Robot Coal, now published on the Martian Magazine website (and previously available in the Martian Issue 5 anthology), is partly an homage to a writing friend that I never got to meet.
The iron jaw grates as it fashions a broken grin.
I first encountered Paul R. Hardy when he critiqued my story, Glory Whales, on the Critters writing forum. His critique was smart and insightful, and I came to look forward to his comments whenever I put up another story for critique. Paul himself was an excellent writer, and I eagerly anticipated reading the early versions of his stories, returning the favor of a critique.
We exchanged emails beyond just the critiques back and forth. When I needed a quick turnaround on a story I was readying for a submission window that was rapidly approaching, I reached out to him and another writer whose stories and critiques I’d also come to appreciate on Critters. They both stepped up for me, and The Consequential Effects of Practiced Penmanship eventually became my first story sale.
There was a lot of back and forth with him on a couple other stories, where he kept pushing me, asking hard questions and forcing me to make the story better. One of those, Shattered Hand, went on to become my first sale to a professional story market. (And the other, The Golden Rays of the Morning Sun, subsequently sold as well.)
I knew he had health problems, which sometimes played into his critiques. In Golden Rays the main character resists an extensive medical intervention. Paul kept at me to come up with a solidly believable reason for that reluctance, telling me that he’d have undergone the medical intervention of that character in a heartbeat.
Paul had left Critters and moved to the Codex writing forum once he got his first professional story sale. I followed a few months later. He continued posting his stories for critiques in that forum, and became a valued member of the community.
So it was with shock that I read in a Codex post that he had passed away in December 2020.
I retired in late 2019 and some international travel was on my agenda across the next few years. The UK was near the top of the list, where I looked forward to meeting Paul face-to-face (along with some other UK writers). Unfortunately COVID crashed down around us and all those plans were put (and still are, for me) on hold.
Paul was instrumental in making me a better writer, my journey to successfully writing and selling SF and fantasy short stories would have been much harder without him.
When everything’s gone to pieces, who doesn’t need a little comfort food? “Chicken soup is good for the soul” and all that.
It’s good to know that when interstellar civilizations come together, compassion and care for all species will be a shared value, and that there will be those called to serve others.
In my stories I sometimes borrow from other stories I’ve written, some published, some as-yet-unpublished. It’s not that I’m building a coherent shared universe like the MCU or anything–the borrowed entities may be wholly different from one story to another. Okay, maybe there’s a little bit of sharing, but it’s not anything I’m going to go to great lengths to synchronize.
For instance, the “furry maratuses” are from a story I’ve got out on submission–with furry paws crossed that it finds a home; while the “chitin-clad arthropoids” are based on the Sen from Shattered Hand. The medic, along with some of the other patients, are hemsi, which is a shout-out to HEMSI, Huntsville Alabama’s ambulance service. Seemed appropriate for a medic, though I’ve not yet seen any green-tinged, three handed EMTs around here!
In these times especially, go treat yourself to a nice, hot bowl of soup!
I’m proud that my story, The Paleoneirologist’s Dreams, was selected for publication in Tree and Stone’s inaugural issue. Tree and Stone is absolutely gorgeous and I hope it does well for its creator; as well as becoming a vibrant outlet for the fantasy and science fiction community.
I’ve been hooked on fossils ever since I was a child. That’s not particularly unusual, though I think most kids gravitate towards dinosaurs. And why not? Dinosaurs are awesome! The first fossil that I was enamored with, though? A trilobite! I can’t say for sure exactly how that happened, but I have some vague memory of a third grade teacher showing one to us in class.
Growing up in farmland Minnesota there wasn’t much to find in the way of fossils–we lived atop the detritus left after Ice Age glaciers retreated. I think the whole time I lived there I found one fossil. I remember visiting my aunt and uncle in Missouri, and just down the road from their house was a wide open rock cut. There I found a lot of fossils with my cousin, mostly crinoid rings, blastoids, and I think a snail. I still have a few of these stashed somewhere, I think–though I’ve lost track of the snail.
It wasn’t until I moved to North Alabama and bought property on the side of a Mississippian period limestone mountain (see the page header above!) that I finally found myself surrounded by fossils. All of them sea-dwelling creatures like horn corals, shells, and the ubiquitous crinoids. I also went on some field trips with friends and local organizations elsewhere in Alabama and collected leaf and bark prints, cephalopods, and more.
