THE ELECTRIC CHAIR: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 4

Hopping back into that ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online it’s time to read the next story: “The Electric Chair” by George Waight.

We’ve already looked at the first sentence, so, like last time, we’ll expand that to the first paragraph:

The facts were carefully hushed up at the time. Strange stories, it is true, began to be whispered in the clubs about the eccentricities of Dr. Ainsworth and his electric chair, but nothing definite ever leaked out. Now that that weird scientist is dead and buried, the true story of what happened in his laboratory can be made public for the first time.

Last time, when we read J. Schlossel’s “Invaders from Outside,” I got on his case about writing in a journalistic, “telly” style, and sounds like Mr. Waight is headed in the same direction. This is definitely journalistic in feel. A good reporter doesn’t want to “bury the lead.” Good fiction authors, on the other hand, want to take their readers on a journey that starts somewhere interesting then ends with the death of the weird scientist after his eccentric experiments in electric furniture. But let’s not judge too early! And though I, personally, prefer to begin in the middle of something scary/weird/exciting as it’s happening, at least in “The Electric Chair” we’re starting with the promise that something scary/weird/exciting is about to happen. Let’s call that a (distant) second choice for opening a short story.

The story is set in 1919, which sounds like a long time ago to we residents of the far-flung future, but was only six years before this magazine was published. I’ve often advised against fixing actual dates to science fiction stories but that only counts if you’re looking forward, and, say, trying to show the world of the year 2001 from the perspective of 1968. You end up getting in a certain amount of trouble if your story lasts at all. See Blade Runner, Terminator, 1984, Space: 1999, etc. But if you’re going six years in the past, that’s, obviously, not a thing.

This kind of sounds like a Hollywood log line:

…if a man were confronted with a mystery stranger even than the mystery of death, he would choose death rather than face the greater mystery.

I share the expressed doubts of the brain specialist on that score.

I’ll admit to a general fondness for short stories with mini chapter breaks, like this one. It feels somehow… I’m not even sure… really struggling to find the right word here… quaint, to me? Comfortable? I don’t know, but I bring it up here as a reminder that each and every one of your readers will come into everything they read, including your work, with some set of general fondnesses like that, as well as general dislikes. There’s no rule to either follow or break on this score, so toss those numbers in there if it feels right to you, or don’t if it feels wrong.

I want to go back in time ninety-three years and delete the word surprizedly. Please contact me if you have the necessary time machine. That aside I do kinda dig George Waight’s fin de siècle Europhilia and the gentility of these gentlemen. I would love to be described as “affability itself.” Wouldn’t you? It’s a little early, but screw it, let’s break out the port, get these women out of here, and discuss the grave matters of the day!

I’d like to draw your attention to the description of the room, and link you back to a discussion of “atmosphere”:

Sinclair had never entered the laboratory before. His first impression was a swift recollection of schoolboy days, when he had worked in a room that presented just such an unbroken array of bottles and balances and strange-looking instruments, except that here there seemed to be more of them. His attention was attracted by a line of cases on the right of the room apparently containing a series of waxworks, of which he did not immediately appreciate the significance. It was as he was moving over to examine these that he first became aware of a strange sensation of dizziness stealing over him. The room darkened and he felt that he was about to fall. The voice of his host sounded for a moment as from an immense distance before it trailed off into nothingness.

Notice how little actual detail there is in there. No numbers are specified, no measurements given. The list of objects in the room belong to general categories, one of which reveals the POV character’s lack of understanding of them: “strange-looking instruments.” But for me, this is key: His first impression was a swift recollection of schoolboy days… The exact size and composition and contents of the place are secondary (if that) to the emotional connection Sinclair has to it—the space evokes a memory. The space is about his feelings for the person who inhabits it.

I’m going to stick with this paragraph to go back through some other things. Though I do like the old fashioned feeling of the writing and wouldn’t change it, it is clear to see where our man Waight might just have been padding the word count:

His attention was attracted by a line of cases on the right of the room apparently containing a series of waxworks, of which he did not immediately appreciate the significance.

This being rather firmly in Sinclair’s POV (fairly unusual for the time, actually) there’s no need to tell us his attention was attracted by something. Describe it, and we get that the description is coming from him, so clearly his attention has been drawn to it.

This sentence just has extra words:

It was as he was moving over to examine these that he first became aware of a strange sensation of dizziness stealing over him.

Most contemporary editors would trim it back so it would read:

As he moved over to examine them, a strange sensation of dizziness stealed over him.

But again, if I were editing an anthology in which this exact story appeared I would never make that change, though I would suggest it if George Waight wrote this story today and it was set in 2018 (or 2012) rather than 1919. The language is a changing, evolving organism—that’s for sure. And there are places and reasons for pulling back and writing in a previous style. I’ve done it myself with a series of jungle pulp stories I’ve written for Pro Se Productions, the first of which is available now. That’s a thing I did for a specific reason in a specific venue and not a voice I’ve adopted as my “normal.”

