In Need of a Subject Matter Expert

I’m writing a story right now, and it requires that I know many things I don’t actually know. For instance, I know frightening little about the native cultures that were on the east coast when the europeans first started arriving. Names! I need names, at least. The exact tribe is not so important, I can hand-wave around that, although the Seminoles or another tribe in Florida would be the most historically accurate but not very convenient for the unfolding of my story.

I do pledge, however, to NOT perpetuate the “Jamestown is America’s oldest city” myth. Have I ranted about that on these pages yet?

Anyway, I could use some advice about an east-coast tribe that greeted some of the first settlers, and what names they might have used (transliterated is acceptable, maybe preferable). Other details, like how they got along with their neighbors, their architecture, and diet would be extra-awesome.

Less important, I have some physical chemistry hand-waving that, while believable, could be better – more clever.

It’s a fun story to write, but as it progresses I suspect I won’t be hitting it out of the park with this one. I’ll settle for a solid base hit, however. Any offers of help either email me directly or leave a comment. I look forward to hearing from you!

Bimbos of the Death Sun

When one is in a used bookstore with a bunch of writers, it is only natural to expect that you will end up with a couple of purchases you would not ordinarliy consider. I was at a science fiction writing conference, so naturally we were clustered in the SF section of Half-Price Books. The selection was impressive. As I browsed the colorful spines of the books, one title caught my eye. “Hey, guys!” I said, “Check this out. Bimbos of the Death Sun!”

The response was not quite what I expected. “That’s a good book,” one of my party said. “Really funny,” another concurred. Then I noticed a badge on the cover proclaiming that it had won the Edgar Allen Poe Award in for best paperback mystery in 1988. What was I to do? Bimbos joined my other unplanned purchases.

Note that the cover pictured here looks nothing like the version I have. Just look at that picture. Can you imagine a worse cover for a book with that title? Seriously. [Update – the current picture is a major improvement.]

It took me a while to work through the reading pile to get to Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb, but when I finally did I was surprised. It’s not science fiction. It takes place at a science fiction convention (”Rubicon”), but there are no aliens (unless you count the Scot), no wondrous technology (unless you count the personal computers of the late ’80s), no world-threatening cataclysms or mysterious paranormal events. Bimbos of the Death Sun is a murder mystery.

It follows the pattern my sister likes so much: create a really nasty guy, have him anger just about everyone, then kill him off. Lots of suspects, lots of motives, a crazy hotel scene with people coming and going to provide unlimited opportunity for mischief.

The title of the book is simultanelously ironic and exploitative; one of the characters is a writer who wrote a hard science fiction novel that involved the effect of solar radiation on computers, and (as an afterthought) on women. The book is not at all sexist — the author’s girlfriend made sure of that — and has no sex in it. The publisher decided to call it Bimbos of the Death Sun and give it a suggestive cover to promote sales. The author in the story is embarrassed; I suspect that Ms. McCrumb was chuckling gleefully when she thought of the name. (Can you blame her?) In fact, I imagine her at a convention, sitting with friends, drunk, when an informal Most Salacious Science Fiction Title contest breaks out…

[Hmm… I have a short story that needs a title. Maybe I’ve been going about it the wrong way.]

This was a fun read. It’s not really a whodunnit because the reveal is gradual and begins long before the big final confrontation scene. There is a lot going on, however, and there is no shortage of odd characters. Every stereotype of trekkie and gamer and SCA member and fantasy addict is (lovingly) packed into a single hotel, and it looks like a pretty good time. You know, except for the murder.

The book was marred for me by a couple of things. Foremost, some of the characters behave in ways I just could not accept as real. I’m not talking about the wacky Rubicon attendees, but about the people around them who are supposed to be normal. The police detective is the biggest offender in this department. More than once I thought to myself, “no cop would ever do that, let alone one who’s been promoted to detective.”

My other complaint is that someone was given a very complicated task with almost no notice, then took it upon himself to make the task even more complicated to catch the killer, and then pull that task off with grace and style. In the movies, at least he would have had a chance for “Montage Training.”