It was inevitable that a story would be written about fossils.
So how does one get from collecting fossils in my backyard to a story about an obsessed paleoneirologist?
Somewhere I learned that the study of dreams is called oneirology. And being very familiar with paleontology, it was a short step to slap paleo- onto oneirology and voilà! Paleoneirology, the scientific study of the Old Dreams.
The idea of acquiring traits or experiences from consuming that which possess them is hardly new. In this story the paleoneirologist literally consumes fossils to dream the life of that creature whose fossil survived to the present day. Not merely participating as a passive observer–documentary style–but viscerally experiencing the life of the creature. Being utterly immersed, becoming it; forgetting their own humanity and living the alien experience of a prehistoric creature.
It’s addicting. It becomes an obsession.
Rapacious, meat-lust hunger. Frenzied slaughter, predator and prey, the snapping of bones and the flood of blood gorges full in the throat. Insatiable.
The final locale, the “paleontological cathedral of dreams,” was inspired by this photo Australian author and illustrator Kathleen Jennings posted from the Oxford Natural History Museum in the UK. (How else would you describe this place? It has definitely earned a spot on my bucket list!)
What better setting and opportunity for a paleoneirologist to make their most audacious attempt at experiencing the ultimate Old Dreams?
When I previously wrote About Mercury’s Ice I mentioned that I became a space nerd at a very young age, and in the decades since have become quite fond of the lesser known–but no less awesome–wonders of the solar system.
Verona Rupes is another one of those wonders. Spotted during Voyager 2’s 1986 flyby of Uranus’ moon Miranda, it’s a candidate for the tallest cliff in the solar system, possibly reaching twenty kilometers (twelve miles) high. With Miranda’s low gravity, less than 1% of Earth’s, that 20 km fall is going to provide ample time for sightseeing on the way down, about eleven minutes.
And we humans seems to have an unquenchable thirst for doing things while falling. (As it turns out, skydive weddings are quite popular among the engaged-to-be-married skydiver population!)
So you just know, how is anybody going to resist having their wedding ceremony performed during the 11-minute freefall off the highest cliff in the solar system?
A few things to keep in mind: Miranda is an airless moon, so you’ll need spacesuits. Though the sun is a long ways away, it’ll still be pretty bright, so coordinate suit colors. Rehearse the ceremony a few times at ground level–you do have eleven minutes, so you don’t have to rush too much, but still, be diligent and watch the altimeter.
Finally, parachutes are useless on Miranda, so make sure everyone’s retros are in good working order and fully fueled. You’ll want to ensure everyone in the wedding party has a good time and a soft landing.
Four of my stories were published this year, and I’d be delighted if readers would consider whether any of them rose to a level worthy of a nomination for any of the annual fantasy and science fiction awards.
Thanks for your time. AND for any such consideration as you may give. If nothing else, I hope you found these stories simply to be an enjoyable read.
The new year started off fresh with the publication of my SF short story, “The Golden Rays of the Morning Sun” in the first quarter issue of Abyss & Apex (January 1, 2021). How much of your physical self can you surrender and still remain human? There may be more than one answer.
The creation of this story was helped along by an illustration dashed off by award winning artist and writer Kathleen Jennings during a Twitter conversation.
My SF short story, “Crossed Paws,” about the impending loss of one’s dog and the efforts one makes to keep more than just its memory alive was first published the in the UK’s Shoreline of Infinity #22 (May 2021). It was then republished in digital and print in issue #23 (June 2021).
Charles Payseur in Quick Sips 6/25/2021 reviewed “Crossed Paws”: “…heavy with tired grief, and beautifully done!”
Click here to read more About Crossed Paws and Tammy, the very good girl to whom it’s dedicated.
Now for some shorter fare! Got thirty seconds? Check out Martian: The Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles. Martian publishes stories of exactly one hundred words. It may sound easy (it’s only a hundred words after all!) but, oh, the trick is picking out the right one hundred words.
A brief SF tale of abrupt loss and perseverance, “Mercury’s Ice” was Martian’s September 27, 2021 story. Read more About Mercury’s Ice to see why I set this story in Mercury’s polar region (Also contains a gratuitous ‘cute kid’ pic :-).
