Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Rana Station Page 1 of 2

This square image has a variegated background with a tan-edged, variegated rectangle on a layer floating above the background layer. Three square images from the blog post are arranged on the diagonal across the middle. They overlap each other – but not enough that we can’t see what they are. Design by Jan S. Gephardt.

A Mixed Bag in April

I had a mixed bag in April, when it comes to posts on The Weird Blog . . . and also when it comes to just about everything else, too. My ongoing book review work continues. However, I prefer to blog about books and share their reviews in themed groups of three to five. I didn’t have neatly themed groups of much of anything in April.

Book review topics were only one category of “hodgepodge” in April. I’m also transitioning out of the intense burst of art direction projects (see more below, for those). And because beta reader comments have now come in for Bone of Contention I made another kind of transition, back into working on the polishing round of revisions.

Transitions of that sort are a recipe for “mixed bag.” So are random variables, and we had one enormous new “random variable” in our household this month. In my last novel, A Bone to Pick, my fictional characters Charlie, Hildie, and Rex discovered that random variables can sometimes pack a nasty punch. Our new household random variable wasn’t what I’d call nasty – but he did prove to be extremely time- and energy-consuming.

New husky puppy Moon Gephardt in action: Clockwise from upper left, walking on the wall, chewing on and tossing a toy, and Moon takes a good sniff of Yoshi, while Yoshi sends an imploring look toward the camera. All photos © 2024 by Jan S. Gephardt.
See Credits below.

Meet Moon, Our Random Variable

Moon, our new dog, contributed more than his share to that mixed bag in April. Every new household member arrives bringing challenges. When my son adopted a year-old husky at the end of March, we thought we knew what we were getting into, because we’d had a lot of dogs in our lives. But I gained a whole new appreciation for the “puppy sequence” in the movie Togo after a few weeks of living with Moon. Like Togo, Moon is a Siberian husky.

In true husky fashion, he is intelligent, creative, charming, loving, persistent, and athletic. He’s a wonderful dog. And he’s been giving me an awesome experience to take notes for future books when XK9 puppies come on the scene. He’s also lighting-fast, extremely strong, bullheaded, and needs constant watching.

We have a senior cat, a middle-aged cat, and a middle-aged, somewhat smaller dog. They range from hanging out amicably when Moon’s feeling mellow, to being irritated by Moon, and sometimes to actively being in danger from him. That’s not because he’s mean. It’s simply because he’s so much bigger, stronger, and faster – and he’s a puppy, so he doesn’t know his own strength.

Even when my husband is on the scene, keeping Moon well supervised, especially around our other pets, is challenging. When my husband left for an 8-day trip to help a friend in Mississippi, the “Moon management” effort during the final week of April shifted from “challenging” to seriously exhausting. Let’s just say my productivity took a nosedive.

This montage shows the four illustrations from the blog post “A Proper Balance of Politics and Business,” published on The Weird Blog April 10, 2024. All montages by Jan S. Gephardt. See the original blog post for details from individual illustrations.
See Credits below.

Striking “A Proper Balance of Politics and Business”

As noted above, my Weird Blog post topics presented a mixed bag in April. The first post, A Proper Balance of Politics and Business, explored a question that perplexes many businesses, both large and small: just ask Nike or Bud Light about that! Even we Weird Sisters ourselves differ on what works best for our mutual corporate (as Weird Sisters Publishing) and separate professional balances.

My sister G. S. Norwood generally prefers to eschew any overt political comment. It’s a caution well-learned and deeply entrenched after a professional lifetime of interactions in the business community of Dallas, TX. Politics isn’t a major factor in her written fiction work, either, so it seems quite appropriate to walk a line of neutrality in her professional persona.

In my own work, I find it very difficult – indeed, counter-productive – to attempt to erase general political assumptions and concepts from the worldbuilding of science fiction. The artistic choices one makes in my genre are shot through with political understandings. I think politics in science fiction is kind of baked in. That holds, whether one is commenting pointedly or not. Consider the implied comment of many dystopian visions. Or the assumptions made in a post-apocalyptic setting. Or the ways that political and corporate balances of power are portrayed in any given science fictional story-universe.

This montage includes one of Chaz Kemp’s variations on the “Windhover” space ship in the center. Behind “Windy,” clockwise from upper left are Lucy A. Synk’s “Quadra,” “Thisseling and Rajor Zee,” “Mosseen,” Jose-Luis Segura’s “Mac and Yo-Yo in their workshop,” and Lucy A. Synk’s “Kril, Daytime, with Moons.” The words say, “Astronomicals © 2019-2024 by Lucy A. Synk,” “Windhover ship ©2022 by Chaz Kemp,” and “© 2021 by Jose-Luis Segura,” on the “Mac and Yo-Yo” picture. Montage by Jan S. Gephardt.
See Credits below.

The Windhover Tetralogy as Illustrated Books

From politics to the beauty and potential of illustrated books? Yes, The Weird Blog’s topics were quite the mixed bag in April! Our second post of the month explored the new way that I’m planning to present the “vintage 1980s” science fiction of my late brother-in-law, Warren C. Norwood.

My objective was to give the new reissue editions of his first, four-book series a better evocation of Warren’s wide and wildly inventive imagined worlds. To achieve that, I’ve engaged the talents of three different illustrators, Lucy A. Synk, Chaz Kemp, and Jose-Luis Segura.

We’re tackling this rather extensive, involved project in two bursts of production work. The first one, which started in December and has run through the spring, is beginning to wind down. Other production considerations kick in during the summer, specifically finishing up the Bone of Contention rollout. Then we plan to crank it back up and finish the work this fall and winter, with book release dates in 2025.

For more details, and for more looks at work we’ve finished so far, check theIllustrated Bookspostitself. And I bet by now you see my point about how all the assorted projects and random variables created such a mixed bag in April.

About the Author

Author Jan S. Gephardt Is shifting from the mixed bag in April to focus more fully once again on her own XK9 Series of science fiction novels and shorter fiction in May and through the summer. Subscribers to her monthly newsletter currently have access to more original short fiction set in the XK9s’ universe than is currently available for sale. Her newest title, Bone of Contention, is set to be published September 24, 2024. It completes the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, although the series will continue.

IMAGE CREDITS

All photos in the “Moon Montage” are © 2024 by Jan S. Gephardt, who also designed the montage. The second montage shows the four illustrations from the blog post “A Proper Balance of Politics and Business,” published on The Weird Blog April 10, 2024. All montages were designed by Jan S. Gephardt. See the original blog post for details about sources within the individual illustrations.

The third montage includes one of Chaz Kemp’s variations on the “Windhover” space ship in the center. Behind “Windy,” clockwise from upper left are Lucy A. Synk’s “Quadra,” “Thisseling and Rajor Zee,” “Mosseen,” Jose-Luis Segura’s “Mac and Yo-Yo in their workshop,” and Lucy A. Synk’s “Kril, Daytime, with Moons.” The words say, “Astronomicals © 2019-2024 by Lucy A. Synk,” “Windhover ship ©2022 by Chaz Kemp,” and “© 2021 by Jose-Luis Segura,” on the “Mac and Yo-Yo” picture. Montage by Jan S. Gephardt.

BFFs Lynette M. Burrows and Jan S. Gephardt.

A Pair of BFFs Talk about Writing

By Jan S. Gephardt and Lynette M. Burrows

A note from Jan to her readers: My longtime friend Lynette M. Burrows and I belong to some of the same writers’ groups, and first met through the Kansas City Science Fiction & Fantasy Society (KaCSFFS). We bonded over (among other things) our interest in writing, and we’ve been friends literally for decades. We regularly check in with each other to “talk shop” or be each others’ cheerleaders. Earlier this summer, I suggested we co-write a post in which we talk about writing, our personal writing journeys, and our books. This post is the result of that conversation.

Before we Talk about Writing, Who is Lynette M. Burrows?

Covers for “My Soul to Keep” and “Fellowship,” the two books so far published in the Fellowship Dystopia.”
From Rocket Dog Publishing. Cover artwork for My Soul to Keep is © 2018 by Elizabeth Leggett. Cover artwork for Fellowship is © 2019 by Nicole Hutton at Cover Shot Creations

Lynette M. Burrows loves hot coffee, reading physical books, and the crack of a 9mm pistol—not all at the same time, though that might be fun! She writes thrilling science fiction for readers who love compelling characters with heroic hearts.

The White Box Stories, which she co-wrote with Rob Chilson, appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact Magazine.

Her series, The Fellowship Dystopia, presents a frightening familiar American tyranny that never was but could be. In Book One, My Soul to Keep, Miranda discovers dark family secrets, the brutality of the Fellowship way of life, and the deadly reality of rebellion. My Soul to Keep and the series companion novel, Fellowship, are available at most online bookstores. Book two, If I Should Die, will be published in 2022.

Owned by two Yorkshire Terriers, Lynette lives in the land of Oz. You can find her online at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter @LynetteMBurrows.

Who is Jan S. Gephardt?

Covers for “The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick,” by Jan S. Gephardt.
Covers courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing. Cover artwork, L-R © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk, © 2019 and 2020, respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

Jan S. Gephardt commutes daily between her Kansas City metro home in the USA and Rana Station, a habitat space station that’s a very long way from Earth and several hundred years in the future.

She and her sister G. S. Norwood are the founders and co-owners of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Her XK9 “Bones” Trilogy and its prequel novella, The Other Side of Fear, feature a pack of super-smart, bio-engineered police dogs called XK9s. They struggle to establish themselves as full citizens of the space station where they live, while solving crimes and sniffing out bad guys.

The Other Side of Fear tells how the XK9s and their humans found each other. What’s Bred in the Bone begins the tale of XK9 Rex, a dog who thinks too much and then acts on his thoughts. Even after his human partner Charlie is injured and out of the picture. A Bone to Pick was just released last month. In it, Rex and the Pack have new and different problems, even before Rex’s enemy from the past comes gunning for him. Jan’s now working hard on Bone of Contention, in which the dogs must prove to a critical panel of judges that they are truly sapient, before the Transmondians manage to exterminate their kind completely.

Now, let’s Talk about Writing!

Lynette and I developed a list of questions, then each of us answered them. The rest of this post continues in a Q&A format. We hope you’ll enjoy this “conversation,” in which a pair of BFFs talk about writing!

What’s your most recently- or imminently-to-be-published title? What’s it about, and when/how/where can readers find it?

LYNETTE

This banner for “Fellowship” has a photo of a person in a snowy forest and the words, “The AZRAEL are real. The Cleaners are coming. Run, Ian, run!”
Banner and cover for Fellowship courtesy of Lynette M. Burrows on Twitter.

Fellowship, a companion novel to the Fellowship Dystopia, series, is my most recently published title.

Two years before Miranda begins her journey, tragedy shatters a high school senior’s dreams of being a journalist when his parents are Taken by the Angels of Death. Hunted by government agents, Ian and his younger siblings run for their lives. He leads them to the Appalachian Mountains. He knows how to survive, but resources are scarce. The mountains are unforgiving. And winter is in the air. If they are to survive, Ian and his siblings need help. But who can he trust?

