Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review and Analysis: The Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell

       Earlier I wrote an analysis of The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, and now I've finished reading the sequel.  In Goodreads, I gave it 4 stars, while I gave the first volume 5.  While I found the book rewarding and a must-read for anyone who wants to complete the story of Emilio Sandoz, there are certain reasons why I didn't enjoy it quite as much as the first volume.
       In the beginning I thought I might actually like the sequel even better because we learn so much more about the fascinating alien species that Russell created. However, certain technical details about the book make it a more difficult read.  The Sparrow jumped backward and forward in time, but there were only two basic time sequences and it was done in a very controlled and orderly way.  In Children of God several different time periods are involved and in some cases chapters are even broken between two times because the sections are too short for a whole chapter.  It's difficult to ascertain where particular happenings fit in relation to previous chapters.  A table of contents would help, making it easier to see the shape of the timeline at a glance.
       Because of the large geographic sweep of events, a map of the Rakhat lands in question (perhaps showing some of the migrations) would also help the reader to get a visual picture of events.
       As a writer myself, I get the sense that in The Sparrow Russell was writing from what I call inspiration.  I would bet anything that she had the whole story conceived in her head and all she had to do was transcribe it.  In Children of God, I sense more improvisation, more tentativeness.  It's as if she were thinking, "I've got to finish Emilio's story, but what should happen?   Well, this might work and this, but I'm not sure -- I'll have to try out some things ... "  She may have had the ending in mind (the essential business with the music and the DNA) and certain other events along the way, but a lot of the filling feels improvised.  She keeps introducing new characters with only a brief role in the plot.  And the end feels rushed to me, as if she were saying to herself, "This is getting too long -- let's hurry and get it over with."  And while the fight between the two champions was skillfully described, there is a sense of futility about it rather than a truly epic struggle, and the war that follows seems like a blip, important only for its outcome.  Of course, she is not really trying to write epic fantasy here, but rather philosophical and psychological speculation, so emphasizing the battles to a greater degree would likely be superfluous.
       In the author interview at the end of the book, Russell talks about how Chapter 21 was the hardest to write.  In it she summarizes 20 years of Rakhat history.   She says, "I rewrote that chapter a dozen times ... I tried a straight historical narrative and that didn't work.  I tried a lot of stuff, but ultimately the least bad solution to this narrative problem was to convey the information in a conversation between the two canniest political minds in the story. ...  It wasn't a perfect solution, but it was the best I was able to come up with ... "
       Well, I can certainly empathize with that!  What she's doing is breaking the rule of showing and not telling, but frankly I don't really subscribe to that rule!  Sometimes showing would require a whole novel in itself.  For the sake of brevity, you have to tell certain things.  In my Termite Queen I used a chunk of 8 printed pages to summarize 900 years of Earth's future history. Certainly there was no way I could put that whole history in narrative form, and it would feel highly artificial to have two characters sit down and discuss it in that much detail.  So I simply chose to put it in a knotty chunk, which readers can skim or even skip if they want to (although I don't recommend doing that!).  It was the "least bad solution"!
      Now, I must touch on the theology and philosophy, because I think Russell achieved her purpose. In the author interview, she speaks about needing to solve Emilo's dilemma: "Either God is vicious -- deliberately causing evil or at least allowing it to happen -- or Emilio is a deluded ape who's taken a lot of old folktales far too seriously. That may not be good theology, but at the beginning of Children of God Emilio believes those are his only choices: bitterness or atheism, hatred or absurdity."