Then there’s:

The room darkened and he felt that he was about to fall.

This is another example of telling us he felt something when just describing the feeling is enough since we’re in his POV.

The transition from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3 is a classic example of what Lester Dent would call “A surprising plot twist to end the [second] 1500 words” and his first admonition for the third 1500 words: “Shovel the grief onto the hero.”

This got me thinking—is this about the halfway mark?

Nope—it’s about a third of the way in, actually, and I estimate the story at about 5300 words. Anyway… this was written and published before Dent wrote his formula, but here’s a solid plot twist at about the one-third mark. Maybe that will mean something to us later.

I’ve never encountered this before: the nightmare of a dream. Is that something people used to say, or is George padding again?

Though I think some harsher contemporary critics would rail against the “Before I kill you, Mr. Bond,” speech that Ainsworth gives here, in this case it’s a necessary evil… or is it?

Could he have just reminded poor Sinclair of the story of the German soldier and left him to draw his own conclusions? I might have done it that way, myself, putting the whole thing on Sinclair and making Ainsworth a crueler villain for it.

Or am I just a sick bastard?

Speaking of which:

He went across the room and came back with a glass case containing a model in wax of a man’s head. The nose had completely rotted away, the teeth were entirely outside the mouth and festooned round the protruding tongue like a necklace. It was difficult to imagine anything more revolting.

That’s pretty badass for 1925.

This whole thing with the threat of exotic diseases is really clever, adding a layer to the Let’s Make a Deal aspect of this experiment in torture. It also forces me to revise my previous thought that I’d remove all of Ainsworth’s explanations. It’s definitely become more necessary with this twist, otherwise previously unknown to Sinclair, and adds a layer of sadism to the villain. And, after all, we want to see our villains being villainous, don’t we?

That said, have we accidently run across an early example of torture porn? “The Electric Chair” was published eighty-three years after Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” so maybe not so early at that.

For what it’s worth I maintain that this sentence:

Suddenly the rat rolled over on the floor of the cage and commenced to struggle violently.

…is just as good without the offending word:

The rat rolled over on the floor of the cage and commenced to struggle violently.

Just sayin’.

Boy, doesn’t take long for Sinclair to run through some options then flip the switch. Personally, I would have lingered on this a lot more and gotten deeper into Sinclair’s life. We’re given only a cursory sketch of a character here. He’s a war veteran, he’s not married… He doesn’t even mention poor Mildred by name in his considerations of the dangers of diseased love. We don’t really know what he has to live for, what plans he might formulate to either escape the trap in the first place or, should he choose the syringe, what he might attempt in terms of both identifying and treating the disease (though let’s all take a moment to bask in the glory of modern medicine not available to Mr. Sinclair of 1919) and bringing Ainsworth to justice.

Interesting that in the final chapter we switch over to Ainsworth’s POV—assuming Sinclair has just killed himself. Had the story, up to that point, not been so firmly grounded in Sinclair’s POV, that switch would have been much less effective. One scene, one POV, always!

Lester Dent calls for: “Final twist, a big surprise. (This can be the villain turning out to be the unexpected person, having the ‘Treasure’ be a dud, etc.” and our man Waight delivers with the revelation that the chair, syringe, and gas are all harmless. It’s not the world’s most creative, clever, or surprising twist, but maybe it felt a bit more fresh in 1925.

And then, according to Dent: “The snapper, the punch line to end it:”

When they reached him, he was quite dead.

Ah, the old “died of fright” gag. I think that was probably old in 1925, too, no?

So kind of a fun little exercise in 20s torture porn—building off World War I post traumatic stress and the rather timely danger of infectious disease.

“The Electric Chair” seems to have slid into obscurity, along with its author. I tried to find anything about George Waight but couldn’t. The only listing I’ve found for him is for just this one story, apparently the only thing he ever published—at least under that name. Back in the pulp days it was common for authors to adopt a list of pseudonyms. But even then, by now, most of those have long since been “outed.”

Alas, thank you, George Waight, wherever you are!

 

—Philip Athans

 

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YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO YOUR READERS

The story or novel is done. It’s out there, people are reading it, maybe people are commenting on it…

So now what?

And not “now what” in terms of marketing or creating your “platform,” but what, beyond the book itself, do you owe your readers—if anything?

I’ve said myself that particularly for genre authors, being a part of the genre community is a must, but I’m happy to qualify “must” as: as much as you want to, if you have the ability to be a part of any community at all.

But even if you’re shy, anxious around strangers—or just don’t want to be the author-about-town at San Diego Comicon, at least be a fan, yes? Can you write effective fantasy if you don’t actually like fantasy? Of course not. I’m not a romance fan, and guess what: I don’t write romance. I have at least that much of a sense of responsibility to the romance community that I won’t try to just wedge myself in there, dismissive of people who have made that genre their life’s work because… I don’t know… I read somewhere that romance sells well. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but where I come from you don’t bum-rush the stage.

