MORE STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES

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In my last blog post I announced the publication of BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars, a print collection of fifteen of my science fiction and fantasy stories, some of which had been previously published in magazines and anthologies across North America, and some not. For extra interest (because I enjoy that kind of thing myself) I also wrote a bit about the first five stories’ origins, intent, and publishing history. So here’s a little about the rest of the collection.

“Tartarus Rising”: I’m a huge fan of disaster stories and apocalyptic fiction, so I was delighted when this story was chosen for an anthology called Doomology in 2011. Such high-stakes stories provide an opportunity to show the best and worst of humanity as nothing else can. Alien invasions are a dime a dozen, but what if there was a race of beings sharing the planet with us, yet clever enough to remain hidden all these centuries even from our scientific instruments? I’m pretty sure the idea for “Tartarus Rising” came from a traumatic childhood event of mine involving a mysterious stranger who suddenly appeared at a window of our house on a dark night when my parents were away. If you have a frightening memory that haunts you, write a story about it!

“Marathon of the Devil”: I’d read an article about the famous Marathon des Sables in Morocco, a grueling race that makes you question the sanity of the participants! Naturally, being an SF writer, I imagined such a thing on an alien planet. But why put yourself through something like that? Because of a deep desire to be somebody special? Just for fun, I decided to have things work out right by going all wrong.

“Body Of Opinion”: We think of memory as being a function of the brain exclusively, but there has been lots of research into genetic memory, especially lessons and behaviours learned by one generation and passed on to the next through genes. What if other memories are encoded into our DNA? Combine that thought with ever-improving organ transplantation techniques and you end up with this story about a man who discovers that his new body he thought was cloned was actually “previously owned” and harbours a dark secret. A premise like that cried out for a noir fiction approach, which was a lot of fun to do.

“Democracy”: Our current political systems are so badly broken that we end up getting terrible leaders elected by much less than half of the people who voted. Yet we live in an era unlike any other in history, when virtually every citizen of developed nations has some access to the internet. If we wanted to, we could have true democracy, in which everyone could vote on every important issue of government. That’s what I’ve created in the fictional country of Devis Varta, although with tongue in cheek. Because, humans being humans, our lofty dreams almost never turn out the way they should.

“Saviour”: It’s easy for me to see the influences on this one. The movies Deep Impact and Armageddon both came out in 1998 as the world worried about asteroid strikes that could devastate the planet. But by the time I felt the urge to write my own story about saving the world from a giant killer rock, I’d seen the 2006 movie Sharkwater about how humankind is decimating the shark population and endangering the entire ocean ecosystem. Humans are a threat to pretty much every form of life on Earth these days. So a real hero might not do the expected.

“Node Of Thought”: I’ve done a lot of research into the mind…consciousness…the nature of thought—it’s been at the centre of a number of my novel plots. There’s no one who really knows what thought is, what consciousness is. There are only people who think they do. One day, embroiled in thought (as they say) I asked myself: what if thought has a physical form we know nothing about? Could we trail it behind us like hairs and dandruff? Could it be gathered like cosmic dust by some powerful source of energy? What would happen if you encountered something like that in deep space in a spaceship that responds to thought commands? Nothing good!

“The Cleansing”: Disaster again, inspired by the worrisome population cycles we’ve witnessed recently among creatures like frogs, bats, and especially bees, on whom we depend for so many of our food crops. Rouging (now more often called roguing) is a process of removing plants from crop fields when they’ve produced unwanted mutations. In coming years I believe we’ll be able to engineer crops to cull themselves to maintain their genetic purity. But what if, by pure bad luck, all of the crops were to enter such a “die-out” phase at the same time?

“The Rift”: Although I consider myself a spiritual person, this is my only story that really reflects that in a big way. And, because I’m a science junkie, I struggle to reconcile theory and experimental evidence with belief. Not surprisingly, that takes my mind in strange directions. One editor rejected this story because he thought it was too much like a Star Trek episode. I take that as a compliment!

“Hurricane”: I’m all in favour of renewable energy—solar, wind, tidal—and if we could harness the energy of hurricanes we’d hit the mother lode. Perhaps as much as the total worldwide generating capacity of humanity, in one storm! Writing a story about that, you just have to place your protagonist right in the thick of things, especially if he hates to fly, which gave me an excuse to research the amazing crews who willingly enter such hellish conditions in Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Plus, as I speculated about what would happen, I realized that I had the answer to one of the greatest occult mysteries of them all!

