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
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Daniel M. Bensen