Tuesday, October 30, 2007


My World Fantasy schedule

I'm about to enter radio silence, as I head out to Saratoga Springs for WFC in a few hours time. (Well, to be pedantic, we'll be driving to Dallas today to drop off Georgia with my folks, then flying from there in the still-dark hours before dawn tomorrow.) And as in previous years, everyone has been posting their convention schedules to their various and sundry blogs, sites, and journals, so I figure I'd follow suit.

My WFC Schedule
Wednesday-Monday: I'll be in the bar

Come by and see me, won't you?

Monday, October 29, 2007


Three Unbroken

My masters at Solaris have sent out the following press release, officially announcing my new novel for them, Three Unbroken, which I've mentioned here a time or two.


BL Publishing is very excited to announce an exciting new project with Chris Roberson, author of Set the Seas on Fire and The Dragon’s Nine Sons.


Three Unbroken is the next epic novel in the Celestial Empire sequence and details the explosive war between the Chinese and Aztec empires as they battle for control of the red planet, Fire Star.

Based on the sixty-four elements of the I-Ching, Three Unbroken follows the lives of three soldiers from their induction into the armed forces to their eventual fight for survival on the frontline. The events of the novel are contemporaneous with those of The Dragon’s Nine Sons, the first novel in the sequence, set to be published by Solaris in February 2008.

In a bold move, Solaris Books plans to serialise the entirety of Three Unbroken on their website for free, at a rate of two chapters per week.

The project will start in late November 2007, with details to be confirmed on the Solaris website nearer the time.

The novel will then be published in book form in 2009.

Watch the Solaris website at www.solarisbooks.com for more information.

Consultant Editor George Mann said of the deal “I’m delighted to be working with Chris again and this is a truly exciting project, not least because it’s our first online publication. Chris is exactly the right person to do this, and Three Unbroken will be an excellent introduction to the Celestial Empire for those who have yet to discover its delights.

Chris Roberson’s novels include Set the Seas on Fire, The Voyage of Night Shining White, Here, There & Everywhere and Paragaea: A Planetary Romance. He is the editor of the anthology Adventure Vol. 1 and co-founder of publishing house Monkeybrain Books. He has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and winner of the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Short Form. Chris lives in Austin, Texas with his wife Allison and their daughter Georgia. Visit him online at www.chrisroberson.net.

Praise for Chris Roberson

“Chris Roberson is one of that bold band of young writers who
are taking the stuff of genre fiction and turning it into a whole
new literary form - a form for the 21st century. A talented
storyteller, he has a unique ear, a clever eye, an eloquence all
too rare in modern fiction.”

Michael Moorcock

“[Chris Roberson] possesses a unique talent and his tales boast
a refreshing originality...”

SciFi Now

“The highly talented Chris Roberson, recent winner of the
Sidewise Award for his story ‘O One’, continues that tale’s vein
– in this alternate timeline, Imperial China dominates the world
in place of Europe – but exacerbates the peculiarity of the
setting by transferring it to a partly terraformed Mars ruled by
the Mandarins. The atmosphere is sumptuous, the invention
lavish; the experience of reading the story is mind-expanding.”


For more information please contact BL Publishing on: solaris@blpublishing.com
or call George Mann on ++44 (0)115 - 900 4172



Book Report

Just a brief note this time out, before the silence descends. I'm still winding my way through GRRM's A Clash of Kings, but in the evenings I've been working my way through James Gurney's Dinotopia series, starting with the original Dinotopia and ending with the most recent offering.

As I think I mentioned a little while back, I picked up the first Dinotopia book shortly after it was published, and it knocked my socks off. There was something about the way it treated something clearly fantastically in such a frank, straightforward manner that reminded me of Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet's Gnomes books, which I'd obsessed over years before. At the time it didn't occur to me that Dinotopia was being marketed as a children's book, just that it was a book with a broad all-ages appeal that would have ripped the top of my head open if I'd encountered it as a kid.

Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time

Rereading Dinotopia now, a decade and a half later, I think it holds up brilliantly. And I look forward to introducing Georgia to it, when she gets a bit older. It's in the loving little details that the work really shines, the little textual glosses to the illustrations that don't even get mentioned in the accompanying narrative. But the narrative itself, ostensibly reproduced from Arthur Denison's travel journal, stands nicely on its own, as well, a Lost Worlds adventure in the grandest sense. And while the style may lack some of the color or poetry of the imagery, which carries most of the water here, it suits perfectly the somewhat uptight Victorian scientist.

Dinotopia: The World Beneath

A few years later I picked up the second entry in the series Dinotopia: The World Beneath. While I pored over the images, though, looking through it carefully, at the time I don't think I actually read the text, for reasons that escape me now. My reading this week was the first time to properly go through the book, then. This second installment continues the adventures of Arthur Denison and his son Will, this time picking up threads introduced in the first volume, and returning Denison to the titular world beneath the island of Dinotopia, where they find the remains of a lost superscientific culture. Storywise, this is great stuff, and the images and textual glosses are every bit as engrossing as in the first book. The narrative, though, perhaps suffers a bit from being written in a straight third-person narrative, instead of the limited first-person of the first book. Rather that the text being an object of this world, just like the images supposedly painted by Denison's own hand, the text here is a more traditional third-person narrative, told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Things that worked well in the voice of Denison's journal have a tendency not to work as well here, or perhaps to be fairer it works, but to a different effect. This is much more clearly a work intended for children, it seems, rather than the more all-ages appeal of the first installment. There's a lot to love here, but I felt at times as if I were eavesdropping, as though I wasn't part of the intended audience.

Dinotopia: First Flight

A few years ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Dinotopia: First Flight online, having somehow missed it when it was first released, but I read it for the first time this last week, having not even had much opportunity to look through the images before now. This is the most clearly juvenile of the series, but works excellently on those terms. With a brief framing sequence that sets the narrative up as a legend read by young Will Denison, the story itself is set at the height of the superscience culture Arthur Denison discovered in the previous book. There's some clear nature vs. technology dichotomy at work, as the hero, a student at a flight school where pilots control mechanical drones by remote control, leaves his superscience home and strikes out into the more naturalistic world beyond, befriending a host of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, finally becoming the first pterosaur-rider. The book also includes a board game, worked into the cover itself, which I'm looking forward to testing out with Georgia when she's a few years older.

Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara

Finally, the latest installment, Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. This is something of a return to form, with the narrative again being a journal in Arthur Denison's own voice. But more than that, this is certainly the best book in the series since the first, and arguably the best overall. The narrative seems surer, the images somehow richer and more details. And the level of invention is nothing short of brilliant. The Fibonacci Gardens, where the structure of seedpods and flowers contains hidden mathematical laws. The Saurian Tree, carefully cultivated over generations to represent the phylogenetic structure of the entire dinosaur order. The Celestial Navigator of the township of Bilgewater, a community made of repurposed Pilgrim sailing ships, now ready to sail off into the heavens when the last trumpet sounds.

Accompanying Denison's journal are all of his sketches and paintings, complete with textual glosses, as in the earlier books. But in addition, Gurney has incorporated something little used in the earlier installments, but used here to phenomenal effect: the architectural cut-away. I was reminded of David Macaulay's series of architectural books (Castle, Cathedral, Pyramid, etc) that I obsessed over as a kid. Gurney may have done this sort of thing once or twice in the earlier installments, but if he did they didn't make much impression, even just a week later. But in Journey to Chandara he does it again and again, each time with a lovingly obsessive amount of detail. We get the interior layout of one of the Bilgewater ships-cum-buildings, the layout of the mountaintop city of Thermala, the interior of one of the Seated Colossi (complete with the brown-stains running down the outside where the privy hole runs out), and an amazingly detailed look at a windmill.

Journey to Chandara is a true all-ages book, perfectly suitable for younger readers but with a great deal with which to reward old fogeys, as well. And the production quality on the present edition is unassailable, with the boards bound in a faux-dinosaur-hide pattern, with a ribbon book-mark bound in, and a detailed map of Chandara printed on the reverse of the dust jacket. If the previous (and now out of print) installments in the series are reissued in editions like this, I'd be seriously tempted to pick them up in new editions, just to have the complete set.

In reading the series all in one go, I was somewhat surprised to see all of the locales visited in the later installments included in the maps of Dinotopia in that very first book. And looking at the map again now, I can see that there are still a fair number of places still unvisited. I can only begin to imagine the amount of work that must go into one of these projects, hundreds of pages of fully painted images, to say nothing of the kind of research and design that must be involved. But I hope that it doesn't take too long, and hope that Gurney is already at work on the next installment, because I'd love to take another dip into his world.


Friday, October 26, 2007


Free Fiction Friday: "Trick or Treat"

Back in the Clockwork Storybook days, when we were producing regular material for our webzine, we'd occasionally do round-robin stories with a character called Timmy Gromp. He was a hapless kid, unloved by his parents (or anyone else, for that matter), and we seemed to delight in heaping abuse on him. Sort of like Kevin Shapiro in Daniel Pinkwater's Young Adult Novel, nothing but misery ever came poor Timmy Gromp's way.

Last year I posted Timmy Gromp's Christmas adventure, in observance of the season. Seeing as next week is Halloween, by which time I'll be in Saratoga Springs for the World Fantasy Convention, now seems as good a time as any to break out Timmy's Halloween tale.

In this bit of silliness, as in "Timmy Gromp Saves Christmas," Timmy collides with J.B. Carmody, the hero of Cybermancy Incorporated, about whom I was writing quite a lot at the time. (It may help to know that Timmy's favorite curse-word is "assbug," for reasons explored in another story. Or perhaps it doesn't help, at that...)

Trick or Treat:
A Public Service Announcement
by Chris Roberson

“What did you get?” asked Bobby MacAllister, peering into his paper sack of booty.

“I got a moldy old apple,” Joey Cuellar.

“I got a rock,” Timmy Gromp said, and quickly added, “Assbug.”

The three boys, trawling the twilight suburban streets of Ashland, Oregon, were forced to admit that this Halloween was shaping up to be the slimmest in a long line of slim Halloweens. Their parents, discussing the matter over backyard fences, at mailboxes, or while lingering near the office watercooler, had decided that crass commercialism had threatened the pristine spirit of the holiday for far too long, and that the traditions of their own childhoods had to be defended against all comers.

In that spirit, the parents of Timmy, Bobby, Joey, and any number of other neighborhood children had decided that this year, if the kids wanted Halloween costumes, they would have to make them by hand. Which explained why Timmy, Bobby, and Joey, of all their contemporaries, were wandering the streets in ratty old bedsheets, ragged holes cut in place of eyes. (Timmy, of course, had cut far too many holes in his sheet, leading the other two to express their long-held belief that Timmy was, in fact, an assbug).

“These treats suck,” Bobby concluded, to which Timmy and Joey responded with hearty movements of their sheet-wrapped heads.

“We should try some tricks, instead,” Joey answered, poking the browned skin of his moldy apple with an outstretched fingertip.

“I got a rock,” Timmy said.

“I know,” Bobby said. “Let’s go get some rotten old eggs from the dumpster behind the market, and throw them at houses.”

“Yeah,” Joey answered. “Let’s start with Rangi’s house. His parents talk all weird, and their house always smells like a spicy dog exploded in it.”

“A spicy dog?” Timmy asked.

“Whatever, assbug,” Bobby said. “Okay, we’ll start with Rangi’s house, and then we’ll do Ackbar’s. His parents dress funny.”

“And if there’s any eggs left, we’ll do Timmy’s house last.”

“Hey!” Timmy said.

“Not so fast kids,” said a voice from somewhere above and behind them.

The three ghosts turned, bags of bounty clutched against their sheet wrapped chests, and looked up into the eyes of the man towering over them.

“Hey, guys!” Bobby said. “It’s J.B. Carmody, the Cybermancer.”

“And A.J. Jabbar, his faithful companion,” Joey added, pointing out the giant man at Carmody’s side.

“Hey!” Timmy said.

Carmody knelt down on one knee, bringing his head nearer the boy’s level.

“Now, we couldn’t help over hearing you boys, and I have to say that I’m surprised to hear good Americans talk that way.”

“That’s right,” the giant A.J. added forcefully, his head nodding somewhere up in the darkness.

“What do you mean?” Bobby said.

“Why,” Carmody answered, “to single someone out, just because they look different, or talk different, or have different customs, is about the worst thing I can think of.”

“Yeah, it’s a good thing you’re already wearing white sheets, kids,” A.J. said, smacking one giant fist into the palm of his other hand, “because all you lack now is a burning cross or two.”

“Simmer down, Jabbar,” Carmody said. “But A.J. is right, kids, when you get right down to it. It makes no sense to judge someone on the basis of their race, religion, or culture, and to direct irrational hatred and cruel punishments against them for expressing their god given freedoms.”

”Right, boss,” A.J. said. “Better to direct irrational hatred and cruel punishments against people for the stupid things they say and do.”

“Exactly, Jabbar,” Carmody said. “Now, kids, do you know anyone in your neighborhood who says or does stupid things?”

“Well,” Bobby answered, “I saw mean old Mr. Wilson kick a puppy the other day.”

“Mrs. Grant steals her neighbor’s paper every Sunday,” Joey said.

“And my parents won’t let me read Clockwork Storybook,” Timmy said.

“Okay, kids, that’s great, now you’ve got a list to work with,” Carmody said. “Next time you round up rotten eggs to throw, or soggy toilet paper to wrap around trees, or a paper bag of dog droppings to light on fire, remember that you shouldn’t hate someone for what’s on the outside. Hate them for what’s on the inside.”

“Thanks, Mr. Carmody,” Bobby said.

“Yeah, you’re the greatest,” Joey said.

“I got a rock,” Timmy said.

“Good luck, boys,” Carmody answered, waving them on their way to gather up ammunition.

“Cracker white devils,” A.J. said.

“Jabbar,” Carmody scolded in mock-menacing tones. “Have you forgotten the true meaning of Halloween so soon?”

The giant blushed, and shook his head.

“I’m sorry, boss,” he answered. He joined Carmody in waving at the boys, already loping their way down the street to the market. “Ignorant, small-minded creeps.”

“Much better,” Carmody said with a wink.


Thursday, October 25, 2007


The Hypernaut

I meant to mention this the other day, but got sidetracked working and never got back to it. The blog Again With the Comics this week showcased one of my favorite chapters in one of my favorite comic series, Alan Moore's 1963. The story is "It Came from... Higher Space!", featuring the Hypernaut.

If you're not familiar with the series, it was Moore's early '90s homage to 60s Marvel Comics, published by Image Comics, and featuring a host of talented artists who would later work with Moore on projects like Supreme and the America's Best Comics line. The idea was to replicate the feeling of early sixties Marvel comics, complete with cheap newsprint, letters pages, and fake ads. Most of the characters were pretty close to the originals to which were homage, if one is being generous, or parody if one is not. Mystery Incorporated is a quartet of astronauts who return to Earth with powers, the Fury is a young wisecracking New Yorker with acrobatic abilities, Horus is a mythological god who shares his existence with a normal man, USA is a star-spangled super-soldier, et cetera, et al. But two of the concepts, while they started out mirroring familiar Marvel types, quickly developed into novel and really quite interesting ways.

One was Johnny Beyond, who is a kind of beatnik Doctor Strange (and really, why wouldn't the mustachioed Stephen Strange in his Greenwich Village brownstone have been a beatnik, after all?), who is featured in a nutty crosstime story. The other is the Hypernaut.

It's clear to see how the Hypernaut was probably intended as a take on Iron Man, but it's just as clear that the concept quickly grew in entirely different directions. The Hypernaut is a former test pilot who, after an accident that wrecks his body, is picked up by an alien vessel. His unseen benefactors, unable to repair his body, instead upload his consciousness into a cybernetic sphere, which can be housed in any one of a wide variety of robotic bodies, and induct him into an interstellar guild of protectors called the Hypernauts. He takes up residence in Hyperbase One, a floating satellite, along with an alien monkey named Queep.

There's a little bit of the THUNDER Agents character Noman here, a bit of Green Lantern, perhaps a bit of Iron Man. But really it's just an excuse for Moore to play around with concepts like Flatland and the higher dimensions. The story itself, a big idea framed within in a brief lighthearted adventure story, is similar in a lot of respects to some of the strips Moore did earlier in 2000AD, and would later write for the various ABC titles.

There's a whole sad tale about how the 1963 series never came to its conclusion, and the projected "Annual" that would have wrapped the stories up was never completed. But the issues that did get published are well worth seeking out. Each stands on its own, functioning both as a parody/homage of and commentary on a particular subgenre of sixties superhero comic, while at the same time function as perfect examples of sixties superheroics. And threaded through the background of each story are little bits and pieces that add up to a larger story. It's possible to piece together what the story of the Annual would have been.

In any event, check out the Again With the Comics blog to read the complete story of the Hypernaut and the Higher Space, and check the back issue boxes if you should happen to find yourself in a comic shop. 1963 is smart, good fun.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Darth Vader in Love

(via) It is what it says on the label.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


PS Publishing at 50% off

Pete Crowther's PS Publishing is running a special you won't want to miss. For any orders placed before the end of November 2007, they'll be discounting half the price for any titles published before January 2007. (The only exception is backissues of Postscripts magazine.)

There's all kinds of great stuff in the catalog to choose from. And if you've ever wanted a copy of The Voyage of Night Shining White for your very own, in hard cover or trade paperback (or both, for that matter) this would be the perfect opportunity to pick it up. And as I'm sure Pete would tell you, books make great stocking stuffers!

Monday, October 22, 2007


My Cute Kid...

... is either preparing to make your cute kid walk the plank...

... or is trying to decide if they look anything like leopard food.

(Georgia's grandmother had bought her a pirate outfit months ago, but in the last two weeks Georgia has decided that she has to be a leopard for Halloween, instead. And so she was Pirate Girl for the neighborhood Halloween carnival, after which we went and bought the leopard costume--it's actually a cheetah, I think, but don't try telling her majesty that--which doesn't quite fit, but which Allison is in the process of altering.)


Book Report

I'm in the midst of several reading projects at the moment (rereading all of James Gurney's Dinotopia series upstairs, slowly working my way through GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire downstairs, and reading bits and pieces of Star Trek novels during my morning walks), so the only thing I finished this last week was a comic book. But it was a good one, and worth remarking here.

