The atmosphere’s warming trend slowed suddenly, tapering to a halt in only twenty years. Ocean temperatures shifted their immense inertia to follow suit. The icecaps began to regain weight. The composition of the upper atmosphere changed subtly, and excess carbon precipitated in tiny flecks, staining rains faint gray.
Climate change deniers crowed victoriously. Look how our god provides for us with a repaired environment!
When the aliens arrived demanding slave levies and mountains of resource tribute or else they’d turn off the weather control they’d been exerting from beyond Mars for thirty years — oh, how the deniers wailed and wilted!
I Got Hoaxed While Writing About How Hard It Is For The Future To See The Past Accurately: Theory In Practice
So, just a few days ago I was writing about a prime consideration for the science fiction writer: imagining how the future may see their past (our present) inaccurately. I mentioned the fact that time is a bit like distance in terms of what can be seen; whether we measure in years or meters, the more distance between you and what you’re viewing, the fewer details you see, and the fuzzier the image. I also mentioned that ‘fuzziness’ in terms of viewing the past — and an aspect to consider when writing about how your characters in the future view our present or the deeper past — means that things get lost. Like, I thought, this bizarre-yet-plausible video game and 8-track music tape driving game:
…except, as Twitter friend @webmonkees was kind enough to point out, the game is a hoax. What makes my falling for it even more stinging than it already was, I had actually looked at the reference @webmonkees pointed out: a comedy site. Caught up in rapid research, I read only far enough to get the gist of what the ‘double-ender’ was supposed to be: a device for matching background music to themed games. Well, games tend to have background music. Marketing types love things that fit themes. And so, the package was credible enough that my ‘no way’ sense did not engage, and I did not click ‘about us‘ on the comedy page to discover that it was, in fact, a comedy page, and the ‘double-ender’ is a spoof product that never existed.
Which brings me to my subject today: in my earlier post, I missed something other than the hoax. I missed the role of the hoax in making the past fuzzy to us.
Hoaxes, along with assumptions and plain old errors, also cloud our vision of the past. Writing science fiction, it might be worth considering how a hoax or mistake could affect the future’s vision of us today. In fact, there could be fertile ground for inspiration here, and for social commentary. A future that believes that the 8-track ‘double-ender’ was real probably doesn’t offer much in the way of stories, but what about a future that believes, due to a clever montage photoshopped headlines, that aliens destroyed the Twin Towers on 9/11? Or in the various ‘reptile humanoids hiding among us‘ theories, or that the moon landing being faked is fact rather than conspiracy fiction, or…
…the possibilities are endless. I wonder how many hoaxes, lies, and mistakes are already presented as fact in the history books we have today? And I’m not even counting arguments, soluble and insoluble, among historians over the ‘correct’ version of controversial events.
Available now on Smashwords, and via the distributors in the right sidebar within a week or two of the date on this post.
I arrived at that cover art by fiddling around with a picture I took today in GIMP, trying different effects, until I hit upon something pleasingly trippy and retro. For a moment I thought, ‘hey, that’s sort of weird looking’… but a little weird is GOOD for science fiction. So I went with it.
Here’s the blurb for He Shot First:
Dan Tippdale is a human among aliens on an unfamiliar world. A bar fight lands him in jail — and he shot first. The charge might not be murder, but that might not matter — from the looks of things, he might not live to stand trial. And then there’s the matter of his lawyer, who has something big in common with the alien Dan shot…
Also available right now on Smashwords, and elsewhere within a week or two of this post.
Plus, this one is really short, under 2000 words, and therefore I’ve made it FREE.
The cover art for this one is much more straightforward than for the other, but the dark sky and rising rocket reflect some key imagery from the story very well. And when my covers aren’t trippy, they’re straightforward.
The blurb for Waiting For:
Rudy has the honor of being one of the first permanent human colonists on Mars. Sonya plans to follow him in a year so they can be among the first to be married on the Red Planet… but Rudy’s brother Aaron has been keeping a secret that may throw those plans into a cocked hat…
So, there you have it, my newest two offerings, self-published titles #61 and #62. Both science fiction, one (Waiting For) in a nearer future, much closer to home, and the other set far away in a future where humans haven’t just encountered alien life, but are familiar enough with aliens to run afoul of their legal systems.