Mercury’s Ice appears in the 27 September 2021 issue of Martian: The Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles. (A drabble is a story told in exactly 100 words.)
I’m a space nerd. I got it from my dad, who worked for a major aerospace company in the 1960s writing test procedures for the Gemini spacecraft. I still have the memory of sitting on the armrest of a chair with him in July 1969 watching a fuzzy image of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon.
That interest never wavered, and I’ve followed pretty much every planetary exploration mission since then. There are amazing things in the solar system, many more than just the biggies–Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s Red Spot, Martian volcanoes–that get most of the attention. Often it’s some of the lesser known features that fascinate me more: Pluto’s Sputnik Planitia, the nitrogen volcanoes on Triton, and that Mercury, the planet closest to our sun, actually has ice deposits in its permanently shadowed polar craters.
It’s unsurprising then that I find these to be compelling settings for stories and novels in general, and thus they have worked their way into mine in particular.
In the one hundred words of Mercury’s Ice I hint at the agony of a love abruptly and violently ended, and of endurance in the face of that burning loss. The persistence of ice in Mercury’s hellish orbital realm seemed an apt metaphor. So close to the fire, so close to obliteration, with only ice cold, hard-as-rock endurance carrying one through each day, every day.
May none of us ever require the endurance of Mercury’s ice.
In my author bio for Crossed Paws, published in Shoreline of Infinity 22 (you can listen to it here for free), I dedicated the story to my dog Tammy. Tammy was let off the leash for the last time on March 3, 2020, and just a few days ago was the one year anniversary of when we laid her to rest alongside her favorite tree on Cedar Gap Mountain in north Alabama.
We live on the slopes of the mountain (or small hill, for all you with actual mountains in your backyard :-), and every Sunday morning Tammy and I hiked up the hill, sometimes on the trails, sometimes bushwhacking through the brush. There came a time, in mid-2019, when she was no longer able to safely hike the rough terrain, even when we stuck to the trails–her hind legs were weakening, and I was very much afraid that a slip or tumble could break a hip or leg, leaving her in serious pain until we could get her to a vet.
Tammy had already dodged one bullet, I wasn’t going to risk another.
The first draft of Crossed Paws was written a few years ago, when Tammy still ecstatically danced around as I pulled down her harness and leash to get ready for our Sunday morning hike. I wrote the story not long after the vet discovered a small black blister in her mouth during her annual checkup. The vet had it biopsied and it turned out to be canine oral melanoma, which is an often aggressive form of dog cancer; even after surgery it can recur and be fatal within a few months. (The one “fortunate” thing was that this instance of the melanoma belonged to one of its less aggressive forms.) The blister was lanced, and Tammy seemed none the worse for it. At her next check up however the melanoma had returned. This time the blister and a semicircle of surrounding tissue was removed from the upper lip on the right side of her snout. Again she responded as if nothing had happened. And the cancer never returned. She was one of the lucky ones who went on to live out the rest of her years cancer free–though the removed tissue did leave her with what my wife and I eventually came to refer to as the blowhole.
Tammy was already in her teens by the time this happened, and I knew that even under the best of circumstances there would only be a few more years with her.
Crossed Paws sorta I guess came out of the anticipation of those final days that I knew would someday come. To put it in an SF context I threw in high end robotic pets–I was remembering the discontinued Sony Aibo. Then added in artificial intelligence–or at least high-level simulacra; nanites and neural mirroring; bio-printing; and freelance programmers doing the best they could for themselves and their four-legged family members in a gig economy.
It’s won’t surprise the reader that a lot of Tammy made its way into Maisie. Whenever I visualized Maisie she, unsurprisingly, looked a lot like Tammy. I deemed Maisie a “Georgia Peach Pitbull”, akin to how we pedigreed Tammy as a “Belgian Wafflehound”.
The tone of most of the stories I write is what I describe as “melancholy optimism.” Which to me means that they end…well, but often at a terrible cost to the characters. For Crossed Paws I deviated a bit from that. In reality I knew that someday Tammy’s time would come to an end. But maybe, in a story, I could delay that for a little while longer, for someone at least, even if that someone is fictional.
Thank you Tammy for fifteen years of unconditional love, joy, and inspiration.
I want to talk for a moment a little about the story’s background, starting with some of what led up to choosing the setting (while avoiding spoilers) and then move in closer to the story, at which time SPOILER notices will be provided.
