April Newsletter: Blagoevgrad
"I'm going to Blagoevgrad," I told my friend.
"Blagoevgrad? Really? My family is from there. We visit twelve times a year."
"Wonderful! So you can tell me what there is to do in Blagoevgrad."
So there I was, tramping up and downs the hills of The City with Nothing to Do, examining the tiny wasps and natural gas heating stations, skirting the graveyard, and sucking on lilac blossoms for moisture.
It was a convention for IT entrepreneurs, and Pavlina was sick. She took good notes at the panel discussions and networked because she's a pro, but she needed drugs for her headache and cough. Going out to get them for her was no great sacrifice because it was a beautiful spring day in Blagoevgrad.
Following Google Maps, I crossed the busy road on the edge of town and walked up to a cluster of apartment buildings that crowned a hill. Beyond the blooming quince trees, the town spread across the river Struma with the southern face of Mount Vitosha dark in the distance. One of the residents had cemented a pull-up bar between the quinces, so he could enjoy the view during his exercises.
A couple of back-and-forths with my eyes on the phone confirmed it: there was no road down the hill to the pharmacy. What there was, was a footpath down the slope. Knee-high grass swayed between sprawling briers. To the east loomed Rila Mountain, snow still pouring down its shoulders. Tiny black wasps bobbed in the air. Next time, I'll take water next time, or at least think to buy some at the pharmacy.
And that's the most interesting thing that happened to me in April. Otherwise, I read, I wrote, I swam, I got a virus that made me tired all week. I'm trying to get into more trouble in May, though. Hold tight.
About that writing. I was under the foolish impression that I was almost done with Fellow Tetrapod, and only needed to write over a few weekends to push through to the end. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha! The fool steps off the cliff, eyes on the rainbow that recedes even as he falls. Maybe I'll be done with it by July?
Anyway. I did read a lot.
Travelers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd
My favorite kind of history shows what it was like to be somebody somewhere. In this case, it's what it was like to be a tourist in Nazi Germany. Through the tourists, we also get a pretty good look at the German populace. "She changed her politics like an animal changes its coat with the seasons."
Self Help by Ben H. Winters
It has its moments. Then it loses them. I appreciated the sense that the author didn't know what was going to happen next, but there were several places where something interesting might have happened, but then the author got scared. In the end, we get nothing but a shrug of the shoulders.
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
So, this is what it was like to be a pilot in the 1930s. Slipping off the glass dome of a cyclone and becoming a person who could no longer exist when you're back safe on the ground. Dying of thirst after a crash-landing. Listening while a fascist and a communist try to conduct a dialogue.
Disciple of the Dog by R. Scott Bakker
I loved this sweaty, grungy story. There's some kind of murder mystery, yeah, but mostly this guy is just stumbling around having weird experiences and then...REMEMBERING them! Woo~oo! I wish Bakker was still writing.
Plato's Republic by David Roochnik
I enjoyed this summary of The Republic and the last 2500 years of commentary on it. I did chafe at the basic assumption is that Socrates was never simply wrong, but the metaphor of the hydra, the lion, and the man is well worth the price of admission.
Reclusive Mage by Inadvisably Compelled
I enjoyed and would recommend the first three books of this series. Not this one. The stakes just aren't there any more. The big bad we've been following since the book one just decided to give up. The love interest went from from "girlfriend" to "pregnant with second child" over the course of a single book, almost entirely off-screen. Nothing kept happening. I read with one eye on the "percent read" number so I could see how close to the end I was getting. I get the impression the author did too.
Going Solo by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl, a completely inexperienced young man in Tanganyika on the second day of World War II, sees Mdisho, his Nyamwezi manservant, returning in the middle of the night armed with a scimitar and covered in blood. Mdisho had just murdered a German civilian, and Dahl envies him. Now there's a story!
The Captain by Will Wight
This story tries and tries to begin, but it never really gets there, even by the time of the climactic final battle. What I liked about Cradle was the way it showed skill development. This series could have been just as good, but about team building. Except team building doesn't work like that. The Captain was too much like a video game, including the literal video game in which people who should be learning to trust each other fight one-on-one to see who is the best.
Finding Moon by Tony Hillerman
I was reminded of The Inhabited Island by the Strugatsky Brothers. There was the same dis-connect between how the main character saw himself and the stories other people told about him. It's not so much about the main character becoming a good man as digging up the good man he already is.
Dan Davis History
This is a Youtube channel that does for Bronze Age Europe what Real Engineering does for high tech machines. I loved to hear about what Ötzi ate for lunch.
And the Upheaval
I bought a subscription to N.S. Lyons's substack because he's a political commentator who does more than complain. He finds plenty of problems, don't get me wrong, but he has a direction he wants to go. I was convinced to give him money when in an interview he said this:
My impression is that people today, and especially young people, are looking above all else for solid ground; for shelter in the storm. They are looking for the real and the eternal, for that which will not melt into air. They are looking for authority they can trust, when authority has everywhere else dissolved. And they’re looking for loyalty, community, and love that does not falter.
Here's a silly story.
I'm a permanent resident in Bulgaria, which means I need to renew my D Visa and get a new ID card every five years. That is why I was waiting with Pavlina and Ellie in the bureaucrat-lined corridor of the Migration Directorate. A line of people waited outside in the cold, and another line of people waited inside the building. We stood alongside a Russian and a group of Koreans before windows 3 and 4. This was probably the right place, but who could be sure?
I haven't had a good time in the Migration Directorate. I've been told off, yelled at, fined, and generally confused. For a while, I had an immigration lawyer to help me, but he retired. The last time I did this was five years ago, which means I didn't remember what documents I needed and anyway there had been a change of procedures. So I just brought everything. Old ID card and passport, obviously, and then marriage certificate, bank statement, proof of residence. Photos. Copies of everything! I was riding high on a wave of anxiety.
The borders of my vision constricting, I counted and recounted the documents. Passport. Copies. Bank statement. Copies. Passport. Had I lost my passport? What if they yelled at me again?
"Korea?" called the woman at window 4. We were next.
"Get out your ID card," said Pavlina, and I tugged my wallet out of my wallet.
Bank card bank card American driver's licence library card. Library card bank card. I flipped through them mindlessly, eyes failing to catch on the pink and blue of my ID card. And again. Library card driver's licence. But my ID card was always there. My vision constricted further. I couldn't remember taking my ID card out of my copy machine. It must still be there, at home.
It would have been nice to just faint. Let the darkness close in and collapse. Then all this could be somebody else's problem. Just giving up and going home would have been nice too. But Pavlina had taken time out of her day to come with me. Ellie was there. There was a Korean supermarket across the street, and we'd promised ourselves lunch there after this was all over. I had to deserve that lunch.
"SASht?" That's the Bulgarian version of USA.
We were pushed forward and onto the mercy of the lady behind the window. "I forgot my ID card." "He left it in the copier." With very damp hands, I shoved the paper copy under her window.
"Calm," she said. "Do you have your passport?"
She gave us a form to fill out. What were my parents' dates of birth? Here's the stamp for your passport. Whoops, my shift's over. Here's the next window-lady. Now look into the camera. Boop your bank card on the reader to pay. Your new ID will be ready by the 25th. When you pick it up, bring your receipt, your passport, and your old card. You'll bring your card next time, right?
