So there we were, having a great idea.
Pavlina and I were home in Sofia for three days without the kids so we could get some work done. I'd spent the day editing The World's Other Side, working out, and walking to the wrong part of the city to pick up Pavlina. A Ragusea chicken salad for dinner, a glass of cold white wine, and the stage was set for a Zoom call with Simon.
Simon Roy is a comic book creator, colleague, and example of the kind of independent creator I want to be. He's also one of my most inspiring friends; ideas seem to shape themselves in the air between us. In this case, we were talking about collaborating with people of strong political opinion ("if they're willing to play, go for it") and the censorious, overheated state of the American conversation in general. Simon reminded me of a comparison I'd made once to a divorce: the Democrats got science and the Republicans got family.
And I was like, hey.
What if there was a divorce between the gods? The Sky Father and the Earth Mother are separating, and their children — us humans — have to choose whose house we'll go live in. Simon is like, "yeah, but what about characters?" At the time, I had nothing but a vague "…Napoleon?"
That's because I was thinking about Europe: a History, by Norman Davies, who describes the opposing conceptions of the left/right political spectrum as the tug-of-war ("we can have no peace until our enemies are defeated!") and the tether ("we can have peace only as long as the center holds."). What if the center does not hold?
The next morning, I drew feverish maps of a continent with a large lake at its center. A lake with a tectonic rift forming down the middle.
On Saturday, speeding past the downcast faces of the August sunflowers on our way back to the village, I related the story of some dumb Twitter scandal I'd heard about on Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning Podcast. Pavlina the IT entrepreneur was contemptuous. Don't those idiots know the algorithms they care so much about were written by some programmer after three cups of coffee and an aggravating Microsoft Teams meeting? They're doing what the architecture of the space they're in induces them to do.
I said, "Yes and." Think about the court of Louis XIV. All those cutting remarks and ruined reputations, the fans fluttering before hard eyes, the lives made and lost within rooms, alcoves, and gardens that some person had designed for that purpose. Imagine the architect of the the Palace of Versailles, watching as the court comes apart.
We were just passing out of Pernik. The road was squeezed between a pair of mountains, one crowned by a reconstructed fortress. "You're not going to like this," I said. Pavlina's parents divorced when she was in her 20s. "There's this woman. She's standing on the balcony of the palace she designed, and she's watching a volcano erupting into the middle of a thunderhead. Flying boulders, oozing lava. Lightning crashes from the ash that spews into the heart of the squatting storm.
"And she says, 'I can't stand it. I hate seeing them fight like this.'"
Pavlina's like, "Oh. No, I don't like it. You have to write it."
So here we are. Five thousand years ago!
Five thousand years ago, the gods of two continents fell in love and smashed their lands together. Now, they are separating. Prodigies lead revolts against angels. Demigods turn their divine gifts against each other. The old Order is on the brink of collapse, and the new Council thirsts for revenge. Some choose sides, but most people just want to know what sacrifices to make so that the gods stop fighting.
Architect Nora Soler Harqne s'Aqrasak is interested in floating gardens. She knows sacrifices are pointless, and she's had it with both gods. Together with a mason who should be her enemy, she plans to build a third realm.
(I should also mention the life story of Zaha Hadid, the inspiring-by-how-mediocre-it-is Against the Light by Dave Duncan and the inspiring-by-how-good-it-is Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy on Netflix. They're in the list of ingredients as well.)
I'm not famous enough for anyone to ask me where my ideas come from, but if anyone does, see the above. I'm reading a lot, listening a lot, talking to lots of different kinds of people, and feeling my big feelings. I don't say, "I'm going to write a parable of our times," or even, "man, if I could do what the Strugatsky Brothers did…" Instead, I notice when a feeling climbs an idea, and what other ideas buttress it. If it all seems to self-assemble like a bunch of magnets, and the result scares me, I know I have to write it. If my wife tells me "you have to write it," that helps.
I already have a playlist.