Frank Espinosa's Rocketo: Journey to the Hidden Sea: Volume 1

I first noticed Rocketo when it was originally being serialized in individual issues by Speakeasy Comics. I stopped picking up the individual issues before Speakeasy went belly up, but fortunately for all of us, Image Comics picked up the series when the original publisher went under. Twelve issues have been published to date between the two publishers, which together represent the first "book" of the series, "Journey to the Hidden Sea," the first half of which is collected in this first volume. And this first "book", of which the present volume is the first half, is only the first of four in a projected series, forty-eight chapters in all.

Confusing? Not really. Just understand that what you're getting here is a beginning without an end (or rather, with an ending that's of the cliff-hanger variety) and everything else follows.

As pointed out in a interview I linked to back in 2005, Frank Espinosa " is a world-class animator with many credits under his name," including everything "from re-designing the complete Looney Tunes characters in 1992, to creating series of Looney Tunes US Postage stamps. If that weren't enough, he also designed the Baby Looney Tunes characters." And as I remarked at the time, I was glad that I'd already finished work on my own Paragaea: A Planetary Romance before starting to read his new comic. After reading this first collection, I'm even more glad. Rocketo is inspired by many of the same things that fed into Paragaea, and is a world-class planetary romance in its own right. I don't think it's any accident that the outfit that the titular hero Rocket Garrison wears is more-than-a-little reminiscent of that often worn by Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon.

Rocketo takes place in the post-historical world of Lucerne, at some unspecified point in the future. In between now and then, all sorts of things occur, mankind has achieved a true golden age, in which "mankind had not only pried loose the secrets of science but the mysteries of the heart. Art, literature, music... all reached a point that has never since been equaled." The moon had become a "portal to the stars and beyond, through time, through space and through dimensions." Naturally, nothing golden stays, and it all goes wrong when an alien invader called the Ull destroys the moon, sending its fragments falling to earth (shades of Thundarr the Barbarian, perhaps?) and ravaging the world. In the ages that follows, mankind adapts to its new, altered terrain, genetically altered to suit each of the new environments created by the catastrophe: bird men, fish men, dog men, and more. And a new kind of human is designed to navigate in a world that has last its magnetic field, making travel from one region to another all but impossible. Called Mappers, they are "the compass of humanity, the explorer, the way-lighter."

The story of Rocketo begins generations later, with the son of one of the twelve mapper bloodlines, Rocketo Garrison. His father had been expelled from the guild for marrying the wrong woman, but Rocketo still inherits all the genetic potential of the Mappers. When his parents are killed while he's still an adolescent, he's sent to live with a family friend, himself a Mapper, and when he's of age he's sent off to the Mappers Guild to be trained. A young tearaway, though, Rocketo never makes it to school, instead opting to become a kind of Pony Express rider, carrying mail on a flying horse, climbs a few mountains, goes deep sea diving, gets into barroom brawls, hunts for treasure, and when war breaks out joins up with a cavalry of flying fire horses. He's captured by the enemy, who use his Mapper potential to help control a giant robot by telepresence, and when the bad guys have won he's turfed out, only to end up manning a lighthouse atop a huge sentient island. He gets mixed up with Spiro, a dog man he knew from his treasure hunting days, who has hatched a plan to penetrate to the heart of the Hidden Sea, a mysterious region from which no Mapper has ever returned alive. And that's really where the story begins.

This is that kind of story. The level of invention is high, and every few pages brings some terrific new idea. The art is a cross between the fluidity of classic animation and the richness of newspaper artists like Alex Raymond and Hal Foster. The only downside I've found is that the characters are kept somewhat at arm's reach from the narrative, and so it's difficult to get too invested in them emotionally, but the world is so rich and the action is so nicely paced that I was still engaged enough to continue.

I've just discovered that there is a second volume already published, which presumably completes the "Journey to the Hidden Sea" story arc. From posts on his message board, it appears that Epinosa is hard at work on the next arc, "Journey to a New World." I'm hoping that he sticks with it, and that sales on these first volumes justify the series's continuation, because I for one would very much like to see more of Rocketo's world, and to see where his journey ends up.

Highly recommended to anyone who find appealing the description "a planetary romance that combines the aesthetic of classic animation with the richness of Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, complete with flying horses, dog men, and sentient islands."


Saturday, October 20, 2007


Explore New Worlds

Check out this awesome PSA for the Library of Congress's new literacy program.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Free Fiction Friday: A Fencing Lesson

Today's free fiction is an interstitial chapter from the expanded Set the Seas on Fire.

In this stand-alone chapter, the young Hieronymus Bonaventure, who later features in Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, receives a fencing lesson from Giles Dulac, who may or may not be related to the Jules Dulac in the story "Secret Histories: Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885" (but which will be made clear in the forthcoming End of the Century. And along with fencing, Hieronymus received a bit of a lesson in history, as well.

excerpt from
Set the Seas on Fire
by Chris Roberson

February 1795

It was late afternoon when Hieronymus Bonaventure arrived for his lesson at the disused carriage house, not far from his parents’ home. He was running late, as usual, and Giles Dulac was there waiting for him, as always, already standing on the makeshift piste at the centre of the packed dirt floor, sword in hand.

‘Considering that the only fee asked of you is your devoted attention, young master, I wonder that your habitual tardiness does not bespeak some lack of commitment to your studies.’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Hieronymus said, changing from his woollen coat into a jacket of heavy canvas. ‘My father was taking me to task for a… disagreement I had with Cornelius this morning.’

Dulac answered with a weary sigh. ‘You and your brother will share a roof for some years to come, and so must come to some accord. The only alternative is that one of you should manage at last to kill the other, which solution I don’t recommend.’

‘It is an attractive notion.’ Hieronymus gave a sly smile, as he slipped the padded plastron over his head and shoulders, and drew the heavy leather gloves over his hands. ‘At least then I could be reasonably sure that my books and papers would remain where I put them, and not be later found strewn across the floor with a nine-year-old boy’s fingerprints outlined in jam upon them.’

‘Ah,’ Dulac said, nodding with mock solemnity, ‘but what of your sister Claudia?’

‘Not to worry.’ Hieronymus picked up his own sword, tucked his wire-mesh mask beneath his arm and took his place on the piste opposite his instructor. ‘She doesn’t like jelly.’

In response, Dulac raised his sword in a quick salute, and without another word came en garde.

Hieronymus returned the salute, pulled the mask over his head and fell into position, legs bent with his feet shoulder-width apart, front foot pointed straight ahead, back foot sideways. His sword arm was held loosely before him, point towards his opponent, his back hand held up behind his head.

The sword still felt strange in his hand. He’d been studying with Dulac for more than two years, but had only within the last month begun to fence with an actual sword, and not an iron bar twice a sword’s weight. Two years of swinging a few feet of iron, his muscles protesting daily, all the while desperate to move on to more advanced studies. Since he’d shifted from the iron to a proper sword, though, Hieronymus had to admit that Dulac had been right, and that training with the excess weight greatly eased his facility in handling the real thing.

Today, he was using a French foil with no crossbar, constructed of fine Toledo steel, with a ball blunting its point, and even weighted down with a padded plastron, leather gloves and wire-mesh mask, after the dead weight of the iron bar for so many long months it felt as though he were holding nothing at all.

‘Begin,’ Dulac said, patiently waiting for Hieronymus to make the initial attack.

Hieronymus went into a lunge, which Dulac easily parried, and while Hieronymus tried to retreat, Dulac quickly riposted, scoring a touch to the middle of Hieronymus’s bicep. Even through the thick sleeve of his canvas jacket Hieronymus could feel the sting of the hit. He’d been hit there so often in recent days that he had developed a seemingly permanent bruise, gone past purple to a greenish-yellow, a viridian circle surrounded by a rim of sallow flesh, like a miniature ringed target.

Dulac recovered his position, and regarded Hieronymus through narrowed eyes. ‘Again.’

Resisting the urge to rub his stinging bicep, Hieronymus returned to the en garde position, and began his next attack.

For the next quarter-hour, the carriage house echoed with the ring of crossed swords, the clash of steel. Attack. Parry. Riposte. Attack. Parry. Riposte. And with hit after hit, the bruises on Hieronymus’s pale flesh multiplied beneath the padded plastron.

When Dulac had first taken Hieronymus on as a pupil, he’d ordered him to forget everything he thought he knew of swordplay. Hieronymus had spent some years assembling a small personal library of fencing manuals, and had studied them with single-minded intensity, gaining a whole new vocabulary of terminology but, Dulac insisted, little insight. It hardly mattered that Hieronymus could use terms like imbrocatta, stocatta, or punta riversa; if his muscles didn’t know what those movements felt like, then the words were useless.

So it was that Dulac’s training had focused on movement, not on vocabulary. Hieronymus scarcely knew what any of the techniques he’d so far learned would be called in Mr Angelo’s famous fencing academy in Soho Square, and while it was perfectly clear that Dulac did know, it was just as clear that Dulac put little stock in the knowledge. Just how Hieronymus’s instructor, to all outward appearance a humble tutor of Latin, had come by such a mastery of swordplay remained a mystery; however, it was obvious to Hieronymus that however Dulac had come by his skill with the blade, it had been through practical application and not through the trivial pursuit of a sport. At some point, in the past about which he wouldn’t speak, Dulac had lived by the sword.

‘Don’t watch the blade,’ Dulac barked, drawing Hieronymus’s attentions back to the moment. ‘Watch my eyes. They’ll tell you everything you need to know of my movements.’

The lessons continued. Attack. Parry. Riposte. And bruises piled upon bruises.

Finally, Dulac called an end to the bout. ‘Enough!’

Dulac motioned for Hieronymus to remove his mask. The instructor seemed about to hurl his foil to the ground in frustration, but instead just fixed his pupil with a hard stare.

‘In the salles d’armes of Paris, before the Revolution, the maîtres would have ousted you from the building after so poor a showing. And I’ll admit I’m tempted to follow suit. Your mind is clearly not at the task. So what occupies your thoughts?’

Hieronymus stifled the urge to lower his gaze and shuffle his feet, and instead, as Dulac had taught him, looked his instructor in the eye and spoke in as clear a voice as possible. ‘I’m not certain, sir.’

‘Hmph. But you’ll agree with me that your thoughts on not on your efforts, I take it?’

Hieronymus drummed his fingers on the wire-mesh of his mask for a moment before answering, nervously. Finally, he said, ‘No, sir. That is, yes, I agree that I’m not concentrating.’

‘Very well,’ Dulac said with an indulgent sigh. ‘Perhaps a brief interval will allow you to collect yourself, and then we’ll try again.’

Glad for the respite, Hieronymus set his foil and mask on the floor, and took long draughts from the jug of water sitting near the wall. He tried not to meet Dulac’s eyes, as shame and guilt warmed the back of his neck.

The truth was that Hieronymus knew precisely what was occupying his thoughts, and distracting him from his fencing. But Dulac had long months before insisted that he forget such matters as soon as he entered their makeshift salle, and the punishment for infringing upon this restriction was an additional series of strenuous and time-consuming muscle-toning exercises.

Even in the face of such punishment, though, Hieronymus found himself almost entirely unable to control himself and, after nearly emptying the jug of water, turned back to Dulac. In as casual a manner as he was able, he said, ‘Have you heard the latest news?’

Dulac, who was intent on cleaning the blade of his foil, glanced up, his left eyebrow cocked. ‘Oh,’ he asked, though it was clear he knew perfectly well the answer. ‘What news would that be?’

‘Of the capture of the Dutch fleet by the French army,’ Hieronymus said, excitedly. ‘Under the command of Jean Pichegru, it appears, the French crossed the frozen Zuyder Zee river and seized the ships trapped in the winter ice.’ So animated did he get, as he recounted the anecdote, that he seemed nearly ready to dance a jig. ‘It marks the first time in history that a navy has ever been captured by an army.’

Dulac treated him to a half-smile. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure of that, young master. History is a considerable deal longer than you might expect, and the catalogue of past events, now all but forgotten, is nearly endless. You would be surprised at what strange things have happened before, and will happen again.’ He paused, significantly, and added, ‘But am I mistaken, or was there not some stricture against discussing wars and news of wars during our sessions?’ Though Dulac’s tone was on the whole playful, there was clearly steel beneath his words.

‘Oh, I beg your pardon, sir!’ Hieronymus answered in a rush. ‘But… but it’s all too… Well, sir, just this week we’ve heard the news of the fall of the Netherlands to the forces of the French. And one of my classmates says that his uncle saw Statholder William’s arrival in Dover with his own two eyes.’

Dulac sighed. ‘Little more than a decade since William V of Orange lost the latest Anglo-Dutch War to the English, and now he flees behind their coattails for protection.’

‘My mother says that the Netherlands has been virtually a vassal of King George ever since the war, scarcely less a puppet state than this Batavian Republic set up by the French, and that William was only able to control the Patriots amongst his own population through the intercession of Prussian troops.’ Hieronymus paused, and with his eyes lowered went on in a subdued voice. ‘That’s what my mother says, at any rate, based on what news she has from her own father.’

Dulac pursed his lips in an expression of sympathy. ‘So your grandfather is well, and weathers the recent troubles?’

Hieronymus nodded.

‘His name is Cornelius, too, isn’t it?’ Dulac asked.

‘Yes,’ Hieronymus answered. ‘Or near enough. Cornelis van der Waals. My brother was named for him, after a fashion. Just as I was named for my father Jerome, I suppose.’

‘A cartographer, wasn’t he?’

‘He made maps for the Dutch East India Company.’ Hieronymus raised his chin, his tone suggesting pride commingled with awe. ‘Of the coastlines of Japan, and charts of the sea-lanes to and from there.’ He paused, and a cloud passed for a moment across his features. ‘Better that I’d been named for him, and Cornelius for our father. My brother is the studious one, suited to follow in our father’s footsteps, not me. But father wants me to pursue the career of the scholar.’

‘So what career would you prefer, then?’ Dulac narrowed his eyes, looking close at his pupil.

‘I don’t know,’ Hieronymus said, with a shrug he couldn’t suppress. ‘But I know I don’t want to spend my life confined to a dusty library. I want to see the world!’ He began to pace the floor, hands curled into ineffectual fists. ‘Mother says that I have her father’s temperament, passed down through her. Father says that I have the fidgets, and need only discipline to make of me a scholar.’

‘And what do you say?’

‘I don’t know,’ Hieronymus repeated, wearily. ‘Sometimes I don’t know if I’ll ever get to leave home.’

Dulac tactfully failed to point out, as he’d done many times before, that Hieronymus was not yet fourteen years old, and had scarcely reached the stage where leaving home was an imminent proposition. Instead, a momentarily silence stretched between them, in which the tutor regarded his pupil with an amused expression.

Finally, Dulac chuckled. ‘So, young master, you are not much of a diseuse de bonne aventure, after all.’

Hieronymus didn’t understand, as his look made evident.

‘Do I take it you don’t know the meaning and history of your own surname?’

‘Oh,’ Hieronymus said. ‘I had always understood it to be a cognate to the Italian buonaventura, or “good luck”.’

‘Perhaps.’ Dulac nodded. ‘But in French, dire la bonne aventure, or “to speak the good adventure”, means fortunetelling.’

Hieronymus’s mouth reformed in a moue of distaste. ‘So my name is French?’

Dulac laughed at his pupil’s consternation. ‘I’m not sure of its ultimate origin, but so far as I know, the name Bonaventure originates in the Varadeaux region which, you may be happy to know, while it was formerly a possession of France, is now under the control of the Prussian king. But whatever its roots, it is a name of which to be proud.’

Hieronymus blew air through his lips, making an undignified noise. ‘I see no reason to take pride in my name.’

‘Oh, no?’ Dulac mimed surprise. ‘Then perhaps you should count yourself lucky that you are not able to share those sentiments with Etienne Bonaventure, who served king and country in seventeenth-century France, in the days of Louis XIII and Richelieu. I doubt a musketeer of his calibre would take so kindly to the casual dismissal of a name he bore proudly? Or perhaps Amandine Bonaventure, opera singer and swordswoman at the turn of the eighteenth century, who affected male dress and counted men and women alike amongst her conquests, both martial and amorous?’

Hieronymus’s eyes opened wider as he parsed that last statement. ‘Men and women?’

‘She was as willing to face either sex with her blade, and just as willing to welcome either to her bed.’

If possible, Hieronymus’s eyes opened even wider.

‘And what of Achille Bonaventure, who in the sixteenth century explored the new world with Jacques Cartier, journeyed to the kingdom of Saguenay, and helped found La Society de Lucien? Did he fight and bleed only to have his good name dismissed so casually by his namesake?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘And perhaps you’d like to…’ Dulac paused, his words choked off, and a brief expression of pain flitted across his features, before vanishing again. Regaining his composure, he continued. ‘And perhaps you’d like to explain yourself to Michel-Thierry Bonaventure.’

Dulac fell silent again, for a brief moment, and his gaze drifted to the middle distance.

‘Who was he, then?’ Hieronymus asked, somewhat overwhelmed.

‘Michel-Thierry was a mercenary with whom I served in the DeMeuron Regiment. And he was my friend.’

Hieronymus’s breath caught in his throat. There was a quality to Dulac’s voice that he’d not heard before, and this marked the first occasion on which Dulac had revealed anything of his life before their initial meeting.

‘What is that? The DeMeuron Regiment?’

Dulac turned and looked at Hieronymus, wearing a strange expression, almost like he was seeing the boy for the first time.

‘The regiment is a Swiss company of mercenaries, its name taken from that of its founder and first commander, the Comte Charles de Meuron, veteran of the regiment D’Erlach and the Swiss Guard. During the majority of my tenure with the DeMeuron, the regiment was in the employ of the VOC, better known in English, I suppose, as the Dutch East India Company.’

Hieronymus felt like he was a beat or two behind, slow to catch up to the pace of the revelations. ‘So you… You were a soldier?’ If so, it confirmed many of his suspicions about his instructor.

‘For a span,’ Dulac admitted, his tone subdued, ‘and not for the first time. But I’m in no hurry to be one again, and never will, if I can help it.’

Hieronymus puzzled through what Dulac had said. ‘But you are British. How did you come to serve a company of Swiss mercenaries?’