The Migration Directorate had changed its procedures, indeed. Mercy flowed like water. I stumbled out of the place burbling thanks to everyone, and followed Pavlina and Ellie to the Korean supermarket. We bought steamed buns for lunch.
They were half-frozen and bad, but that's not the point. The point is that anxiety is the opposite of useful. It's a lesson I keep having to learn. I suppose I should be grateful I get so many opportunities to do just that.
In other news, Tim Morris, the illustrator for Fellow Tetrapod, has collected together all the pictures and species descriptions so far in the story, with some of his own analysis. You can see that here.
Otherwise, I mostly just wrote Fellow Tetrapod. There was a big hump to get over (the bridge between the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III) and I had to throttle down to two posts a week for a while. But now we're over the hump and back to three posts a week. I won't jinx anything by making a prediction, but the writing is easier and the end of the story is close.
As always happens when I'm nearing the end of a project. Another project beckons. The world map and language for Ghost of Mercy continue to develop, as you can see on my Patreon.
And I read some books
The Lake Wobegon Virus by Garrison Keillor
It's welcome political wish-fulfillment. What if neighbors were only being torn apart by a virus that infects their brains and makes them say terrible things to each other? That would be nice. I had the sense here that Keillor was packing up Lake Wobegon and putting it away, but if that was ever his intention, he snapped out of it. Don't worry, the little town is okay at the end.
Scale by Greg Egan
I gave Egan another chance after The Book of All Skies, which was lazy and obnoxious. Scale, I was happy to find, wasn't obnoxious, but although it wasn't exactly lazy, it was thin. The speculative physics of the book is interesting, but then there is quite a lot of biological hand-waving to get us to the point where we have tiny, dense, very fast humans. They're all genetically related to each other and they all speak different dialects of the same language. But it isn't easy to make cities accessible to all "scales" of people, and then an evil corporation joins forces with the corrupt government to leverage a new technology than can upset the balance between the scales. The story is all there, but it's very bare bones, the minimum needed to keep us interested in the leptons.
All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
Just as sweet All Creatures Great and Small, though a bit less cohesive. The stories here have less to do with each other, and some were episodes from before Herriot's marriage that didn't make it into book one. World War II casts a deep shadow over everything, but Herriot says he doesn't want to talk about that. I understand. My favorite story was about the dead parrot ;)
Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith
What I like best about McCall Smith is that his characters are never entirely wrong or entirely right. Mma Ramotswe is right about Mma Makutsi's shoes, and Mma Makutsi is right about Mma Ramotswe's weight. But the shoes and pretty and Mma Ramotswe doesn't like dieting. So sit back in the chair you didn't ask for and enjoy life.
What if? 2 by Randall Munroe
It's not as good as the first one. There are some good scenarios that explain interesting physics concepts (like what if the solar system was filled with soup?), but Munroe spends far to much time talking about law. The law isn't as interesting as physics.
Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
I read this back in college and loved it, but I like Bormashenko's new translation even more. Red's scummy humanity shines through better. And as for the storytelling! Aliens dumped a bunch of god-tech on Earth, the government locked the area down, treasure-hunting "stalkers" arose to smuggle this stuff out (or get messily killed by it), the government hunted the stalkers while it pursued its own research, the researchers hired stalkers as assistants…and that's where the book begins. You have to do a lot of work to get up to speed, but once you do, things are going very fast, indeed.
Wish Lanterns by Alec Ash
I like "what's it like" books. This one is "what's it like to be a thirty-something in Beijing?" It follows eight people from their childhoods in the eighties to the middle of the twenty-teens. These are personal stories, and the pattern they show is incomplete. Of course they don't show you what life is like in China, but they do show you what it's like to be one of these millennials: silly, angry, exhausted, moving forward.
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
I read this maybe ten years ago and did not get it. This second time, I was enough of a grown-up to see what Wolfe was doing. It also helped that I knew what the hell was happening. A young man in the distant future goes out to seek his fortune. Traveling performers invite him to join their band. He goes to a pawn shop to buy a coat and falls in love with the proprietor! But now he's been challenged to a duel! The pawn shop girl takes him to pick his dueling weapon and gets them into a chariot race! Their chariot crashes through a shrine and now this guy has possession of a holy relic. And on and on. Each of these stories does actually end, and the things that look like random chance aren't. At least not all of them. There's some kind of plan amidst this chaos, if you can find it.
Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett
This is the first real witches book, and it has some cracks. The story doesn't really start to tick over until halfway through, but after that everything does come together. Until then, enjoy Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. They're perfect, and worth following around.
February Newsletter: Invitations
I was sitting in the spare room of my mother-in-law's office on Gurko street, writing angrily to another writer. It was Wednesday, and I only have so much time on Wednesdays, but here I was, pouring my bitterness onto a page that nobody else would ever read. That's a good thing, believe me.
Long-time readers of my newsletters will know that I have a tendency to "get bitten" by things I read. I know it's silly, and I am working on it, but the written word still gets under my skin. The current literary irritant came (via substack) to my inbox on Tuesday night, when I was tired and my defenses were down. It was another one of those damn rabble-rousers. "Now is the time to panic," it said. "Killing babies in their cribs," it said. Existential risk!
Which existential risk, exactly? It doesn't matter. You've read stuff like this before. If you're like me, thinking about the end of the world doesn't do you any good. In fact, it does me bad. I'm moody and uncreative, I snap at people, and I have trouble sleeping. So what do I do about it?
The first thing I tried was an approach one of my readers used on me. He started following Fellow Tetrapod after a positive review raised the story's profile on Royal Road, and he seemed to enjoy what I was writing. But then he said he was going to start skimming until General Graa reunited with Mr. Grumbles.
I'll back up and offer some context in case any of you aren't up to date with Fellow Tetrapod: some misguided staff members at the human embassy decide to steal the pet of a powerful alien diplomat. Shenanigans ensue, and now here was this reader was telling me he didn't like the alien being separated from the pet. That's the central conflict of the story.
I reassured him that Mr. Grumbles would be reunited with General Graa at the end and asked him what it was exactly that bothered him. He told me he was reminded of a real story he'd read about a someone whose friends had kidnapped and lost their dog. My reader had, in other words, been bitten. He wanted to make sure he could trust me not to bite him again in that same tender place. Was he being too sensitive? You could ask the same question about me.
Taking to my writer, I tried to say the same thing as my reader had said to me: "I like your blog, but I'm not going to read any more articles about existential risk." I could have said more. In fact, a friend asked me why I didn't. I didn't say more because I don't think it would have done any good.
The metaphor I use in my own head is that a writer is the host and the reader a guest. You invite a stranger in, you sit with them, you serve them something good. Even if you don't have what they need, you're gentle with them. Likewise, as a guest, you're respectful. You might say "no existential risk, please," but you don't hand your host a list of demands. If this isn't the house for you, you just leave.
I received no response from my writer, and next week there came another article about existential risk. I felt like a fool for paying over $100 for a year's subscription to that substack and then cancelling it, but I considered how foolish it would be to continue to get another one of these things every week. Call that hundred dollars a lesson, or at least a sunk cost. I can't say that I "just" left because of all the embarrassing angst you read above, but I did leave. I have better places to be.