I had intended to write a short story in the same world as My Soul to Keep, Book One in the Fellowship Dystopia, series. When Ian came alive on the page, Fellowship, a longer story about trust, was born. Read how, while writing this novel, My Story Went to the Dogs.

Fellowship is available at most online bookstores.

JAN

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s new book A Bone to Pick is widely available in a variety of formats. Cover artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

My most recently-published novel is A Bone to Pick, Book Two of the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. It should now be widely available in a variety of formats.

The protagonist of the whole Trilogy is XK9 Rex, who becomes recognized on Rana Station as the Leader of the Pack for the Orangeboro XK9s. But an enemy from his past is still gunning for him.

Before Rex came to Rana Station, he ran afoul of Transmondian spymaster Col. Jackson Wisniewski. He deliberately flunked out of the espionage program and threatened Wisniewski’s life. Now Wisniewski wants Rex dead. Transmondian agents watch and wait for any opportunity to strike.

Meanwhile, his human partner, Charlie, faces a different struggle. Injured and out of the action for most of Book One, Charlie now works to recover from  his catastrophic injuries – and comes face-to-face with a once-in-a-lifetime love he thought he’d lost forever.

What is your current work-in-progress, and how does it fit into the rest of your oeuvre?

LYNETTE

I’m finishing up edits of the second book in the Fellowship Dystopia, series titled If I Should Die. It takes place in the same world as My Soul to Keep and picks up Miranda’s story.

Two years ago, former rebel soldier, Miranda Clarke, vowed she would never pick up her gun again. Vowed to help instead of kill. She created the Freedom Waterways and rescued fugitives from the Fellowship’s tyranny. With every rescue, she heard about nightmarish suffering and loss, and her dream of peace grew more and more desperate.

Until the day she received two simultaneous requests: a loved one on the Fellowship side wanted her help to bring peace to the nation, while a loved one on the rebel side would surely die without her help. No matter which choice she made, it would cost her. Dearly.

In a deadly battle between her dreams and loved ones, will she stick to her peaceful principles, or risk everything to settle the score?

JAN

I’ve recently started two projects. One is a short story tentatively titled Beautiful New Year, It’s set on Rana Station and features Rex’s partner Charlie, before he and Rex teamed up.

I’m also at work on the third novel in the Trilogy, Bone of Contention. Rex and the Pack have begun to enjoy the freedom Ranans believe they deserve. But they also have work to do. They’re hot on the trail of a murderous gang that blows up spaceships in the Black Void.

But in the far-flung systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, trafficking in sapient beings is the most-reviled crime of all. The leaders of the XK9 Project that created Rex and his Pack deny any wrongdoing. And the system-dominating Transmondian Government that sponsored the XK9 Project will do anything they must to protect themselves. Even if it means destroying every XK9 in the universe.

How did this series start? What themes did you know from the beginning that you wanted to address, and why? Have you been startled by other themes or ideas that developed in the course of writing?

LYNETTE

This has been one of those stories that cooked for a very long time. I knew I wanted to create a heroine who had survived abuse and ultimately makes the choice to thrive. Exploring abuse of politics, power, and people was a logical offshoot of my original idea.

The thing that startled me the most was that I would think I’d written a brilliant scene about abuse and violence until a first reader started questioning me about the scene. The way I’d written it, the abuse and violence were always off stage.

It took a long time for me to write more active and direct scenes.

JAN

This series started with a “what if?” I’ve been a dog-lover for a long time, and I’d been wanting to write a mystery set in a science fictional milieu. Reading about police K-9s used for scent tracking, I found a quote from an investigator: “It’s not like we can put the dog on the witness stand and ask him what he smelled.”

“Oho!” I thought. “But what if we could?” Science fiction is full of uplifted animals. It was a pretty short intuitive leap from there to Rex and the Pack.

This meme image shows a German Shepherd with its paw on a Bible held by a police officer, in what looks like a courtroom. It says, “ his look of determination: ‘I saw, heard, and smelled what you did. You’re going down, David!’”
Meme image courtesy of ImgFlip.

And when we talk about writing themes, my stories always seem to have an internal “compass.” One way or another, they end up being about interactions between people of different cultures, as seen through a lens of equity and social justice.

How did your book change from the first day of writing to your last day of the final draft?

LYNETTE

I started writing My Soul to Keep as a fantasy with dragons and a Cinderella story arc, which stalled out pretty quickly.

Then I tried setting the story in the future, but it smacked too much of The Handmaid’s Tale. And the writing stalled out again.

What I needed was a world that allowed me to explore the theme of thriving despite abuse. My husband suggested I write in the style of a 1950s Noir Mystery. So I explored that option, knowing this was a character growth story, not a murder mystery.

From there, it morphed into an alternate history. Once I had the alternate history idea, it was a small step to using the Isolationist movement of the 1920s and ’30s to turn America into an isolated religious tyranny.

JAN

It took me a while to research, think, write through, and develop the science fictional elements. I wasn’t sure at first how smart to make the dogs, or how they’d communicate with their humans.

A member of my writer’s group pointed out that my first concept for Rana Station wouldn’t actually work, for a lot of valid reasons. So I surveyed space habitat designs that have been proposed by sf writers and actual space scientists. Then I mixed, matched, and came up with my own (pardon the pun) spin on their ideas. After that, I had fun extrapolating how the inhabitants would design and use the interior.

What is your writing practice? Do you have a ritual to start your day? What time of day? How many hours, and how many days a week? How do you write (machine, dictate, hand write)?

LYNETTE

When I first started writing, I had a ritual. I’d light a candle or incense and start music and then do writing exercises in a journal. Those, I usually hand wrote. Then I’d re-read the manuscript pages I had written the day before. Finally, I’d put a blank sheet of paper in my IBM Selectric typewriter and re-type those pages, revising as I went. Then I wrote the next scene.

I had an infant when I started writing, so I wrote during his naps. Later, I wrote while he was in preschool (about two hours twice a week), and while he was in school.

Now, my dogs and I go to my office after breakfast. I might turn on some instrumental music or I might write in silence. I might review the latest pages. Just as often, I start where I left off. I write for at least two hours, but if the words are flowing, I will write for ten hours or more. I write six days a week with rare exceptions.

An adorable photo of Lynette’s Yorkies, Neo and Gizmo.
Yorkshire Terriers Neo and Gizmo in Lynette’s office, courtesy of Lynette’s Facebook Author Page.

JAN

I’ve never particularly made a ritual of creating a setting in which to write, but I do need to self-isolate. Attempts to write in a coffee shop or library result in people-watching instead. I write best between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. when there are no interruptions, and I write every day, if possible.

Let’s talk about writing tools. I started with crayons on cheap paper when I was four, but I’ve “traded up” a few times since then. I wrote my first complete, novel-length manuscript in 1976-78 on an Underwood manual typewriter. Later I went through two electric typewriters, a Kaypro computer (using WordStar) in the late 1980s, a succession of other PCs, and several Macs. I currently use a 15” MacBook Pro.

For early drafts I use Scrivener. It creates a separate file for each section. That makes it easy to switch their order and keep an eye on word-count. Closer-to-final drafts get copied over into MS Word. It creates a .docx file that’s easy to share for critique, print, or import into Vellum when it’s time to publish.

More specific to this book—do you write with music, tv or radio or silence? Is there a specific soundtrack you used for your book?

LYNETTE

When I started writing My Soul to Keep, I developed a specific soundtrack that I played on repeat. These days, about half the time I write in silence and the other half I’ll write with that soundtrack running or instrumental music that provides the perfect mood for the scene I’m writing. Music from epic movie battle scenes works well for me.

JAN

Sometimes I can write to instrumental music, or to songs with lyrics in a language I don’t speak. I love Two Steps From Hell and movie or show soundtracks. Current favorites include selections from The Mandalorian, as well as Raya and the Last Dragon and Captain Marvel. I grew up listening to Classical music and still enjoy it, particularly when it’s played by my sister’s band, The Dallas Winds.

However, when I’m trying to compose finished work I go silent. I need to listen to the internal cadence of the words I’m polishing, and music drowns that out.

What did you research the most? Did any of your research surprise you?

LYNETTE

What I researched the most is hard to say. It might be a three-way tie between the location and the history of the American Isolationist and the Eugenics movements.

My research constantly surprises me. I start off researching some small piece of history I recall and, in the process of that research, find a snippet that leads somewhere interesting. One of those surprises that became a large piece of My Soul to Keep was the eugenics programs that existed in the U.S.A. prior to World War II. You can read about the Better Baby Contests and the Eugenics movements on my blog.

JAN

I’ve done deep dives into both dog cognition and space habitat design. Like Lynette, I turned both of those inquiries into blog posts. My “Dog Cognition” series explored how much normal dogs understand, surprising canine word comprehension, and canine emotions. The “DIY Space Station” series offered an overview, then specifically looked at Dyson Spheres, Bernal Spheres, O’Neill Cylinders, and the Stanford Torus.

Not surprisingly, I needed to do lots of research into police standards, culture, practices and procedure—and wow, did that ever put me on the cutting edge of current events last year! You’ll find echoes of that research in the way police operate on Rana Station.

I think some of my most surprising research started when I was searching for sources of protein that one could sustainably produce in a space-based habitat. That led me to cultured milk, eggs, and meat and branched over into some of the ideas that underpin the speculative medical technology my characters call “re-gen therapy.”

When you started fleshing out your ideas for the book, did you start with plot, character, location, or something else?

LYNETTE

I almost always start with one or more characters. For me, character starts with a voice or an attitude that I find interesting. Plot and theme arise out of the characters’ needs and wants. And I choose locations because of real-life history, the mood I want to evoke, or an event that needs to happen. I also created locations that are totally fictional, but they provide an element that strengthens the theme or plot.

JAN

My whole series started with the idea of a dog who could testify in court. Stories can start literally anywhere. But it’s not really a story until there’s a character with a problem.

A character wants something, but they’re blocked from getting what they want. The character, their desire, and their obstacle(s) are the initial setup. Without those essential elements you can’t build a plot, although you can (and probably will) imagine snippets of action that may eventually become part of the plot.

Would You Like to Ask Us Other Questions?

The plan is for both of us to publish this as a post on our blog. We thought some of you might become interested in a new writer, or encounter a new idea. We hope you’ve enjoyed our talk about writing our stories.

If you thought of questions we didn’t ask, please ask them below in the comments! We’ll happily continue the conversation, because both of us love to talk about writing.

IMAGE CREDITS:

The banner with the covers from My Soul to Keep and Fellowship and the banner for Fellowship are from Rocket Dog Publishing. Cover artwork for My Soul to Keep is © 2018 by Elizabeth Leggett. Cover artwork for Fellowship is © 2019 by Nicole Hutton at Cover Shot Creations. And the adorable photo of her Yorkies, Neo and Gizmo, is © 2019 by Lynette M. Burrows

The banner with the three XK9 covers and the one for A Bone to Pick are both from Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Cover artwork for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk. Cover artwork for What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick is © 2019 and 2020 respectively, both by Jody A. Lee. The meme with the K-9 on the witness stand is courtesy of ImgFlip.

