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Book Review: Old Nathan

Amazon Cover - Old Nathan

Book Cover from Amazon

Old Nathan by David Drake

BOOK BLURB ON AMAZON

FIFTH YEARS AFTER THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, MAGIC IS LOOSE IN THE BACKWOODS

The forces of evil are poised to prey on the folk of the hamlets and hollows: witches, demons, and red-handed men—but first they’ll have to overcome Old Nathan the Wizard.

He doesn’t claim much for his magical powers, but they’re real enough for what they are—and besides, he hasn’t forgotten how to use his long flintlock rifle ….

Enter the gritty, realistic world of Old Nathan, a backwoodsman who talks to animals and says he’ll face The Devil himself-and who in the end will have to face The Devil in very fact.

 

MY REVIEW

Old Nathan by David Drake is a collection of stories about a cunning (witchy) man located in the Carolinas about fifty years after the revolutionary war strung together in a novel-type package but easily read separately. Old Nathan is the person a body goes to when you’ve dun run out of all other options. His price is high. Mostly swallowing yer pride but he do speak to animals and does strange things, and maybe in league with the Devil.

The writing is in the dialect language of the space-time. The stories themselves are getting long-in-the-tooth; not enough for a modern high-speed cellphone addict to identify with. A different time and place, slower and more magic. Back with the things in the woods didn’t take selfies with intruders, they ate ’em.

I enjoyed the magic not being wiz-bang wizard robes and lightning bolts. Farseeing was done with wellwater; ghosts were dealt with by feeding them ashcakes cooked in the hearth. Old Nathan is creepy powerful in that he not only does the minor hedge magic, but goes beyond, into the shadow realms opened at twilight, into places which bend the mind and create madness. 

He is old enough and lived through the war that death holds little fear over him. He is too slow and tired to run far from things people in their right minds should run from. And so the things in the night become curious since he isn’t running or scared, and in their curiosity the teethy things become vulnerable. Not greatly vulnerable – they still be hungry, with great claws and teeth, but sometimes the second pause of “what is this different thing” gives Old Nathan the moment he needs to live. It worked for him so far, but in each story the question is “is this time when the beast will be faster then cunning?”

I wrote the review after the third story but have finished the rest. Again, the stories may not be enjoyed very much longer just because living in one-room houses, drawing from wells, and needing horses to get to your nearest neighbor are becoming things of ancient history. 

Is the cunning man always cunning enough, or does he need to run from the danger in some of the stories? Well that would be tellin’. 

If this your cup of tea, you should read it. – The book is offered for free on Kindle, so take the chance.

Flash: Grass

Image courtesy of foto76 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The walks surrounding the Inter-species Conference Enclave campus meandered through immaculate lawns, stopping occasionally to admire rose bushes, day lilies, statuary, and other areas of interest with a widening of the brickwork and a bench here and there in their travels. Azza followed the paths with her human counterpart at her side. Arching a fur-feather eyebrow, she asked the much taller black male, “Why do you dedicate so much land to non-food?”

The use of the “her” pronoun was problematic for both Azza and Sefu, since the Spican species had only one gender. But because of the average height of the Spican, their high voices, and their offspring liquid gland locations match human female norm, the pronoun had been applied to all Spican members since the humans had found the first Conference planet. Sefu, one of Earth’s polygots chosen to learn the interstellar tongues, was still struggling with the Conference tongue, a constructed language used by most spacegoers, and Spicese, a complicated language constantly expanded by the natural linguists of Azza’s planet for play and professional reasons. As a result, most of Azza’s and Sefu’s conversations fell back to the gender-driven English language of the country where the campus had been located. He tried not to limit his view of Azza with the pronoun, but thinking in a language always limits some concepts. Kenya would have been a better the host nation with the genderless Swahili to communicate in, in his unasked for opinion.

“Well, umm, if we put all the land to food usage it will exhaust the ground.” Sefu struggled in his answer. “It would require constant fertilization and work.”

