More About Organisms

Last week I wrote about “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism”, a novella that appears in my contribution to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. (By the way, that bundle is still available: $20 for a dozen amazing science fiction e-books!)

In this post, I’m going to talk about two more pieces I contributed to the bundle: a pair of stories I wrote on request for my long-time friend, Julie Czerneda.

Julie has edited/co-edited a number of great story anthologies. On several occasions, she ran into last-minute troubles when one of her planned contributors couldn’t deliver a story on time. Julie asked me if I could whip off stories to fill the gap…and since I love tight-deadline challenges, I said yes.

The first time was for an anthology called Mythspring. The idea for the book was that each story should be inspired by some actual piece of Canadian folklore: a legend or myth that would serve as the basis for the story. I said, “Okay,” and went to the library to search for reference material.

I came home with Colombo’s Book of Marvels by John Robert Colombo. Colombo is a long-time folklorist (as well as a poet and quotation collector), so I figured I could count on him to provide me with useful material.

I was right…but the book gave me far too much: dozens of interesting legends. How could I choose just one? Instead, I sort of chose them all. The result was a story called “All The Cool Monsters At Once” in which legendary monsters from all across Canada suddenly crawl out of lakes, emerge from the woods, or drop from the sky for reasons unknown. It turned into my own personal love story for Canada: the ending always brings a tear to my eye.

The second time Julie asked me to write a story on short notice, it was for an anthology called Space, Inc. The book dealt with what jobs would look like in the future—strange science fictional jobs. Since I was rushed for time, I couldn’t do a ton of inventive world-building, so writing a traditional story would have been difficult. Instead, I decided to write a bunch of snippets: vignettes showing a range of future jobs.

But there’s a problem with vignettes. Even if each of them is fine, they need to be tied together with an overall story arc or the reader won’t get a satisfying beginning, middle and end. How could I make such an arc? I started to think of how other writers had done it, and I immediately came up with Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.

I love Invisible Cities. It’s full of mind-boggling ideas. It takes its style from Marco Polo’s original travel journals, wherein he described his journeys to and from China back in the thirteenth century. Polo wrote short descriptions of all the strange things he saw. Calvino uses the same technique, describing increasingly weird cities, and framing it all as conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The frame tale gives the story its arc and holds everything together.

I shamelessly copied the format (just as Calvino had shamelessly copied Marco Polo). But just to jazz around a bit more, I based each of the vignettes on the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path. As one does. Hence was born “The Eight-Fold Career Path”, one of the oddest things I’ve ever written. (But someday I’ll talk about “Axial Axioms”, another thing I wrote for Julie on short notice. What if Lao Tsu invented complex numbers, Aesop invented combinatorics, the prophet Daniel invented trigonometry…)

Organisms

Just released: the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle! This bundle of 12 ebooks contains work by such luminaries as Robert J. Sawyer, Madeline Ashby, Tanya Huff, and yours truly!

A bit of background: Bundoran Press is a science fiction publishing house run by my friend Hayden Trenholm. Hayden organized this bundle as a way to raise Bundoran’s public profile, as well as to provide an easy and affordable way for readers to buy a dozen great books.

My contribution to the bundle is a set of stories grouped under the title ORGANISMS. The central piece is a novella called “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism”. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it’s the first published League of Peoples story.

The subtitle of the novella is “Variations and Fugue on a Classical Theme”. So let me briefly get all artsy and explain what that means.

You might be aware of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a piece of music by Benjamin Britten. The piece introduces the various instruments of a symphony orchestra by presenting a theme and variations. First, the whole orchestra plays a melody by Henry Purcell (that’s the theme). Then the flute and piccolo play a variation of the theme; then the oboes play another variation; then the clarinets; and so on, through all the woodwinds, then the strings, then the brass, then percussion. The final section of the piece is a fugue which starts with the flute and piccolo again, then adds the oboes on top, then the clarinets on top of that, and so on until the whole orchestra is playing the fugue together…after which the brass section blasts out the original theme over top of everything else.

The piece itself is well worth listening to. There are several versions on YouTube, so if you’re interested, have a look.

What I did was write a novella with the same structure. The “theme” of my story is First Contact—a classic sf theme indeed. The plot begins with a gigantic alien organism entering our solar system and slowly proceeding toward the sun. Each section of the story is about someone’s experience of making contact with the organism, as told to a “young person”. (In many sections, a parent is telling one or more of their children about this amazing thing the parent saw.) The final part of the novella (the “fugue”) consists of brief snippets when all the “young people” have their own moments of first contact with the organism, eventually culminating in humanity making first contact with the League of Peoples.

So let’s just say that the story is structurally ambitious. It dates back to 1992 and I’m sure there are a ton of things I’d change if I ever decided to rewrite it…but I’m still quite fond of the story and am glad to see it get some new exposure.

And that’s just one of the stories in ORGANISMS, which is just one book in the bundle! Maybe in the next few days, I talk about more of the stories in the book.

Sharing: January 1, 2019

Happy New Years to all!

Okay, I guess that’s a little brief. So…

I feel sheepish about making New Year’s resolutions, but I always do it anyway. Partly, it’s because I get introspective between Christmas and New Year’s—all my usual distractions shut down during that week, so I spend most of the time on my own. Inevitably, I start thinking about stuff I’d like to change. The next thing you know, I’ve made a bunch of resolutions.