In the header image, the photo of Lynette M. Burrows is courtesy of her website. The photo of Jan S. Gephardt is © 2017 by Colette Waters Photography. Gosh. We look nothing alike, do we? Many thanks to all!

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.

Midnight Crop Inspection

A Short Excerpt from Chapter One of A Bone to Pick

By Jan S. Gephardt

“What is that dark thing in Bonita’s quinoa patch?” XK9 Shady Jacob-Belle dialed her vocalizer low, flattened her ears, and growled. Unease slithered in her gut. She drew back from the balcony’s railing.

A portrait of XK9 Rex, a large black dog.
XK9 Rex Dieter-Nell, © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

Her mate Rex had been gazing toward the starry nighttime sky-windows with a dreamy look on his furry black face. Now he crouched beside her in the shadows, tense and focused. He stared toward the quinoa. “I am not sure.” Like her, he’d lowered his volume as far as it would go.

Together they peered through gaps in the trailing curtain of sweet potato vines that hung down from the rooftop garden on the level above them. The leafy vine tendrils provided a handy impromptu blind.

Through their brain link, Shady felt her partner Pam rouse from an exhausted sleep. Physically, Pam was at home, seven kilometers away in the Central Plaza District of Orangeboro. But their brain link gave her the ability to be aware of what Shady was doing. Shady? Pam’s mental voice came across drowsy and disoriented. You okay?

For now. Stand by, Shady answered. Whatever lurked a hundred meters away in their neighbor’s field, it was roughly human-sized. Shady’s hackles rose with a prickle of foreboding. All she could see in the darkness was a lumpy shadow among the meter-high quinoa spikes. Veils of mist drifted on thermals up the clifflike terraces from the river far below. Some were too thick to see through. Air currents carried scents from the quinoa patch away, not toward her.

Mist over Chinese rice terraces.
Misty rice terraces in China. Rice terraces inspired the landforms of Rana Station. (Jack Zhou/Tripadvisor).

She stifled an urge to bark. Better stay silent until they knew more. It might be nothing. But it also might be a Transmondian agent, here to spy on Rex’s Corona Tower home. Spy, or do something worse.

Shall I come out there to you? Pam seemed wider awake now.

Be ready to call it in but stay put for the moment. There may be a simple fix.

Shady activated the neural Heads-Up Display of her Cybernetically-Assisted Perception equipment, then shifted to the thermal-imaging setting. A man’s hot, white form blazed into view among the dark, much-cooler stalks. He’d positioned himself about a meter from Rim Eight Road. “Damn. Definitely a man out there.”

At her side, Rex’s deep growl rumbled like thunder. “Not. On. My. Watch.” He rose from his crouch, then whirled toward his bedroom door. No light flicked on when he entered. He must’ve used the com in his CAP to disable the motion sensor.

A portrait of XK9 Shady, a large black sable dog.
XK9 Shady Jacob-Belle, © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

She followed, of one accord with him. On a different night they might have been less alarmed, although no night was good for prowlers. But tonight their world had changed, very much against the Transmondian government’s wishes. The humans of Orangeboro and Rana Habitat Space Station had publicly declared to the Universe that XK9s were not mere forensic tools, but sapient beings.

News feeds all over Alliance Space had broadcast a presentation that Rex, Shady, and the rest of the Pack had given to demonstrate some of their capabilities. They’d designed it to show that XK9s were capable of sapient-level thought.

The government of Transmondia had tried to stop the presentation. They’d launched hot rebuttals the moment broadcasts began. Transmondian government officials, as well as the government itself, were the XK9 Project’s major backers. They’d sold XK9s to agencies all over Planet Chayko, and planned expansions far beyond Rana Station. Premium dogs sold for millions of novi, a lucrative trade that would end if XK9s were declared sapient and shielded from trafficking by Alliance-wide laws.

Pam is a pretty Latina detective who wears her long dark hair in a ponytail.
Pamela Gómez,
© 2016 by Jeff Porter.

I’m calling it in, Pam said. I’m getting dressed.

Shady’s gut tightened. Her hackles prickled anew.

“Head for the garage,” Rex said. “We can swing through the orchard. Approach from the back of the property. I imagine he will be focused more toward the road, with its potential traffic. He may not expect us to come from the other direction.” Rex had lived here more than two months. He knew the layout of the two-hectare property far better than Shady, who’d only visited a couple of nights.

She and her mate moved silent as wraiths through the apartment, then six flights down. They passed rack upon rack of seedlings, bathed in blue light and fastened all the way down the leeward wall of the stairwell. The young plants’ vigorous, fecund smell hung thick in the air, laced with faint, faded scent-trace from Family members—but not from Rex’s human partner, Charlie Morgan. Charlie was currently in the hospital. The doctors had brought him out of his re-gen coma on Friday, but he still wasn’t healed.

A flat of seedlings under blue LED light.
Blue light stimulates seedling growth. (Dean Kopsell, University of Tennessee/Hort Americas).

I alerted Dispatch, Pam reported. Your backup’s on the way.

Thanks. Shady passed this on to Rex. Gratitude for Pam’s conscious presence and backup through the link filled her with a warm swell of affection. Poor Charlie had worn himself out, staying up to watch the XK9s’ presentation on the vid screen in his hospital room. He probably was deep asleep right now, unable to advise or comfort Rex.

Mist-borne odors of hours-ago supper and the big oak tree at the courtyard’s center mingled with the other smells into Corona’s unique mélange. Rex led her to the underground garage, then out on the spinward side of the tower, opposite their watcher’s location.

They leaped up the embankment by the driveway. “He is crouched in a harvest-ready field, heedless of the damage he is doing to the crop.” She hadn’t been a Ranan for long, but angry disgust soured her throat. “Only an ignorant foreigner would do that.”

Hot rage like charred coals burned in Rex’s scent factors , and deepened the menace in his growl. “Transmondian agent. Got to be. Probably thinks the crop is just tall weeds.”

Her mate was right. No Ranan would make such a mistake. A stealthy foreigner, concealed, spying on Corona, almost certainly came from the Transmondian Intelligence Service. Rex had good reason to hate the TIS, and especially Col. Jackson Wisniewski, the spymaster who’d tried to make Rex one of his assets.

A north Indian apple orchard.
Apple orchard in Himachal Pradesh (Vandana Gupta/Twitter).

Shady followed him toward a grove of fruit trees. By now she’d phased into full guard-dog-on-the-hunt mindset, ready to deal with this trespasser. They’d learned as puppies how to quietly navigate thick, wild brush. Far easier to move in silence through Corona’s well-maintained orchard, but better not get sloppy. Especially not if this guy was from Transmondian Intelligence. She kept her nose up, sorting through the night-smells. At last came a tendril of the stranger’s scent, laced with a telltale touch of gunshot residue.

GSR? Alarm radiated through the link from Pam. Is he armed?

I don’t think so, Shady replied. “Faint GSR,” she texted to her mate, not daring any sound at this point. If only she and Rex had a brain link like the one she shared with Pam!

“GSR confirmed, but maybe a day old,” Rex texted back.

Gunshot residue didn’t wash off easily, although this man had tried. It was yet more proof that he was a Transmondian, or at least a dirtsider from Planet Chayko. Almost no Ranans had either access to firearms or any need for them on their space station home. Good thing this man didn’t smell as if he had a gun tonight.

Misty vineyard rows.
Mist over vineyard rows at Flowers Vineyards & Winery (couldn’t find a photographer’s credit).

They crept closer, screened behind a trellised vineyard row on the leeward side of the tower, their footsteps muffled by clover. A quick dash across a short gap brought them onto neighboring Bonita Tower property, between two rows of leafy quinoa topped by heavy seed heads. Shady brushed carefully between the drying stalks, wary lest they crackle.

She and Rex moved upwind of the intruder, a couple of rows over. She’d already committed his personal odor profile to memory, but now she studied his scent factors. The involuntary exudations betrayed the dusty-smoky smell of fatigue. Perhaps a touch of shuttle-lag? She caught the faint pa-pum of his heartbeat, his careful, even breathing, and then his quiet yawn.

“Wait here,” Rex texted. “I’ll approach him from behind.” He disappeared around the end of a row.

Shady halted, ears up. “How close is our backup?” she texted Dispatch.

“En route,” the dispatcher replied. “ETA about five minutes.”

“Good evening, sir,” Rex said in a calm, moderate tone.

A man stands in a ripe quinoa field.
A man stands in ripe quinoa field. Granted, it’s daylight and he’s not hiding. (Toronto Star/no photographer credited).

The man gasped. Dry stalks crunched.

“I do not believe I recognize you.” Rex’s robotic vocalizer-voice wasn’t capable of much emotional nuance, but from the cadence she pictured him with ears up and tail wagging. Trying to look as non-threatening as an unexpected, enormous black wolf-dog in the night could. “May I please ask what brings you—” The pop of a trank-pistol cut him off.

Shady shouldered between the plants. “Shot fired!” she told Dispatch. “We are engaging!”

“Here, now! There is no call for that.” Rex had dodged the trank bolt. A black blur of motion beyond a last row of stalks, he darted in, snapped his teeth onto—

The man twisted, faster than humans could move. His weapon popped again.

Rex stumbled backward into the quinoa, legs wobbly, then fell over.

Sorry—I did say “short.”

A Bone to Pick, from which “Midnight Crop Inspection” is excerpted, is available for pre-order in Kindle format in both the United States and the United Kingdom, for automatic delivery on Release Day, Sept. 15, 2021. After release it will be available in many formats (including print) from many fine booksellers.

If you’d like advance peeks in the future, as well as XK9-related behind-the-scenes background and bonus material, sign up for my monthly newsletter!

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s new book A Bone to Pick will be widely available in a variety of formats after Release Day, September 15, 2021. Cover artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

IMAGE and OTHER CREDITS:

This excerpt from Chapter One of A Bone to Pick is © 2021 by Jan S. Gephardt, and published by Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. All rights reserved.

First, many thanks to my wonderful illustrators! To Jody A. Lee, who created the cover for A Bone to Pick (© 2020). to Lucy A. Synk, who painted the portraits of Rex and Shady(© 2020). And to Jeff Porter, who brought Pam to life (© 2016). You all are a blessing!

I also deeply appreciate everyone whose photos helped me illuminate this excerpt. A thousand thank-yous to Jack Zhou, a multitalented fellow. Check out his website! So much gorgeous photography! I found his photo through Tripadvisor. I’m also grateful to Dr. Dean Kopsell and Hort Americas for the photo of broccoli microgreens seedlings under the kind of blue light Uncle Ralph employs in the Corona Tower stairwell.

What a lovely find on Twitter: Vandana Gupta’s atmospheric apple orchard conveyed the look I wanted for Corona’s orchard. I’m also inspired by the photo of the vineyard in the mist from Flowers Vineyards & Winery. Do yourself a favor and spend some time on their beautiful website! And I’m also grateful the Toronto Star provided such a brilliantly illustrative photo of a man in a ripe quinoa field (but in brighter light than what Shady had for her midnight crop inspection). Now you know how a quinoa field looks, and how tall the stalks are compared to an adult human male.

