Eric’s Thoughts on Writing and Maybe an Occasional Odd Story.
Last month I posted a survey of Genres I would like to experiment with, and I let my readers choose which ones they wanted me to tackle.
So, this month I took on my first challenge: Post Apocalyptic.
My intent was to write a piece of maybe 1500 words or so, but when I checked my word count, I realized that wasn't going to happen. Now, it looks like I might have an ongoing serial on my hands. Be sure to let me know what you think, and you can always feel free to send me a guess when you think you've figured out what's going on.
Jonny and the Appaseeder
I was barely a wantling when the last of the whirling stars disappeared from the evening sky. I was too small to remember, but my grandfather told me about that night. It used to be that the whole village would lay in the dark and watch for those stars, while the Olders told of how the giants that had once lived in the ancient Stone Forests had cast those stars into the heavens to watch over us, but eventually, like the Olders themselves, their stories, and the stars, faded away.
By the time I was old enough to look up into the sky I knew we were all alone.
Except for the Appaseeders.
“Jonny,” Landa said, shaking my shoulder to stir me. “Today you learn about the Seeder. You need to get up and go to Older Jannah’s tent. She’s looking for you and she hates to wait.”
“I'm tired. Leave me alone,” I said, turning over and pulling my hideskin over my head. “I was up all night trying to see a whirling star.”
“You're so stupid,” she said, shaking my shoulder again, a lot less gently this time. “The whirling stars have all died.”
“They're not dead,” I said, feeling anger burn through me. “They're just hiding.”
“They’ve been gone since before I was born,” she said. “I don’t think they were ever really there.”
“They were,” I said, sitting up and glaring at her. “Grampa Older told me about them.”
“He also told you about the Stone Forests,” she challenged, standing and ducking out through the doorflap. “And you’ll never see one of those either.”
“That doesn’t mean they aren’t real,” I hollered after her. I could hear her giggling as she ran off toward the creek for her morning swim. Silly girl, I thought. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
I stood up, pulling my pelt breeches on. I should know better than to waste my time arguing with her, I was going to be learning ciphering and chemichry, and I knew that there were things out there in front of the Seeder that would prove there was Giants who lived in them Stone Forests.
* * *
“Jonny, I'm an old lady,” Older Jannah said, frowning as I walked into her tent. “Get your worthless buttside in here.” It wasn’t the first time that I’d been in her tent, with all its ancient artifactuals, but somehow today things felt different.
“I'm sorry Gramma Jannah,” I said, bowing deeply and kneeling down on the feather pillow in front of her feet. I pressed my forehead to the Earth and waited for her to accept my apology. She let me stay down there until I felt the dirt digging tiny pits into my skin.
“You was out with the girl again last night wasn’t you?” she asked, still not releasing me from my apology.
“No, Gramma Jannah, I was looking for Whirling Stars and thinking about where they were hiding,” I said, struggling to keep my face on the ground. A sharp rock was digging into my knee and making my whole leg twitchy. I wonder if she put the pillow on the rocks to make me suffer?
“You're a boy, Jonny,” she said. “Why should I believe you? You all think with your root and not with your head. You think that all of us womenkind are dumb don’t you?”
“No!” I said, rolling my head a little to the side to try to see where she’d moved. I could hear her walking around the small tent, but I couldn’t tell where she was. “I'm sweet on Landa, but she’s still twenty moons too young for me to ask for her.”
“There are other girls who want to be with you,” she said. “They all want your seed. You are Cho’shan. It would honor them to bear a child for you.”
“But I don’t want them,” I said. “I want her.”
“You're like all the rest of them, you think you're coming back,” Gramma Jannah said. “If she’s still got twenty moons, she’s never going to have your seed. You need to take others.”
“I will come back, Gramma,” I said, lifting my head barely off the floor. Her leatherfoot smashed my face back onto the ground and my breath blew out a small dent in the dirt under my nose.
“You may come back,” she said. “Though no one has ever returned. Your father never came back, but your line continues because he took many girls before he went off to face the Seeder.”
“I want to have Landa,” I said, grunting as she pulled me up to my feet by the hair on my head. “I will come back, for her.”
“You silly child, we’ll see about that,” she snorted, disappearing through the doorflap.
I followed, wiping the dirt from my face.
I guess she accepted my apology.
* * *
Picture Rocks lined the edge of the Canyon of Words. It was a narrow passage that the Seeders couldn’t find, or maybe was just too small to be worth their effort to tear up. The pathway to the crack was difficult for me to climb, but Gramma Jannah flung herself over the boulders like a young hunter chasing prey. I struggled to keep up, but she chose her path well, having been here many times through the cycles.
This was a strange canyon, different than the world outside. I’d never seen such a place where edges lined square and stones fit together tighter than a lover’s embrace. “Where are we?” I asked, falling further behind and hearing my heartbeat in my ears.
Gramma Jannah just glanced back at me and shook her head, pushing forward even faster. I wanted to call out to her to slow down, but my embarrassment kept me silent as I scrambled along, several times losing sight of her. I tracked her footfalls in the dust of the canyon floor and even though she was far ahead, I knew I could still find her.
Dropping over a sharp edge of a boulder, I was surprised to feel a hand reach out of a small cave and grab my shoulder. “Jonny, you must do better than this. You let a tired old womenkind trap you. If I’d’ve been bended on harm, you would have been ghostey.”
“I'm sorry, Gramma,” I said, looking down in shame. “I hadn’t expected to be rock hiking when I came today for ciphering.”
“I see that,” she said, smiling dryly. “When you go chasing an Appaseeder, your life changes. You can never count on what you expect to be true. You need to learn a lot, boy.”
“I don’t understand, but I listen,” I said, wondering if I should drop to my knees to apologize again, but hoping I didn’t need to because this ground was hard and sharp, not like the dirt back out in the open field where her tent had been pitched.
“You're so young, like your father was,” she said, roughing my hair. “Follow me.”