       Russell always works from the premise that  there is a God who has a purpose for us.  The almost inarticulate Isaac enunciates to Sandoz the ultimate conclusion here: "It's God's music.  You came here so I could find it," thus revealing to Emilio the purpose for his suffering: that the fact humans and aliens are all children of God could indeed be "proven" through a scientific construct.  Even though I don't work on that premise, there is a similarity between that statement and my Mythmaker Precept No. 19: Take joy in sharing your genetic heritage with all the bio-organisms of this planet, and of the universe.  My statement is less lyrical, but the idea of the music of the spheres being encapsulated in the DNA of all biological organisms is strikingly similar.  So even though my premises are humanist and I don't try to maintain that these things were "God's purpose" (something I feel we can't prove), nevertheless I can see a strong connection here between what Mary Doria Russell is trying to say and what I'm trying to say in all of my own writings.  In my world, Emilio would have a third choice -- to view both good and evil as coming from the inner nature of humanity and of those who share in the qualities that make us human -- those who have evolved the power to reject evil and find the Right Way within themselves.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mythmakers: Precept No. 9: Conduct Your Wars with Words, Not Weapons

       I've been reading many blog posts discussing the school shooting in Connecticut since that terrible event took place and I had had no intention of contributing anything to the mix.  However, it seems the right time for me to discuss the Mythmaker philosophy as it relates to the gun situation.  Opinions are all over the map.  The weapons advocates are yelling, "Arm all the teachers!  Let anybody who is a threat be blasted into hell, because they're worthless, anyway!  That's the way to stop violence!"  [Really?]  And the other side is yelling,  "Legislation to control guns is the only answer!  Enforce stricter controls!  More background checks!  Get rid of guns!"
       Now, I tend toward the latter viewpoint, I confess.  Personally, I have no use for guns and would like to see them out of private hands altogether.  But achieving that goal is not practical.  And what is the Mythmaker position?
       (Just a quick parenthetical remark on the 2nd Amendment.  I consider it antiquated.  The Constitution was written over two centuries ago.  We no longer need a "well-regulated militia" of civilians because we have a standing army.  Even the Pope changes the laws of the Catholic Church from time to time.  And that is supposedly "sacred" law, while this is man-made!) 
       Two of the Mythmaker Precepts which apply here are as follows:
No. 9: Conduct your wars with words, not weapons.
No. 15:  Evolution has failed to structure the human organism for moderation; nevertheless the ability to recognize and strive for this virtue distinguishes human beings from other animals.
[Corollary:  The human organism is not innately a peaceful animal, but its ability to recognize and strive for peace sets it apart from other animals.]
[Corollary:  Moderation promotes peace.]
       What is the situation in my future history? -- the period that comes after Global Unification in 2690?  I'm going to quote from an earlier post of mine, which can be read in its entirety here:
        "On my future Earth there are no nationalistic boundaries. Earth is united and while administrative regions exist, freedom of movement is universal. No passports, no visas. One currency. If you come from Scandinave and you want to work in Ostrailia, all you have to do is buy a ticket on a flyer, disembark, find a place to live, and go to work. People may be encouraged to move to certain parts of the planet in order to equalize the distribution of the population, but nobody is forced to do that. And it's true that everybody has an ID number so the Demographic Authority can keep statistics, but each individual has only one such number for the whole planet.
        "There is no army because there are no countries to fight one another, but there is a Terrestrial Security Force (known as TeSeF [pronounced "Tessef"] in the 28th century.  ...  The primary function of TeSeF is keeping the peace -- police work, basically -- making sure that the planet remains a safe place to live. TeSeF members do have access to guns (which have become energy weapons by the 30th century), but they don't always carry them. Private gun ownership is forbidden. Now, I can hear the outraged screams, and I can hear people saying, "Boy, that situation is really ripe for abuse!" but the Security Force buys into its role and it works. And without guns in the general population, the opportunities for murder and mayhem are reduced (you never get rid of that sort of thing entirely)."
       You see, after the planet nearly destroyed itself, both environmentally and through vicious warfare, people began to buy into the idea that we must have no more war.  But wars can be fought between two people or between one person and a group, which is what happens in these mass slaughters that are becoming frighteningly common.  So how do we stop or at least minimize this sort of personal war?  How do we achieve Mythmaker peace and moderation?
       First, I want to say, none of this can be achieved with a snap of the finger or by yelling that we MUST DO SOMETHING.  It's a bit like the decline in tobacco use or the partial elimination of racism -- it requires a social and cultural attitude change, and that sort of change comes very slowly, through example, through education, through (regrettably) the natural attrition of the older, more rigid elements of society.  People have to be taught to settle conflict through words -- through talking --and not through warfare, through violence.  And unfortunately, the trend right now seems to be in the other direction -- toward a culture that worships violence in all forms -- that makes games and entertainment out of explosions, car crashes, displays of bloodletting and exploitation and, most of all, shooting of firearms.