There has been a lot of talk about overly-sensitive readers and overly-political writers. I wonder if we can't frame this problem more productively as a breakdown of trust. Can I trust writers to make me feel welcome? Can I trust readers to not to spit my work back into my face? Or is this metaphor not to your liking?
Gentle reader, what do you think?
In other news, Fellow Tetrapod has rounded the corner into the home stretch, still on-track to end sometime before Easter. It has not one but two reviews now, the second of which compares the story favorable to the work of the Strugatsky Brothers. There's very little room for improvement there, as far as praise goes.
There's now quite a lively conversation going on in the comments, and I cordially invite you to take part in it.
I'm also thinking impure thoughts about my new project. Watch out: I have a map and a conlang for this one.
And I read some stuff
Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
Patera Silk gets in deeper trouble as a civil war and foreign invasion coalesce around him. Not that he's aware of that - we readers struggle to keep up with events just as much as he does. Silk's in danger from spies, soldiers, robots, hyenas, robots again, petty dictators, and giant fish, not to mention all these beautiful women. But he does the best he can. Wolfe is such a pleasure to read. Fun fact: the cover is my favorite in all science fiction.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Quintessential Phase by Douglas Adams.
The radio play was not nearly as good as the book. A lot got cut, and the tacked-on happy ending didn't work. I mostly listened to it because I love the theme music and so I can read and enjoy the book that much sooner. I owe this book a lot, from the way I appreciate a sandwich to the way I visualize the higher dimensions. What is it that's printed on the world-destroying tool wielded by petty-minded villains? "Panic."
The Book of Guys by Garrison Keillor
There is some violence in these stories, much absurdity, and yes, some bitterness against women. But they're honest and funny. I owe a debt to the friend who reminded me about Garrison Keillor, whose radio show played a big part in raising me. And I seem to have turned out all right. By the way, Keillor's substack is gracious and sweet, and a lot of his books are available free with your audible subscription. Check them out.
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend
This book was recommended to me by Razib Zhan's Unsupervised Learning substack. It was fascinating and even inspirational (keep an eye on my upcoming fantasy story for Aztec influences), and the author clearly loves the subject matter. There were places where I wanted more: what archaeology tells us about pre-conquest history, say, and more from post-conquest written sources. I am a bit suspicious about the lengths Townsend goes to excuse any of the Aztec practices we might not like, while the Spaniards are portrayed as brutal pirates and slavers. But what else can one expect? And a history that leaves you inspired and itching to do more research is a good history.
The Talented Mr. Varg by Alexander McCall Smith
I read this one in the rocking chair in my parents' living room, chuckling to myself. Ulf Varg continues to try to be a good man in a ridiculous world. His dog is still depressed and his dates don't go very well at all. But at least Blomquist likes him! Go, Blomquist!
See you next month.
The Adrrixan Language
(from my Patreon)
There was an urge to panic. My body wanted to go vertical and stick my head out of the water while my arms flailed. I wasn't in danger of drowning, I told myself. I was just trying to learn how to breath on my left side while doing the crawl.
The idea came to me at a hotel pool in early December with a shock of terror. I had a long-time student who liked to swim, and I wanted to get the sort of exercise you can't get in a hotel pool. My student was learning techniques for long-distance swimming. Maybe he'd tell me about them. We could have lunch and coffee afterward. Maybe we'd be friends.
That's the sort of weight I tend to put on plans like this, which is why they're so hard to act on. Listening to that fear, I'd close myself up in the attic of my apartment. But other people keep us sane. I needed1 to get out more. Some exercise wouldn't hurt, either.
So, there I was in Sofia's "Palace of Sport," failing to breath bilaterally. I'd take in a breath under my right elbow, stretch my arm, pull it under me...two, three...and I'd remember a moment too late that my face was supposed to be under my left armpit now. What was I doing? Why wasn't there fresh air in my lungs already? Where had all this water come from??!?
The Palace of Sport is actually just around the corner from my office and admission is 8 leva. I'd wanted for years to establish a routine of going there, but only managed to do it once or twice. It just seemed like such a drag to get my swim stuff together and go there and change. The showers are cold and the bathroom is colder. "Here, flip-flops and swim hats are worn," demands the little old lady at the desk, and you'd better not forget it.
And then, what? You splash back and forth for a while? When do you stop? There's a clock on the wall, but I'm so nearsighted, I can't read it. What if I spend too much time in the pool and miss my next class? Worse, what if I haven't spent enough time in the pool and I'm bored? What are you supposed to think about, there in the chlorine, one lap after another?
Bilateral breathing! That's what you think about. "Now we are men," my swim-buddy as we exited the frigid showers. And, you know, he can see the clock without glasses. At lunch, we talked about our kids and long-distance swimming techniques. The proper way at which elbows should be bent and wrists twisted. Kicking is not so important for long distances. What's happening with the social contract between China's government and its citizens? How about the US? The EU? How do we get our kids to read more?
On Tuesday nights I dive into bed, exhausted. On Wednesdays, inspiration sparks between the new connections I've made. Take a deep breath, and stretch your arm into another stroke.
In other news, Fellow Tetrapod continues with new weird creatures every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This week, you can get the Extrusians for free on Royal Road or for a dollar on Patreon, the Sprocket.
"The River God," the short comic that I edited for Simon Roy is now up on his Patreon. It's about bitterness growing monstrous over deep time, and it can be yours for three shiny dollars. More to come from that direction, soon, but in the mean time, here's a meme!
Where will you post this guy, eh?
Finally, there's a new short story on Patreon about mice. I'm thinking about where else I want to post it. It's a political story, which makes it frightening. But shouldn't I do what frightens me? Didn't I just write a whole newsletter about just that thing? Gentle readers, what's your advice?
And I read some books
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton -
I last read Jurassic Park when I was in middle school, and this time around my favorite parts were the technical details. "I can't fix the code because the lead developer didn't leave comments!" "I'm secretly happy the dinosaurs can breed because that means I reconstructed something like real animals." "Of course it's obvious you'd need to use auxiliary power to charge the capacitors before you can start the main generator turbines."
Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean B. Carroll -
I learned about this book from "Evo Devo," a song by acapellascience, and I have to say, I like the song better. Maybe all the surprises were already spoiled for me, because I didn't find much in the book that I didn't already know. I'd recommend that Song and Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin.
Renegade Mage and Heretic Mage by Inadvisably Compelled -
I try not to read more than one book in a given series per month, but these things are like popcorn. I haven't been this entertained since Will Wight's Cradle books. Our hero Callum keeps trying to go live quietly somewhere, but his conscience won't let him. He kills some bad guys and he gets in even more trouble with the corrupt magical government. I enjoy the magic and worldbuilding, and the characters are fine, but most of all I appreciate the pace and the craftsmanship of the plot. Keep going, IC!
