The Best of the Year

Most Fridays over at the online rag Fantasy Magazine there is a “Blog for Beer” contest in which they give $10 cash on the barrelhead for the best F/SF comment – either a bit of original work, a review, or whatever. This last week they decided to have a special year-end version of that contest, with a bigger prize and more time to post. Entries were to be on the theme “The Best of the Year”.

What the heck, I figured, and the other night I jotted out a little blurb that in the end really had nothing to do with fantasy or science fiction. It was an OK mood piece though, a late-night ramble through a quiet part of my head, perhaps closer to the spirit of flash fiction than most things that use that name. It needs some work to be actually good, but it was a decent rough draft. It didn’t follow the contest guidelines but I went ahead and posted it anyway.

My post was followed by a very complimentary post by a guy who recently quit his job at the post office to become a writer. Judging by his comment, he may be hoping to be the Bukowski of fantasy. I’ll let you decide from there.

Since then the comments over there have been pretty quiet. I’d feel pretty good about my chances to bring home the bacon if I had somehow found a way to include some sort of Fantasy or SF element, but in the end they just didn’t fit. (Unless you count a wee bit of license with meteor showers, but heck, Arthur C. Clarke moved Sri Lanka south.) There are hints of things going on that, if expanded, might invite some sort of fantasy explanation, but they are not explored in the blurb at all.

Of course that leaves the door wide open for you, faithful readers, to post something profound or entertaining that has something to do with the genre, and scoop up a book or three. Plus, you can make the editors feel better about their contest, so they’ll be more interested in doing it again. And remember, every Friday there’s ten bucks of beer money on the line. While you’re over there, hang out and read a couple of stories. I haven’t read the latest one, but a couple of them in the past have been pretty good.

Just for giggles, I’ll go ahead and reproduce what I wrote over there, but you really should follow the link and see what other folks have wrought.

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The Best of the Year

He stood in the darkened hallway of his childhood home, listening to the silence. Waiting for something, maybe. A nudge in one direction or another, or the echo of a voice from long ago. The memories sifted and stirred, but none rose into view. On nights like this he believed in ghosts.

“What are you doing?” Claire’s voice came from the guest bedroom — once his room — and sounded sleepy.

“Nothing. Just thinking.” He walked into the room and in the pale moonlight for a moment he thought he saw Gwen there instead; it was Gwen who had always wanted the curtains open even in that south-facing room. She had complained about the sun every morning, but would never consider sleeping where she couldn’t see the sky. Now it was he who felt trapped when the blinds were closed, and Claire who patiently tolerated his idiosyncrasy.

“Now, honey, remember what the doctor said about thinking. It’s bad for you.” She tried to keep her voice light, but he could tell she wasn’t really joking. There is a time for thinking, a time for the mysteries of life and the mad world we occupy, and there’s a time to lie quietly in your lover’s arms, knowing nothing but the scent of her and the heat where her skin touches yours.

“Let’s go for a walk,” he said.

“Are you kidding? It’s freezing outside.”

“But there’s no wind. Once the moon goes down it’ll be perfect.”

“But…”

“There’ll be meteors.” They had a tradition of kissing whenever they saw a falling star. “It’s the Quadrantids. The best of the year.” He heard an echo when he said it, like deja vu but not quite; the last time he had been the one in bed.

Claire smiled seductively and flipped the covers back, showing her skimpy nightie. Her Christmas gift to him. “Come on to bed, sweetie.”

He felt the pull of her, her form indistinct in the darkness but radiating heat. He took a step toward the bed when a flash of light streaked across the sky outside. “I just need to go out for a while, have a look,” he said, but he knew he was lying.

When Claire heard the door close she knew he was gone. She had felt him slipping away almost the moment they met, as she cast her net and drew him in gently, ever so slowly, trying not to hold too tight. Bastard. Now here she was in his parent’s house, and in the morning it was going to be up to her to tell them their son was gone. Where? I don’t know. When is he coming back? A shrug. Maybe never. Would she be able to say that?

At least now she would be able to sleep with the curtains closed.

She rose from bed and stood at the window, her hand on the pull cord for the curtains, looking out at the stars as they clustered in the black high desert sky. The stars he was looking at, somewhere else, not far away as the crow flew but light years along the crooked paths the heart followed.

A meteor flashed past, and another. She stood, her bare legs gooseflesh. Another. If she had followed him they would be kissing now. She wondered how she felt about that. The sense of loss wasn’t the acute distress of a breakup, but the yearning for something she had perhaps never known. Another meteor, another bit of drifting debris, ancient, consumed silently in the time between two heartbeats, a flash of light and no more. Billions of years and then poof and that was all.

Finally, tired, she crawled back into bed, but she didn’t close the curtains.