       It could be that we really must endure a collapse of civilization before we get our heads on straight and permit the moderation that Precept No. 15 discusses to gain the upper hand and give us a peaceful world.
       However, there are some things we can do right now.  We can start with small steps.  Nobody in this country, or perhaps in the world, would allow the government to confiscate all the millions of guns that are in private hands.  We really would have a war on our hands, wouldn't we? -- if the government tried to do something like that!  But we could pass legislation to ban future sales and possession of the type of weapon that shoots multiple rounds -- the assault rifles and handguns.  If you have to stop to reload after 6 shots, you can't kill as many people.
       One of the most fearsome aspects of  guns is that they kill at a distance.  If Adam Lanza had gone into that school armed with a machete and a baseball bat,  could he have killed 26 people in a few minutes?  I doubt it.  If he could have even gotten in without shooting out the glass, he might have killed three or four or possibly a few more than that, but somebody surely would have taken him down before he killed 26.  Instead, I believe I heard that those guns were in his home; he had easy access to them.  Nobody should have assault-type multiple-round-shooting guns in their home, even if they lock them up.  If somebody is breaking into your house, do you need to spray them with 50 bullets?  Six would do the job, even if you were a novice and had horrible aim.
       The next small thing that could be done is to ban the production for commercial sale of assault weapons that shoot multiple rounds.  Let the hunters have their hunting rifles and let the police have the weapons they need to keep the peace but keep careful track of those weapons.  Make possession of guns a privilege rather than a right.  Close most of the gun stores.  Make them like the medical marijuana dispensaries; space them out at wide distances.  Make people have to go farther to reach them.  Maybe make background checks mandatory when people buy ammunition.  And keep careful guard on military weapons (since we're centuries away from eliminating warfare).  They should be destroyed when their use in warfare is finished and never allowed to enter general circulation.
       Then let these changes settle in.  Keep it gradual.  Don't try to solve all problems at once, with sweeping, extreme, hysterical legislation (moderation, remember, moderation!)  People have to get used to change.  After a number of years, people will not only be saying, "Remember how people used to go around with smelly cigarettes hanging out of their mouths?  Wasn't that a nasty thing?  How did we put up with it?" -- they will also be saying, "Remember when everybody thought they needed to tote a gun in their pocket for self-defense?  What a scary scenario that was!  How did we ever put up with it?"
       You start small.  Nothing changes right away.  But a century from now the world would be a safer place.  In the meantime, you educate, you teach people to talk and not fight, to work in a rational and responsible manner, to take responsibility for their own actions, to recognize that all humans are the same species and have the same right to live an unthreatened life.
       And one additional note: We need to recognize what is stated in Precept No. 5: "Humans will never succeed absolutely in achieving these goals; nevertheless striving for right action is its own purpose."  Humans will always be imperfect and that includes those imperfections called mental illness.  Compassion is the key here.  You don't lock up every person who exhibits aberrancy -- that would be to return to medieval times.  But it isn't compassionate to keep guns where unstable or even just immature people can get their hands on them.  It makes killing too easy.  Do everything possible to minimize the availability of guns and terrible events like those that happened in Connecticut and Aurora and Phoenix and elsewhere will surely become rare rather than commonplace.
Click here to see all my Mythmaker posts, in reverse order.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What You May Not Know about "The Termite Queen"


       In the early days of this blog, I wrote a lot about the books I was planning to self-publish -- first, "Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder" and later The Termite Queen: v.1: The Speaking of the Dead and The Termite Queen: v.2: The Wound That Has No Healing.  I've also used this platform to talk about my ideas, specifically, my Mythmaker philosophy.  But then I got into book reviewing, nostalgia posts, poetry discussions, English grammar, excerpts from my WIPs, etc.  Somewhere in there, my intent to publicize my books has gotten lost.  Not very many people were following my efforts way back in 2011, so today I'm going to refresh the world's knowledge of The Termite Queen!  What is that book about, andway, and why what makes it a great read?