The Scarab Mission by James L. Cambias -
This book is the sequel to The Godel Operation, which introduced a sprawling, far-future solar-system and a secret that spanned its history and might destroy it. The stakes of The Scarab Mission are much smaller, and it felt as if Cambias was playing in the sandbox he'd made. The story was occasionally inspired (the finger biting part was delightfully horrible), but the inspired pieces didn't link together. There was a lurking sense of "why does any of this matter?" But I read this on a long plane trip, and didn't mind it so much when the guy in front of me jammed the back of his seat into my knees. So thank you, Cambias.
Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe -
This is a beautiful book that I didn't appreciate nearly enough when I read it for the first time in high school. It follows Patera Silk, a priest on a generation ship. Silk's religion, it quickly becomes clear, is a cult of personality for the dictator who commissioned the ship to be built and installed a digital copy of his mind into its computers. His wife, children, and mistress got to be gods and goddesses too. But none of that matters, because Patera Silk finds real meaning in what he does. He had a religious experience and now he has a church to save.
A second paragraph?? Yes. The cover art that Richard Bober's painted for these books deserve special mention. Even in high school I thought they were gorgeous. Now I can't think of any book covers I like more.
1 Past tense? Ha!
See you next month
I was reading Garrison Keillor's Substack, and inspiration struck me. So surprise and happy February. Here's a very short story.
Once upon a time there was a Democrat Mouse. They lived in a big city with excellent public transportation and plenty of vegan restaurants. Their incisor teeth were filed down and their fur was styled in the most supportive patterns and colors. And yet, they felt something was missing from their life.
In the suburb of that same city, where the gas was cheap and the sidewalks nonexistent, there lived a Republican Mouse. He went to the gym every day to pull heavy weights and practice biting. His teeth were stronger and yellower than anyone's, but he couldn't ignore a certain longing.
Life felt stale, crusted, empty of nourishment. Things couldn't go on like this. A change of scenery might offer a solution, or at least a distraction.
And so, the Democrat Mouse and the Republican Mouse decided to take a vacation. Not together, of course. They shared no acquaintances and had no forums in common. They simply set out on the same day, each mouse headed toward the home of the other. In the middle, they met.
What a freak, thought the Republican Mouse. She's shaved off half her fur and dyed the other half green. And all those tattoos. Filed her teeth down? Is this what mice are turning into? Grandpa was right.
And the Democrat Mouse looked at the Republican Mouse, thinking, I'm in danger. Look at those muscles. Look at those teeth. Those mean little eyes. That mouse could run me down and bite right through my spine. I've read about how that happens.
They froze, bristling.
If I call the police, thought the Democrat Mouse, they'll be on his side. They'll help him eat me.
If she takes a picture of me, thought the Republican mouse, that's it. Life over. Nobody will hire me and I'll starve.
In the windows of the houses and apartments around them, blinds twitched. Camera lenses pointed, and behind those lenses crouched yet more mice. They watched in their millions, waiting for something —anything! —to end.
Mouse pictures from Phylopic
It was three days before Christmas and the Missoula Carousel was deserted, but still somehow open. It was somewhere between -6 and -18 degrees outside,1 and big exterior shutters around the big-top-shaped building had been closed to prevent anyone's nose-hairs from freezing off.
I stumbled in, dragged by my children.
The Carousel is a surreal place for me. It was built in the early nineties by a local nonprofit that wanted to put an antique frame and a handful of newly-carved ponies into use. The result is gorgeous. Every pony (not "horse"), gargoyle, and decorated gew-gah is hand-carved and unique. The music is produced by a mechanical organ. The operators are not merely friendly, but kind and engaged, even on a day when no sane person should be there. Even the signs in the bathroom are gentle.
The surreality comes from the fact that my younger daughter Ellie loves the carousel with all her heart, and wants to be there as often as possible and for as long as possible. I've probably logged days there at this point —jetlagged, sleep-deprived, motion-sick, or just regular old virus-sick —watching things go around and around.
The rule of thumb for jet lag is you feel it for about as many days as the time zones you've crossed. There are nine hours of difference between my home in Bulgaria and my parents' house in Montana, and we'd there for a week. I was just about feeling like I should be awake and not asleep, except I'd also caught an exotic North American virus. My guts and joints did not feel up to the task of existing, but Pavlina needed to shop for presents and my kids needed those ponies. I handed over the bag of tokens, piled all of our winter clothes onto the chair next to me, and just sort of sagged there, feeling warmed-over.
I didn't listen to an audio-book. I was trying to cut back; I wanted to be more open to experiences. I can now call that experiment a success, but at the time I wanted to experience being nauseous at the carousel a little bit less. The girls got on and off the carousel, the smiling, hugely-bearded operator let them try to pluck the brass ring from the mouth of a wooden dragon,2 and things went around and around.
But like I said, they were the only kids on the thing. December 22nd is not usually a popular day, especially when it's nearly twenty below, and the operator had reasonably scheduled the electricians to come in and fix some lights. He had absolutely no reason to apologize, but he did and offered to give us a tour of the workshop where they made the ponies.
The operator wasn't the carpenter/tour-guide, that was John, a smaller man with a smaller beard. He showed us the large, blank pieces of wood that could be fitted together and carved into a new pony. There are 41 of them (38 on the carousel at any given time) and each one has a name, a mythology, and a story of who built it and why. John teaches carving classes every week, which produce about one new pony a year.3 I told him I wished I could join the classes, but I live in Sofia, where the only places with this much craftsmanship and attention to detail are churches. John liked that.
It was my goal on this vacation to be more open, not only to experiences, but to people. I wanted to hear their stories and include them in mine. I think I succeeded, even at times when I felt like sausage being thawed in a microwave.
Now I'm back in Sofia, the last vestiges of jet lag giving way to what might be a new virus, my first week of classes and writing mostly behind me. I think I can do this. I think I can stay open.
In other news, Fellow Tetrapod has successful ended its Christmas hiatus and embarked on its second half. If you like cooking, office politics, and speculative evolution, you can read the story so far for free on Royal Road or one week in advance on Patreon.
I can also now talk about my project with Simon Roy. A comic set on his deep-future, post-human-haunted Earth, "The River God" is about finding meaning in regret and relativistic space-travel. There's a giant woman in it!
I'm sure Simon has plans to publish this for free at some point. For now, though, you can read the whole thing only on his Patreon. In my humble opinion, it's worth the $3.
And I read a few books:
Valuable Humans in Transit and Other Stories by qntm
This is a thoughtfully-constructed collection. All of the stories have some bearing on the theme, most notably the first and last. The author's most popular recent story "Lena" gets pride of place in the middle of the book, and it's given a sequel. This is the sort of science fiction I wish more people would write. Qntm is not immune to techno-pessimism, and his taste sometimes slides into outright horror, but he hangs a star of hope above it all.
There is no Antimemetics Division by qntm
I read this when it was serialized on the SCP website, bought the ebook when it came out, then waited a while to re-read it because this book is nightmarish. I mean that precisely; qntm skillfully captures that moment of horrible realization that both recognizes the monster and causes it to manifest. It's right behind you.
The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus
I listened to this as an audiobook, which means I now have to go back and read the thing. All I've got so far as images: a cat perched over an anthill, Sisyphus with his cheek pressed to the rock. I think a re-read will be worth it.
