Friday, July 25, 2014

A couple of lit'ry lads

When I mentioned my Dad in yesterday's blog post I forgot to mention that he has a new book out too. Here's the two books together:

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Spoiler Space: "When We Have Time"

Last night my wife was saying how lucky it was that her mother was able to find a birthday present for us to give to my grandmother. This led me to say that where the last generation borrowed money from their parents, we borrow time.*

I am not completely talking out of my ass when I say that people around my age view time differently than previous generations have: look at the trends in when people get married, for example, and (especially) when they have kids. My Dad, who was forty when I was born, was practically a generation older than most of my friends' dads; my older son was born when I was 36 and not a lot of his peers' parents are younger than me.

That's probably why, while some of the time travel stories I've written use the familiar SF trope of people moving through time, I've also written a bunch that focus on time as a commodity: something that can be manipulated, hoarded, bought and sold. "When We Have Time" is a story where, to paraphrase Giles on Buffy, the subtext is rapidly approaching being text: it was written at a time when we were living in a place we didn't want to live, when I had a job that I would come a hair's-breadth from losing every five months, and when we both knew that this definitely wasn't the time to have kids. Now I live in a place I like, have a job I love, have wonderful kids -- and think, as I'm rushing to pick them up and then make dinner every night, how much I would give to have just a little more time. Plus ├ža change...

The one Canadian reference in this story is pretty obvious, the Canadian Tire one-speed bike pictured above. I had one, and so did you.

* (I'm aware that lots of people in my generation borrow money, too. Shut up, I'm making a point here.)


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Starred review from Quill & Quire

Here's a great review of Irregular Verbs in Quill & Quire, Canada's magazine of book news and reviews: "This is, indeed, a writer who fearlessly invents and innovates. That said, readers expecting to find a consistent theme or singular, overarching style won’t easily be able to pin Johnson down. His ability to flit between voices, styles, and perspectives – from pulp-fiction gumshoe to historical fantasy to paranoiac storytelling – results in a collection that spans a remarkable range of characters and ideas. Johnson’s strength resides in his willingness to adapt and explore [...] Johnson [...] has created a new mythology – new lore that feels as familiar as it is daring and fresh."


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Spoiler Space: "What You Couldn't Leave Behind"

This is probably the story that travelled the shortest distance between the original idea and the final story. I actually remember the moment when I thought of the idea of a detective who only takes your case after you die, and it was a fairly short road to figure out that he wouldn't be investigating murders but the things in your life that led to your death. What was missing, though, was what would make it more than just another case for that detective, so the story lay fallow for awhile until I had the "tape echo" idea, which led to the Buddhist elements that give the story a bit more depth. (I mixed elements of both the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead together because, being a huge nerd, I thought it was funny. I still do.)

The original title of this story was "Kill Me Again," but James Maddox -- who bought this for the never-published anthology Concrete Overcoat -- rightly pointed out that it sounded like a generic horror movie, so we switched to the new title, which I don't like either but at least isn't egregiously bad. I hate coming up with titles.

Just one Canadian in-joke this time, the reference to Juno Beach, the beach that Canadian forces were responsible for on D-Day. They got further inland than any of the other landing forces.


Pretty much all Wikipedia this time, mostly getting the details right on canopic jars and the four sons of Horus. I reread Chandler's The Big Sleep to get the tone right, though I limited myself to just a couple of Chandlerian similes.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tales From the Trunk: "Chrono de Se"

Not every unpublished story made it into Irregular Verbs, and there's a good reason for that. "Tales From the Trunk" looks at those stories that didn't quite make it: today it's "Chrono de Se."

I picked "Chrono de Se" to go with "Beyond the Fields You Know" because they're both the closest I've ever come to writing horror (on purpose, anyway.) I decided not to include it because while it has some nice imagery and a modestly clever idea, a SFnal twist on a contemporary phenomenon that I haven't seen done elsewhere, it didn't quite manage to walk the fine line between being too obvious and too obscure. There's also not a lot of character here, which may be less of a problem for a short horror piece than it would be otherwise but still led to me deciding to leave it in the trunk.