         Here are adaptations of the summaries as posted on Amazon:
Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead:
       In the 30th century an off-world expedition returns to Earth with a specimen of giant termite whose behavior suggests intelligence. Kaitrin Oliva, a strong-willed and ambitious young linguistic anthropologist, is charged with finding a way to access its unique form of bioelectric communication. However, the insect dies and the team members realize that they have unintentionally murdered an intelligent lifeform. A second expedition is mounted with the purpose of making first contact and reparations. Griffen Gwidian, the entomologist heading the expedition, is a complex man with a dark personal secret. He falls in love with Kaitrin and against her better instincts Kaitrin responds. The result is a love story by turns turbulent and funny, passionate, tender, and troubled, with Griffen displaying some disquieting changes of mood and behavior after the two of them seal a union.
       Meanwhile, civil discord is brewing on the termite planet. Mo'gri'ta'tu, the Queen's Chamberlain, resents the power of the Holy Seer Kwi'ga'ga'tei and plots to assassinate her. She has engaged the services of an outland Champion, Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head, to fight this terrifying entity which has descended on them from the skies, murdered one of the fortress's citizens, and abducted another. This alienates the aging Commander Hi'ta'fu the Unconquered, who is lured by the word-crafty Chamberlain into joining the conspiracy. At the very moment the murder is about to be committed, the second expedition arrives at the planet.
Volume Two: The Wound That Has No Healing:
         The team arrives at the planet to a combative reception, but, aided by Kaitrin's insights into the termites' unique language, the "Star-Beings" and the Shshi are soon communicating and learning to know each other. The Shshi accept Kaitrin as a friend and even come to revere her as the Mother of her people. The dastardly Mo'gri'ta'tu's initial plot to murder the Holy Seer Kwi'ga'ga'tei has been foiled by the sudden reappearance of the Flying Monster, but he continues to foment new conspiracies. Meanwhile, Griffen's inexplicable insecurities escalate.  Ultimately, these two plotlines -- the story of Kaitrin's and Griffen's relationship and the social and political unrest within the fortress -- intersect in an explosive climax, after which the team must return to Earth and try to come to terms with what they have experienced.
       Volume One is easy to discuss because it's really preliminary -- we observe the fascinating process of learning how to communicate with a species who speaks in a non-vocal language; we experience the relationship of a strong-willed woman with a mysterious, charismatic man as it grows and changes into an intense love story; we meet other intriguing alien races; and we prepare for a space voyage in an alien ship and then experience that voyage.
       In Volume Two the action intensifies, but unfortunately unless I want to play the spoiler, I can't discuss the intricacies of the plot in much detail.  We watch the first contact take place, with all its uncertainties and humorous misunderstandings.  We watch the relationship of the Shshi and the Earthers grow in depth.  We gain fascinating insight into what it is like to be a giant termite and to live in a termite fortress.  And we observe the painful psychological progress of a complex man and of a woman who to that point has never failed to get what she wanted. We get to know some other compelling characters, including the woman who raised Griffen Gwidian, his older sister Rianna Gwidian-Bock.  We see Kaitrin's mother, Brigit Oliva, at her finest.  And we continue to learn about the extraterrestrial characters, Prf. Tió’otu A'a'ma, the big fish eagle who is Kaitrin's mentor; Luku !eye Kash, the ComTech who is a Te Quornaz (a giant intelligent lemur); and Trea dol Amarezka, the expedition's doctor, a small, empathic montreme from the planet Pozúa (a mysterious, Wise-Woman figure).
       I think many people who have bought v.1 never bought v.2 and that's definitely a mistake.  Vol. 2 is where the whole plot comes together.  An epic climax occurs at the end of Part III and near the end of Part IV Kaitrin experiences an epiphany and then returns to the termite planet to right some wrongs.  So you really should not miss reading v.2.  In fact, although I don't recommend it, you could even read v.2 without having read v.1.  You will miss out on a lot of background depth and you'll never get to meet Ti'shra, the termite abducted by (human) aliens, but reading v.2 separately is not outside the realm of possibility.

[Added for the Old-Post Hop: And it's good for birthdays, too!]