‘I was recruited in the region of Varadeaux in 1782, as was my friend Michel-Thierry. We served together four years, seeing action on three continents, countless islands and seemingly half of the world’s oceans.’ Dulac fell silent once more, and again his gaze drifted to the middle distance, lines forming around his eyes, perhaps the sign of some dimly remembered pain.

So Dulac had begun his soldier’s career when Hieronymus had been scarcely a year old. Hieronymus found it difficult to imagine what the younger Dulac must have been like. Whatever the details, it was clear that Dulac’s experiences as a mercenary had marked him in some way, and though there were no scars evident in his skin, perhaps there were other forms of scarring, more subtle and yet more indelible still.

‘What happened to your friend?’ Hieronymus asked at length. ‘What became of this Michel-Thierry.’

Dulac turned, and for a long moment looked at Hieronymus in silence, studying him closely. ‘He died needlessly,’ Dulac finally said, breaking the silence with an air of finality that suggested that was an end to the topic.

Something seemed to pass between them, in the silence that followed, and Hieronymus wondered whether there was something he was expected to say, or to do. But before he could act, whatever the case, Dulac leapt to his feet, snatching up his foil.

‘But enough of such sombre topics,’ he said, striding back to the piste, forcing a bright tone into his voice. ‘While we do our warming-up exercises, to limber our limbs, I’ll tell you a bit about my days in the DeMeuron. You mentioned Japan earlier. Once, Michel-Thierry and I were seconded to a VOC delegation from the Chamber of Enkhuizen, and sent to act as little more than bodyguards to a bureaucrat on the artificial island of Desjima.’

Dulac sliced his foil through the air with a whistling sound, while Hieronymus tugged on his gloves and fitted his mask over his head.

‘Tell me, young master,’ Dulac went on, ‘in your mother’s stories of her father, have you ever heard mention of the word Rangaku?’

With a shake of his head, Hieronymus allowed that he hadn’t. Then, while he went through a series of lunges, thrusting his sword hand forward and throwing his other back for balance, his instructor examined his technique and explained.

‘It is the Japanese word for “Dutch learning”, and is used to mean any knowledge derived from the west. As you are doubtless aware, for hundreds of years the island of Japan has been closed off from all contact with the outside world, with one notable exception, namely, the Dutch, who are allowed to maintain a “factory”, or trading post, on Desjima, an “island” of wood constructed in the bay of Nagasaki. Mind that foot, young master, you continue to turn it inwards and you’ll regret it in the long run. Desjima is intended to act as a buffer between the Japanese and the base barbarians of the west, and as such the Dutch are prohibited from passing over the narrow bridge from the wooden island onto the Nagasaki shore, and the Japanese are banned from entering Desjima—except of course for the ladies known as yūjo, though perhaps your ears are still too young to hear about them. Keep that back leg straight in the lunge, or you lose your support. There are occasional exceptions to these restrictions, scholars periodically allowed onto the island of Japan for one reason or another, and of course the perennial visit of the Dutch legation to the court of the shogun.’

A familiar half-smile tugged up one corner of Dulac’s mouth, and he paused for a moment, chuckling to himself.

‘That is where Michel-Thierry and I come into the story, and where the problems begin. Now, let’s try a few bouts, and see if your attentions are with your efforts.’

The pair took their positions facing each other on the piste, saluted and then closed, crossing swords. As they fenced, Dulac continued to speak, perhaps testing Hieronymus’s concentration, perhaps just not willing to leave off, interspersing his anecdote with instruction.

‘The head of the Dutch factory is called opperhoofd, and carries the equivalent position in the Japanese hierarchy to that of a daimyo, a rank something like an English duke or count but with considerably more power. Like the daimyo, once a year the opperhoofd was called upon to journey to Edo, to pay obeisance to the Japanese ruler, the shogun, and to present him with gifts—which gifts the Shogun had invariably selected in advance, so that the legation served as little more than freight-carriers with bespoke goods. Try to expend as little effort as possible to redirect the point of my blade. Here, begin a simple attack and I’ll demonstrate.

Hieronymus thrust his sword’s point forward, and Dulac simply swivelled his wrist, describing with his own foil a small circle around Hieronymus’s blade, turning it aside.

‘Always an economy of motion. Never engage in flourishes or wasted effort, but apply only the resources necessary to the task. Again. Now, as I said, Michel-Thierry and I had been seconded as a security detachment to Desjima, and when it came time for the opperhoofd’s annual pilgrimage to the shogun’s palace, we were selected to escort him. You see, the opperhoofd had made some enemies among the Japanese gentry, those who quietly opposed the shogun’s policies, and while these malcontents were hardly eager to rise up against their own ruler, they could with greater ease take out their frustrations on foreign dignitaries. As a result, shortly before the legation was set to depart from Desjima, word was received that assassins had been hired to take the opperhoofd’s life. However, by Japanese law only civilian members of the opperhoofd’s staff could go on the pilgrimage, and so Michel-Thierry and I were forced to pose as the opperhoofd’s scribe and the factory doctor. That Michel-Thierry’s penmanship was horrible would have been apparent even to Japanese unable to read the letters, and so he was selected instead to play the part of the doctor. You should anticipate, and attempt to turn a defensive manoeuvre into an offensive one. Try to feint the first parry to draw out the attack, and then use the second parry as your real parry for the riposte. That’s it, now again. So it was that on a bright spring morning the opperhoofd, Michel-Thierry and I set out from Desjima on the long journey to Edo, under the watchful eyes of our escorts, the shogun’s own warriors. The journey took days, in which Michel-Thierry and I were constantly vigilant, never sure from what corner danger might present itself, or in what guise death might come for the opperhoofd. Finally we reached the Nagasakiya, the residence prepared for the legation, where we were to wait until summoned.’

Dulac took a step back, barely winded from his exertions, while Hieronymus felt his heart pounding in his chest, the blood rushing in his ears, trying desperately not to pant.

‘Keep that elbow tucked in. Your arms and legs seem always to want to rush away from your body, but your thrust loses its impetus if your arm is out of line. As it happened, our stay in the capital lasted for more than two weeks, during which time we waited on the shogun’s pleasure, and busied ourselves as befitted the Dutch legation. Michel-Thierry, as the supposed doctor of the legation, was expected to meet with the local practitioners, to exchange techniques and the like, while the opperhoofd met with merchants in an attempt to negotiate better terms for the VOC, with me at his side keeping careful record of the interaction. That’s it. Now, we’ll see what happens when the attack fall just short, but your attacker does not withdraw. I regret that I was unable to see Michel-Thierry’s star turn as a doctor myself, but then I was busy keeping careful watch over the opperhoofd, looking out for any sign of danger, and so had to forgo the pleasure. Finally, we were called to court where, after presenting our gifts, we were expected to perform Dutch dances and songs for the shogun.’ Dulac chuckled. ‘I don’t know that “O Dag, O Langgewenste Dag” has ever had a sorrier interpretation than that we gave it, but nevertheless I maintain that I remained in tune, whereas Michel-Thierry would likely not have been able to pronounce a convincing Dutch vowel if his life depended on it. In any event, the opperhoofd paid proper homage to the shogun, and received a token gift of plum wine in exchange, and then we were sent on our merry way back to Desjima.’

Dulac, without missing a beat, returned en garde, parried and then immediately riposted, at which Hieronymus dropped into a squat and thrust with his sword, all in one motion. As he’d hoped, Hieronymus managed to drop completely beneath the point of Dulac’s foil, and scored a slight but undeniable hit on Dulac’s chest with the point of his own foil.

‘Good, good,’ Dulac said, nodding in admiration. ‘A risky move, but a useful one. But remember to keep your bell guard high, which should provide the maximum protection against your opponent’s point hitting your top shoulder.’

Hieronymus, now thoroughly winded, took off his mask and put his hands on his knees, struggling to catch his breath.

‘What…’ he began, raggedly. ‘What happened with the opperhoofd? And the assassins?’

‘Hmm?’ Dulac blinked for a moment, confused. He’d clearly lost the thread of the story amongst the details, fondly remembering his lost friend. ‘Well, as it happens, the assassins were simply smarter, and had infiltrated the staff of the shogun. When we returned to Desjima, the opperhoofd toasted his safe return with the plum wine given him by the shogun, and promptly dropped dead on the spot.’


‘Poisoned. Which, I suppose, should serve you well as an illustrative example. When dealing with the unknown—whether fencing an unknown opponent, entering a strange land, or dealing with a person or people unfamiliar to you—remember one thing: that the unknown is exactly that. Not known. The moment one assumes that he understands that which he doesn’t, he is inviting disaster.’

Copyright © MonkeyBrain, Inc.



Jack Staff Returns

We all need a little good news, once in a while. Here's a little bit for me.

Paul Grist's acclaimed superhero series, JACK STAFF, goes monthly starting with January's JACK STAFF SPECIAL #1.

"I've longed to put out JACK STAFF monthly for a long time," Grist said. "Luckily, I wasn't alone as Image's Executive Director, Eric Stephenson, has wanted the same thing. We've been working together to make it happen for awhile now and I'm happy to say we already have three issues in the can with a fourth right on its heels."

JACK STAFF made its debut through Grist's own publishing house, Dancing Elephant Press, but it didn't take long into his twelve issue run to catch Stephenson's interest. The book was soon relaunched under Image and introduced a new fanbase to Jack Staff and his massive supporting cast including the Freedom Fighters, Sgt. States, Tom Tom the Robot Man and Becky Burdock: Vampire Reporter. JACK STAFF SPECIAL #1 will catch up the uninitiated and provide the perfect jumping on point to February's JACK STAFF #14.

JACK STAFF SPECIAL #1 (NOV072015), a 32-page full color comic priced at $3.50, will be available in stores January 16th.
One of the lone islands of awesome in the giant sea of sucky superhero comics, Paul Grist's Jack Staff is a pure delight, never a disappointment, and always a reason to rush across town on new comic day.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


New Review

Don D'Ammassa has posted his review of Set the Seas on Fire, and seems to have enjoyed it.
This is an old fashioned, lost world adventure story, deliberately paced, and it even has a volcano in it. It's a form I've always loved, but it's hard to find new ones nowadays. The cover blurbs compare it to Lovecraft but it felt much more like William Hope Hodgson to me. And that's definitely a compliment.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Celestial Empire checklist

A few people have asked for a list of all the Celestial Empire stories, and I've been derelict in putting one up on my website. I won't have a chance to put a proper page up for a while, but in the meantime here's the current list.

(listed in internal chronological order, rather than publication order; links to stories available online)
Fire in the Lake” – Subterranean Magazine, Fall 2007
“Thy Saffron Wings” – Postscripts (forthcoming)
"The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small" - Asimov's Science Fiction (July, 2007)
"O One" - Live Without a Net (Roc, June 2003)
“Metal Dragon Year” – Interzone #213
"Gold Mountain" - Poscripts #5 (and in Dozois’s 2006 YBSF)
“The Voyage of Night Shining White” – Novella from PS Publishing (and in Best Short Novels: 2007)
“Line of Dichotomy” - The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2 (forthcoming from Solaris, 2008; also available as chapbook)
"Red Hands, Black Hands" - Asimov's Science Fiction (December, 2004)
“All Under Heaven” - Firebirds Soaring (forthcoming from Firebird, 2008)
"Dragon King of the Eastern Sea" - We Think, Therefore We Are (forthcoming from DAW, 2008)


The Dragon's Nine Sons
(Solaris, 2008)
Three Unbroken (Solaris, 2009; serialized online 2007-2008)
Iron Jaw and Hummingbird (Viking, 2008)


Metal Dragon Year

Hey, look who isn't "...and puppet show..." on the cover of Interzone #213.

In case anyone is wondering, this is yet another entry in my Celestial Empire sequence. I just can't seem to stop writing the damned things.

In an interesting bit of serendipity (or synchronicity, perhaps?), after picking up "Metal Dragon Year," which is all about a space-race between the Chinese and the Aztecs in my alternate history, the editors (in the able persons of madman Jetse de Vries and Andy Cox) selected for publication a story by Aliette de Bodard entitled "The Lost Xuyan Bride," which just so happens to be set in an alternate history dominated by the Chinese and Aztecs. Rather than avoiding the parallels, the editors chose to highlight them, featuring both in the same issue with a bit of editorial mortaring, prologues written by me and Aliette, explaining how we both arrived by different paths at similar destinations.

The cover illustration, by the way, is by Kenn Brown of Mondolithic Studios, inspired by my story. Lovely, isn't it?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007



Over on his blog, James Gurney has some insightful observations about city streets, and about where to find inspirations, that should be kept in mind by anyone attempting to devise a fictional locale.



Years ago, back in Clockwork Storybook days, Mark Finn sent me a link to Langmaker.com. Among other cool features, the site contained pages about all manner of "conlangs," or "constructed languages." Not just things like Esperanto or Lojban, but also those devised for use in fiction, like Barsoomian or Klingon. Having at one point been a card-carrying member of the Klingon Language Institute (seriously, I was), I was fascinated. I spent a bit of time poking around the site, and then went off to do other things.

Last night I got caught up in one of those Wikipedia chains of association, where you start searching for one thing, end up following links to other topics, and before you know it have fallen down the rabbit hole entirely. In this case, I was watching old episodes of Star Trek: TNG as ongoing research for my Star Trek novel, and in a few of the Ron Moore-penned episodes we got a lot of Klingon action. I got to wondering what Marc Okrand was up to, as you will, since I don't remember having seen much about him since he devised the Atlantean language for Atlantis: The Lost Empire. One thing led to another, and I ended up back at the list of conlangs on Langmaker, for the first time in about six years.

In the intervening time I've "invented" two languages myself, though both are hardly deserving of the name. One, the native language of Kovoko-ko-te'Maroa, is really just Maori with a bit of consonant drift, while the other, the Sakrian language of Paragaea (which is itself a degraded form of Atlantean) is only a vocabulary of a few dozen words and a pretty simple syntax. Both serve their purpose well enough, but don't go much further than that.

But check out this list of constructed languages. Some of these people have put a lot of work into these, and it shows. I lost the better part of an hour just poking through here. I've been toying with the idea of another language, the dialect of the Varadeaux region of Switzerland which is name-checked a few times in the expanded Set the Seas on Fire, and in the forthcoming End of the Century. I think, though, if I did it again I'd put more effort into it than I did with Sakrian and Te'Maroan, doing something more along the lines of some of the efforts on this list.

In any event, check it out if the idea of modeled, artificial, or fictional languages is of any interest to you. Me, I find this stuff fascinating.


Starfleet Academy

A glimpse into what JJ Abrams might do with the Star Trek franchise...

Monday, October 15, 2007


Book Report

It's Monday, the day that I spent talking about books I've read, instead of working on the books I should be writing.

As I've mentioned a few times in the last few weeks, I've been reading the first installment in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Usually a novel takes me anywhere from a day or two, to possibly a week, to finish. It took me exactly three weeks to read A Game of Thrones, and that's reading at least thirty minutes a day, as well as a few extended periods at night when Allison worked late. This is a big book, and it's a dense one, too. And it's the shortest of the series to date, by far.

George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones

Now, I'm coming pretty late to the party on this one, which was first published in 1996. For years I've been hearing about how great this book was. I think that Bill Willingham was the first person I knew who'd read it, but over the years I've gotten in from all corners, including most recently Jude Feldman of Borderlands Books.

I've never been one much for epic fantasy. I've only spent time reading widely in the subgenre twice, once for a span of a few years in high school, and then again for a time in my mid-twenties. In high school I didn't have particularly discriminating tastes, and so would read things I found in my school and public libraries, in used books stores, and recommended to me by friends. As a result, aside from a fair amount of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion stuff that I found in the school library, most of the fantasy I read was tied to movies, or related to or inspired by rpgs. A lot of stuff by Alan Dean Foster, an alarming number of Dragonlance novels, the gamers-in-fantasy-land novels of Joel Rosenberg. Then in my mid-twenties I went through a bit of self-education on the genre, but in that instance I started reading with "taproot" texts--James Branch Cabell, George MacDonald, Arthur Machen--and then working my way forward through the high points of the fantasy genre, stopping along the way at Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, JRR Tolkien, Moorcock again, Ursula K. Leguin, et cetera. The only recently published fantasy I read at the time was urban fantasy, with stacks of Charles de Lint, Midori Snyder, Jane Yolen, and folks like that.

As a result, I've never actually read much epic fantasy written during my lifetime, and particularly not in high school when it seems a lot of other readers did. I was in college by the time Robert Jordan started his fantasy series, and I think Terry Brooks had only published the first two-thirds of his initial fantasy trilogy by the time I started high school. What I did read in high school, though, and even moreso in college, was the science fiction of George RR Martin. I picked up the first of the Wild Cards shared world anthologies within a week or two of it hitting the stands in mass-market paperback, and was immediately hooked. That volume and those that followed affected my brain in ways I probably still don't fully realize. From there I discovered Martin's short-story collections (have previously seen his stuff in the pages of Analog, to which I subscribed at the time). Then in college I found Armageddon Rag (the best book on the 60s and popular music I've yet read) and Fevre Dream (one of, if not the best vampire book I've read) in the shelves of the Undergraduate Library at the University of Texas. It was right around then, as I understand it, that Martin went to work in television, and aside from the ongoing installments in the Wild Cards series, his name didn't often appear in the new releases sections of bookstores.

Having never developed much of an affinity for epic fantasy, then, when Willingham started telling me about this new entry in the field by GRRM, I was conflicted. I was definitely interested in anything Martin did, but the prospect of diving into a fat fantasy novel, which was itself only the first installment in a longer series, was a little offputting. Still, I flagged it mentally as something to consider, and then went on reading other things. As time went on, more and more people praised "A Song of Ice and Fire" to the rafters, and I started getting little bits and pieces of the plot through osmosis. This was a fantasy at a human level, with real grit, and terrifically effective battle scenes. There was magic, but it was at the margins, with the focus of the attention being on real men and women who find themselves at a turning point in history.