She disappeared into the small cave. Inside it was dark, like a night without moon or stars. I held my hand in front of me to protect my face from things that might stick down from the roof. I’d never been here before, but I’d been in a cave when we wintered by Oakriven once. It wasn’t a place I wanted to go back to. Dark, wet, and full of things that slithered and growled. In fact, it wasn’t a place I would have gone into at all, except that Danser had dared me. And only then because he’d done it in front of Landa.
I heard the scuffing sounds of Gramma’s leatherfoot scraping along the floor of the cave. I looked back toward the entrance and stumbled down a short drop. I made a startled sound and it echoed around like the taunts of Danser when I’d run out of that cave before. This time, it was my own voice teasing me for my foolishness.
“I can’t see anything,” I whispered.
“Give me your flint,” Gramma said, her voice close.
I felt in my pouch and found it, holding my hand out in the direction of her voice. She took it from me almost as if she could see. I heard the click as she struck spark against steel and then there was light.
She held a torchstick in her hand. In the flickering flame I could see that we were in a huge cavern, much larger than the outside would have made it look. The floor was worn smooth and flat and descended into the darkness in a small series of terraces.
“Are you afraid of the dark, child?” she asked, starting down without waiting for an answer. I promised myself that I would not let her get ahead of me this time, so I trotted beside her as we worked our way deeper under the world.
We wound around several turns and dropped down onto the banks of an underground river. The water barely moved, and smelled like rotten meat. “Where are we?”
“We're under the Chi-Gogoa Stone Forest,” she said. “I'm taking you to the Hall of Ciphers.”
We trudged through the strange river for what felt like a half-day, sometimes in water up to my shoulders. My pelt breeches soaked up the smelly water and kept falling down as we walked. I should have worn a sealeskin, but I only had one and Landa liked the way it looked on me, so I only wore it when she was around.
“Here we are,” she said, pulling herself up on a ledge and shaking like a howler pup after a bath. This ledge looked like all the others we’d passed, and I didn’t know how she could tell one from the rest, except that this one had more dust on the stone floor.
I hauled myself up out of the river and stood, my pants sagging low around my knees. “Mercy boy, it’s a good thing I am an old and tired woman, or I’d be chasing your seed myself,” she said, staring at me.
“I'm saving myself for Landa,” I said, pulling them up and feeling the redness in my face like a glow.
“We’ll see.” She snorted and turned toward a flat slab of shiny rock. She heaved herself against it and it swung open. There was a loud groaning sound like a wounded grizzler. I threw myself forward, ready to protect her from the beast that hid in the cave. She held the torch so I couldn’t see what was inside, but I drew my blade and stepped into the darkness.
Behind me she laughed, moving the thin rock back and forth to cause it to repeat its call. Obviously, the sound had come from the slab of stone. Perhaps it was a warning to scare off anyone who wanted to enter.
“Step lightly, this is sacred ground,” she said, lowering her voice as she passed close beside me. She touched a finger to my lips to warn me not to disrespect her words. “This is where the Giants that built the Stone Forests hid their wisdom from the Appaseeders. All that they knew is hidden here.”
I followed closely behind her as we climbed another set of terraces and walked out under a vault almost as big as the sky itself. The light from her torchstick was swallowed by the sheer size of the empty. Dark shadows danced and twisted around the edges of the cavern, hiding Earth knew what manner of beast.
“Is it safe to be in here?” I whispered, my voice echoing back at me from the far corners like a rattlersnake.
“This is the Arch Hive,” she said, making an odd gesture with her hand in front of her body. “Only the Olders know how to find it. For as long as I can remember only the Cho’shan and those too old to bear children were ever brought here. No one else has been in the Arch Hive since the Giants went away.”
“No one?” I asked, impressed by the thought that so few people knew about this place.
She shook her head. “The Appaseeder comes soon. So for the next few moons this will be your home. You will stay here all but Firstday, learning to do the ciphers,” Gramma said.
“Alone?” I asked looking around at the walls and the looming shadows. “How will I know when it’s Firstday without the sun?”
“I will come for you every Lastday evening so that you may come home and bed the womenkind who wish to carry your seed,” she said. “Giving us a new Cho’shan is as important as challenging the Appaseeder.”
I looked at the floor, frowning. “I only want Landa,” I said.
“Enough of this selfishness. The ways of our people depends on you having a son,” she said firmly. “You will do what you must.”
I glared at her. I had always enjoyed the privilege of being Cho’shan but now I saw the cost. I could no longer be Jonny the simple boy, I had to become Jonny Cho’shan. The crushing realization settled over me like a heavy wet cloak.
“The spirits of the Giants are here,” she said, ignoring my anger and walking up to a large block of stone that sat in the middle of the cave floor. “They will teach you more than I can. I barely learned enough ciphering to be able to understand the Picher Scrolls. For you to meet the Seeder you’ll need to know much more than I do.”
“I'm supposed to pray to the Giants for knowing?” I asked, doubting it would do much good. All the prayers I’d ever sent to the Giants had come back as empty as an echo.
“I told you this was a sacred place,” she said, her expression in the dim light of the torchstick made her leathery skin look like twisted treewood.
Over the stone block, she made the magical gesture again with her hand and I heard a sound, like a thousand bees swarming in the distance. I looked around but couldn’t see any descending cloud of stingers. She laughed and shook her head again. “That’s the sound of Heaven opening,” she explained. “Don’t worry, you're about to see the face of the Giant who lives in Arch Hive.”
Over the top of the block a face appeared, pale white like the morning fog. It drifted, not quite real. Gramma Jannah fell to her knees and looked at the floor. I stood there for a second with my mouth open before she hit the back of my leg and I dropped painfully beside her.
“Arch Hive, Adam Minster,” the Giant said. It’s voice strangely formed the words. “How may I help you?”
“Oh, Great Adam Minster,” Gramma said never looking up into the face of the Giant. “I humbly bring before you the Cho’shan for you to learn. He needs to know the ciphers so he can meet against the Appaseeder.”
There were several seconds of silence and I wondered if the Giant’s spirit had left the cave. I glanced up and saw that it was looking at me. A chill ran up my back and I didn’t know what to do. Finally, it said,” Ciphering. Interpreting hidden words. Is there an example of the cipher?”