Despite those complaints, I greatly enjoyed reading Bimbos. It was a good light read with many, many chuckle points as it went along. I think folks who attend conferences like the one in the story would find even more humor that I missed. Oh, yes, they do exist, and probably thirty years later are even crazier — though perhaps more commercial.

The book is not science fiction, but it belongs in the SF section of the store, all right, since that’s where the readers this book is aimed at hang out. If you run into this title in the used book store, take a look!

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

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 7

Our story so far: Allison is an American high-school student who has transferred to a private prep school in Japan. From the very start things have been surreal. Kaneda has been assigned by a group of his classmates to be nice to Allison, to learn what her secret superpowers are. Because who ever heard of a transfer student without secret superpowers?

Meanwhile, there is a computer virus running around, called White Shadow, that somehow infects the minds of computer users. Kaneda has been “infected” by the virus, and now White Shadow has contacted Allison directly. In order to save one of the only people who is nice to her, she was forced to brave being infected herself. Now Kaneda has been rescued, but that doesn’t mean life is normal.

Rather than go home, where her weird “uncle” is slowly being entombed by a growing computer system that is somehow connected to White Shadow, Allison agrees to go to meet with her classmates at a local diner.

If you would like to read from the beginning, the entire story is here.

Allison grabbed Kaneda’s arm as they walked into the diner, intimidated by the activity. She didn’t recognize anybody, it was all a rush of colors and noise. Kids were in every booth, looking almost horrifically cheerful. Waitresses flitted about, all young, all with tiny waists and large chests straining against their little aprons; their skirts were even shorter than Allison’s, revealing frilly petticoats underneath. Their stockings were decorated with lacy bows.

“Two more sodas!” one waitress called out.

“OK!” one responded from behind the counter.

“Four cakes!”

“Two burgers and fries!”

“Got it!”

Allison wondered why they needed waitresses at all; it would work just as well for the customers to shout out what they wanted. Still, at all the tables people were having conversations despite the racket.

Allison tightened her grip on Kaneda’s arm, searching for the courage to she needed to walk into this confusion. Maybe it had been a bad idea to come…

“Allison!” It was Ruchia, her best friend in class, the girl who sat next to her and who even made sense some of the time.

“Over here,” Kaneda said, guiding her gently with his arm.

They were seated at a booth in the corner, the only table with occupants who didn’t look like they were on happy pills. Tasuki was there, grinning mischievously as she looked back and forth between Allison and Kaneda. Allison felt her cheeks redden as she let go of his arm. Seiji was there as well, glowering under his bangs, his arms folded across his chest. Allison wondered if he had any expression other than scowling. Kouta sat next to Tasuki. Allison didn’t know much about him, except that he seemed to be the leader of the boys in class. She suspected that he knew why the boys never spoke to her.

Tasuki scooted over, pressing herself against Kouta, perhaps a little more than was strictly necessary. “C’mon, guys, squeeze in!” Kaneda sat next to her, leaving Allison no choice but to push in next to Seiji.

“We’re glad to see you’re OK, Kaneda!” Tasuki said. “We were worried!”

“How did you know…” he started, before Allison kicked him under the table. No sense bringing up their brush with the White Shadow; they thought she was strange enough already.

“Know what?” Seiji asked, his eyes burning into Kaneda. He didn’t look at Allison. “Something happened, didn’t it?”

“What? Oh, no! It was nothing!” Kaneda said with a wavering voice.

“You were on a date, weren’t you?” Tasuki asked. “I knew it!”

“No!” Allison and Kaneda said together.

“She was just… um… helping me with my English,” Kaneda said. A drop of sweat appeared on his forehead.

“You sure it wasn’t French?” asked Kouta. He was smiling as he teased them. Did that mean Kouta had finally accepted her? Everyone laughed except Seiji.

Ruchia elbowed him. “Geeze, Seiji, lighten up sometimes. You’re being a jerk.”

