Paying Attention to the Story that Was

Space colony of O'Neill cylinders (NASA Ames Research Center, via Wikipedia)

[Image: a so-called “space colony” consisting of a pair of O’Neill cylinders, courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center (via Wikipedia). This image has little to do with the story (or the spaceship(s)) discussed in the post, but it felt suitably “epic” (and at least vaguely relevant).]

For a good while now — maybe a year and a half — I’ve been working on a science-fiction novel (working title: 23kpc). The action takes place almost entirely aboard an interstellar space ship, the ISS Tascheter; the protagonists, Guy and Missy Landis, are something like a spacegoing Nick and Nora Charles (cf. Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man stories, especially the films — starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — made from them).

About six months before starting 23kpc, I’d actually written a short novella, or long short story, featuring Guy and Missy and the Tascheter. That story sprang from nowhere in particular; I just wanted to try my hand at SF (again), and was at the time too distracted — by real life and the marketing (still in progress) of Seems to Fit — to focus on anything major. In fact, when I began writing it, I didn’t even know it was SF: it took me several sentences to realize it.

In the course of writing “Open and Shut,” as the original story was called, I realized many other things. I realized how little consideration I’d ever given to the practicalities of space travel, particularly from one star system to another. What would the ship have to be like? If it weren’t capable of faster-than-light (FTL) speeds, how could individual humans ever hope to survive such a journey? (I sure as hell didn’t want Guy, Missy, et al. to die en route — requiring the invention of fresh characters over and over and over…) Perhaps humans were somehow different then — evolved with significantly longer lifespans. Or perhaps there were some ways of keeping them inert for long stretches of time, à la “suspended animation”… or… or… And what about where they were going — what could they even hope to know about their destination? Had at least one other generation of humans preceded them into space? How could a “crew” of, say, a few dozen individuals, even hundreds of them, possibly keep going during a trip which might take not just decades but centuries?

And so on.

Well, I took “Open and Shut” through to the story’s end. But all those practical concerns compelled me to tackle the general project correctly, in its own right. Hence, 23kpc. It no doubt comes with its own set of problems, as I’ll realize when I re-read the whole thing (when I’m done writing the whole thing). But it’s backed by much more (read: any) research, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more of it “right.”

Still, “Open and Shut” has its virtues, especially as a seat-of-the-pants exercise. It gave me Guy and Missy, and several of the other main characters who’d show up in the novel as well. It gave me the Tascheter — in vastly different form. It gave me some of the underlying themes I’d been thinking about (e.g., the evolution of culture and language). It’s told in the present tense, and the first person (from Guy’s point of view), which makes the action feel more “immediate” (to me, anyhow). Finally, it gave me a certain clipped, smart-alecky tone which seemed well-suited to the characters. And re-reading the first few pages reminded me of how much fun I’d had back then…

What follows: the first few hundred words of that story. Hope you enjoy it, too!

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The Other in the Mirror, through the Glass, on the Page

[Video: Photorealist artist Melissa Cooke serves as her own model for a “drawing” of a sneering but otherwise Chaplinesque character. As I understand this light-hearted “making-of” demonstration, she’s excerpting bits and pieces of her various poses, costumes, facial expressions, and such, and amalgamating them into a single image.]

From whiskey river:

Everything that gives the illusion of permanence, familiarity, and intimate knowledge: isn’t it a deception invented to reassure, with which we try to conceal and ward off the flickering, disturbing haste because it could be impossible to live with all the time. Isn’t every exchange of looks between people like the ghostly brief meeting of eyes between travelers passing one another, intoxicated by the inhuman speed and the shock of air pressure that makes everything shudder and clatter? Don’t our looks bounce off others, as in the hasty encounter of the night, and leave us with nothing but conjectures, slivers of thoughts and imagined qualities? Isn’t it true that it’s not people who meet, but rather the shadows cast by their imaginations?

(Pascal Mercier)


Should we be grateful for the protection that guards us from the strangeness of one another? And for the freedom it makes possible? How would it be if we confronted each other unprotected by the double refraction represented by the interpreted body? If, because nothing separating and adulterating stood between us, we tumbled into each other?

(Pascal Mercier [source: ibid])


When I surprise myself in the depths of the mirror I get a fright. I can hardly believe that I have limits, that I am cut out and defined. I feel scattered in the air, thinking inside other beings, living in things beyond myself. When I surprise myself at the mirror I am not frightened because I think I am ugly or beautiful. It is because I discover I am of a different nature. After not having seen myself for a while I almost forget I am human, I forget my past and I am as free from end and awareness as something merely alive. I am also surprised, eyes open at the pale mirror, that there are so many things in me besides what I know, so many things always silent.

(Clarice Lispector [source])

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Ecstasy in the Commonplace

'Mill City is Crumbling and I'm going to Art-A-Whirl!,' by user jadammel on Flickr

[Image: “Mill City is Crumbling and I’m going to Art-A-Whirl!,” by user jadammel on Flickr. com. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) This is an example of something called a Holgarama: a panoramic photo taken with a camera called a Holga, whose cult status is attributable to the weirdly and unpredictably flawed photos it takes. Wikipedia calls this, delicately, “its low-fidelity aesthetic.”]

