Wrath of Athena

Before we get to the story, let me tell you a little about the author, Dale Cozort. He is part of a loose confederation of writers I have dubbed the “Kansas Bunch”, of which I am a member, though none of the others have adopted that name. Dale is unusual in our group, because he comes, gets advice, ignores a lot of it, and publishes his damn books. There are other published writers in the Kansas Bunch, some even famous or becoming so. But Dale is special in that regard. He plugs away, doing what he loves. He’s a very blue-collar sort of writer. No pretentious airs, just a story he feels good about.

So while I usually refer to authors by their last name in these little blurbs, Dale is “Dale” to me.

“Doing what he loves” means, for Dale, mashing different parts of history together to see what happens. Some of his stories might be called alternate histories, but most of his work is more like bizarro history, where space and time twist to rub cultures together that should have no business with one another. Most of his stories lean toward action/adventure, but now and then he’ll take a break and have a little fun.

Which brings us to Wrath of Athena: A Snapshot Novella. A petting zoo with a pair of talking dinosaurs (that may or may not have been won off some Nazis in a card game) is running into trouble in twenty-million-year-ago Madagascar (or, as I would call it if I lived there, Lemurpalooza). A breeding pair of talking dinosaurs, in fact, threatening disaster for the lemur-based ecology.

The setting is a little complicated, but pure Dale. Some alien intelligence we have no hope of understanding has been taking “snapshots” of parts of Earth at different times throughout history. So there’s 1942 Europe, 1950’s California, ancient Madagascar, and on and on, sliced out of reality, copied exactly including the people, and linked to each other through portals. Why do the mysterious intelligences do this? So Dale can have fun, that’s why.

This story unfolds like a whodunnit, and manages to keep that contract with the readers pretty well. The bad guys’ scheme is convoluted enough to keep readers guessing. Our main character is the official shit-shoveler of the traveling zoo, but he has some other skills as well. Dale has fun with stereotypes, and this gives the story a 1950’s-ish feel. Short-tempered redhead, insufferable brat, lecherous boss, and so forth.

Our shit-shoveling narrator talks like a shit-shoveler, and his voice is comfortable and honest. When he talks about his relationship with Athena you can nod and say, “I feel you, bud.” He’s playing catch-up much of the time, but he’s used to that.

Is it good? I enjoyed it. It’s a light read, and it moves right along. I was about to say that I don’t see Hollywood banging down Dale’s door for screenplay rights for this one, but then I hesitated. It’s about the right length for a screenplay and… talking dinosaurs? Lemurpalooza? Nazis and hot redheads? What’s not to like? CALL THE MONEY PEOPLE! I’m already casting Bruce Campbell as the shit-shoveler.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or an amazingly ugly watch), I get a kickback.

All Timelines Lead to Rome

Dale Cozort is an interesting guy. He’s a hard-working writer, and he’s a friend of mine. Among the Kansas Bunch, Dale’s the guy who gets things done.

At summer camp in Kansas this year, during the book signing event, I picked up Dale’s latest work and gave it to him to sign. We chatted a bit and he hesitated over the page, and wrote his name. No personal message, no ready quip. (In contrast, Kevin Anderson wrote “faster than light!” in my copy of Tau Ceti, a generic message in what turned out to be a generic story.) Dale hesitated and just wrote his name in functional cursive. It made me laugh. That’s Dale.

I am biased in favor of Mr. Cozort, but I will never say I liked something I didn’t, just because the writer is my pal. If I didn’t like it, I’d just say nothing. I liked All Timelines Lead to Rome.

I’ve seen early drafts of some of his other stories and they’re problematic, as are the early drafts of every story. Seeing those drafts colors my expectations, even as people who read my drafts form their own conclusions. But Dale’s a hard-working writer, and an intelligent man, and he’s not afraid of a rewrite. Even if he doesn’t agree with a particular criticism, he will use his defense of it to improve the story. What comes out in the end is a solid tale.