My mother-in-law passed away in early 2018 (with her husband preceding her by a few years). Though the funerals were held for both at the time of their passing, for various reasons my wife and I were unable to lay their ashes to rest until the summer of 2018. We then traveled to upstate New York to perform this final task.
The town they’d lived in for around fifty years (before having to move in with my wife and myself due to their declining health) is an old, upstate New York “factory town” with a long working class history. While we were there for their memorial service we had cause to visit a couple cemeteries, and the reason for our presence obviously weighed heavy on us. All these monuments and names carved in stone, the quiet green lawns, flower arrangements, names and dates stretching well back into the 1800s.
There was a “graveshack”, a tiny wooden office out of which the middle-aged and senior caretakers kept track of plots, headstones, and cemetery upkeep. These individuals had likely been there for decades, watching over their silent charges and ensuring those few who came to visit and pay their respects to their loved ones were able to do so in a neat and well-maintained setting. We asked about a particular individual, and the caretaker went and retrieved an old ledger recording the burials for the year in which that person passed. By this time that paper ledger was at minimum sixty years old–and we don’t know when the first entry in it was recorded. The point is that the cemetery workers knew and cared about where they worked, kept things organized, and carried the responsibility to aid those who come to pay their respects, or just to…visit with those who passed before them.
This made quite the impression on us, and with the subsequent passing of my own father less than a year later became the setting for a story on loss, the fading of memories, and how technology waxes and wanes in this niche of our society.
One more thing, though, before I get to the spoilers.
Okay, this is just a little spoiler, but it’s just part of the background setting.
Over the years in which Memento Amicum takes place the world gets steadily warmer. Climate change is warming up the planet, and with it comes more extreme weather, more virulent pests; accompanied by mitigating technologies that attempt to keep a handle on the worst of it. Biological controls, genetically engineering plants and animals to withstand and/or combat an increasingly unbalanced ecosystem, moving away from fossil fuels. While these don’t play a central role in Memento Amicum, they are in the world in which it unfolds, and that reality at least needs to be acknowledged.
Okay, now… SPOILERS AHEAD!!
So that picture with the grave markers up above? From the closing scene of the Serenity Firefly movie? Yeah, that’s basically the image I had in my head when I came up with mementas. Start there, add conversational abilities–via an AI–and there you go.
I know, an AI simulacrum of a passed loved (or not so loved) one has been done before, but the tack I wanted to take on this story is that they–the AIs–may end up suffering the same fate as the loved ones they’re filling in for. And then telling this story from the perspective of that old-time dying breed of cemetery groundskeepers. Ordinary people transposed into an AI, ordinary people working to maintain them for those who have begun to forget; or are themselves moving on one way or another.
Then as technology continues to evolve, the technological means by which those who’ve passed away are remembered changes as well. Customized mementas become persona templates powered by social currency algorithms that are stashed on Mementa Familiam servers. (How long before Facebook decides to start mining its memorialized accounts and reconstructing passable personalities of loved ones? Just to test the concept of course!) Protocols and technologies become obsolete, and then…uh…end-of-lifed.
People, events, practices, and cultural touchstones pass away and slip into the past, kept alive only within the memories of those still around, and only for as long as they care to and can remember. In the future, we may not be the ones doing the remembering, our creations may end up taking on that responsibility–intentionally or not, until they too power down.
They are my grandmother’s diaries from the 1930s, given to me by my aunt at a family reunion sometime in the early 90s. My grandmother kept a diary from 1932 up through around 1939. While she wasn’t scrupulous about writing every day, for a few years she was fairly consistent. There is some great family history in here, including when my grandfather proposed to my grandmother, and a great deal about my father’s early years as an infant and toddler. It seems he was “cross” a lot–fortunately this did not carry through to his adulthood 🙂
While my grandmother was not a writer in the sense of writing stories or novels, she did concisely capture the events of her daily life in brief snippets, which made for a particular writing style.
Reading through these years of entries my writer mind got to thinking: What if magic of some sort was just a normal part of life in those days? In middle America? Maybe I could cook up some kind of fantasy Americana? Maybe as a set of diary entries pertaining to a rather significant magical event in her son’s life? That has since been uncovered by the son of my grandmother’s son?