The view from where I used to live in the fall of ’06
Above, is an image of climate change and rising sea levels. Granted, this was during a storm, and also I lived on what is essentially a large paved-over sandbar. But still, Norfolk, Virginia is one of the US cities most affected by the rise in sea levels that comes with climate change. So, not only do I see it on the news and think about it, I see it in a pretty obvious way. And it makes its way into my fiction. I have a story I’m shopping around to SFF magazines set in the near future (edit 2018: the story is Kitty Itty And The Seawall Broke, and I published it myself. You can find links to buy a copy by clicking here.), where the sea has swallowed up the North Carolina barrier islands and coast, and displaced residents scrape a living out of salvaging scraps from submerged towns. A half-finished story is set in an equatorial Africa where daytime temperatures over 50C/120F are an almost daily occurrence, and cities have moved underground (also, there are aliens checking out the local humans) (edit 2018: that story ended up in the trunk because I realized I was writing characters from a position of shallow cultural knowledge, and also it was kinda sucking. But, like many stories destined for the trunk, I learned some stuff writing it). Speed Glacier revolves around the adventures of a group of radical eco-warriors and their improbable craft/weapon in the war against the forces of pollution. Yet another story, My Name is Gerald, is not actually about climate change, but the background descriptions are of a Midwestern USA where the crops have moved north and hot, dry, dust bowl conditions reign.
Climate change has altered the world slightly over just my lifetime to date, and humans, let’s face it, don’t live very long in the perspective of events like global climate shifts. It’s changing fast. And that makes it a hell of an element for speculative stories. Don’t get me wrong, other authors are not particularly missing the boat on this. I have seen climate change as a plot or background element in a number of SF short stories (my primary reading material — I don’t take in novels half as often as I used to).
But I’ve been mulling writing some more stories focused on what the future world might look like in different circumstances. The screw-it-burn-all-the-coal future. The holy-crap-lets-ban-fossil-fuels future. The amazing-new-carbon-sequestering-technology future. The we-tried-to-fix-it-and-screwed-up-here-come-the-glaciers future. The possibilities are endless, which is a quality that endears SFF to me.
I’ve even considered, despite never having done such a thing, the possibility of soliciting the stories of others and building a climate change themed anthology. I’m a bit scared of the prospect; I hear it’s a hell of a lot of work for a group of people, and I can’t help but observe that I am only one person, and one without experience in that area to boot. But it’s something to consider.
Also to consider: will my eventual grandkids or great-great grandkids end up emigrating to Canada to escape the tropical heat of middle US America? Hmm.
In its center cowered a tiny caricature of ourselves, closer to our ancient spacefaring cousins than to ourselves, but still recognizably relative to both. But it was small, small, a mote that might have been barely a fiftieth of my own young mass. I looked at it crouched there in the center of its disc of web: four leg-pairs.
“It… this animal… is it sentient? It’s older than I am,” I said, whispering, reverent without understanding why. But I was.
A snippet from a work in progress, The Spiders Fly, a short story in which an alien species explores the wasted remains of Earth… and what remains there of its very, very distant ancient cousins.
Mysterious? Of course! There’s only so much to reveal of a short story. I need to be mysterious.
For centuries, they sent missionary after missionary to help the rising young intelligence see past the biological heritage of survival as battle, to pursue empathy, cooperation.
After enough missionaries were pierced with arrows, burnt, nailed to trees, poisoned at dinner, beaten with clubs, enslaved, drugged, mocked, impersonated for material gain, and made figureheads for war, they stopped sending more.
A twist of space-time delivered the young intelligence and its world to a lonely universe with no other intelligence to harm but itself.
Perhaps one day they will relent and send missionaries again.
But not yet. It is still too dangerous.
This is still in rough draft, so this excerpt could change by the time I finish this story.
I also don’t know when I’m going to finish this, because of my oddball writing process. I’m not sure how odd it is, I don’t know enough other writers that well. But it seems odd to me.
I had this idea about a year and a half ago. It started as a scribbled note: ‘humans explore galaxy, and there’s grass everywhere there’s life. Why?’ I added a few exploratory notes over the next few days, brainstorming random ideas for a plotline. I started the story, wrote a thousand words, and there it sat for a few months. I came back later, discarded the last five hundred, and wrote a new thousand.
Then I ran up against a point where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the idea, and I put the notebook that contained it in a stack of notebooks with half-started ideas, and wrote other things. Last week, looking through notebooks, I ran across it again. Some new ideas about it had congealed by then; the concept is an interesting one and it had come to mind occasionally over the months I left it fallow.