The Iron Gate by Harry Connolly
I was disappointed by this book. I enjoyed the previous Twenty Palaces novels and I was glad that Connolly found a way to continue the series as indie-published books. However, this one was in need of an editor. The mystery works fine at first: Ray Lily is trapped in a pocket-universe with people forced to act out cartoonish roles. How can he wake them up and get out? No spoilers, but then things get simple and easy: kill the bad guy. The whole thing felt half-baked and didn't incline me to read the next one.
Hotel Pastis by Peter Mayle
A cute little story about an ad executive from London who has a midlife crisis and opens a hotel in Provence. There's a tiny bit of a bank heist going on, but mostly it's about choosing the right kind of marble for the footpath to the swimming pool. I enjoyed it like a chilled white wine with goat cheese under the shade of an olive tree.
2 The dragon's name is Lucky Red Ringer.
3 If my memory serves me correctly.
So there I was. I'd torn my nail on a rainbow trout.
It was a gray-green day on the northern slopes of the Pirin Mountain. Maggie, Ellie, and I were tagging along on Pavlina's team-building weekend, which, today, included a visit to a fish farm/restaurant. One could catch fish there. Could the girls catch fish there? Pavlina was nervous about hooks and falling into the water, but decided to stop worrying and go into the restaurant for fish, fries, and beer.
I also decided to stop worrying. That was my goal on this trip: practice having a good time and giving a good time to others. Next step: my daughters. Did they want to catch fish? You bet they did!
The fish farm consisted of a pair of round pools, each about ten meters across, dug into the side of a hill. Water from up-slope could spend some time with the fish before it cascaded majestically into a fern-hung ravine. A tall metal fence stopped us from joining the ferns, while the fish were protected by an ankle-high construction of wood and what looked like electrified wire. Perhaps the management felt that it was only fair to fry a tourist for every few dozen fish.
At first glance, the pools themselves seemed empty. The only fish immediately in evidence was a single albino trout, hanging like a holy banana over the tannin-colored fallen leaves. After we'd made the culturally required references to The Golden Fish and took a closer look, all the other fish appeared. They were mostly rainbow trout, a North American fish called in Bulgarian syomgova pastarva or "salmon-trout" — brown, spotted backs above the deeper, darker, much longer shapes of sturgeon. We didn't try to catch the sturgeon.
The fishing poles provided by the management were three meters of plastic strung with line and a little hook on the end. They gave you some bread to use as bait and, if you remembered to ask, a bucket to put your fish in. I was afraid someone would get stuck with the hook, so I held it and pressed the lump of damp bread on while Maggie held the end of the rod, telling me to let go.
She lowered the hook into the water and I barely had a chance to breathe out before she caught a fish.
Now the hell what? There was some debate about whether we wanted to eat this fish or not. And I had not remembered to ask for a bucket. At least I would get the fish off the hook. That was easy. Then it went into the smaller holding pool where the catch-and-release fish could get over their stress.
Now it was Ellie's turn. The pole was about three times her height, this time we would kill and eat this fish, and whoop! She caught one.
Ellie backed up, screaming with shock and delight into the penduluming face of the trout. She jumped up and down, but by this time I'd grabbed the line just over the fish's mouth. I caught hold of its mucus-coated body and removed hook. I didn't so much put it in the bucket as direct my hands toward the bucket in time to let it wriggle slimily in. Now what? Was I supposed to bash it on the head? I didn't. Next time, I swore I would.
It was an unwise oath. A third fish heaved in my hands, and my reflexes cleverly decided that there was no way to stop this fish from escaping. Stupidly, however, they also decided that it was Very Important for the trout to go into the recovery pool rather than the general population. I made a diagonal lunge, adding my shove to the trout's wriggle, sending it flying neatly into the safety of the recovery pool. This put my center of gravity right over the nearest sturgeon.
Reflexes again took over. My right hand swooped to clutch the tiny fence that ringed the pool. This broke like a graham cracker. My hand, holding half a shattered fence post, dug into the mud, and robbed the fish of their revenge. The electric wire might have helped. Very fortunately, it wasn't turned on.
So, out of the three fish my kids caught, we managed to eat one of them. It was good, but unfortunately we'd filled up on french fries, so we didn't enjoy it as much as we might have. I didn't notice my nail until we were leaving, relieved to be back out in the damp chill, rather than the over-heated, fish-smelling interior of the restaurant. The nail plates of my right middle and ring fingers don't go all the way to the tip (some of the few remaining scars of my cancer surgery six years ago) and so this sort of thing happens periodically. It's a price I'd gladly pay again to see my daughters scream like that.
What a month November was. I feel like I ran a marathon at a sprint, recovering from each collapse only long enough to dash out on the next. I'm going to make sure January is calmer (because it's too late for December to be calm). And I should have some interesting news in my next newsletter.
As of now, though, all I can say is I poured all my creative energy into my speculative-evolution-and-cooking serialized web novel Fellow Tetrapod. The first half of the story (about 70K words) is now available for free on Royal Road, and I think you'll like it. Go read it if you haven't already, and I'll have more for you in January.
And I read some stuff. Actually some good stuff.
Metamancer: A Hard Progression Fantasy by OscarWilder
This is an in-progress web serial on Royal Road. I've tried several stories on this platform and this and Paranoid Mage stand out. Metamancer is mostly a standard portal fantasy, where a ex-marine soon-to-be dad finds himself teleported to a fantasy world. I was intrigued when the main character fails to get what he wants despite his skills and intelligence, but I wasn't hooked until he tells a character with a magic lie-detector ring, "I'm not from this world. I don't have magic. I just want to get home to my wife and unborn child." The ring flashes on that last statement. The last sentence was a lie.
This story has some bite and isn't bad, either. There's a litRPG class and progression system, but this turns out to just be an artifact of the main character's subconscious, rather than the usual real-life video game. I recommend it.
My Life in France by Julia Child
Living in Bulgaria as I do, I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what sort of foreigner I should be. Julia Child is as close to my model as you're likely to get in print. She flung herself into French life with a cheerful ferocity that is almost frightening. She grabs the people around her, digs in her fingers, and takes a deep, appreciative breath. Delightful!
The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith
For some reason, I went into this book thinking it was "McCall Smith does urban fantasy." It is not. It is a sweet, sedate, and bemused slice of life with mysteries. The Ladies' Detective Agency with more hair. The sex, the politics, and the moral struggles are all the more powerful for their understatement. This is a gentle book, warm and human with only the merest whiff of wolf.
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner
This book's mission is to use declassified CIA internal memos to determine whether America's intelligence community succeeded in its mandate to prevent a second Pearl Harbor. "No," it answers. Weiner's characterization of the CIA is a pack of charlatans, dilettantes, and do-nothing sinecures who only occasionally take a break from meaningless report-writing to engineer a fiasco. I can't help but feel a lack of objectivity. I suppose I'll need to find another in-depth report on American secret intelligence to form an opinion.
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
I first read this book way back in middle school, and I had forgotten almost everything about it. The only memories I had going in was that Dirk Gently slept upside-down like a bat, there's a robot that believes things for you, and something about music and coelacanths. What I got this time was Douglas Adams trying to deal with an idea that wouldn't fit comfortably into either Dr. Who or The Hitchhiker's Guide, and also trying to write a Novel. It's sweet and nutty. Occasionally excellent and unfailingly entertaining, even when it doesn't make sense.