Gramma unrolled a small scrap, it was as brown and weathered as an oak leaf in fall. She slid it onto the stone without looking up. A bright light like the sun shown down on it.
“This is not a code,” Adam Minster said. “This is Angelis. Does Cho’shan seek to learn reading?”
“Reeding?” I asked. “I already know how to weave reeds into floormats. I learned that when I was under fifty moons. This is not great wisdom.”
“Shut up foolish child, you’ll anger the Giants,” Gramma hissed at me. “I beg your forgiveness, Great Adam Minster. The word you used, reading, is lost to me. Yes, the Cho’shan wishes to learn that forgotten art.”
“Reading assistance materials are located on the fifth floor.” A glow came from one of the dark caverns above us. “Arch Hive Learning Suites are online.”
“Thank you, Great Adam Minster,” Gramma said as the face faded away, leaving us alone in the dark. She stood up slowly, showing her age for the first time in her movements.
“Sweets?” I asked. I’d only had candy once and it never taught me anything. It made my teeth hurt.
“Up there,” she said, pointing at the glowing archway, “You will meet another Giant Spirit. I will show you how to call her, and then I will leave you. She will teach you ciphering.”
* * *
Each day Gramma Jannah brought me food, at least I think it was Gramma, because she never came in the Arch Hive to see me. All I know is that food appeared on the flat rock ledge by the smelly river. I focused on learning my ciphers with the help of the Giant Spirit of the Reading Room. She was friendlier than the Great Adam Minster, and as I learned, she also started talking to me in the same way I talked. Not like the strange words that the Head Spirit used.
At the end of the first week, I had learned much of the sounds of the ciphers and I also knew that the little bent lines were called letters. When Gramma showed up to bring me back to camp, I wanted to tell her all about what I’d learned. But she warned me to keep silent. The knowledge of the Giants wasn’t something I could ever share with anyone. Not even the Olders.
“Why?” I asked, confused and more than a little frustrated. I’d discovered so much already, and I wanted to be able to tell Landa.
She stopped and looked at me strangely. “The Giants were smarter than we are now. They knew a great many things, things that were very dangerous. When they’d gotten so smart that they could cast stars into the heavens and control the wind and the sun, they caught the eye of the Evil Ones that sent the Appaseeders to make war against them.”
“I remember Grampa and the Olders telling that story when I was still a wantling,” I said. “But why can’t I tell you about what I’ve learned?”
“It was the knowing that the Giants had, that got them in trouble,” she said sadly. “Even as smart and powerful as they were, they couldn’t keep the Seeders from making them ghostey.”
“I'm not that smart yet,” I said.
“Surely, you aren’t,” she said, starting back down the trail. “But if you share knowing things with other people, it’ll make them want to know things, too. Then we’ll soon enough be throwing our own stars into the sky, and who knows what other kinds of evil may hide behind the Appaseeders. Sometimes, it’s better not to know too much.”
Which might mean I am MENTAL for trying this... but well, I've never been one to stay within the lines.
The entries on the list below are some genre suggestions that should give me a bit of a mental challenge. I really like pushing myself outside my comfort zone as a writer, so this will be a fun exploration for me, and give you some free reads too.
Depending on which of the genres turn out to be most popular, I'll take on a different one each month and write a short story (1200 to 1500 words) and post it here on the blog for you to enjoy.
Hopefully this little exercise will really help me push my boundaries (and it might point me in a direction for my next series... which I should be starting sometime late this year).
Take a minute and pick your favorite SF Genres below and let me know what you'd like to read. And if you don't see your favorite on the list, then be sure to send me a message and I'll add it to the list.
Thanks for sharing your preferences. It means a lot to me.
This is the first chapter from my upcoming novella, Scatter the Winds. It's a stand alone story in the Wings of Earth Universe, and is set between the end of the Shan Takhu Legacy and the beginning of Echoes of Starlight. This story should be a great entry point to both series whether or not you've read either of them.
I will be publishing Scatter the Winds in late September and it will go out FOR FREE to my VIP subscribers before it's available anywhere else (you can sign up to be a VIP here).
Please give it a read and send me your feedback.
“All hands report to stations. Code Red. This is not a drill. ExO and Payload Steward report to Operations. All hands report to stations. Code Red.” Captain Valleri’s voice echoed across the mess hall.
“What’s a Code Red?” asked Kylla Torrance, jumping up to follow the ExO out past stunned crew and passengers, who scrambled down the hallway as if demons were chewing on their heels.
Code Red? That can’t be good.
The ExO hurled herself down the corridor, “Raiders,” she hissed over her shoulder.
Tall, and built like an overly engineered wall of muscle, Ayanna Santore moved with surprising agility, rebounding off a bulkhead as she took the stairs, three at a time to reach the Operations Center five flights above the Commons. By the time the two women leapt out onto the deck, Ayanna was a dozen strides ahead of Kylla.
The floor plating lurched upward as the main drive cut out and they were back in normal space. Even with her limited experience in interstellar spaceflight, Kylla recognized the feel of the field collapsing.
That obviously wasn’t a normal drop into sub-light.
Both women stumbled forward as the clanging of emergency bulkheads slamming shut thundered from somewhere behind them.
“We’re on backup power,” the ExO growled as she caught herself on the edge of the hatch to the Operations Center and waited for the Cargo Steward to catch up. She held the door open with her back as the pneumatics fought her to a stalemate. She waved Kylla through and then jumped onto the Operations deck with her. The hatch slammed shut behind her.
Captain Valleri stood staring at the main viewscreen. “Is only one ship and no match for Agamemnon. Da?”
“What do they want?” Kylla asked.
“Is obvious,” he said. “They are pirate. We have cargo.” He turned and stared at the optic protruding through her cheek orifice. “Is why I wanted you here.”
She knew the extra hole in her face distracted people, and she usually tried to keep it from being annoying. Usually. But she gave it a little flick with the edge of her tongue, and it twitched as she winked at him. “Have they made any demands?”