Azza nodded like a human. “So, you rotate this … grass … with other crops?” Her species specialization as linguists made Sefu jealous; in three handful of months she mastered the complicated English language complete with the non-verbal cues. The specialization was spectacular even among the Conference members, therefore Spican’s always were the Speaker for the first Enclave sent to newly discovered civilizations. She had already sent the full report of English and Mandarin back to the Conference Core so those languages could be added to the translators. The present language assignment for the Enclave was Spanish and they were already making arrangements for Hindi. They would continue down the line until they reach languages of less than a million speakers. Azza and the six other Spican on the Enclave were having a ball; most species only have one, maybe two languages when they reach interstellar space.

On the human side, they had the basic grammar and over 1,000 root words for the Conference’s Every-Speak, and the computers had recorded nearly 89,000 words of Spicese with no end in sight for the intonation, non-verbal, and grammatical-vocabulary-modification nightmare making up the linguists native tongue, a language so complex they could easily pick up any other language in the galaxy. With approval of all forty members of the Enclave, recording instruments had been installed throughout the campus and gave them a good grasp of Pegasian, Ursate, and Virgrril, though Mensate baffled the biological and computer translators as much as Spicese so far. The one Lucian of the Enclave, with its light-based communication, was beyond their abilities, at the moment; the Conference translator would be working overtime for it as soon as the new programming became available. A Lucian colony was the human’s closest neighbors and their first market and both the humans and Lucian were chomping at the bit to start, but the Speaker declared, as was traditional, no trade talks translations were allowed by her team during the first generation of contact. The inexact translation by machine would have to do for the businessmen once it became available in another eight years. The major hold up was just travel time for the language assessments to get to programmers.

“No. We use it for aesthetic purposes. It is decorative.” Feeling slightly less provincial since the alien had searched for the word grass, Sefu paused in his walk to watch her non-verbal cues more closely.

Azza swiveled her head slightly further than humanly possible, taking in the landscape. “It is very green.”

“Yes.” The Earthling born on the African continent agreed.

“Does the grass ever fruit?”

Each of the visiting species had shown pictures of their homeworlds as part of the linguistic and cultural exchange required before full Conference membership approval. Azza’s home commune was a riot of color from food-bearing tree and bushes.

Shaking his head, Sefu explained, “We cut it before it goes to seed, that makes the root system stronger.”

Azza’s face wrinkled in consideration. “Is any other maintenance required?”

“Other than mowing every one week or two?” Azza’s eyes widened. Sefu understood from the monitors they had been allowed to install the Spican applied a defoliator and bleach to remove stripes which normally ran across their face so the humans could better read the non-verbal cues they were mimicking. Internally, he looked forward to the day they trusted the humans enough to stop doing that. It would mean they were considered equals. “Yes. The landscapers have to lay in weed killer and bug killer and fertilize every fall and spring. Plus reseed regularly.”

“So the grass requires as much work as food crop.” Azza looked out at the lawns again. A sweet smell similar to honeysuckle drifted on the breeze, a scent Sefu noticed whenever Azza was figuring something out. He made a mental note to see if the odorific monitors had been installed; part of the Spicese non-verbal language had to include scent.

Turning his tone a little dry, knowing sarcasm did not translate well with any of the Conference members but the Ursians, Sefu commented, “More, actually. Crops only need to be cut once.”

The honeysuckle scent grew stronger. “Wasting land and effort like this is not logical.” She waved her hand at the acreage surrounding the sprawling buildings.

“Humans are not logical.”

“You keep saying that.” Azza looked him in the eye. “And I keep seeing evidence of truth.”

Sefu shrugged.

“It’s amazing you ever made it into space.” Her face mimicked exasperation, and her scent changed to sour green apples. Or more accurately zefs, one of the few things already transferred in the cultural exchange. Zefs, a quick-growing berry, had dozen of variations made suitable for zero-g growth; the four space stations already integrated them into the crop cycle. The campus greenhouses grew some of the gravity varieties for the visitors, after Earth and Conference scientists confirmed the variations were mules in every of Earth’s environments, so Enclave members had a taste of home, and Sefu had eaten some during the meal visits.

