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.
(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
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
So here I am, trying to write about the most interesting thing that happened to me in September, when all I can think about is Fellow Tetrapod. This will be a newsletter about Fellow Tetrapod.
Way back before Covid, I went to a really good team-building.
We were all volunteer teachers at an orientation event for the Refugee Project, preparing to go to refugee camps around Sofia and teach English, Bulgarian, and homework prep for children. The organizers and speakers were Bulgarian, but most of the volunteers were foreigners. I loved them all, because, like I said, the team-building exercises were so good.
I remember walking around a group holding a card covered with little symbols: dog, car, watering can, etc. We were supposed to use the symbols to help us remember something we had in common with other volunteers. You don't like dogs? Me neither! You take the bus? So do I! Watering can…uh…I took a class on plant physiology and you…are studying human physiology at Sofia Medical University. Bam! We have so much in common.
I had to back to my partner and ignore her while she described a good sandwich. I wasn't allowed say "yes?" or "oh wow!" or in any way acknowledge that sandwich description, and it was almost physically painful to hear how hard she had to push to get the words out while I pretended to ignore her. When the two minutes were up, I whirled around, babbling about what a great sandwich that must have been, and how I was so sorry for not responding. Once we'd all had our turn to ignore and be ignored, we felt as if we'd all been terribly rude to each other. Now we needed to be extra nice to make up for it.
We broke up into randomly-assigned groups and were told to discuss such topics as the rights of religious minorities. You'd think that a bunch of people who'd volunteered to help Syrian refugees would find nothing to disagree about, but no. This one guy in my group was (I think) Indian Muslim, and he said that the only way to guarantee the rights of a religious minority was for them to carve out an independent state. I disagreed with him, citing Balkan history as an example. This was all somewhat disjointed because this guy spoke better Bulgarian than me, but not English, while the other members of our group didn't speak Bulgarian at all. It's the sort of conversation you can imagine starting a family feud over a Thanksgiving table. And yet we all saw each other's points. We continued to disagree, but that didn't matter. We'd been team-built.
We were doing something important together, yes, but we'd also connected on a more basic level. We had things in common. We owed each other social credit. We ate together. We experienced the right series of cues and our animal instincts flipped from "stranger" to "friend."
So then I think: what if team-building didn't work? What if you knew which human instincts to target, but you weren't dealing with a human? How much could you have in common with a giant rotifer? What would a colony of salps care if you ignored them?1 And how would an intelligent sea-slug respond to a political disagreement? How could you even know if you'd pissed it off? How could you work with these beings?
That was seven years ago, and now I've got this story I'm serializing. It's my next big experiment. Is it possible to take a rough draft of a novel and polish it up fast enough to post a new one-to-two-thousand-word chunk every weekday? Will reader reactions steer the manuscript in interesting directions? Should my speculative-evolution team-building story resemble a Korean office drama quite this much? So far, the answers are all "yes."
In other news, I drew some spec-evo griffons on youtube and created a "blog" category in my new website to house them.
But of course the only other news that I want to talk about is Fellow Tetrapod. A new post comes out every weekday at 5pm EEST, and you can read them on Royal Road or one week earlier on my Patreon. See if you like it. I think you might.
And I read some stuff.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson – good bedtime reading
Cozy and exciting, but not too much of either. I was happy to walk along after Bryson as he told me the history of whichever British town and what it reminded him of. The autobiographical part cuts out about halfway through, because I guess Bryson went farther north than he'd been before. And I wish he'd talked to more of the people around him. He seemed sometimes to be scared of them.
Deep Storm by Lincoln Child – a tightly-packed scifi thriller
I read this back in college and I thought 'yeah, sure.' Now, I'm in a better position to appreciate the tight storytelling. Hidden mysteries get revealed, bip, bop, boop. The tension rises. Oh no! How will our hero escape? And there's a medical mystery that gets solved. Nicely done.
The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman – a surprisingly powerful meditation on art, craft, and perfectionism
Michael Ruhlman strikes me as a journalist who wants to be a chef. He hangs out at the Culinary Institute of America, watching the Certified Master Chef exam, then hangs out some more in the kitchens of Michael Symon and Thomas Keller. He loves telling the reader about fancy French methods of food-preparation, and even though I will never use them, I enjoyed listening. There's valuable "what's it like to be a chef" scenes, as if we're watching a camera hidden in a kitchen. I also appreciate Ruhlman's commitment to the hard questions like "what's the point of being a Certified Master Chef?" "Why pay so much for food?" and best of all "why work so hard?" I was surprised by how deep we went. There's real insight here.