Deepest thanks to all!

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.

The story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover

By Jan S. Gephardt

It’s way too late for this to be a “reveal,” but the story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover deserves telling. Because it was not an easy—or short—journey!

Late update: I unfortunately timed this post just when Jody had retired her old website and hadn’t quite gotten her new one ready. If you’re reading this in late 2021, her links may not work.

The Artistry of Jody A. Lee

For most of my adult life it has been my secret fantasy that someday my books would have Jody A. Lee covers. She and I have a rather long history, and through it all, I’ve cherished an abiding love and admiration for both her, and her artwork. From the very beginning, long before it seemed like even the remotest possibility, I harbored a fantasy. I dreamed that one day Jody could illustrate a book I had written. It seemed like a crazy pipe dream, back then.

Jody and I met through ASFA, the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists, back in the 1980s. For quite some time in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, my husband Pascal and I acted as her agent for sending her fine art prints to science fiction conventions all over North America. I also created a couple of printed promotional brochures for her, in an early effort to help market her work directly to fantasy art lovers.

Even though those markets have changed, and changed, and changed again, We’ve been friends since then. In recent years we’d grown more distracted by family and career issues. But when I went to her and asked if she’d ever be willing to paint a cover for me, she said yes! My crazy-pipe-dream-fantasy actually came true. Twice, so far! How many people get to say that?

Left to right, some book covers by Jody A. Lee: “The Black Gryphon,” by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon; “A Study in Sable,” “By the Sword,” and “The Hills Have Spies,” all by Mercedes Lackey.
Jody has range and vision and amazing skill. All of these cover paintings are ©Jody A. Lee (image source credits below).

A Memorable Moment in the Book

Jody reads the current draft of my book before she conceives the cover illustration. She builds it based on a memorable moment. In our first outing, for the cover for What’s Bred in the Bone we considered several scenes. Jody’s portrayal of Shiv and Rex in the Five-Ten worked best. But then came a bunch of those devilish details.

Jody doesn’t normally read a lot of science fiction, especially not “hard” sf. I’d had several readers who were old hands at sf go through the work and have little reported trouble with the descriptions. But Jody was having a devil of a time visualizing some of them. We went round and round on the helmet and background and how to portray them. What did I mean by this or that term? What did one of those things look like?

But eventually we arrived at this characteristic moment for Rex and Shiv, a man who was at that point in the story his SBI “frenemy.” And helping Jody visualize it helped me understand ways to (I hope) make the story more understandable and accessible. I like to think that others are intrigued by the idea of a sapient, talking police dog, even if they primarily read other genres. And maybe they will enjoy the stories more, thanks to my consciousness-raising from Jody.

Left to right, Rex in the Citron Flash; then Shiv and Rex in the Five-Ten.
Two highly characteristic moments from the novels. Artwork © 2020 and 2019 respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

A Fantasy Painter Tackles Futuristic Tech. Twice.

When you read A Bone to Pick you’ll almost certainly recognize “The Scene” that inspired the cover. That scene unfolded somewhat differently in the early (2019) draft Jody read, but it’s definitely still in there. Many of those who’ve read the manuscript as beta-readers or critique partners also pointed it out as a favorite moment. I was tickled by the idea that it would end up on the cover. And I think she has realized it beautifully.

But that beautiful painting didn’t happen without long, hard effort.

First problem: Jody knew she wanted to show Rex in the car. But what did a futuristic self-driving car on a space station look like? It needed to look sleek and science-fictional. The boring little auto-nav boxes that most people utilize on Rana wouldn’t “read” well on a book cover at all! That’s how the Citron Flash was born. In later drafts, it developed into something of a “character” in its own right. If you enjoy that minor subplot when you read the book, chalk up another “thank you” to Jody.

But this wasn’t the first time Jody had approached science fictional tech with initial trepidation. Remember Shiv’s helmet and his weapon on the first cover? That gun-looking thing is an EStee. It’s a dual-function service weapon used by law enforcement officers on Rana. But for a fantasy artist who specializes in painting swords, a futuristic firearm wasn’t part of the normal toolkit. For the underlying EStee design, she and I owe a debt of gratitude to Jeff Porter. He helped me with some initial character development artwork, and he reportedly enjoyed designing an EStee for me.

An early study for the Citron Flash, a detail of Shiv’s helmet and EStee from “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and Jeff Porter’s EStee prototype design.
Artwork is © 2020 and 2019 respectively by Jody A. Lee, and @2016 by Jeff Porter.

Envisioning the Inside of Rana Station

Unfortunately for Jody, that was not the most daunting science fictional aspect she’d have to tackle. The story of A Bone to Pick’s cover involves a particular, peculiar twist. Or should I say “upward curve”? The infernal perspective of the habitat wheel posed a far steeper challenge. This peculiarity of the toroidal space habitat landscape is so marked, it provided an opening for What’s Bred in the Bone, where it bothered the newly-transplanted, planet-reared Rex:

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Jan’s novel What’s Bred in the Bone, the first book in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, is available right now. Cover artwork © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

“Damn it, no horizon should bend upward.

“XK9 Rex Dieter-Nell flinched away from the “scenic overlook.” He clenched his jaws on a quiet whimper, but the shudder down his back made his hackles prickle.

“His human partner, Charlie, met Rex’s eyes. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like it. His words flowed through their brain link on a wave of empathy.

“Rex lowered his head, wary of insulting his partner’s beloved home. . . . I guess we’ll see how things work out. He hazarded another look. Ugh. It was freaky-unnatural for a river to run down the wall at one end of the vista, as Wheel Two’s Sirius River did. Even worse for it to run back up the wall at the other.”

–Chapter One, “A Walk in the Park,” from What’s Bred in the Bone
Rex and Shady are silhouetted against the sky-windows of Rana Station.
Rex has since reconciled himself to the view. (background ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; Rex and Shady portrait heads ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk).

The infernal perspective of a habitat wheel

God bless Don Davis and Rick Guidice. They were the first artists to grapple with the technical complexity of painting a landscape as it would appear inside something similar to a massive bicycle wheel in space. They were an essential part of the early NASA Ames Research Center project. In the summer of 1975, they helped a think-tank of genius scientists and engineers develop detailed plans for a habitat in space based on a wheel-like structure, a basic plan first proposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1903.

Drawing the thing from the outside was far easier than drawing or painting images of the inside. But Davis and Guidice brought it memorably to life. You’ll notice that two of the three are cutaway views. As the middle image from 1975 demonstrates (below), it’s really challenging to get such an image to “read” clearly. Bending their brains around the crazy view cannot have been easy. But ever since then we’ve had something of a “cheat sheet” to go by.

And also a challenge for their successors. If they could do it, then it can be done.

Visualizations of the interior of a toroid space habitat: Left to right, under construction and a landscape oof the interior; and a cutaway of the interior with homes and landscaped plants.
Visions from the Ames Center in 1975: © NASA; artwork left and center by Don Davis. Artwork at right by Rick Guidice.

An Alien Landscape

Early in the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover, I sent Jody these images from 1975 (she’d already found them for herself, too, I believe). When she sent her first developmental color study, she accounted for the “bent” horizon. Other aspects of Orangeboro’s topography, though? Unfortunately, not so much.

That was my bad. As a writer, it’s easy to airily refer to “the verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley” and go on with whatever is happening in the scene. But an artist has to show it. In considerably more detail than the writer must devote to the subject. No matter how “impressionistic” the artist’s technique may be. And you’ll have noticed already that Jody has a beautiful style, but it’s not notably “impressionistic.”

So, okay, Jan. What do you mean by “the verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley”?

Rana Station is supposed to be a self-sufficient space habitat that is home to more than eight million souls. Those are eight million souls who need not only room to live and work, but who also need to eat. Self-sufficient means they need to grow it all on-Station. And that means they need to maximize their food-growing space. Don Davis gave us a rolling, but basically single-level landscape that didn’t include nearly enough growing space for what I had in mind. Rana Station needed something different. This led me to agricultural terraces and river meanders.

At left, Philippine rice terraces. At right a satellite view of a meandering river.
Rice terraces in the Philippines create crop land on a steep hillside (photo © by Allyson Tachiki), and rivers naturally meander (photo by Google via Robert Hodgin).

The Terraces of the Sirius River Valley

I needed a “horizontal space multiplier,” if I was going to feed all those hungry fictional mouths. I also needed to account for some of the natural patterns we know will develop over time, because: physics. Humans have been “making more arable land” for centuries, using agricultural terraces in naturally-steep terrain.

And even from early on, it was pretty clear that there’d be a river running through the torus. If you water the plants in gravity, where does the water go? Check the Don Davis landscape above from 1975.

Moreover, if water flows, it naturally meanders. My Rana Stationers would have to allow for that, too. I also realized that an undulating valley structure, winding in and out, rather than running arrow-straight along the insides of the torus also would be a “horizontal surface multiplier.” For an unscientific example of this, fold a paper fan. Your fan has the same surface as a flat piece of paper, but the flat paper is much longer. The folds condense the surface area.

Thus, I told Jody not only were “The verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley” built like giant stair steps. They also rippled in and out. So, is that clear enough?

Say, what???

The story of A Bone to Pick’s cover grew kind of complex at this point. The superb horticulturalists of Rana Station don’t tolerate unproductive weeds in any precious cubic centimeter of Ranan soil. But at this point Jody and I wandered off into the tall, jungle-thick, metaphorical weeds of trying to communicate with each other. No. it was not clear enough. Not at all.

Frustrated, I resorted to the same expedient Davis and Guidice had, back in 1975: I started making pictures. More accurately, I started making models. I created what I thought were interesting simulations of the perspective. But my models still didn’t communicate what Jody needed.

Left-to-right, Jody’s first color study for the cover of “A Bone to Pick,” Jan’s photo of the maquettes she’d constructed, and Jan’s cut-and-paste mashup of Jody’s Rex-in-car sketch over photos of Jan’s maquettes.
At left is Jody’s first color study. Center and right are Jan’s attempts to use 3-D paper maquettes to describe the terraces, switchbacks, and a model of Corona Tower cut-and-pasted behind the sketch of Rex in the car. No, they didn’t make sense to Jody, either. (artwork © 2020 by Jody A. Lee and Jan S. Gephardt, respectively).

Something Like Wavy Layer Cakes

It’s a good thing we had started working on this project well before I needed it, or the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover might have turned tragic at this point. It took me a long time to produce a drawing that more clearly communicated what I needed to convey to Jody (see below left). It’s not great art, and since my studio was mostly in boxes while we put in a new floor, I wasn’t able to develop any kind of perspective for the buildings beyond “eyeballing” the angles. It was crude. It was stiff. Frankly, it was an embarrassing drawing.

But once I sent it, we were finally on ever-more-synchronized wavelengths. I had begun to fear we’d never get there. That she’d tell me to take my stupid job and shove it. But Jody is a pro, and she stuck to it. And when it comes to visualizing something that is purely hypothetical and may never exist in real life, I guess you can’t beat a fantasy artist.

