Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

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Covers for Jan's three "Cops in Space" books, "The Other Side of Fear," "What's Bred in the Bone," and "A Bone to PIck."

What should police do?

By Jan S. Gephardt

We rarely think to ask a fundamental question: what should police do? What part should they play in a multicultural, representational democracy? The ubiquity of police forces around the world argues that many societies believe police do have a role in civilized life. But what – exactly – should it be?

As a novelist whose primary characters are science fictional detectives, I am in an unusual position, both to ask and to answer this question. But I believe it’s also a question everyone should ask. Especially every citizen in a representational, multicultural democracy.

Why should we ask? Isn’t the answer to that question obvious? Well, no. We’ve all grown up “pre-loaded” with conscious and unconscious attitudes and understandings of what police officers and police forces do, and why they exist. But clearly, those seldom-examined attitudes and understandings aren’t leading to very good outcomes. Not in much of the world. And certainly not here in the United States.

"Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They've got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law." - Barack Obama.
Many thanks to BrainyQuote.

Asking as a Novelist

One of the best things science fiction does is hold up a mirror to society. If you think about it, all fiction does that in a certain way, because all fiction is a reflection of our experiences of life. I’ve written elsewhere about the role of the novelist in society. And yes, a fundamental aspect of our work is purely to produce entertainment.

But it’s not the only aspect. I would (and frequently do) argue that it may not even be the most important aspect, particularly in the realm of science fiction. That’s because science fiction is all about thought experiments.

When we start asking “what if?” a whole multiverse of possibilities opens up. What if a recent scientific discovery led to a new technological breakthrough? How would that change the world we live in? What if our society continues on its current course in this aspect, what might the future look like? How would our world change? How would we react?

So, as a novelist who writes about police in a future society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"My role as a novelist is to explore ideas and imagination, and hopefully that will inspire people from my world to continue dreaming and to believe in dreams." - Alexis Wright.
Thanks again, BrainyQuote!

Asking as a Citizen

But I’m also a citizen: of the world, and also specifically of my country and community. I’m a taxpayer, a voter, a member of “the public.” I can be sliced and diced out and defined demographically, culturally, and any other way you choose. Mother. Wife. Daughter. Woman. Educated. Teacher (retired). Middle class. United Methodist. White. Senior citizen. Democrat. Science fiction fangirl. Creative person. Animal lover. Multiculturalist. I am all of those things and more.

And as that complex, multi-aspect creature, I bring all of my experiences, understandings, and biases into my role as a responsible adult in contemporary society. For me, that involves an active interest in news and politics. I have formed some rather strong opinions over the course of my life. Each day I refine them or adjust them or reinforce them as I receive and process information.

I see it as my right – indeed, my responsibility – as a citizen to ask if my government and community leaders are representing me and governing in a way I think is appropriate. Are they respecting and honoring values I share? If they’re not, then I have a right to question them, and to seek better representation. As do we all.

This means, as a citizen in contemporary society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"Each day, millions of police officers do the selfless work of putting their lives on the line to protect civilians, frequently responding to or preventing crises completely with no recognition." - Letitia James
You’re now 3-0, BrainyQuote!

What Do We Ask Police To Do?

We currently ask police to fill a wide range of roles. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in a 2016 interview by the Washington Post. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

I tend to agree with Chief Brown. As a teacher, I learned all too much about the many things our communities want to dump in the laps of their public servants. Usually while also underpaying them, restricting their operating budgets, and asking them to do work they never trained or signed up for. I get it, and I agree.

But what problems are the police meant to solve? Unlike some observers on the leftward end of the spectrum, I do believe there is a role for police in society. Unlike some observers on the rightward end of the spectrum, I don’t believe we will ever be well served by our current system. Certainly not when it’s focused on criminalizing poverty and mental illness. Not when it majors on crackdowns on minority populations and small offenders. And certainly not when it perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.

This graph charts United States crime clearance rates in 2020, the most recent year for which the statistics are available. “Murder and nonnegligent homicide:54.4%. Aggravated assault: 46.6%. Violent crime: 41.7%. Rape: 30.6%. Robbery: 28.8%. Arson: 21.5%. Larceny-theft: 15.1%. Property crime: 14.6%. Burglary: 14.%. Motor vehicle theft: 12.3%”
Graphic ©2023 by Statistia.

What Problems WERE Police Meant to Solve?

If you were to ask the average “person on the street” this question, they’d probably say “Solve crimes,” or maybe “keep public order,” or perhaps “enforce the law.” Fair enough. So, how well are they doing?