Friday, December 7, 2012

The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, Ch.4


Here is yet another installment of my unfinished novel, "The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars," a fictionalized biography of Capt. Robbin Nikalishin, the starship Captain who made the first contact with extraterrestrials in the 28th century (some 2.5 centuries before the time of "The Termite Queen"). I already posted the Prologue to that book, as well as Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3. In keeping with my method of alternate flash-backs and flash-forwards, Chapter 4 chronologically follows Chapter 2.  Robbie's mother has just left his abusive father (in Barsilia) and moved herself and her 8-year-old son to Lunden.  In this chapter we make the connection between Robbie and the events of the Prologue. 
Chapter 4: School Days at Epping Academy
(2740, Lunden; Epping Science Academy)
       After their return to Britan, Sterling Nikalishin and her son stayed for a few months with her parents.  It was a difficult transition; the ten years that had passed since Sterling left for Arentina had changed her so much that she and her parents no longer understood each other.  So she found work for herself as quickly as she could, proofreading Spainish documents for the Government Linguistic Office.  It was not a high-paying job, but it allowed her to rent a fourth-floor walk-up in Lunden’s Brickston District, with a living room/kitchen combo, one bedroom, and a large walk-in storage closet that she converted into a snug bedroom for Robbie.  It wasn’t luxurious, but the neighborhood was respectable and it was near a Gov school that Robbie could walk to, sparing them the expense of public transportation.
       At first the boy found his new life pretty daunting, although he would never have admitted it.  He had barely gotten used to the school near his grandparents’ dwelling before he had to transfer to the Brickston institution.  He had been accustomed to the ragtag assortment of children in Dois Palmas’s automated school, where a single tech-trained teacher simply presented canned lessons on a portscreen and tried to answer questions.  There he had been the star pupil in his age group; here he lagged behind in everything.  It was humiliating, but it drove him to work extra hard and to put up a tough façade.  He was always getting into fights over some insult; the children made fun of his accented Inge, of his ignorance of British customs, of his less-than-stylish clothes.  The wardrobe problem was quickly rectified – his grandparents made sure of that.  He supposed grandparents could be useful after all, for more than simply carping on your behavior.
       And the other difficulties – the accent, the academic lag – those quickly took care of themselves.  In a couple of years, he was in the top quarter of his class and was speaking Inge and deporting himself like a true Brit.  The tough front and chip on the shoulder, however, were qualities that he made no attempt to shed.  His name turned up with some frequency on the disciplinary list.
       It was during this period that Sterling introduced Robbie to the Lunden Zoological Park.  A viral infection had killed all the macaws, but the llamas were still there, and the zoo nurtured a wealth of other exotic animals that were sure to fascinate a small boy.  The area around Dois Palmas had been pretty much sterilized during the Radiant Wars; every last amphibian and a lot of the arthropods had been wiped out, and it had been necessary to reintroduce the insects and birds required for the pollination of palm tree plantations.  The only large avians that Robbie had ever seen were a pair of soaring condors during the excursion to Patagon.  The sight had taken his breath away and reinforced his yearning to fly.
       So it was at the Lunden Zoo that he first experienced raptors – falcons, goshawks, golden eagles, bald eagles from Northwest Quad, and even a martial eagle from Afrik.  The martial eagle was in a high-sided enclosure that was open to the sky.  The bird crouched on a snag just above ground level, spreading its two-meter wingspan and snaking its head, its daunting beak agape.  Its fierce golden eyes refused to acknowledge its imprisonment, daring the humans outside its bars to pity it.
       Mesmerized with awe, Robbie said, “There’s no roof on the cage.  Why doesn’t he fly away?”
       Sterling read the informational placard.  “It says the bird’s name is Survivor.  It’s from Southern Afrik.  It was being shipped to Britan to take part in a breeding program and it got loose and started preying on newborn lambs down in Kent.  A farmer talked the local Security contingent into shooting it.  Oh, Robbie, isn’t that terrible!  It says both its wings were broken and the tip of the left one had to be amputated.  See how the right wing droops crooked?  It says here it’s unable to fly now.”