So you read fantasy, love fantasy, write fantasy—you get it. The fantasy novel is out. Now what?

Pretty much everyone will tell you that you now have to start a three year campaign of flogging the ever loving shit out of it in order to build your platform and to get every last goddamn Kindle download there is to get.

Do you really have to do that?

“I am and wish to remain a reader, an amateur, and a fan, unburdened by the weight of ceaseless evaluation,” Wisława Szymborska wrote. “Sometimes the book itself is my main subject; at other times it’s just a pretext for spinning out various loose associations.”

This is sort of a fancy way of saying “write for yourself”—that you are your first audience. And as for platforms, maybe with all the weirdness (to say the least) around the last election, a serious social media backlash is in progress anyway. In “The New Reading Environment:  Each this is not to say or in other words a dull sword wielded against willful misunderstanding” the editors of n+1wrote:

It can be difficult to like one’s readers on social media. Their reactions can be glib, disingenuous, mocking, cruel, pedantic, self-righteous, derogatory. Every ideal reader you may find there will be matched by another determined to find your faults — your worst metaphor, your least graceful aside, the word your editor wrote in, the Getty Image selected (not by you) to run with your story, with its horrible title. It seems like everyone on Twitter is New Grub Street’s Mr. Fadge, the editor of The Current whose calling card — “flippancy, the most hopeless form of intellectual vice” — was “looked for with eagerness by that growing class of readers who care for nothing but what can be made matter of ridicule.”

So maybe building that social media platform has become exactly what not to do. I’ve all but abandoned Facebook, myself, have never been on Instagram and I’m not sure what Snapchat is. I still rely on Twitter to at least sort of get and/or keep the word out on what I’m up to even though I’m fully aware of others’ abuses of that system. One of the things I like about Twitter is that it’s exceedingly ignorable. I have the app on my phone and flip through it from time to time and happily engage as the spirit moves me, but when anyone starts talking about politics I just keep flipping. Oh yeah, and I block people/bots/companies at the drop of a hat. I don’t care how many followers I have as long as they’re actual people and those people have the simplest sense of common decency.

So that’s me, as much as I have any authority to do so (and in reality, I have none), letting you off the branding platform social media hook.

As authors, our responsibility to our readers begins with writing the best novel we possibly can.

And, frankly, it can end right there.

Be a part of the community—the genre community and/or the community of the written word in general—but only up to your comfort zone. Ignore unsolicited advice. If you would rather be writing than Skyping into a book group somewhere politely decline the invitation. You do not need to make friends with anyone, let alone everyone. And for the love of all that’s holy (and literature in all its forms is, to me at least, holy) you must not change anything you do based on “metrics”—whatever the precise fuck that is. Never write, read, or chase after reviews of any kind in any venue. Reviews are for the reviewers, not you, or your readers. If you do want to talk about books—I do!—be positive about other authors’ work.*  Never read “comments” on any web site anywhere ever. Never respond to angry genre vigilantes, dissatisfied consumers, clinically insane haters, or other critics—or friendly genre faithfuls, obsequious hangers on, clinically insane stalkers, or other fans. If it occurs to you to write just one quick sentence explaining yourself to an anonymous Amazon review, just stop, take a deep breath, and use that number of words to start your next novel and move ever forward.

That’s your responsibility as an author. All of the rest is optional.

 

—Philip Athans

 

* And okay, so just yesterday I wrote a snarky “review” on GoodReads—something I basically never do. Obviously not never, never, but essentially never. I’ll put together something more about critics and reviews in the weeks ahead that might address that some.

 

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NO ONE KNOWS ALL THE WORDS

I used to have a book called The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literate. Where is that? Do I still have…?

There it is, on a shelf next to my desk tucked between a copy of the U.S. Army Survival Manual (my pragmatic desert island book choice) and Dictionary of Word Origins. I hate to admit it but, thanks to the Internet, I don’t really reference these books anymore. That makes me sad, but there it is—the 21st Century!

Blowing a thickness of dust off the top of it, I flip through The Highly Selective Dictionary for the Extraordinarily Literateand pick out at random:

corrigendum

a mistake to be corrected, especially an error in a printed book

Hm. I actually really did pick that at random and now I feel like I really should have known that one. I mean, if not me, who, right?

fleer

laugh impudently or mockingly; jeer, deride

That I should have run across by now in an Ed Greenwood book, at least, no?

Alas, I hope it doesn’t surprise you, but I don’t know all the words!

Author John Grisham wrote, “There are three types of words: words we know, words we should know, and words nobody knows. Forget those in the third category and use restraint with those in the second.”

I disagree with some of his advice. Don’t set aside any word, especially just because it’s too “hard” or obscure, or even outdated. If it’s precisely the right word for that precise moment, that’s the word you need. If most or even all of your readers are sent to the dictionary, congratulations, you’ve educated people!