Let’s take that first one, “solve crimes.” A look at the crime clearance rates (percentages of crimes that are cleared in a given year) is downright discouraging. “Clearance rate,” by the way, does not mean the full Law & Order-style litany of captured, charged, tried, and convicted. No, “clearance” means at least one person has been arrested and charged, or it means the probable perpetrator(s) are identified, but outside circumstances make arresting and charging them impossible. For two examples, circumstances could include that they died. Or maybe they’re in another country from which we can’t extradite them. Stuff does happen sometimes.

Clearance rates vary by the type of crime. But according to Statistia.com the only type that gets solved more than half the time in the USA is “murder and non-negligent homicide.” The clearance rate for that is 54.4%.

Flunking Crime-Solving

Think about it. That’s only a bit better than a 50-50 chance that any given murder will be solved. If I were grading a test and my student made a 54.4% on it, their grade would be an F (On a normal grading scale, 0-60% = an F). And that’s the best they do! You want them to solve your burglary? Sorry to tell you, but you have only a 14% chance that the perpetrator will be caught and charged with the crime. Someone stole your truck? Oh, dear. You only have a 12.3% chance they’ll ever arrest the thief.

So, basically, police in the United States flunk at crime-solving. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and many of them are tied up in the other answers to the question “What should police do?”

"When you have police officers who abuse citizens, you erode public confidence in law enforcement. That makes the job of good police officers unsafe." - Mary Frances Berry
Thanks yet again, BrainyQuote!

What Should Police Do to “Serve and Protect”?

What does “keep public order,” “enforce the law,” or “protect people” look like, when it’s happening? Does “keeping public order” mean bulldozing camps of unhoused persons? Or imposing a curfew on a small population’s free movement during a specific part of the day or in a specific place? Does it mean beating or injuring protesters? The words “keeping public order” have been used to justify all of those actions.

On the other hand, it also could mean directing traffic away from an accident. Maybe it means repelling a violent insurrection from the Capitol. And it could mean shielding a person who has not been convicted of any crime from a lynch mob that wants to kill them. It’s an umbrella phrase, broad and nonspecific enough to be both used and abused.

Standards Without Clarification

And in the end, it’s not a very helpful standard without further clarification. The seemingly obvious “protect people” brings the same host of issues when we try to apply it to specific cases. Which people are the police to protect? From whom or what? In a racist, sexist society (don’t kid yourself: that’s this one), how many ways could that go wrong?

“Enforce the law” is only deceptively “more specific.” Does that mean “enforce all the laws, all the time?” By that standard, most of us should be, or should have been, arrested at many points in our lives.

People are fallible. There are times when we’re sick and can’t cut the noxious weeds in our front yard. Or we’re forgetful and only notice later that our driver’s license has expired. Perhaps we’re tired or in a hurry, so we jaywalked when we saw an opening, instead of walking down to the corner and waiting for the lights to change. Minor traffic violations, legally carrying a gun, or simply walking down the street have resulted in citizens being killed by police in the name of “enforcing the law.”

"Accountability for police officers should be an expectation, not an aberration." - Alex Padilla
You rock, BrainyQuote!

Okay, so: What SHOULD Police Do?

As we’ve seen, that’s a really problematic question! But, both as a citizen and as a novelist, I want to find better answers to it. I cannot endorse a blanket approach such as “abolish the police.” I’m not a fan of “defund,” either. Neither of those represent where I think this conversation should go.

On the other hand, a thoroughgoing interrogation of that “what should police do?” question isn’t going to deal kindly with old-school “cop culture.” Not with many contemporary police training techniques and approaches, either. Nor even with a fair number of contemporary laws and standards.

Yes, dear reader, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m cueing up a series of blog posts on this topic. I’m not sure how long it’ll be. Considering our upcoming publication schedule, it most definitely won’t be every single post for the next umpty-dozen times without a break!

But over the next few months, I propose to take up one aspect of “what should police do?” at a time. I’ll examine how it’s currently being handled in the USA, survey the critiques, and then explain “how we handle it on Rana Station” and why I think that might work better. I hope you’ll find the series interesting.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to BrainyQuote (what would I have done without you for this post?) and Statistia.

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!

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!

First Impressions

They say first impressions are important. As a writer, I’d say that goes for the first lines of stories, too. Lots of great books and stories open with ho-hum first lines. But I deeply admire a great opening line.

I often kick off a new month with a collection of illustrated quotations. This month, I’ve put my own spin on a related idea that I got from a friend, Lynette M. Burrows. Her excellent blog regularly features great opening lines from books she’s read.

This month is also Women’s History Month, when I like to focus on the creative work of women throughout the years. I’ve highlighted great women artists on my blog in the past, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Rosa Bonheur. But today I’m featuring opening lines from five great women writers making creative history in the science fiction and fantasy field right now.