Those were landmine filled occasions as each of the six visiting species had different customs related to eating before even taking into account the cultures of the nineteen Earth polygots drawn from six different continents. Each meal centered around a different species’ tradition with five days of instruction beforehand; fourteen times they had been through the rotation since Sefu joined the team and they still had nine more of the Virg causal meals to go before they started on the formal variations.

He looked forward to the Lucian weeks as they only ate socially during mating mergers, what humans call weddings. Otherwise consumption could be done during any activity such as playing games. Falling-Wavelength-552-to-577 turned its meals into game nights, the primary social activity for its species, many of the games had human equivalents. It had fallen in love with Chess when Judit used the human game to explain K-band-frenquency-19 to the rest of the team. The Lucian meal nights left the Pegasian and Mensate on the outside, but then most meals left the Lucian sitting alone.

“Getting into space only requires determination, not logic.”

“For your species.” Azza blew out her breath, then started walking again. A little faster than before, so Sefu needed to stroll instead of saunter, to match her short steps. “Your ships make as little sense as you.”

Thinking about the very functional, nearly universal stick and globe assemblages passing for spaceships among the Conference members, with only minor variation for environmental difference, compared to the sleek human ships, Sefu bragged, “They look great.”

“Ships do not need to look great,” Azza spun on him, her hand flung sideways while the calluses rotated into thorn-spine positions in her species version of frustration, while the skin under where the stripes would be if they hadn’t been bleached swelled slightly. “They need to function well.”

“They function fine.” Sefu felt amusement at the cute anger shown by the Spican. Quickly he cut off that emotional reaction. This was not an American or Australian female getting riled up, but an alien species and head of the Enclave. Damn English thoughts; he really wanted to switch to his native Swahili. “They got us to a Conference planet before you guys found us.” The colonial swagger-laden words tripped out of his mouth before he could stop them.

“True statement.” The white and gray skinned alien, topped by black feather-fur dappled with blue and red highlights, brought her arm back to a more human stance and the nearly human facial features, which caused the polygots no end of grief because they made it too easy to forget the Spican were aliens, returned to resting levels. A mimicked half-smile touched Azza’s lips. “By practically exploding the engine room every activation of the DM drive.”

Sefu gulped internally. Was the anger and frustration real or this half-tease? Was Azza here just to teach language and culture, or did a darker imperative drive the cultural exchange? The humans weren’t the only species to create a Dark Matter drive, but, according to the Conference, less than 10% of new species even had worked out the theory before crossing paths with a Conference outpost. Earthlings were one of seven species to invent the drive completely on their own. Being in the back-end of nowhere, at the edge of a spiral arm, contributed to the Humans developing the theories and ships independently. That backwater location combined with a jump from electronic communication having bleedoff past the local atmosphere to interstellar flight in less than three hundred years, when the average for most species is closer to two thousand years, prevented any of the Conference cultural surveillance drones from spotting them before humans blinked out of DM warp in their sleek, rotating hub and spear shape ship into the Alpheratz system and its three inhabited planets.

Licking his lips, Sefu decided to poke to see which way Azza jumped. “Ah, but the results of the controlled explosions are cool. What is it? Four times faster than any other DM ship out there?” And that was very fast indeed, since DM speed was measured exponentially due to energy-state transfers within warp, which means a Conference spaceship from the Lucian outpost in the Cervantes system, 50-light years away, takes nineteen weeks with their fastest ship. A human DM drive ship takes six days, including the sub-light maneuvers.

The skin raised again, but Azza’s face remained neutral. “The human interpretation of DM theory is intuitive rather than deductive, at best, making your drives irrational disasters. The Earth ships already have the worst safety record of any Conference ship, but you only care about how fast and …cool… they look?”