I started writing again. I really want to know where the grass came from, and what the protagonist’s story is. I’ve added four thousand words to it over the last week, and it’s shaping up into a story. I have an idea about the people behind the spread of grass throughout the galaxy. Actually, I have several. The ideas are fighting it out as I approach the point where I’ll have to explain. I don’t know what will emerge. Will it be one idea, the other, a new idea I haven’t had yet, or a synthesis of the thoughts I’ve already had?
I’m not sure. I don’t think this one will go back into the pile of half-finished stories to marinate again, but it might. It has the feeling of a story I’m going to finish to me now, though. We’ll see.
In the meantime, here’s an excerpt of my rough work on Prairie and Stars. I hope I can finish it soon. I really love that title and I want to see it on a cover.
…the approach to the star system is a typical blur. Days of tasteless food, tasteless exercise, tasteless waiting for Ship to catalog and name the various planetary bodies. Periodically, I have taken over the naming in the past, but I have had no taste for the task in the last dozen centuries or so. I don’t even look at the names. I do look at the habitability indices. There’s a 108, minimal variability from the ancestral conditions of Earth. The range of 80-120 is considered habitable over at least 50% of land surface, 90-110 without special equipment. These things change, given enough time or human intervention. When I left Earth, it would have been considered a 105. At one point, in my second millennium, it reached as high as a 118, warming and pollution rendering the Equatorial third of the planet largely useless to humans outside of refrigerated habitats. Today, it is a scrupulously maintained 100, supporting a population of 100 million licensed ancestral aboriginals and 10 to 20 billion tourists at any given time.
This planet, this 108, is a little dry and sports a Pangaeaic continent with heavy mountain formation near the coast facing approaching prevailing winds. This creates a rain-shadow desert the size of Asia.
Aside from that, it is hospitable compared to the average planet. There are a lot of gas giants, of superheated Venuses, of high-gravity colossi and thin-atmosphered wastes. As Ship approaches orbit, I know already what I will see as telescopic sensors examine the surface closely. There is, of course, no obvious intelligent life. None has been found anywhere in seven thousand years of exploration, and I am not expecting it here. Humans being what they are, we still look for it. But one thing is everywhere humans have found, on every planet with soil and free water and a biosphere even close to what humans could possibly inhabit.
Grass. The viewscreen shows me a waving expanse of tall grass, purple tassels with curved scarlet tails depending from the top of each grain head. A little different than the last planet or the one before, but grass. It is the one constant in the known universe.
I have seen grass so fine I thought it was moss until I examined it under a microviewer. I have seen grass that covered near-boiling oceans like a yellow mosquito net. I have seen grass so enormous I mistook it for a mountain range, huge colonial slabs of fused stalks spreading roots out to absorb the streams and rivers it spawned from its own scored and gnarled slopes. If grass holds any slightest surprise for me in the future, I cannot imagine how it could.
I let Ship pick its own orbit, slowly precessing to cover the entire surface of the world as we survey it. The images flow through my mind, processed but essentially untouched, considered but only automatically in the expected patterns, filed and stored and forgotten. There is grass in a hundred variations, and something like a fern in a dozen forms, and a slow amoebic thing like a flowing moss. The oceans hold something like trilobites, jellyfish blobs and tiny translucent undulating ribbons that seem related to the blobs, and even a tiny clumsy amphibian-thing that raises a lush featherlike gill high over its stumpy sensory stalk and ventures onto the damp beach on its belly when it’s sufficiently foggy out, to nibble at the vegetation there that no other animal can reach.
Fairly advanced, as life goes. Not one Earthlike world in ten thousand has gotten as far as animals that can live entirely on land. This one is almost there. Maybe in another million years, or ten million, the feather-gill-amphibian-thing will evolve into something with a proper enclosed lung and begin to eat the ferns and grass inland.
Or maybe it will die, go extinct, vanish. As old as I am, I cannot imagine living long enough to see which happens. I cannot imagine wanting to. I… cannot imagine at all, I think.
Survey completed, I call the probes home and wait for them to arrive and complete their self-checks and decontamination routines.
“There is a contact at the edge of the system,” Ship says as I wait. “Under power. Another survey ship.”