First Impressions from Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World

The monster has been here. I can smell him.
--Rebecca Roanhorse, Trail of Lightning
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Simon and Schuster.

Trail of Lightning is the first of her “Sixth World” books, based on Navajo traditional stories. The second, Storm of Locusts, is near the top of my “to be read” pile, as is her most recent title, Black Sun. Roanhorse identifies as indigenous and African American, although her tribal membership is disputed. Her husband is Navajo. Trail of Lighting focuses on Navajo culture and characters.

FAIR WARNING: some Navajo groups have criticized the book as disrespectful, or as cultural appropriation. Certainly, the nature of the action in the book, if depicted of any cultural group, probably could be seen by conservative observers from that group to be “disrespectful.” Roanhorse herself has said that her goal was “accuracy and respect.”

I have chosen include this book in my collection because in my opinion Roanhorse consistently writes with respect and understanding about indigenous characters. She’s widely seen as an important rising voice in the science fiction field. And it’s an intriguing story with an arresting opening line.

Murderbot’s First Words

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.
--Martha Wells, All Systems Red
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Thrift Books.

For those of us who love Martha Wells’ prickly cyborg Security Unit, each new installment of its adventures is a new joy (yes, Murderbot’s pronouns are it/its). The first impressions offered in the opening of its debut appearance provide an important (if incomplete) angle on its approach to life.

The “Murderbot Diaries” stories are set in a distinctly dystopian universe where opportunistic corporations seem largely unrestricted by inconvenient morality. What makes them such as joy to read Murderbot’s personality and perspective.

Whenever our favorite “SecUnit” teams up with the flawed but well-intentioned humans who accept it into their society, we get a new opportunity to see how these well-written stories play out. Not all of them begin with such a marvelous “characteristic statement” as the first line offered here. But in my opinion all are well worth a read.

This is not Wells’ first series. Until All Systems Red, the award-winning first novella was published, she was best known for her fantasy novels and media tie-ins. She writes prolifically in many lengths and several genres/subgenres.

An earlier voice than the others

As soon as he entered the room, Baines blurted out, "We want you to find us a viable human heart, fast."
--Nalo Hopkinson, Brown Girl in the Ring
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Amazon.

I’ll confess that when I first began contemplating this blog post, Nalo Hopkinson’s 1998 novel Brown Girl in the Ring was the first book I knew I wanted to include. I picked it up at a science fiction convention not long after it was first published. Once I read that first line I was hooked. Talk about compelling first impressions!

After Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, Hopkinson was the first Black science fiction author I knew about, or whose work I read. She is in fact a Jamaican-born Canadian Back when I started reading sf, the field was dominated by old, white, imperialistic misogynists. Not all were—but enough.

When I read the work of authors such as Hopkinson, I got a whole new viewpoint. Their unique and intriguing takes on the field stretched my imagination and opened my eyes. Their visions became part of the broader worldview I’ve tried to develop ever since.

The inimitable wit of T. Kingfisher

She was going to die because of the rutabagas.
--T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon), Bryony and Roses
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Barnes & Noble, and rutabaga photo from The Land Connection.

You might know Ursula Vernon’s artwork—indeed, I first met her as an artist, when she was an Artist Guest of Honor at ConQuesT 43 (2012). It was only later that I realized she also writes under the name of T. Kingfisher.

Her small gem of a story Bryony and Roses is a distinctly different take on the old story of Beauty and the Beast, and indeed the rutabagas do play an important part. If you enjoy her humor and unique approach, I think you’ll be well rewarded by this tale. And look! She has more books!

First impressions for a jewel-like novella of polished words

"Something wants to eat you," called Almost Brilliant from her perch in a nearby tree, "and I shall not be sorry if it does."
--Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune
Design by Jan S. Gephardt, with book cover from Goodreads.

From the very start to the very end of this acclaimed novella, I had a sense that the author had particularly chosen, placed, and polished each word to perfection. The opening line offers a great foretaste. Seanan McGuire called it a “puzzle box,” and it’s a good description. This story unwinds in its own nonlinear fashion, yet it moves inexorably to its devastating conclusion.

Nghi Vo has so far published two novellas, a novel, and a whole raft of short fiction. I imagine we have only begun to hear her remarkable voice. If you’re curious how to pronounce her Vietnamese name, this might help.

I hope you enjoyed these “first impressions” first lines, and the stories that go with them (and proceed from them). Next week we’ll present another collection: G. S. Norwood has some great first lines to share, too. Please leave a comment about your favorites. Suggest more great first lines. Or maybe you’d like to offer other observations. Please share your thoughts!