       This vision of an eagle named Survivor who couldn’t fly bit into Robbie’s soul and remained with him all his life.  And that visit to the Zoo left him with a bird obsession; every species fascinated him, but he was particularly drawn to birds of prey.  Secretly, he wished that he was named not for a little red-breasted thrush, but for a falcon perhaps, or an eagle; Peregrine or Martial would have been lovely.
       When Robbie was ten, the school administrators asked Sterling to come for a conference.  She complied with some alarm; Robbie didn’t always tell her everything, and she was certain that they would say he was going to be expelled for fighting and insolence, or exiled to a disciplinary institution.  But instead the Chief Administrator said to her, “Your son’s performance is above average in every academic subject, but were you aware that he approaches the genius level in mathematics?”
       Sterling was astounded.  She knew that Robbie liked math and had no difficulty wrapping his mind around it, but it was not something for which she herself had any aptitude and she had had no idea that at the age of ten he was on the verge of mastering advanced algebra.
       “When you ask him what he wants to do with his life,” the Administrator said, “he invariably says he wants to fly space planes and usually adds that he means to fly to a star one day … ha, ha!  What fantasies children come up with!  He is just a little boy, after all.  But he really does have the aptitude to become a theoretical or applied mathematician or a physicist … or this interest in stars and flying could lead to a career in astrophysics or engineering.  Certainly, he needs to be steered in those directions – to have special training in the physical sciences.  Consequently, we would like to recommend him for a tuition scholarship at Epping Science Academy – have you ever been there?  Beautiful place!  It’s a preparatory school with both basic and advanced Forms, located on the fringes of the Epping Forest Conservation Area – great for studying the natural sciences, don’t you know?  But the school is equally renowned for excellence in the physical sciences.  Not only will they be able to actualize Robbin’s academic potential – they will also have time to give him individual attention and deal with this – ah – independent streak that he exhibits on occasion …  The application of the right kind of discipline will mold him into a better adult. 
       “Attending a private school of that caliber, however, carries some financial burden for the family.  There are expenses over and above tuition – things like uniforms and  room and board – it’s a residential school – and Epping plays in a top football conference, so there could be athletic fees.  Robbie is a sturdy little boy and I’m sure they’d welcome him on the playing field.  Do you think you can handle that much additional expense?”
       And so the world was turned upside down all over again, for Sterling as well as for Robbie.  She felt an urgent obligation to nurture her son’s emerging talents and ensure a successful future for him, and so she quit her job and moved them to Scholastic Village, a town built to accommodate people associated with the Academy when it was founded some fifty years before.  Robbie would still be required to reside in the dormitories, but Sterling would be nearby and they would save the costs of Off-Day transportation to and from Lunden.  She found a job as a com clerk and transcriptionist with the Village administration; it paid even less than her old position and she had to beg a loan from her parents to get their lives started.  She said nothing to Robbie about their precarious financial situation.
       He resisted the move at first, especially after the school administrator told him he would not only learn academic subjects but also acquire the discipline to grow into a fine human being.  “You’ll be expected to follow a great many rules,” he said.  “Do you think you can do that, Robbin?”
       “I doubt it,” he said bluntly.
       “Well, I think you should give it a try.  It’s a great sacrifice your mother is willing to make for you, you know – you should make an extra big effort to help in the process.  I assure you, after you grow up, you’ll be glad you did.”
       Afterward, Robbie said to Sterling, “I don’t want to go there, Mum.  I don’t like rules.  I want to do things my own way.”
       “And just how will you know what your own way is if you don’t have an education?” she said.  “It takes an education to understand life, and getting one takes discipline and some sacrifice.  If I’d had the sense to go to university instead of that tech school, my life might have been a lot different.”
       Robbie looked at her and said, “You wouldn’t have had me if you had.  Would that be better?”
       She returned his gaze, and then knelt down and took his face delicately between her fingertips.  “When you put it like that, son, I guess it was the right thing for me to do.  But, Robbie, everybody has to learn discipline, especially self-discipline.  You have no idea how much discipline is involved in flying one of those spaceships you love so much.  And just look at your father.  See where a lack of self-discipline got him.  Do you want to be like that?”
       He wriggled away from her, his face twisting into a distressed frown.  “No.  No, I don’t want to be like him.”