Night Train to Memphis by Elizabeth Peters
Egyptologist Barbara Mertz wrote under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters about a medieval art historian named Vicky Bliss who pretended to be an Egyptologist walking in the footsteps of Amelia Peabody Emerson, another of Mertz's characters. Egyptian revolutionaries, international antiquities smugglers, international police, Vicky's boss, Vicky's lover and his new bride, and her potential mother-in-law are all out to either get/protect her. It was fun and frantic, but everything happened for a reason. Not tangled, in fact, but densely woven.
Nation by Terry Pratchett
I enjoyed this somewhat less on the second read than on the first (when the ending made my cry). I think the difference is that now I've had my own brush with death, and I reached different conclusions from Pratchett. But that's okay. He makes his point well. Still five stars.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
"...my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they *did* love...literary academia was split into warring camps of deconstructionsits, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading 'texts' in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written."
I usually stay far away from literary analysis, which poisons my desire to write. In the above quote from the introduction to her book, Prose promises she won't do that to you. She also implies that she'll dig into the question of what there is to love about literature. She delivers on both. Why choose one word over another? Why pause to describe a scene, and how? Did you see that? Did you see what the author did there? Isn't that sublime? You can do it too.
I'm now working my way through Prose's bibliography.
From Bacteria to Bach and Back by Daniel C. Dennett
Daniel Dennett sets out to reconcile materialism with our subjective experience of having minds. He seems to be satisfied where he ended up, but he lost me somewhere along the way. I would say this is not a good book to listen to as an audiobook - it needs your full attention. I am grateful though, that I caught Dennett's dissection of the question "why" into "what for" and "how come." I'll go back and read this book to pick up the other gems I missed the first time.
See you next month.
She Done Me Wrong
(see the original post on Patreon for more pictures and links)
So, there I was, mad at my mother in law.
Pavlina and I take pre-bedtime walks. Often she's mad at someone at work, and I have to talk her down. This time the roles were reversed, and what my anger lacked in frequency it made up in intensity. Pavlina tried agreeing with me ("yes, it is unfair"). She tried disagreeing with me ("no, the budgie room really was a mess"). "What have you read recently?" She asked, trying to divert me onto other topics. I told her I didn't want to talk about what we were reading and just stomped along in silence for a few minutes. Pavlina, the Ferrari of wives, waited patiently.
I started at the surface. It's late at night. Too late to get angry about how dirty the budgie room is. It's a mean trick to tell the girls that the budgies will die if their room is too messy. This is just you, mother in law, getting tired and throwing a tantrum at the end of the day.
But I'd just read Nonviolent Communication (see below), which said that my job in an argument was not to judge or to diagnose. That made me angrier! What was wrong with me that I couldn't follow the precepts of Marshal Rosenberg? And what were they again?
You made me...no wait...I am angry because you...because I was having father-daughter-time watching cartoons with the girls and suddenly you're up in the budgie room yelling at them. The story I'm telling myself (with a nod to Brene Brown) is that you're jealous of the girls and want them doing things with you and not with me and that's...not true. Whew!
This had all happened internally, and it felt a bit silly to say it out loud to Pavlina. What sort of idiot am I that I come up with all these rationalizations for the rivalry between son- and mother-in-law, a story so cliche that entire languages have evolved ways to deal with it? And I felt selfish.
Why selfish, I wondered. My other father-daughter time is taking the girls to the park, where they play with their friends and I read stuff on my phone. Did I feel guilty about that? Yes. Especially since what I'd read was a Substack newsletter.
Since I subscribed to a bunch of Substack newsletters in the summer, I had stopped reading the Economist so much. The newsletters were more gripping, somehow, more vivid. Given the choice, I reached for them rather than the news magazine. I knew that by doing so I was eating my ice cream before my broccoli, but I hadn't done anything about it.
Anyway. This newsletter I read in park. It was a story about an American man (presumably real) who's wife done him wrong. She called the cops after he yelled at her. The cops put the man in the system. The system made the man go to counseling. When the man was at counseling, he wasn't working, and the wife divorced him. The story ends with the wife and her unemployed boyfriend living off the husband's alimony payments while he only refrains from suicide because he wants to see his children. She done him wrong!
You can see why this story gripped me, a husband and father who's worried about the news coming out of his home country. And you can see why then I went home and got mad at my mother-in-law. Yes, the story I read on Substack was designed to upset me and manipulate my emotions. No, it didn't have much to do with my actual problem and certainly didn't suggest a solution. It was ridiculous of me to take this fable written by some guy on Substack and map it onto my life. And yet, I kept thinking of that unemployed boyfriend. I kept thinking she done me wrong!
I admitted all this to Pavlina, and finally it was out of me. Yes, I had been quite silly, but saying it made me less so. And I could take some credit. I'd unsubscribed from that newsletter before that fight about the budgie room. Even before I blew up, I knew that something was off. The story I'd read had hooks, and I was wise enough to cut off their source.
My friend Paul Venet told me about how when he was an art teacher, he made his students read the newspaper between classes. "Because it was a class on anatomy and perspective, and the news is full of anatomy and perspective!" I didn't ask him what he meant by that because we only had an hour to talk, but anyway I know that I need to read the news. Without it, I would have less to talk about with friends, and to inspire my stories. But you are what you eat.
No, I haven't quit Substack. I just unsubscribed from that newsletter (and, later in the month, a few others). The ones left, like the Economist, ought to inform rather than convince. They're for me to eat, rather than the reverse.
In other news, Fellow Tetrapod finished its first month of serialization with 20 followers and some inspiring comments. By now (the middle of November) there's more. I think the experiment is working so far. You can read a more detailed introspection here (scroll down).
I haven't had much time for non-Fellow-T stuff, but I did work a little on the script for the First Knife sequel (Pavlina calls it "Second Spoon"). Artyom (now safe in an undisclosed location) matched the words to his flabbergasting pictures.
I made a pretty picture of my own and a short Halloween story to go with it. And I found out about maptoglobe.com.
Finally, I read some books last month.
The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
This book seems to me like a sequel for the sake of a sequel. The Moties are a species driven by biology to expand endlessly if they ever get out into interstellar space. Oops, looks like they're going to get out (this was rather deftly foreshadowed, by the way). And who better to negotiate the compromise between we-annihilate-them and they-annihilate-us than a man who was horribly traumatized the last time he met Moties? Despite that potentially interesting problem, we don't get much character development. Worse, the problem of and solution to the Moties isn't very interesting. But I do want to go back and read A Mote in God's Eye.
Taste: My Life through Food by Stanly Tucci
Unlike many celebrity writers, Tucci doesn't posture. He actually has important things he wants to say. He keeps a very narrow focus on his personal experience, recounting whole conversations from memory (he must keep a very good diary) and observing himself and others with an eye that can be ironic or even disapproving, but never cruel. And of course he's funny.