I have an editor friend who says that he’ll allow an author to send him to the unabridged dictionary once per book. If I had to set a rule for myself, as an editor, I’d make it more like a three-strikes rule. But I don’t really have that rule. I can tell when authors are showing off, need to close the thesaurus and get back to storytelling, or are in some way disconnecting from their audiences, and then I’ll do my best to intervene the way a good editor should. But ultimately I like to be sent—at least occasionally—to the unabridged dictionary, or at least my dictionary app, when a word comes along that I’ve never seen before.

I’d revise John Grisham’s advice to read: “There are three types of words: words almost everyone knows, words more people should know, and words almost nobody knows. Don’t be afraid of words in the second category and use one from the third category when it’s the only or best word for the moment.”

Yeah, I like to see new words, and lately, I’ve been saving a few good ones. I didn’t jot down where I saw all of them, so some are sadly devoid of context, but how many of these do you know?

cachectic

relating to or having the symptoms of cachexia.

cachexia

weakness and wasting of the body due to severe chronic illness.

Fun for pre-medicine fantasy cultures, yeah? It sounds like something an old Hobbit would die from.

Edisonade

a work of fiction centered on a lone, private inventor who gets into adventures in pursuit of or as a result of, one of his inventions

We need to bring this genre back. I mean, we need to. Now.

Kulturbolschevismus

“cultural Bolshevism” or “art Bolshevism”—coined by Nazis to impugn “decadent” art.

This one I got from George Orwell and his essay “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali” and I love it. Even with its clearly awful intent and origin I intend to use it, ironically, for the rest of my life.

gormless

lacking sense, lacking in initiative, a dense person

This I noted in the short story “Chloroform” in the collection Carp Fishing on Valium by Graham Parker. Is this a British thing? It might be an example of that quote often (but apparently incorrectly) attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

interbellum

the period “between the wars,” particularly World War I and World War II

How did I not know this one? Feels like I should have known this one. No idea where I ran across it.

balinger

A balinger, or ballinger, was a type of small, sea-going vessel. It was swift and performed well under both sail and oars. It was probably developed in Bayonne for hunting whales.

This one was in a fantasy novel I was editing. I don’t really know boats, off-hand, and ended up having to rely on Wikipedia for that definition, but okay… now I know.

ressentiment

“Combine narcissism with nationalism, and you get a deadly phenomenon that political scientists call ressentiment (French for resentment): the conviction that one’s nation or civilization has a historical right to greatness despite its lowly status, which can only be explained by the malevolence of an internal or external foe.”

That definition comes from the brilliant must-read The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. There’s a word for our times, eh?

marmoreal

made of or likened to marble

I ran across this beauty in an edit, used to describe a woman’s shoulder.

Yeah. If you’re going to send me to the dictionary, be that brilliant.

ogive

1 Architecture a pointed or Gothic arch. one of the diagonal groins or ribs of a vault. a thing having the profile of an ogive, especially the head of a projectile or the nose cone of a rocket. 2 Statistics a cumulative frequency graph.

This one was in the science fiction novel Wine of the Dreamers by John D. MacDonald, in which it does indeed describe the shape of a rocket’s nose cone:

It ripped up through the tent, slowly gaining speed, profiling the tent to its ogive nose, tearing the tent from the towers, slipping through it, igniting it with the fierce tail flame.

And if any two authors belong in the same general category it’s the Johns D. MacDonald and Grisham—so much for the latter’s advice.

chignon

a knot or coil of hair arranged on the back of a woman’s head.

This one was in a story by a student in one of my Pulp Fiction Workshops, which goes to show how smart people who take those courses are. I think I remember it in an episode of Cheers, too, in reference to Lilith Sternen-Crane’s trademark tight hairdo. I guess I’m just not up on all the fancy ladies’ hairdos, but the point is: I write and edit fiction. I have to be “up on” a little bit (at least) of everything!

theogony

noun (plural theogonies) the genealogy of a group or system of gods.

This one (the plural, actually: theogonies) stuck in my family tree while I was reading an article on Byron in the Weekly Standard.

See? Even people who are smart enough to read articles on Byron from the Weekly Standard don’t know all the words.

casuistic

the adjective form of casuist; a person who uses clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions; a sophist. a person who resolves moral problems by the application of theoretical rules to particular instances.

You had to know there would be another one from George Orwell, or in this case, from an article about George Orwell.

heteroglossia

noun: the presence of two or more voices or expressed viewpoints in a text or other artistic work.

Remember what I said about the perfect word for this specific sentence? This one I found in the article: “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society” by Christian De Cock.

oleaginous

adjective 1 rich in, covered with, or producing oil; oily or greasy. 2 exaggeratedly and distastefully complimentary; obsequious: candidates made the usual oleaginous speeches in the debate.

Why wouldn’t I run across a word I’ve never see before in an article called “The New Reading Environment:  Each this is not to say or in other words a dull sword wielded against willful misunderstanding”?