IMAGES:

All of the design work on the first-line quote-images is mine, for well or ill, other than the book covers. For those, I have several sources to thank. I’d like to thank Simon & Schuster for the Trail of Lightning cover. I’m grateful to Thrift Books for the All Systems Red cover. Same to Amazon for Brown Girl in the Ring. I appreciate Barnes & Noble for the cover of Bryony and Roses (Also The Land Institute for the photo of the rutabagas!). And I’m grateful to Goodreads for the cover of The Empress of Salt and Fortune. Many thanks to all of you!

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 illustration shows many diverse ages, races, and cultures.

Politics on Rana Station

In last week’s post I promised to talk about politics on Rana Station this week. As I said in that post, I built the Station’s system on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

Those experiences inspired the guiding question, What kind of environment would allow ALL of my students to reach their full potential?

Three children play in an outdoors setting with found objects.
Natural spaces offer many free-play options, which are good for kids. (uncredited photo from Community Playthings)

I’ve spent most of my career teaching both urban and rural students from lower-income areas. I knew our current system definitely wasn’t cutting it.

But the more I studied, the clearer it became that the problems were bigger than schools.

Children do well where everyone around them does too

Thriving children come from thriving communities with good safety nets and essential needs provided for. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have such a system. The Covid-19 pandemic has made that fact plainer than ever, and it was already painfully clear to anyone paying attention.

Members of White Coats for Black Lives demonstrate at a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020.
Members of White Coats for Black Lives demonstrate at a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020. (Photo by Maria Khrenova/TASS/Getty, via Yes Magazine.)

When I taught in more well-off parts of Johnson County, Kansas, I saw places where many students did succeed. Those kids were never hungry. Most had excellent medical care. Their families enriched their backgrounds with travel, summer camp, outings museums, zoos, concerts, or other experiences.

Children still sometimes “fell through the cracks,” often for the same reasons inner-city or rural kids did. Only about 5.3% of Johnson Countians fall below the poverty line, but for those who do, services are sparse and mass-transit leaves much to be desired. But even kids from well-off homes could suffer from mental health issues, domestic violence, or drug habits that impacted all aspects of their lives.

How could Rana Station do better?

I didn’t build my fictitious space station to be a political manifesto. I knew from the start that I couldn’t geek out on “mastery learning,” decriminalization of addiction, restorative justice, or other pet ideas, and still write an entertaining science fiction mystery. (Instead, I opted to do that in blog posts. You’ve now been warned!)

A protester demonstrates in support of supervised injection sites in Philadelphia in December 2019.
A protester demonstrates in support of supervised injection sites in Philadelphia in December 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP, via Baltimore Sun.)

But I could write the station’s governmental system into the background of the action as a thought experiment. Insert ideas as they became appropriate. Discard things that slowed the narrative.

What’s different on Rana Station?

As I noted last week, I don’t believe in utopias. There’s no possibility of a “perfect system,” if it’s run by imperfect beings—and everyone’s an imperfect being. But we can try to do better than whatever our current system has become. That’s what I’ve tried to reflect in the politics on Rana Station.

I do believe strongly that diverse cultures foster a more resilient society, so I’ve tried to depict a variety of cultures and species in these books. There are four different kinds of sapient beings among Rana’s citizens.

Faces of different ages, races, and cultures fill this illustration by "Franzidraws."
I believe a diverse community builds in greater creativity and resilience. (Illustration by “Franzidraws.”)

Ranan law and civic culture regards all backgrounds, body-colorations, family configurations, and cultures as equally acceptable. Readers of my two currently-published books know there’s no stigma attached to homosexuality. I have plans to expand that to other gender identities as well. My research goes forward, and as I learn, I hope to find good opportunities for representation.

My love of diversity “outs” me as a dedicated multiculturalist. Just don’t expect all this diversity not to generate differences of opinion. After all, emotions and conflict are the soul of good fiction.

Other than diverse sapient species, what’s different?

Many of the human characters live in large, extended families of relatives, in-laws, and sometimes friends who’ve become “family by choice.” Their residence towers are multi-household dwellings, kind of like an apartment building, only everyone’s a relative. Space to grow food is at a premium on Rana, so they build up, not out.

How do these large, extended families keep from killing each other? In part, cultural norms have grown up to govern “best practices” in extended-family dwellings. But some people just don’t thrive in these settings. They are free to move out—or sometimes the family decides to evict them. And for disagreements or mediation, they have Listeners.

A child psychologist and a young girl talk.
Listeners on Rana Station are trained mental health specialists. Here, a more Earthbound child psychologist and a young girl talk.(Photo by Valerii Honcharuk.)

Listeners are trained psychologists and social workers. Like physicians and other physical-health-care professionals, They make up part of the health care infrastructure. Unlike in our contemporary USA, mental and physical health care is viewed as a universal right. So are access to food, education, and shelter.