I'm not sure what finally made me crack. It was a confluence of events that culminated a month ago in the sudden realization that I had to read this series, or at least the first installment. Because I've got this rule, you see, about only reading the first installments of series that haven't yet been completed, and I've got loads of books on my To Read pile. So three and a half weeks ago, right before leaving town for FenCon, I stopped in at B&N and picked up a copy of A Game of Thrones. That this B&N with its painfully limited selected had each of the four installments in the series in every available format--mmpb, tpb, and hc--was an interesting sign. (And that by last week they'd sold out of all of them when I came back for the second installment sold volumes, but more on that in a moment.) And then, sitting in the hotel bar that weekend, I started in on the story.

I was immediately hooked.

I've been toying with the idea of writing an epic fantasy for the last few years. Only recently have I begun to think about what I might actually write. For a long time, instead, I thought about what an epic fantasy should be, and in my admittedly limited experience so seldom was. I had a list of requirements, things that I thought should be included, things that should be avoided. All of this was the product of my self-education in my mid-twenties, which I approached with the rigor of a graduate level course, complete with syllabus and reading list, which as I've said only ran through the late sixties, perhaps verging a bit into the mid- to late-seventies. So far all I knew the "perfect epic fantasy" had been written in the last twenty or so years and I just hadn't read it yet.

Well, it seems to me that I've found it, and that George RR Martin has written it. A Game of Thrones is a damned-near-perfect book, and ticks off nearly ever item on my list of what an epic fantasy should do, and avoids every item on the should not list. The writing itself is skillful, deceptively simple, and worthy of careful study. And the level of invention is little short of staggering. The characters are well-drawn and nuanced, and the tantalizing glimpses we're given of the history and of the rest of the world make the reader hungry for more.

I finally finished reading the novel on Friday, a few hours after sending off to Solaris the first third of Three Unbroken, about which more later. This morning I begin work on my Star Trek novel in earnest. And sitting in the living room next to my chair is a copy of A Clash of Kings, the second installment in the series. Because even with my rule about unfinished series, even considering that it took me three weeks to read the shortest installment of the four books in print, when I read the last hundred or so pages on Friday afternoon, so much that I read was 100% kick-ass, so completely mind-bogglingly brilliant, that I couldn't wait to start reading the next book. On my way to pick up Georgia from preschool I took a long detour, visited two HPBs and two B&Ns looking for a copy of the book, and then this weekend found time to read the first couple of chapters. At the rate I'm going, I'm going to be reading nothing for pleasure but "A Song of Ice and Fire" until late this year, perhaps even early next year. And then I'll join the legion of readers hungrily waiting the next installment in the series. But honestly, at this point, I can't help myself.

So really, not recommended to anyone, unless you want to read what may be the perfect epic fantasy, and you have loads of time to commit to reading it. In which case this comes highly, highly recommended.



A Mock Columnist

(via) Stephen Colbert, as "Stephen Colbert", guest-wrote Maureen Dowd's column in the NYT yesterday.

Anybody read his book yet? Allison and I flipped through it over the weekend, but lack the wherewithal at the moment to pick up a copy.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Lost Moore

If you dipped your toe into the shallow end of the comics-blogosphere the last few days, you might have seen this, in which Rob Liefeld reveals the "truth" about Alan Moore.

Um, right...

If nothing else, though, this bit of windbaggery inspired Kevin Church to post the full text of Moore's script for Youngblood #4. This is the first I've seen of the script, though I'd seen a synopsis of it years ago after the line folded. This is the time-travel western story, in which the modern day heroes of Youngblood are transposed into the old west, while the wild west heroes of Young Guns are displaced into the modern day, and it is naturally chock-full of goodness and fun.

The fact that Liefeld has been sitting on anywhere from a few to a half-dozen or so full scripts (and god knows how many pages of treatments and pitches) written by Moore is just galling. There's also the conclusion to Supreme which, if I understand it correctly, exists in at least a notional form. If you're unfamiliar with the latter, it is something of a hidden masterpiece by Moore, only somewhat marred by wildly uneven art--some of it truly spectacular, some of it execrable; unfortunately, though, Supreme ended two issues before the conclusion of the story (it's somewhat more complicated than that, since the book was cancelled and relaunched in the meantime, and shuffled from one publisher to another, but the simple version is that it's something like a twenty-four part story of which only twenty-two parts have been published).

There are rumors about an actually "complete" collection of Supreme, which one hopes would include those final two scripts in text form, at least. The final issue to see print, with art by Rick Veitch, was a glorious paean to Jack Kirby, which even the addition of a few childishly crude figure drawings by Liefeld in the opening and closing sections failed to sour.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Free Fiction Friday: "So Far From Us In All Ways"

This week's free fiction offering is a complete short story, which first appeared in Jeanne Cavelos's The Many Faces of Van Helsing, a fine anthology that sadly didn't get the attention it deserved. Copies can still be had on the remainder shelves of many Barnes & Noble stores, and I recommend picking it up if you chance upon one.

I've done two more stories with my version of a young Abraham Van Helsing, one in the pages of Adventure Vol. 1, and the other in the forthcoming Solaris Book of New Fantasy, edited by the inestimable George Mann. About the latter story, Nick Gevers had this to say in the most recent Locus Magazine:
"And Such Small Deer" by Chris Roberson, a tale of Doctor Van Helsing in the Dutch East Indies, embraces the grotesque in a neat conflation of Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells.
The Solaris antho is highly recommended, by the way, and should be in stores shortly. And I imagine that George would agree with me that they make great stocking stuffers!

These three stories, for what it's worth, are actually the first three chapters of a novel, Travel Towards the Sunrise, which I may get around to writing one day, assuming that the stink of that crappy movie ever fades.

(And if anyone guesses that there might be a bit of Wold Newtonry in this story, and that the young Manchurian doctor Fu might be somewhat familiar, well...)

So Far From Us In All Ways
by Chris Roberson

Letter, from Fu Zheng Lei, Hunan Province, to his Excellency, the Imperial Minister of Examinations, the Forbidden City, Beijing
(translated from the Mandarin)

Your Excellency, forgive my impertinence in addressing this missive directly to you. At the urging of my uncle, Governor of Hunan Province and cousin to his imperial Majesty Xianfeng (scion of the Qing dynasty, son of heaven, may he reign ten thousand years), I am writing to explain my absence from my scheduled Jinshi national examination, and to beg your indulgence in allowing me another attempt. My uncle, Governor of Hunan Province and cousin to his imperial Majesty, thought it might be beneficial if I were to explain how it was that I came to miss my scheduled examination, as the circumstances were most unusual and unavoidable. My uncle, likewise, suggests that recounting the events could prove instructive for me, and help mold me into one who might in future better serve the Dragon Throne.

The difficulty arose on the road from Changsha, en route to Beijing and the Forbidden City.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal
(translated from the Dutch.)

1 Sep, 1860. Zhengzhou. -- Left Tianjin by junk boat, morning of 25th August, and after a journey of five days, four onboard and one additional by horse-drawn wagon, reached the rural city of Zhengzhou. Unfortunately, employer’s agent, whose health I was sent afield to tend could not wait my coming. Arriving too late to help the poor devil, I was able to do little more than supervise the packing up of his body to be shipped, first to Tianjin, then back to England for burial.

I have been in the Orient only a relatively short time, and this journey marked my first real foray beyond the protection of the English Concession in the treaty port city of Tianjin. Guarded by English troops, the narrow streets packed with the regional offices of dozens of leading English international firms, my employers among them, living in the Concession is not so different, upon reflection, from my years spent studying in London. Beyond those protective walls lies the alien landscape of China, mysterious and threatening.

I have had occasion, these last months, to question the wisdom of quitting my native Holland for such a strange port. I’ve not felt at ease since stepping off the packet boat on the Tianjin docks, surrounded by the odd customs and incomprehensible jabber of the natives. Even within the confines of the English Concession I am surrounded by foreigners, and never hear my native tongue (though at least there, with my admittedly limited facility with the British tongue, I can comprehend and make myself understood). Still, after the loss of my wife and son this past winter, I could not remain any longer in Amsterdam. Each street corner I turned, each park bench I passed, only served as a reminder of happy memories, and brought to mind the grim, miserable state of my life without them. When the invitation from my former classmate arrived, I saw it as a chance for escape. A fellow student from my days studying medicine in London, he had gone into business, and established himself in international trade. With the cessation of the Opium War, and the opening of Chinese ports to European powers, my former classmate’s business was one of many opening regional offices in the Orient, and his branch in the north port of Tianjin was in need of a physician. In a trice, I resigned my teaching position at the University, packed my bags, and made arrangements for immediate departure.

In the months since, there has been little call for my specialized skills, beyond treating the occasional laceration or fracture, prescribing a poultice for a rash induced by some exotic nettle, or tending to a victim of dysentery. This journey into the hinterlands was to be the first real test of my medical abilities, and due to the slowness of the transportation, I arrive too late even to unlatch the clasps on my bag. I will, at least, be able to serve my patient in some small regard, by escorting his body back to civilization, to be shipped to his family overseas, who do not even know yet that they should grieve.

Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

2 Sep, - Intolerable. Upon arriving at the docks, after a long dusty wagon ride from the company offices at Zhengzhou, I was informed there were no boats for hire, at least none that would be willing to head downriver. Through the broken English of the dock-master, I learned the reason. In the days since I traveled up river aboard the junk, the river’s mouth has been seized by Taiping rebels, and it is not safe for travel, either for Europeans, or for those Chinese loyal to the Qing emperor.

It was apparent that my only option was to travel the long distance back to Tianjin overland. I was directed to a caravan heading north, under the protection of imperial troops. As I understand it, the caravan is transporting weapons and ammunition to the capital city, to be distributed to loyal troops in the northern provinces. There was but a single large cart in the train, all others traveling on foot, but there was sufficient room both for my luggage and the casket holding my charge’s body… at any rate, there was sufficient room after I had asked several times, and punctuated each request with an ample outpouring of the local currency. The casket, an air-tight box of cherry wood, packed in lye and salts, was lashed securely on the cart under a heavy canvas tarp, with the dead man’s head by the driver’s seat, and his feet near neat rows of crated muskets, ball, and powder.

I had little money left in my purse, but was happy to spend what little I had to the master of the caravan, to secure for myself a place at the driver’s seat. The rough plank of the cart was unforgiving and hard, but I would rather pass the next week with a bruised backside, than wear my feet down to the ankle by walking the hundreds of miles to our destination.

It appears I am not the only member of the company to have performed this calculation. I will be sharing the driver’s seat with a young Chinese scholar, who has some smattering of English, while the cart’s ostensible driver will be walking before the cart horse, leading him on a rope.

If nothing else, then, there may be some conversation had, to pass the time.

Later. – I shall endeavor to write in as neat a hand as possible, despite the jars of this rugged road, that I can later read my record of this journey. Though why I should want to do so, in future times, I am now hard pressed to say.

My young companion, the scholar, is a Manchurian bureaucrat named Fu Zheng Li. He is on his way to the capital city of Beijing, to take some form of examination. Naturally, he speaks no Dutch, as does no one else in the company, but he knows a smattering of English, learned from the missionaries in Hunan province, he says, in his childhood. I know barely enough Chinese to inquire after the location of the privy, but am a fair hand at English, though in the awkward phraseology of one accustomed to the more regimented and reasonable syntax of the Dutch language, and so Fu and I are able to communicate between us without especial difficulty.

Fu explains that, with many of the shipping channels and imperial roads under the command of separatists and insurgents like the Taiping rebels, most traffic from city to city and province to province has shifted to rough rural roads. Merchants, bureaucrats and scholars, who otherwise would travel in some measure of comfort, are forced to trudge through clouds of dust, under the not-always diligent watch of imperial soldiers unable to secure for themselves any more attractive posting.

In our small company, besides Fu and myself, are four merchants, three bureaucrats, and two scholars, all watched over by a half-dozen soldiers. The soldiers, despite Fu’s protestations to the contrary, seem quite alert, their hands never straying far from the hilts of their swords, or the muskets slung over their shoulders, their eyes always scanning the horizon for potential threats. China, it would seem, is in the midst of some considerable unrest, even more than I might have guessed, and a lack of attention might bode ill for one’s chances of survival.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

Considering the state of the countryside, and the dangers posed by insurgent forces preying on loyal Qing subjects both on the imperial roads and on the waterways, my uncle considered it best that I travel to the capital overland, and had passage secured for me among a caravan carrying military supplies from Hunan province, where such were in abundance, to the capital, whence they would be distributed throughout the northern provinces. As the Taiping rebels held Nanjing, and roamed the surrounding countryside with impunity, the caravan was scheduled to take a more westerly course, bearing more or less due north before turning to the east in the northern reaches of Shanxi province.

Given my station, having passed my Xiucai degree provincial examination at the age of eleven years, and my Juren degree provincial examination at sixteen years, on my way to my Jinshi degree national examinations when not yet twenty years, I was afforded some small comforts among the caravan. My close relations to the governor, and his relations to the Dragon Throne, might also have helped my position. While the other scholars and merchants traveling under the caravan’s protection, then, walked alongside or behind the horse-drawn wagon, I was offered a seat on the wagon-driver’s seat.

I rode alone on the wagon seat for many days, until just past the city of Zhengzhou a foreigner joined the caravan, and inauspiciously bribed his way into the favors of the chief soldier in the caravan.

This foreigner, a Dutchman, was a physician of some sort, escorting a coffin to the city of Tianjin. He was taller than most of the company, strongly built, with a deep chest and thick neck. His wide face and square chin seemed more suited to a field-hand than a man of medicine or philosophy, and his large, jutting nose and mobile, bushy eyebrows made him seem like some sort of primitive. His hair was a mess of reddish wire, and his large eyes were a blue so dark as to almost be black. He spoke no Chinese, but passable English, and so I was able to communicate with him, having learned some measure of English from foreign religious zealots who traveled to Changsha in my youth.

He was crude, with little of substance to share, and I was loathe to surrender the solitude I’d enjoyed on the ride previously.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

3 Sep. – Stayed overnight at a small shelter along the roadside, presided over by a graven image of the Buddha, the god of these heathen peoples. With such considerable distances separating the cities and towns in this wide land, over the generations the Chinese seem to have established an elaborate network of way-stations and shelters along the country byways, separated by the rough distance of a day’s travel. I am grateful for these brief respites, in which I can pry my weary backside from the knotty plank of the cart’s seat, and sleep stretched out under a roof, with no fear that the skies might open up and pour down on me. There was no rain last night, but storm clouds have been gathering since late yesterday afternoon, and I think we’ve little chance of escaping a drenching.

I’ve gotten to know my young companion in our short time together. Over our humble meal last evening, a weak soup stock and a chewy stalk of some form of vegetable, he told me some little bit about his background. Throughout our talk, his eyes shifted to the rest of our company, sitting a distance away, in the protection of the shelter, and to the soldiers, who patrolled the road leading to and from our position. It seemed that his words were for me alone, and that he was wary of any other’s overhearing. Perhaps it was the use of the foreign tongue which insulated him from propriety, and freed him to confide things to a stranger he’d never utter to another.

“My parents, they are dead,” Fu explained. “From an early age, I was a member of my uncle’s household. My uncle, he is the governor of Hunan province since I was a child. He is a proud Manchurian, and he refuses to admit that his distant relations, those who have controlled the Dragon Throne for generations, have lead the kingdom of China into disgrace.”

“Disgrace?” I worked at the touch, sinewy fibers of the vegetable stalk, trying unsuccessfully to soften it in the soup stock.

“Disgrace,” he said, nodding. “Yes, and even ruin, it might seem. After the shaming loss of the Opium Wars, the Qing emperor and his advisors, they have conceded ports to European control, opened lucrative financial opportunities to Europeans, allowed Europeans the freedom of the countryside, to roam as they will. Now, in the countryside, there is unrest, rebels and insurgents sprouting up like weeds after a spring rain. Threatening the honest Chinese laborer. Threatening the stability of the Chinese bureaucracy. Threatening the legacy of millennia of history.”

My young companion paused, and looked across the open space to the merchants, bureaucrats, and scholars huddled in the shelter of the way-station. The flickering light of the circle of candles inside cast moving shadows across his face. His magnetic eyes, narrowed and flashing with the light reflecting back, gave his lean face an almost feline appearance. He slowly nodded.

“In order for China to regain her former glory,” he said, “she will need strong, new leadership.”

With that said, he set down his bowl, turned his face away from the circle of light, and laid down on his side, silent until morning.

Later. – We have ridden without pause since first light, Fu and I side by side on the driver’s seat, the rest of the company trudging through the dusty ruts of this country road.

Some time past noon, the silence that had hung over us for some hours having grown oppressive, Fu and I struggled to find some meaty topic on which we could converse, to pass the time.

“Fu,” I asked, “what is this examination you are en route to take?”

“Jinshin.” Fu paused, searching for the appropriate English term. “It means, Presented Scholar. It is the highest of three levels of imperial examination, the first two being the Xiucai… it means, erm, Flourishing Talent, and the Juren, it means, I suppose, Elevated Person. To join imperial service, in the province, one needs at least to have attained the Xiucai rank, but to serve in the capital, truly to prosper in the service of the emperor, one must become a Jinshin. Presented, it means that one is presented to the emperor himself. It is a very high honor.”

“Three ranks of academic achievement. Quite like the western system of education, with the Bachelors of Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctorate. In English, I suppose you might say that you are on your way to becoming Doctor Fu, Manchurian scholar.”

“Yes,” Fu said, nodding, “something like that.” He pointed a long-nailed finger at my chest. “Like you, Doctor.”

I smiled, and nodded in return.

An awkward silence filled the space between us, and I realized we’d exhausted the usefulness of the topic. As I searched for anything to say, Fu charged into the fray.

“Doctor,” he said, “do you have a wife?”

My hands tightened on the edge of the seat’s plank, my knuckles white.

“I had a wife,” I answered, “and though she is lost to me now, I suppose in the eyes of Mother Church she is my wife, still.”

“Doctor, do you have any children?”

My throat constricted, and unbidden came the mental image of my wife and son, laying still on the cold tile of our entryway, their eyes wide and sightless, and contorted faces bloodless and pale. From the hidden recesses of memory came the impression of something else there, some dark figure slipping out the door, blood stained hand lingering on the doorframe for a brief instant before slipping out of view. But such a thing… It is not possible. Reason does not allow it.

“No,” I managed to choke out the word. “Not any more.”