So hey—first of all, don’t feel bad if you’re reading anything, not just some scholarly work but any old corny 1950s sci-fi novel, and there’s a word that perplexes you. Look it up. Learn. Maybe adopt it for your own personal lexicon. And second, don’t be afraid to occasionally challenge other people to do the same. After all, no one knows all the words, but why not share in the joy of discovery that language can be?

And then there’s taking it to the next level, and that’s introducing new words yourself. Here’s one I’ve actually been trying to have added to the English language myself:

defuncto

adjective; the remaining example of a group of things that is somehow defective or unwanted: “Oh great, I’m stuck with the defuncto chair.”

My wife made up that one. Use it, please—spread the word! In this case, literally.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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INVADERS FROM OUTSIDE: EXPLORING WEIRD TALES Vol. 5, No. 1—PART 3

Let’s jump back into that ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online and… actually read it! Or, at least, read the first story. I’m going to do that right now, and take notes.

The story is “Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds” by J. Schlossel.

We’ve already looked at the first sentence, but now let’s expand that to the first paragraph:

On every hand huge brilliant suns, single or multiple, flashed past with their retinue of small dark planets. Though there was no sound to mark their passage through the heavens, yet one felt that here, indeed, was a roaring inferno. Slowly and steadily did the solar system forge ahead through this veritable whirlpool of mighty blazing suns. It was nothing less than a miracle that the sun should be able to guide his charge of planets safely through this densely star-packed region near the center of the Milky Way. Even though the sun now shone with his greatest possible splendor, he was nothing but a tiny dwarf sun within a region where white-hot giants abounded.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of the first sentence, especially compared against Lester Dent’s (in)famous formula, but there is something about it that I like. The first paragraph seems to build on the opening poetry, presenting us not with a human character (either hero or villain) as our point of view proxy, but the sun itself? And the sun is male, by the way, in case you were wondering.

Honestly, though, I don’t think the Sun as a character was the author’s intent. I think the intent was to establish this as a story about space, as a science fiction story, with a plan to get to a character later. I don’t want to be formulaic and restrictive though my instinct as an editor is to rail against this idea, to insist (as much as I tend to insist on anything) that we begin with a character doing something…

I kinda like this.

And in the end (or at the beginning!) “I like this” is all you need from your readers. Still, the fact that the story continues all the way through without ever presenting a single named character is fuel for vocal complaint, but we’ll keep going!

The next couple paragraphs start to narrow down to a collection of inhabited planets—a group of people doing things (observing ever farther into the universe around them)—and continuing to drill down to the first proper name we get: the Scientific Society of the Twelve Confederate Worlds. Still not a character, but an organization. Come on, J. Schlossel—show me a character!

And as an aside, can anyone see the word that ends the second to last line and begins the last line in the first paragraph of the right column? …missed something through an unavoidable ???-tion, the other members did not?

Another thing that makes me cringe: the “little did he know” moment in which we (the readers) now know something the (as yet unintroduced) character(s) don’t know:

Ignorant entirely of its coming, of the curious zigzag course it followed, or of its desperate purpose, the inhabitants of those twelve civilized worlds went on confidently with their researches and their dreams of eternal peace.

Trying to hold it together already in the face of the impenetrable horror of the omniscient viewpoint. Noooooooooo!

Okay, we’ll remember it’s 1925. The culture will survive this.

Calming down.

So we’re getting an info dump on the Twelve Confederate Worlds but at least we hear that Mars is one of them, so this sun is our Sun. Fascinating stuff this confederated solar system, but fun as it is this is still an info dump. J. Schlossel has decided we have to be taught something, even if his writing is readable and his worldbuilding clever, we’re told the history of the future (or, at least, I assume this is the future) before we get on with the story. I disagree with J. Schlossel on this point. Show me the world within the story, don’t tell me about the world before I can get to the story! Here’s, so far, two good examples of looking at the pulps for what not to do. Instead of what we see in this story, remember:

A POV character is essential: one scene, one POV.

Start with characters doing something, never with any version of an info dump.

Moving into the third page of the story I’m wondering if this is the far future or the far past—I’d be willing to bet, at this point, that the latter is true. I love this setting and could write for the rest of my life inside it, but though there’s mention of an unnamed Martian captain, there is still no character here. J. Schlossel has pushed back so far that we’re reading a sketchy history of some distant past—a sort of fictional article, like a science fiction version of a movie mockumentary.

I’m actually not sure I hate that, strangely enough.

Here’s a “story” that’s (so far) breaking all my most closely held “rules” for writing fiction, but I’m enjoying it?

Yes, actually, the fact that I’m digging the story does matter more than whether or not it passes those tests. See? This is me being flexible in my thinking.

As this goes on I found myself less worried about the writing and more curious about the context of it. As I go deeper into the fourth page of the story it’s clear that J. Schlossel has built a utopian vision of a society that has completely forgotten the concept of war and seem to have a kind of mercantile socialism—at least in the first stages of interplanetary travel, trade is the thing. What does this say about 1925? The Roaring Twenties, the space between World Wars? The brief moment where a lot of the world toyed with the idea of Communism while watching Russia with a mix of hope and suspicion?