The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a story of the journey of a father and son across the lifeless, blasted terrain of post-apocalyptic America. There is nothing living except a few bands of desperate survivors; the barren earth is no longer capable of supporting complex life. The only food available is what can be scrounged from the ruins, the only fresh meat is human flesh. The man and the boy are heading south, but they have no reason to believe that what they find will be any better than anywhere else. To the north, however, lies certain death from exposure and starvation.

They have a gun, with two bullets. One for each of them.

We would never eat people, the boy asks. No, never, the man replies.

The man and the boy are never named, conceits like that belong to another world, a place that doesn’t exist any more, a place the boy has never known. In the new, unrelentingly grim, world, there are only bad guys — people who will do anything, anything at all, to stay alive — and good guys — people who still entertain notions of right and wrong. People who, in the words of the boy, are carrying the flame. Even in the face of the horrifyingly pragmatic decisions the man has to make, the boy retains an inherent goodness, and on his shoulders lie the future of mankind.

I was going to write that McCarthy has discarded many of the rules of modern grammar and style, but it would be more accurate to say that he has developed his own grammar and honed it over the years. Rather than bind his sentences with the concepts of subject and verb, in McCarthy’s writing sentences are units of thought, impressions, fragments that map the experience of the characters. Most of the time this works, but sometimes in dialog it is easy to lose track of who is saying what, and the prose sometimes suffers from ambiguous pronouns. When reading this story it’s best not to worry about those things too much, but to let the words flow, bump, jitter, and lapse into silence the way the writer intended them to.

I can see them coming now, the scores of writers who think that it is McCarthy’s style that makes him such a compelling writer, and who will try to imitate him with disastrous results. What makes McCarthy a good writer is his clear vision, his ability to make language work for him, and his ability to create sympathetic characters in the bleakest of situations.

The future shown in this story is a grim one indeed, and there were times I thought to myself “all right, already, life sucks, I get it.” But there is movement in the unrelenting gray of the world, as we see the toll the road takes on the travelers, and watch as their courses diverge. This is a mighty fine read.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

On the Cover at Piker Press

My short story “The Tourist” is on the cover of the Christmas issue over at Piker Press. The story takes place in the world first started with my story “Tin Can“, which appeared over there some time back. Depending on how you count things, this is either the fifth or seventh entry in the series. (There are a couple of stories that take place in the asteroid belt that have a similar voice but which aren’t — yet — connected in any concrete manner.)

Hats off as well to Sand Pilarski for an illustration that really fits the piece. It’s simple, but it really works for me.

I just reread the story, and while I like it quite a lot, there are a couple of places when I needed to pause for a moment, to allow the reader to react before being swept away in the ensuing events. One of those is the second paragraph. I may ask the Piker editors if I can sneak in another sentence there. There are also a couple of sentences I worked really hard on, that present pretty complex ideas, that get a little lost. (How many times did I go over the story? A hundred? I suppose there will always be something that could be made a little bit better.) Overall, though, it’s a not a bad read, if I do say so myself.

This also marks the third anniversary of my Piker Press debut, the story “The Cowboy God” which was on the cover of the Christmas issue in 2004. That debut was a big deal for me, my first real publication. I was in Moravia at the time, unable to get online, and I was going nearly crazy trying to make sure everything had come out right. A lot has happened in the last three years, and I will be forever grateful to the ongoing support of my fellow Pikers.

So Happy Jerry’s Piker Debut Day, or any other holiday you may wish to celebrate today.

Addendum: Thanks to the Piker Press staff for incorporating my edits, not just once, but twice. The story is better now in ways quite possibly visible only to me. Although there is that one missing comma…

A Good Time for Late Sleepers

The days are getting longer! Hooray!

For the next few days, however, for most of us the sun is still rising later. Longer days and you still get to sleep in! Bonus!

The Upside of the Downhill

I think about energy a lot. I’m not sure why this is, but often I see little places where energy is being squandered when it should be reclaimable. In general, any time you have something that’s hot, and you don’t want it to be hot, energy is being lost.

Some of this energy can be hard to spot. Take, for example, the fully-loaded truck at the brake-check pullout before going down a long hill. It’s not moving. Its fuel tanks could be almost empty. But it has energy. Lots of it. The driver is checking the truck’s brakes because the truck is about to turn all that energy into heat. If the driver is not careful, that heat could cause brake failure and a very dangerous situation. The driver will inch down the hill, allowing time for brakes to cool and to use the compression of the engine to slow downward progress as well (heating the exhaust).

All that energy, and we treat it like a bad thing. But energy is expensive, even now when we only pay a fraction of its true cost! What we need is a safe way to reclaim the potential energy of the truck, safely and in a useful form.