Dale loves to mash cultures together. I think he spends his idle time just pondering things like “what would a pre-columbian Apache think of Beethoven?” It’s what Dale does. (My own thought: what would Beethoven do with electric guitars?) This time, we have discovered that with an adequate application of energy, we can cross to an alternate Earth where the Romans are still in control after all this time. But two thousand years later, they still haven’t sailed across the Atlantic. Technological advancement has stopped over in Europe. In America, the Indians are entering the bronze age.

The reason the Romans have maintained their power yet have ceased any technological advancement is a fascinating one. Without the intervention of our timeline, I imagine Indians in Pennsylvania learning steel and kicking Europe’s ass.

There’s nothing like that in the book, but it’s a credit to Dale’s idea that one is tempted to spin new what-ifs against the original conceit. It’s fun that way.

And while Dale loves to mash cultures together, his main guy in this story is devoted to keeping them apart. He’s on a team to limit the harm done to both worlds by free interaction. An impossible job. Around him are people drooling over the oil fields in alternate Texas, coveting the real estate in the alternate Montana, and smuggling sweet (and potentially plague-bearing) artifacts from alternate Rome.

Perhaps the best idea in the story is the realization that what has caused alternate Rome to stagnate is contageous (in a social sense of the word, not a biological one). Once alternate Rome’s secret comes over to our world, technology might stagnate here, too. There are some really tricky ethical questions that come along for the ride. There’s a government cover-up, and at first I thought it was silly, and not a strength of the story. Even the current US Government wouldn’t blindly try to cover up something like this, right? Oh, wait, I take that back.

For all the good ideas, there are some rough edges to the book. Some gripes, intentionally left vague:

I just don’t buy the spunky cop/street gang thing. It just doesn’t make sense; gangs aren’t that patient. Too big an investment with no specific reward. The stretch would be easier to take if resulting events weren’t so central to the plot. And then there’s the personal history between two of the other characters that seems, well, convenient. And the resource-endowed member of that pair would probably have played things differently. Then there is a decision by the good guys that puts our hero in the right place, but it doesn’t hold up well under the spotlight, protect-both-worlds-wise.

None of those things stopped me from reading the story, and enjoying it. Sometimes you just have to turn off the damn spotlight.

To be honest, I didn’t expect to like this story as much as I did. (Sorry, Dale.) You see enough early versions by a writer and it colors your perception. But as I mentioned before Dale’s a hard worker, and we all start with crappy drafts. Best thing: the real strength of this tale is not any of the stuff I’ve mentioned so far. It’s the people. While I must be careful not to spoil things, not everyone is who they seem to be. Loyalty is the highest virtue and it shows up in surprising places. The crisis that foments the action comes from someone acting on the highest ideals.

And there are people with serious personal issues whom you like anyway. As a reader I found some of their bruises tougher to buy than others, but none of the main people is entirely whole. Everyone’s a little bit broken, and that makes a good story.

Generally I’m not hesitant to throw out spoilers, but this time I’m being coy, because I’d like you to read the story. I’m a little worried I’m overselling it; it’s not perfect, but I had a genuine good time reading this. Maybe you will too.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Judith Leiber Nabila Crocodile Exotic Shoulder Bag), I get a kickback.

Breakfast in Kansas

Twenty-four hours now I’ve been in the artificial world of the Repeat Offenders writing workshop in Lawrence, Kansas. Time is funny here, though; when I lay down to sleep last night it seemed strange — how could this still only be my first night here?

Technically, the workshop hasn’t started yet; the weekend is devoted to a conference and awards ceremony celebrating Science Fiction. The Saturday night reception is one of my favorite events, in which a mix of interesting people is stirred with alcohol. The last couple of years the reception has been at a nice venue with a cash bar, rather than in a university dorm with smuggled-in booze. While this leads to far less stress (and fewer laws broken), people are much more restrained when they have to buy their own beer.