Was J. Schlossel a Red?

Or was J. Schlossel (see how I’m avoiding pronouns?) just as tired of war as anyone who lived through World War I?

Then here we see a clearer statement of at least a post-racist, socialist utopia:

The inhabitants of the Twelve Confederate Worlds were not individualists. They had advanced beyond that stage on the day when their separate worlds had united, for on that day each race had given up its deep-rooted dream that its own peculiar species had been created supreme above all others. It was the intelligence, not the form or color of their fellow creatures, that they held in high esteem.

But then the seemingly inevitable question that undercuts any utopian vision:

One question loomed up large: would not this perpetual peace and ease breed a race of cowardly degenerates?

Schlossel then asks—and this I find fascinating—the next question, which other anti-utopianists fail to ask: Why is that so bad? If you’ve eliminated war, how can not having a killer instinct be bad? If you don’t have anyone to shoot at, why learn how to shoot?

Finally, then, the interloper planet is detected and the Twelve Worlds activates its version of the Emergency Broadcasting System. And here, he just got me:

No attention was at first paid to those who let their emotions run away with them, but later, when the hysteria of the few was spreading like wildfire, it was decided to banish all who were inclined to excessive nervousness to some far off spot until the crisis was either past, or their fate definitely settled.

Let’s get the scared people out of here.

I wonder if that would work for America, 2018?

Although there would be about forty of us left.

Is this the author’s reaction to the difficult (at best) to nail down causes of the First World War? The sense that people overreacted to a few small events and marched off to a disastrous war half-cocked?

I don’t know.

Then the scientists decide this is no big deal, that the approaching planet will miss the solar system, but then the repeated sin of the omniscient viewpoint blows up that fleeting hope:

If their instruments could have seen beneath the snowlike covering, seen what was going on there, the Confederate Worlds would have begun feverish preparations for one of the most desperate struggles that had ever been fought.

Sigh.

Okay.

Moving on.

This is interesting—did J. Schlossel accidently identify dark matter in 1925?

And that approaching world and many others had come from somewhere out there, not from a living, glowing star cluster, but from the outskirts of a dead, intensely black region, from a region, if such a region can be imagined, where all matter is nearly stable, and so all matter almost dead. There were no flaming suns there to give light to that terrible darkness. Each body within the borders of that lifeless region was breaking down. the molecules were disintegrating, the atoms flying free. In the boundless sea of ether the atoms were moving sluggishly away in vast, cloudlike masses. This was the end of the universe.

Science fiction meets science… accidentally? I love it when that happens. And it will happen in this story twice—maybe even three times.

The second is the reveal that the strange planet is actually a sort of starship housing what looks like a cryogenically preserved population of strange, bipedal creatures. The planet is looking for a star to orbit so its atmosphere can unfreeze. Another fascinating science fiction concept described from a distance—and was he the first to think of that? Sending frozen astronauts out into space so they can sleep through the long trip? I’m not sure.

That aside, though, I’m just going to say it right now: This isn’t a story, this is a synopsis for a story (sans characters) and I’m finding myself more and more desperately wanting to take this outline and write this novel myself! Put characters into this, show them doing this stuff in the moment, conveying only what those POV characters know in that moment and attaching the meat to this weird, groovy, Old School SF skeleton.

Anyway, the “story” continues with the strange invaders acting like a disease, colonizing and expanding without any sense of proper resource management. Who, I wonder, in the world of 1925, are these invaders supposed to be? Who was colonizing like this, moving in, setting up cities, pushing out local populations? Or were the Europeans the invaders from outside and the Twelve Worlds are Native Americans?

We get back to the anti-utopian thing with this grim passage:

The Confederate Worlds awoke to their danger at last. Was it too late? They sought in their museums and in the old archives of their early histories for plans of death-dealing devices that their own ancient, blood-thirsty ancestors had used. They discarded their foolish dreams of peace and selected the ideas for the most terrible weapons that they could find and they began to manufacture these with lightning rapidity.

“Foolish dreams of peace”? That’s sad, isn’t it? What I thought started as a call for a more peaceful post-war world seems to have degenerated into a clarion call for what, in 1925, was the as-yet unimagined military industrial complex. Maybe I don’t want to write this book now!

Anyway, the story descends into all out war.

As the war rages, we start to see the principle advantage the Twelve Worlds has, and that’s a superior technology. The aliens still behave like invading germs, and the inhabitants of the solar system fight back first with the advantage of their matter transporters allowing them to move much, much faster than the invaders, who are relying on reverse-engineered spaceships. Then a long-range ray weapon is invented that “seemed the weapon of a child, and yet whatever it touched was destroyed.”