If this were just a collection of a celebrity's conversations and experiences with food and other celebrities, it would have been good enough. But then we get to the part of the book that covers the last three years. I've read a lot about the Pandemic, but more importantly, I've lived it. Tucci captured the experience with a gentle vulnerability that I haven't seen anywhere else. There's the other thing, too. It came as a surprise to me, and I want it to be a surprise to you too. Go read this book.
The Fist That Opens the Heart by Conradin
I read the short stories of the Rational Fiction Fest 2022, and this is my favorite. It was good enough that I recounted the story over cocktails (on a WEEKNIGHT!) to a couple of friends: a great kung fu hero invents a technique that solves his enemies psychological problems. He fights an Eastern sorcerer and breaks his enemy's urge to feel powerful. Crunch. Now the sorcerer is a peaceful teacher of the Nine Precepts. Then the hero turns his power on the narrator of the story. It's a cool premise well-executed.
Paranoid Mage by Inadvisably Compelled
This might be the most fun I've had with a book all year. That sense that the whole world goes away and now it's 5pm. The last time I was so transported by a novel was the Martian. I cannot thank Inadvisably Compelled enough for consuming my weekend.
Paranoid Mage is about a man (rather than a boy) who finds out he's part of a secret magical world. And you have a rare kind of magic. Congratulations. Now it's time to train you up for the epic war we're fighting on another world.
Our protagonist is having none of that. He escapes and goes off the grid. The problem is that he doesn't know what the grid _is_. He can see magic, but he can only barely use it. Who can he trust to train him and not turn him in? But without training, he doesn't stand a chance against the magical police, who are hunting him down. It's a fascinating dilemma.
Count to Infinity by John C. Wright
This book could have been really, really good. It (or at any rate the series that it concludes) could have been a genre touch-stone like A Fire Upon the Deep. Instead, it's just ambitious.
Here is one of my two most memorable lines in the book:
"I have two salt and pepper shakers back home shaped like two famous statues of you and her. When you put the shakers together on the tablecloth, they kiss. It is really sweet. You are the pepper."
The problem is, this is only one moment of two. The emotional and philosophical notes are all there. The plot and worldbuilding support them. But I very rarely found myself believing that these are real people. Otherwise, it's all "he went there and did this and had that conversation." A summary, rather than a story.
And then there is the utter, I'd even say contemptuous lack of editing. What was Tor doing? Certainly not pushing Wright to produce a manuscript closer to its potential, and then waiting to print it until it was ready. We get out-and-out typos like "darks stars." That's a shame. It's as if we only got a sketch of the Sistine Chapel fresco because the Pope and Michelangelo couldn't get over their personal feud.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
Like so many other pop-sci behavioral economics books, Predictably Irrational is solidly mired in its time. It was the pre-2010s, nobody wanted another Financial Crisis, economists were trying to prove they weren't evil, and the Replication Crisis had yet to begin. There's a bit of "I'm not saying we should run the world like Burning Man, but I went to Burning Man and it was great!"
As usual, what I liked best were the personal stories. Ariely had some real things happen to him, but understandably doesn't talk much about his traumatic medical past. Mostly he talks about fooling undergraduates into making silly decisions. I approve.
Uncrowned by Will Wight
I'd forgotten that Uncrowned and Wintersteel weren't the same book, and was disappointed that this book wasn't Wintersteel :) But aside from that, this - my second reading - gave me a better look at Will Wight's craft. It's interesting to see how he grows his world to keep ahead of both the readers and his main character. Characters and countries that before were only mentioned in passing, now get their full-color backstories. The towering god-like powers of the last book are now (relative to Lindon) only somewhat impressive, the subsidiaries of even greater titans. Only a small amount of ret-conning is required. It's a solid piece of work.
Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg
This book was recommended by a introspective friend, bent on doing and being better. I was a little hesitant to start something so serious, but like my friend, this book is gentle above all. The basic premise is that people are driven to violence by their emotional needs. Fulfill the needs, and the violence evaporates. It's good theory, which Rosenberg supports with stories from himself and others. An argument in a taxi is averted. A battle of wills turns back into a negotiation. A woman defuses her would-be rapist. Strong, useful stuff.
See you next month
Fellow Tetrapod interulde: Halloween
Halloween is not a universal instinct. It is a learned behavior practiced by a specific human community at a particular time in their history. Therefor, it is not worthy of discussion.
"Mr. Grumbles, make a fire," said the raven perched on a troll's shoulder. His name was General Graa.1
"I will skewer snacks for roasting," said the giant spider, whom we shall call Hostess.
"Let me gather rocks to heat for a mud-bath," said the bug-eyed monster, Twine.
"A lovely idea," said Digeridoo the sea-beast. "I'll dig out a wallow for us."
And the killer space-robot spoke thoughtfully, his communication laser-fire rendered into comprehensible sound by the translator bugs hovering by or clinging to each of the gathered friends. "A fire." The robot's name was Arch-Beacon Clay. "I appreciate the symbolism. Graa, I will help you with a well-chosen word."
Graa understood what Clay was about to do and pecked his hairy steed in the cheek. "Mr. Grumbles, full retreat!"
The domesticated Homo erectus stumbled back from the pile of kindling just in time to avoid the burning light that blazed forth from Clay.
"Fire!" communicated Clay, and there was fire.
It was fall in the Zogreion. Specifically, in the nature reserve north and west of the city. Here, Twine's species had not converted the land into artificial mangrove swamp, but left it as a forest.
The trees had turned dark and glassy as their leaves withdrew into their trunks, and unharvested reproductive netting littered the ground with orange tangles and curds. Quad-wing fliers called to each other as they soared south. A distant aircraft glowed pink with the light of a sun hidden behind the rim of this version of earth.
The five friends had no reason to gather and talk, and that was exactly why they enjoyed it. Tonight they would not have to negotiate or charm. They could relax, set aside diplomacy and trade, and speak of more important things.
"Have any of you seen the most recent broadcast of Heavy Bombardment?" asked Digeridoo.
Graa nibbled on his steed's ear as he added more wood to the fire. "Is that the prequel series? My secretaries won't stop talking about it."
"Yes!" squealed Twine around the rock in her mouth. "Are your secretaries Team Ceres or Team Eris? I'm Team Eris all the way. Woo! Boost that ice! Right?"
"Right!" Under the mobile web of Hostess the spider, puppets dangled. One of them was shaped like Twine.2 Hostess manipulated this puppet, saying "Scatter those tholins!"
With a bird-shaped puppet, however, she whispered an aside to Graa. "It's not as good as the original series, but I feel I have to keep up with it so I have something to talk to people about."
Arch-beacon Clay sadly flickered his lasers. "I stopped watching Tensor fiction broadcasts a long time ago. It is as if the writers have never talked to a real person. It is as if they have lost their grip on meaning."
"They are not paid to grip meaning," said Graa. "The show's writers are paid to extrude stories that the audience enjoys."
"Yes." Digeridoo spoke out of the hole he was excavating in the forest floor. "You're overthinking, Clay. Just lie back and let the show wash over you. It doesn't have to make sense. It's just fun."
"Don't you want something deeper?" asked Clay.
Digeridoo stopped digging, closed his eyes and nostrils, and hugged himself with all four flippers. "No. There are things swimming in deep places."
"Don't scare him," chided Hostess.