       And so he acquiesced.  In fact, he wasn’t that sorry to escape the tedium of a Gov school, where the program tended to be geared for the lowest common denominator.  Besides, he would get to live near unpopulated land again, where there might be wild birds.  And he was hoping he would be able to get a good view of the British stars, something hard to do in Lunden even with the restrictions on nighttime lighting. 
       However, the youngsters who attend such expensive private institutions tend to be a rather elite group, and Sterling was a little afraid that her son would find himself in over his head socially.  The Unification Charter had outlawed class distinctions worldwide, but anyone who had grown up in the Islands knew they were bred in Brits’ bones, even with the nobility and the monarchy barely a memory.  But she didn’t tell him that either.
       And Sterling was right to be concerned.  Robbie immediately sensed that he wasn’t fitting in, and while he had superficially accepted the need for discipline, putting that into practice was another matter.  His non-conformist streak was stubborn; adhering to schedules galled him and he resented being judged on how he made his bed and how he held his fork at breakfast.  Furthermore, some of his peers baited him as an outsider.  He especially resented being named a Mummy’s boy because he invariably left the dormitory on Saturday nights and spent the Off-Day with Sterling in the Village.  But such baiting only stiffened his resolve to be himself; his attitude was “I won’t change what I am for any bastard!”  The first six months of his tenure were rough, with predictable episodes of scuffling and rule infractions and numerous sessions with the Disciplinary Officer. 
       However, stubborn as Robbie was, he was also a pragmatist, and he decided on his own that the benefits of being where he was outweighed his reluctance to alter his behavior.  He grew into, if not a model Epping cub, at least an acceptable one.  And he soon became socially toughened as well; the difficulty with his peers amounted to not so much open warfare as subtle shunning – not legions of bullies but cliques of backbiters.  He soon began to use his raggers’ own methods against them, learning to be as arrogant as anyone, with a gift for an ironic turn of phrase that few could match – a tactic that he employed only toward those who were arrogant with him.  There were other social outsiders like himself, and he never showed that kind of attitude to them; he won their friendship by displaying the natural charm and sense of fairness that formed another facet of his character.  Before long he was their leader.  He tried not to let them know that he needed them as much as they needed him.
       Then there were the girls, who in the basic forms tended to form coteries of their own, scorned and harassed by the boys, who relished flaunting their convictions about male superiority.  Robbie never behaved like that; he was too young to be interested in the sexual aspects of female associations, but he always treated the girls civilly and had no objection to eating lunch at the same table with them or working on projects where girls happened to be in the majority.  He was discovering that running the show was pretty easy for him, and therefore he had no need to practice dominance by being a bully.
       Academically Robbie adapted well; any difficulties he had came from spending too much time on his math and science assignments and skimping on the humane subjects.  Epping was a science academy, but its administration strongly believed that a broader education was essential to mold a complete person.  And it was not that Robbie disliked subjects like literature and history; he enjoyed reading and the story of the planet’s recent Dark Age affected him profoundly.  He had an introspective streak and he realized that the classes where Mythmaker concepts were analyzed and debated were just the edge of what was to be discovered in the realm of moral philosophy.  Nevertheless, he understood that math and physics were the subjects that would get him where he wanted to go, although the natural sciences, and especially ornithology, also had their attractions for him.
       Robbie quickly made a best friend – another outsider: a boy from Eira.  His name was Kolm MaGilligoody, and his talent was also for math and physics, although his inclination was towards applications rather than theory, and he planned to become some kind of engineer.  They hit it off from their first encounter, when they found themselves side by side combating taunts about their difficult names.  Kolm’s home across Sainjorge’s Channel was just a little too far away to visit except during major holidays, so the Eirish boy often spent the Off-Days with Robbie and his mother.
       On one of these visits, Robbie introduced his new friend to the stars.  Robbie had been thrilled to discover that here in Britan he was still able to pick out the constellation of Eridanus, along with many unfamiliar stars.  With electric torch and new star-charts in hand, he and Kolm would go up to the roof terrace of the building, where they had a view of the whole horizon.  There, they would lie on their backs bundled up in anoraks and blankets against the autumn chill while Robbie pointed out celestial bodies and named them. 