This brings up the old Guns, Germs, and Steel concept that greater technology always wins out against the masses—a theory that certainly seemed proven true in the war still more than a decade in J. Schlossel’s future, as it did in his past with the European invasion of the Americas.

The story then takes a weird turn once the tide of war turns in the favor of the Twelve Worlds where the invaders start to sing: “It was their death song.” This is the only sign of “humanity” we see from the outsiders.

When he planet  “No. 5” is destroyed there’s an interesting bit in which we see the creation of the asteroid belt and a large chunk of it hurled onto the primitive Earth, home of “four-legged creatures,” and “Life there was instantly destroyed.” Was this the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? Even if maybe it wasn’t an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, this story predates the impact theory by fifty-five years. And then the survivors of the Twelve Worlds all move to Earth to start over, the dinosaurs now extinct.

That ending was dissatisfying for me because it depends on that terrible old concept that war is inevitable and it’s impossible ever to evolve beyond it because you’ll inevitably be threatened by some other less evolved guy, so let’s all agree not to evolve? I hate that.

But then here’s that weird moment when science fiction predates actual science by fifty-five years—with J. Schlossel describing the mass extinction of the dinosaurs via asteroid impact. Further research shows that a Dutch astronomer had suggested dark matter as early as 1922—and J. Schlossel was probably aware of that work. Still… pretty cutting edge stuff in 1925.

And then a quick Google search for J. Schlossel reveals that his first name was Joseph and he was a Canadian author and “Technocrat” who died in 1977.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about this story, or more accurately, this science fiction mockumentary, but it was absolutely worth a read and got me thinking.

 

—Philip Athans

 

You can jump to the next story here!

 

 

 

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WHAT’S THE WORST POSSIBLE THING YOU COULD DO TO SOMEONE?

I asked that question in one of my college courses some years ago, in front of a group of students all sitting in a room together. You wouldn’t believe—or maybe you would believe—how deeply uncomfortable that question made them, and I mean all of them. Most people either politely refused to answer or came up with some quick catch-all, like “loss of control” or “being injured” or something, frankly, safe.

Only one person had the guts to actually dig deep into that question and I could see the rest of the class turning on him as he spoke. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember it was pretty rough, sort of a form of mixed physical and psychological torture. But that’s not the point. The thing that worried me was that out of a dozen people, eleven wouldn’t go there. Or wouldn’t go there in public.

But this sort of thinking and the willingness and ability to communicate it to the public (your readers) is what makes writing horror, in particular, but fantasy and science fiction in their many forms as well, actually scary, and not just for the reader but for the author as well. This is what makes horror challenging to write and what turns some readers off it entirely. It’s also the sort of thing that has turned some viewers away from Game of Thrones or got between Harlan Ellison and the mainstream science fiction audience way back in the day.

Though there are certainly personal doors you won’t want to go through, and I respect that, if you can’t sit for a few minutes and consider this question, I’ll go so far as to ask if horror is really the genre for you.

Writing horror means you have to shove your imagination into the abyss. You have to turn your gaze to the darkest places inside you, in your imagination, in your nightmares, in your fears. Tapping into that won’t be easy.

Michael Marano, in his essay “Going There: Strategies for Writing the Things that Scare You” in the book On Writing Horror wrote:

Horror is more than what makes a pulse race. There are other sources of horror besides fear; some are far worse than fear, and far harder to write about. I spoke to a horror writer I admire about a scene he’d written that was so full of anguish and loss that it had made my wife cry. He told me that the scene had been so brutal for him to write, he had cried at his keyboard while writing it. It can be dangerous to capture in words what skulks in the Mirkwood of your head. The nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant was tortured by what he imagined, and died crazy… a year and a half after trying to slit his own throat.

I’ve written things that have given me nightmares, that I stopped writing and set aside, and picked up only when it seemed like I had to finish it to get it out of me. Writing fiction is hard, on a good day, and that’s true of any genre—and, let’s face it, that’s true of anything worth doing well—but horror in particular means looking into places no one else really wants to see in themselves.

Can you do that?

 

—Philip Athans

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HONORING HONORIFICS

Let’s take this week to go after a certain copy editing bugaboo that I have found extremely common in both fantasy and science fiction. It’s another of those seemingly impenetrable rules governing the proper use of an initial cap.

An initial cap is when the first letter of a word is capitalized, regardless of its place in a sentence. Rules for things like proper names of people and places are easy enough to remember, and I won’t go back into railing against initial caps intended to make a common noun seem more important, but in the case of honorifics, I see authors just all over the place in how they’re handled, quite often inconsistently applying caps within a single paragraph, much less a single novel.

An honorific is used in place of a name to infer respect or high station. We don’t use them a lot in contemporary American society, but all the time in medieval-flavored fantasy.

Going to our old friend, The Chicago Manual of Style(16th Edition),* we find a firmly stated, unambiguous rule:

8.32

Honorifics. Honorific titles and respectful forms of address are capitalized in any context.