From whiskey river:

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

(Derek Mahon [source (and elsewhere)])


Every day my early morning walk along the water grants me a second waking. My feet are nimble, now my ears wake, and give thanks for the ocean’s song.

This enormity, this cauldron of changing greens and blues, is the great palace of the earth. Everything is in it — monsters, devils, jewels, swimming angels, soft-eyed mammals that unhesitatingly exchange looks with us as we stand on the shore; also, sunk with some ship or during off-loading, artifacts of past decades or centuries; also the outpourings of fire under water, the lava trails; and kelp fields, coral shelves, and so many other secrets — the remembered and faithfully repeated recitations of the whales, the language of dolphins — and the multitude itself, the numbers and the kinds of shark, seal, worm, vegetations, and fish: cod, haddock, swordfish, hake, also the lavender sculpin, the chisel-mouth, the goldeye, the puffer, the tripletail, the stargazing minnow. How can we not know that, already, we live in paradise?

(Mary Oliver [source])

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'The Other Side,' by Gisela Giardino on Flickr

[Image: “The Other Side,” by Gisela Giardino on Flickr. (Click image to enlarge.)
Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:


A state you must dare not enter
with hopes of staying,
quicksand in the marshes, and all

the roads leading to a castle
that doesn’t exist.
But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above
the crocodiles,
and its doors forever open.

(Stephen Dunn [source])


The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” over the gates of the lower world. The emancipated poets of today have written it over the gates of this world. But if we are to understand the story which follows, we must erase that apocalyptic writing, if only for an hour. We must recreate the faith of our fathers, if only as an artistic atmosphere. If, then, you are a pessimist, in reading this story, forego for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think is so clear, deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the very flower of your culture, give up the very jewel of your pride, abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.

(G. K. Chesterton [source])



It’s that, when I’m gone,
(and right off this is tricky)
I won’t be worried
about being gone.
I won’t be here
to miss anything.
I want now, sure,
all I’ve been gathering
since I was born,
but later
when I no longer have it,
(which might be
a state everlasting, who knows?)
this moment right now
(stand closer, love,
you can’t be too close),
is not a thing I’ll know to miss.
I doubt I’ll miss it.
I can’t get over this.

(Lia Purpura [source])

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The Devil(s) You Don’t Know

'The Cadejos,' by Todd Freeman

[Image: “The Cadejos,” hand-painted etching on paper, by Todd Freeman; found on Flickr.
(Click to enlarge.) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.

(Neil Gaiman [source])


My definition of a devil is a god who has not been recognized. That is to say, it is a power in you to which you have not given expression, and you push it back. And then, like all repressed energy, it builds up and becomes completely dangerous to the position you’re trying to hold.

(Joseph Campbell [source])


To feel anything
deranges you. To be seen
feeling anything strips you
naked. In the grip of it
pleasure or pain doesn’t
matter. You think what
will they do what new
power will they acquire if
they see me naked like
this. If they see you
feeling. You have no idea
what. It’s not about them.
To be seen is the penalty.

(Anne Carson [source])

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Missing the Point (or Nearly So)

'Irony at BBworld,' by user bionicteaching at

[Image: “irony at BBworld,” by user bionicteaching (Tom Woodward) at
Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

West Wind

You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks — when you hear that unmistakable pounding — when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming — then row, row for your life toward it.

(Mary Oliver [source])


The History of Poetry

Our masters are gone and if they returned
Who among us would hear them, who would know
The bodily sound of heaven of the heavenly sound
Of the body, endless and vanishing, that tuned
Our days before the wheeling stars
Were stripped of power? The answer is
None of us here. And what does it mean if we see
The moon-glazed mountains and the town with its silent doors
And water towers, and feel like raising our voices
Just a little, or sometimes during late autumn
When the evening flowers a moment over the western range
And we imagine angels rushing down the air’s cold steps
To wish us well, if we have lost our will,
And do nothing but doze, half hearing the sighs
Of this or that breeze drift aimlessly over the failed farms
And wasted gardens? These days when we waken.
Everything shines with the same blue light
That filled our sleep moments before,
So we do nothing but count the trees, the clouds,
The few birds left; then we decide that we shouldn’t
Be hard on ourselves, that the past was no better
Than now, for hasn’t the enemy always existed,
And wasn’t the church of the world always in ruins?

(Mark Strand [source])

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Feeling Your Way

Cartoon by David Sipress, from The New Yorker 2000-07-31

[Image: cartoon by David Sipress, from The New Yorker (July 31, 2000). Original here.]

From whiskey river:


It’s the immemorial feelings
I like the best: hunger, thirst,
their satisfaction; work-weariness,
earned rest; the falling again
from loneliness to love;
the green growth the mind takes
from the pastures in March;
The gayety in the stride
of a good team of Belgian mares
that seems to shudder from me
through all my ancestry.