       “Holy cry, ye say those names like they’re a bit religious,” whispered Kolm.
       “Hell, no, I’m not religious,” said Robbie.
       “What makes that one there so extra-special?  It’s nothin’ as bright as those other two … what’d ye call ’em?”
      “That’s Rigel and that’s Beteljewz.  Those two are both first magnitudes and Rigel is the 7th brightest star in the sky.”
       “Ye said the wee one ye like so much doesn’t have a fancy name, even.”
      “It’s just Epsilon Eridani.  If they haven’t got an ancient descriptive name, they call them by the constellation name plus a letter of the Griek alphabet.  Remember when Ms. Pitcock taught us about the Griek alphabet?  I never knew what ‘epsilon’ and ‘alpha’ and all those words meant before that.  Anyway, Epsilon Eridani is the nearest star that they know for sure has planets around it.  They probably aren’t like Earth, but just the same …  And it’s only 10.5 light years away.”
       “Ye know how horrible far a light year is, Robbie?”
       “Of course I do, but still, 10.5 is close when you think Rigel is 775 and Beteljewz is maybe 500.  Besides … ”  Robbie lowered his voice mysteriously.  “You know what?  I think there are aliens on those planets.”
       “Ye’re raggin’ me!  What do ye think they look like?”
       “I think they’re tall and thin, with small heads and long silver hair, and they wear shimmery, silver robes, and have powers that you can’t imagine.”
       “Just that?  That’s not soundin’ so scary.”
       “Why do aliens have to be scary?” said Robbie in disgust.  “You’ve watched too many space-bug stories on the links, Kolm.  I think they’re benevolent.  And I’m going there someday and find out.  Why don’t you come with me?”
       “Holy cry.  Now ye are raggin’ me.”
       “No, I mean it.  I’ll pilot the ship … ”
       “A ship like that grand little flyer with the star on his nose that ye have in yer room?”
       “Just like that.  You can be … let’s see, what would the pilot of a star-ship need?  Oh, I know, an engineer – that’s the sort of work you like.  Why don’t you go to Flight Academy with me?  You can keep the engines working and I’ll fly the ship.”
       “What sort of engines will the thing have?” said Kolm.
       “I don’t know.  Some kind of ultra-super physics thing based on an application of Iven Herinen’s quantum temporal equations.  I don’t think it’s been invented yet.”
       “Oh, well, then, it’s tomorrow we’ll be goin’, or the next day at the latest!  Robbie lad, we’ll both be doddery old men afore we can go.  Ye got to be just about the most impractical pup ever whelped in the world.”  And he jumped up and pretended to stagger around with an imaginary cane.  Robbie joined him and soon they were both tromping around the rooftop laughing uproariously, causing the tenant of the flat below to pop out of the stairwell and shake his fist at them.
       Then they descended again to the warm reality of Sterling’s flat and Robbie’s mother made hot chocolate for them.
Coming next:
Chapter 5: The Captain Takes Command of the Red Planet

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Re Facebook: You Learn Something New Every Day

       Some of you know that I just created a "page" on Facebook (I already had a personal page.)  It's here if you want to go "like" me. 
      Creating the page was a bit like navigating a maze, and I've been wondering just why having  this page is supposed to do me so much good in marketing my books. I didn't really understand about the ads business in the right-hand column.   I had always thought there was a charge for advertising on Facebook, but then I thought, well, maybe when you take a page, you get some ads free. So I went through the process of setting up an ad.  After filling in all the little boxes, you get to the bottom.  Yep!  Every time somebody clicks on your ad, you get charged $1.10 or some such figure.  Nowhere in all the earlier instructions did they mention that!  I got out of there as fast as I could!  I don't want to pay for something that gives no assurance anybody will buy the book just because they click on the ad.  Maybe that's shortsighted -- maybe if I had Facebook ads, I'd sell a thousand copies of my books this month -- but I think the way they go about getting their ads is deceptive, so that's not for me, at least not yet.  They should tell you upfront, here is what we'll charge you if you advertise with us.
       What do some of the rest of you other self-publishers do?  If you have a Facebook page, do you pay for ads?  Do you get any benefit from them?