What kind of system do the politics on Rana Station reflect?

Rana’s list of basic rights might seem to peg me as a socialist for some, although that would technically be incorrect. In my opinion, these are basic infrastructure elements that any reasonable government should provide.

A system that doesn’t supply essential benefits to the people who support it with their votes and taxes is pretty darn corrupt, in my opinion. Why have it, if it doesn’t benefit all of its citizens, including those experiencing hard times?

People gather around a raised bed at a community garden in Oakland, CA.
Unlike in the United States, food insecurity is virtually unknown on Rana Station. Here, a group gathers at the Acta no Verba Garden in Oakland, CA. (photo by Leonor Hurtado).

My sympathy for restorative justice and Summerhill-type “free schooling” might make some think I’m an anarchist at heart, but that’s not my philosophical home. Observant folk might also notice I didn’t “abolish” the Orangeboro Police Department, among other things.

The presence of a vigorous business community and varied personal-income levels on Rana Station might argue that I’m a capitalist. That’s probably accurate, although I regard capitalism in much the same way I do fire: uncontrolled, it can consume and destroy everything. Appropriately regulated, it can power widespread benefits.

Politics on Rana Station, and unintended consequences

If Rana sounds like a nice place to live, it might suit you in the way its founders (both fictional and me) hoped. But that warning about utopias holds, here.

The system has its weak links, failures, and faults. The Orangeboro cops and their counterparts on other parts of the Station find plenty of work to do. “Enemies, both foreign and domestic,” keep Rana’s leaders busy, as well.

And they open up lots of opportunities for stories I hope you and I can both enjoy.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Community Playthings, for the uncredited photo of the children at play. I’m grateful to Yes Magazine and photographer Maria Khrenova of TASS/Getty Images for the photo of White Coats for Black Lives demonstrators in New York last summer (June 2020). I appreciate the Baltimore Sun and photographer Matt Rourke/AP for the photo of the demonstrator who called for safe drug-use sites in Philadelphia last December (2019).

Thanks very much to 123RF for the “diverse community” illustration by Franzidraws, and for the photo of the psychologist working with the young girl, taken by Valerii Honcharuk. I also appreciate Food First and photographer Leonor Hurtado, for the photo of the community garden group from Oakland, CA.

Recent political-comment books

Politics in Science Fiction

Do you read science fiction as an escape? If you hoped the politics would die down after the election, and now you just want to get away from it all in a sci-fi world, I’ll try to break this gently. Politics in science fiction is pretty much baked-in.

No romance, no adventure story, no mystery, and no historical drama can completely evade society or politics, even when it’s not the focus. But most of these are based on actual events or places. If your romance is set in Tuscany, or if your historical novel takes place in Kublai Khan’s court, certain rules are already set.

But sf was kinda built for political or social comment. Science fiction can range from a simple town hall to a matrilineal nest-colony. But every sf story resides in a world that the author chose to create that way. For a reason.

Sometimes it’s just the wallpaper

Covers for Murderbot stories: “All Systems Red,” “Artificial Condition,” “Rogue Protocol,” “Exit Strategy,” “Network Effect,” and “Fugitive Telemetry.”
Jaime Jones illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells.

Would-be escapists take heart! Politics in science fiction novels isn’t always center-stage. Some sf authors choose the “background political system” more for plot-utility.

Martha Wells’ “Murderbot” stories take place in a system quite different from our own. What kind of place would allow such a cyborg to be made and exploited? We can believe this world would. It’s not obviously presented as a dystopia, but a writer with a different story purpose could actively portray it as one.

But maybe you’d rather take out your political frustrations in another way.

Dystopia

Maybe you’d like to see characters triumph over their politically- or socially-caused adversity. In that case, the politics in science fiction of certain kinds may be right up your alley. Perhaps counter-intuitively, some of the most inspirational science fiction unfolds in a dystopian world.

Writers use dystopian novels to critique some aspect of their current world. Suzanne Collins drew inspiration from both classical and contemporary sources for her “Hunger Games” books. Her critique focuses on social and economic inequalities, extreme versions of contemporary trends.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale also makes an extremely relevant point about patriarchy taken to extremes. Women still struggle for the right to control their own bodies. Handmaid remains as relevant now as when it was published in 1985. Buzzfeed offers a list of 24 excellent dystopian novels you’d like to explore this subgenre.

Covers for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Ecotopia,” and “Brave New World,” as well as a boxed set of the Suzanne Collins “Hunger Games Trilogy” and the flag design for Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.
Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Utopia

Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia gets pointed to a lot, as an example of a utopian novel—one set in a supposedly “perfect” society. Published in 1975, it influenced the dawn of the Green movement (so did fact-based books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962). See my 2016 post “How Science Fiction Impacts Environmental Awareness.”