I was startled and distracted by how much my terraced hills looked like layer cakes, but by now Jody had a firm vision and a much less meandering route to the finish line. She took things masterfully from there. We exchanged a series of sketches, and she got to work on the final painting.

Left to right, Jan’s first, stiff sketch in a sketchbook; Jody’s response, based on it; and Jan’s refinement on the idea, with more terraces, in response.
A “conversation” between artists: evolving views of the “verdant terraces of the Sirius Valley.” Artwork © 2020 by Jan S. Gephardt, Jody A. Lee, and Jan S. Gephardt,, respectively.

The story of A Bone to Pick’s Cover

So that’s the story of A Bone to Pick’s cover. I hope that this collaboration has not only produced a cover to make you smile (and buy my book???). I hope that the whole process of working through questions of “exactly what do you mean by that?” and “what does that look like?” has made A Bone to Pick a better book.

You can find out for yourself it it did, on (or after) the release date, September 15, 2021. If you’re interested, you can pre-order a Kindle version in either the USA or the UK. After release, it’ll be available from a variety of booksellers in a variety of formats.

“A Bone to Pick” by Jan S. Gephardt, envisioned as an ebook on the left and as a trade paperback on the right.
Release day is September 15, 2021! Pre-orders available. Cover artwork is © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

IMAGE AND OTHER CREDITS:

The excerpt from What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jan S. Gephardt, published by Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. All rights reserved.

Of course, the vast majority of the artwork in this post is © by Jody A. Lee. The EStee sketch is © 2016 by Jeff Porter. There also are some sketches that are © 2020 by Jan S. Gephardt. And the “head shot” portraits of Rex and Shady are © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

The book covers at the beginning come from a variety of sources. That first cover, for The Black Gryphon, is courtesy of Amazon. The covers for A Study in Sable and By the Sword are courtesy of Goodreads. And the cover for The Hills Have Spies is from Penguin Random House.

Imagery and all kinds of rich information from the NASA Ames Research Center makes my life as a science fiction writer infinitely easier, and continues to yield more treasure each time I explore it. And I can’t begin to express the impact the artwork of Don Davis and Rick Guidice has had, both on my work, and on the conception of Rana Station. Seriously, guys. It’s a debt I can’t ever repay.

Farther down, the photo of the Batad Rice Terraces in Banaue, Philippines is © by Allyson Tachiki via Flickr. It offers a great example of how humans have learned to “make more land” out of very steep terrain. The satellite photo of an unidentified river meander originated from Google. But I found it on Robert Hodgin’s fascinating exploration of river meanders. Do yourself a favor and check out that web page when you have a minute. It’s pretty amazing.

A hot, hazy Dallas skyline

My Summer Getaway

By G. S. Norwood

Well. I finally did it. I made it safely through months of writing major grant proposals. Organized three far-from run-of-the-mill concerts. Took on some new job responsibilities, on top of the two full-time jobs I’m doing already. And I survived. Now, my friends and readers, it’s time for my summer getaway.

I’m looking for a place that will allow me to relax. Spend some quality time looking at outstanding scenery. And be much, much cooler than Dallas, both in temperature and in vibe.

Not that I will actually get away. Between a resurgent coronavirus and the high cost of pet sitters, this year’s vacation is definitely going to be a staycation. Still, I’ve discovered a way to escape to a summer getaway destination without leaving my favorite chair.

Reading. Yep, that’s right. I’ll trade the 100-degree-plus heat of Texas for some prime summer getaway locations through the magic of books. Thanks to the recommendations of friends, family connections, and one stroke of good luck, I plan to immerse myself in several mystery and science fiction series set in places much cooler than Dallas. What more could I ask of a vacation?

Nantucket is Nice

Brant Point Lighthouse by Brian Thoeie.
The Brant Point Light during a gorgeous Nantucket sunset (Insider’s Guide to Nantucket/Brian Thoeie).
Cover of “Death in the Off Season,” by Francine Mathews.
Death in the Off Season (Francine Mathews).

Francine Mathews launched her career as a mystery writer with a series of books about Meredith “Merry” Folger, a detective on the small police force that keeps Nantucket Island safe for the year-rounders as well as the tourists. Starting with Death in the Off Season, Mathews reveals the private face of Nantucket the summer people rarely see.

The island teems with cobblestone streets, cranberry bogs, fishing boats, and homes that pass down through old island families, generation after generation. Mathews makes all of it come alive. You can feel the sea breezes and all but taste the salty air. There are six books so far in the Merry Folger series. More than enough to last through as long a vacation as you choose to take. Or to create a quick summer getaway no matter what time of year it is.

How about the UK?

The Isle of Skye's main town, Portree, and Constable country: Flatford in Suffolk.
Colorful Portree is the biggest town on the Isle of Skye, and Flatford in Suffolk is the onetime home of the artist John Constable. (Planet Ware/Global Grasshopper).
Cover of “A Dream of Death,” by Connie Berry
A Dream of Death
(Connie Berry/Amazon)

I stumbled onto Connie Berry’s Kate Hamilton mysteries by happy chance. Berry has just released the third book in the series, and was featured on my (other) favorite blog, Jungle Red Writers. She offered a copy of her new book to one blog commenter chosen at random. Lucky me! I got the book! Along with a tasty bonus of shortbread and tea bags, plus two very nice bookmarks. (And you know how I feel about bookmarks.)

While awaiting the arrival of book #3, The Art of Betrayal in the mail, I did the only civilized thing: bought books #1, A Dream of Death and #2, A Legacy of Murder on my Kindle. I wound up “chain reading” them. No sooner had I finished the first, but I picked up the second. By the time I was done with that, book #3 was right there, ready to start. After two weeks, I felt like I’d had a lovely (although somewhat murderous) summer getaway in Scotland and Suffolk, and only had one question: Where’s book #4?

Escape to the Wilds of British Columbia

A lake in British Columbia with rugged mountains in the background.
A gorgeous view from Yoho National Park in British Columbia. (Planet Ware/Lana Law)
Cover of “A Killer in King’s Cove,” by Iona Whishaw
A Killer in King’s Cove.
(Iona Whishaw).

British Columbia might be suffering through an epic heatwave at the moment, but in 1947 the climate there was darn near perfect. At least, if you believe author Iona Whishaw. In her Lane Winslow mysteries, Wishaw paints the Kootenay region of British Columbia as a hotbed of English ex-pats, Russian refugees, Soviet spies, and weary veterans, still recovering from the trials of World War I and the more recent World War II.

Into this paradise comes Lane Winslow, a young woman who grew up in Latvia and Scotland, speaks numerous languages, including Russian and French, and just wants to get away from it all. Lane spent the war working for British Intelligence, parachuting into France to help the Resistance, and learning many life-or-death skills along the way. Smart, funny, independent, and always curious, Lane’s character is based on Wishaw’s own mother. She’s just the kind of heroine I like to hang out with for a long summer getaway.

There are eight books so far in the Lane Winslow series. Whether you read them end-to-end as I did, or parcel them out like bites of candy from your big birthday chocolate box, don’t miss them!

The Ultimate Out of This World Summer Getaway

XK9 Rex takes a ride through an exurb of Orangeboro.
Motoring in Orangeboro is particularly thrilling with the windows down. (Weird Sisters Publishing/Jody A. Lee).

Of course, the weather is always perfect on Rana Station, the setting for my sister, Jan S. Gephardt’s book What’s Bred in the Bone, as well as the upcoming A Bone to Pick. Yes, I have read them both. Multiple times, as it happens. And I plan to read A Bone to Pick at least once more, when the final edition comes out September 15.

Rana Station, as it turns out, is the ultimate summer getaway. It’s chock full of interesting characters, unusual cultural customs, aliens, dogs, alien dogs . . . And crime. There’s lots for Jan’s XK9s to sniff out and understand as they explore their new home and examine new ideas about their very nature.

Covers for Books # 1 and #2 in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy.
The cover art for Jan S. Gephardt’s What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick are ©2019 and 2020, respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

And this is the perfect time to dip into the first of the series, What’s Bred in the Bone. Both the books are longer than average—about four volumes if we count pages like we’d count dog years. By the time you finish What’s Bred in the Bone—then go back and savor some of the best parts—it will be time to dive right into A Bone to Pick! That will make your summer getaway last right on through the fall!

What books, characters, or universes do you turn to, when you need a summer getaway? Please share some of your favorites in a comment!

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to Dallas Magazine and Getty Images for the view of a sweltering Dallas, TX skyline. We appreciate the Insider’s Guide to Nantucket and photographer Brian Thoeie (for whom we could find no online profile) for the gorgeous sunset photo of the Brant Point Light. The cover for Death in the Off Season, by Francine Mathews, is courtesy of Mathews’ website. We appreciate it!

We’re indebted to Planet Ware for the photo of Portree, on the Isle of Skye, and to Global Grasshopper, for the iconic shot of Flatford, Suffolk (no photographer credits for either image). The Flatford view was immortalized in John Constable’s groundbreaking painting The Hay Wain. The cover of A Dream of Death, first of the Kate Hamilton Mystery Series, is courtesy of Amazon. Many thanks to all!

Planet Ware strikes again, this time with a photo from Yoho National Park in British Columbia by Lana Law. Thank you! We also want to thank Iona Whishaw’s website for the cover of A Killer in King’s Cove, the first book in the Lane Winslow Mystery Series.

Finally, the “tourist image” of motoring through exurban Orangeboro on Rana Station is a detail from Jody A. Lee’s cover painting for A Bone to Pick, second in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy of science fiction mystery novels. That cover is © 2020 by Jody A. Lee. Her cover painting for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee. Please reblog or re-post these images with a link back to this post and an attribution to Jody A. Lee and Weird Sisters Publishing. We appreciate it!

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.

Real and Fictional Space Stations

By Jan S. Gephardt

I love both real and fictional space stations. Anyone who’s read my books, or the blog posts I’ve devoted to this topic will probably roll their eyes and say, “No. Really?”

Yeah, really. You got me. I love the whole idea, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the many visions of what a space station—or space habitat—could be.

Why? I’ve enjoyed science fiction for decades. When I was a kid I thought of sf books as “the books that give you stuff to think about.” (Perhaps I should clarify: I considered that a good thing). I was interested in how we humans might someday live somewhere other than on Earth.

Throughout human history, there’s always been a healthy exchange of life influencing art, which then influences life. In the case of real and fictional space stations, that’s definitely true.

When it comes to space exploration, the “art part” came first. From flip phones to satellites to space stations, visions cooked up by science fiction writers, artists, and filmmakers electrified and inspired several generations of 20th-Century rocket scientists, engineers, and designers.

Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar Surface July 20, 1969.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Living Somewhere Other than on Earth

I was a schoolkid when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, so I remember the excitement (and the setbacks) of the Space Race.

But that timing means more than just that I’m now “older than dirt.” It means I was an idealistic art major who embraced the environmental awareness of the 1970s. Concerned as I was about Earth’s future, I hated dystopian sf stories in which humans left a dying, poisoned Earth for supposed “greener pastures” (to, um, . . . poison and kill those, too? Great legacy, humans!).