I don’t actually start doing them right on January 1. Usually, I start a few days early; I find that if I start right away rather than waiting, I’m less likely to let things slip. Also, if I do let something slip, I can declare a do-over and start again on New Year’s Day. And since my birthday is January 10, I have that as another backstop—if I fumble the ball, I can declare that the resolutions will kick off on my birthday, which is another auspicious day for new beginnings.

To be honest, I’m not looking at serious shake-ups in my life. I just want to use my time better. I’ve resolved to track my writing hours more carefully so that I can see how much I’m writing; then I’ll do more. I also want to get more intentional with career stuff—if I want to keep writing, I have to make sure I earn enough money to keep going. Besides, it’s more fun to write things if people actually read them. So I’ll start looking for ways to improve my visibility. (And of course to improve my writing, but that’s been my ongoing goal forever.)

So that’s what my new year is aiming to be. Here’s hoping it makes a difference!

Things You Might Not Realize About Rabbits

I asked my rabbit what I should write about. He suggested rabbits. So here are some things you might not realize.

  1. Rabbits can’t breathe through their mouths; they can only breathe through their noses. If a rabbit gets stuffed up, it’s very very serious.
  2. Rabbits can’t vomit either. Digestive blockages are bad.
  3. Despite what you’ve read in Watership Down, rabbits are social but they aren’t very hierarchical. They enjoy hanging out with each other (and with humans if they’ve decided you’re cool), but they don’t defer to each other much. In particular, if a rabbit gets a good treat, it will grab the treat and run away to eat in private. Sharing is for suckers.
  4. Rabbits are coprophagous. In other words, they eat some of their droppings. Why? Because their principal food is grass, and grass just isn’t very nutritious. Big animals that eat grass (e.g. cows) have extra long digestive tracts and sometimes multiple stomachs to derive as much nutrition as possible from each mouthful. Rabbits have long digestive tracts relative to their size, but that’s still not very long. By the time a mouthful of grass gets all the way through, it still has a fair bit of nutrition left. So rabbits just put it through again. In practice, this means they actually have two types of droppings: soft (which have only gone through once) and hard (which have gone through twice). They re-eat the soft ones.
  5. Rabbits don’t really have eyelids. They can squeeze their eyes mostly shut by scrunching the muscles above and below the eye, but they can’t close their eyes completely. This is why (ugh) they’re used for testing cosmetics—they can’t shut stuff out of their eyes.
  6. You probably know this one, but rabbits aren’t rodents. They’re lagomorphs. The major difference is in their teeth: rodents have only two incisors (one on each side), while lagomorphs have four (a pair on each side).

For other interesting rabbit facts, check out the web site of The House Rabbit Society, an organization of people who like having rabbits around the house.

What I’m Reading: December 7, 2018

I always have a number of books on the go for one reason or another. Why not share?

Fiction: At the moment, I’m reading superhero comic books (gee, I wonder why?) and I’m mostly making use of my Marvel Unlimited account. (It’s a bargain, providing access to almost all of Marvel’s backlist for only $69 (U.S.) a year!) Right now I’m working through November 2014, so that means the “Axis” and “Spider-Verse” events (among others).

Other comic series I follow devotedly: The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen, The Wild Storm by Warren Ellis, and Giant Days by John Allison.

Bathroom reading: Beyond Weird by Philip Ball, a book on quantum theory whose aim is to get past the “Wow, isn’t this weird!” stage and to work on demystification…to the extent that quantum theory can be demystified.

Kitchen reading: I always have a book in my kitchen for when I take a snack break during writing, or when I’m waiting for water to boil, or for all those other times when I’m in the kitchen with a few minutes to fill. At the moment, I’m reading Plant Biology by Alison M. Smith et al, because I don’t know nearly enough about botany. (Everybody should ask themselves what they don’t know enough about and then start correcting that omission.)

Cheap Explosions! And Editing!

Woohoo! The Kindle version of All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is on sale today at Amazon.

Update: It’s also on sale at Kobo. (Oops, sorry for missing that.)

And while I’m here, let me put in a plug for my editing services. If you’re a writer, new or established, I’d be happy to work with you to improve your latest manuscript. I can give you my overall thoughts on character, plot, structure, etc., or detailed notes on your complete novel. Give me a shout at j.a.gardner@outlook.com for more information.

Sharing: November 18, 2018

More things I like:

Book-: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
Tharp is a long-time dancer and choreographer, and this is her book about the creative process. As the title suggests, she recommends developing the habit of being creative, and she offers numerous ways to improve your creative process. I first read this book many years ago; now, as I’m rereading it, my creative juices have started bubbling fiercely.
Newsletter: Orbital Operations by Warren Ellis
I think of Warren Ellis as a comic book writer, but he also writes novels, screenplays, and a heck of a good weekly newsletter. Every posting talks about books that I’ve never heard of but immediately want to read. His Morning, Computer blog is also well worth following.
App: Freedom
Freedom is an internet blocker, available for most operating systems. I use it on both my iPad and my Windows desktop. Freedom helps you avoid indulging your vices; I have it set up to prevent me from reading Twitter when I’m supposed to be writing, and from playing solitaire anytime after 10:30 at night. In other words, Freedom has willpower when I don’t. It lets me work and sleep when I want to, despite the addictive nature of the web.