Friday, May 11, 2018

The Sundipper Soundtrack

What do Jacques Offenbach and Cass Elliott have in common?


Their work is referenced in my current work in progress, "Fianchetto;" specifically, the duet "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" and Elliott's 1968 recording of "Dream a Little Dream of Me." The Offenbach piece is from the opera Tales of Hoffmann and is better known as the "Barcarole." It serves as the signature of a relationship between two of the characters, as does "Dream a Little Dream."

I've always had a strong attachment to using music in the stories I write. This was particularly true in my 1987 novel Sundipper. I think this reflects the essentially cinematic approach I often use when writing. I see scenes unfold like a film, with movement, dialog, and of course, music. For this blog entry I'd like to present the Sundipper 'soundtrack.'

In an early chapter, the protagonist, Matthew Lawton, launches his spacecraft into the Sun's chromosphere while listening to the first movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony, Eroica:

You! Yeah, you!

Later in his lonely mountaintop retreat in the Black Mountains of North Carolina, he consoles himself with the exquisite, desperately poignant First Violin Concerto by Sergei Prokofiev.

The man himself.
It's marvelous.

Lawton encounters the equally lonely widow of a powerful politician who has a secret of her own. Oh, and she's fascinated by the Music of Tin Pan Alley, and crooners from Perry Como to Dean Martin. She also collects LPs, and this was written in 1986, long before the current hipster revival of interest in vinyl. This is why I paid to quote song lyrics of the famous standard, "Till the End of Time," itself adapted from Chopin's Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53, the "Polonaise héroique".

Perry Como's version may be the most famous, but I like Sarah Vaughan's. The version I remember best, by the Ray Charles Singers, was played a lot on the radio when I was kid:

This is not by the Ray Charles who
gave us "I Got a Woman," but the stage
name of composer/arranger

or better yet,

Sasha, the widow, believes this kind of music is one of the pillars of human civilization. No, really. She has reasons for thinking so, and they're not merely tongue in cheek. 

"Shades," by Dean Martin

Lawton tries to wean her off mid century crooners and back to the classics, mentioning Prokofiev's Sixth Symphony as one of his choices. The Sixth is widely considered Prokofiev's elegy to the dead of World War II:

"Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These must not be forgotten."

In a far lesser way, this can be considered the end of the Sundipper soundtrack, as Prokofiev's words also apply to Matthew Lawton's fictional life.

"The light they carried went with them."

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Teaser: a bit from FIANCHETTO

I am currently at work on a new novel. The working title is "Fianchetto." For the first time in many years, this is being written entirely on spec, so it's unsold as well as unfinished--so far. 

The novel's premise goes back to my teenage years, though the plot has grown considerably since there. What follows is a short prelude to a long novel (it's at 154,000 words so far and I'm not finished). Despite the appearance of two kids in the prelude, this is not a YA story.

Pictures added just for fun. ;-)

1. In chess, the fianchetto (Italian:[fjaŋˈkɛtto]
"little flank") is a pattern of development
wherein a bishop is developed to the second
rank of the adjacent knight file, the knight
pawn having been moved one or two squares

2. An attack from the flanks;
an indirect maneuver

--after Wikipedia

[The formatting did not transfer, but it reads OK like this. The year is 2040; the setting is rural North Carolina.]

2040: Fish with Wings

The boy walked slowly, feeling his way across the slick stones with his toes. Sunlight, fractured by a million green leaves, played across the water. The cold creek streamed around his brown ankles, threads of green algae pulled taut by the current. Now and then his feet slid on the muck coating the submerged slabs of granite. He waved his arms quickly to keep his balance.

A few steps ahead, the girl walked confidently, wading in water halfway to her knees. She carried a windfall oak branch. Probing ahead with it, she was searching for loose rocks in the creek bed.

“Here's one,” she said.

The boy trudged forward, kicking up spray. She hissed at him to be quiet, lest he disturb their prey.

“Get the bag.”

He pulled a rolled-up burlap bag from his pocket. Rough jute twine was threaded through holes in the open end as a drawstring.