“Only that we stop. And they made demand with pulse mine.” He turned back to face the screen and shook his head.
“Are they alone?” Santore asked. She’d taken up a position behind the helmsman and was looking over his shoulder.
“We’ve got no one else for at least a light year,” the sensor officer answered from the far side of the deck.
“Seems arrogant for a science vessel to jump a ship this size, doesn’t it?” Kylla asked. The Agamemnon had a crew of 250 and was carrying almost a thousand passengers. “They’re thin on manpower to run a raid. You’ve got them two to one, even without my people.”
“Da, but little science vessel has big pirate gun hidden in hold. And bigger reactor to feed it,” the Captain said. He tapped the surface of his control pad and an EM scan overlaid the image on the main screen. It showed a lot of power going to a weapons mount in the belly of the ship.
“Captain, we’re being hailed,” the comm officer announced.
“Viper, to Colonial Freighter Agamemnon. Stand down and prepare to be boarded.”
“He can’t be serious,” the ExO said. “He has to know we’ve got enough firepower to hold him off all day.”
“It will depend on what is hiding in belly of little whale. Engineering, how long until main reactor is restored?” the Captain asked.
“Until then, is moot,” Valleri said. “No power, means no guns.”
“And he’s pushing a megawatt into that weapon, whatever it is,” the sensor officer said. She had to be pushing her words through a wall of acid, but in spite of that her voice sounded calm. “That could still do a lot of damage even if he doesn’t hit a critical system.”
“Agamemnon, you have ten seconds to surrender or we will open fire.”
“Open audio,” the Captain said. “Captain Grigor Valleri of Agamemnon to pirate vessel. Answer is no. We will not surrender.” He slashed a finger across his throat to mute the comm.
The doors opened on the Viper’s weapons bay and the gun swung up into sight.
“Frak. That’s a particle cannon. If he’s pushing a megawatt into it, he’s going to feed us to the vacuum,” Santore said.
“I assume that changes the playing field a little?” Kylla asked, nervously flicking the edge of her optic with her tongue. She stopped when the Captain glared at it. It was a bad idea to be distracting him.
Valleri crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his foot several times before he let out a slow hissing breath. Without main power, they couldn’t do much other than sit and wait to die. And staring down the emitter of a particle cannon made death a lot more relevant consideration.
“What is range?” he asked.
“Two thousand klick,” the helmsman said. “Out of reach for us, but easily in his.”
“Fifteen seconds,” the engineer announced.
“We need to take advantage away from him,” he said, nodding as he leapt over to the helm control and leaned forward to punch in a string of commands.
“Understood?” he asked as his Helmsman watched curiously.
“Aye, Captain,” he said, grinning.
“Open audio to Viper,” he ordered, turning toward the comm officer.
“Is Captain Valleri. State your terms for surrender.”
“Valleri, there are no terms. Surrender is unconditional.”
“We are carrying passengers—”
“Do you not understand the word unconditional?” the pirate asked.
“I do,” he said. “I am offering passengers in exchange for—”
“What?” Kylla gasped, fighting down her sudden scalding rage. He wouldn’t dare.
He snapped a finger up to silence her outburst. “Da, we carry important passengers who would swing big chit.”
“We will have your passengers anyway,” the captain of the Viper said.
“They are worth more alive, no?”
“You’re threatening to vent them? You haven’t got the eggs.”
“If you attack, particle cannon will vent much. Our emergency systems are not in such good repair. It would be shame if no one survives. Da?”
The lights on the Operations Deck flickered as main power came back up, and she realized what was going on.
Valleri had been stalling.
He slashed across his throat again and grabbed the back of the helmsman’s chair. “Now, Mr. Klinestrom!”
The helmsman slapped his hands down on the console and the Aggie lunged directly toward the Viper. At least as much as a thousand-meter-long barge could lunge at anything. It certainly wasn’t fast.
But it was unexpected. And probably more than a little intimidating.
Obviously, that was what the Captain had counted on.
The Viper twisted away to avoid the charging bulk, opening it up to a strafing run across the top of its hull with the belly lasers of the Agamemnon.
The repelling guns of the colonial freighter weren’t powerful, but at close range they were enough. And there were dozens of them.
Most of the beams did minimal damage, but the sheer number of them meant that there were bound to be some critical hits.
A power coupling on the particle cannon’s mounting cradle was one of the first casualties. Spinning wildly, the crippled support hardware bought them several precious seconds as they drove forward across the enemy ship.
Another laser split a cooling line to the primary reactor, spewing a spectacular cloud of vapor over the cannon’s targeting sensor and aperture. Unfortunately for the crew of the Viper, that was in the same instant that its weapons officer fired. The heat of the dense fog as it turned to plasma fused the end of the cannon and sent a feedback surge through their systems.
It was pure luck. But it worked, and the Agamemnon accelerated to cruise and away before the pirate raider’s power grid overloaded and blew out their primary transfer manifold.
“Are they pursuing?” Santore barked as she spun to face the sensor station.
“Negative, it looks like they took heavy collateral damage,” she said. “They’re dead in space.”
“Once they make repairs, they’ll be in pursuit.”
“Da,” the Captain said. “Set course for Kentaurus Colony.”
“We aren’t going to Kentaurus,” Kylla said quietly, shaking her head. It was a fact that only she and the captain shared.
“No, we are not,” he confirmed, turning to face her, and matching her tone. “But they do not know that, and we must appear to be running for safety.”
His expression reminded her of Edison when he was trying to teach her something that she thought she already knew. She shook off the memory of her first husband and cocked her head to the side, flicking at her optic and watching as his gaze locked onto it.
He nodded, closing his eyes, and letting out a breath before he explained himself. “We cannot outrun pirate vessel, but while they are making repairs, we can possibly get sufficient distance to exceed their sensors. Then, we will correct course and be about your business. Is good plan, no?”
Not really, she thought to herself as she stared at the distorted ring of stars through the viewscreen.
But it’s probably our only option.
If you want to read the rest of this story FOR FREE when it is published, you can get it for free by signing up for my VIP list here. Thanks for reading this and be sure to let me know what you think!