My face tight, I turned my attention to the monotonous road ahead, and ignored any of Fu’s questions or comments for the remainder of the day’s journey. I hadn’t the strength within me to speak further.

Behind us, beneath the lashings and the canvas tarp, lay the coffin of the dead man, always at our sides, silent participant in our disjointed conversations.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

On the third night out from Zhengzhou, stopping under a moonless sky at an unmanned way-station, the caravan was surprised by strange noises from the dark forest. Shuffling, rustling, something unnatural. We huddled in the shelter in the protective circle of candles, the foreign doctor off to one side, smoking a strong, tightly-rolled cigar that fouled the air and offended the senses. Later, we sleep restlessly, under the sheltering eyes of a stone Buddha. In the morning, one of the guards, who had been posted as picket through the night, was found dead, torn into a dozen pieces, several of which appeared to be missing.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

4 Sep. – The caravan continued on, after the soldiers had dealt with the remains of their fallen brother’s body. The company is unsettled, walking closer together, their eyes darting at every sound.

There is scattered talk among the bureaucrats, merchants and scholars, only occasional words of which I’m able to catch. Their chatter continues unabated, in whispered tones, as though afraid something just beyond the edge of vision out in the rushes and the hedges might overhear. In the days previous, the company had been mostly silent, occasionally punctuated by brief outbursts of laughter following what must have been a joke or ribald tale. The slow, steady susurration of whispered voices today, I must confess, has me somewhat unnerved.

Fu has translated for me the meat of the others’ speculations. Some say that it was a wild beast that got to the soldier, while others hold it was some form of phantom or spirit, and that the soldier succumbed to its wiles before becoming its meal. Those who hold the attacker was a wild beast argue that the supply of weapons and ammunition in the cart should prove ample protection, if used properly; those who hold it was a phantom have no such hope.

I couldn’t understand what wiles a phantom might have, and explained my confusion to Fu.

“In China, spirits, they often take the form of an attractive woman.” Fu kept his eyes on the road, a slight blush rising in his cheek. “In this form, they seduce men, drowning them in the… sensual pleasures until they are helpless, and then consume them, body and soul.”

Fu paused, and then drew a slight sigh.

“I do not think, for my part,” he said, “that it sounds like such a terrible bad way to die.”

Having been raised on stories of rotting ghosts and unquiet spirits, and not knowing the touch of a woman until I was nearly Fu’s age, I was forced to agree.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

The sun set on the fourth night, and the company was left uneasy. Still out of reach of any established town or village, the caravan stopped at another way station. Vandals, though, had defaced the small statue of the Buddha within the shelter, removing the head from the stone body. This seemed an inauspicious omen. The members of the company sat huddled, exchanging nervous whispers, in the shadow of the headless form.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

4 Sep. – I write by firelight, my fingers almost numb from cold and fear, but I want to record my thoughts and impressions before sleep and forgetfulness drive them from me. As though I could sleep tonight. The swift stream beside us gurgles like a drowning man, and the stranger who saved us keep a wary watch, and I am undone. But enough. My recollections, before my fear consumes them all.

We had arrived at the way-station, and sat huddled within the shelter in restless anticipation, fearful of the falling of night. We ate in silence, feeling vulnerable in the dim circle of candle light, the shadow of the headless icon dancing on the far wall, unsetting.

A sliver of a moon rose in the sky, and there came from the forest sounds of rustling, of movement. The pickets had been placed closer in tonight, the soldiers well in sight of the shelter. In the flickering candlelight that broke from the entrance, the assembled company could see the tense bodies of the soldiers, their swords and muskets at the ready. The canvas covered cart was parked a few dozen feet from the shelter, alongside the road, while the cart-horse was tied to a nearby tree. Storm clouds gathered overhead.

A strong wind blew in across the tree tops, guttering the candles’ flames. For an instant, the soldiers were swallowed by shadows. When the wind died down, and the flames snapped back to life, burning bright once more, the soldiers were nowhere to be seen. Gone. All gone.

The wind began to pick up again, and the temperature dropped suddenly. A storm was almost upon us. A lightning flash in the distance, and faint peal of far-off thunder, clouds sliding across the slender moon.

The candles were blown out completely in a sudden blast of cold, dry wind. Another lightning flash, and all of us huddled in the darkened shelter saw, framed briefly in the open doorway, a lurching, stiff-limbed horror, arms outstretched, ruined mouth open wide.

It was some monstrosity of which I’d never dreamt, and yet there was for the briefest instant the frisson of recognition. I hadn’t the opportunity nor the inclination to explore the sensation of familiarity, as the monstrosity drew nearer, and fear choked off my thoughts. The stiff-limbed horror advanced, an odd, jerky gait, towards the quivering company, filling the small shelter with a faint green luminescence.

Fu was on his feet immediately, sidling along the darkened wall towards the entrance, and escape.

“Doctor,” Fu called from just beyond the entrance, beckoning to me. “Come on.”

As the lurching monstrosity advanced on the wailing merchants and bureaucrats, I steeled my nerves and slipped through the entrance, following hot on Fu’s heels. But the movement had caught the monster’s attention. I suppose that it reasoned the livelier meal was the tastier, and that two fleeing were livelier than the huddle masses before it. He pivoted on unbending joints, and started after us.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

I raced through the darkened forest, lightning marking out my path. The foreign doctor followed close behind, lumbering and wheezing as he came. The strange, monstrous figure was close at our heels, bounding along on unbending knees. The path we followed through the dark forest was difficult to see, and whipping braches and thorns stung us as we passed.

The monster was almost upon us, our final moments arrived, when a figure jumped out of the darkness before me, with head shaved clean and yellow robes that shined like the sun in the brief lightning flashes.

This newcomer jumped between us and the advancing monster, pulling a woven bag from his belt and shaking out a handful of glutinous rice into his palm. He muttered a quick incantation over the grains, the words of which the wind carried away from my ears, and then threw the rice directly into the face of the lurching monstrosity. The monster reared back, smoke curling up in delicate curls from its desiccated flesh, an insensible yowl issued from the ruined mouth. It swatted at its face with long-nailed fingers, trying unsuccessfully to claw the grains away. In that moment, I recognized the tattered rags hanging from the gaunt frame as the traditional Manchurian burial garb. This was a corpse, given life, or the semblance of life.

The man in the yellow robe turned to me and the foreign doctor, both of us looking on blank-faced in shock and amazement.

“We must hurry,” the man in the yellow robe said in refined Mandarin. “The creature will not be stopped for long by the rice, and I haven’t the strength to fight at the moment.” He then turned, and hurried into the darkened forest.

I turned to follow, but first glanced over to the foreign doctor, who stood stock still, watching the writhing corpse figure, his large mouth slack-jawed, his blue eyes wide.

“Come, we must follow,” I told him in English, my tone urgent. “Danger.”

Considering my duty filled, I turned and raced after the retreating yellow robe. The foreign doctor must have understood, as within heartbeats I heard his lumbering steps following mine.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

4 Sep. Later. – Fu and I followed close behind the yellow-robed stranger, and he led us to a little shrine along a swiftly running brook. Instructing us through signs and barked orders to seat ourselves near the base of the shrine, he pulled a collection of small bags from the belt of his robe, and proceed to surround the shrine at a radius of a few yards with a circle of iron filings and rice. I tried to enquire after his purpose, but it seems that our benefactor speaks no English, only Chinese. I pleaded with Fu to repeat my questions to the old man in a tongue he could comprehend, but Fu sat quietly shaking at the base of the shrine, his narrowed eyes closely watching our savior’s every move.

I wished that I had a touch of whisky to calm my shaky nerves, or even a cigar, but a quick check of my sweat-damped pockets produced only my package of lucifer matches, my other supplies back with the cart. Back with the monstrosity, that strange figure that had lurched out of the darkness, pure evil at sight.

My thoughts spun in tight frenzied circles around the danger stalking the dark night. Would I die here, by strange hands in this foreign land, and be rejoined with my family after so short a time?

When the yellow-robed stranger had finished his circuit of the shrine, and come to sit beside me and Fu in the dim shadow of the shrine, I found my tongue again, and plied Fu once more with questions.

“Who is he?”

Fu left off rubbing his hands together to relay my question to the stranger along with, by the sound of it, several of his own. The stranger, after a long pause, answered in just a few short words, and then turned his attention back to the deepening shadows beyond the little circle of rice he’d laid.

“Well?” I said. “What did he say?”

“This man,” Fu answered, “he is a Taoist priest from the western provinces, and his name, he say, is Master Xi. He says, the creature we escaped, that was Chiang Shih. It means, the Undead.”


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

Master Xi explained the origin of the strange creature, and how this doom had befallen us.

“The Chiang Shih is a vivified corpse,” Master Xi said. “Undead, but yet not living. There is in each of us two souls, the higher and the lower. The higher, Hun, is associated with Yang and controls the higher functions of the human self: emotion, thought, passion. On the death of the body, the Hun soul ascends quickly to the heavens, to be among the stars. The lower soul, though, or Po, is associated with Ying, and controls the baser functions: hungers, appetites, lusts. On the death of the body, the Po soul begins slowly to sink to the earth, to be absorbed back into the soil. In the case of violent or traumatic death, or improper burial, the lower soul remain trapped in the body after the higher soul ascends. The corpse of the departed, then, is still driven by the baser passions and appetites of a man, but lacks the guiding instincts and awareness that makes us human. It is a mindless thing, less than animal.

“A century ago,” Master Xi continued, “an army was sent by the Qing emperor to the western wilds of Xinjian, to tame that savage Mongol land for the Dragon Throne. Among those who fought, bled, and died for their emperor were seven Manchurian brothers, the bravest of General Zhaohui’s warriors. Buried in that foreign land, improperly interred and not revered by their descendants, their lower souls stayed with their bodies, and they rose from their unhallowed graves. Driven by their lower animal urges, and the blind instinct to return home, these seven Undead crossed the breadth of China to return to their ancestral Manchurian lands, driven in their mindless, animalistic fashion to their final rest.

“I have been trailing these seven Chiang Shih across seven provinces, saving those hapless victims it is within my power to save, and burying with proper rites those I cannot, so that they, too, do not rise up as Undead. With the aid of my three assistants, I have managed to defeat the Chiang Shih one at a time, so that there is now but one left, but my assistants have all perished in the attempts, and I am left alone. This last, this final Chiang Shih, is the strongest and fiercest of them all, and it is too much for me to handle alone.”

When Master Xi had finished speaking, he grew quiet, and watched for our response. I translated as much of Master Xi’s story to the foreign doctor as seemed appropriate, and he agreed that we had little choice but to assist Mater Xi, primarily because without his help, we had little chance of escaping the Chiang Shih.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

5 Sep. – This morning, in the full light of day, Fu, the Taoist priest and I returned to the shelter of the way-station. The cart and horse still stand, just as they did the night before, but all that remained of the soldiers and our company were scattered body parts and spatters of blood.

“Why does the Undead consume the bodies of men,” I asked, “but does not touch the horse?”

Fu relayed my question to the Taoist priest, and after hearing his response, answered.

“The Undead, Chiang Shih, they are driven by their lower souls, but still crave a higher soul. The souls of animals, they cannot sate this hunger, but the souls of men can whet their appetites. Nature does not allow the Undead to consume the souls of their victims, but the mere whiff of souls escaping as the lives are snuffed out is enough to satisfy their hunger, if only for a moment.”

My first instinct was to check on the state of my charge, the poor unfortunate whose body I was ferrying back to my employer’s care. I found the casket in fine condition, the seals untouched, the wood unbroken and secure. The Taoist priest’s eyes followed my movements, making careful study of everything I did. Satisfied that the body was unharmed, I crossed myself and gave a brief prayer of thanks for this small kindness. When I turned, the priest’s eyes were still on me, measuring my every move, taking note.

Later. – We three spent the long hours of the morning and afternoon making preparations for our coming conflict with the Undead. We began by burying the victims of the monster with the proper rituals, Fu and I taking the backbreaking task of moving earth and the gruesome task of collecting the remains, while the Taoist priest busied himself with charms and chants, burning incense and marking strange glyphs on little slivers of rock.

During a brief rest, with the sun high overhead, I expressed some reservation about what I considered to be provincial superstition. Whether the bodies of these poor unfortunates were danced and sung over with plumes of smoke, or just planted a few feet in the ground without ceremony, it seemed to me that they posed no threat to anyone in their present state.

At the priest’s request, Fu translated my brief outburst, whereupon the priest made a show of walking with thundering steps to the casket lashed to the nearby cart, and with outstretched finger touched his left shoulder, then his right, then forehead, and then navel. Finishing his mimed cross, he turned to me, his expression plain even across the gulf of language. Then he returned to his charms and chants, and finding I could muster no suitable reply, I returned to my digging.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

Nightfall approached, and we made ready. Master Xi gave me what training he could, in the time allowed, which I then passed along to the foreign doctor.

Here is what Master Xi taught us:

When confronting the Chiang Shih, hold your breath; the Chiang Shih cannot see, as mortals see, and detects the presence of the living by scenting the trace of the higher soul in their breath. The Chiang Shih fears glutinous rice, which represents the fecund power of the earth itself, into whose bosom the body of the Chiang Shih should return, to decompose and fertilize future life. The Chiang Shih fears mirrors, and can be controlled if one places yellow paper inscribed in red-ink or chicken blood with holy symbols on its forehead. If part of a Chiang Shih’s body is removed or cut off, it will continue to function, apart from the rest of the body. The Chiang Shih fears running water. The only hope in defeating the Chiang Shih lies in immobilizing it first, and then burying it with the proper rituals, cremating it if at all possible, to free the lower spirit to sink back into the earth.

Master Xi assembled our plans, and we made ready. Nightfall approached.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

6 Sep. – It is difficult to think on the events of this last night, the evening of 5th September, but having come this far in recording the events of my strange journey, I would be remiss to stop short here.

Night fell, and we three readied ourselves. Where the night before had seen a storm, lightning and thunder, tonight was clear and still.

The old priest, a sword scabbarded in cherry-wood in hand, looked to the sky, and muttered a few words.

“Master Xi,” Fu translated for my benefit, “he says that fortune is not with us. If it had only stormed again, and fiercely, then the elements might have taken care of the Chiang Shih for us. The Undead are often dispatched by particularly loud thunderclaps, their lower souls shocked from the body by the noise.”

I followed their gaze to the cloudless sky, and shook my head. Our only hope lay in following the old priest’s plan.

The plan was to lure the Undead into the shelter, which has only one door. Once the monster was within the confines of the shelter, Fu and I, who to that point had been hiding in the corners, would rush outside behind it, pulling with us strong cords attached to the mouths of woven bags hung from the rafters just above the entrance. The bags would open wide and a shower of sticky rice would fall, blanketing the entrance to the shelter. The Undead, then, would be trapped inside with the priest, unable to exit without the burning, searing pain at the touch of the grains. The priest would wield his silver-bladed sword, with a slip of yellow paper inscribed in chicken’s blood pierced at the tip. He would then drive the sword through the Chiang Shih’s forehead, immobilizing it long enough to perform the burial rituals and cremate the body.

Fu and I crouched in darkness at either side of the entrance, the cords gripped tightly in our hands. The priest stood before the opening, eyes closed, drawn sword in hand.

From beyond the opening came a thumping noise at regular intervals. The same noise I’d heard the night before, pursuing us into the darkness. The Undead approached.

I could scarcely watch it enter, lumbering in on stiff limbs, long-nailed hands stretched out to the priest, its presence filling the shelter with a sickly green luminescence.

The priest opened his eyes, and then spoke the signal word, the single bit of English he knew, learned just for the occasion.


The initial stages of the operation went as planned. Fu and I rushed past the monster, pulling the drawstrings as we went, which opened the mouths of the sacks and carpeted the hard-packed dirt floor at the entrance to the shelter. Then we crouched outside, fearful, watching the old priest do battle with the monster.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

For the briefest of instants, it looked as though Master Xi’s plan would work. The Chiang Shih fought back, parrying his sword thrusts with long-nailed fingers, but still Master Xi pressed on. The battle between priest and Undead raged.

In the final moment, just as it appeared that Master Xi would succeed in immobilizing the monster, the Chiang Shih swatted the sword from his hands and fell on him, claws and ruined mouth and all. The Taoist priest, with a forlorn shriek, fell under the monster’s teeth and talons, and was ripped into bloody pieces before our eyes.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

6 Sep. Later. – I looked to the cloudless sky overhead, wishing on whatever holy thing that might exist, Oriental or Occidental, that a storm might whip out from the ether, and a thunderclap drive the damned spirit of the monster down into the earth. Then my eyes lit on the cart, and the casket of the dead man, and I knew our only choice.

The weapon and ammunition of the soldiers, forgotten in the excitement of the monster’s attack, were still on the cart, still under the tarp at the foot of the cherry-wood coffin.

“Gunpowder,” I whispered to myself, as though to hear the word aloud would bring it to my hand. “Gunpowder.”

I grabbed Fu’s arm, dragging him after me. I rushed to the cart, still parked only a few dozen feet from the mouth of the shelter by the side of the road, and fell to the knots in the dim light.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

Having consumed what it wanted of Master Xi’s body, the Chiang Shih prowled the rice-laid mouth of the shelter like a caged tiger, sniffing the still air for a hint of our breaths. With every pass, the monster’s feet grazed a little further into the carpet of rice, and despite the tendrils of smoke curling up from its soles, and the silent grimaces of pain, still nearer to freedom it came. The barrier of rice would not hold it for long, and then it will be on us

The foreign doctor was side, tearing at the lashes holding the canvas tarp in place, trying to get at the ammunition. I had surmised that if a thunderclap could dispel the Chiang Shih, then an explosion of gunpowder might serve the same purpose. The Chiang Shih came ever nearer the freedom of the open spaces, ever nearer attacking and consuming us both. We couldn’t get the stoutly-fastened knots loose, and had no knife with which to cut the bindings. After all our exertions, only a single trailing rope was free, hanging in the dust.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

6 Sep. Later. – The monster was almost free. There was no time. We’d not got more than a single rope untied, and our time was through.

Fu drew himself up short, and grabbed my elbow.

“Your light,” he said, struggling for the words. “Your flame. Your…” he broke off, frustrated, and mimed the action of lighting a cigar.

“My lucifer matches?” I answered.