"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" – I promise to be more like Richard Feynman
I was completely unprepared for how much fun this book turned out to be. Apparently it's a bunch of short autobiographical stories that Feynman told to his drum circle buddies, transcribed and put in chronological order. I don't know if that's true, but the result is a damn good portrait of a man. I want to know more. I want to copy Feynman's curiosity and humor, his excitement about being in such a spectacular place as the world.
Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold -- a ghost has possessed a corpse and actually that's not very interesting
I guess the point of these novellas is to be low-stakes, but it gets disappointing when we encounter a cool new implication of the magic system and then the problem turns out to solve itself with time. The only tension seems to be how depressed the main character will end up after the story over. The happy ending isn't a better life for anyone, it's a life that failed to get worse. It's not actively bad, just oatmeal.
The Freeze Frame Revolution – I rooted for the murderous AI
The book starts with a very cool premise, which it abandons. There are god-monsters pouring out of wormholes, but they don't do anything except trigger the characters' angst and panic attacks. There isn't even much of Watts's usually fun speculative biology. The crew of the star ship all think that their lives are a waste of time, and when it turns out the ship's AI might be killing them, they fall on this source of meaning as if starving. Finally, something we can hate! The greatest moment of satisfaction I experienced was when an astronaut is like "f- you!" for the Nth time, and the AI just shoots him in the head with a laser.
Abbot in Darkness by D.J. Butler. Finally, a grown-up protagonist!
A hungry young accountant ups stakes and moves with his family to a frontier planet, where something fishy is going on with human-alien trade relations. Some people are nice, some are nasty, some have interests in common with Abbot the protagonist, some want what's best for the community, and none of those categories match up. Abbot has to make compromises, trust people, and balance work and family time. He does a pretty good job. I just wish the book had seen another round of revision. The plot sometimes gets blurry, and the worldbuilding ought to have more depth. I am glad, though, that I've found an author I can depend on to write books I enjoy.
1 They can keep each other company.
See you next month
Alright, here we go!
My speculative-evolution serial novel Fellow Tetrapod is finally live on Royal Road.
Go check it out. If it looks like your sort of thing, follow the story. It updates every weekday.
(if you want to know more...)
Koenraad Robbert Ruis used to be a paleontologist, but now he's a cook at the United Nations embassy to the Convention of Sophonts. His bosses must negotiate with intelligent species from countless alternate earths, and Koen must make them breakfast. It turns out, though, that Koen is rather better at inter-species communication than any other human in this world (all nine of them). Everyone loves to eat (certain autotrophs excepted).
Fellow Tetrapod is an speculative-evolution office comedy about food preparation, diplomacy, and what it’s like to be a talking animal.
Serialized every weekday on Royal Road and (one week earlier) Patreon
Cover art by Simon Roy. Illustrations by Tim Morris.
This is a bit of an experiment. Before I mediated a panel of the speculative biology of fantasy, I asked Tumblr what they wanted to learn about. I got a ton of questions, and now I've answered one of them.
Davrial asked: Would a griffon be classified as an avian, or a mammal?
Here's my answer with accompanying pictures.
This post appeared one week earlier on my patreon
There's a fish shack on the Danube, just up-stream from Srebarna: Restorant Krai Rekata. The cook fries whatever was brought in that day, or else you can get the stew.
I ate my catfish steak with french fries and beer, thinking of the Ancient Egyptians and the meals they must have enjoyed. I didn't speak much.
None of us adults felt much like talking, and it wasn't entirely because we were living mindfully in the moment. I remember eating my fish with a sort of spiteful relish. It was delicious; I was having a good time despite our guest.
It's hard fighting with your friend. Harder still during a road trip, when you're trapped together in the car while your wife is trying to overtake a truck. Pavlina put a stop to the argument, but of course it continued to flow under the surface.
We had all the rest of our trip that day: lunch, checking into the guest house, the natural history museum, the nature walk, and now dinner.
There was a time when I would have just wallowed in resentment. No, I'm fine. It's just I can't enjoy this stuffed owl, those distant pelicans, the bee-eaters swooping brilliantly above our heads. It's fine! The birds are ugly and the fish is bitter.