“Yeah, Seiji!” Tasuke chimed in. “You could at least say hello!”

Seiji took a long breath. “You’re right. Hello.” he never took his eyes off the table in front of him.

“Hellooo, Seiji,” the waitress said with a song-song voice as she hovered over the table. Allison thought she looked familiar. Had she been at the monastery? In class? She was looking at the brooding Seiji with wide, sparkling light-brown eyes, so light they were almost yellow. She didn’t seem to notice the other people at the table.

“Hello yourself,” Seiji said. Ruchia elbowed him sharply. “Ow!” he said, then with a slightly warmer voice, “Hello, Tomoko.”

Allison thought the girl colored when Seiji said her name. “Will you walk me home when I’m done with work?” she asked.

“I—” Seiji glanced around for an excuse, but no one was willing to help him. “Sure,” he said.

“Really?” she asked. “Super! See ya!”

“I’d like a…” Allison said to the space the waitress had occupied, but Tomoko had already turned and vanished into the confusion.

Ruchia leaned over to Tasuki across the table, as if she were telling a secret. “Tonight’s the big night, I bet.”

“You think?” Tasuki asked. “She’s gonna do it?”

“Yep. Tonight for sure.”

“Oh, how romantic!” Tasuke said. She turned to Kouta. “Don’t you think it’s romantic?”

“Uh…” Kouta sensed a trap, but didn’t seem to know what to do about it.

“First Allison and Kaneda, and now Seiji too!”

“What!?” The three people named said at once.

“Is there anyone you’re interested in, Kouta?” Tasuki pressed. Subtlety, Allison thought, was not her strength.

Kouta turned red and looked uncomfortable. Allison had never seen him look so human. “Um… I can’t say,” he said.

Tasuki took that for a ‘yes’. “Is it someone… close?”

“I guess you could say that.” He reddened further. Tasuke said nothing more, but she looked very happy. Kouta, Allison thought, looked more worried.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kaneda said.

Tasuki punched him in the shoulder. “What a terrible thing to say!”

Kaneda blinked. “What?”

“Take back what you just said!”

Kaneda looked confused. “Did I say something?”

The others at the table watched him closely, but he didn’t seem to be joking around. Allison thought about what White Shadow had told her. You may find your friend … changed. No doubt about it, the trouble was getting deeper and deeper.

Azusa stode down the hallway. The sound of her boot heels on the hard floor echoed off the stonework. She always felt like she was in a mideval Eurpoean castle when whe was in this building. Her red hair trailed behind her, the curls at her temples extending and contracting with her stride. Her face was set in a scowl, but that was not unusual.

She stopped at a painting of Murai Kunio, the founder of the academy. Mr. Murai had served overseas somewhere, no one was exactly sure what he did or with whom, but he had returned a wealthy man. He had spent his entire fortune on the Academy, but it was unclear just where all the money had gone.

Azusa knew part of the secret. “Fuyutsuki Azusa,” she said, and a laser scanner passed over her face. “Accepted,” a disembodied female voice said, and where before there had just been a blank wall, now there was a door. She entered, and went down a hallway to the Student Council chamber. The others were waiting for her. She never saw them in the hallway; she suspected they each had their own secret entrance.

They each sat in leather chairs, deep and comfortable with wings that shadowed the faces of the others, protecting their identies for a time when it was more convenient to reveal them. A fire crackled on an iron grate in the cavernous fireplace. She was always last, it seemed. Didn’t these other people have lives outside this room? Azusa took her seat. The student council was in session.

Their leader, a tall boy with pale skin and long, dark hair, spoke. “We have a transfer student.”

Another boy, shorter, his hair short also, said, “it is as predicted.”

A blonde girl spoke, “Pah. I have no time for silly prophesies. This is our chance to make our own glory.”

The leader frowned slightly at the insubordination. “Kenzo will learn about her sooner or later.”

All the members of the Student Council sucked in their breath sharply at the mention of his name. “We must move before he does,” the shorter boy said.

The leader nodded. “The transfer student has decided to take up fencing.”