In other news, I have finished editing The World's Other Side. I sent the cleaned-up draft to Georgi Shopov, my editor. I have a sketch from Stefan Tosheff the cover-artist. We're on track to start serializing this alternate history story on Royal Road at the beginning of October and Patreon at the end of September. Expect more news soon.
And I read some things:
Calde of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
This is a book that rewards close reading, as you can see from the following quote from page 2:
"Without leaving his chair, he extracted the puff from a drawer on the other side of the room and applied flesh-toned powder delicately to the small, sharp chin he had shaped with such care upon arising."
There's a point in the book where an old man separates his hands from each other, twisting one. I burst out laughing when I read that, and my kids asked me to tell them what was so funny. I realized the explanation would require them to read this book plus the two previous books in the Long Sun series. So, go do that.
Against the Light by Dave Duncan
I made a resolution at the start of the summer to spend less time listening to audiobooks. This book helped me do that. It was just barely interesting enough to keep me listening, but never for too long. There's a bit of world-building and events certainly follow one after another, but nothing ever transported me. I don't know if it's lack of editing or if Duncan just phoned this one in. Children of Chaos covers a lot of the same ground and it's a much better book.
The Wailing Wind by Tony Hillerman
Hillerman writes one scene where a lesser author would have written three. The result isn't frantic or even "gripping," it's efficient. We know what everyone's doing and we can focus on what's important, which is why they did it how they feel about it afterward ("why the hell was I such an idiot?"). I figured out the mystery exactly when Hillerman wanted me to. And it's sad. It's a sad, sweet story, and Hillerman tells it very well. I need to start the Joe Leaphorn books from the beginning.
The Marquise of O— and Other Stories by Kleist von Heinrich
I was set on these stories by Francine Prose, who raves about "The Marquise of O-" in her delightful "Reading Like a Writer." I have to confess I liked Prose's description of the story more than the original, but maybe that's just because I already knew the secrets. I hoped I'd enjoy the other stories more, but no. It's not just the 18th-century story-telling, or the way people just fly off the handle and set fire to Wittenberg, it's the finger-wagging moralization. Did you hear about the old woman who was told to stand up and move to the other side of a room? Well, she *died,* and her ghost haunted the bad young people who made her stand until they were so terrified that they burned down their whole castle, so there. These are the sort of stories my wife's grandma likes.
Nowhither by John C. Wright
It's half of a story. The first half. Our hero Ilya Muromets gets his ragtag band of rebels out of the clutches of the evil mulitverse-Sumerians and into apparent safety. Except, where are, like, half the ragtag band? More is going on than meets the eye, and Ilya must come to terms with the mistakes he made in book one in order to transform into the person who can solve the problems of book two. He resolves to do so...and the book ends. Book one (Somewhither) ended on an enormous cliffhanger, but it still felt like a complete and satisfying story. Nowhither doesn't. I like this series and I want it to be complete. I suppose I'll just have to wait.
See you next month
So there we were, rib-deep in warmish water, leaning farther and farther back as the shadow of the awning shrank.
There was a heatwave in western Bulgaria. A whole week of 33, 34, 35 degrees. The sun droned in your ears and the white sky clamped down and bore you to the ground. We went to the swimming pool.
Kyustendil has some great pools, and my favorite is at the hotel Strimon. It has sun-shades, there's no loud music playing, and they serve cocktails. On this particular day, I wasn't knocking back pina coladas because it was like 11am, but I was reading a novel while my kids and their cousins swam around screaming. I told them I was waiting for my sunscreen to dry.
Pavlina got out of the pool and told me that Ellie had made friends with a little girl visiting from America. Let's go meet her dad. I was excited, but also, let's say, on a higher level of alert.
Ellie's in first grade, and she makes friends both more easily and in the same way as me. It's the same because we know it's more fun to play than to sit by ourselves, but we're afraid that the other person won't want what we have to give. The way Ellie has it easier is that she's less practiced at protecting herself and doesn't get in her own way.
I found the little girls grinning at the shallow end with their hair plastered over their heads. I asked the normal questions —what's your name, how old are you? —and made my way to where Pavlina was talking to Ellie's friend's dad.