Utopias are harder to find in fiction—especially influential utopias. How do you present an interesting story set in a perfect world? Conflict and problems are the soul of plot. This may be the primary reason the Solarpunk movement has been able to produce inspiring and beautiful visual art, but no “breakout” novel to date.

The background society of the Federation in the Star Trek universe has a utopian nature. But few stories in the franchise take place there. Most are set in a less-utopian corner of the Final Frontier.

When one person’s utopia becomes another’s dystopia in some way, we tend to find more stories. Aldous Huxley took that approach in Brave New World (that society’sinhabitants believed it to be a utopia).

Political and social commentary

Politics in science fiction and speculative fiction is alive and well. And has been, all the way back to the genre’s roots.

Many people consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) to be the “first science fiction novel.” It’s a cautionary tale against technological hubris ( see Victor Frankenstein’s dying admonition to “avoid ambition”).

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine commented on his contemporary social class system. He employed Darwinian concepts to speculate in an oh, so Victorian way that the upper and lower classes would evolve separately over the millennia into separate sub-species of humans.

Covers for historic books “Frankenstein” and “The Time Machine,” contemporary novels “Ancillary Justice” and “A Memory Called Empire,” and XK9 books “The Other Side of Fear” and “What’s Bred in the Bone.”
Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire are courtesy of Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

More recent examples

But the sf writers of the past have nothing on today’s works. Nnedi Okorafor, for one example, frequently tackles such topics as racial and gender inequality, environmental destruction, corruption, and genocide through the lens of her fantasy and science fiction.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice takes a unique approach to gender (for one thing, the “default pronoun” is she, which leads us interesting places). Her long, hard look at what Genevieve Valentine calls “the disconnects of culture” opens more parallels to consider.

Arkady Martine‘s acclaimed debut novel A Memory Called Empire tackles political intrigue (she’s a Byzantine Empire historian), and the multiple facets of colonialism.

Politics in the world of the XK9s

My own science fiction isn’t overtly political. My focus in the XK9 books is trying to tell a good story. But I built Rana Station, the environment where most of the action takes place, on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

What kind of environment would enable all of my students to reach their full potential? If a political and social structure made that its guiding question, how would the resulting society look?

I built the world of Rana Station on ideas I started gathering during my coursework. But I don’t believe in “perfect” worlds. In my next post I’ll go into more depth on how and why I created the system where my fictional characters live.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to all of the following: Jaime Jones, who illustrates the “Murderbot Stories” of Martha Wells, from Tor.com Publishing. Cover images courtesy of Martha Wells. Atwood book cover courtesy of Thriftbooks. Hunger Games boxed set photo courtesy of Goodreads. Ecotopia and Brave New World book covers courtesy of Bookshop. Star Trek United Federation of Planets flag by Shisma-Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0. Book covers for Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Ancillary Justice, and A Memory Called Empire came from Bookshop. Covers for the “XK9” novels courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. XK9 cover art is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk and © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

1979 and 2015 covers for "The Doppelganger Gambit," and a photo of author Lee Killough.

Knocking off the zeerust

Science fiction writers with long careers may be forced to decide about knocking off the zeerust from some of their older works. 

What is “zeerust“? 

We’ve all seen it–it’s what you might call “retro futuristic” ideas, looks, or concepts. It’s “zeerusty” if at some point in the past it seemed futuristic, but now it just looks quaint or dated. We can thank Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and so much more!), for this word.

A black-and-white still photo from the 1927 movie "Metropolis," showing an Art Deco cityscape at night with lights.
A city scene from the 1927 movie Metropolis. (photo courtesy of CCNY Libraries).

Another description might be “Raygun Gothic,” which refers to the tropes and idiosyncracies found in “Golden Age” pulp science fiction. You know it when you see it. “From about Metropolis till the dawn of Star Trek’s original series. For example, the Hugo Award is an example of a classic Retro Rocket.

I did a whole series of posts on this phenomenon back in October 2018, although I didn’t know the word “zeerust” at the time. The posts highlighted videos from the 1920s through the 1950s that featured “Futuristic” visions of “Tomorrow” in general, of kitchen technology, of automotive technology, and the kind of houses we might live in

As the opening line indicates, I was reflecting on writing careers that have lasted long enough for earlier works to have acquired some zeerust. For writers in my age range, their book could date to the 1970s or 1980s. “Knocking off the zeerust” in this case implies a fiction-remaking process not unlike what my husband did last weekend for an old iron patio table, using some emery paper, a wire brush, and a can of Rustoleum

Knocking off the zeerust . . . from what?