Sefu forced himself to imagine her saying the words through gritted teeth instead of with the calm almost indulgent mimicked expression on her face. His gut told him he was right about the anger. He stepped sideways so the nearby monitor could have an unobstructed view of her. Deciding against overtly flagging the conversation for closer review since this was Azza and all her conversations were dissected, Sefu poked her again. “Humans are not logical.” And, obviously, the Conference could not reverse engineer the human version of DM drives and they were applying pressure to the Enclave to get results.

“No, humans grow grass which has no purpose other than be green.” She blew out air, and the scent of burnt starch, like plantain slices fried too long, made Sefu’s nose burn. He never had noticed that scent before.

Arranging a careful smile on his face to match her false one, Sefu said, “Exactly. You are beginning to understand us Speaker.”

“I hope not. I really hope not.” The alien and human resumed their walk, a pseudo-companionship silence falling on their travel.

Privately, and against the fiber of his communication-oriented polygot soul, Sefu agreed.

(words 2,083 – first published 7/30/2017)

Other Blog: SyFy July 6, 2017

Image acquired from the Internet Hive Mind

The “Chosen One” is a popular trope – everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Luke Skywalker, from Ender Wiggin to the quartet of children in the Lion, the Witch in the Wardrobe. The trope is especially popular among the Young Adult (YA) crowd – the weird age when you want to blend in and be special at the same time.

The Chosen One is beyond a hero’s journey; this person did not chose to be the hero, they had it thrust on them. Their destiny was often written in prophecy long before they were born. Some choose to fight it, but in the end, there is nothing else they could be but The Chosen One. It’s written in their DNA or in the stars.

I find the lack of agency disappointing.

Myths and fate have conspired against the person; often the only thing the person wants to be is ordinary and that goal is forever beyond their grasp. If they choose to follow the path their inner self wants, the world will fall. So they choose to be the Chosen One, like a normal person chooses to go into work so they can eat and have a roof over their head. In this case the job gives them a planet to stand on. There is no happy ending possible, only survival. No triumph of self, no becoming a better person. This fate was all they were capable of and all they ever could be.

Then we got Wonder Woman, and the trope gets a makeover. Find out more at On Wonder Woman and Choosing to be Chosen.

I don’t think I have ever written a Chosen One story. 

 

 

 

Writing Exercise: Generic Worldbuilding

Image acquired from Qwertee.com

Earlier this month I ranted about Generic Worldbuilding. It’s easy to say “fix it,” but how? The how is “writer magic,” and like all “magic” we are talking skill – and skills take practice. Time for a writing exercise!

WRITING EXERCISE: Picture a generic scene (sci-fi, fantasy, or subgenre thereof) with two people/beings traveling from one location to another.

Once you have it in mind, go back and think how to make the world the next level.

For example: Do the vampires and werewolves get along – does the pack mentality work well in cities while the loner vampires get drawn to the rural communities? Does the FTL travel make whales randomly appear above planets with potted plants? Why do the longer-lived species tolerate the new human upstarts? How does the hero’s personality change how they approach their superpower, say a construction worker vs. a computer geek?

Write the scene. You may need to rewrite the scene to push it as far as you can. Adding, remove, change or replace words without changing the basic premise of two people traveling. 

Please post your results below. Remember, don’t read other people’s version until you do your own.

READING EXERCISE: Watch a TV show, attend a play or movie, or read a book. What are the “generic” aspects of the genre presented? How did the storyteller add a layer of worldbuilding?

***

My generic trip has a generic cranky dwarf with a generic snooty magic user and their usual hate of each other.

Typical of traveling with wizards, the car stalled.

“Can’t you pull in that mystic aura of yours a little bit?” I snapped as I pulled my trusty Honda onto the shoulder while other cars sped by on the curving interstate.

He sneered. “We can’t all be dwarves and technologically gifted.”