Introducing TruckGen. TruckGen is a system that uses the truck to turn a generator as it descends. The generator provides resistance to the truck, but rather than turning the energy into heat, turns at least some of it into electricity. (In fact, the generator would have to be able to provide huge resistance to the motion, but that’s OK — that’s where the electricity comes from.) The truck’s brakes are spared, saving wear and tear and making the descent safer, and as a bonus useful power is reclaimed.

I’ve considered several ideas for exactly how this would work; one of my favorites is a chair-lift-like affair with a cable that runs above the road. Descending trucks would attach to the cable with big clamps, and as they descended they would drive a capstan that turned a generator. The cable would have to be quite strong, of course, but if anything went wrong all the trucks would have nice fresh brakes.

An alternate would be to dispense with the generator and have the uphill trucks attached to the cable as well, and the descending trucks would give them a push. Cutting out the electrical generation makes this system quite efficient. (There would have to be something to prevent some uphill trucks from slacking and forcing other ascending trucks to haul them up as well while they save fuel.) In either case all trucks attached to the cable would move the same speed, improving traffic flow.

If cable strength is a problem (I’m not sure even where to start figuring that out), I imagine an alternate method with a vehicle that latches on to the front of the truck for the descent. It might look something like the tractors that push jets around at an airport, with big tires with good traction (or cogs on a rail?) which would turn a built-in generator. There would be an overhead power line, similar to the ones used to power trains, but in this case they would be receiving the power instead of providing it. The tractors would use some of that electricity to get back to the top of the hill, which cuts into the efficiency of that plan, but the descending trucks would still be a heck of a lot safer.

Next time you see a truck creeping up a steep hill, ask yourself, “what’s going to come of all that work?” With TruckGen, you have the answer.

Road Therapy

My stay in San Diego didn’t really go as planned. I found myself inheriting and amplifying the stress of everyone around me, my own stress level steadily increasing, leading to me drinking more than I should have last night, and this morning I had an urgent need to just get out of there. So I snubbed several friends and even a couple of dogs and I just legged it out of town.

By El Centro, California, I was feeling a little better, but I figured that the smaller the road the more therapeutic it would be. I popped into In-N-Out Burger and took my atlas inside to have a meal and plan my route. Let me say categorically that El Centro In-N-Out at lunchtime is not the place to soothe jangled nerves. The place was a frickin’ zoo, with people jockeying for tables, and clusters of customers waiting for to-go orders blocking the aisles. I found a spot to sit and opened the atlas, conscious of the covetous eyes longingly staring at my prime table. So much for lingering and enjoying a meal.

And yes, I could have just gone somewhere else, but I kind of had a hankering for the classic. Had I picked up the vibe while standing in line I probably would have left, but there was no guarantee that other places weren’t also crazy.

After lunch, things got better. A few miles north of El Centro I joined highway 78, an old-school road that rolls with the landscape rather than the cut-and-fill style of more modern highways. I remember from family trips in the long past signs reading “Dips”, but those roads are rare now, although they are still just as fun as they were when I was a kid. Passing over Imperial Sand Dunes there were some spots with significant sand buildup, but otherwise the road surface was in good shape and the car was running like a champ. Life started to seem a little better.

I took the interstate over the Colorado River but soon after I hopped onto highway 60, which wasn’t terribly exciting, but as I made my way up toward Prescot things got steadily more fun. As the sky turned purple in my rear view I climbed up onto the Kaibab plateau, twisting and turning up the brand new surface of highway 89, a road made for driving.

(Yes, I know that pretty much all roads are made for driving, but there’s driving and then there’s driving.)

Flagstaff. A cheap hotel, a meat loaf sandwich in a brightly-lit diner. Just me. Here, the only issues I have to deal with are my own. I feel bad about not seeing so many people, but I don’t think I would have been much fun anyway.

Calling Dr. Jer

Amy has a toddler, and a job she can’t afford to take any time off from. Yesterday when Noah woke up with a fever and sniffles, Amy was in a bind. Just how much of a bind became obvious when I ended up watching the kid. While I’m sure I could pick up all those child care skills, I’ve managed to avoid ever needing to.

Luckily, Noah really likes the duck animation. It ruled out my getting any work done, but once I showed Noah how to click to run the animation again, my life became much easier. Eventually the animation lost some of it’s charm, but clicking the replay button never got old. Whenever the animation finished he’d drop whatever he was doing and restart it.

This morning Noah was doing a lot better, which meant he was much more active. I was relieved a few minutes ago, just as Noah was running out of steam, struggling valiantly to keep his eyes open. Now I am free to get some properly Americanized Chinese food for lunch, and tonight Surfside Sushi calls.