Back then, a lot of us feared the “population explosion” that was supposedly going to devastate the planet. This was the era when Harry Harrison wrote his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, from which the 1973 movie Soylent Green was adapted.

Space habitats interested me, but not as places to flee after the earth dies. I was interested in their potential to ease some of the environmental pressure on our natal planet.

The "Earthrise" photo.
Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons).

Digging into the Details

I wasn’t the only one interested in what were then called “Space Colonies.” NASA commissioned multiple studies into the feasibility of space-based habitats for humans.

Rana Station’s design origins came from those studies. The idea is a surprisingly old one, but interest at NASA proliferated, starting in the 1970s. The differentiation between real and fictional space stations got kinda thin when the ideas came from the space agency.

That is, until a Senator named William Proxmire made a big fuss about them as a waste of taxpayer money, and gave the programs a Golden Fleece Award. Publicly humiliated, the powers-that-be swiftly shut down that line of inquiry.

I felt wary of the “space colonies” idea, in any case. Colonialism was rightfully beginning to receive a lot of pushback. The idea of being a colonist dependent on corporate control smacked way too much of being trapped in a “company store” scenario.

Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s.
Two classic paintings by Rick Guidice, showing cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere. (NASA via Space .com).

Real and Fictional Space Stations

“Space colonies” may have received a decades-long black eye, but we clever apes didn’t stop thinking about space. Nor have we stopped studying it, nor longing to explore space in person, as well as with our robots.

And in the name of exploring it in person, we started building space platforms where we could experiment. When I went into high school, the only kind of space stations anywhere that we knew about were those in science fiction.

The year before I graduated, the Soviet Union successfully launched Salyut 1. The early history of the Salyut series, Almaz (Soviet military) stations, and US Skylab included a lot of problems. Even so, ever since April 19, 1971 we have lived in an age of both real and fictional space stations.

I’m not sure it’s possible to explain how huge that step still seems. Nor my pleasure that I was privileged to (vicariously) see it happen.

Early space stations SALYUT 1 (rare photo), SKYLAB, and MIR.
Early space stations, L-R: Salyut 1, a rare photo of the first-ever-space station; Skylab; Mir. (See credits below).

Real Space Stations

The earlier stations weren’t as large or long-lived as the later Mir (1986-2001) and the International Space Station (commissioned by President Reagan in 1984 the first pieces went up in 1998, and development is ongoing to this day.

Are you old enough to remember when the ISS first went up? Or has it always been out there, hanging out in space since you’ve been alive?

Have you ever glimpsed it passing overhead? I’ve seen it—or at least I’ve thought I saw it—several times. But I usually can’t, because I live in a brightly-lit city with lots of trees. That means light pollution and an obstructed horizon. Thus, even when it’s a clear, cloudless night, station-spotting is a challenge. But when I can glimpse it, I’m always delighted.

Life Influences Art

The conversation between real and fictional space stations continues. Rana Station and I owe a long string of debts of gratitude to the International Space Station.

I’ve watched hours of videos showing the inhabitants of the ISS demonstrating various aspects of living and working in microgravity. I hope that’s helped me create more realistic depictions of things that happen in and around Rana Station’s Hub.

It’s from NASA information that I began to learn about the physical havoc human bodies undergo in any environment that strays too far from Earth-normal gravity.

These findings are the basis for my novels’ limitations on the hours one may spend “up top,” in the microgravity of Rana’s Hub. There are set lengths of time beyond which characters are not allowed to work in microgravity. These are my best guesses, based on what I’ve been able to find in available literature.

Infographic: women and men have different bodily reactions to microgravity.
This diagram shows key differences between men and women in cardiovascular, immunologic, sensorimotor, musculoskeletal, and behavioral adaptations to human spaceflight. (NASA/NSBRI).

Lessons from a Real Space Station

Making babies in something other than Earth-normal gravity? I find it hard to swallow the idea that we could do that without danger to both mom and baby (it’s hard enough, here on earth!). Mouse sperm is one thing, but there haven’t been nearly enough studies of the entire process and long-term effects, even in smaller animal species, to reassure me.

Meanwhile, the bottom line is clear, based on more than two decades of research (including a certain fascinating twin study)on the ISS. If we ever want to live and produce future generations any place besides on Earth, we’ll need to do one of two things.

Either we must change our biology, or we must create non-terrestrial habitats that support the biology we’ve got. There’s already ample science fiction that explores either choice. Art points to problems and opportunities with each direction.

I imagine genetic modifications may form a part of our future. But on the whole, I’m betting we’ll prefer the second option, and build to suit our biology. The “conversation” between real and fictional space stations continues!

IMAGE CREDITS

I owe a ton of thanks to NASA for the vast majority of the imagery in this blog post. Not only do they have an inside scoop on “all things space,” but their imagery is blissfully in the public domain (and also my blog posts normally fall under the “fair use” exclusion).

I also owe a massive debt of gratitude to Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Commons, which provided easy-to-find source information for the photos  I used. Makes giving credit where credit is due lots easier!

Specifically, the MOON LANDING PHOTO of Buzz Aldrin by Neil Armstrong is courtesy of NASA, NASA Image and Video Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The iconic “EARTHRISE” photo, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders is courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The NASA CUTAWAY VISUALIZATIONS montage features two paintings by Rick Guidice: Cutaway views of a Stanford Torus and a Bernal Sphere from the mid-1970s. Via Space.com.

Credits for the photos in the “EARLY SPACE STATIONS” montage: Salyut 1, an extremely rare photo by Viktor Patsayev (fair use), via Wikipedia. Final Skylab Flyaround, by crew of Skylab 4, courtesy of of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Mir, from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, courtesy of NASA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The video about the assembly of the International Space Station components was created and published by ISS National Laboratory, and shared via YouTube. The “Women and Men—In SPACE!” infographic is courtesy of NASA and NSBRI, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute. Many thanks to all!

A Bone to Pick by Jan S. Gephardt

Almost There

By Jan S. Gephardt

To quote Red Leader Garven Dreis, we’re almost there!

In this case, I mean we’re almost to the point where A Bone to Pick is available and ready to read. Almost. We’re close enough that I can at last announce a presale offer on Amazon, in both the US and the UK.

I’m also almost to the point where Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) are ready to go out as review copies. I’ll send them to my Street Team and other selected people (learn more about that process—and how to get one—when you subscribe to my newsletter).

The official release date is September 15, 2021. Take advantage of the presale offer to get it first thing on Release Day, and also to get it at an almost-half-off discount!

"A Bone to Pick.”
Pre-order A Bone to Pick as a Kindle ebook for a significant discount. Cover art © 2020 by Jody A. Lee.

What is A Bone to Pick? It’s the way-too-long-in-coming second novel in my XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. What’s it about? Here’s a book description.

XK9 Rex is a dog who knows too much.

Now his past is gunning for him.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. So smart they’re considered uplifted sapient beings on Rana Habitat Space Station. Rex may be the Leader of the Pack on Rana, but his past is still gunning for him.

Before Rex came to Rana Station, he ran afoul of Transmondian spymaster Col. Jackson Wisniewski. He deliberately flunked out of the espionage program and threatened Wisniewski’s life. Now Wisniewski wants Rex dead. Transmondian agents watch and wait for any opportunity to strike.

Rex takes pains to evade his old enemy. His human partner, Charlie, faces a different struggle. He works to recover from catastrophic injuries – and comes face-to-face with a once-in-a-lifetime love he thought he’d lost forever.

Can Rex and Charlie confront their pasts and secure their futures? Or will events force them to sacrifice everything?

“The Other Side of Fear,” “What’s Bred in the Bone,” and “A Bone to Pick.”
Cover art for The Other Side of Fear, a prequel novella about the XK9s, is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk. Covers for What’s Bred in the Bone and A Bone to Pick are © 2019 and © 2020 respectively, by Jody A. Lee.

Almost There

I’m hopeful that I have made A Bone to Pick complete enough within itself that it will stand alone. Early returns from my Brain Trust look good.

I had a lot of fun writing this book. I enjoyed interweaving a romantic subplot (and making things tough for the would-be lovers). The Izgubil investigation continues, of course, with new twists and revelations. The XK9s face enemies both old and new – and the complexities that come with taking on the responsibilities of sapient beings begin to baffle and bemuse them.

I’ve tried to make this book as entertaining as possible. Some readers may be pleased that I reached gender-parity with the point-of-view (POV) characters in this book. In What’s Bred in the Bone there were three: Rex, Charlie, and Shady. Kinda heavy on the guys. We get to ride along in the head of a new, fourth POV this time, with Hildie’s point of view. I hope you’ll agree that she adds a new dimension.

I could say more, but I’ve hinted at enough spoilers already.

I’ve poured a lot of energy and time into this project, as readers of last week’s post may have discerned. I’m excited for you to read it. But it’s the second book in a trilogy. A reader undoubtedly will get more out of A Bone to Pick, if they read the first book, What’s Bred in the Bone, first. If you haven’t yet read it, here’s your chance!

“What’s Bred in the Bone.”
Published in a number of formats, What’s Bred in the Bone, the first book in the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy, is available from a variety of booksellers. Cover art is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

XK9 Rex is a dog who thinks too much

. . . and it could get him killed.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools, both smart and verbal. But there’s smart . . . and then there’s sapient. In the star systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, that’s a legal distinction with potentially deadly consequences for XK9 Rex and his Pack.

Sold to a police department on an in-system space station, Rex trails a pair of murder suspects. But his rookie mistake in microgravity, plus a catastrophic spaceship explosion, sideline both Rex and his human partner, Charlie.

But Rex’s keen senses picked up a vital clue about the exploded ship. He knows he must get the humans to listen to him somehow, even if it means breaking protocol. He doesn’t realize that protocol hides an ugly truth: XK9s are more than forensic tools with cold noses and wagging tails. When Rex takes an independent hike to HQ, he blows open an international conspiracy that could destabilize the entire system . . . and place all XK9s everywhere in mortal peril.

If you haven’t read it yet, there’s no better time than the present to get your copy. But maybe you’d like to know more about the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. What’s the idea behind it? Here’s the trilogy’s description.

Can a pack of uplifted police dogs find a home among the stars?

Or will their creators hound them to extinction?

The XK9s are super-smart dogs, bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. But do smart and verbal equal sapient? In the star systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, that’s a legal distinction with potentially deadly consequences for XK9 Rex and his Pack of canine super-sleuths.

When Rex, his Pack, and their human allies on Rana Habitat Space Station tackle a grisly mass-murder case, more than an interstellar pleasure ship blows wide open. Now the people behind the XK9 Project, and their sponsors in the system-dominating Transmondian government, are desperate. They’ll do all they can to erase the evidence of their international conspiracy, before inspectors from the powerful Alliance of the Peoples can investigate.