“Once Upon A Midnight”: Some years ago my good friend, prolific author/editor and all-around-nice-guy Mark Leslie Lefebvre issued a call for SF stories inspired by works of literature. I came up with one, and Mark liked it, but that anthology project didn’t come to pass. That was OK because some months later it was accepted for an anthology called In Poe’s Shadow (2011). Fast forward a few years, and Mark was invited to edit an edition of the well-respected Tesseracts series of anthologies and chose to resurrect his literary-inspiration idea. He also still wanted my story. So “Once Upon A Midnight” got a second life in one of Canada’s most successful SF franchises (Tesseracts 16: Parnassus Unbound) and I was thrilled. Deliberately over-the-top, it’s black humour with a dark warning at its core.

Once again, you can buy BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars through Amazon or Barnes & Noble in the US, or in Canada through Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.ca, or via many online outlets worldwide. Or if you're devoted to your favourite independent bookstore, ask them to order it through the book distributor Ingram. Have a great read!

BEYOND STORIES NOW IN PAPERBACK!

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Over the past couple of years I’ve made fifteen of my science fiction and fantasy short stories available in affordable e-book form (the e-anthologies Disastrous!, Body Of Opinion and other stories plus the series Beyond: The Stars, Beyond: Time, and Beyond: Technology, can all be purchased through my bookstore). But I know that a lot of readers are still devoted to physical books. So I decided to gather all of those 15 stories into one tasty paperback.

BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars is now available to buy through Amazon and other online retailers. Your favourite independent bookstore can also order it through the book distributor Ingram. It’s 362 pages of thoughtful and imaginative fiction that I think any SFF fan will love, but one thing I didn’t include (and maybe that was a mistake) was an Afterword explaining how each story came about. Lots of readers enjoy those—I do too.

So here, for what it’s worth, is a brief look at the stories and my reflections on them.

“No Walls”: This wasn’t my first story sold but it was the first one to make it into publication, in the Canadian magazine Neo-opsis Issue #18, so it will always have a special place in my heart. I even named my publishing company after it (lots of wider meaning, after all). As a fan of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, I hit on the variation of a man who suddenly gains the ability to walk through walls. But what real benefit could such a gift provide, except to a criminal? Or a secret operative. The story was rejected by editors a few times, and I realized that it needed to be darker, grittier. So if you’re squeamish, I apologize for the torture scenes, but without high stakes there’s no high drama!

“Shakedown”: My first science fiction novel manuscript is an SF thriller called The Primus Labyrinth, inspired by the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage about a submersible and crew shrunk to microscopic size to travel through the bloodstream of a scientist and save his life. I don’t think shrink rays will ever be possible, so I wanted a more realistic way such an adventure could take place. My novel is very different from the movie, and my literary agent is currently gauging interest among publishers. But I originally considered self-publishing it, and thought that getting a prequel story published would help promote the novel. “Shakedown” is that prequel, about my prototype nanoscopic submersible and its first pilot, and the question: could a human mind ever cope with reality at a microscopic level? It was published in the anthology Canadian Tales of the Fantastic (2011).

“The Long Commute”: Most time travel stories focus on going back to a single momentous event and putting all of history at risk. But what if time has a kind of inertia instead, and it takes many small changes to have an impact on the timestream? Would there be people whose job was to do that every day? I was intrigued by the possibilities of  mixing a mind-bending concept with a daily routine. I also borrowed a character’s name from the family of a US president at the time, but then decided that a more overt link would be too corny.

“Lockdown”: It’s a huge expenditure of resources to support criminals in prisons, but the public must be protected. The answer? A device that temporarily paralyzes a parolee if he or she even thinks of committing another crime. Mind you, that would put the criminal at the mercy of passersby, and I have a feeling that could get ugly (as the story shows). That was the focus when I first wrote “Lockdown” but, as with “No Walls”, there needed to be more drama. So I threw in a dash of revenge for seasoning.

“A Taste Of Time”: This one could not be more different from “Lockdown”. It’s a contemporary fantasy story about an old woman with sad memories and a cheerful young girl with an insatiable craving for wild blueberries. I’ve spent many happy hours picking wild blueberries myself and, knowing that the bushes can pick up flavours from the soil and surroundings (as wine grapes do), I speculated about what other things such berries might impart. The story was not only published by On Spec magazine (#88 vol 24 no 1 June 2012) accompanied by a feature author interview, but, to my delight, was also chosen for On Spec’s 25th Anniversary anthology Casserole Diplomacy and Other Stories. Talk about being in great company!