 

Her (His, Your) Majesty; Her (His, Your) Royal Highness

Your (His, Her) Excellency

but

sir, ma’am

my lord, my lady

I cherry-picked a few honorifics I see a lot from their longer list of examples. Combining lessons already learned regarding initial caps of ranks and titles, let’s see this in action in a fantasy story:

 

“Approach, Captain,” the queen commanded.

After taking two steps forward, Captain Galen sank to one knee before the beautiful Queen Bronwyn. “I fear I have bad news to report, Your Majesty,” the captain said.

“I am happy to see you alive, at least, sir,” Bronwyn said with a false smile.

“I,” a voice from behind the throne growled, “am not so happy!” Lady MacBetty strode out onto the dais, twirling a silver-bladed dagger in her left hand.

Galen scowled but said, “Good evening, my lady.”

“Take your good evening and shove—” the lady began.

“Enough,” the queen interrupted. “Now, Captain, what of the wars?”

“Twenty thousand men dead at the hands of Duke Jaerik, Your Majesty,” Galen reported, “including His Excellency the grand vizier.”

 

I threw as much in there as I could to show how all these work together.

Now consider that, if your worldbuilding includes honorifics not in Chicago’s list of examples, the rule still holds:

 

“Approach, Spearmaster,” the matriarcha commanded.

After taking two steps forward, Spearmaster Galen sank to one knee before the beautiful Matriarcha Bronwyn. “I fear I have bad news to report, Your Momentousness,” the spearmaster said.

“I am happy to see you alive, at least, sirrah,” Bronwyn said with a false smile.

“I,” a voice from behind the throne growled, “am not so happy!” Anne MacBetty strode out onto the dais, twirling a silver-bladed dagger in her left hand.

Galen scowled but said, “Good evening, sirress.”

“Take your good evening and shove—” the noblewoman began.

“Enough,” the matriarcha interrupted. “Now, Spearmaster, what of the wars?”

“Twenty thousand men dead at the hands of Imperator Jaerik, Your Momentousness,” Galen reported, “including His Pomposity the grand wizard.”

 

Same rule, different words/different worlds.

Yes?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

* And yes, I know the 17th edition is out, but I just haven’t gotten around to ordering that yet.

 

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DOWN WITH THE COUNCIL! THE COUNCIL MUST BE STOPPED!

I had a couple other things in mind to write about this week, but then as I was working through assignments for the current run of my online worldbuilding course for Writer’s Digest I was moved to action!

This week we’re talking about government and religion—I know, your parents told you not to do that, but it’s kinda hard to talk about worldbuilding and leave those out. Of the seven students in this run of the course, six people sent in assignments for this week, and of those six, three of them called their governmental bodies the Council.

Okay, so, before you worry that if you take one of my online courses I’m going to bitch about you in public, please know that all three of those people wrote amazing stuff. And I’m seriously not just saying that. I’m always delighted by the quality of the work that comes through these courses, and this week in this class was no different. I’m not complaining about the quality of the writing, just this one thing, this single word that I see over and over again, and not just in 50% of the worldbuilding course assignments but in probably that same percentage of full manuscripts that come across my desk. One after another, after another, after another.

So this is it.

Today I begin a one-man crusade against the Council!

The Council must be stopped!

First off, please refer to my rant against the use of common nouns with an initial cap here. Absorb that, embrace that, be sensitized to that, and also please notice that the Council is the very first entry on my list of (negative) examples.

Before you panic because the Council is all over your work in progress, know that there’s about a 99% chance that your fantasy or science fiction governmental body can work exactly as you describe, because like the talented people in this course who thought through the function of that body and made its decisions and actions personal, so their characters were actually affected by its policies and decisions, most likely all you need to do to fix your Council-infected work in progress is search for the word Council and replace it with… anything else!

I’ve said this before, but let me say it again: Maybe 90% of worldbuilding is naming things. So then why would you want your things named the same as everybody else’s (or even half of everybody else’s) things?

I’ll answer that for you: You don’t!

You want the names of your worldbuilding elements to reflect the creative energy you’ve put into those details and the creative energy and individual artistry you’ve put into your characters, your story—every aspect of your writing.

What to call it then?

My thesaurus app returned:

1 the town council: municipal authority, local government, administration, executive, chamber, assembly, corporation.

2 the Student Council: advisory body, board, committee, brain trust, commission, assembly, panel; synod, convocation.

3 that evening, she held a family council: meeting, gathering, conference, conclave, assembly.

Any of those will do for now.

Thanks to Google Translate here is Council in a few other languages, which one works for you?

Azerbaijani: Şurası

Basque: Kontseilua

Corsican: Cunsigliu

Finnish: neuvosto

Hawaiian: Ka’aha’ōlelo

Malagasy: Filan-kevitra

Samoan: Fono

Sudanese: dewan

Zulu: Umkhandlu

Or, y’know… just make something up!

You can do it! The Council must be stopped! Who’s with me?

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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