Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: XK9 Bones Trilogy

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

A Mixed Bag in April

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

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

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

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

Meet Moon, Our Random Variable

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

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

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

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

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

Striking “A Proper Balance of Politics and Business”

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

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

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

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

The Windhover Tetralogy as Illustrated Books

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

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

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

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

About the Author

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

IMAGE CREDITS

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

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

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

Midnight Crop Inspection

A Short Excerpt from Chapter One of A Bone to Pick

By Jan S. Gephardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shady’s gut tightened. Her hackles prickled anew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man gasped. Dry stalks crunched.

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry—I did say “short.”

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

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

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

IMAGE and OTHER CREDITS:

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

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

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

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

Deepest thanks to all!

A Bone to Pick by Jan S. Gephardt

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!

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

Holidays on Rana Station

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

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

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

The reasons for the seasons

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

Or all of the above.

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

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

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

Religions in space?

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

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

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

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

Ranan holidays

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

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

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

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

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

The really important questions

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

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

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

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

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

IMAGE CREDITS:

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

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.

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