Fu nodded, fiercely.

“Yes, yes, now, matches, now!”

“But we’ve no time for nonsense, boy,” I said. “There’s just no…”


Taken aback, I reached into my vest pocket, and pulled out the box of matches. Fu snatched them from my hands, struck one alight, and then held it to the frayed ends of the single rope trailing down from the lashings. It caught fire, and the flame began to climb up its length.

Fu, grimly, got behind the cart, and began to push it forward towards the shelter with all his might. I hung back a moment, confused, and then in a flash understood the young man’s plan. I put my shoulder to it, and heaved for all I was worth.

Three things happened at once, my mind scarcely able to take them all in.

The Undead stepped into the shelter’s doorway; the cart careered into the open door; and the flame traveling up the cart’s trailing rope reached the canvas covering, which caught fire in an instant blaze. In the following instant, there was only deafening noise and blinding light, as the amassed powder and ammunition on the cart caught fire and exploded, in a violent fury, catching the small shelter in a blossoming firestorm that burned bright as the noonday son.

The cart horse, tied to a nearby tree, brayed and whinnied, but was unhurt, while Fu and I, knocked onto our back, could only look on in exhausted awe at the destructive splendor of the blast.


Letter, Fu Zheng Lei to the Imperial Minister of Examinations (continued)

The next morning, and the way-station had burned to fine ashes. Nothing of the cart, or the coffin, or Master Xi, or the monster, remained. Of all the caravan that had set out from Changsha, so long before, and all that had joined along the way, only I, the foreign doctor, and the cart-horse remained.

We sat, in silence, while the sun rose and climbed the pale blue sky. With few words exchanged, we got to our feet, unhitched the horse, and mounted, the foreign doctor riding behind me, and continued up the road to Beijing.

I arrived, finally, a day late for my Jinshi degree national examination, and was sent with the next convoy back to Hunan province in disgrace.

I have returned to service in the administration of my uncle, the Governor of Hunan Province and cousin to his imperial Majesty Xianfeng (scion of the Qing dynasty, lord of heaven, may he reign ten thousand years), but am still desirous of serving the Dragon Throne in a more personal fashion, and helping to bring greater glory to the kingdom of China. Perhaps the strangest lessons I’ve gleaned from my experience is the resolute nature of the Manchurian spirit. Even in death, the Manchurian will not cease to fight, will not surrender. If we remember that, then perhaps we might someday rule the world.

Again, I thank you for your kind indulgence, and await your response.


Abraham Van Helsing’s Journal

31 Oct. Tianjin. – I’ve had neither the opportunity nor the will to update this record since the early morning hours of the 6th September, the morning following the conflagration. During the long journey back to Tianjin, my mind was simply too numb to compose rational thoughts, and upon my arrival at the English concession, I was greeted with too many questions regarding the ultimate disposition of the body of my charge to have a moment’s reflection.

In the end, my employers and the British authorities in Tianjin reached a compromise, and recorded the unfortunate gentleman as “Lost Through Misadventure.” Nevermind that a certificate of death existed, showing him dying of native disease in the township of Zhengzhou, and that his body was among the manifest of a caravan lost en route. There was no body, and no chance of his return, and so his family back in England was simply told that he had been “lost,” and that was an end to the matter. Still, they look at me with suspicion, and none accept the truth of my story.

Of the young scholar Fu, I have seen nothing since our arrival in the capital on horseback. He was greeted with no small dismay by the imperial wardens, as he had evidently given insult to the examiners by missing his scheduled appointment, and compounded the offense by arriving in a sorry state in the company of an uncouth foreigner.

I could not help but pity the young scholar, but felt certain that he would preserver. Though we spoke little in our solitary journey to the capital, on the long nights by the roadside we forced conversation, anything to fill the terrible empty silence of those dark spaces.

I had made mention, on one of these nights, that we in Europe have legends of creatures similar to the Undead of our shared experience, but that men of science and learning such as myself do not give them credence. I wondered aloud what difference in environment or circumstance might give rise to such unnatural monstrosities in one geographical locale, but not allow them in another, as I am certain we have no such in the West. Any thoughts to the contrary are the result only of delusions or irrational passions.

Fu, after a long silence, began to speak in response, but it was almost as though he were answering some question that had not been asked. He had a far away look in his eyes, the flickering light of our fire reflecting his eyes back to me like a cats, glowing in the night.

“I could not help but to feel some small pride at hearing the accomplishment of the seven Manchurian brothers in life,” he said, “seven champions of Xianjian, even if they were responsible for such horrors after death. They had been, in life, true warriors of the Manchurian spirit, and with more like them today China might prove better equipped to stand against foreign intervention and insurgents from within.”

Fu fell silent, and after a time I asked him whether his opinions on the presence and influence of foreigners in his country was common.

“No,” he said simply, “it is not. Those of my mind, we patriots, must pander to the soft whims of those in authority over us. To gain prestige, to gain position and influence, we flatter and coerce. But someday, perhaps, with enough of us in high bureaucracy, matters will change.”

He looked at me across the flickering fire, as though seeing me for the first time, his eyes narrowed.

“And come that day, Doctor, I would hope that you are gone from this land. Far away when that day comes.”

I shivered, and could not help but agree. But I need not wait for Fu’s promised rise to power to force my decision. I have arranged to return to Amsterdam as soon as possible. I hunger to be away from here, and my only sleep is fitful.

In my dreams, I am haunted by the memory of that strange, unearthly creature, lurching after me in the darkened Chinese woods. Strange, then, that in my dreams those woods become, at length, the pristine entryway to my home back in Amsterdam, and that instead of the young Manchurian Fu by my side, it is my wife, and my young son, fleeing for their lives.

And every time, just before waking, the monster overtakes my wife and son, and I alone survive, but before I can turn and face the creature, I awaken with a chest rattling scream.

I had hoped to escape my demons by coming to the East, but have found that there were only other demons here, waiting for me. I look forward to returning home, where at least the memories which haunt me will be happier ones, and reason still holds sway.

Copyright © 2004 Monkeybrain, Inc.


Thursday, October 11, 2007


Kate Elliott's Advice

Kate Elliott has been posting installments of her "Advice for first-time novelists" on her LJ for a the last week or so, but having gotten to the end the full set is posted over on the DeepGenre group-blog. Another installment in the list of advice I wish I'd had when I was twenty-one and finished my first novel. A lot of insightful things in Elliott's six-part list that it took me years to learn.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Moore on RAW

Here's Alan Moore's spoken-word tribute to Robert Anton Wilson, given at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, March 2007.

If the words "Alan Moore", "spoken-word", and "Robert Anton Wilson" don't appeal to you, I can't help you.


Podcast Interview

Gail Z. Martin, author of The Chronicles of the Necromancer, has done a podcast interview/conversation-type thingee with me, that's now online. There's a web-based player here, or you can download the file in MP3 format. We talk mostly about being historically accurate versus being historically evocative (and I somehow manage to mistake the beginning of the 16th century for the beginning of the 15th).


Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Pushing Daisies (and TV in general)

Allison and I finally had a chance to watch the pilot episode last night, and thought it was great. I was a huge fan of Dead Like Me, and grieved more than a little when I got to the end of Wonderfalls, so maybe I'm naturally predisposed to liking the new series. But I honestly liked everything about it, even the bits I've seen others complaining about in blogs and reviews.

Of course, I can't imagine that it's going to be staying on the air for very long. It's just so odd, and a lot of the things that I like about it are, I'm afraid, things that will tend to turn a lot of viewers off. Still, here's hoping we get a full season of it, at the very least.

If anyone is interested, we haven't really bothered to sample many of the other new offerings this season. Watched two episodes of Chuck, and thought that the second episode failed to deliver on the promise of the first episode, settling pretty quickly into a status quo that gives every appearance of sticking around for a long while; verdict=good, not great. We Tivoed the first two episodes of Bionic Woman, and deleted them unwatched, unable to work up the enthusiasm to watch them. We'd already given Journeyman a pass, due to a similar lack of enthusiasm even for the basic premise, and nothing else in the mix even appealed to us enough to consider recording. We've been spoiled by things like Life on Mars, Deadwood, and Rome to expect more from our entertainment than most network shows seem prepared to deliver, and honestly, if a show can't sell you in a single episode (cf. our viewing of Heroes pilot episode last year), how can I have any confidence that it'll be worth my time in the long run?

We stopped watching Weeds a few episodes into this season, as well, when it descended too far into the absurd for my taste, and lost Allison with some of the extended subplots and unlikeable supporting characters. And I gave up on My Name is Earl when I discovered I lacked the will to devote an hour to watching the premier episode, which was not a good sign; at half-an-hour I'd probably still be watching it now, but twice that time was the proverbial straw, I suppose.

30 Rock, though, is still the funniest damned show that I have ever seen, and I am eternally grateful to see it back for another season. Allison watches Grey's Anatomy, but I'm sticking to my "No Doctor Shows, No Cop Shows, No Lawyer Shows" rule for another few years, at least, so she's on her own over there.

That's it, then. Pushing Daisies and 30 Rock for the both of us, and Grey's Anatomy for Allison. Other than the Daily Show/John Stewart double-header, the only other thing I watch in first-run these days are a handful of Adult Swim offerings (Metalocalypse and Robot Chicken) and kids shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender. Everything else is either documentaries, British shows that magically appear in our house in digital form (thank you, internet fairies!), and DVDs.

Oh, well, sooner or later Flight of the Conchords will be back on the air, and then I'll once more have a reason to go on...

Monday, October 08, 2007


Bender's Big Score trailer

(via) Good news, everyone! Celebrating begins in 3... 2... 1...


Book Report

It's Monday, and that means it's book report time.

This week I'm going to review a book with pictures as well as words, one that I read in individual issues and reread this last week in the trade collection. This may well be the best thing in the history of ever.

Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja's The Immortal Iron Fist

I'm not going to lie to you. Most comics these days suck. I mean, they really suck. In the last few months I've been going through my old comics from time to time, rereading series from just a few years back, and each time I do I'm struck at just how horrible most mainstream superhero comics have gotten the last couple of years. Ten years ago we had the sublime heights of James Robinson's Starman, Mark Waid's Flash, Kurt Busiek's Astro City, and Alan Moore's Supreme. Then for a brief time both DC and Marvel were producing terrific work, really landmark quality, with Grant Morrison on JLA, Mark Waid on Captain America, Kurt Busiek on Avengers, and on, and on.

Then, about three or four years ago, something seems to have started going seriously wrong. The talent on the books has never been better, one might argue, but the end result is often an unreadable mess. The DC superhero comics have completely disappeared up their own ass with editorial driven nonsense (honestly, when Mary Marvel battled a monster made of aborted human fetuses, I knew it was time for me to go), with only odd standouts like Shadowpact and Blue Beetle managing to maintain my interest at all. Because even when the books themselves show real promise, like Allan Heinberg on Wonder Woman or Busiek on Superman or Morrison on Batman, incomprehensible editorial decisions and baffling schedule issues completely spoil things for me (all three of those series mentioned have been plagued by fill-in issues of uniformly bad quality, with the worst example being Wonder Woman, which ran the first four parts of a five part story in its first four issues, then ran the fifth part more than eight issues later in an annual, without a mention of this in an editorial or note in the intervening issues at any point).

None of which has anything to do with The Immortal Iron Fist, really, except to establish that it takes a fair amount for a superhero comic to impress me these days. And this is a book that has impressed me.

Now, I've always had a lot of respect for Ed Brubaker. I read his indie comic Lowlife a million years ago, thought that Sleeper was the best thing to come out of Wildstorm in years, and followed his Captain America until the editorial-driven event nonsense of the House of M and Civil War and all of that silliness finally spoiled me on it. He's never been my favorite comics writer, but he's one that's never disappointed, and always delivered quality work.

Then there's his cowriter Matt Fraction. I'll admit it took me a while to warm to his work. I think it's as much to do with my own misconceptions of what he was all about based on limited exposure to his online persona more than anything else, because in retrospect I'd read only a very little bit of his work. Since developing my deep passion for Iron Fist, I've gone back and reread all of Casanova, as I mentioned last week, and have picked up and enjoyed Five Fists of Science (which shares some inspirations with a notional project of my own, The Sum of Histories).

How to explain The Immortal Iron Fist? Well, first, I'll point out that this is a relaunch of a character first introduced in the 1970s. You don't need to know anything about the character or his background to appreciate the book under review here, but if you do know anything about the character, then you'll definitely want to give Fraction and Brubaker's book a shot.

(And, if you haven't read the original comics and would like to try them, check out The Essential Iron Fist, which collects all of the issues of the original run, in his own book and elsewhere. The first issues are okay not great, with some workman like art from Gil Kane and a different scripter every few issues, but when Chris Claremont and John Byrne take over the series, all bets are off. Speaking as a dyed-in-the-wool X-Men fan from childhood, coming at these Iron Fist collaborations of the two was a revelation, as these issues are arguably far superior to their run on Uncanny X-Men, more technically sophisticated and, since the story is brought to some sort of closure at the end, ultimately more satisfying.)

The character of Iron Fist is a product of Marvel's attempt in the seventies to capitalize on the martial arts craze, and the success of things like Enter the Dragon and the Kung Fu tv series. DC and Marvel comics of the period were filled with martial artists on missions of vengeance, who filled the pages of the b&w newstand Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. On the whole, while there was some interesting backstory to some of these (in particular Shang-Chi, the rogue son of Fu Manchu), by and large most of the martial arts characters were pretty forgettable, usually men (and on rare occasion women) who had been done wrong, been trained by some cryptic old dude in the art of the fist, and then sent off on a mission of vengeance, usually with stops along the way to visit Batman or Spider-man, depending on their orientation.

Iron Fist was a bit different. He was an American who had been raised in K'un L'un, a kind of Shangri-La that, like Brigadoon, only appeared in our world for a brief span every ten years. Instructed in the martial arts by Lei Kung, the Thunderer (under the watchful eye of the August Personage in Jade), young Daniel Rand becomes the most bad ass of bad asses, and is allowed the attempt to defeat Shou-Lao the Undying, a dragon. He wins, naturally, getting in return a dragon-shaped burn-mark-tattoo on his chest, the ability to channel energy into his fists (which become things "like unto iron", of course), and the mantle of K'un L'un's champion and defender, Iron Fist. When K'un L'un reorients with Earth, he travels back to America to seek for answers about his late father, fights supervillains, gets pursued by the Steel Serpent, another K'un L'un native who wants the power of the iron fist for himself, makes friends with Luke Cage (the bad ass of bad asses), and falls in love with an African-American policewoman with a bionic arm. He discovers that he is heir to one of the world's largest fortunes, the Rand Corporation, and sets up a side business as a hero for hire.

That's about all you need to know about the original series, and all of it covered in flashback and exposition in the present series. The new book, The Immortal Iron Fist, picks up exactly where the original series left off, and goes in entirely new directions.

The conceit of Fraction and Brubaker's take on the character is that Daniel Rand is just the latest in a long string of men (and one woman) to wear the mantle of the Iron Fist. The previous bearer, Orson Randall, was a soldier in the trenches of WWI before roaming the world as a pulp adventurer with his band of sidekicks the Confederates of the Curious, complete with airship and be-goggled dog. Randall had been raised in K'un L'un as well, after his father, a Victorian-era steampunk adventurer who had crashed his airship into the city during its brief appearance on Earth, along with his pregnant wife. Earlier Iron Fists include Bei Ming-Tai, who faced off against the Mongol hordes, pirate queen Wu Ao-Shi, and Boxer Rebellion leader Bei Bang-Wen.

Orson, it turns out, isn't dead after all, but has been hiding out smoking opium for the last few decades. The Steel Serpent returns (the K'un L'un native who wanted the iron fist for himself), now at the head of the Hydra secret society, and allied with Crane Mother, the ruler of another Brigadoon-like city. Because, we now discover, K'un L'un is only one of seven cities of heaven that phase in and out of Earth's plane of existence, and the purpose of the immortal weapons, of which Iron Fist is only one, is to meet ever few decades in deadly combat to determine which of the seven cities will have preeminence for the next cycle. And then the ass-kicking commences.

And now I'm just recounting the entire plot.

I can't help myself. The book is a compendium of all of my obsessions, from clash of cultures, to multidimensional hoohah, to steampunk and pulp adventurers, to generational and legacy heroes, to martial arts, and all points in between. This is a book aimed directly at me, and it couldn't be more perfect.

I don't know what the working relation between the two cowriters is like. In interviews they suggest that Fraction writes the first draft of each script, then Brubaker rewrites, then Fraction polishes, then Brubaker polishes. If that's the case, then it perhaps explains how The Immortal Iron Fist manages to somehow be greater than the sum of its parts. Fraction's own comics are almost invariably about things I myself obsess over constantly, but in some cases the final execution falls a little short of the conception (as, to be fair, it would almost have to do, given the ambitious reach of his ideas). Brubaker's work, on the other hand, is technically unassailable, but sometimes fails to grab me at a visceral level, most often falling outside my personal wheelhouse, as it were. The two of them working together, however, are this crazy Frankenstein of talent, each compensating for the other, and constantly amping things up.

(Of course, this could all be a misread of the real working relationship, and it could simply be that the subject matter here is closer to my heart, and that Fraction in some cases writes one issue himself from start to finish and Brubaker in other cases does the same, in which case I'm just talking out of my ass again.)

Okay, now I really need to get back to work, as I've bloviated on this far longer than I'd planned. The upshot is this, though. If you follow my blog at all, and find that you share tastes in common with me in terms of books, or movies, or comics, you would be well served to seek out The Immortal Iron Fist and give it a shot. It really is one of the best things in the history of ever, and one of the bright shining lights in the giant ocean of suck that modern superhero comics have become. Highly, highly recommended.



Fire in the Lake

My story "Fire in the Lake," yet another in my seemingly endless series of Celestial Empire stories about a Chinese dominated alternate history, is now available online as part of Subterranean Magazine's Fall 2007 issue.



Dancing Chimps

I don't really understand this commercial in the slightest (and while I have a fair amount of affection for Arby's, nothing advertised here appeals in the slightest), but hey, it's got dancing chimpanzees...

