July Newsletter: The Karst River

I’m trying something new this year, which is a vacation.

Last summer you might recall I struggled to find my peace with not writing. And the summers before that, too. The beginning of July would find me in the middle of a project, and I’d spend the summer scrabbling for the time I needed to keep it alive. Or I’d try to start a new, light, summer project, and scrabble to keep that alive.

This year, I made sure not to do that. I pushed to finish draft three of Wealthgiver by the end of June. I sent it out to beta readers. It was safely out of my hands, and now I wasn’t going to do any writing at all.

I stopped doing my morning rituals. No more exercise, no more meditations. No more vitamin supplements. There’s no need for all that support since I’m not doing anything in particular in the morning. At first, it worked.

We had a week of vacation where Pavlina and I were at home, but our kids weren’t. Oh, the glorious work that we got done! I played with Thracian all day. I had gotten a-hold of Vladimir Orel’s A Concise Historical Grammar of the Albanian Language and I was just going to town on case endings*! But then we got the kids back, we had a birthday party to go to and a week to spend at Pavlina’s dad’s house on the north face of the Balkan Range.

It should have been a nice change, but it wasn’t. Immersed in my vocabulary and sound-change spreadsheet, I could ignore how bad I felt. But when I was away from my laptop, the kids were misbehaving, my brioche buns didn’t rise, Pavlina’s family was annoying, and nobody would talk to me.

The feeling got progressively worse until we went for a walk. We took a picnic to the Zlatna Panega river, which cuts through a canyon full of caves and willow trees. Long-tailed tits flitted above chalky water, jeweled with damselflies. The kids loved it and I really did hold up my end of the conversations in Bulgarian. We came home and swam in the pool. I finished up with Thracian plural endings and helped Pavlina’s dad plant trees. Swallows gathered as clouds swelled and popped on the peaks of the mountains right over us. It should have been idyllic, but all I could remember from the river was a cave that someone had used as a toilet.

That night I stumbled around the garden with Pavlina, claws upraised as I choked on my complaints. Thracian was a parasite on my time. Pavlina’s dad planted trees wrong. Everything was bad.

And Pavlina was like, “have you been taking your magnesium?”

No, and I hadn’t been meditating or exercising either. Why bother? Now I knew why bother. And an interesting experiment had presented itself to me.

How important were my various rituals? I now knew what the effect was if I didn’t do any of them: everything was bad. So, what would change if I reintroduced something? Magnesium, but not meditation. Exercise, but not diet. What makes a difference, and what doesn’t? That’s my project for this summer. I put away my book, and I’ve put away Thracian. Now, I’m just going to read and experiment on myself.

Also, maybe I’ll draw.


In other news…

Interchange is out. You can buy it. 

We had our launch party, which you can watch here.

I also have three interviews about Interchange and my process (in text), how I did the speculative biology(in voice), and what my life was like when I wrote it(in voice).

I serialized a Centuries Unlimited short story here. It’s about family, life-plans, and time-travel.

Wealthgiver is still resting and collecting beta-reader comments. If you want to be a beta-reader, say so in the comments, and I’ll send you the manuscript.


And I read some stuff:

Mythos by Stephen Fry – was entertaining and occasionally inspiring. Fry did a good job of cutting enough to present a coherent story, while keeping enough _in_ to demonstrate the sprawling _in_coherence of the folklore and religion of a wide-spread, long-lived culture. Romanticism isn’t my thing, but Fry was upfront about it. I think it’s cool that “cyclops” originally meant “cow-thief,” but Fry doesn’t, and that’s okay. His retellings were a bit pre-digested, but there were moments when the insights of Stephen Fry and a million departed storytellers came together in a twinkle of wisdom. And I appreciate that Fry did his part to keep the tradition of the storytellers alive.

This book (that is, Greek mythology) also finally encapsulated the sort of thing I love in f-sf. You have the Teumessian Fox, which CANNOT BE CAUGHT, and the dog Laelaps, who ALWAYS CATHCES HIS PREY. What happens when you set Laelaps on the Teumessian fox? What do you do about that? And what happens next? That, for me, is the core of speculative fiction: chaining out the consequences of your conceit. What if A? Well then, B would surely follow. But then, oh dear, you’d have C.

From now on, I’ll be able to think to myself “I like this story because it has a good Teumessian fox hunt.”

Code of the Lifemaker by James P. Hogan. Now here’s a story. When I was in high school, my dad told me about a scifi book he vaguely remembered, in which self-replicating alien robots found their way to Titan and evolved there into a robot ecosystem, complete with kingdoms of metal humanoids. I was fascinated by the idea. I designed robot animals with friends, built up a menagerie, and finally wrote a novella about the pros and cons of environmental protection in an eco-system that thinks your spaceships and environment suits are delicious. Hogan wrote a very different, and much better story.