They made it easy for me. What's your name? Where are you from? Where is your wife's village? What's your job? All I had to do is not hold back.
There's a scene in the scifi cartoon Rick and Morty where Rick invites Bird Person to join him on his adventures through the multiverse. Bird Person doesn't say "no," but he doesn't immediately say "yes" either. He hesitates, and Rick takes it as a betrayal. Asking "will you play with me" makes you vulnerable, and so does answering "yes." You pass the ball back and forth, and you have to keep your heart open with each toss.
Jose and his family lived in around Dallas, where he was an insurance claims adjuster. We determined that my wife's grandfather had a cousin in his wife's mother's village. This cousin had converted his living room into a rakia still, which was a fun topic of conversation. Jose planned to run in the Boston Marathon and I wanted to dig a barbecue pit somewhere. Jose ventured to share his political opinions, which shows he was braver than me, but at least I reciprocated. The sun moved and our patch of shade at the poolside got smaller and smaller. We emerged from the pool and ate pizzas together with our kids.
We got together twice more — all ten of us plus cousins. We would have met a third time in Sofia, but Maggie hit Ellie in the eye with a pear. Ellie was fine. Maggie still isn't allowed to watch videos.
Pavlina has told me I seem standoffish in Bulgaria. I want to practice my Bulgarian, but of course English is easier. I hesitate, either because I'm mad at myself for resorting to English or trying to compose the appropriate response. It's a bad habit I'm trying to break down. Why, just today an old woman in the park saw me with my sketch book and said she had wondered where that sketchbook came from. I said, "It's from Slanchegled. The store," and she looked at me like I hadn't understood her correctly. But at least I didn't hesitate.
It's summer and I'm not doing a lot of writing. Fellow Tetrapod is still available on Royal Road. The World's Other Side is halfway edited and I'm expecting cover art soon.
But I did read some stuff in July:
The Assassins of Thasalon by Lois McMaster Bujold
Another bland Penric and Desdemona adventure. There's an interesting idea at the core, but complications on that theme keep failing to happen. The characters are simply forced by the gods to go through the steps of the plot. When they hit a dead-end, they pray and the plot takes the next step by itself. There are a few surprises for the main characters, but no great agonies of choice.
Neuropath by R. Scott Bakker
You know the smart guy who sneers at happy people? They must not be smart enough to understand how bad the world really is. It isn't a position I respect. There is a lot of edgy two-thousands nihilism here, from predictions of a frozen Europe to preoccupations with sociopaths, terrorists, and MRI studies. Thank goodness for the Replication Crisis. I like R. Scott Bakker's work, but this is his worst book by far. It doesn't seem he had any fun writing it. I only finished it because I was in the bath and wanted to find out if the kids were okay. They weren't, and the author seems to suggest that that doesn't matter.
Somewhither by John C. Wright
What a lot of fun this book was. A teenage boy tries to save his crush from her mad-scientist father's "Möbius Coil," a portal to the Void of Uncreation. He fails, and something comes through from the other side. Damn good stuff! Imagine space-opera inspired by the edge-of-the-map legends of Medieval Europe. And some interesting thoughts on faith and fatalism. I devoured it in three days.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
This is the sort of thing I like. What's it like to be chronically broke in 1920s Paris and London? Orwell'll tell you! He has strong opinions about it, too, which is understandable. The impression I got was that poverty in 1920s Paris made you nasty, whereas London made you dreary.
The Man with the Silver Saab by Alexander McCall Smith
Another cool, comfortable Varg book. Does he get a girl friend? Does he solve a crime? Is his dog going to be okay? Sort of. Mostly.
Time Trials by M.A. Rothman and D.J. Butler
I bought this book because I like D.J. Butler, but either he wasn't much involved in this book or he got lazy. The beginning is great – a bunch of interesting characters are thrown into the 31st century BC, where they have to save proto-Egypt from animal-headed aliens. I put up with the litRPG elements until I was about 80% of the way through the novel and we started yet another side-quest with an unclear connection to the main goal. I might have stuck it out if I'd had more faith in the authors' research. Aliens aside, I want to learn something real about Egyptian archaeology when I read a book about an Egyptian archaeologist.
Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire by Thomas Lin
This is a collection of science journalism articles from the mid twenty teens. As such, it shouldn't be given a hard time for going stale. Science progresses. I think the most interesting and (relatively) evergreen theme was the debate between the physicists who hold to the "naturalness principle" (physics should be elegant) and those who don't. I would have liked to hear a more diverse range of scientists. We tended to get the same ones over and over. In all, I think I prefer PBS spacetime.
First, I was running in the mornings. Next, I was swimming twice a week and making one chin-up attempt a day. Then, I searched youtube for Calisthenics instructional videos that weren't impossible or weird. Mission accomplished! I cycle through some good exercises and I have to admit, I now enjoy wearing a tight T-shirt :)
Guillermo del Torro's Pinocchio
I was feeling sick and my family was at a party, so I actually watched a movie. It wasn't bad. I respect the artistic vision and craftsmanship of Guillermo del Torro and the team he assembled. I especially recommend the behind the scenes video, with special attention to the value of mistakes and difficulties. The lessons of del Torro's story weren't baked all the way, and I prefer the lessons of the original story anyway, but I can respect this movie even if I don't agree with it.
See you next month
So there I was, tramping the darkened streets of Niš, seeking medicine for my sick child. Do not imagine me limping with despair, but I did walk with a growing heaviness of step as certain facts made themselves clear.
The trip began well. We set out from Sofia and hit the Serbian border ninety minutes later. It was a ridiculously short trip to reach a foreign country, and by lunch-time we could stop at Kafana Kapica in Lukavica for the mixed meat platter and smoked beef. Niš was another hour north and west, where we'd arranged to meet my friend and colleague Artyom Trakhanov.
Artyom is an artist and comic creator who specializes in horrified, yet determined characters rendered in chunks of massive black, as if stamped from carved wood. His pet project is called Slavic Nihilism, which, combined with the fact that he tends to position his camera above his head during calls, made me imagine Artyom as shorter and less cheerful than he actually is. Atyom led my family, his wife, and their friend around Niš, pausing for inspiration at each ugly patriotic statue ("a Deva with antlers!").
Of course, we talked about the situation in Russia. Artyom fled Saint Petersburg last year and now lives in Belgrade in an apartment building filled with a bunch of other "draft-dodgers" and an ironically pro-Putin Serbian land-lord. He just recently got a long-term residence visa, which we celebrated with Nikšićko beer, goulash, and artistic plans. More on those in the future.
Ellie's digestive problems started on our post-lunch walk around the Niš Fortress. Pavlina nobly offered to take her home and let the rest of us go on, but when Maggie and I walked our friends to the train station and returned to the hotel, we found Ellie was still throwing up.
When this sort of thing happens in Sofia, I know what to do: go to the pharmacy and buy suppositories.1 You don't want to vomit out your anti-vomit medication, do you? Then I went back out into the city, where my plans made contact with reality.
The first fact which, like a block of inked cherry wood, impressed itself upon me was that pharmacies in Serbia do not work on Sunday evenings. Even the ones that google maps assured me were open were, in fact, not. I had no choice but to ask a human being for directions. The receptionists at our hotel told me there should be some 24-hour pharmacies (gestures) over there. I set off again, walking a circle from Sinđelićev trg to Kneginje Ljubice2 in search of lit, green crosses.
Whatever Serbians with bellyaches do, it doesn't involve pharmacies. The three places that were even working sold nothing more powerful than diosmectite ("a natural clay that covers the intestinal mucosa"). Their other options ranged from activated charcoal to probiotics. These might have been helpful to my 8-year-old before she started vomiting every 45 minutes.
I came back to the hotel after three hours of hunting with not much to show for it. My greatest victories were the successful purchase of an apple juice and the possibility for Pavlina to take half an hour of time to eat dinner while I read to Ellie.