There are ten more stories in the collection and I'll write about them in a few days. In the meantime, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or in Canada to Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.ca. Or if you're devoted to an indy bookstore, ask them to order it through the book distributor Ingram. Enjoy!

 

BEYOND: TIME NOW AVAILABLE

The charge to publish continues!

The second of my short story collection series BEYOND: Time is now available as an ebook in my Bookstore for direct download. It's been distributed to all of the major ebook online retailers and you might even find it cheaper there, depending on your country's currency (currency conversions being what they are!)

BEYOND: Time offers three thrilling tales that transcend time:

The Long Commute

Shon Howard and others like him go to work every day to reverse the ravages of climate change, pollution, and other evils. His daughter’s life depends on it. Because in Shon’s world, mistakes of past centuries can be corrected by visiting key moments in time. As long as he doesn’t get caught.

A Taste Of Time

Gabby Dufour hates the blueberries that grow over the site of her home town, destroyed in a fire decades ago. Then young berry-loving Amanda comes to visit, with inexplicable knowledge about the town, and Gabby is forced to wonder if there’s more to blueberries than meets the tongue. (First published in On Spec #88 vol 24 no 1, August 2014.) ** This story's kind of different, but good enough to be chosen for On Spec's 25th anniversary anthology Casserole Diplomacy.

Hurricane

The crew of a Hurricane Hunter aircraft is assigned to monitor an experiment designed to collect the awesome energy of a powerful storm. When the project succeeds too well, nowhere is beyond its destructive reach.

However you choose to buy it, I hope you'll love these stories. Volume Three BEYOND: Technology  will be published soon, and then a print-on-demand anthology including all of these stories and more.

 

DNA AS A COMMODITY

Years ago I read a 1990 SF novel named Memories by Mike McQuay. It featured one of the most interesting time travel concepts I’ve ever come across: a drug is developed that lets a person “mind-travel” through their ancestral line and inhabit the body of any of their genetic ancestors. The plot of “Memories” involves the main character going back to the Napoleonic era to stop another traveller from messing up history. The process involves DNA and RNA (strongly linked to memory). It’s an excellent read that’s stayed with me, and I couldn’t help but think of it this week when I encountered an interesting science news story.

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta have found that some information can be passed down from generation to generation in mice through chemical changes in DNA. The researchers trained some mice to experience fear when they smelled the fragrance of a cherry blossom (a cruel choice, if you ask me) and found that subsequent generations also exhibited fear when encountering that smell. Needless to say, there’s a lot more research to be done in the field, but it’s an interesting result. We’ve often heard talk about “racial memory” that might provide similar inherited behaviours. We certainly know that many species have instinctive responses to environmental dangers that aren’t taught to them by parents.

What if we find out that learned skills can be passed through human DNA? If the DNA responsible could be isolated and transferred to other humans, it would become a very hot commodity. Take a few DNA shots and become a concert pianist. Or a pro-level golfer. Or a master carpenter. You might be able to skip instruction booklets and just buy an injection of home builder DNA when you buy your lumber (or even better: a DNA shot to assemble Ikea furniture!) Although there’s no indication that specific knowledge would be shareable that way, physical abilities that are practiced so often they become like a reflex action might be good candidates for this. Olympic champion swimmers might be able to retire and live off the proceeds of selling small amounts of their blood or tissues. But so might expert chefs and trained sharpshooters.

Even if it’s found that such DNA information transfers only work on embryos, not adults, there would still be a huge market for genetic material from geniuses of all stripes, from the Einsteins to the Warren Buffets. It could revolutionize the education system, especially specialized training. Most encouraging of all, if it could be made readily available, it might go farther than any initiative has yet done to provide universal education to all children, regardless of geography or social status. But again, so far, it’s impossible to know what level of detail can be included in the information transferred.

I don’t think it’s likely we’ll ever time travel via DNA and RNA as in McQuay’s book, but what if we could extrapolate the knowledge and experiences of our predecessors from the DNA of current descendants? We might finally get to know what it was like to be Napoleon Bonaparte, or Henry VIII, or almost any historical figure who had offspring and descendants who are alive today. The animal kingdom would be ripe for exploration, too. Perhaps we couldn’t clone dinosaurs, but we might have more precise and certain information about their instinctive behaviours by analyzing the DNA of modern-day birds.

As with any genetic research, there are ways that knowledge like this could be abused. But the potential is very exciting.

