Thursday, March 30, 2017

WHY I WROTE "HOPEWELL DREAMQUEST"

For as long as I can recall, lost civilizations have fascinated me. I longed to visit their sites, but, as I thought that all of them were far from Michigan and Kentucky, where I've lived, I could see them only in books and in National Geographic. Imagine my chagrin when I read on a map of Ohio the legend Hopewell Culture National Historic Park. For all of my life, a lost civilization had been in my back yard and I hadn't known.

Inspired by my discovery, I read all that I could find on Mound Builders — ancestors of modern Native Americans, not Atlanteans, Ancient Egyptians, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, or Vikings — but the core of my fascination with them remained the Hopewell Exchange. This rose out of the Adena Culture of central Ohio about 200 B. C. with the building of monumental earthworks: ceremonial centers miles long on hilltops or geometrical figures in units of thousands of feet in lowlands. As the earthworks were built by hand, their completion took centuries. The exchange lasted for around seven hundred years and then, for reasons still unclear to archaeologists, fell apart.

While I was reading about the Hopewell Exchange and visiting Hopewell sites in neighboring Ohio, I wondered about two questions that archaeologists still haven't fully answered: what social institutions held the Hopewell Exchange together for seven centuries, and how did those institutions fail? The driving force behind the Hopewells' centuries-long building projects was clearly a religious organization analogous to the Roman Catholic Church, which held Europe together for the centuries-long construction of cathedrals during the Middle Ages. Archaeologists have determined that the Hopewell's religious organization was shamanistic, revolving around four totemic animals: deer, eagle, bear, and wolf. The Hopewell shamans used symbols, and apparently communed with spirits, that have come down to today's Eastern Woodlands cultures. How the shamans were organized and how they lost their ability to keep a wide domain in peace are questions that archaeologists still want to answer.

Those questions are also seeds of a story if you write speculative fiction. For Hopewell Dreamquest, I assumed that the shamans had gained supernatural powers from fragments of an ancient meteorite that had formed a crater on the rim of which Serpent Mound now stands. When I began to plot the story, conventional archaeology taught that Serpent Mound had been built by the Fort Ancient Culture, much later than the Hopewell Exchange, so my notion of Serpent Mound's construction as a horizon event between the Adena Culture and the Hopewell Exchange was revisionist — likely wrong. I've since learned that William F. Romain of the University of Akron, who did think of Serpent Mound as Hopewell, has shown by radiocarbon dating that the mound did rise at the horizon between the Adenas and the Hopewells, so my wild idea seems to have been right. Maybe, my fiction isn't speculative after all.

As I studied the Hopewell, I grew fascinated with one of their common symbols — the cross within a circle. Likely, this symbol stood for the world's four quarters, but, for the story, I turned the symbol into a map of the Hopewell's religious/political world: four shamanistic centers each of which was dedicated to one of the totemic animals, and a common meeting ground at the center of the four. It was easy for me to map these to actual Hopewell centers in Ohio: the deer in the east at Marietta, the eagle in the south at Portsmouth, the bear in the west at Fort Ancient near Dayton, and the wolf in the north at Newark. The center in my story is the actual center of Hopewell earthworks, Chillicothe, where Hopewell Culture National Historic Park is today.

In the story, my viewpoint character is Gregory, a middle-aged man from central Kentucky whose forebears left him a field full of "Indian" mounds. Like many other Kentuckians, he has familial traditions of Native American ancestry, but doesn't know whether those traditions are true accounts or just stories made up by long-dead tricksters. I sympathize with Gregory; as a child of Kentuckians from the Appalachian Highlands, I grew up listening to elders in my mother's family argue whether they had Cherokee ancestry. Who knows whether they did have it? The truth is that some Cherokees, to avoid the Trail of Tears, tried to pass themselves off as white. If they did, they made sure of keeping their ethnicity secret from their white neighbors and from children who might blab dangerous facts. Hence, if your ancestors claimed to be Cherokee, they were almost certainly not.

In any case, as the story opens, Gregory is living a quiet life in which he has lucid dreams of visiting Native Americans who lived at his mounds centuries before. His quiet life ends when he falls in with others like him: persons of mixed, but mostly European, ancestry with a gift of lucid dreaming about Mound Builders. From those like him, he learns that the dreams can be shared and take the dreamers into the actual lives of Mound Builders. In their world, the dreamers can talk, travel, learn, and even fight and die. Gregory's companions from modern times aren't cut from savior cloth. Gregory himself wants to be a savior, but—

You can learn more of what he becomes if you read the novel. If you do, let me tell you something about how I've handled Hopewell culture and names. You'll soon notice that I have the Hopewells living much like Eastern Woodlands Indians when Europeans made contact with them. Archaeologically, my assumption is correct, as the Hopewell culture was similar and clearly ancestral to Eastern Woodlands cultures, with the major exceptions that the classical Hopewells knew nothing of war and had not adopted the bow and arrow or maize-based agriculture. As for the names of my Hopewell characters, I did what Europeans have often done with Native American names: I translated them into English. What else could I do? The Hopewells never developed writing and vanished by 500 A. D. I'd like to provide you with authentic Hopewell names, but, unless archaeologists do develop time travel, we'll never know those names.