“Yes, leader,” Azusa said.

“Interesting, don’t you think?”

“Yes, leader.” Azusa was thankful that her eyes were concealed; the leader liked to milk drama from things they all knew already. Azusa thought she could do a better job as leader, but the other was anointed by the Greater Powers. Only by following with absolute faith could she hope to advance.

“You will humiliate her!” the leader cried.

“Yes, leader!”

“If we break her, she will be ours to use,” the blonde girl said.

“So the Master has predicted,” Azusa said, “and so it shall be.”

A Station Wagon by Any Other Name

Remember the station wagon? For a long time it was the perfect familymobile, with room for the kids and space in back for the new barbecue. It was the perfect icon of the American suburbs, but served faithfully on Route 66. The station wagon was America.

Over the years things changed, technology advanced, and the minivan rose to replace the station wagon. That made sense; the minivan performed the same functions and did a better job doing it. But America was getting richer and people wanted sport as well as utility. The auto manufacturers were happy to supply the illusion of sport to the power-hungry yuppies. Take a minivan, add larger tires and an engine that produces more power than you will ever need, and you have an SUV. (At the time, SUV meant ‘minivan with bad mileage’.) In fact, more power was not a requirement. All that was necessary was larger, more expensive and less efficient tires. Suddenly, you’re cool.

Let me deflect some folks by pointing out that some SUV’s aren’t macho minivans but rather relabled trucks. Why? They are trucks and they do a truck’s job. All utility.

Gradually, the SUV market has gone two directions. One we will call the Hummer Vector. Vehicles so impractical that people buy them just to prove that they are too damn wealthy to be encumbered by issues like precticality. The other direction I will dub the Station Wagon Vector. It’s been going on a long time, and apparently now the vehicles on this path have ditched the stigma of being SUV’s in favor of being ‘crossovers’.

We will ignore that Sport/Utility was itself a crossover…

No we won’t. Crossover from what? And to what? Utility/Sport-Utility? What is being crossed over?

Here’s my challenge to the marketing boys in the auto companies. Embrace the station wagon. Those guys buying cars, they’ve forgotten how much they hated sharing the back seat with thier sisters, and the road has regained a romantic aura. Those great road trips of their childhoods were in station wagons. The car that tamed the west.

I personally guarantee that if Ford or Chevy came out with a really good station wagon, with somewhat retro styling and the same name they used in the sixties, it would sell like hotcakes. Call it a station wagon, and use the power of nostalgia to sell it. Before too long, people will realize that the car makes sense on its own terms, and our dalliance with silly cars not well-suited for any practical use will come to an end.

Then in a few years you can reestablish the minivan as all retro and cool.

Making Money Dishing Out Shame

More about sports.

It occurs to me as I sit here that there is one side of me That Girl has not really met. That particular me is the one who likes to watch sports on TV. There are times it’s nice to sit and watch a game. This afternoon was one such time.

I don’t get much on my little TV at home, and although there were a couple of sports options, it was all motorsport. There are some activities that are by far more fun to do than watch, and driving is one of them. Oddly, golf is in that category as well. Happliy, the Budvar Bar Near Home has: 1) cheap beer, and 2) sports on TV.

The Budvar Bar Near Home had one major strike against it: It was closed. Hmm… As I mentioned my my previous episode, it is Sunday, and this is Strasnice.

I am now at U Slamu, until recently the home of breaded and fried pork stuffed with bacon and cheese. (That lament can wait for another day.) They still have beer, however, and they have sports on TV.

When one gets one’s tv sports fix this way, one can’t be too picky about what one gets. When I came in it was English Premier League Football. (Don’t be fooled by the name: it’s soccer.) When I first arrived there was some controversy going on, and then they showed a replay, and a new drinking game came to me.