This whole question of zeerust arose because I’m currently reading Lee Killough‘s 2015 edition of The Doppelgänger Gambit. It’s a fresh re-envisioning of her 1979 novel by the same name, published by Ballantine (and well received, at the time). 

From right to left are the 1979 cover for "The Doppelgänger Gambit," the 2015 cover, and a photo of Lee Killough with her miniature schnauzer.
The original 1979 cover of The Doppelgänger Gambit reflected the time it was published. The 2015 cover looks much different. Author Lee Killough masterminded the remake. (Photos courtesy of James Nicoll Reviews, Amazon, and Books We Love).

Early in the 2010s, when I was first thinking aboutpolice dogs on a space station, Lee and I had a conversation at one of the many SoonerCons we’ve both attended. She told me about her research into new, cutting-edge forensics, and a few of the cool things she’d learned.

I’m one of those weird folk who like actual, physical, dead-trees-type books. I’ve been waiting for her publisher, Books We Love, to come out with a trade paperback, but after five years I figure that’s a doomed effort. So I grudgingly caved, and bought the Kindle edition.

Is knocking off the zeerust a good idea?

There’s a valid case to be made for leaving “vintage” works as they are. Respecting the author’s original vision, and viewing it in its historical context is never wrong. But any number of good reasons do exist for an author to go for a reprint, a revised edition, or even a whole new “remake,” as Lee did.

This artwork by Frank Kelly Freas is a dynamic masterwork of its genre: a spacesuited raygun-wielder (or welder?) with four fellow spacewalkers, imagined in 1953--12 years before the first spacewalk.
Some things need no re-imagining. This artwork by Frank Kelly Freas is a dynamic masterwork of its Golden Age Pulp Science Fiction genre. The illustration was created for a story by Leigh Brackett in the September 1953 issue of Planet Stories–12 years before the first spacewalk. (Image courtesy of Scanzen on Tumblr.)

In Lee’s case, she felt it was absolutely necessary–and I have to respect her artistic choice. The updates are fascinating. I read the original version not long after I first became aware of it, back in the early 1980s. And yes, in the intervening years it definitely had accumulated some zeerust. It’s “near future” science fiction, set in 2091, and thus perilously prone to that kind of thing.

When the rights reverted, she wanted to re-release it, but couldn’t live with the zeerustRemakes can be a huge risk, but sometimes they’re worth it. I haven’t finished reading this one, so I can’t tell you (yet) if I think it was worth it in this case. But so far I’m enjoying myself.

Zeerust and Weird Sisters Publishing

The “zeerust” question is relevant to Weird Sisters Publishing. My sister and I plan to re-release several novels by G.’s late husband, Warren C. Norwood. We also plan to dust off several of the novels she wrote in the 1990s, that didn’t quite fit what the romance editors were looking for at the time. 

We think all of them are still good books. Sadly, Warren isn’t here anymore to defend himself, so his works stand as they are. G. may make some adjustments, but she intends to keep them grounded in the decade when they were written.

Warren C. Norwood, with the decidedly "retro future" cover of his first novel, "An Image of Voices."
Warren C. Norwood never loved the covers he got–but in 1982 a first-time novelist had no say over the images his publisher chose to slap on his books. In Jan’s opinion, the best of the lot was the one at right–a stock cover they’d bought beforehand, based on nothing in the story. We hope to do better when we re-issue his books! (Photos courtesy of G.S. Norwood and Amazon.)

And yes, I have a couple of novels that date to the 1980s and 1990s, too. Both are science fiction, and both could stand to have a little zeerust brushed off and be touched up. Both came very close to being published “back in the day,”  but I have no current plans to revisit them. 

No, I’d rather stay focused on Rana Station and the XK9s, for now, thanks!

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to CCNY Libraries, for the still from the movie Metropolis. The photos in the Lee Killough/Doppelgänger Gambit montage are courtesy of courtesy of James Nicoll Reviews, Amazon, and Books We Love. The beautiful reproduction of Frank Kelly Freas’s masterful “The Ark of Mars” illustration is courtesy of Scanzen on Tumblr. The photo of Warren C. Norwood is courtesy G. S. Norwood. The cover image for An Image of Voices is courtesy of Amazon.

4-book Aces High, Jokers Wild pubishing.

For the characters

I’ve heard it said that people pick up the first book of a series for the plot, but they stay with the series for the characters. This is true in spades (sorry: pun intended), when it comes to the “Aces High, Jokers Wild” series by O. E. Tearmann.

Book Four is Aces and
Eights. Available now.
(Photo courtesy of Amazon.)

If you’re already a fan of this series, I have excellent news! The fourth book, Aces and Eightsis now available in e-book format (here’s hoping a paperback and audio version are released soon!).