But actually, there's a bigger victory, which was my state of mind through all of this. A year ago, I would have compared what was happening (vomiting, no drugs) to what I wanted to happen (no vomiting, many drugs) and I would have despaired. Instead, I compared what I was doing (interrogating pharmacists) to what I would have done last year (giving up). Like one of Artyom's characters, I was horrified, but determined. If I didn't bring home the Golden Apples and the Living Water, I did bring home apple juice and smekta. Ellie stopped vomiting.
Four days later.
My observant readers might notice that this June newsletter has come to them in August. That's because my vacation arrived like a clap of thunder and suddenly I was in Greece. Boom! I was in the village. Crash! Sometimes there were twice as many children as usual. Bash! The time I had with my computer went to wrapping up Fellow Tetrapod and editing The World's Other Side.
Yes, the serialization of Fellow Tetrapod is done. The whole thing is online for free, and you can read it here. If you want one big, convenient .mobi or .epub file, those are here. I would be very grateful if you could tell me what you think. I plan to edit the story once more than publish it on Kindle Unlimited, so whatever advice you can give me would be of great value and use.
I'm also spending my time editing a story I thought I'd finished ten years ago. This is The World's Other Side, an alternate history in which the Gondwanans conquered the Northern Hemisphere. Five centuries later, Eurasia is a single enormous Gondwanan colony, but North America is a jigsaw of native nation-states. The story takes place in the struggling Ilinwa Republic, where a young man chooses between love and terrorism. It also has lightning-guns and flying cars. Check for it on Royal Road at the beginning of October, or my Patreon at the end of September.
And I read some books
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Hexagonal Phase: And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer
It's a story. Some interesting bones were there, although Colfer didn't seem willing to extend them. Instead he made lots of references to the previous Hitchhiker's Guide books. Buy this audio production only if, like me, you get shivers listening to the Journey of the Sorcerer.
Resolved: Uniting Nations in a Divided World by Ban Ki-moon
I wanted to know what it's like to be the UN Secretary General, and I got my answer. It's like constantly keeping up the appearance of being bland. Moon, in his own words, works hard, builds consensus, and avoids crisis. I do appreciate his use of the word "ulcerous" used to describe his work, and I enjoyed some of his diplomatic tricks. Now I know how to force an American president to sit through other people's speeches; schedule the president's speech last.
Waybound by Will Wight
What to say about the last book in the Cradle Series? I'm sad to see it end. Don't read this one until you've read the others. At that point, you'll have to read this one no matter what I say.
I do wish that Wight had kept the these later books as tight as the first ones. Waybound (and Bloodline and Reaper) had so much going on its plot becomes like a checklist. We gotta kill this monster, then that monster, then some space monsters, and then we can relax. The questions of "how can a group advance together?" and "how do you stop yourself from becoming a monster?" are sort of answered, but only as engineering questions. Wight did loosen up and have some fun, but only outside of the goal-oriented segments.
Awake in the Night Land by John C. Wright
I re-read this after a conversation with a friend reminded me of the dark fantasies of R. Scott Bakker (The Prince of Nothing etc.) As angry as I still am at the rotten way that series developed, I still wanted some overwhelming odds and crushing black hopelessness. "Awake in the Night Land" is a good fit. The first story in the book is a work of art. I actually drew a sketch of Telemachos lying on the gray ash, surrounded by Silent Ones, one hand reaching toward a star. The other stories are worth reading, though repetitive. The fourth especially has scenes that are beat-for-beat copies of the first. "Silence of the Night" should have been folded into "Awake in the Night" to make a longer, deeper story. But anyway, I got my dark fantasy fix.
Police Your Planet by Eric Van Lhin (Lester Del Ray)
When I started this book I thought "for this sort of cyncisim you usually have to turn to the Strugatskies." We get American at the end, though, when the protagonist beats up his girlfriend and explodes some civic infrastructure for reasons of symbolic nation-building. These misdeeds might have been made to work (a burned-out policeman struggles with his belief in order and his hidden kink for mayhem?) but they didn't.