“Tell it that I’ve already surveyed here. Squirt it a copy of our results,” I tell Ship. I have no interest in keeping the information to myself; the entire point of surveying is to spread knowledge. I think back—how long has it been since I’ve discovered anything worth keeping to myself? I can’t remember. Back in the early days, certainly; the first thousand years when First Contact was surely right around the corner and governance was uncertain, still in the hands of men first and AIs second instead of the other way around.
Instead, an image forms in front of my eyes. Politely, I keep the annoyance—a tiny whiff of genuine feeling, of real annoyance?—out of my expression.
“Survey has been completed,” I say. “My Ship has shared results with your Ship.”
“I have been surveying the Oort cloud of the neighboring system, and observed your arrival,” she says. “I have shared an interesting finding with your Ship as well. I would like to share it with you, also.”
“I’m sure my Ship will pass it along,” I say, dismissive, flat, unengaged.
“I have located an artifact. It is not of human manufacture…
The Flowers of Dawn is one of the five stories in the Isolation and Other Stories collection. See blurbs for all of the stories and where to find Isolation by clicking here.
In this excerpt, the main character Elaina Hirschbaum, a diplomat, brings an alien friend along on a very personal errand:
The car turned off of the two-lane state highway and maneuvered between two minimalist stone guardians, sketches of swords grounded at the sketches of their stone feet. Stone markers and silk bouquets in sober and subdued colors marched past as the car kept a slow pace through the manicured grounds.
“This is a… memorial place?” Eschavel asked.
“A cemetery. Yes,” I answered quietly. I could see Coral’s final resting place coming up on the right, and the car slowed gently. I could still see the black rectangle marking the slab of new sod that lay over her. “This is where my spouse is buried,” I said. I kept a sob out of my voice but my vision went blurry. I didn’t fight it, but let the tears roll down my cheeks.
“This is your Private Sphere,” Eschavel said quietly. “My presence here is a mistake.”
“No,” I said, surprised to realize that I meant it. “That you chose today to offer friendship… my friends and family have been great. But they all knew her, too. It feels right to… to…” words failed and I sat for a moment looking down at my shoes, just breathing. I felt a tentative hand on my shoulder, gently patting. The Helf Wanas, in general, do not touch as adults outside of sex, medicine, and combat. But Eschavel was an excellent diplomat.
Appropriate use of haptics is a difficult call even within a single human culture, a phrase from a xenodiplomacy text I still kept as a relic of my grad school days, passed through my mind. Considering the so-called ‘double baffle’ of culture and species differences, he wasn’t doing badly at all.
“It feels right to introduce her to a stranger today,” he said, not questioning, but making a statement.
“I’m surprised…” my training stilled my tongue. I’m surprised you understand, I had nearly said. A statement far too easy to misunderstand as an accusation of ignorance. “…to feel this way,” I finished. It had the advantage of being as true as what I had left unsaid.
“It is a minor custom, irregularly observed among us,” Eschavel said. I keyed the doors and they opened. We exited the car and began walking across the grass at a somber pace.
“To explain a loved one to a stranger,” he continued as we walked, “you must say the obvious things. You remember to see the things you have known so long that you’ve forgotten them. It is an extension of the creed of our Teachers’ Guild: To teach is to learn.”
We reached her marker, and we stood there together for a moment, just looking at it. One of thousands, I supposed, standing in ranks, polished stone with rough edges to remind us that these things had been torn up out of the earth to mark the place where we lay our own to rest inside the earth. I knelt down in the spongy turf and touched the letters. Coral Hirschbaum.
“She was a teacher,” I said softly to nobody; I knew Eschavel was listening and I didn’t mind that, but these words were from me and for me. “She taught art and music and Canadian French. Her students adored her. Her favorite breakfast was blueberry French toast with an over-easy egg on top and I loved cooking it for her. She always apologized to me when she came to bed because she thought she smelled like sweat. I loved her smell. It was gentle and earthy and a little sharp, just like she was. It suited her. I miss it. Her pillows smell a little less like her every night and it’s like I’m losing her again. Only this time I’m losing her slowly, not all at once like the plane crash. She loved roses. She hated cut flowers. She said they were just dead things without their roots. She was so gentle. And she loved roses. She kept a miniature potted rose on the windowsill beside her desk. It’s dying too. I don’t know how to take care of it. She’s gone and I’m losing all the pieces of her that were left. What if I wake up one morning and I can’t remember her voice or her smell or her face?”
Tears were dripping steadily from the end of my nose onto the too-green grass. “I love her,” I whispered. “Why is she dead? Why wasn’t I with her?”