But hey, what do I know? Judge for yourself.

(By the way, for those who care about such things, this is a sort-of prequel to "Outside Chance.")

"Chrono de Se"

            Jeff swam in nothingness, cradled on all sides by the dark. He reached a hand out and somehow felt soft grass; looking around he saw a double-image of a garden, flowering shrubs and trees. It was not real, he knew, but only the product of his imagination. Here, where nothing existed, he could summon whatever reality he chose, or simply sink into the balm of sweet nothingness, safe beyond all harm.
            He did not know what he had done to deserve this. Had he, after so much searching, achieved some kind of enlightenment? Or was his whole life before -- his parents, his flight from the path they had laid out for him, all his travels -- an illusion that had finally faded to reveal the truth?
            Suddenly the darkness cracked: a fierce light burst in, small at first but expanding to fill the universe. He was cold now, and wet. Something was pulling him towards the light, rough hands laying him coughing and choking out on the grass. The unfamiliar sunlight burned his eyes, and he blinked away the hazy ghosts that filled his vision. After a few moments they resolved themselves into the face of an old man, his long beard white against his dark skin.
            "Rest," the old man said. He was squatting on his heels next to Jeff, holding out a china cup so fine the sunlight glowed amber through it. "Drink this, and rest. You have had a great loss."
            Jeff took the cup carefully, drank the cool tea inside. "Was I dead?" he croaked.
            The old man smiled kindly, shook his head. "The paradise is not to be found there," he said. "What you have tasted is oblivion, true nothingness, and it is not to be reached through death."
            Trying to sit up, Jeff felt his balance shift, and he reached out a hand to stop his fall. His vision had cleared, but his head still felt fuzzy, as though he were in the moments between being asleep and awake. "I -- why did I have to leave it?"
            The old man stood, reached out a hand to help Jeff to his feet. "Because I wished it," he said. "You are not ready to stay there yet -- but I will show you the way."
            Jeff smiled at the warmth of the old man's hand. He could now see he was in a small, simple garden twined through with gravel paths. His mind was still fuzzy, but memory of the void drew him like a buoy at sea. "What do I have to do? What do I have to become?"
            "Nothing," the old man said. "Nothing."
            Was it weeks that had passed, or years? Or was it only a handful of days? The sun rose and set, Jeff knew that, but he could not manage to keep track of how many times it did so. Any time he tried to focus his memory to a particular moment he remembered only the hot, sharp sun of noon and the scent of ever-blooming flowers.
            On this day he and the Old Man were walking in the garden. At the moment it seemed like they did that every day, though Jeff could not be sure that was true. Sometimes it seemed as though they spent every day drinking tea together, at other times that they did nothing but share the cool smoke of the water pipe. Always, no matter what they were doing, they would talk, the Old Man patiently answering all of his questions.
            "The paths are here because we tend to them," the Old Man was saying. They were standing at a crossroads in the garden, where one of the paths split off from the one they were on. "The grass would reclaim them if our feet did not tread them, if we did not pull it up when it left its bounds. But if we cut off a path --" He rubbed a line across the branching path with his slippered foot -- "we will no longer tend to it, and over time the grass will return. It will be as though it had never been."
            Jeff nodded. "It goes back to nature. To nothing."
            "All the world is only a garden," the Old Man said, "filled with the paths each of us treads. So long as that path exists we suffer pain. Our enemies. . . "