My story will provide you with an answer to the questions that archaeologists ask: what kind of organization held the Hopewell Exhange together for seven centuries of a golden age, and what caused that organization to fail, precipitating the Hopewells' descendants into centuries of a dark age? The answer that I've given you is a fictional, fantasy-based one, but, if you learn it, I think that you'll agree with me when I say that an organization like the one that I describe had to exist, and its fall was terrible…

Gregory was dreaming of Indian mounds…

Hopewell Dreamquest is avaiable in Kindle format. You can read the book's opening chapters by clicking on Look inside.

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Thursday, March 09, 2017

WHY I WROTE "ASSASSIN OF ACHERON AND OTHER STORIES"

by Alfred D. Byrd


I'm by nature a novelist, but I like every once in a while to try my hand at short stories, mainly because I can finish one of these as quickly as I can finish a chapter of a novel, and then send the short story off to a market that might accept it. Two of my short stories have appeared in paying markets: "The Earth-Shaker's Answer" in Quest for Atlantis: Legends of a Lost Continent and "Natural Law" in Warrior Wisewoman 3. Alas, neither of these anthologies is any longer in print. I've also had two other short stories and a novella (how rare are paying markets for novellas!) accepted by planned anthologies, but, as "planned" never became "published," the accepted stories had to find other homes. One of the short stories, "Dead Man Stalking," appears in Past Future Present: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction, which Helen E. Davis edited and Catherine Mintz published as a showcase for sixteen writers of sf, fantasy, and horror. I'm sf in this anthology, by the way. I've self-published my accepted, but orphaned novella, The Seventh Proficiency, as an e book.

My intro leads in the first of the thirteen short stories that compose this collection. "Assassin of Acheron" was accepted for publication in Warrior Wisewoman 4, but was orphaned when this anthology was sadly left unpublished. Not seeing my short story in print in what was promising to be a landmark series of anthologies was the greatest disappointment of my writing career, as the story was an experimental piece that turned out to be in my view possibly the best thing I'd written. It was my effort to write a Twilight Zone story for the present day. The story deals with questions of identity, of expectations that others have of us, of what we're willing to do to be free, of what the word I really means…

I've written most of the stories in this collection since 2008. "Double Vision," however, goes back to the 1980's. It was originally part of a novel that I still hope to get into print. In the novel, "Double Vision" was a dreamie, a full-sensory-immersion movie that a Basic (i. e. Homo sapiens) character in the novel experienced to learn more about Volants. You'll learn more about Basics and Volants in this short story, which is set on a terraformed Mars in the Twenty-Fifth Century. Oddly enough, this time and place still has drug addiction, human maintenance workers, and lawyers. I did say that I wrote the story in the 1980's, didn't I? Oh, wait! Do we still have those things today? How much the present is like the past! The story also has, however, humans with wings. I think that you'll enjoy those — both the humans and the wings. After all, what's a little genetic engineering among friends?

Even writers of speculative fiction are urged to write what they know. In respect of that, let me say that I have a master of science in microbiology, work as a research analyst in plant pathology, and live in Lexington, Kentucky. In the lab, I work with endophytic ("inside a plant") fungi of grasses. The fungi and the grasses form a symbiosis ("living together"); some symbioses are mutualistic (benefiting both partners). Being a writer of speculative fiction, I wondered whether there could be a mutualistic symbiosis between humans and an endanthropic ("inside a human") fungus. I set the short story that grew from my wondering in Lexington, though I don't call it by name. Residents of the city may recognize the mall where the story's action takes place, though I vanished some stores that were inconvenient to the story. A writer of speculative fiction can vanish things, don't you know? Maybe, it was my recollections of the ordeal of being a graduate student that caused the viewpoint character of "Endanthropic" to learn that mutualisism isn't always what it's cracked up to be. She wrestles with questions of identity—

Sometimes, a short story can give birth to a novel, especially if the short story's writer is by nature a novelist. Certainly, "Glyph Sixty-Two" gave birth to Madness of the Glyphs, in which the short story's action is viewed from a far world by a different viewpoint character from the novel's. Still, I think that you'll find the short story engaging in its own right. Lost languages and the legends that grow up around them can be deadly. You're not afraid of the Dark, are you? If you like the short story, you may also like the novel.