The girl put a finger to her lips. She bent down, lowering herself until her bottom was just above the cold, flowing water. Her brown hair, cut shorter than the boy's, had golden highlights where the splintered sunlight struck the back of her head.

“Take stick.”

He took it, letting it rest on his shoulder.

Slowly, the girl submerged her right hand in the stream. A flat stone the size of a dinner plate, rested on the creek bed between her feet. With great care she took hold of the far edge of the stone, not the side facing the current, and slowly lifted it. Gouts of mud swirled out, which were swiftly scoured away by the flow.

“Yes!” she said, drawing breath in through her teeth.

“Got one?” asked the boy.

She looked back at him, eyes bright. With a nod, she indicated he could come forward and see for himself.

He scooted his feet over the rock ledge, peering under the girl's arm until he saw what she'd found.

Beneath where the rock had been was a fine green crayfish, bigger than her thumb. Lying crosswise to the current, the creature seemed unaware its protection had been removed.

“Got the bag?” she breathed. The boy gave a slight grunt.

Her left hand plunged into the water. She meant to seize the crayfish by its carapace, but the water's diffraction caused her to miss. She got it by the head, and it got her by the hand.

Yelping, she bolted upward. The crayfish's claws were clamped on the thin web of skin between her thumb and forefinger. She danced a half circle in pain. Her free hand, streaming cold water, hit the boy in the face. He stumbled backward and sat down in the creek. Up in flash, he grabbed the crayfish and tried to yank it loose. The claws were clamped tight. She yelled louder, adding choice words about her companion's lack of brains.

“Hold still!” he replied. 

He grabbed the green monster still dangling from her hand. The boy got his fingernails into the joints of the claws and pried hard. One claw came loose. He attacked the other with both hands. Tears poured down the girl's face. Utterly focused, the boy worked and pried until the second claw opened. He even caught the crayfish by the tail before it hit the water. In one quick motion, he flipped the creature into the burlap bag.

As he tightened the drawstring, the girl wiped the tears from her face with the backs of her hands.

“That's one,” said the boy. “Only twenty-three to go.” That was their quota of crayfish for dinner tonight.

"That son of a bitch goes in the kettle first!" she vowed.

The girl cradled her injured hand. She had a blood blister the size of a coat button.

“I hate crayfish!” she declared.

The boy, soaked from the chest down, let the bag dangle from his wrist by the twine loop. He sloshed forward. She said nothing about knocking him down. He didn't complain.

Taking her hurt hand in his, he examined it closely.

“What're you doing?” He bent closer. “Don't touch it!”

Holding her hand delicately, forefinger and thumb apart, he brought it to his lips. She was about to protest, but she didn't say a word or pull her hand away. He kissed the swelling bruise.

Water flowed around them. Not until he gave the blister the slightest nip with his teeth did she gasp and snatch her hand away.

“You're weird,” she said. Since it was true, he didn't argue.

They slogged on, catching seventeen crayfish in all. The bag twitched and heaved when every new denizen of the not-so deep was added.

Thin pickings for all their work. They hoped the other kids were more successful.
They worked their way downstream until they reached the road by the old bridge. Here the creek was littered with slabs of concrete and ancient glass bottles. The boy dug in the water and pulled out a few of them, checking for readable labels. The girl retired to a sunny slab of macadam on the creek bank, warming herself in the early afternoon sun.

“Come out,” she said. “You'll get cut on that old glass.”

He held up a worn but intact bottle.

“What's this?”

She squinted against the sunshine. “Beer bottle.”

He displayed another container, this one tall and elegantly shaped.

“Coke bottle.”

“They used to put Coke in bottles?” he said, staring at the strange artifact.



She stretched out, pillowing her head with her uninjured hand. At thirteen, she still had skinny, coltish legs.

“They put Coke and beer in bottles to be portable, so you could take them home to drink,” she said, closing her eyes.

Strange idea, the boy thought. “Didn't they have paks for drinks?”

“No.” She was starting to sound annoyed. “Nobody did, those days.”