“We can’t all be assholes, either.” I mutter under my breath, knowing his human ears couldn’t hear me talking into my beard. Why the Masters of the Mine needed this particular mage was below my dig level, but if this keeps up I will double my price next retrieval I get assigned. Very few dwarves tolerate going above ground; I’m one of the cursed few without agoraphobia, so I got sent out of the mines a lot.

Not all humans are bad, mind you. But this one wanted to epitomize everything dwarves hate in magic-users. I grumbled as I opened the door, then hopped down onto the asphalt. I preferred concrete; the stones in the dust solution could still be talked to. Asphalt was as slick and nasty as the wizard I was transporting.

I walked to the front of the hatchback, dragging a hand over the steel body trying to see deeper into the metal parts before opening the hood. I had rebuilt the engine myself on the 1978 Civic; my grumbled turned into a growl when I saw the damage the mage had done on my water-cooled engine after I propped the hood open. He hadn’t attempted to control any of his bleedoff. I’ve transported more than one magic-user and knew I was in for a spark plug change and electrical system review after the short three-hundred-mile trip, but this mess!

I don’t have a temper, not like the Redbeard clan or the Twisted Picks, but I stalked to the passenger side and pulled the skinny-ass twinkle finger out of my vehicle and tossed him onto the narrow grassy berm.

“How dare you!” we yelled in unison. His face flushed as his hand started to twist and words beyond words spewed from the faker’s mouth.

“Don’t.” I growled, pointing up. We had been going through a cutout in the mountains, one of those areas with the signs which say “Watch out for falling rocks.” Humans inflicted a scar on the rocks which begged me for healing. One simple flick of thought would release an avalanche.

The knob bobbed in his hairless throat as he swallowed, lowering his hands.

“That’s better.” I approached my charge. “Now, here is how it is going to work. You are going to sit right there and mediate. Pull all your shit in and tuck it in the little box inside your puny brain I know all your slaggers have. You got an hour because that is how long it’s going to take me to fix what your inconsiderate, STUPID actions have done to the car. Once the car is fixed, you will get in and not.say.another.word. to me. Ever.”

I stared him in the eyes like he was a lightless cave. “Nod if you understand.”

(512 words – first publication 7/25/2017)

Geeking Science: Edible Cutlery

From the Manufacturer’s Website: http://www.bakeys.com

Soon I will be starting my annual trip where I work for a non-profit. Nearly three weeks of camping and in that time I will use a lot of plastic one-shot stuff because of limited ability to clean things safely. My “vacation” will produce a trash/carbon footprint more than three months of my normal life. I hate choosing personal health over planetary health, but a girl’s gotta live – I mean that literally and figuratively. Between lack of refrigeration, lack of running water, and lack of sleep, I have few options.

Bread Bowl from pillsbury.com

But soon I may have a different option for my breakfast spoon and dinner fork while traveling. I have always loved bread bowls, where a small loaf is carved out and filled with fabulous soups or satisfying sauce-covered meatballs. Now a company has developed a spoon which can be eaten when done – made from millet, rice, and wheat plus some spicing. Located in India Bakey’s Edible Cutlery has already made over 1 million spoons since 2011.

I repeat – the company has been in business and making this stuff since 2011. This is not science fiction. This is not even waiting on testing like many of the medical marvels I geek about. THIS.IS.REAL!

Geeking.O.U.T!

Oh, drat. A huge mucking ocean is in the way.

The India-based company is still growing its providers, getting rice farmers to switch to millet, developing its manufacturing base, and all that other stuff which businesses must have and us writers tend to skip in science-fiction. Someone wanting to distribute in America even did Kickstarter after reaching an agreement with the manufacturer; only problem the Kickstarter ended up being 10 times more successful than planned. After over a year the spoons have not shipped from India to America and then distributed to the backers. Fulfillment was promised April 2016; it’s now July 2017. The Kickstarter website shows some minor zings happening between the distributor and the manufacturer.

I hope this gets settled soon, because I really, really want this product. In every flavor.