Four times, I've submitted short stories to the long-running Sword & Sorceress anthology. Four times, they've been rejected. There's always next year. Of "The Grondaric Grimoire," the third short story that I submitted to Elisabeth Waters, she wrote in her rejection e mail to me, "This is a perfectly good story, but it doesn't quite have the feel I want for Sword & Sorceress." In this story, a poor scribe named Shirreth must answer the question, "How far will you go to help a nameless stranger — and yourself?" I liked the grimoire in its role as a McGuffin.

I'm a sucker for tales of "aliens among us." Also, I've spent more time on visiting persons in nursing homes than I can clearly recall. Thus, it may not surprise you that I've written a short story of aliens among us in nursing homes. If you're familiar with the Book of Psalms, you can also tell from their story's title that they've lost what matters most to them. I'll add only that "If I Forget Thee…" is the story that I'm proudest of having written in this collection.

The first story that I sent to Sword & Sorcery was, like the third, about a scribe. Unlike Shirreth, however, who's a free woman of common birth, Karramin of "Karramin the Glorious is a noblewoman who's become a slave. In her new life, all that Karramin has going from her is her ability to copy in a fine hand and a bizarre psychic gift that she regards as a curse. Can she use it to save the life of a perfect stranger — and herself? Tell me that the story's opening paragraph doesn't make you want to read on. Sadly, it didn't make Elisabeth Waters buy the story…

Every once in a while, a writer writes a story that never quite works for him, yet he can't dismiss. Such a story for me is "The Last Spell," which I wrote for a contest back in the 1980's. The story didn't win the contest, sad to say. Neither did the story, despite endless rounds of revision and submission to paying markets, win a home anywhere else. Now, the story has a home here and is off my mind. Thank the heavens for self-pubished short story collections! I hope that you enjoy the story. Amid whatever makes it professionally unpublishable, it has some imaginative touches and prose poetry. I'm also proud of the story's names and incantations in Irish Gaelic, which I was studying when I wrote the story's first draft. The poem in an ancient bardic meter is original with me.

Every once in a while, a writer gets an idea for a whole series of short stories, yet only one or two of those stories gets written. Such is the case with me of a series of short stories about the epic quest of a character named Beryl. "Mashaan's Sacrifice might've been the penultimate story in his series if all of it had gotten written. This story also hails from the 1980's and has been through many rounds of revision and submission. Any touch of the Gilgamesh epic that there is about this story is due to my having been studying Sumer when I wrote it. Mayby, in the story, you'll also see a touch of William Butler Yeats's "Song of Wandering Aengus," which has been a major influence on my writing. I've also written Beryl's origin story (you can't be a superhero without an origin story), but its publication will have to await a second collection of my short stories.

The trope of a stranger who shows up to try to save a doomed place is as old as fiction itself. That trope plays out again in "The Oracle's Conquest." After I'd written this story, I saw that it may've been influenced by the many episodes of Doctor Who that I'd watched. That Gallifreyan does get around. Still, there's no TARDIS in this story, and Our Hero does encounter a surprise. Sometimes, you learn that you're not the only stranger in town. As for the trope of a doomed city, it's one about which I've written many times and will likely write many times more.

Next up is the fourth short story that I submitted to Sword & Sorceress. "Stealing the Book of Dreams," like "The Grondaric Grimoire," was called "a perfectly good story" by Elisabeth Waters. It's certainly the most techically accomplished in this collection. When I was starting out seriously as a writer back in the 1980's, I was taken with multiple viewpoint characters. I've largely gotten away from using them, but they make a reappearance in my tale of a thief, a guard, a book, and a trickster. In this story, I was going for Jorge Luis Borges meets Jack Vance. I love the chessboard by moonlight setting, even if I do say so myself. The names of the main characters are anagrams of chessboard colors in Spanish. It's so much work to come up with names — especially names that obey Ursula K. LeGuin's rule that fictional women's names shouldn't end in -a.

In "To Doubt the Falling Sky," the second short story that I submitted to Sword & Sorceress, the name of the viewpoint character, Pennekhen, is a play on "Henny Penny." How few readers of this blog will be old enough to recall that character from folk tales! This story also got the "perfectly good story" seal of approbation. I wonder what was wrong with "Karramin the Glorious" to make it miss out on that seal? In any case, "To Doubt the Falling Sky" was much improved by Helen E. Mercier-Davis's criticism that Pennekhen did far too much whining while she sat around day and night and watched a pond for signs of cosmic evil's return. Of course, when a spawn of Cthulhu shows up…

Watchers show up in many of my stories. I fell in love with the concept of a watcher when I came across the term "watchers" in the Book of Daniel (the book in the Bible, not the book by E. L. Doctorow). In "The Watcher Dances," the watcher is an alien among us — no, he's sentient nanotechnology — no, he's as human as you are or I am. As you might guess, he has to deal with the ever-present question of identity. Don't you hate it when that happens? Still, he really will get to dance. Long-time residents of Lexington, Kentucky, may recognize where he dances.