He debated with himself whether or not to take the bottles home. Frances wouldn't like him bringing in “relics of the selfish past,” as she was sure to call the bottles. She'd break them up, recycle them, as she did every piece of glass they used. Maybe he could hide them somewhere.

He set the bottles on a dry slab of concrete. Before he could join the girl on her sunning spot, he heard a noise high overhead. Curious, he picked his way across the man-made boulders until he could see a wider patch of sky. For several long moments the sound grew louder, but he couldn't see what was making the noise. It was steady, rumbling sound, with a high background whistle blended in.

“There!” he said pointing into the blue.

Far above, a white winged shape lumbered through the warm air.

“It's a machine! Flying! It's a—it's a--”

Jet plane.” The girl opened one eye. “Don't look at it,” she murmured. “It's wicked.”

He climbed up to the old bridge, never taking his eyes off the amazing thing in the sky. It had a long, streamlined body, shiny white like the minnows he sometimes chased in the creek. Its tail was fishy too, white rectangles swept back from the blunt end of the body. Only the long wings spoiled the fish illusion. They glittered like bare metal in the sunlight.

The jet rumbled on until it was lost behind the trees. The boy stood in the road for a long time, listening to the sound of its engines slowly fading away. Wind blew, stirring tall patches of grass erupting through the broken road.
He climbed back down to the creek. The girl was stretched out, unmoving. One hand was still under her head, the other arm bent across her face to shield her eyes from the light.

He stepped onto the macadam slab. The dark, pebbled surface was warm under his bare feet.

“Why is it wicked?” he asked.

Breathing slowly, the sleeping girl did not answer.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Manfred von Richthofen May 2, 1892 - April 21, 1918

Captain, Imperial German Air Service

One hundred years ago today, Manfred von Richthofen was killed in action over France during the First World War. He was twenty-five years old. 

Scion of an aristocratic Prussian family, he began his military career as a cavalryman, but the trenches and machine guns of the new world war made this role obsolete. He transferred to the air service rather than serve as a commissary officer. Not a natural pilot, he had to work hard to master the fragile planes of his time. He was a skillful hunter and deadly marksman however, and after mastering Albatros, Halberstadt, and Fokker fighter planes, he went on to shoot down 80 Allied aircraft. In later years it was not uncommon to contest his score, the highest of any pilot in World War I, but von Richthofen kept careful records of his victories, and his score is now generally held to be more accurate than most of his contemporaries.

Albatros D.I

Halberstadt D.II

Fokker Dr. I

He was shot down twice, once in March 1917, without injury, and again on July 7, 1917. This time he received a serious head wound. He survived, but many believe his abilities were impaired as a result of this injury.

His brother Lothar was likewise a successful fighter pilot. Lothar survived the war but died flying a commercial plane in 1922. Von Richthofen's cousin, Frieda, was married to British novelist D. H. Lawrence.

                     D. H. Lawrence, 1885-1930

Von Richthofen was killed on April 21, 1918, while pursuing British fighter pilot Wilfred May at low altitude. He was not shot down by an Allied pilot, but by Australian troops occupying that sector of the line. His death is a cautionary example of the phenomenon known today as 'target fixation,' in which a hunter is so preoccupied with his prey he fails to notice external dangers to himself.

One lucky S.O.B.

Von Richthofen gained renewed fame in the 1960s as a result of the 'Peanuts' comic strip. Snoopy the beagle had an ongoing fantasy about hunting 'the Red Baron' while flying his Sopwith Camel (i.e., his doghouse.) There was even a novelty song, "The Ballad of Snoopy and the Red Baron."

On behalf of all the fallen in World War I, I offer this small salute to the Red Baron. Tum somnum, venandi.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Excerpt from "Solid Gold Asteroid" (West End Books, 1994).

Here's the promised excerpt from my 1994 novella "Solid Gold Asteroid," as published in the anthology Shattered and Other Stories (West End Books).

Modern comments in red.

Gary tries to thwart Lark, but she manages to sic the Fleet on Gary. In the end, will free enterprise prevail over corrupt militarism and corporate greed? Find yourself a copy of Shattered and see!