Will Rex and his Pack run down the perps and defend their sapience claim? Or will their enemies destroy them?

four running XK9s.
XK9s Tuxedo, Victor, Razor, and Rex are headed somewhere in a hurry! Illustration artwork © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

Almost There” is Relative

Don’t get me wrong. I’m really excited to have a finished manuscript of A Bone to Pick. It’s literally the labor of years. But it took fewer years by far than What’s Bred in the Bone. And I really, really hope that Bone of Contention will be ready even sooner than that.

So, then. When do we get Book Three? Well, I’m working on it now. I don’t have a cover yet, but I do have a title, Bone of Contention. And I have an ever-more-detailed concept.

How close am I? Well, I have an established world and characters. Also a lot of ideas, a handful of early-draft scenes, and a partial outline.

And a book description! Can’t forget the book description. It may not be the final book description. But more experienced hands than me have advised that it’s a good practice to write a book description as part of starting a novel project. That way, when inevitable conundrums arise when the author’s drafting the novel, the book description can help keep things on track.

XK9 Rex is a dog who dreams too big.

Now he may lose everything.

Rex and his Packmates were bio-engineered and cyber-enhanced to be cutting edge law enforcement tools. But they’re more than super-smart forensic tools with cold, wet noses and wagging tails. Their human allies on Rana Station claim the XK9s are sapient beings.

Rex and the Pack have begun to enjoy the freedom Ranans believe they deserve. But they also have work to do. They’re hot on the trail of a murderous gang that explodes spaceships in the Black Void of space—killing all the souls onboard.

Mass murder in the Black Void is a hideous crime. But in the far-flung systems of the Alliance of the Peoples, trafficking in sapient beings is the most-reviled crime of all.

Inspectors from the Alliance of the Peoples are headed to Rana, to test the XK9s’ sapience claim. The leaders of the XK9 Project that created Rex and his Pack deny wrongdoing. And the system-dominating Transmondian Government that sponsored the XK9 Project will do anything they must to protect themselves.

Even if it means destroying every XK9 in the universe.

Updates to “Almost There”

This post contains a lot more information than I usually give on “Artdog Adventures” or even “The Weird Blog,” about my projects-in-progress. Those blogs generally cover more wide-ranging topics. (These blogs have featured the same material in recent months, presented simultaneously. Both my sister and I found ourselves stretched too thin to write multiple blog posts each week and cover all the other things we needed to do.)

Why not take a look?
XK9s Petunia, Crystal, Cinnamon, Scout and Shady invite viewers to take a look at ways to get updates. Illustration artwork © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk.

If you like more “behind-the-scenes” information about what I’m writing and how it’s going, the place to look is my monthly newsletter. Its readers get sneak peeks, bonus materials, and free giveaways that our blog readers never see. If that interests you, please give it a try!

Here on this blog, you’ll see more about A Bone to Pick when we get closer to the September 15, 2021 release date. Meanwhile, next week I’ll return to one of my favorite blog subjects—space stations, in science fiction and real life.

IMAGE CREDITS

Admiration, honor, and thanks to my marvelous illustrators, Jody A. Lee and Lucy A. Synk. See cutlines on individual images for copyright notices. You may feel free to reblog or repost any images used in this post if you want, but please show respect: link back to this post and acknowledge the image creators and their copyrights. We appreciate it!

Screen-capture of a monitor with the signature Star-Trek-style interface from a “The Next Generation” episode.

Creating a calendar for Rana Station

Since our prehistory, humans have focused on creating a calendar, then using it to keep time. We’ve based calendars on the seasons, the sun, and the moon. We’ve scratched symbols into clay, bone or stone, dug sequences of pits, erected poles, or even dragged enormous stones for fabulous distances, all to get a handle on “WHEN are we?

But creating a calendar that’s accurate over a long period of time is a harder thing to do on Earth than one might think it should be. That’s because a year—one revolution of the Earth around the sun—takes approximately 365.242189 days.

That pesky fraction of a day has been driving humans to distraction (and to doing higher math) for millennia. We’ve created intercalary days, weeks, or even months to periodically adjust our calendars and keep them accurate. (It’s enough to give one an embolism—sorry; bad joke: use the hyperlink to look at definitions 2 and 3).

How long is a year—in space?

Of course, Earth is in space, so that’s a silly question. A year is however long it takes to orbit the local star once. That’s different for every planet, planetoid, asteroid, moon, or other space-based object, because all orbit on different paths.

Including Rana Station. At least, up to a point. But when you’re creating a calendar for an exoplanet in a different system, a variety of rules may apply.

I’m certainly not the only sf writer to approach the problem of if—and if so, whatcalendar to use in their stories. Probably one of the best-known science fictional calendars is Star Trek’sStardate” system.

Screen-capture of a monitor with the signature Star-Trek-style interface from a “The Next Generation” episode.
TNG episode screen-capture via Memory Alpha Fandom.

It stands to reason that if you use the “Captain’s Log” as a framing device, you need a login time/date for it to feel authentic. The Stardate sounds futuristic, but what do those numbers really mean? Turns out they have less to do with futuristic dates than they do with episodes and seasons of the show.

Problems to solve, for Rana Station

I haven’t specified an exact future century in which my XK9 stories are set, or in what existing star system. In a time-honored sfnal tradition, I chose to set it “far away, in a different time,” rather than get too specific. Sometimes I tell people it’s set in the “Twenty-Fourth-and-a-Half Century!!

I’m more interested in telling my chosen stories than I am in charting a detailed and inevitably-wrong predictive “history” of future umpty-centuries. Who knows what technologies will have been developed, lost, and then recreated (or not) by then? In a multiverse, does it really matter?

But when we get down to more immediate times and dates, I needed to go into more detail. Year-dates within the Chayko System all begin from the time humans arrived in-system, after they were granted permission by the Alliance to claim the planet. Rana Stationers also often speak of the Ranan year (0-94, as of The Other Side of Fear), meaning how many (Chaykoan) years people have lived there. There are reference sources they can use when they need to cite Alliance-wide dates or Earth dates.

But, as I discussed in last week’s post, Rana Stationers hail from many different Earth origins, and they’ve preserved many of their heritage customs, including religions and holidays.

Celebrating Earth holidays outside the Solar system

Creating a calendar is actually not that hard, if it’s for a fictional time and place “somewhere out there.” And if you aren’t trying to connect it in any way with Earth. Perhaps this is one reason why so many sf writers destroy our Earth in the “history” leading up to their story.

It’s also pretty easy to see how many holidays of Earth origin could be adapted to local conditions on an exoplanet. It’s entirely likely that the new planet would have seasons, and shorter or longer periods of daylight throughout the course of its year. Holidays based on solstices and equinoxes? No problem!

Lunar calendars would be more of a problem, though. Islam, Theravada Buddhism, and other world religions base their holiday timing on phases and cycles of Earth’s moon. But what if your planet has no moon? Or if it has several? What if you live on a moon?

A brown horse looms over a small trail of dots on a wall in Lascaux, France. A mystery for years, scientists now believe those dots may be the oldest lunar calendar ever found. The map at right shows locations of Lascaux and Peche Merle caves in France, plus Altamira in Spain. All contain priceless Paleolithic art.
At L, a line of dots may be a 15,000-year-old lunar calendar inside Lascaux cavern in France. At R, a map shows locations of three caves filled with stunning prehistoric art: Altamira, Lascaux, and Peche Merle. (BBC News/Khan Academy)

Chayko, for instance, is the human-inhabited planet in my XK9 stories. It has two small moons that used to be part of its planetary mass. They orbit closer to the planet than our Earth’s moon, and exert complex influences on Chaykoan oceans, ecosystems, and organisms that only sometimes resemble the effect of our moon on Earth.

Problems timing Earth holidays on Rana Station

Creating a calendar for naturally-occurring planetary bodies and their moons is one thing. What about a space station such as Rana? No moons. Banks of computerized mirrors adjust continually to reflect light from the system’s star into the sky-windows, filtered and directed to provide an optimal light spectrum for crop growth. On-Station, there are no moving shadows to contend with, as there are on Earth, no daily “rotation of the sun” (although the habitat wheels rotate, people can’t really see that from inside).

It’s always “high noon” on Rana Station, except for periods when the light is dimmed to simulate dusk, dawn, or full-on night. My illustrator friends Jody A. Lee and Lucy A. Synk have both complained about this. They’re right: Light and shadow patterns at noon are boring. They’re also unhelpful for creating 3-D visual effects.

But they’re great for delivering consistent light to growing crops. Days on Rana Station are always the same length. The temperature range is always optimal for a variety of agriculture. It’s not exactly “Camelot,” but the effect is something like living in a perpetually-ideal subtropical zone.

Distant crops grow on the terraces of Starboard Hill on Rana Station.
Detail from artwork ©2020 by Jody A. Lee.

Planet Chayko is only 23 hours away from Rana. This makes it a far more relevant context-point for Ranans than faraway Earth (two jump-points away). But Chayko has a slightly smaller mass, a slightly faster spin, and a somewhat longer orbit than Earth. No unaltered Earth calendar will work there.

Just coordinating a conference call between Rana and Chayko is hard enough! Setting any kind of Earth-relevant timing for a holiday is an exercise in number-crunching frustration. Clearly, compromises must be made.

Intercalary days to the rescue!

Planet Chayko does have seasons. It does have solstices and equinoxes. Thus, it’s possible to divide the year into twelve, fairly equal periods, named after Earth months. Yes, in the XK9 books, January, February, and all the other months we know as part of Earth’s most widely-used Gregorian Calendar have gone to space.

But the plain fact remains that a slightly faster spin and a slightly longer orbit both mean more days in the year than 365.2425 (or 365.242189, depending on your preferred approach). On Chayko (and consequently on Rana Station), every month contains 6 to 10 intercalary days not found on Earth calendars (Yes, February the 32nd is an actual date on Chayko—and therefore, on Rana Station).

We’re used to the December holidays being on similar days each year.
We’re used to the December holidays being on similar days each year. (Digital Illustration by Jan S. Gephardt, with lots of help from 123rf stock images.)

This means that Chaykoan Solstice and Christmas, for instance, don’t happen at the same interval as they do on Earth. In fact, Christmas, which always happens on December 25, often occurs before the Chaykoan northern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice.

Practitioners of several faiths that traditionally have varied their dates according to the lunar calendar have opted to follow the lead of Mahayana Buddhists, and celebrate formerly-variable holidays on fixed dates. Others use dates established on Earth for the closest year to the Chaykoan cycle. As you might imagine, disputes have arisen (dogmatists will be dogmatic, after all).

But somehow, they managed this business of creating a calendar. Somehow, things happen about the same time each year. And at some point, all the holidays get celebrated.

Even if it takes till December the 40th.

IMAGE CREDITS:

VIDEOS: Many thanks to National Geographic on YouTube for the clip from “Stonehenge Decoded,” and to “Jayypeezy” on YouTube for the clip of “Duck Dodgers in the 24th-and-a-Half-Century.”

PHOTOS: I’m grateful to Memory Alpha Fandom, for the screen-capture of Jean-Luc Picard’s “Captain’s Log.” Thanks very much to BBC News, for the photo of the world’s oldest known lunar calendar from the Chamber of the Bulls in France’s Lascaux Cavern. The map of caves known for Paleolithic art is ©Google, via Khan Academy.