You can read all of "Assassin of Acheron" and part of "Double Vision" free in,
Assassin of Acheron.

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Thursday, March 02, 2017

WHY I WROTE "MADNESS OF THE GLYPHS"

Madness of the Glyphs unites several themes that've fascinated me as a writer. The Oort Cloud, deep-space habitats, communes, the conflict of religion and reason — these are linked by an obscure, yet absorbing discipline: undeciphered languages. The records of civilizations that've died without passing on knowledge of their systems of writing tantalize us with what's been lost to us. If we could figure out these systems, what might we learn? In particular, the novel asks, "How would humanity, expanding towards the stars, take the discovery of alien inscriptions without a Rosetta Stone?"

Here on the earth today, we have several such sets of inscriptions. The Vinca Script, the Rongorongo script of Easter Island, asemic writing, Incan Quipu — these are just a few among many systems of writing that've baffled linguists. The Voynich Manuscript, which may be a medieval scholar's jeu, or pedantic joke, makes the news now and then as first one aspiring decipherer and then another claims to have interpreted it. So far, no decipherer has — or has one? We may reason from the examples of Mayan or Egyptian hieroglyphics that, if we find enough inscriptions in an unknown language, we can interpret them. We overlook that both sets of hieroglyphics were solved through counterparts to them in known languages. An inscription that exists on its own, with no counterpart in a known language, may forever evade our understanding.

Undecipherable inscriptions embody a concept that troubles many of us — the limits of knowability. We want to believe that, if we stare at something long enough, we'll start to understand it. If we can learn enough about what which we're staring at, we'll understand it completely. At times, however, information that we seek lies behind impenetrable barriers: quantum uncertainty, a black hole's event horizon, or simply time's passage, erasing what was once clear. A symbol the meaning of which has been lost may forevermore mystify us.

(If you want to know more about the limits of knowability, you can read Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which holds a lifetime's worth of wonders.)

Still, Madness of the Glyph is not a philosophical text, but a story in which human beings live out a conflict. At its heart, on the neo-Platonic haven of Thales Habitat, fifty light-days out from Earth, is Barnabas, a small, but academically brilliant boy who wakes up one night to learn that the long-forbidden activity of war is back. Downsystem, four centuries of peace for humanity are burning in religious fanaticism's fires. A militant priesthood claiming that an alien plaque has taught it a message and a mission adopts aggressive war and human sacrifice. When the priesthood perishes in its own war, the alleged plaque vanishes in the immolation of the priesthood's command ship. Still, an alien plaque's mere existence moves Barnabas to learn a dying discipline, linguistics, in hope that he might someday decipher alien texts.

Even among philosophers, linguistics is singularly useless (who needs other languages when all speak one?) until a second plaque appears nearly on their community's doorstep. Soon, they have other plaques, all bearing inscriptions of beautiful, artfully arranged, but incomprehensible glyphs. Barnabas, like everyone else, rejoices at proof of extraterrestrial intelligence until he learns a bitter truth: without a Rosetta Stone, not even the best linguist can interpret an unknown inscription.

Somehow, he must find a Rosetta Stone. Without a true translation of the glyphs, humanity is foundering in false translations of them. The fanaticism that led humanity back into war's darkness is growing again. Amid cult activity and ritual killings, a properous settlement falls silent in the Dark, and the threat of war rises again. Can Barnabas decipher the glyphs' message before their madness destroys what he holds dear?

Barnabas' quest is a struggle against the Dark. In it most basic sense for him, this is the void of space embracing fragile habitats of life. Too often, these become lost, "gone to Croatoan" as natives of the Oort Cloud say in memory of one of Earth's unsolved mysteries. In a deeper sense, the Dark is ignorance. Whenever there's a void of knowledge, the imaginative will fill it with rumor, conjecture, and blind faith. Against these, even the light of reason often fails, especially when reason runs up against the limits of knowability. In the Dark, ignorance is death.

In Barnabas' quest for understanding, he runs against the limitations of the society in which he grew up: the limitations of the upbringing that it gave him, and the limitations of opposition with which that society responds to him when he tries to overcome his upbringing. Sometimes, philosophers can be as narrow minded as religious fanatics are. The Dark defends itself by all means available to it.

Barnabas' quest for understanding takes him down the road of relationships: with a robot programmed to be whatever he needs, with a lover who leaves him to pursue a philosophical ideal, with a best friend who knows ancient secrets of Kabbalah, with a new lover who must leave him for a desperate rescue mission, and with an immortal space captain who never loses hold on hope. Each of his companions offers him deep insights into life and even into his quest, but, tragically, one of them is a traitor…

Sometimes, the most unreadable of inscriptions appears on the human heart.

You can follow Barnabas on his journey of discovery and doubt in
Madness of the Glyphs.
You can read the first two and a half chapters of the book for free.

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