Graa stretched his neck and raised his wings. "Belay that order!"
Clay played lidar up and down Graa's feathered body. "You mean I should scare Digeridoo?"
"Yes!" Graa paced back and forth across his steed's padded shoulder. "Fear is precisely the reason I invited you to this campfire gathering at the tipping point of autumn."
"I thought you invited us so that we could roast treats over the fire," said Hostess. She manipulated threads, and clockwork arms hammered skewers of food into the ground.
"Treats are only my secondary goal," said Graa.
Digeridoo upended his tank of camping water into the hole he'd made. "You had an ulterior motive," he accused. "A trick!"
Graa's throat-feathers bristled in smugness. "Now tell me: what scares you?"
Silence around the campfire. Night creatures pipped to each others. Migrating fliers cried. The friends considered whether they were friendly enough to talk about this sort of thing.
"I will lead the attack!" Graa crowed. "Now hear this! I am scared of food. I command you to imagine it!"
Hostess visibly obeyed, releasing ratchets and tugging threads in her complex web to trigger memories and run simulations. The others just sat there, brains presumably working. Digeridoo closed his eyes.
"You're perched above the carcass," said Graa. "You are entranced by the pattern of its blood on the snow. Vapors still rise from it. The meat is fresh! But this means that whatever killed the meat will still be near."
As he talked, Graa lost his dominant posture. His feathers smoothed down and he tucked his wings tight to his sides. His voice took on the harsh qworks and triple-raks of fear.
"If I stoop upon the meat, what will stoop upon me? How dare I? How dare I eat?" Graa huddled on his steed's shoulder. The domesticated Homo erectus whined and put his hand around his rider.
Hostess shook her legs, rattling all four of her puppets. "Thank you for that tasty offering. I'll offer you my fear next: I'm scared that I'm not attractive."
"Oh no, don't say that," said Twine. She rolled her rock, now heated, from the fire toward Digeridoo's mud bath. "You're very attractive."
The rock went kshh and Digeridoo snorted in appreciation.
"Thank you." The spider manipulated her puppets to give the various species' equivalents of appreciative bows. "You have all joined me for a meal, and I am grateful. But what about next time? Or the time after that? Every day I grasp my web and take up my puppets and wait for guests to come. I do my best to appeal to the widest range. I craft the most convincing decoys I can. But some days, my number of guests falls. What if it falls to zero? Someday it must, and what will I do when I have no one to mimic? Alone, who will I be?"
"Interesting that your fear is loneliness," said Graa, who had calmed himself and his steed. "I would have thought you would be more afraid of being eaten by birds."
Hostess twitched a leg, and one of her puppets flapped papier-mâché wings. "I have better ways to feed birds, my friend. Would you like a roasted fruit or a heated strip of meat?"
Graa flapped down to grab both and cached them away where no-one else could see. "Who's next?"
Twine twitched her single eye and raised her mouth above the mud-bath to chitter. "I am scared of staying huddled in my hive. Seeing the same clone-sisters every day, speaking about nothing that everyone does not already know. Forgetting the cold outside. And when the cold comes inside, I will not know how to fight it."
Lasers sparkled from the anti-gravity cylinder that housed Arch-beacon Clay. "You and I are two ends of a tether, Twine. You fear falling in toward the heat, but I fear flying outward into the cold. Will I be unable to tolerate others? Will I throw away all my bindings and tumble, alone forever?"
Hostess scuttled across her web and spun a symbolic thread linking it to Clay's cylinder.
"Thank you," said the space-robot.
"I wish I could feed you," said the spider.
Clay spun himself, sparkling in his anti-gravity vacuum cylinder. "I absorb some energy from the fire, but what you give me is something better."
"It's gotten dark," said Digeridoo, who was uncomfortable with emotional vulnerability.
"That's the whole point of a campfire," said Twine. "We create a warm brightness to form the heart of a little hive, safe from the cold outer darkness."
"Safe," said Hostess. "Exactly."
Graa growled. "And yet there are treasures in the darkness, aren't there? To grab them, we must ride out. We must follow our fear, as if led by the pole."
Clay understood, but those species without a magnetic sense required a little more clarification.
"You think we should be led by our fear?" said Digeridoo. "Find things that scare you and then do them? That sounds foolish and dangerous. And I don't like all these metaphors."
Twine vibrated her eyeball. "What danger? We are sophonts! We habitually leap between universes. We fear no predators. No starvation."
"That's evidence in favor my argument," said Digeridoo. He was a bit hurt at Twine's aggressive tone. Hadn't he dug out all this nice mud for her? "We do not need to venture from our burrows in order to find food. We can stay safe, and let what we need come to us."
"I confess I do like that idea," said Hostess the spider.
Graa gave a kek kek kek call of frustration. "There the food lies, steaming in the snow below you. You hunger, you rage, you fear the glint of eyes in the darkness: predation. But you should also fear the rush of many wings coming up behind: starvation."
"Metaphors again!" Digeridoo snorted. "Do I have to re-tune my translator?"
Clay extended robot claws from his spherical shell. "You mean if you do not overcome your fear and snatch your prize, other people will steal it."
"Exactly," said Graa.
"You speak like someone who doesn't trust your neighbors," said Twine.
"Yes. How many of us are killed by predators or natural disaster? How many of us are killed by each other? Why did we evolve intelligence in the first place. Not to outsmart hawks or blizzards, but to outsmart other sophonts."
"You mean," said Hostess, "that we are our own monsters."
"Yes!" Graa spread his tail, feathers on his legs and heads fluffy with dominance. "I win this conversation!"
Clay spoke in a low-wattage murmur. "And yet you are the one who invited us here."
Graa's feathers slimmed back down. "When the idea caught my eye, at first I blinked. My pride raised its wings, but behind those wings was fear. I recognized the fear, and oriented myself against it. I rode out to this campground, and I perch now before people not of my species. That is what a brave bird does."
Twine's puppet bird gave the equivalent of applause while Clay aimed a laser at Digeridoo.
"You accepted the invitation as well."
"The queen says I need to get out more," grunted sea-beast.
"They are expanding the burrow," explained Twine. "Digeridoo's colony needs money, as does my hive. This is
why we network."
"Ah," sighed the spider. "Networking."
"I was most surprised of all to find you here, Hostess" Clay confessed. "Isn't it very difficult for you to travel from your restaurant?"
Hostess moved her space-robot puppet in the equivalent of a nod. There was even a little electric light that flashed like a laser.
"There is always a moment of terror when my web moves," she said. "Digeridoo might feel the same way flying, or Graa trapped in a watery burrow. Or in free fall..." She flashed her electric light again. "Clay, do you feel that terror when you look down, and see the ground does not move beneath you?"
"I confess that I do."
"And yet you're here with us."
"And you've been to space."
"Oh," said Digeridoo. "Space. I remember. Yes, that trip was terrifying, but nothing I've seen was more beautiful."
Graa made a kek kek sound. "Alright! I accept your challenge! Next time, we can meet in a burrow."
1 The troll's name was Mr. Grumbles.
2 A one-eyed vacuum-cleaner with legs.
This story was originally published on Royal Road
Daniel M. Bensen