(Wendell Berry [source])


Even now, all possible feelings do not yet exist, there are still those that lie beyond our capacity and our imagination. From time to time, when a piece of music no one has ever written or a painting no one has ever painted, or something else impossible to predict, fathom or yet describe takes place, a new feeling enters the world. And then, for the millionth time in the history of feeling, the heart surges and absorbs the impact.

(Nicole Krauss [source])



A monk said, “In the day there is sunlight, at night there is firelight. What is ‘divine light’?”

The master said, “Sunlight, firelight.”

(uncredited [source])

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Scraps and Leavings: What I’ve Been Working On

Cover: 'Night of the Living Dregs,' by the Dixie Dregs

[Image: album cover for Night of the Living Dregs (1979), by the Dixie Dregs]

For some time, I haven’t talked much at all here — anywhere — about what sorts of things I might have been writing since I finished the putative final draft of Seems to Fit, now a couple of years ago. I haven’t talked about it because it’s hard to classify:

No books, certainly not completed ones [Update: see the note at the foot of this post] — although much of what I’ve been writing has (you might say) potential in a bookwards direction. Instead, I have been sort of puttering around with well over a dozen short projects. A handful of these are complete, more or less; most just stop — some in mid-page. I don’t even remember a few of them: the act of writing, or even where the story was headed. But every one of them contains something, some scrap of verbiage and/or some scene or scrap of dialogue, which I was happy to encounter today, as I set about revisiting (not revising) them.

Here are some samples.

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An E-Publishing Experiment: Short Fiction for Under a Buck

AtmospheresI am not even close to the first person to wonder: is it possible — let alone worthwhile — to sell short short stories piecemeal, directly to readers, without going through the intermediary of a magazine or publisher?

Answering the first part of that question comes (relatively) easily, as it happens. Pursuing the answer to the second, however, can be messier. More… fraught.

So, the experiment:

I’ve uploaded a short story to Amazon, where it will sell as an e-“book” for 99¢ (US) and the equivalent price in other currencies. If I could have, I’d have priced it even lower; for now, though, that represents the lowest price which Amazon even allows for an e-book. Still, I have no plans to lower the price later. Let’s just see how it goes.

What do you need to know about the story?

  • The cover appears at the top right of this post; the title, obviously, is “Atmospheres.”
  • Genre? Fiction, of course. Maybe literary fiction (although that does carry an unseemly whiff of self-congratulation, doesn’t it?). Some might consider it to be a fantasy. A, well… let’s say a light contemporary fantasy. Don’t expect any pixies or elves, however, nor dragons, trolls, wizards, and the rest of that lot.
  • Excerpt: here’s how it begins…

Nathan DeKuyper had often dreamed of flying — not in some engined or lighter-than-air contraption, but personally, on his own. Springing-into-the-air flying. Aerodynamically-stretched-out-extremities flying, like Superman, requiring no wings of his own nor flapping of arms. Propelled in three dimensions by mere intent, by wanting to be there instead of here. Gliding, climbing, barrel rolling, power diving, treetop skimming, with the wind threatening to strip his glasses from his head, his eyes tearing, his hearing aid clattering dangerously, his clothes snapping and ballooning about him. No one would see him, or if they saw him they’d look away, rub their eyes, look up again… but he’d be gone by then, already dismissed as an illusion, all but forgotten.

Of course he had dreamed of flying. Hadn’t everyone? But — well, of course — he’d never actually flown.

Until the day he did.

  • How short is it? (Regular readers of my prose here and elsewhere may especially need reassurance on this score.) Only about 7,000 words: easily consumed at a sitting, I think (hope).
  • As an e-book sold through Amazon, it’s in Kindle-readable format. However — this is important — you do not need a Kindle to read it. Once you purchase it, you should be able to read it with Amazon’s Kindle software, available both as a regular Web browser plug-in and as a smartphone/tablet app.
  • Oh, duh: where to get it. Of course. You can get it here.

As I said, let’s just see how it goes. I’ll mention the whole thing on Facebook and Twitter, maybe even more than once, but have no “promotional” plans beyond that — word-of-mouth will carry it, or it won’t. And yes, I’ll report back on the whole thing. Sometime, haha.

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Image from 'Leavings,' by Amy Regalia

[Image: one of the photos in photographer Amy Regalia’s 2007 exhibit, Leavings.
For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apple leaves and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on.

(Marilynne Robinson [source])


Early Morning in Your Room

It’s morning. The brown scoops of coffee, the wasp-like
Coffee grinder, the neighbors still asleep.
The gray light as you pour gleaming water —
It seems you’ve traveled years to get here.

Finally you deserve a house. If not deserve
It, have it; no one can get you out. Misery
Had its way, poverty, no money at least.
Or maybe it was confusion. But that’s over.

Now you have a room. Those lighthearted books:
The Anatomy of Melancholy, Kafka’s Letter
to His Father, are all here. You can dance
With only one leg, and see the snowflake falling

With only one eye. Even the blind man
Can see. That’s what they say. If you had
A sad childhood, so what? When Robert Burton
Said he was melancholy, he meant he was home.

(Robert Bly [source])

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