A musing on a Sunday afternoon. I do this a lot when the weather is nice and I just want an excuse to sit under a tree and be alone with my thoughts. I usually take my coffee and a notepad out with me and just scribble what comes to mind. It is probably the first step in how I develop a story line and sometimes it produces results (but often it just sits and collects dust).
Today I spent some time thinking about a point in future history where a story premise might lurk. It is a time in the near future where I think dramatic forces may combine to create an opportunity for exploration. I don't know if a plot line will come from it or not, but it's something that was on my mind and this is what I got from it. It's loose and unstructured but my brain tends to be that way when I am conceptualizing (I go from here to structured before an idea moves into a story so understand this is like broad brushstrokes and not a finished idea).
This some people this may, or may not, read like a political opinion, but it is meant as an abstract examination of a potential environment that needs to be chased around...
I'm sharing this here because I often get questions about how I kick my creative process into gear.
When Robots Pay Taxes, and the Bow-shock Event
Here we are, frozen in place like the proverbial deer in the headlights. As a society, we’re facing the moment where the future is barreling towards us, and all we can do is stare at it, as it aims to run us down.
The robots and AI are coming for us.
Not like in The Terminator (fortunately), but just as inevitably, regardless.
Unlike climate change, there is no room for debate about this reality. We cannot argue whether this apocalyptic possibility is man-made, or environmental. In this case, we’ve done it to ourselves, and no force of nature will deflect it… or even temper it.
The irony is that the same force that stops us from responding to climate change, is the very one that is driving the other one over us.
Where it is cheaper to do nothing about climate change (at least in the short term), as technology gets better and less expensive, it is also cheaper to automate. Because of that, it also becomes a stronger force of change. It compounds itself.
There’s been a lot of talk about the Singularity … that moment where AI becomes self-aware (in my books I call it Artificial Awareness rather than Artificial Intelligence). What I think is coming for us though, is not the distant point where artificial awareness emerges, rather, it is the time where we make ourselves obsolete.
I think that is much closer than when Skynet blows us to hell.
What concerns me is when the cost of human labor makes us physically pointless. Where an automated robot is cheaper to operate (and more importantly, to buy) than the old-fashioned tool, with a flesh and bone human operator.
That is when the bow-shock of technology will crush the life out of us. Unfortunately, it’s inevitable that it will arrive MUCH sooner than the Singularity.
In many ways, these first shock waves are already here.
But, we've been here before.
The story of John Henry and the Steam Drill is a metaphor we all understand because it represents something that has occurred, at least symbolically, in our past. It’s the embodiment of the “machine versus mankind problem,” and it defines everything that it brought with it.
The Industrial Revolution created a huge shift in the world as humanity redesigned itself. The economic models that drove society prior to that, changed in a few short years. Less people did more work, in less time. Production increased exponentially, and that pushed the relative cost of things down.
Although in the end, John Henry "just laid down and died," prosperity eventually spread because of this revolution. But it wasn't a painless process. There were DECADES of social upheaval that nearly tore the world apart as we moved away from human labor and into the early stages of industrialization.
Now, we're approaching a time where we have automated industry that can produce virtually everything. And for the first time in history, machines can produce more of everything than we actually need.
That also brings us to where the other side of this industrialization equation becomes dominant.
We don’t NEED more, even if we can DO more (with less human effort).
So, what happens to all that reserve and unneeded human capacity? (And let's agree we don't want to end up like a John Henry either.)
With a real limit on the consumption side of the equation, and ever cheaper manufacturing through automation, there is no economic incentive to keep human labor working.
As a manufacturer - with a limited market depth - and a machine that can produce 100 times the output at one tenth the cost… What would you do?
If you’re like most of the manufacturers in the world, you’d lay off all but one or two of your employees, and only work them a couple days a month. Then you could spend a lot of time fishing… Or watching Netflix… Or whatever.
(Yeah, sign me up for that, baby! I am so there!)
And honestly, who would blame you?
Other than the 98 employees you didn’t keep … But that’s alright, because they can always find work somewhere else.
That is, until the next company down the street does the same thing. Then, there are 196 workers on the street looking for work.
And every day the cycle repeats ...
For a while, people keep shuffling out of the way… Finding work.
And, the cycle repeats another time ...
Which means more people shift.
And again, it repeats ...
Eventually, some people start to move out of the way by going back to school, retraining so they can get further off the road. All of them are hoping to dodge the oncoming steamroller of automation.
But education takes time and money. And unfortunately, people have to eat while they’re learning.
That’s okay, they can get jobs somewhere. There's always a Mc Job in fast food ... NOPE, not anymore.
(I just read that McD’s, was testing a burger flipping robot. So even that’s not far enough out of the way.)
And that, right there, is TRULY the nature of the monster barreling down on us.
The Deer, or the Jackrabbit?
Everybody knows about the deer staring blindly into the glaring headlights, but usually a deer might be frozen in place for a second or two before it decides to move. Sure, that second of hesitation can be catastrophic if the oncoming car is traveling too fast, but contrary to the carnage seen along the highway,the deer USUALLY manages to dive back into cover before it gets obliterated.
Unfortunately, we’re not the deer.
We’re actually more like a jackrabbit (having driven the back roads a lot, I know there’s a substantial difference in their survival strategy … and breeding faster is not a viable alternative for humans).
Where a deer will make its decision and commit to it, a jackrabbit will take a couple steps out into the pavement, and see an oncoming car, but then it doesn’t stand still and consider how to move. Instead, it takes a couple extra steps because it was already crossing the road anyway, and then it slows down or stops to think about what it should do.
“Maybe I can’t make it across the street,” it says to itself.
So, it turns back and takes a step, or two, before it looks over its shoulder and remembers it really needs to be across the street. Then it turns around to take a couple more steps.
Approaching the yellow line by this time, it realizes the car is getting pretty close.
“Maybe I should go back, but since I’m halfway across the street … maybe not …”
And it pivots again, and takes a step. And then it spins around and takes another step.