I am deep into a new novel, (working title: Fianchetto) written on spec, so I've slowed down my blog entries. I won't give up though. 

Next: Under the Sea THE DARGONESTI (TSR, 1995)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Novella novella: SOLID GOLD ASTEROID

By 1994, FORBIDDEN LINES was on its last legs, and no new contracts were coming from TSR. I cast about for more work and found a company in Honesdale, Pennsylvania called West End Games. West End was founded in New York City in 1974, and named after the bar in which the founders met to organize the company. Like TSR, West End's original products were board war games. By 1984 they had come up with their first role playing game (RPG), Paranoia. Paranoia enjoyed a vogue through the early 1990s (I remember playing it back then), and is still around today. My tween-age children have played it recently. It's a deliberately annoying, comically bleak game about mostly stupid characters having to deal with conspiracies and hopeless bureaucracies battling each other for world supremacy--sort of like The Simpsons meet Brazil.

(West End Games, 1994)
Cover art by Randy Hamblin

The back cover. 

In its day, West End Games licensed some pretty popular media franchises for gaming purposes, such as:

Men in Black (as in the Will Smith films)

RPGs and tanks don't usually mix.

Hercules (i.e., the Kevin Sorbo TV show)

That's a pretty heavy lineup. They also produced original RPGs in the fictional universes of Paranoia, Torg, the D6 System, Metabarons, Septimus, and Shatterzone. Where I connect with West End was with the last named. Shatterzone was a space-based RPG with strong cyberpunk overtones. I was a big cyberpunk fan in those days, and when I discovered West End was doing an anthology of original, Shatterzone oriented stories, I got in contact with editor Greg Farshtey about submitting a story. As I recall, he agreed to an outline I put together called "Solid Gold Asteroid." In 1993 I wrote a fairly substantial novella by that name which was published in January 1994 by West End in the book Shattered and Other Stories.

"Solid Gold Asteroid" (hereafter "SGA") is part 1960s space drama with definite cyberpunk touches. It describes the lives of a trio of blue collar types who operate a space tug. Their job is to move other things around: bigger ships, space junk, cargo pods, and at the beginning of the story, a 10 kilometer wide antenna called Dark Echo I. The tug is named Blount Instrument after its owner/pilot, Gary Blount. 

("Blount" is pronounced "blunt," by the way. Hence Blount Instrument.

The hard working Gary Blount.
(Horst Janson, from Murphy's War, 1971)

Gary's communications guy is named Phoebus McFee, and his engineer is Jan Zuva. While struggling to align the antenna, which is far too big for the little tug, McFee picks up a telemetry signal from deep space. A robot probe has been surveying asteroids in the Shatterzone, and accidentally comes across one heavily laced with gold. The Shatterzone is like a Sargasso Sea in space, full of asteroids, wrecked ships, deadly radiation, and desperate fringe types, pirates, et. al. Not a healthy place to linger. 

At first, a gold asteroid is not very interesting to Gary, Phoebus, and Jan. The cost of recovering even tons of gold would not be profitable in deep space. However, detail assay reveals most of the gold is isotope 200, which in the Shatterzone universe is very rare and highly valuable as engine shielding in FTL spacecraft. There's enough Gold 200 in the asteroid to make Gary & Co. filthy rich for the rest for their lives. Naturally they decide to grab the asteroid before a big mining conglomerate can. 

At a raffish station called Blue Tortuga (I had a theme going here), Blount Instrument docks to take on fuel for the long haul to the Shatterzone. Jan and Phoebus go in for R&R, and Phoebus gets rolled by Gary's former lover and sharp operator Lark Kazantsev. Lark learns of the SGA and wants it for herself. Gary tries to stop her, but a race develops to the Shatterzone. On the way Blount Instrument is stopped by a scruffy Fleet corvette, the Furious, commanded by the corrupt Emil Naschy.

Naschy wants his cut.
(Peter Bull from The African Queen, 1951)

Naschy cuts himself in on whatever Gary makes on the SGA. Considering the firepower Naschy commands, Gary has no choice but to agree. 