Being a science fiction writer, I’m putting in a bid for Larry Niven DNA. Or Robert J. Sawyer. Or…of course…if you could get your hands on some DNA from the late Michael Crichton? Ironic, indeed.

TIME AND TIME AGAIN

Science fiction writers love to find a fresh scientific basis upon which to imagine stories. A new theory that was just published in October might fit the bill. It’s a (mostly) new way of looking at Time.

We think of Time as having a direction: from the past into the future. “Time’s arrow” is the metaphor we picture. More scientifically, it’s the second law of thermodynamics—systems always progress from a state of order into greater and greater disorder. Like Humpty Dumpty—you can’t put him back together again. Or a Mojito cocktail that can’t be un-mixed. Or the universe, spreading from one single point to a huge amount of stuff scattered across a nearly infinite space, thanks to the Big Bang. The laws of physics work in either direction, though, so there’s no explanation for why Time travels in the direction it does nor how the matter of the universe got into such a perfect state of order before the Big Bang.

Physicists Julian Barbour, Tim Koslowski, and Flavio Mercati created a computer model of particles influenced by simple gravity (Scientific American has a good, though dense explanation here, or read another assessment here.) They showed that gravity will always bring such systems into occasional states of equilibrium/order, but from that ordered state Time will proceed in both directions, forward and back. That implies that there is a universe evolving as we know it and an alternate universe before the Big Bang that is going in the other direction, expanding farther and farther into what we would see as the past. The state of the universe in the moment before the Big Bang is just middle ground in a larger process.

Granted that Barbour, Koslowski, and Mercati’s idea hasn’t yet been reconciled with the theory of General Relativity or a few other possible objections, but it’s an interesting discovery.

There have been lots of stories about time travel and many more about alternate universes based on Hugh Everett’s Many-Worlds Theory, but what about a time travel story that involves going back to the Big Bang and beyond into a universe where Time itself moves backward, according to our perceptions?

Don’t expect me to write it—the paradoxes of time travel give me a headache at the best of times.

Time for a good, stiff Mojito.

A STITCH IN TIME--WILL TIME TRAVEL EVER BE POSSIBLE?

One of the most popular tropes in science fiction is the idea of time travel. Wouldn’t it be great if we could witness the heyday of the Roman Empire? Or even the dinosaurs? Or jump ahead to a future time to find out how our great-grandkids’ grandchildren turn out? One of the best-known early fictional treatments of the idea is H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and one of the most popular recent efforts is Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, but the concept has inspired countless novels, movies, and TV shows.

So will time travel ever be possible?

In a sense, jumping into the future just requires us to go somewhere at really high speed, because of the effects of relativity. In Orson Scott Card’s book Speaker For The Dead his main character, Ender Wiggin, exists in a world more than 3000 years after his birth, but has aged only 36 years because he’s spent so much of his life travelling between stars at near light speed. But is that really time travel? After all, you can never go back! What we really want is a way to go back and forth in time, isn’t it?

The idea doesn’t belong to fiction alone—lots of legitimate scientists have looked into it. The laws of physics don’t rule it out, and there are some phenomena that might do the trick.

One such is a wormhole in space—kind of like a black hole, but with an entrance and an exit. Star Trek fans will remember a wormhole as the setting for the series Deep Space Nine, but a wormhole might provide a shortcut through time as well as space.

Some scientists are even trying to make time machines. One of those is Dr. Ronald Mallett at the University of Connecticut. Mallett’s concept involves making a circular beam of high-energy light that would stir empty space like a spoon in a cup of coffee, making it theoretically possible for a particle in that space to travel faster than light and, hopefully, into the past. Mallett isn’t saying he’ll be able to send humans physically into the past, but perhaps information at least. There are advocates of time travel who believe that information is enough: that we might be able to experience other eras through a kind of virtual reality using information from those other times.

So far, the concepts that do appear theoretically possible have their drawbacks. A wormhole couldn’t take you back to a time before the wormhole existed. Similarly, Mallett’s time machine wouldn’t allow matter or information to travel to a time earlier than the moment the machine was switched on. Does that make his machine useless to the impatient types among us? Not really. The moment Dr. Mallett gets his machine working, he might be flooded with messages from people in the future (or even himself) trying to contact our time. That could be pretty useful.

One of the questions most deeply-ingrained into the human psyche is: what if I had done something differently? How would my life have turned out? From there it becomes: what if the world had done something differently? That question has generated a whole sub-genre of SF: the alternate history story.

That’s why even if time travel never becomes a reality, for science fiction it will always be necessary just the same.