Depending on the match, there are five to twenty cases of someone falling down at the slightest contact (or no contact at all) and feigning terrible injury. It is, I’m told, part of the game. That may be true, but it’s a part of the game that sucks. For a well-covered match, the “contact” is shown many times from many angles, and the game I propose is this: create a dvd of these terrible, life-threatening injuries, and freeze them at the moment the player is just starting to throw himself to the turf, his eyes bugging out and his mouth wide open. Stop the action right there and have everyone guess: What body part is he going to hold as he rolls on the ground in agony? One point for a correctly predicted ankle, maybe two for a thigh, but the gambling types might want to try to score the big money with a shoulder.

For the sake of propriety, no players would be shown who actually left the game. But there would be slow-motion appreciation of the acting skills of the rest.

What’s great about this game is that it can be a subscription service. People will want to download the latest week’s floppers and crybabies to play the game over and over. Certain players would, no doubt, earn a cult following among players. “All right! It’s Jones again! He’s down! Oh, the agony! This time it must be serious. Just look at his face!” As a special bonus, maybe some of the players who showed up regularly would discover a little pride and play the game on their feet rather than on their backs.

A chance to make some money and shame some of the world’s best-paid babies at the same time? Sign me up!

The Best What Now?

So I’m watching a little bit of illegal television right now, consuming the NFL’s product and watching their ads despite their best efforts. One of the ads that the NFL does not want me to see is for Nissan. Apparently they now have “The Best New Small Crossover of 2008.” (Apparently “crossover” is the new word for “station wagon”. At least they’ve stopped pretending that they’re sport utility vehicles.)

Just how many new small crossovers were there this year? More than one?

An Unplanned Morning Walk

I woke up this morning feeling refreshed. The sky was brightening outside, and no clouds were visible through the window cut into the sloping ceiling directly over my head. I got up, woke up my computer, and went to fix tea. The electric kettle quickly heated the water for my first (but certainly not last) cup, and once it was fixed I returned to my desk.

My computer was turned off. Not just sleeping, but completely turned off. Curious.

It wouldn’t start again, either. I tried a light switch, then a different light on a different circuit. Nothing. My apartment was without electricity. Consulting my phone I saw it was 8 am when the electricity had stopped, and out on the street the crews were hard at work rewiring the neighborhood. This was probably a planned outage and I hadn’t got the memo. (On previous occasions I had.)

Well, then, no electricity. No computers. Normally I’d be ok with this. I’d probably just go back to bed. But That Girl had specifically mentioned that she was going to try to stay up until I woke up, so that we could chat. I’d hate to let That Girl down. Obviously, then, if the Internet wasn’t going to come to Jerry, then Jerry could go to the Internet. After all, there is a friendly little café nearby that has WiFi. There aren’t many of them out in this neighborhood of Prague, so I feel fortunate to have one so close. Plus, they often have good tea there.

I was about halfway there when it occurred to me that today was Sunday. If the café bothers to open at all today it will be this afternoon. As I walked (trying not to interfere with the construction crews who were, in open violation of the ethical standards of state-employed construction workers the world over, hard at work), I tried to come up with a Plan B. There was none that didn’t involve public transportation and overpriced access. I stopped outside Little Café Near Home and used my phone to see if their wireless was up. At least I could email That Girl to tell her what was happening. There was the network! Hooray!

I have complained about my phone, but it is perfect for things like this. I laboriously typed out a message, then hit send. “Use cafemania wireless network?” the phone asked me. “Yes,” I answered. “Enter password,” my phone said. I typed the password, working around my phone’s bloody-minded insistence that the first letter be capitalized. Password entered, I hit “send.”

“There’s no network here named cafemania,” my phone told me.

Where did the network go? There was no one inside to turn it off. Maybe LCNH’s power was cut off just then. I laughed, shook my head, scanned for neighboring networks that were unprotected, found none, and decided to go home. I took a slightly different route home, around the worst of the construction, and met a dog who used to be a regular at Little Café Near Home, but hasn’t been coming in lately. The sun was shining, the birds were singing (probably saying “see you next spring”), and the air was chill and crisp. Bracing, even.

I got home, put some water on the gas stove, then with a click and a pop the electricity came back on, and here I am telling you about my morning.