Still, a good time. I spent a lot more time listening than talking. People now think either that I’m wise or that I’m boring.

I missed the event that preceded that; a premier of Destination: Planet Negro!, a sci-fi film by some local guys that, I’m told, does not pull its punches, yet remains fun. I was napping instead. You snooze, you lose.

Now it’s morning, and I’ve walked over to downtown Lawrence to break my fast. The air has a scent that reminds me of visits to Grandma’s in Arkansas many years gone by. A heavy scent, earthy, with a tang of something I can’t pinpoint but I know is there.

I passed by the completely mediocre Fuzzy’s Cantina, which was sure to have the cheesy gooey food I craved, but it’s, well, completely mediocre. On Fuzzy’s patio, patrons were settling in with their first pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon to celebrate Sunday morning.

The obviously-breakfasty places are filed with (I assume) the after-church crowd, but I found a sandwich shop called Pickelman’s that was just opening. While a vegetarian sandwich on whole wheat is far from the cheesy home fries I was craving, it will sustain me, with the help of some tomato bisque. It was adequate, but I won’t be dragging my fellow writers here.

Now it’s time to take a breath and dive back into the Workshop Artificial Universe.

Hey! I Know Her!

I popped over to the Science Fiction Writers Association site (sfwa.org) because my link to the Turkey City Lexicon was out of date, and there was my pal Kij Johnson right in the banner! A fun way to start the day.

Then I typed Kij into the Goog and after I typed the ‘j’ the second suggestion was ‘kij johnson ponies’ and I had to laugh. That story is messed up. And also a Nebula Winner, so there you go.

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Yes, I’m Still Alive

Haven’t been posting here for a bit, but it’s for the best possible reason. I’m writing!

I’ve been waking up with my head so filled with my story that I haven’t had the space to record here how much fun I’m having with the Kansas Bunch this summer. I’ll try to catch up with tales of my road trip with the Round Mound of Hound before I forget the little details, but don’t hold your breath.

back to work!

The Adventure Looms – and the Goodbye

It’s Wednesday night; on Saturday morning my pilgrimage to Kansas begins. I look forward to this time every year—my chance to hang with the Kansas Bunch, to revel in pure writing energy. This year is dramatically different, mainly for the journey.

I’ve never needed the company of the Kansas Bunch more dearly than I do this year. My first time I was living in Prague and I chose maximum intensity for the workshops and learned an enormous amount. Chuck was my roomie that year, and I hope to hell he’ll be back this time around. He always leaves me with a massive reading list.

I won’t go through the whole litany of names. It’s the Kansas Bunch, and I’m one of them. There’s a special slot for people like me, a sub-bunch called repeat offenders. I rejoin the ranks of the repeat offenders this year with an edge of despair. I’m still working on the same story as last time. And the time before that. That’s not the recipe for success.

And how am I preparing for the workshop? I’m tweaking the first novel I wrote, long ago, getting it ready to shop around (again) to people who pay for stories. The Monster Within still chokes me up at points. Kind of embarrassing when you’re editing at a sports bar. It’s petty intense at points. However, that’s not the story I’ll be asking the kansas Bunch to help me with. That story is rusting in the weeds.

But this year, it’s not just a trip to Kansas. I’ll be taking the most wonderful dog in the world to her new home. I’m not good at goodbyes, and fortunately the ritual is lost on the canine of our species. At least I have the honor of several days in a small car with the best dog in the world; my sweetie must go cold-turkey.

The pup herself is enthusiastic about any activity that involves a motor vehicle. Chiquita loves the road. She’s a dog that way. As am I. But somewhere in Oklahoma I’m going to say goodbye to a good friend. I’m going to fight not to blubber in front of strangers. I’m going to hand over Squeaky Fuzzy Monkey and a little piece of my heart will follow along.

It’s vanity, I know, but I hope that someday when I’m down Texas way I’ll see the girl again, and that she’ll remember me. It’ll be hard to tell; she loves everyone she meets.

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