The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman
I read this one after The Soul of a Chef, and it might be better to reverse that order. The Making of a Chef focuses on Ruhlman's experience at the Culinary Institute of America, while The Soul of a Chef expands outward into the restaurant business. Reading The Making of a Chef, I was mostly impressed by how much Ruhlman remembers. All the details about who said what and how exactly to grill that. Maybe he took good notes. Anyway, there are some fine characters, including Ruhlman himself with his "I'm just as much of a cook as you" machismo. I enjoyed that, even though I don't think I'll be able to replicate any of his kitchen techniques.
Foundation's Edge by Issac Asimov
The setup was great: a young politician, outraged at the plot holes of the previous Foundation books, finds himself teamed up with an elderly philologist on a hunt for the mythical human homeworld. But actually! Sinister telepaths! There is some fun to be had in watching Asimov write himself into and out of trouble, but he didn't care to tell us about mind-reading assassins and interstellar political intrigue. Instead, we get "the chair was antagonistic during my faculty meeting" and "what I did on my vacation in Bali." I didn't dig joining the hive mind either.
Dungeons and Dragons
My first Hollywood movie in quite a while, and it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. I would have preferred more daring humor and magic, but there was a story there, and it was rather sweet.
And I re-watched Princess Mononoke with Pavlina and Maggie. This time, it was the music that blew me away. The ominous swells of the strings under the contemplative tootling of the woodwinds. Like a cursed god heaving in the under-story.
See you pretty soon. I'll write the July newsletter as soon as I can.
1 They are euphamistically called sveshtitsi in Bulgarian. Little candles.
2 In Bulgarian romanization, that would be "Sindzhelichev trag" and "Knyaginya Lyubitsa." Between the two versions, you can probably figure out the pronunciation.
I was recently directed back to Garrison Keillor, who hosted one of the two radio shows I listened to growing up.1 Now 80, he writes a very nourishing substack. Here's a taste:
Happiness is circumstantial, bliss is brief, joy is for angels and small children,
contentment is fragile and easily interrupted, gaiety doesn’t happen until eighty, and for jubilation you need to find a good roller coaster and someone to ride it with you and
scream, but cheerfulness is a choice, like choosing chocolate rather than a spoonful of
mud. Take the chocolate.
And it's funny he should say that, because last Saturday I got exactly that choice.
We were with Pavlina's employees on a beautiful spring morning, planting trees for "a New Forest for Sofia." When I'd heard of the project, I'd imagined going up into the mountains to plant rows of Douglas firs like the Communist brigades of old. As we drove deeper into the flat valley north of Sofia, I supposed we'd be rewilding a riverbank. But no, we parked between the wheat and canola and tramped out to join the other teams in what was clearly last-year's cornfield. I suppose someone is just buying whatever land they can and putting trees on it. I'm not sure that will work, but I did see an oak from last year, about two feet tall and surrounded by grass and wildflowers. So far, nobody has driven a tractor over it.
Pavlina, Maggie, Ellie, and I were all issued gloves and (for the adults) shovels, then led out into the field where the rest of Pavlina's team was replacing green-painted markers with trees.
The past week had been gray, chilly and drizzly, and so would the next. But on Saturday, the clouds sailed slowly past us, and did not pause to dump their water. They set forth toward the Balkan Mountain, casting shadows over us like someone was twisting the sun's dimmer switch. The breeze was strong. You couldn't imagine a more perfect day to work outside.
I thought it would be most efficient if I dug several holes at once and then came back and filled them in. How wrong I was. One of the organizers came and told me that the soil would dry out that way. Break up the clumps of dirt and pack them around the sapling so there aren't any air pockets under its roots. Don't put all the soil back in, so you can get a little dip in the ground to catch rainwater around the tree. "I keep explaining this, but there are a lot of idiots —I mean volunteers —who don't listen." I crouched down despite the protests of my hamstrings and pushed my fingers into the dirt.
Before I continue, I should take a moment to explain the concept of a skalichka. A skala (accent on the second syllable) is a big rock or a boulder or a cliff. A skalichka, a "little big rock,"is a Bulgarian treat traditionally made by bakeries from yesterday's leftover cake, molded into a cone and covered in chocolate. Think "aerodynamic brownie."