Hogan didn’t get as creative with the native life of Titan as I did, but he did give some very sweet descriptions of the families of concrete-pourers wallowing in the methane stream under softly humming generators. And then of course there is the actual story, where a stage psychic, symbol of everything that’s gone wrong with America’s relationship with science, becomes the hero. There are deep and poignant meditations on truth and lies, right and wrong, and how they don’t always match up. Also there are such delightful passages as “a hermit in a wheel-skin tunic has wandered into town on a steam-donkey with some new heretical claptrap about pacifism. Shall we boil him in acid until he confesses?” Fingers to lips. Mwah!

The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven and Steve Barnes – It’s great to be re-reading the Dream Park books. They’re always a delight, richly layered under a deceptively simple adventure story. In this one, the authors (mostly Barnes according to the authors’ note) had some things to say about mental and physical health. What’s really keeping you from losing weight, and what can a story do to dig up those reasons and suggest solutions? Also, the story has Inuit gods and the sunken city of R’lyeh, powered by a radioactive Soviet satellite. The book talked about some heavy things, occasionally heavier than the authors could lift, but they got there.

Brain Wave by Poul Anderson – yeah! Scifi! Turns out that since the end of the Mesozoic, the Earth has been in a region of the galaxy where the speed of light is just a wee bit slow. It doesn’t make a difference to inanimate objects, and not much difference to bugs and plants, but when you have a central nervous system, emergent effects (such as intelligence) are depressed. So when the Earth passes out of the slow zone, we all get smarter. Pigs included. What happens next? Damn good stuff!

The Confessions of Augustine of Hippo. Whuh. I started this book a year ago on the advice of my friend and mentor Paul Venet. It was the summer and I was struggling with finding meaning in what I was doing, and faith in the future. How could things ever be all right?

He assigned Augustine, and suggested we have weekly conversations where we talked about the book and the cultivation of faith. We missed that target and created an international business communication class instead. But anyway.

I got a lot out of the first half of the book, which is Augustine’s autobiography. The food he ate came out of someone else’s mouth. His job was just a way to get money to spend on things that weren’t good for him. His friends and family died one by one. He abandoned the mother of his child, who also died. His pleasures became suffering, and his suffering was already suffering. So where did that leave him?

Augustine’s solution was to change his perspective. What if it was good that he lost his job, because that let him devote himself to a spiritual life? What if it was good that his mother died, because that crisis forced him to listen to what she had to tell him? Roman society wouldn’t let him marry the woman he loved, and their son died young. But even from that, he could extract meaning. He had to.

At least that’s what I got out of the book.

Legends from the End of Time by Michael Moorcock – eh. There is something there. What happens when “Art triumphs over Nature” and there’s nothing left that’s outside of our control? What does decadence look like when it’s turned up to eleven, and how does that look from different perspectives? The characters were pretty good, and I liked the conceit that time travelers all end up tumbling all the way to the end of time. But I like science in my science fiction. I like characters that take things apart to see how they work. Moorcock wasn’t interested in talking about how things work. Alright, but there’s also the question of mortality. Time will end, dude. What do you do about that? Give us an answer, author, come on.

The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga – I’ve been recommending this book to people at rate of about one every two days. It’s good. It’s useful. It’s written in a very irritating style, but once you get past that, it really has something to say.

The Courage to be Disliked is about the work of Alfred Adler, a psychologist who I’d never heard of, who espoused “teleology” for those suffering from mental illness, rather than “etiology.” That is, rather than focus on the reasons why you came to this impasse, you figure out what to do about it.

You want to around, over, under, or through the wall in your way, so you don’t need to dwell on the composition of its bricks. If you’re camped out in the shadow of the wall, it’s because, on some level, it’s a strategy. Does it work for you? What’s your next step?

Thud by Terry Pratchett – Thud is my favorite Discworld book, and that’s saying a lot. This is Pratchett at the height of his craft, telling an entertaining “scaffolding story” about a police investigation that gets caught up in an imported war. Then there are the greater depths: bigotry, hatred, the drive for revenge, and the forces that oppose them. Which are not always nice. The battle is not of dark against light, but of different kinds of darkness. My paper version is marked with my thumbnail from when I read it in the ICU recovering from my second life-saving surgery in two weeks. I didn’t have a pen in the ICU. Anyway, the book helped. Uh, go read it.

Next up is August. I’m not planning to write then either, but let’s see what sort of mischief I get up to.

*They turned out gorgeous.

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