Gary & Co. find Lark's ship, Larkspur, has cracked up on an asteroid. She's the only survivor. Now we get a twist: Lark, Gary's old lover, is a dead ringer for Gary's engineer, Jan Zuva.

Lark Kazantsev (l); Jan Zuva, (r).
(Merle Oberon, 1911-1979)

They're not twins, or clones. Jan's not actually human, she's a synthetic person, a biosynth. After Lark dumped Gary, he indentured himself for two years to pay for a duplicate of his old girlfriend. Jan's looks are based entirely on Gary's memories, but once alive, she develops her own personality, habits, and tastes. Guess what? She doesn't like Gary very much either.

Gary puts Lark to work, and together the four of them find the SGA and line up to push it out of the Zone. The huge bulk proves too much for Blount Instrument, and the SGA gets away, plowing through the Shatterzone towards open space. Outside the Zone, Naschy's ship has been taken over by corporate security men, and he's forced to take the SGA back as corporate property. No payday for our guys, and no kickback for Naschy either.

Sounds like a downbeat ending, but there's another twist I will not reveal here . . . copies of Shattered can be found.

West End Games did not survive the 90s, filing for bankruptcy in 1998 despite its plethora of big name franchise games. It was a hard time for the gaming industry. TSR hit the rocks at pretty much the same time, being bought out by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. As the new century began, the franchises to Star Wars and other valuable properties were lost, and popular original games like Paranoia were sold off. By 2016 most of West End's remaining assets had been disposed of. Personally, I don't know what happened to the Shatterzone RPG. 

I never played Shatterzone as a game, but I enjoyed writing "Solid Gold Asteroid." It was a comfortable length, a novella rather than a short story. My earliest attempts at science fiction resulted in a series of related novellas ("Dread Nymph," "Camouflet," "A Star Called Wormwood," et. al.), and I have always found the form congenial. Later I would contribute a novella to a Dragonlance anthology (The Players of Gilean), "Enter, a Ghost." Other than anthologies, there is very little market for stories of this length. 

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America define a novella as being between 17,500 and 39,999 words in length. 40,000 and above is a novel; 7,500 to 17,500 is a novelette, and below 7,500 is a short story.
Novellas that appear on multiple best-of lists
Animal FarmGeorge Orwell1945[15][16][18][19]
Billy BuddHerman Melville1924[16][19]
Breakfast at Tiffany'sTruman Capote1958[15][16]
A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens1843[15][16][18]
A Clockwork OrangeAnthony Burgess1962[15][17]
Ethan FromeEdith Wharton1911[16][17]
Goodbye, ColumbusPhilip Roth1959[17][19]
Heart of DarknessJoseph Conrad1899[16][17][18][19]
I Am LegendRichard Matheson1954[17][18]
The MetamorphosisFranz Kafka1915[15][16][18][19]
Of Mice and MenJohn Steinbeck1937[15][18]
The Old Man and the SeaErnest Hemingway1952[15][17][18][19]
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr HydeRobert Louis Stevenson1886[15][16]
The StrangerAlbert Camus1942[15][16][17]
The War of the WorldsH. G. Wells1898[16][19]
(from Wikipedia:
I haven't made the list yet.

The Shatterzone universe has a more adult feel to it than franchises like Star Wars or Buck Rogers. In practice this meant language and morality was more fluid (and adult) than in most space operas. The emphasis on biological and mechanistic interface shows the influence of cyberpunk ideas. "SGA" uses specialized slang and game terms (as required), which may be lost on a general reader at this late date, but that is a danger all SF faces. Trying to render 'future' slang is always problematic. I tend to minimize such terms in my own work. 

I forget who said it, but a wise writer has remarked that 'shit' will always be shit, no matter what you call it, so why make up a new term? Writer/editor Damon Knight also criticized superficial renaming of ordinary things in an SF story as the "Calling a rabbit a Smeep" fallacy. It's still a rabbit.

Next: A sample from "Solid Gold Asteroid."

The Sundipper Soundtrack

What do Jacques Offenbach and Cass Elliott have in common?               Their work is referenced in my current work in progress, ...