ILLUSTRATIONS: The partial glimpse of agriculture on the terraces of Starboard Hill in the Sirius River Valley is ©2020 by Jody A. Lee; all rights reserved. I created the calendar illustration using images from 123rf. Many thanks to all!

This quote from Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie says, “Holidays are about experiences and people, and tuning in to what you feel like doing at that moment. Enjoy not having to look at a watch.”

Holidays on Rana Station

Do they celebrate holidays on Rana Station? Of course they do!

Personally, I think holidays are not only some of the most fun and interesting things religions or other types of communities do. Despite all the stresses and upheavals we hear so much about, holidays fulfill basic human needs.

A family gathers around a table in a pre-Covid era.
(Hearing Health Associates/Shutterstock)

The reasons for the seasons

Even sober, serious, hard-working adults need to play, once in a while. We need to break the routine. To relax with friends or family. To do beautiful—or frivolous—or spiritually-renewing things. And to have excuses to make fancy recipes.

Or all of the above.

Much of the world (though not all) celebrates some kind of holiday around this time of year. As I explained on Artdog Adventures last week, cultures that developed in the Northern Hemisphere often have holidays around the winter solstice. This allows celebrants to come together and renew their hope at the darkest, and sometimes the coldest, time of the year.

I believe there are important reasons why every religion and nearly every human community we know about throughout history has paused every once in a while for celebration, food-sharing, and renewal.

This quote from Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie says, “Holidays are about experiences and people, and tuning in to what you feel like doing at that moment. Enjoy not having to look at a watch.”
(Quotefancy/Evelyn Glennie)

Religions in space?

Science fiction writers and readers often regard religion with deep suspicion. There are good reasons for this. Many religious leaders and groups have regarded science fiction and fantasy as corrupt, probably contrary to religious teachings, or even downright demonic.

Many creative people, particularly those with non-cisgender, non-traditional orientations, have been abused by misguided followers of religions.

So I understand the impulse to write science fiction that assumes all religions are either abusive, or outmoded superstitions. Either of those can be left behind with no loss by the enlightened ones who embarked for the stars.

But in real life it hasn’t worked that way, because religions that function in a healthy manner for their devotees are neither abusive nor mere superstition. I’ve made the argument in a past blog post that art and religion will come with us, if we leave Earth for the stars.

Ranan holidays

With that kind of lead-in, you shouldn’t be surprised that I have populated my fictional space station with followers of major (and some smaller) world religions. So far, some of my characters are Christians, some Muslims, some Jewish, some Hindu, some Buddhist, and some Wiccan. Others are not religious, or claim no particular religious identity.

With the religions come holidays (in addition to national holidays, such as Founders’ Day). Holidays on Rana Station matter in the stories, because they mean something to the characters. But translating any religious practices, such as holidays, into a space-based environment brought sometimes-odd challenges.

For instance, in what direction is the qibla (Muslim sacred direction), when there is no north, south, east, or west, only leeward, spinward, starboard and port? How does one meaningfully celebrate season-based festivals on a space station where the weather never changes?

I contend that clever, committed people will work out ways. I’ll look into some of the calendrical approaches next week. Meanwhile, consider that someone, somewhere, is celebrating a holiday every few weeks. Thus, Rana Stationers have lots of legitimate opportunities to party.

This quote from American aphorist Mason Cooley says, “Good parties create a temporary youthfulness.”
(Good Morning Quotes/ Mason Cooley)

The really important questions

My currently-in-progress XK9 “Bones” Trilogy takes place late in the year. In fact, just about exactly this time of year. Aspects of the holiday season enter into the action at least once (so far), and into the backgrounds of settings several times. It’s a “Christmas trilogy” in the way that the Lethal Weapon movies are “Christmas movies.” (Another Gephardt-family-favorite “Christmas movie” of this sort is The Long Kiss Goodnight).

So now I must address the jolly old elephant in the room: Does Santa fly his sleigh to Rana Station? Or is it strictly “Grinch Station” during the holidays? It’s supposed to be this great, kid-friendly place, designed to help everyone reach their full potential. Can that even happen . . . without Santa??

Well, whether you call him Santa Claus, Papa Noël, Father Frost, or “Christmas Old Man,” he’s known in most of the world (though not in many African nations). Ranans know about Durga Puja, Ramadan, Bodhi Day, Yom Kippur, Beltane, and Christmas, among many others.

So it’s a pretty good bet that Santa’s touched down on-Station in one form or another, too. How do reindeer, snow, and the North Pole translate, for children growing up in a world that’s eternally in “growing season,” and has none of those things? I think my best answer is to ask in return, “are parents and grandparents who’ve been reared to achieve their full potential likely to be imaginative and adaptable?”

Two live reindeer in fancy harnesses flank an actor dressed as Santa Claus, in the traditional red-and-white suit, with a long white beard.
(Sussex Life/uncredited photographer)

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Hearing Health Associates, for the “holiday table” photo. I appreciate Quotefancy for the Evelyn Glennie quote about holidays, and I’m indebted too AIRBOYD on YouTube, for the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast in which the crew read from the book of Genesis. Thank you, “Good Morning Quotes,” for the quote about parties from Mason Cooley. Finally, I’m grateful to Sussex Life for the 2014 “Santa with reindeer” photo. I appreciate you all!

“The American Dream Game,” 2014 David Horsey cartoon

What kind of environment?

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential?

In last week’s post I explained that I built my fictional Rana Station’s system on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

I first studied this question in grad school. Many of my projects centered on the question of what kind of environment students needed to support their success.

How can students succeed?

Schools traditionally have been held solely responsible for students’ academic success. The last part of my teaching career played out during the devastating early onset of “No Child Left Behind,” so I saw this taken to extremes.

President George W. Bush waves to a crowd. Behind him a sign reads, “No Child Left Behind.”
President George W. Bush waves from a crowd of woman and children, in front of a sign like a chalkboard, emblazoned “No Child Left Behind.” The education “reform” law instituted high-stakes testing, but did not improve schools. (Photo from Reuters, via The Atlantic).

But carrot-and-stick approaches such as funding penalties for low-performing schools or incentive pay” for teachers were foolish from the outset.

Why?

Because even without penalties, I’ve worked in schools where we ran out of supplies from lack of funding halfway through the school year.

And anyone who’s been around a good teacher for five minutes will figure out s/he isn’t in the profession for monetary bonuses.

How can we improve kids’ outcomes?

Schools alone can never control enough variables to ensure student success. We found out the hard way that a school-only approach doesn’t work.

The most brilliant teacher in the world can’t make a child pay attention if he’s hungry.

Or if her mouth hurts from an abscessed tooth.

Maybe he can’t see the materials he’s supposed to read. Or hear the teacher’s words.

Maybe she was raped last night.

Those are all examples drawn from my own students’ lives. Many (though not that last one) stem from poverty, and the chronic unavailability of services in poorer communities. Any answer to “what kind of environment could enable students to reach their full potential?” must include health care.

I stopped teaching before the advent of the Affordable Care Act. But even after its passage added millions of new first-time-ever insured, there are still holes in the safety net. Especially in states such as Kansas and Missouri, where Medicaid was never expanded.

This quote from Barack Obama reads, “You look at something like health care, the Affordable Care Act. And for all the controversy, we now have 20 million people who have health insurance who didn’t have it. It’s actually proven to be more effective, cheaper than even advocates like me expected.
(AZ Quotes)

Would better safety nets fix the problem?

Better safety nets would be a great place to start.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatized the gaping inequities in our society. Food insecurity, always a problem, has grown more acute than ever.

In many parts of the country shortages of affordable housing on top of other issues created a wave of homelessness even before the virus struck. Today an eviction can become a literal death sentence.

The logistics of managing “life-support basics” makes even “minor” tasks excessively hard in some impoverished communities. Affluent people easily overlook this.

Remember how people in charge failed to realize it’s near-impossible to follow an evacuation order if you have no transportation, in the 2005 Katrina disaster? That blindness pervades our society on the decision-making level. Clearly, all stakeholders—including members of the community to be served—need their voices added to the discussion.

But better safety nets won’t fix everything.

Equal opportunity for who, did you say?

If you look at students who succeed in school, the ones who end up at the top of the heap tend to be affluent White kids. We all know that’s not by accident. There are lots of reasons, but the most systemic underlying reason is racism. I’m not saying all affluent White folks are racist, but I will categorically say the system is.

This quote from Hillary Clinton reads, “We have to face up to systemic racism. We see it in jobs, we see it in education, we see it in housing. But let's be really clear; it's a big part of what we're facing in the criminal justice system.”
(QuoteMaster)

We are not all born with an equal chance to succeed. Centuries of disempowerment and discriminatory practices have kept minority persons of color from accumulating wealth.

This has fallen especially hard on Black families, but practices of exclusion, redlining, and violent reprisals against minority advancement (such as race riots, started by White people) have affected Latinos and Asians as well. And the entire history of the so-called “New World” has been a long, dreary exercise in conquest and genocide against indigenous people.

The myth of the level playing field

In American society today, no such thing as a “level playing field” exists.

Not even among White folks. Purely by the numbers, there are more impoverished White people than there are people of color. But that’s still only 10% of the White population.

All minorities experience higher percentages of poverty, from Asians, at 12%, to 28.3% of Native Americans/Alaskan Natives.

We must find ways to open up all manner of opportunities. What kind of environment allows all racial and ethnic groups to acquire and build multigenerational wealth? Until we find a way to build such a system, broken safety nets will remain only one part of the problem.

This cartoon shows what looks like a board game. One route, marked “Black” at the starting point, is long, winding, and includes lots of lost turns. Some of the sections say things like “Slavery, lose 100 turns,” or “Denial of Voting Rights, lose 10 turns.” The other route, marked “White” at the start is short, straight, and has sections that say “Free land from Indians, jump 2 spaces,” and (2 spaces later) “Free Labor from Slaves, take another turn.” A young White man near the end turns to his Black competitor and asks, “Are you just slow, or what?”
(LA Times, #142 of 200)

Thriving students come from thriving communities

The bottom line, I discovered, is that thriving students are the natural outcome of thriving communities. Until the entire fabric of the community is vibrant, whole, and functioning well, students remain at risk.

Physical health and the ability to accumulate wealth are vital, but they aren’t the whole story. A truly functional society needs good mental health care, freedom from fear, and actual justice for all.

Solving problems on my fictional space station is one thing. It’s easy to overhaul institutions and rework laws in a story. It’ll be lots harder to do it in real life, especially with the inevitable forces working against us.

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential? To more completely answer that question, we’ll need to fill additional deficits. Read more about those in future posts.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Reuters, via The Atlantic, for the “No Child Left Behind” photo. I appreciate AZ Quotes, for the quote from Barack Obama on the Affordable Care Act, and QuoteMaster for the quote about systemic racism from Hillary Clinton. And I love the LA Times cartoon “The American Dream Game” by David Horsey, that so beautifully illustrates the reasons why Black and White people don’t start out with an equal shot at life.

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