Anyway, while Pavlina, 10-year-old Maggie and I worked, 7-year-old Ellie found worms to play with. Through the process of natural selection, the worms in our yard have learned to fear her tread. They scream and run for cover, but the worms in this field north of Sofia were more naive. "Look at 'im wriggle!" bellows Ellie as she thrusts her cupped hands toward the disgusted face of one of her mother's team. "He's so pink!" And, "Look, Dad, when I squeeze the dirt and squish it, it turns like clay. Look at the clay, Dad! Look!" And the brown, amorphous object in her hand went right into her mouth.
Now, you know what really happened. I, however, have formed certain expectations about my daughter over the last seven years. She uses her hands instead of a kleenex. She tried to keep a family of oranges under the couch in a warm nest made of her laundered clothes. Once, when I was walking ahead of her after a rain shower, I heard "puddle splash splash! Sluuurp!" She's gross, is what I'm saying. My mind was ready to accept the fact that she's just put a clump of dirt in her mouth and bitten down on the chewy worm center.
I spoke not with anger or shock. I pleaded, "Ellie, don't put dirt in your mouth."
She looked at me. "But, Dad, it's a skalichka."
The mud was in her other hand. To be fair, there was no hand-washing station in sight, and that skalichka really was probably 30% dirt. It would probably do her immune system good.
I still have a ways to go on my journey to cheerfulness. When presented with chocolate and mud, I chose mud. I assumed the worst. Ellie, however, was wiser than me. Wiser than any of us. She chose both.
Hwuh! What else has been going on? My family and I got to hang out with the fascinating and friendly paleontologists Vladi Nikolov and Steve Brusatte, I attended elementary school talent shows, took some good walks in the forest, started doing pull-ups, and I was happy to hear someone wants to make a fan fiction of Fellow Tetrapod. Watch that space.
Fellow Tetrapod itself still refuses to end. I had to go down to two posts a week, but we are still inching toward the finish line. I finally got one of those Royal Road readers who just comments with "thank you for the chapter," which means I must have made it to the big time.
And I read stuff:
The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
I re-read The Shadow of the Torturer last month and found that since I'd read it the first time, I'd grown up some and I enjoyed the book more now. The same is true of The Claw of the Conciliator, although maybe not quite so much. The second book of the New Sun is faster-paced than the first, and I don't actually like that as much. The problems don't seem as hard to overcome. But there is more execution!
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
It's too long, and a bit soapy, but I haven't seen anyone do a better job with people telling each other exactly what they are most afraid of hearing. The heavy scenes spin perilously, and I caught myself saying out loud, "Oh no! Not the Man in the Beanie!"
Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl
Often entertaining, occasionally sexy, but sometimes kind of mean. Mostly, though, these stories are just bizarre. They're essentially long-form dirty jokes. In my opinion, the middle one was funniest.
That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
Remember the ending that Tolkien tacked onto the Lord of the Rings where ancient evil re-branded itself as modernity and cut down the fine old trees of the Shire? This is a whole book of that.
It was interesting to see what worried conservatives right after WWII, but I kept looking for and not finding compassion or humor. The philosophical moralizing got in the way of the characters, plot, and - worst of all - world building. "Macrobes" is a cool idea and I wanted more, darn it.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
Beautiful, thoughtful language describes a failing farm in colonial-era East Africa. I was feeling like I wanted more after reading Going Solo and Wind, Sand, and Stars, and this hit the spot.
Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle
I love a book that tells me about what's out there in the world for me to enjoy, and how to go about doing it. I was given my first cigar on the night before my wedding. If anyone ever gives me another, I'll know what to do with it.
An Immense World by Ed Yong
What's it like to be a nonhuman animal? Let's see how we can find out! Here's a catalog of all the ways we've found that animals experience the world. That's interesting, and what's more interesting is the experiments we did to figure that out.
1"A Prairie Home Companion." The other was "Car Talk."
See you next month
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.
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.
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
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
Daniel M. Bensen