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Worst URLs

Jay Lake points at a list of the Top 10 Unintentionally worst company urls. I haven't laughed that much in a while.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


High Budget, Low Tech

A post on Neatorama points at this new Sony ad.

According to Youtube, that's 40 animators,3 weeks, and 3.5 tons of clay. But aside from a crane for some of the later shots, unless I'm missing something, there isn't anything involved in the production out of the reach of a regular person. Just a still camera, some clay and perhaps some armatures, and loads and loads of patience. (That, and no doubt crushingly expensive city permits.)

I was reminded of this recent Sprint commercial that uses the "light painting" technique, similarly building up moving pictures from lots of still camera images, this time with long exposures and bright moving lights.

Again, nothing that would be out of the reach of regular folks, as the number of "light painting" entries on Youtube suggests.

What both of these commercials share in common is that they employ low-tech means within the reach of everyone, but in applications that require the addition of time and resources that are all but impossible for anyone without really deep pockets. Unless our hypothetical regular person with the still camera, clay, and bright lights has forty or so friends willing to devote three weeks of their lives to putting together a thirty-second short film, there's no way that anybody but a big outfit could pull it off.

Friday, October 05, 2007


Gnarls Barkley's "Who Cares"

How did I not know about this before now? A video for Gnarls Barkley's "Who Cares", with Mario Van Peebles as Blacula.

I don't know that it gets much cooler than that.


Free Fiction Friday: Benu's Story from Paragaea

It's Friday, so it's free fiction time. Previous installments have included a short story and a few stand-alone chapters (now conveniently located with the "free fiction" tag). Today's offering is a selection from Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, and while these chapters aren't entirely "stand-alone," I think that with a bit of leaning they should manage to keep upright.

Earlier in the narrative, our heroine Akilina Chirikova and her companions Hieronymus Bonaventure and the jaguar-man Balaam encountered an artificial being who calls himself Benu, and who has joined them on the search for a passage back to Earth. In the following selection, Akilina begins to wonder about who and what Benu is, precisely, and he obligingly explains.

excerpt from
Paragaea: A Planetary Romance
by Chris Roberson

According to Hieronymus’s maps and Benu’s recollections, the company had more than 1,000 kilometers to cover before they reached the river Pison, and another few hundred beyond that before they arrived at Masjid Empor. Even switching horses at midday, traveling an average of ten hours a day, they could cover no more than thirty and forty kilometers a day. As a result, the journey from Roam to the ferry on the Pison would take them well over a month.

Having walked on foot through rainforest ever since the crash of the Rukh, Leena would have thought that traveling by horseback would prove a relief, but was surprised to find herself, if anything, even more fatigued at the end of a day of riding as she had been after a full day’s slog through the undergrowth. Different muscles were sore, and bruises were found in new and sometimes surprising locations, but the fact that the horse was the one expending all the energy of locomotion appeared to do little to conserve the rider’s strength.

As exhausted as their bodies might be at day’s end, though, their minds were hungry for activity and exercise. With only the unbroken expanses of the high plains to look at, and nothing but the endless days of riding ahead of them, they passed the time in near endless conversation, morning, day, and evening, leaving off only while sleeping, and sometimes not even then, as on frequent occasions on or the other of them would be found talking in their sleep, carrying on the conversations of the day.

Having traveled with Balam and Hieronymus since the day she first arrived on Paragaea, Leena felt that she knew them well enough, though the stories, jokes, and anecdotes they shared on those long days on the high Sakrian plains let her know just how little any one being could truly know another. But while there were occasional surprises, little character flaws or past indiscretions, that she found surprising, on the whole nothing was not in keeping with what she could have guessed about her two long-time companions.

Benu, though, was another matter entirely. Though they’d traveled at his side for a period of weeks, now, Leena felt that they’d hardly come to know the artificial man at all. He seemed so different than the frail, ancient creature he’d been when first they’d met, and his hairless, perfect skin and large opalescent eyes only served to remind her at every turn that he was not human like Hieronymus and she. That he never complained of aches and pains, never hungered, never tired, served to remind her that he was not even a living non-human sentient like Balam. But neither was he a creature of pure artifice, merely a machine. A kind of soul seemed to lurk behind those opalescent eyes, and a personality bubbled up during his often strange pronouncements and lectures. Here was a being who had walked this circle of lands for countless millennia, had seen things that no other living being ever saw, and who knew more than any single being she’d ever met.

But what kind of being was he, at the core?


“Benu,” Leena began one morning, as they cantered across the grasslands, side-by-side, their string of horses following on a lead. “In the days past, the topic of family has arisen from time to time. We have heard about Balam’s sisters Sakhmet and Bastet, and Hero has told us of his parents—the scholar and the cartographer’s daughter—and I have even made mention of my own parents, Mikhail Andreyevich and Irina Ivanovna.”

“Yes,” Benu said, contemplatively. “And I’ve been struck by how often your stories seem to end in tragedy, or one sort or another, whether death, or betrayal, or both.”

On her other side, Balam began to growl, a low rumbling thunder deep in his chest.

“Perhaps,” Hieronymus hastened to interrupt, trying for a light tone, “what Benu means to say is that each of us, in our own way, has experienced the travails of life first hand.”

“No,” Benu answered, shaking his head and glancing casually over at Hieronymus. “I mean to say that you, Hieronymus, betrayed your father’s wishes for your life by running away to sea, rather than pursuing an academic course as he had intended for you. And you did so shortly after your mother’s death, only further linking the two concepts.” He turned to Leena, twisting expertly in the saddle, casually leaning against his saddle’s pommel. “And you, Akilina, lost your parents when only five years old, and were forced to survive a feral existence in the remaining months of a siege, a hardscrabble life that left you little more than a reactionary beast by the processes end.” Leena stiffened, but before she could respond, Benu had moved his attentions on to Balam. “And you, friend Sinaa, were betrayed by your cousin Gerjis, who turned your sisters away from you, and lead your nation into a close alliance with the leader of the Black Sun Genesis cult, one Per, an individual of rather dubious qualities, or so your report would suggest.”

The jaguar man’s fingers tightened on the reins, and his black lips curled back over saber-like incisors. “I prefer not to discuss Per, if you please,” he said between clenched teeth. “So make your point, homunculus, if you have one…”

Benu raised a hand in half-hearted apology.

“I mean no offense,” he said, turning from one to another. “I just observe that the concept of family so often is tied up inextricably with the more negative aspects of culture, whether the betrayal of personal confidences, or the end of existence. Though, to be fair, since all existence ends sooner or later, I suppose one could argue that data point isn’t particularly relevant.” He turned to Leena, his expression open and confused. “I apologize, Akilina, is that not the point you intended to make?”

Leena was still caught in a wash of emotion thinking of her lost parents, and couldn’t help but wish that she hadn’t mentioned them a few nights before, in the late hours of the evening, when Hieronymus had left off talking about his own parents, and their loss.

“No,” Leena finally said, fighting to remain calm and collected. “My point, had I been allowed to make it, would have been that in all this talk of family, we have yet to discuss your own origins, Benu.”

“Oh.” Benu paused for a moment, lids sliding slowly over opalescent eyes, as he looked passed Leena at Balam, and then over to Hieronymus. “My apologies. I mistook your meaning. My own origins are fairly inconsequential. I was constructed by the wizard-kings of Atla, as I may have indicated before. I was designed to be a reconnaissance probe, my original charter to walk to planet, making a complete circuit every few centuries, and to report back what I had learned to my creators. Millennia ago, though, the way to Atla was sealed off, the citadel city hidden behind an energetic barrier wall, when the wizard-kings scorched the steppes of Eschar with cold fire, thus ending the Genos Wars.”

“And the age of the Metamankind Empires began,” Balam said thoughtfully.

“Exactly so. It was an interesting time, though as the old saw holds, one does not always find it enjoyable to live through interesting times. Though, in their way, the metamen did not prove any better or worse as stewards of civilization than the Nonae or the Black Sun Empire had before them, or than the human cultures appear to be proving today. Civilization is, in many ways, an emergent phenomenon, and it seems to matter little to history what species of being steers the ship of state, so long as the ship is steered somewhere or other. And like families and individuals, death seems to claim all civilizations in the end.”

Hieronymus drew in a long breath through his nose, his mouth clamped shut, seemed to marshal his reserves of patience before answering. “You speak cavalierly of families and deaths,” he said, his tone level, “for a being who seems to have known nothing of either.”

Benu regarded him for a moment, something like sadness creeping around his eyes, and shook his head slowly.

“I’m afraid I’ve given you a mistaken impression, my friends, if you have come to think I know nothing of family or of loss.”

“What could you, undying and sexless,” Balam shot back, “know of either?”

“Because I have almost died, many times, and once at the hands of the one I came to know as Ikaru.”

“Ikaru?” Leena asked.

“My son.”

Chapter 20
The Story of Benu

“Though my outer form appears little different than that of a human,” Benu said, as they gathered around a campfire at day’s end, their horses grazing on a line in the near distance, “it must not be forgotten that I am an artificial being. My bodies are able to walk unscathed through fire, stay underwater for long periods of time, run fast for days on end, and lift huge weights. I have a weakness, though, which I am understandably reluctant to share. However, since you have bared such personal moments of your pasts with me, it seems only right that I unburden myself to you, to a degree. And awareness of my limitations is crucial in the tale which I now relate.”


I am fueled primarily by the sun, Benu went on. I can draw energy and sustenance through consuming and metabolizing matter, but such process are time consuming, and the resultant energy yields are comparatively low; as a result, I am designed to draw my energy chiefly from the sun’s rays. And though I am able to store a certain amount of energy in my body’s cells, if I overexert my reserves can burn through quickly. Whether quickly or slowly, though, as energy is consumed it must be replenished. If my stores run low in the daylight hours, I can recharge fairly quickly, just by absorbing the sun’s rays, and after a brief respite I can be fully replenished. If my reserves are depleted at night, however, I can be left in a weakened state until sunrise, forced to subsist on the reflected light of the moon.

When at my full strength, I can go without rest for days, can hear sounds undetectable to the most sensitive of organic creatures, and my eyes can perceive every band of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma radiation. In time, though, my systems can become corrupted, decayed, or damaged, and must be repaired.

My makers imbued me with the ability to repair myself, even to the extent of manufacturing new parts and components to replace worn and defective ones. I assume that my original parameters were set such that, when wear and tear reached systemic proportions, I would return to Atla to be decommissioned. Perhaps another probe unit would be sent in my place, or my personality core would be transferred to a new body. I’m afraid that I don’t recall. That knowledge is among that which was lost to me, over the course of the events I now recount.

In any event, whatever my originally conditioning, it is clear that I have adapted over time, so that I now can construct an entire replacement body. Only my central personality core, seat of consciousness and storehouse of memory, cannot be replaced. Once in every millennia, I construct a new body, and when it is complete, simply move the core from the old body to the new. This is the time I am at my most vulnerable, as you three should well know.

If the process goes correctly, there is a continuance of perception from one body to the next. Though the physical bodies may differ somewhat, one to another, so long as the personality core is transferred as the new body is coming online and the old body is shutting down, “Benu” remains.

Once, though, this did not happen. A discontinuity was introduced, and crucial data was lost.

Ultimately, the blame is solely mine. I had waited too long to construct my new body. Having become attached to a small group of humans, I traveled with a young girl and boy, exploring the far reaches of the Paragaean continent. I’d delayed for years returning to the Temple to construct my new body in safety, and when I finally had the body nearly complete, my old body gave out suddenly. Before I was able to transfer my personality core from my aged form to the new, I lost first motor control, and then consciousness.

I collapsed, insensate. When next I opened my eyes, my systems nearly completely failed, my perceptions only taking in a fraction of the data they typically collected, I found that my new body was no longer on the slab. My first thought was that the body had been stolen, but by whom, and for what purpose, I did not know.

I was forced to construct a new self, my systems overtaxed to support an already decaying body for another year beyond its expected termination. Much data was lost in the intervening months, corrupted and irretrievably overwritten, as the personality core took on more and more of the maintenance and upkeep of the body, normally run by the secondary control system located in the skull.

At the end of the year, the new body was complete, and with its final ergs of energy the old body transferred the personality core to the new form, before shutting down forever.

When I opened my eyes, I had trouble adjusting to this new form. I’d gotten so used to the limited motion and prescribed perceptions of my dying body that it took many long weeks before I was able to move comfortably in the new body. My handiwork, too, had been hampered somewhat by my previous sorry state, and it was not until I was able to construct a new body, a millennia later, that I was able to walk without a slight limp, or to express a full range of emotions with my face. And for a millennia, I had trouble hearing the shorter wavebands of radio transmissions, but since most were naturally occurring, the result of plate tectonics and not artificially created communication signals, I didn’t consider it a major loss.

If I wondered what had become of my purloined body, who had stolen it and why, it was only infrequently, and never for long. With more pressing concerns, I just chalked it up to a mystery, and resolved to increase the efficacy of the Temple guardians (for all the good that seems to have done) before constructing another replacement body.

Had I been in better control of my faculties, had I incarnated in a new form with all my memories, senses, and capacities intact, would I have displayed greater curiosity, and bothered to check whether there was any sign of entry or invasion, to search the surrounding environs for any sign where the body might have been taken? Perhaps. But perhaps, too, in my many millennia of wandering, I had grown complacent. When a being lives as long as I have, it is very easy to dismiss perils and threats, no matter how clear and present.

I would have occasion to regret this lack of curiosity in later centuries. Perhaps if I’d known earlier, even a few years or decades after the fact, I could have intervened, and things would have gone differently. But as it was, almost a half-dozen centuries passed before I learned what had become of the missing body, and by then it was far, far too late.

It was on the island of Pentexoire, one in the archipelago that stretches out into the northern reaches of the Outer Ocean, off the coast of Taured, that I finally learned how much had been lost.

I had not been in the region in long millennia, and had resolved to visit each of the cultures in the island chain, to record what changes the intervening centuries might have wrought. I passed through Mistorak, and Bragman, and came at last to Pentexoire. On my previous visit to Pentexoire, I had found it a placid and contemplative society, largely agrarian, that deeply prized the study of natural processes. A rich but sparsely populated principality, it was ruled over by a council of elders. Pentexoire had no standing army, no navy, and its principle export was scholars and thinkers. For a time, to have a Pentexoirean tutor was the distinguishing mark of quality for any wealthy scion’s upbringing.

Now, on my return to the island after so long an absence, I was surprised to see everything I had once admired about the culture stripped away. Militant, aggressive, anti-intellectual, Pentexoire was now a culture perpetually preparing for armed conflict. The centers of learning and natural study had all been shuttered and closed, replaced with temples and places of religious instruction. The locals I questioned were all fearful of outsiders, having been convinced by their religious and political leaders than all non-Pentexoire were in league with dark forces, intent only on their enslavement. Worse, some feared that I was an agent of the secret police, trying to ferret out dissidents to join the other malcontents on gibbets strung up along the thoroughfares, dying by inches. Near the cities, the posts from which the decaying corpses swung were as thick as the trees in the forest of Altrusia, the victims numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands.

Analyzing what I knew of the culture’s history, I could not recall any societal trends that might account for such a remarkable shift. I questioned as many of the locals as would speak to me, and most of the respondents attributed their culture’s movement away from learning and towards dogma—which all averred was a positive move—as the work of their tireless leader, an absolute dictator who carried the title “presbyter.” Remarkably, most of them could not recall how long the presbyter had held the throne, saying only that he had been their ruler all their lives. Considering that the oldest of the respondents was nearly their first century in age, that meant for a considerably long-lived ruler.

I resolved to go to see this ruler for myself. When I arrived at the capital city, though, I found the presbyter and the rest of the government had only recently departed. The court had relocated from the main residence at Nyse, to spend the warm months behind the sardonyx gates and ivory bars of the summer palace at Susa.

After a journey of several days, I reached Susa, which was no longer the contemplative city I remembered from prior visits, once devoted exclusively to the pursuit of intellection. Now, it was a city at war, more a military encampment than a township.

I was taken prisoner immediately on entering the city, charged with traveling without the appropriate accreditation, and taken before a military official. My physiognomy, which usually went unremarked in my travels, was a subject of considerable discussion among my captors. Of particular interest were my opalescent eyes and pale, hairless skin. My strength, even in that slipshod body, was such that I could have escaped at any moment, but I was curious to observe the Pentexoireans under their natural conditions, and this provided a perfect opportunity. One of the military officials left for some brief time, evidently consulting with some superior, and then returned, to escort me elsewhere.

I assumed initially that I was being led to some audience or interrogation, surprised that I had not been shackled hands and feet, as prisoners typically are. Instead, I was led down a long flight of stairs to the sunless depths of the palace, to a well appointed room lined with tapestries. I was asked to take a seat, and told that someone would be along shortly.

I had become too reliant on my physical capacities, and once again failed to recognize potential threats. When the door to the small room closed with a clanking sound of finality, I realized I had been tricked. The lights went out, and I was plunged in darkness. It took no more than a few minutes investigation to reveal that behind the delicate tapestries were stone walls, unimaginably thick, and the door through which I’d entered was of reinforced metals as thick as I was tall, an incalculable fortune in ore, here spent on keeping me imprisoned.

Long days passed, blurring into weeks. Even without expending any energy on fruitless attempts to escape, which I knew could only fail, as the weeks passed my reserves of energy slowly leeched away, and I weakened fractionally with every hour. Out of sight of the sun, in this dark pit, I gradually lost all but my final reserves of strength.

When the door finally opened again, I could do little more than lift up my head.

“Presbyter Ikaru will see you now,” said the uniformed man who stood at the door.

Dragged to my feet unceremoniously, I was taken through dimly lit halls, up a winding flight of stairs, to an audience chamber of some kind. Through the open windows I could see a clear, moonless night sky.

Sitting on a throne at the front of the room was a figured dressed in elaborate robes of jet black and blood red. He was pale and hairless, and regarded me coolly with opalescent eyes.

Chapter 21
The Story of Ikaru

“This Ikaru, then, was your purloined body?” Leena asked, as they broke camp in the morning, setting out for another day’s ride across the plains.

“So I immediately surmised,” Benu answered, climbing into the saddle.

“And yet you said Ikaru was your son?” Balam asked, cinching up the saddle on his lead draft horse.