            He sighed. The Old Man would often refer to their enemies, though Jeff did not know who they might be. For that matter, he did not know who 'we' were, other than himself and the Old Man; he sometimes thought he heard other voices, saw fleeting shadows, but had never seen anyone else within the garden.
            "Our enemies are those who want us to suffer. They use the tools we do, but to preserve the paths, not erase them. They are so certain that their pain is important that they will do anything to maintain it -- and that is why you could not remain in the paradise."
             "Can I -- can we fight them?"
            "Each of us who finds the paradise strikes a blow against them."
            "I'm ready," Jeff said. "Please."
            The Old Man shook his head. "Not yet," he said. "You are not yet ready to sacrifice everything."
            Jeff closed his eyes, was able to summon only the barest shade of the feeling he had had in the void. "I am. I'll die if I have to."
            "I told you, death is not the door. What is your puny life worth? You must give up everything."
            "I'm sorry, I don't understand," Jeff said. A bitter taste was in his throat, and as he looked at the garden the sight of it was thin and watery, as though it was mocking his memory of the paradise. "Every day you explain this to me and I still don't get it. I feel like every day I know less than I did the day before."
            The Old Man smiled. "That," he said, "is a beginning."
            After that Jeff stopped trying to count the days, stopped trying to remember whether he was always drinking tea or always walking in the garden. When he saw the shadows or heard the voices he did not look or listen. He did not ask any more questions, but listened only, letting the Old Man's words wash over him, smoothing him into glass, and every night he knew less than he had that morning.
            One morning he awoke to find he had forgotten his name. He ran right away to the Old Man to tell him he was ready.
            "Not yet," the Old Man said. "You have not yet forgotten your name, only the word for your name. I can still see it floating around you like a ghost, waiting to reclaim you."
            "What can I do?"
            "I will give you a new name, to drive that one away. You will be Adam, as Adam was the first and last."
            Adam smiled. The name was good, it fit; it felt vaguely familiar, but he knew not to pursue that memory. "And now?"
            "Now you must forget me," the Old Man said. "Forget everything except the paradise, and the one thing you must do to return there."
            The Old Man sat Adam down on the grass, and whispered to him what he must do. Adam closed his eyes, nodded slowly, and when he opened them again the Old Man was gone. The garden was gone, too, and even the sun; pale light came from somewhere out of sight, dimly illuminating the room in which he now stood. On one wall stood a three-sided box, man-sized, made of metal wire. Forgetting each step as he took it Adam walked over to the box and stepped inside.
            A moment later and he was in another darkened room. He heard the sound of someone breathing, softly, in their sleep. His eyes, dark-adjusted, picked out a bed nearby, a man lying in it face down. Adam stepped over to it. There was a knife in his right hand. It had always been there.
            The man stirred, and Adam kept himself perfectly still. After a moment the man rolled over to face Adam, still asleep. He was a young man, with dark hair and a mustache.
            A memory was nipping at Adam's heels. He had seen that face; not in life but in a photograph, one taken before he had been born. This face did not bear any of the lines that came from fatherhood or responsibility, from the stress of looking after family and country. This was the face of a man without cares.
            The memory found and banished, Adam drew his knife-blade across the man's throat. The knife clattered to the floor; he felt the skeins of his life unravel, until he had never been.