The diaries provided a treasure trove of information about my grandmother’s daily life in that late 1930s era, and I found a number of entries that could be edited to some degree or another to document the story of my father’s early onset pyrokinesis.
The fiery pyrokinecoccus bacterial infections usually don’t take hold until adolescence (to those susceptible to them), so for it to happen to one so young was quite distressing to his parents. In the additional entries created for the story I attempted to mimic my grandmother’s diarist style. With the abundance of source material it was often possible to find close phrase and punctuation examples for the wholly original entries.
These diaries have been in my possession for quite some time and I would page through them now and then; but I found myself doing that much more frequently after my father passed away in 2019. Here was a window into the family that raised my father (and aunt and uncle, who came along later). While these grandparents lived into my early adulthood, as happens so often with the young I passed up the opportunities to better acquaint myself with these primary sources for my family history. The diaries, and other documents my aunt has preserved and passed on to me from time to time provide the next best account of my ancestry.
This historical raw material gives me, a writer, an honest look at life in that time and at that place upon which I can imagine fanciful stories of what could have been. To celebrate my ancestry and those who made me so much of what I am today.
An entry in the diary that references my father, from July 1938, is one I read during his eulogy:
I noted that growing up and to this day I too am rather fond of making piles of leaves and grass and setting them on fire. The modified version of this entry is the final one of the story. It serves as both a finale and a connection between me, my father, and the stories that we tell. I like to think, and I try to live my life showing, that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree–other than my being unable to point at something to set it on fire.
This post goes into how that story came to be, and as such, is pretty much chock full of spoilers. So, if you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so now.
For me, a story idea usually starts out in my head as a picture, or an imagined experience, or a particular application of some science fictional or fantastical technology. In Golden Rays that initial image was of a group of rays–like manta rays or stingrays–floating over a hillside, rather than underwater. (Along the way I learned that a group of rays is called a fever.)
I’ve been a fan of Australian artist (and now novelist) Kathleen Jennings for several years, from back when I stumbled upon her Dalek Game illustrations. Way back in 2016 she tweeted (as @tanaudel) a sketch, to which I replied mentioning this particular image I’d had in mind, and then…she replied.
Needless to say I was over the moon that she sketched that up. (Oh, and I might add that a few years later Kathleen won the 2020 World Fantasy Artist Award, so there’s that.)
With this sketch in hand, or at least on-screen, all I had to do now was actually fashion a story around it. Which, for me, is a very time-consuming and strenuous effort. Some writers can just whip out stories left and right–I’m not one of those. It’s a lot of work for me to devise a plot, then get the characters all working to put that plot into motion. And…sometimes the story ends up going where you wouldn’t necessarily think it would.
For instance, as you now know by havingread the story–you have, right?–those rays that Kathleen drew do eventually show up in The Golden Rays of the Morning Sun (get it? Rays? Get it?), along with private military contractors, cyborgs, and brain rehosting.
So, like, who knows where an initial story idea (or sketch) might take you?
The final version of Golden Rays doesn’t differ drastically from the first draft I eventually settled on to send out to readers for critiques. Though there was a LOT of meandering about while getting from the vague plotline I’d come up with to that first draft.
One of the things I was uncertain about was simply the structure of the drafted story. There’s a lot of ways to tell a story, but the default is sorta that you introduce the characters, set up the problem, grow the tension, then have a boss fight at the end. Arguably Golden Rays does do that–if you squint at it and don’t expect any fist/sword/light sabre fights. But here’s how I characterized its structure:
ACTION! ACTION! ACTION!
Not exactly a Marvel movie plotline, eh? I asked the opinion of those who provided critiques how well that structure worked for them, and they assured me it worked just fine. (And clearly, as it turned out, Wendy at Abyss & Apex thought so as well.)
The one place that did need work, and I’m very grateful to Paul H for pushing me on this, was the plausibility of Mika’s resistance to rehosting. I mean, there’s honestly a lot to recommend it, especially if your body hasn’t been very good to you over the years. Initially I went with “a human requires a body to be human.” But what about when you could do so much more if you were unconstrained by the biological limitations of flesh? The human body alone can’t survive in space, or in the deep seas, or without food or air, but what if you could rehost into another physical form that could? Would you? And if not, why not? Discuss. That’s exactly what Mika and Kibo did. They reached different conclusions, but each had very good reasons for the choices they made.