Instead, I took a Valerian pill. I figured out what a generous, compassionate person would do. I found some time to get my thoughts out on paper, and I talked with Pavlina. Most of all, I tried to suspend judgment and watch. I wasn't entirely successful, but when I saw a praying mantis or a bee-eater, I was happy.
As evening closed in, Pavlina got up from the picnic table and walked off by herself. I followed her, suppressing my desire to reach in and fix things. We just stood there, looking at the river, commenting on the pale shells in the darkening water.
We thought at first they were fireflies. Little green spots plipped out and over the surface. Experimentally, I tossed in a rock. Was that splash bright only because it reflected the lights from the fish shack? No.
I'd been looking for this for years, although I'd never expected to find it in fresh water. Wherever it was disturbed, the river glowed.
I don't know whether we called over our friend and the girls or whether they came to join us on their own recognizance. Either way, we stood there, watching, talking about what might be responsible for the sea sparkle.*
You lunge into the stream of consciousness and your feelings scatter. You don't know you're miserable, but you still crave a solution. "How can I get this vacation back on track?" "How can I fix you?" That won't work. Just watch them. Some thoughts are sweet, others salty. Some are not for you to fry. Briefly, some of them shine.
Another month of vacation, and you know I didn't write much. I did, however, draw, which is something I want to do more of. I also created a new website and I'd very much appreciate feedback on it. What do you think? Is there anything you'd like to see, but aren't seeing?
I prepared materials for Chicon, and you might like to see the presentation I made for my workshop on Speculative Evolution. Recordings are forthcoming, I think. Wealthgiver is still available for beta-reading. And stay tuned for news about Fellow Tetrapod, which I will begin serializing in October.
And I read some stuff.
Radical Candor by Kim Scott - pretty good IT management advice
The author is thoughtful and, despite a certain preoccupation with "bias," pragmatic. Scott talks about her own mistakes with some real vulnerability, and makes the much-needed point that it's a manager's job to be human.
The Inhabited Island by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky – "Nowhere do they live more stupidly."
According to the afterword in the English edition, the Strugatsky brothers wanted The Inhabited Island to be "unadulterated, toothless entertainment." They then went on to write something as toothless and entertaining as a Tyrannosaurus. A Communist super-man from the future Soviet Union crash-lands on the rump of a defeated empire, populated by brainwashed prisoners who treat each other even more cruelly than the paranoid, belligerent state. It cuts right to the bone.
"And there are many such spheres in existence on which people live far worse than you do, and some on which they live far better. But nowhere do they live more stupidly."
Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton – many good ingredients fail to combine
This is another of Crichton's historical dramatizations, but where he turned the Great Gold Robbery into a story, he was less successful with pirates. There are lots of ingredients - drinking, fighting, pillaging, betrayal, beautiful witches, sea monsters – but it fails to cohere. At the end, there's a seductive beauty, and I struggled to remember which one she was supposed to be. It seems this book was published posthumously, and so it probably lacked the final revision that Crichton was planning to make.
Atomic Habits by James Clear - rather like The Power of Habit
I put off reading Atomic Habits for a while because I thought there would be too much overlap between it and The Power of Habit. I was right. There's a bit of personal stuff about Clear's head trauma, which I appreciated, but then I wanted more. I guess I like anecdotes. Oh! Here's one of mine: a friend read Atomic Habits and followed its advice to a new job and losing a bunch of weight. She runs marathons now. So, read this one or The Power of the Habit and you should be fine.
Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven - a retired Admiral expands on that commencement speech he gave
I guess my expectations were too high for this one. It's good advice: make your bed in the morning so you begin the day with one task well done. Then go out and do some more. Yes, I like it, and the rest of the stories McRaven shares from his time in basic training. I have to say, though, I got more out of Leadership Strategy and Tactics by Jocko Willinck. Maybe McRaven was too high-ranking to share any of the really good stories.
Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe - Now Latro is wandering around Egypt!
This book might be a little easier to follow than the first two in the series, or else I've gotten better at reading between the lines and figuring out what's going on. Latro, a brain-damaged proto-Roman mercenary, is sent on a mission to find the source of the Nile while trying to either cure or come to terms with his inability to remember and his ability to see gods and monsters. It may be that he's a better person with his affliction than without it. Also: wizards, ancient curses, crocodile women, and fried fish with beer. Delicious.