By this point the driver of the car has zigged, and zagged … And maybe even slowed down some (unless there’s a truck behind that's tailgating like Batman on crack). And if the driver is like me, he’s probably already started screaming, “Just make up your freaking mind!”
The problem is, the driver can’t stop, and the jackrabbit can’t make a decision, so it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a lot of bunny goo on the road.
(Yes, this part was a political commentary ... sorry.)
How do we keep from being the jackrabbit?
We learn to make smart decisions and we slow the car down a little. We have to give the damn rabbit (working people in this case) time to get out of the way.
And, we do this by taxing robots! (Well, not really the robots, because we don’t want them rising up and kicking our ass after the Singularity comes to pass.)
Actually, we tax the businesses that replace workers with automation. We charge them for every worker replaced at a rate high enough to fund college/school/training programs, and to provide Universal Basic Income to everyone. The robot tax should provide revenue for education, and so that we would have ample to keep from having starving and homeless people.
It should also give people the money they need to buy all those cheaper goods made by the robots that took their jobs (which would keep the economy afloat as we transition to this new way of doing things).
However, it is at least as important that the tax would be high enough to slow down the rise of the robots by increasing the cost of implementing automation. It wouldn’t (AND SHOULDN'T) stop it from happening, but it needs to buy us all some time to adjust (thereby putting the brakes on the car, AND ALSO the truck behind it).
Doesn’t that put an unfair burden on business owners?
The tax rate to support UBI and education would be less than the cost of the labor/taxes/insurance/and overhead of the people it replaces on a "per unit produced" basis.
If nothing else, the liability savings would still make it cheaper to employ robots than humans. Plus, because robotic manufacturing is faster and more precise than human manufacturing, it would also reduce costs in overhead that the business owner currently eats. These factors alone would increase businesses' profits, but the truth is, there would be a lot more savings to the owner and the tax rate would not be nearly as high as payroll was initially.
And finally, people wouldn’t be stuck in soul-draining, mindless jobs!
This is one thing that would be hard to quantify, but is undoubtedly true: Humans are, by their very nature, creative and adaptable. Those are traits that robots and AI still have a long way to go to get good at. (AI poetry and music still suck.)
Once we turn manufacturing over to robots, it frees us up ... TO REACH UP.
Although right now, the bottom-line problem is still the same:
Society values people by the labor they can produce, and not for their creativity.
Until that changes …
We are the jackrabbit.
(And the back road we've all been standing in, has already become a freaking interstate!)
Taxing robots and AI to pay for UBI is a valid way to survive the manufacturing technology upheaval that we’re inevitably facing. It might be one of the few ways we can pay for the transition to a system of post scarcity economics.
If we don’t do it, the human cost alone would be the stuff of post-apocalyptic nightmare.
And therein lies the story.
This is something I wrote MANY years ago, but for some reason I thought I should put it here. It isn't sci fi at all, and in fact is based on an event that really happened in my life. Be warned, it's kind of like those "Chicken Soup" things, but in the world we live in lately, maybe it's good to remember these kind of moments... So, here you go.
It is an unusual and emotionally powerful time when a parent passes on. My father did many years ago. He was only 56 and it was a bit of a shock to all of us.
Especially to my mother.
She’d married my dad when she was only 17 years old and they had become so totally dependent on each other for everything, that we all suspected she would follow him without lingering in this mortal realm any longer than necessary. They’d spent so much time together, and had faced so many troubles, that they’d become inseparable. Even through a miscarriage of twins, my parents faced every moment of life as one.
When dad died, mom and I had a falling out that drove a wedge between us, and between myself and my brother as well. It was actually fairly trivial, being mostly a difference of opinion about how she should deal with her life after dad was gone.
Over the course of the years after my father passed, mom did adjust to life alone, not really growing anymore, but adapting and learning to cope. She drew strength from the reserve love she had invested in so many friends throughout her life.
Then, several years ago they diagnosed her with lung cancer. The prognosis for recovery wasn’t good, but instead of taking this as her ticket out, she chose to fight. She kept herself going with pure strength of will and the support of everyone around her.
I’ve never in my life seen such bravery as what I saw in my mom at that moment. She fought and fought. Four years she battled the cancer with all her heart, yet I knew she wanted to be with dad more than anything.
Two months ago, she got her wish. Although before she left, she did finish the things she needed to do. Not the ‘tying up of loose ends’ sort of things, but the other more important stuff that matters.
When her cancer came back for the last time, we decided that we needed to be there for her, so we bought a home in a place where she could look out from her window and see beautiful trees and grass, and an occasional snow shower that made the world look new again. (She’d been born in the Great Lakes area and remembered snow from her childhood, even though she’d lived in the desert for all of her adult life.)
For her, this place was like a window onto heaven.
When her time was near, we put her with a hospice program and brought her home. She was comfortable here, and we wanted her to know we’d be with her and it would be alright to let go.
During that last week, even though she was often incoherent, she taught us some of the most important lessons I will ever learn. They were lessons that came from, and through her, and still ring in my heart.
Three days before she passed, my wife and I had been on duty continuously, taking care of her, sleeping in shifts, holding her hand, and trying to catch cat naps when we could. It was a trying time.
Then one morning just before her time had run out, our 11 year old daughter came in and told us about a dream she’d had about my father. She described my dad, who had died when she was barely four years old, smiling and holding two little boys in his arms. Amazingly, she’d never heard about the twins my mom had miscarried (I was two years old when it happened). Yet, she was describing dad, and the twins.
It stopped us in our tracks.
My wife and I had been dreaming about dad, but we both figured it was because of the nearness of mom’s death. She was going to leave us soon, and we were reliving the pains of my dad’s passing.
Suddenly, our pain transformed to something else. After this opened the idea in our hearts, we KNEW that dad would be there waiting for her. It was amazing how this gave us the strength to walk her home.
On the day her struggle ended, we sat with her, trying to be strong. I held her hand, like I’d been doing for the last several months, knowing that when we walked up to that door, all I could do was put her hand in dad’s, and let her go from there. She laid there in bed, staring past me to the place where he waited for her. I could almost feel my father’s hand on my shoulder.