“Though I lack the generative capacity, in all regards I have come to look upon Ikaru as a kind of offspring, so the term is correct. From the first words we exchanged, though, I knew I had failed my son.”


Weakened and hardly able to move, Benu said, I was deposited at the feet of the presbyter, seated on the throne. The uniformed man who had escorted me from my cell departed through a side door, and the presbyter and I were left alone in the audience chamber. I had energy enough to speak, but could not have taken a step unaided, without depleting the last of my reserves.

“Who are you?” Presbyter Ikaru asked, imperiously “There is some connection between the two of us, that much is obvious. With your lack of body hair, your alabaster skin, and unusual eyes… we could be brothers. I had thought I was the only one of my kind, having seen only one other like me in all my long years, and that one already dead.”

I understood at once the reason for my long imprisonment. This Ikaru was aware of the weakness of our artificial form, and when he received word that a being who resembled himself so nearly had been discovered in the streets of Susa, he ordered me captured, and kept imprisoned out of reach of the sun’s rays.

“Answer me,” Ikaru repeated, growing agitated. I could tell he was impatient, having waited now long months for me to weaken to the point where I could be safely interrogated.

“I am an artificial being,” I explained, though he doubtless knew. “I was forged to act as a probe for the wizard-kings of Atla, a culture that has long since sealed itself off from any congress with the outside world, millennia ago.”

Ikaru regarded me coolly with opalescent eyes for a long moment, scratching his chin. Though his skin was as pale as mine, it bore the scars and abrasions of many injuries, and the years hung on him more heavily than on me.

“Am I a probe, too, then?” Ikaru asked at length “But my memory stretches back little more than six centuries, not over millennia. Why was I constructed, and by whom?”

“I may be able to answer those questions,” I told him, “but I must first know what you remember of your earliest moments. And how did you come to rule this island nation, so changed since last I saw it?”

“Very well,” Ikaru answered, as though he were granting me some magnanimous boon. “My first memories are of waking up, confused and alone, in a ruined temple some centuries ago. On the floor at my feet lay an ancient man, with unseeing eyes like glittering opals, who appears to all indications to be dead. On reflection, I quickly came to realize that, while I had some basic knowledge—familiarity with language, knowledge of geography, and so forth—I had no notion who I was. I staggered out of the temple, past strange rows of statues, past small biting creatures who gnashed their teeth at my feet and ankles but caused no injury, out into the jungle.”

He paused, and his hand drifted across his forehead dreamily, as though he were brushing away a spider’s web.

“I’ve had so little occasion to recall those early days in the last few centuries that I find a strangely… emotional response to my now recounting them.” Ikaru paused, and straightened on the throne. “In any event, not knowing where I should go, nor what I should do, I found myself traveling north, wandering aimlessly, searching for some idea who I was. I came upon a settlement of the Pakunari of Ogansa Valley, and passed some years among them. It was the Pakunari that named me Ikaru, which means ‘ageless’ in their tongue.”

A faint smile played on his lips, and then faded, as a shadow seemed to pass over him.

“In time, though, the hairy creatures came to view me with suspicion. While they aged and died, I remained young and unmarred, and when a particularly cruel season saw a large number of their young and old killed by plague, I was blamed. But they could not harm me, and were forced instead to settle for driving me out. I traveled south, skirting the western edge of the Rim Mountains, moving from fishing village to fishing village. I passed a few years on a whaling vessel, and eventually jumped ship on the island of Croatoan. But the strange habits of the island’s distributed consciousness unsettled me, and I soon moved on. I traveled through the Eastern Desert, spent a few years as the prisoner of a cohort of the Nonae, who had the good fortune to catch me in a weakened state and to bind my hands and feet with bonds that were proof even against my great strength. The Nonae kept me as a kind of pet, a toy for their amusement. I eventually escaped, killing the entire cohort in the process, and made my way to Masjid Logos, where I found work illuminating manuscripts at a scholarium.

“From my time among the Nonae, I had learned the possible uses of a strong warrior caste, and to what ends a nation dedicated to warfare could be directed. While illuminating religious texts in Masjid Logos, I learned the powerful effects that doctrine could have, even when not founded on experiential data of any kind. Were one to establish a warrior caste motivated by religious doctrine, I reasoned, great things could be accomplished.”

Ikaru waved a hand around the audience chamber, indicating the map of the island on the far wall.

“Pentexoire is my second attempt to put this theory into practice. My previous attempt was in a Sakrian township a few days travel outside of Azuria. The presence of surrounding cultures, though, proved too much a contaminating influence, and within a few generations the populace rejected my temporal and spiritual authority, and I was forced to flee ahead of an angry mob. For my next and latest experiment in social controls, then, I selected an island culture, isolated both by geography and circumstance from outside contamination.”

“What is the purpose of these… ‘experiments’?” I asked.

“I have seen organic culture at its best and worst, and I have come to question whether organics, with their short-lived vantage, are best suited to govern their own destinies. It seems to me that organic culture would be better served to look to a superior intellect for governance, one with a longer view of history.”

“And yours, naturally, is the superior intellect in question?”

“Naturally,” Ikaru said, without a hint of irony. “And given that it is my responsibility to govern, it is in my subjects’ best interest that I devise the means of social controls that will result in the most effective organization and structure of culture.”

The presbyter leaned forward, regarding me closely.

“Now,” he said, “I believe you owe me some answers. Having heard what you have of my earliest memories, and my activities since, are you now in a position to address my origins?”

“You were never intended to develop an independent consciousness. The knowledge you possessed on first waking was the basic programming incorporated into the secondary control system housed in your skull. The cavity on your chest is intended to house the personality core of Benu, which is now incorporated instead into this body.” Benu indicated the gem on his chest. “Herein reside the thoughts and memories which should have been yours on wakening.”

“So you hold the mind that was intended to be mine?” Ikaru said. “But who constructed you, then?”

“The same hand that constructed you,” Benu answered. “My earlier self, the former Benu, who you mistook for a corpse on the temple floor upon awakening. I was not dead, but only momentarily deactivated, having failed to transfer the personality core in time. Had all gone as planned, when your eyes opened, you would have had my memories. Instead, I was forced to build this new form.”

“And that is why we look as alike as brothers?”

“Yes. We share the same basic design, though the minute details differ from iteration to iteration.”

“Fascinating,” Ikaru said. “And how is it that our internal processes function? I have, of course, surmised the need for direct sunlight, but the mechanisms through which our bodies collect and store energy elude me.”

I had little desire to engage in lengthy discourse about my systemic processes, at that juncture. I was at the disadvantage, in my weakened state, and had begun to suspect that my “offspring’s” motives were not the purest. I could allow that he had, in first learning of my arrival, wanted to take all precaution before our initial meeting, but having spent some time in his company, I had come to the conclusion that his every attention was bent on the domination of his subjected nation, and that he had no intention of us ever meeting one another on equal footing.

I answered his further questions, though, my answers as lengthy and circuitous as possible. It seemed that Ikaru, having revealed for him his origins for the first time, was so distracted that he had not noticed the passage of time, nor the fact that the first light of dawn had already begun to pink the eastern sky. Even the feeble rays of this early gloaming was enough to begin slowly to replenish my long discharged stores of energy.

When I had explained the rudiments of our bodies internal processes, Ikaru held up a hand to silence me, and looked at the gem on my chest, contemplatively.

“I wonder what would eventuate,” he said, “if I removed the personality core from your body and installed it in my own chest?” He pulled apart his jet-and-crimson robes, revealing the cavity at the center of his chest. “Would I merely gain your memories and knowledge, all that you posses and have learned? Or would my personality be subsumed by the personality of Benu?”

“I don’t know,” I told him, and while I honestly didn’t, I had no desire to find out.

“Perhaps, then,” Ikaru said at length, “I will just keep you imprisoned in the oubliette. Then I could interrogate you at my leisure, to take from you what knowledge I might find of utility. I would very much like to learn more about our original designers, these wizard-kings of Atla, who seem so cavalierly to have discarded their probes into the world.”

“Ikaru,” I said, looking upon him with genuine sympathy, “if I have learned anything in my long years of wandering this circle of lands, it is that the best use of power seldom ever lies in its exercise. My fear for you is that, having set yourself up as master of this nation of people, that you have lost all perspective. I have, in my time, been subject to many of the same temptations which now drive you. I would help you, if you’d let me, avoid the mistakes which I have made, and which I have seen others make, so that you can make the best use of your time on this globe.”

“Nonsense,” Ikaru replied, dismissing my words with a wave of his hand. “My perspective is my own, thank you, and what lessons I’ll learn from you, will be of my own choosing, not your soporific platitudes. Power exists to be used. In the potential it is meaningless, only when made actual is it of any utility.”

“In that csae,” I said, “I will not remain your prisoner any longer than I already have. And I have no desire whatsoever to help advance your plans.”

Before Ikaru could respond, I made my move.

My strength still at perilously low levels, in a single motion I rose to my feet, and launched myself bodily at the nearest window. I sailed out into the sunrise, and plunged down dozens of stories, my landing creating a small impact crater. I climbed unsteadily to my feet, and made my way into the twisting streets of Susa, managing to keep a few steps ahead of the presbyter’s guards. Within a matter of days, I was on a ship bound for Taured, my strength regained, putting Pentexoire forever behind me.

I had considered staying on the island, remaining in hiding while locating pockets of dissidents, and helping to mount a resistance to the presbyter’s rule. Cleaning up Ikaru’s mess. But the historical processes involved were inevitable, and eventually the Pentexoireans would rid themselves of Ikaru on their own. Perhaps not in the present generation, perhaps even not for centuries, but eventually. And when they did, when Ikaru saw that organic cultures will not suffer a dictator interminably, then perhaps my son would learn that he had chosen the wrong path.

There would always be other cultures, though, increasingly remote, wherein he could perform his “experiments,” so perhaps he would not.

Copyright © 2006 Monkeybrain, Inc.


Thursday, October 04, 2007



If you'd asked me yesterday if anything could top the brilliance of Overdrift, I'd have thought you were crazy.

Today? Well...


Sex Machine

Don't ask, just watch it.


Buy n Large

In the market for a robot?

For more info, you can visit the manufacturer. (And when there, be sure to check out the Privacy Policy linked from the bottom of the page.) Or, you could just wait until next year.


Friend Casanova

In next week's book report I'm going to be raving about Matt Fraction, but in the meantime here's a little goodness for you. His Image book Casanova is currently the featured title on Myspace.com/comicbooks. My understanding of social networking sites is only slightly better than that of an 80-year old grandmother, so I'm not entirely sure what that means, but what I do know is that Fraction is making available a free .cbr file of CASANOVA #8 (if you don't know from cbr files, you'll probably need to download a copy of CDisplay to view it, or else you can just view the pages inline on Myspace).

I wasn't sure about Casanova when it started last year. I read the first couple of issues, thought they were well done, but for whatever reason it didn't really click with me. Then I went on to read The Immortal Iron Fist (which is the thing I'll be raving about next week), and decided that maybe I should give it another chance. The issues are only $1.99 a piece, and are the most densely packed comics in years, if ever, so were easily worth the few bucks I threw down for them. Rereading the first seven issues from the beginning, the book did click with me, and now it's one of my favorite ongoing comics.

Over on the Myspace thingee, Fraction describes a little bit about the book's origins and influences:
When they were kids, I suspect that most guys in comics had heroes that put on capes. When I was a kid, my heroes put on ties, ordered drinks, and seduced women that wanted to kill them.

Never a clotheshorse or a social butterfly, I was a fat, perpetually new kid in about a dozen different schools, each one existing on a wholly new planet than the last, with its own customs and rituals I generally didn't understand, didn't like, and eventually came to hate.

The appeal, then, to me, of James Bond and his ilk wasn't the action, the state-sponsored murder, or the gadgets-- although all that was supercool-- it was that Bond always knew what to say, what to drink, and how to live in any one of a dozen skins his job called on him to wear from day to day.

I didn't want super-strength and heat-vision; I didn't want to sublimate any latent homosexual desires I may have had by punching other dudes in their spandex-clad taints-- I wanted to look good in a tux, hold my liquor, and go back to my suite with the beautiful girl in the backless evening gown.
Casanova really is one of the best things going, and is worth reading, if for no other reason, to see just how Fraction and his collaborators Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon pack so much information into every panel, and so many panels onto every page. At a time when most comics (a) suck, and (b) are so "decompressed" that it takes five issues for a single leaf to fall, Casanova is comics on overdrive, dense as a white dwarf and extremely sexy.

Go check out the free issue and see if it's your kind of thing. If it is, you can pick up the Luxuria hardcover to get up to speed, and then grab the ninth issue off the shelf, and you'll be all caught up. And you'll be glad that you did.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


James Gurney's blog

(via) Hey, James Gurney has a blog! Check it out. I've been looking forward to checking out the new Dinotopia book, Journey to Chandara (which appears to have been released). I remember the first time I saw the first one and thinking then, as I still do, that it was one of the coolest damned things I've ever seen. I was able to get a closer look at some of Gurney's pieces at the WorldCon art show last year, and it wasn't surprising to see that they were even better up close.


Dove Onslaught

This short from Dove, in promotion of their Dove Self-Esteem Fund, touches on something I spend a fair amount of time thinking about these days.


Mars is Amazing

I have the good people at SFSignal to thank for pointing out this bit of geniusness.

Here's the explanation from the gentleman who created it, if you're curious.
When my daughter was assigned to write a report on Mars in school, I decided to give her a great example of what not to do, and here's the result. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Wallace and Gromit return to TV

Even more reason to celebrate!

Aardman Animations has announced that the cheese-loving inventor and his loyal dog will star in Trouble at' Mill - to screen on BBC One in late 2008.

Creator Nick Park said: "The story takes Wallace and Gromit in a direction we haven't seen before - both emotionally and technically."

Shooting starts in January at Aardman studios in Bristol.

Trouble at' Mill is a murder mystery that sees Wallace and Gromit running a bakery business - with their house converted into a granary with ovens and robotic kneading arms.
Cracking good news!


New Review

SFRevu, who've previously posted John Berlyne's review of Set the Seas on Fire, now has Bill Lawhorn's review of the same.
A solid read that shifts between Bonaventure's past and present so the reader can see what made the man that lives the adventure. This is a book that fans of the high seas and the occult can enjoy. Hieronymus is a member of the Bonaventure clan that has been the focal point of several previous works by Roberson. I have not read the earlier works but was able to follow this story fairly easily. At some point I may read the earlier tales to see if it changes my perspective on this book.



Wall-E trailer online

The full trailer for Pixar's next theatrical outing is now online.

Is it 2008 yet?

Monday, October 01, 2007



If you read this blog on my site, instead of following it through a feed reader, you may have noticed a new addition over the weekend. I've added little widgets on the sidebar to the left, pointing to the new (somewhat) regular features "Free Fiction" and "Book Reports." Yes, I've graduated to the use of labels. Welcome to early 2004.

I'm thinking about one or two other regular features to institute, and if I do so I'll be adding them to the list, as well.

Expect me to keep this up just as long as I remember to do so... which may well mean that I'll have let it whither and die in another week.


Book Report

It's book report Monday, yet again. Unfortunately, though, another week went by without me finishing a new book. I'm still elbow-deep in GRRM's A Game of Thrones and loving it, but it'll be another week or so before I'm able to finish it. (And, tangentially, I'm on the horns of a dilemma because of it. I've adopted a policy the last couple of years of only reading the first installment of a series when I have other things still on my To Read list, and since I have loads of books on my To Read list, I can't in good conscience commit another untold number of weeks to reading the rest of the Song of Ice and Fire. My philosophy is to read the first installment of series to get a feel for what they're about, and to learn what I can about how the author is putting things together, and then wait for the series to end before sitting down and reading the rest. The problem comes in with the fact that the Martin book is so good that it's tempting me to keep going.)

In any event, I'm dipping into some of my earlier summer reading again for today's report, which I'd have mentioned at the time if I hadn't been entirely underwater.

Brian Francis Slattery's Spaceman Blue: A Love Story

The first I heard of this book was when Irene Gallo raved about it on her blog, in connection with discussing the cover. Then when I was at BEA this last spring I briefly met the author in the company of his editor, my pal Liz Gorinsky. She was kind enough to give me a review copy of the book, which I read more or less immediately after coming home.

Slattery has been praised to the rafters for this book, and all of it deserved. There is an immediacy and relentless lyricism to his prose that really got into my head and messed me up for a few days. From time to time I'll read a book with such a strong sense of style that it deforms and distorts my own writing for a brief time, infected with the author's own rhythms. That's what happened with this one, and for the span of about a week the work I was doing was a strange hybrid of my own voice and this strange interloper that had set up shop in my head, engendered by my fevered reading of Spaceman Blues. Fortunately for the work in question, my editors at Solaris talked me out of it, since while the style Slattery uses fits his story perfectly, it was an ill-suited choice for my alternate history future war story.

So, on to the story itself. It's almost impossible to synopsize. There are strange cults, underground cities, martial arts, and aliens. It reminded me of nothing so much as a mature version of one of Danny Pinkwater's young adult novels (I was thinking in particular of Lizard Music, or the underground culture bits of the Snarkout Boys novels), and considering how highly I rate Pinkwater, that's high praise indeed.

It's not a perfect novel. I have one or two quibbles with it. It's a world that appears on its surface to be the "real world," until these stranger layers beneath are revealed... except that the doomsday monks float around a few inches above ground and no one seems alarmed by them. It's a great bit of business, and beautifully written, but it pushes the baseline reality of the world into already absurd territory, undercutting a bit the strangeness of what follows. And if the book's ending somewhat fails to deliver the grand heights up to which the rest of the book was building, it can hardly be blamed; this is the kind of book that promises the secrets of life and the universe, and it would be a rare book indeed that could deliver on all counts.

But these are fairly minor quibbles. Otherwise, the book is near flawless. The things that the narrative does "wrong," like shifting POV at a maddening rate, dropping into infodumps at a moment's notice, and so on, are actually strengths and not weaknesses. In the hands of a lesser writer I think the novel would have ended up an irredeemable mess, but it's a testament to Slattery's prowess that he's able not only to make it all hang together, but to make it sing.

Highly recommended for anyone who thinks the phrase "Pinkwater for grownups" is an appealing one. And for everyone who doesn't, for that matter.


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