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Spoiler Space: "Beyond the Fields You Know"

Art by Michael Kutsche
 This is probably my most autobiographical story, not in the sense that anything like this ever happened to me but that most of the details come from my own life: my childhood bedroom had wallpaper with biplanes on it, we had a linen closet that you could climb up into and hide in (the one at our cottage was even better, since if you went to the very top it connected to the closet in the next room), and the treehouse at the end of the story is the one my Dad built in our back yard. The moment where Calx sees the lice crawling on Mrs. Marmalade's snout really did happen to me, except that it was an unusually brave groundhog that let me get close enough to see the bugs on him, with the result that I can no longer see groundhogs as being cute. Sometimes it's best to keep your distance and preserve the Disney IllusionTM.

The inspiration for Mrs. Marmalade is obviously the title character in “The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy Winkle,” the only Beatrix Potter book I remember reading as a child and, by chance, the only one that treats the human and talking-animal worlds as separate and has a human main character who crosses over between them. Mr. Jacoby is pretty plainly inspired by the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, though in fact he's more closely based on Mr. Herriman from “Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends.” (Anyone reading either of the Carroll books closely would see that they're pretty strong arguments against making forays into fantastic worlds, but the White Rabbit has become such a potent image of that kind of story that I couldn't pass it up.)

Rabbits really do have claws.

The place where Calx finds the sword is meant to evoke the lands on either side of the trenches in World War I. I'm not quite sure how World War I wound up being referenced twice in the book, never mind in two stories right next to each other, but I have to admit the timing worked out well.

Just one Canadian reference in this one, when Calx uses the word “steamboat” to count a second (“one steamboat, two steamboat...”) So far as I can tell this usage is found only in Canada and seems to have originated in CFL football, but it's common enough that it's often the method prescribed in government documents.

Calx's name is from the Latin word meaning “chalk” or “limestone” and is the origin of our words calculate and calculus (because small stones were used for keeping records.) I learned this bit of trivia almost twenty years ago when I was in teacher's college and it lurked around in my brain until the night I thought of this story (described in more detail here) when it presented itself, for whatever reason, as the protagonist's name. The moral of this story is to never throw anything away, which admittedly is better applied to ideas than to books.


Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Spoiler Space: "Public Safety"

This is the story of mine that's closest to being really science fiction, in the sense of “fiction about scientists.” The reason that may not be immediately apparent is because the people who are actually doing science here are not the good guys but their only briefly-glimpsed antagonists.

Fiction, including SF, has a fraught relationship with science in general and scientists in particular. The image of the “mad scientist” has been around since the genre arguably was born, with Frankenstein, and for about a century after that most scientists were of the mad and evil (or at least misguided) variety. While we think of our time as being one of change, the change we experience is mostly from a state of affairs that didn't exist for very long – 78s to LPs to CDs to MP3s and so on. The 18th and 19th centuries saw real change, with communities and ways of life that had existed for hundreds and even thousands of years coming to an end. (This process is still happening, though it's at its tail end: my wife's grandfather started out working a mixed farm with horse-drawn tools – Mennonite farmers bought them at the auction when he died.) So it's not surprising that writers of the time viewed science and technology with suspicion, and were more worried about the risks of change than the possible rewards.

Both the 20th century and the United States were a lot more friendly towards technological progress, though, so in Golden Age SF we see the birth of the scientist hero, who saves the day by his knowledge, practicality and engineering skills. The funny result of this was that while there were still mad scientists – the trope was too vivid to die – they basically stopped being scientists in any real way. Unlike Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll, they were more interested in money, conquest, or simply sowing fear than in actually doing science (or else it was their less-intelligent assistants who were the villains.)

Getting back to this story – I was going to do it sooner or later – for a long time I had wanted to write something where a mad scientist did real mad science, an experiment that could only be conceived of and carried out by someone who had no respect for life or law. This idea dovetailed with two other things: an interest in the crazier side of the French revolution – a side which manifested itself, ironically enough, as a literal worship of Reason – and a New Yorker article that showed how flawed the “science” of fingerprint identification was. A visit to New Orleans helped to pull everything together and I had my idea: a society convinced that it was the most advanced and rational in history, blind to the degree to which its meticulously-worked-out beliefs were based on false premises, and prey to those that took its values to their logical extent by carrying out experiments completely free from conscience or compassion. Mad scientists, in other words, not mad because they lacked reason but because they had nothing but. The 19th century created the mad scientist; if the 20th century is anything to go on, though, we may have more to fear from the sane ones.

It's appropriate to be posting this on Canada Day, since this story has more Canadian in-jokes than any other. I'll leave the rest of them for you to spot, but most obvious is the character of Commandant Trudeau, who was named after the Prime Minister of the same name -- a figure who loomed large over my childhood and who had “reason over passion” as a motto (which also appears in the story, in Latin form.) Trudeau really did look a fair bit like Julius Caesar, or at least like the way Uderzo drew Caesar in Asterix.


Most of the other research I did this one came from online sources that I forgot to document, on topics such as the Jacques Hebert and the cult of Reason, how a turn-of-the-century electric battery would work and how one might sabotage it if one had a desire to, and of course the French Revolutionary calendar. Converting the day on which the story ends to our own calendar reveals a mildly amusing in-joke, though the last line of the story likely gives it away.