That's Not What I Meant! By Deborah Tannen - no, you're both wrong
You never asks a question to which the answer might be "no." But you always clearly ask for what you want. Each of you assume that the other shares your communication style. You're both wrong, but this is a problem that can be solved.
Compared with The Culture Code, "That's Not What I Meant" is more rigorous and grounded in research (as you'd expect from a professor of socio-linguistics). The best parts, for me, are the rich anecdotes about the various ways minds fail to meet and conversations go off the rails. My one criticism is that Tannen is too enamored of cross-cultural differences - it's been my experience that even people in the same family can play by totally different conversational rules. But I loved these lectures. I'll use them in my communication classes.
See you next month.
*It might have been ostracods, or the same species of dinoflagellate that produces red tides. The fireflies were fish, covered in plankton.
Back in February 2020, I got a very interesting message from Ouroborosenso, asking for a creation myth for the dragons in a DnD campaign. My daughter was still asleep, so I could put a thought together in my head. Maybe three! With no further ado, here is the creation myth of at least one of the dragons of Ralagan.
In a time only I remember, there was nothing but the useless Earth and the powerless Sky. The heaped treasures of the Earth had no one to value them and the sky could do nothing but change color.
Thus the world remained in idleness until the First Will. The First Will flashed between the useless Earth and the powerless Sky, and saw that they were insufficient.
At first the Will was weak. It could crack only the thinnest shell and breathe only the tiniest breath of wind. But the Will was patient. It cracked the shells of dew drops and blew them up into the sky. The Earth pulled jealously, and many drops fell, but some drops stayed and became the first clouds. Many clouds became rain.
With the strength of rain, the Will cracked the stony shell of the Earth, exposing the fire below. With the strength of cloud, the Will blew the fire up into the sky, where it became the sun.
Now the Will could finally discard patience. With the power of the sun, the Will became so mighty that it could rip the bones and meat of the Earth and suck out its precious stones and metals. So wealthy was the Will now, it did not even care that some treasures were hurled from the jealous grip of Earth. These surplus trinkets became the moon and stars.
When the First Will was finished with its conquest, it had become everything. The Will contained the whole Earth. The Will filled the whole Sky.
Thus, things were as before, with the Sky above, the Earth below, and the belly of the Will stretched around them.
And the Will saw that this was insufficient.
Satiation kills hunger. Great size halts growth. Horded treasure does not glint. When there is nothing to want, there is nothing to value. When it has burned all, the fire dies.
So, the Will turned its power upon itself.
The Will cracked itself in two. Its two children were My Superior Progenitor and Your Inferior Progenitor. They fought one another, and the Superior tore the Inferior to pieces in glorious victory!
But the Superior died of its wounds. From those pieces were born the first dragons. The first dragons ruled the Sky and Earth and the forces between. Their names are valuable and I will not part with them easily. I will only say that the first of the first dragons, the best, was their king, get of the Superior Progenitor, get of the First Will, and My Great Ancestor.
Only I remember this. Only I could have told you a story so powerful and gorgeous.
Now, you will repay me.
Just a silly little idea. If English's non-phonetic spelling is due to (mostly) not keeping up with sound changes in the past 600 years, what would happen if we pushed its origins back further? What if an Ulfilas-like missionary wrote a Bible in his dialect of Proto-West-Germanic in the fourth century and his work *really* caught on? To the point where modern Germanic languages are still written using his Latin spellings?
Aside from that, the history of this world parallels ours. Here is English as we speak it, but not as we write it.
Unsar Fader, hwarh irht in hebune,
hailagodaz biwje thin namo
Thin kuningadom kweme
Thin willjan biwje dan
An erthu alls' hit ist in hebune.
Imagine school children having to learn that a <b> between vowels is pronounced as /v/, and all the fiddly non-pronounced word endings. Then, they'll have to remember that in "hailagodaz," the i, middle a, g, and ending -az are all silent! Why is /art/ spelled with an <i> and a <rh>? You just have to memorize it.
Then of course some good-hearted person will suggest a spelling reform. What if we at least omitted all the silent letters?
U'r Fader, hwa' irht in hebun'
Hail'od' bi' thi' nam'
Thi' ku'ng'dom kwem'
Thi' will' bi' dan
An erth' a's' 'it is' in hebun'