If you’re not already a fan of this series, I have even MORE excellent news! There is a wonderful series awaiting your discovery–and it’s now four books long! (plus a Christmas-themed novelette, After Hours Game, that ideally should be read between Books 2 and 3).

If you’re not reading the XK9 books, why not these?

Dystopian warm fuzzies?

Personally, I tend to steer clear of fictional dystopias, although I have a dear friend, Lynette M. Burrows, who writes a great dystopian series. (Scroll down her homepage for a list of great dystopian novels, if you love to read them).

The Hands We're Given  (Book One) was a tour de force introduction to this world. (Image courtesy of Goodreads.)
The Hands We’re Given  (Book One) was 
a tour de force introduction to this world.
(Image courtesy of Goodreads.)

But I made an exception for the “Aces High, Jokers Wild” books–and I’m very glad I did. The people in these books are all their own kind of special. Talented, broken. Abused by the brutality of the world in which they live. But they rise above. They pull together. And, bit by bit, the oddballs and misfits of Base 1407, AKA The Wildcards, triumph. They use their unique talents and diverse strengths to succeed where more conventional approaches fail.

I love these people so much, I will gladly read anything Tearmann writes about them. Strictly for the characters, this series has become an “insta-buy” for me. 

I love them because they’re smart. They’re perceptive–about their situation, and about each other. They love first, and while they may quarrel about details, their love is unconditional. Put to the most severe tests, they stay true to themselves and their team.

If you haven’t discovered this series, you’re in for a treat (Image courtesy of the Aces High Jokers Wild website).

The world they inhabit

Raise the Stakes leads the Wildcards
into newrealms of possibility, and sees a promising new turn in the fight against the Corps. (Photo courtesyof Goodreads).
Call the Bluff, Book Two,
is a bit shorter, but every
bit as riveting. New dangers threaten,
and cherished lives are endangered.
(Photo courtesy of Amazon.)

Tearmann has done some interesting world-building in these books. The Unites States of America that we know has been overrun and subsumed. In this world, seven corporations rule much of North America, each with its own territory, its own rules, and its own moral code. Codes which are imposed on the subject-citizens, although the “Corps” themselves follow an amoral code of self-interest and absolute control to the greatest extent possible.

Climate change has wreaked its havoc on the world, and most of the formerly-verdant plains states are now desolate near-deserts. Only the areas farmed by AgCo, with its patented, genetically engineered food crops that can’t reproduce on their own (no seeds but those controlled by AgCorp will grow) feeds the nation.

The Co-Wy Grid (contemporary Colorado and Wyoming, where the Wildcards of Base 1407 stay on the run) is a patchwork of danger and sanctuary, respite and conflict. For the past 60-some years, the Democratic State Force (on the Co-Wy Grid they’re informally known as the “Dusters”) has sought to restore democracy.

The LGBTQ angle

Raise the Stakes leads the Wildcards
into newrealms of possibility, and sees a promising new turn in the fight against the Corps. (Photo courtesy of Goodreads).
Raise the Stakes leads the
Wildcards into new
realms of possibility, and
sees a promising new turn
in the fight against
the Corps. (Photo courtesy
of Goodreads).

If you’re not normally a reader of LGBTQ fiction, this series may take you by surprise. As with everything they do, the Wildcards don’t particularly adhere to conventional gender norms.

That starts with the protagonist of the very first book, Commander Aidan Headly (born Andrea), who gradually transitions into his true self over the course of several volumes.

The books include a fair number of rather graphic sexual interactions. They may or may not be your “cup of tea,” but as I noted in my review of the first book, I’ve never read a book in which such scenes were more essential to the plot, or more appropriately used to express character growth.

If you’re willing to roll with it and let your hair down, these scenes are pleasantly steamy no matter what your orientation. After all, love is love. And it’s masterfully handled here.

For the characters

But there’s also a lot of plot between the steamy sex scenes

Do you like suspense? Join Kevin and his team when they go on the Grid. Do you enjoy sticking it to “the man” and triumphing over the machine-like inhumanity of large corporate entities? Then Tweak and her unique talents are your sweet spot. She’ll have you cackling with glee.

Do you love the drama of bringing a traumatized human being into an accepting space, then helping him or her understand they are finally, finally safe? (Or as safe as it’s possible to be, in this world.) Then you will love these books.

Buy them. Read them. Do it for the characters. You will not regret it.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Amazon for the cover images for Call the Bluff and Aces and EightsThanks to Goodreads for the cover images for The Hands We’re Given and Raise the Stakes. And many thanks to O. E. Tearmann’s website for the four-book series image. I appreciate all of you!

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