She walked the last mile that day, but she was never alone. Not on this side, or on the other one. I had promised mom that we’d be there all the way to the end, and in keeping that promise to her, I saw for a brief instant that other world, and felt my father’s hand again for a moment through hers.
As an epilogue, I need to say that mom managed to send us a gift from the other side to let us know it was okay to go on.
When she and dad got married, for their first anniversary together they got themselves a mantle clock. It was one of those old fashioned wooden clocks that chimed on the quarter hour. they’d carried it around since the 1950’s, never having a mantle for it. It had quit working more years ago than I can remember, and had become no more than an artifact of a memory. When he passed, she kept it on her desk and would stare at it for a while every day.
After she died, we moved it from her desk to the mantle of the house that we’d shared with her. It was the first time that it ever sat above a fireplace, and it looked nice there, even though it was still as dead as it had been for decades.
In a moment of wishful thinking, my wife wound it, but it refused to run.
So we just let it sit there ... honoring mom’s memory. On the day that my brother was to arrive for mom’s memorial service, almost exactly a month after she had died, my wife and I were sitting in the living room talking about mom.
And the clock chimed.
It echoed in the sudden silence, yet still it was not ticking. Over the next few moments it did indeed start to tick, becoming louder with each passing moment.
And it’s still ticking on the mantle.
So, when you doubt if it is okay to let someone go, just remember, even if you aren’t there holding their hand, and even if you don’t get to feel the touch of a parent brushing your skin when you walk them to the door, they are in a better place.
Listen for their voice, in the wind, or in the chiming of a clock.
Look for their smile in the new falling snow.
It’s there. And so are they.
EMC - April 15, 2004
For those of you who are new around here (which is practically everyone), I am what, in the writing world, is known as a hard-core plotter (with almost no temptation to cross over to the dark side and be a pantser).
What the hell does that mean, you may ask? (or maybe you didn’t, but I will tell you anyway)
Basically, it means when I sit down to write, I plot everything out meticulously and way in advance. The other approach to telling stories is where an author stares at a blank page until inspiration launches them into a seat-of-the-pants adventure where their characters lead them through all manner of chaos. (I refuse to pay for the services of a Muse, and I prefer to drive, if you don’t mind!)
The way I write also means that I spend a lot of time working out details of how things work and planning the direction my story (stories) will go. Seldom am I inspired to leap sidewise, and because of that I can write pretty fast (some of my writer friends actually say 'insanely fast' … I might post something at some point that tells how I do that since my writing technique is apparently a bit unique).
The creation of a Universe is a serious thing.
Right now, I am ten books into the Wings of Earth Universe (counting the Shan Takhu Legacy prequel trilogy) with eight more to go before I finish this section of the story arc. Then, if my readers want to keep exploring in this universe, there are two other sections to the overall universe’s arc with each of those being a standalone series with different characters and settings (Think, Star Trek Next Gen, DS9, Voyager, and so on… in both TV and in the books, they are all different, but flesh out a more complete story).
Because of the fact that I have a long-vision for these novels, I also have volumes of background material that hasn’t made it directly into the stories (REALLY HUGE FRAKKING PILES OF STUFF).
For example, Legacy of Pandora (the first of the prequel stories) was set in 2243, and so I created an historical timeline that lead from less than fifty years from our current world, up until the events of that story. From the prequel, there is a leap of 125 years (and yeah, I have another timeline of that period of time too). I also have language notes, and ship deck designs, and even mathematics of energy conversion processes. Literally, I have so much stuff I have to keep it all locked away so it doesn't bury me alive.
It’s all background that I might share as blog posts here as the story goes on (Well, probably not the math since most people don't speak that language, and tend to glaze over when you start trying to explain it).
God does not play dice with the Universe.
Einstein said that, and I do generally live by that rule (apologies to D&D fans out there).
To me, the science has to work (duh, it is SCIENCE fiction). So does the technology. So do the politics. And the economy. Even laws have to make sense. (Okay, politics and laws can be batshit insane, but it all has to feel real for the story to hold together.) And in my mind, that only comes with the idea that the universe is planned out.
And now, for you science purists out there (I know who you are. I can hear you smirking). I have worked professionally in the sciences and as an engineer for a long time, but you could probably say I am a ‘science optimist’ (I’ll explain that in a later post too). While I might have technology and physics in my stories that aren’t currently part of our understanding, I still try to treat them consistently and with respect for some of the more probable work-arounds. (I actually got kicked by a reviewer once because I had windows in a starship … come on … really?)
It is science FICTION too.
Filling in the edges.
The point of this post was to invite my readers to ask some questions. I might have created the universe, but lately I have seen a lot of you move in and start exploring. There are some far-flung worlds with some seedy dives and dusty corners to be discovered. Let me know what parts you might want to drain some light into, and I’ll flesh out those details in future posts.
No question is out of bounds. Seriously. (Contact me here to ask.)
- Does One Eye Jack’s have a dance floor?
Do pirates dance? Actually, yes it does, but it is small and in the back.
- Did war break out before humanity escaped the problems on Earth?
A little bit. It was more like a pissing contest over rising sea levels. (Okay, that's a lie.)
- Why did Ethan Walker run away from his family ranch on Mars?
Ever smell cow manure in a sealed dome?
- What the hell is a graviton threshold?
It won't make you fall down if you trip over it, but it will take a lot of explaining. It has to do with propagation limits of gravity waves.
- Is Quinn’s Mom really that strange?
No... she is stranger than that.
Feel free to fire away. I’ll post real answers and go deeper as I can.
This is a weird little story I wrote a while back in response to a writing prompt on the Sci-Fi Roundtable. It's WAY outside my normal genre, but for some reason I felt the need to dust it off and put it here today.
I did not, however, feel a need to put on a stovepipe hat.
Hope you enjoy it.
It was a good day. The first in a long time. The warm spring sun filled the room and the view from the office windows was peaceful. Dogwood trees bloomed and the scent of flowers filled the air.
