But first, I need to go downstairs.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Unsolvable 5, Part 3

Unsolvable means just that.

Here stands a problem that refuses be fixed.

For example:  Let’s say you’re driving on a bright Tuesday morning, and furthermore, you’re obeying the laws of the road.  But while stopped at a traffic light, surrounded on three sides by other law-abiders, a dump truck behind you suffers a catastrophic brake failure.  And furthermore, the truck’s driver is 23, poorly trained and stubborn.  How can these fucking brakes not work?  He pumps and pumps, and then seeing the future with the clarity of a prophet, he honks his horn.  Which you hear.  Looking into your rearview mirror, disbelief dissolves into the same prophetic vision.  Cars sit on your left and right and straight ahead, and you have exactly two seconds to react.  Two seconds.  But where is the solution to this conundrum?

For my purpose, unsolvable means that the collision is inevitable.  You might live, you might die.  But if you’re lucky enough to survive, pain and disfigurement are pretty much mandatory.  This isn't to say that your future won’t be wonderful, after the surgeries and the profitable lawsuits and finding love with the young lady who pulled you out of the flaming hulk that was your Dodge Dart.  Who knows?  You might have gone into this catastrophe thinking about killing yourself, but the clarity brought by a year of rehab and reappraisals serves to deliver a happiness that you never knew before.  Yet that doesn’t change the essential inevitability.  The dump truck is not going to stop until your car and the five vehicles ahead of you are mashed into an accordion of steel and dying computers.

Climate change is a brakeless dumptruck.

Dogs and writers have their biases.   For this barking writer, the first clear experience with hotter temperatures happened in 1988.  That was the year James Hansen testified to Congress about the coming heat.  And that was the year I visited Alaska. That Federal province was enduring a terrific heatwave.  As it happened, I found myself next to some old-time locals trading stories about the changing climate.  By “old-time locals”, I mean people who came north in the 60s. These were public school teachers given lush deals to serve for twenty-five years or so before retiring relatively young and well-moneyed.  The day’s heat was a subject, sure.  But more important was their shared amazement with the recent winters.  What they experienced in the 1960s was memorably savage, while these recent bouts of anemic snow and ice were nothing.  And winter was an important subject just then.  Anchorage was interested in chasing the Winter Olympics, and nobody in this pack of white educated and relatively happy souls could promise that there would be a winter worth the skiing.

In the end, the Olympics went elsewhere.

And today, winters are so mild that Alaska has trouble pulling off a worthy Iditarod.  A point that escapes people shivering in the “outside”, as they call the Lower 48.



And drought.

Those are my linchpin visions of climate change.  The bias does tend to shift after I come across some alternate view of the hotter future.  Reading Hansen, I find myself more open to the idea of glacial collapse and rising seas.  I’m perfectly happy using sea rise as a backstory to my work.  “Dead Man’s Run”, for instance.  It’s not explicit, but a drowned Miami means refugees and the usual complications.  But being Nebraskan by birth and by outlook, I realize that regardless how wet Nebraska is today--and we are very, very wet now--the entire region is three months removed from catastrophe.  The rain stops, the temperature rises.  Then the native plants go dormant, and the corn, a tropical grass, dies on a shifting plain of dust.

As a genre and as a state-of-mind, science fiction has its strengths.  For instance, my colleagues and I have a stubborn capacity to defeat every kind of thought problem.  How will humans fly to the stars?  How do we make contact with alien minds?  How exactly do we build robots we can trust?  And how do we survive any one of a hundred apocalypses--some of them real but most dreamed up by writers with too much caffeine?

This is our job.  Nightmares are. But thought problems and cleverness only carry so much weight, particularly in a world full of history and inertia and faith and well-practiced incompetence.

Now return to our hero sitting inside his Dart, watching the dump truck bearing down on little him.

A less clever writer, perhaps working in the thriller genre, might see the obvious answer.  There’s no delay for disbelief.  Our driver takes a glance in the mirror and then instantly opens his door, deftly releasing the safety belt, leaping out of the car and vaulting over the next car with time enough to yank a pretty young woman out from her death-trap vehicle.

That’s the genius of thrillers.  Zero thought, all reaction.

And the very clever SF writer?  Well, obviously, someone invents a time machine and goes back to alter certain key events.  Or aliens intercede to save our Dart driver, because they need him for a special mission.  Or maybe every car waiting at the light is sentient, and working at machine speeds, each makes the logical decision to hit the gas, blowing through the stop light while the runaway truck rolls to a harmless stop.

Impossible technologies.

Intervention from the stars.

Noble machines rescuing humans from their inevitable messes.

You can always spot the unsolvable problems.  They’re the ones where we are stuck sitting at the steering wheel, watching events unfold around us, and the only answers we have involve magical thinking.


I’m a lousy blogger.  I admit this.  My output is sporadic and too occasional, my tone falling short of the frothy dash-it-off-today attitudes.  But I do try to make plans and hold to deadlines, and for the time being, Unsolvable 5 feels finished.  I won’t blog anymore about heat or drought or ocean rise.  At least not until some new thought catches my attentions.

But I want to warn both of my readers that Unsolvable 5 means that I have four other Unsolvables cued up, each worse than climate change.

By my estimations, of course.

And for the sake of my two or ten readers, I promise to move faster, spelling out each of the next four nightmares before moving on to the gristly meat of each.

All the best.

To all of us.



(In a different universe, "The Principles" would have won the Sidewise Award, and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro would have delivered this thank you note on my behalf. In this universe, however, my story didn't win, and there was never going to be any little ceremony at the Libertarian Worldcon. And as I should point out, there is a third universe where people don't care so much about the verdict of a jury or press releases to Locus.)

History might be simple.  One narrative, one cast of characters.  A tidy collection of incidents and accidents, wars and mass migrations, leading to this inevitable moment where a decent enough fellow stands before you, accepting an award on my grateful behalf.

But I rather suspect that vision of history is bullshit.

For me, history is a chaotic muddle.  An intriguing chaos, sure.  But the past refuses to leave simple records behind.  Remarkably little data survives from one moment to the next, and almost nothing survives across the centuries.  Worse still, the wisest, most introspective person is hard pressed to explain why she did what she did last week.  That’s why I refuse to believe in any one account of a war or a cabinet meeting or the ins and outs of two friends discussing last week’s weather.

And worse still is the nature of this effortless universe of ours.

Quantum mechanics.  Cosmology.  These twin children of science have quite a lot to say about reality, and according to both of them, we live inside is an unabashedly infinite creation.  There have to be Earths besides our Earth.  Indeed, there can’t be any end to the churning histories.  Every one of these narratives follows its own inspired course.  There’s no counting the vivid characters trying to live their vast little lives.  And that’s why this moment is inevitable:  A tie-wearing fellow accepting this award on my behalf.

At this point, one has to ask:  Why bother feeling grateful?  Seriously, if every sweet moment is inevitable, why bother with a rush of adrenaline and the genuinely surprised smile?

Because the infinite is usually predictable and too often drab.

Because inside the infinite, there are rarities that deserve to be celebrated.

This award, for example.  And in that spirit, I accept the Sidewise and I thank all of you for this honor.

But there’s a greater rarity at work here.

I’m talking about the nominated stories and the authors who wrote them.  An amazing churn of events has given birth to each of us, and it’s hard to believe that any creatures but us could spin these tales exactly as we have done.

The Infinite doesn’t end, no.

But this tiny portion of the Everything has been made Ours.