It truly was peaceful. And quiet. Both of which had been rare in the White House for as long as Lincoln could remember. The war had finally reached its end, and although they still faced the complex struggle of rebuilding, the Cabinet Meeting today gave him hope that they were on the path out of darkness.
Enough lives have been sacrificed. It is over. Now, together, we can begin to stand again as a nation.
Grabbing a scrap of paper, he jotted his words down for a future speech. He had a habit of tossing off extemporaneous lines, but once in a while his thoughts were worthy of posterity, and he committed them to writing. He smiled and put the note onto a pile of books that cluttered his table.
His assistant, Edward, had told him that the Vice-President arrived before lunch but decided to go for a stroll while he waited for the Cabinet Meeting to end. Enjoying the brief respite before Andrew’s return, Abe sat back and laced his fingers behind his head. Pushing the stack of books away from the edge of his table with a foot, he crossed his long legs on the corner and closed his eyes.
Somewhere in that moment sleep took him.
Jerking his feet down and sitting up with a start, he realized he wasn’t alone.
A person sat in the chair across from him. “I need your help,” the man said. His voice had the hollow sound of the wind through leaves, and his skin had a near translucence that was hard to gaze upon.
A ghost? Am I still asleep?
“Who are you, and who let you in?” For most of his early Presidency, Lincoln had maintained an open-door policy, but as the war stretched on, Edward had done an excellent job of slowing the crush of the Beggars Opera. Obviously, once in a while, someone still got past him.
“I am sorry I startled you Mr. President,” the apparition said, lifting an emaciated arm and running a fingertip over the ridge of a scar that shadowed what might have been an eye. “We need your help.”
Abe balled his fists and ground sleep from his own eyes, hoping to clear his vision and wake from the dream. “I am not sure I follow you,” the President said when the spirit refused to vanish. “What do you want from me?”
“Where I come from, we are facing what you have just overcome. My people live in slavery and have for many generations,” he said. He spoke slowly with a voice that sounded like he’d spent most of his life screaming. Or crying.
“I am sorry for your people’s plight, but why do you think I would be able to help you?” Lincoln looked around the room, trying not to stare.
“We know you brought these changes to your people, and perhaps you could inspire my people to do the same. We are truly desperate.”
“I understand how that can be. Slavery is an atrocity,” the President said. “But I don’t know who, or even what, you are. No offence to you personally.” Abe instantly regretted his words.
“None taken,” the man said, leaning forward slightly in the chair. “I am sure my unannounced arrival, and my appearance, are quite unsettling to you.”
“Perhaps a little,” Abe admitted, forcing himself to make eye contact with the person. “I am still not sure what you think I can do for you.”
“If you would consider coming back with me, you would be able to see how similar our situation is,” he suggested.
“Surely you aren’t proposing that I travel to wherever you live?” the President said. “This is a troubled time.”
“Time is often troubled, but your battles are through,” he said. “Your destiny has been achieved.”
“I will not abdicate my responsibility,” Lincoln said. “I took an oath to serve the people. Those were not empty words.”
“I understand your feelings, but there is much at stake,” the ghost said.
“My own nation is not yet back on its feet, and the ruptures we have in our society are nigh onto insurmountable.” He shook his head. “I cannot abandon my country now that the war has ended. Rebuilding peace is only just beginning for us.”
“Mr. Lincoln, you are such a charismatic figure. Surely you see how you could be influential in helping my people regain our freedom. We need someone like you. No, we actually need, you.”
“I am afraid my answer must be an unequivocal no,” Abe said.
“We expected you would say that. Perhaps, if I explained what the end result of your refusal may be?”
“No amount of persuasion will change my mind.” The President rose from his desk and nodded politely toward the door. “Now if you will excuse me, I have an appointment with the Vice-President.”
The specter refused to rise.
“Please do not make it necessary for me to have you removed,” Lincoln said, lowering his voice and reaching out for his call rope.
“Please do not do that, Mr. President,” he said, pleading.
As the ghost stood, the president saw for the first time how crippled he really was. One arm hung limply by his side, and his face had burned to the point where the skin seemed to be no more than a mass of scarred flesh.
In spite of having witnessed so many of his own troops maimed by the war, Lincoln’s mouth fell open in shock.
“I am sorry,” he said, apparently reading the President’s horror.
“No, it is I who should be sorry,” he said, casting his eyes down, ashamed to look into the face of the man. “Your people have obviously also suffered through a war.”
The apparition shook his head. “This is not from a war. It is the result of the atrocities our masters heap upon us. These are the ravages of monsters beyond your imagining.”
After several seconds Lincoln shook his head. “I cannot. Please, you need to leave now, before Mary comes in. She does not need to—”
“See the ugly truth?” he finished, bitterness clear in his hissing voice.
“Please. Just go.” Abe’s voice ground out the words slowly, dragging chunks of his soul with them. His hand touched the call rope, but he could not bring himself to pull it.
He struggled to clear his mind. I need to wake up now.
“You would not abandon your own people to slavery. Why would you expect that of me?” it asked.
When the President looked up, the specter stood there with an expression that might have been sadness. He watched as it made a gesture with its good hand.
Behind him another figure appeared, not quite visible through a suddenly blinding light. This one seemed to be solid, and far more human. Abe blinked several times in confusion before he collapsed forward unconscious over his desk.
The new person stepped around him, picking up the stovepipe hat that was sitting on the edge of the table. He set it lightly upon his own head. It fit perfectly, but of course it would.
Clearing his throat, he turned to face the apparition. “Take him home before he wakes.”
With another blinding flash, Lincoln vanished, leaving the new man in his place.
“Thank you, my friend,” the first one said. “Because of what you do here today in his place, he will finally have the chance to set his people free.”
“And perhaps this time it will last,” the newcomer said. “Do not let them forget again.”
Nodding, the ghost faded as the connection thinned. “Try to enjoy the play tonight, Mr. Lincoln. Primitive as it is, I understand that Ford’s Theater was a wonderful venue."
Staring into the now empty space of his office, he sat down and picked up the paper the original Lincoln had set on the books.
"In its time.”