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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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So, I’m reading Red Mars (1993)…….

……..by Kim Stanley Robinson, in part because I love good science fiction, like Dune by Frank Herbert or Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh. I’m also reading it because Mars is starting to look like a nice place to live.

I speak sarcastically. Sort of.

Science fiction is best when speaking to us about our social issues through the prism of the future and technologies that far surpass ours. Star Trek is famous for touching on politics, racism, sexism, war, and religion, among other things. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, regarded as the first science fiction novel, dealt with the humanity of the Other.

Set in the (not so distant) future of 2026, Red Mars and its companion books deal with the early days of terra-forming the red planet. Unlike the Genesis Project, which would take minutes as proposed in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, transforming Mars into a hospitable planet would take decades, if not centuries. Against this backdrop of traveling for nine months to Mars and creating a new home on a hostile planet, there are a cast of characters from various countries. Some of these countries are political enemies of each other.

English is the Standard language, which everyone speaks. This is also a hindrance to the American crew if they do not speak another language (1), which then creates another layer of tension. Suspicions arise if a conversation is going on and you don’t know what’s being said. I’m about sixty pages in and, given the enclosed space aboard their ship, the limited number of people and the long voyage out (no cryogenic sleep), pairings, jealousies and intrigue are already creating problems.

That’s where things get interesting. Historically speaking, people pretty much behave the same way, regardless of the time. Science fiction explores the now from the time frame of the future (or the past). Sometimes that’s the most effective way of starting and maintaining a dialogue about social or political issues. If you’re already open to listening to a fictional story, then you’re also receptive to the ideas and perspectives presented.

Sometimes the best way to learn about a new idea or gain a new perspective is to come at sideways.

Image source: 8screensavers.com
Image source: 8screensavers.com

(1) Learning a foreign language is helpful in many ways – it could lead to job opportunities you might not ordinarily find and it is very good for the brain. Also, it will help you navigate should you choose to travel the world.

Recommended:
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
Survival by Julie E. Czerneda

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Excerpt: Secrets & Howls: A Wolf’s Head Bay Mystery

 

From the Prologue:

Her skin prickled and she stopped, alert.

Whoever was watching her was back. Or he’d never left. She suspected the latter – the sensations were so strong that she instinctively knew he was still around. Gripping her keys, she turned in a slow circle, her eyes touching on every shape, muscles tense, aware of the scents carried on the ocean breeze. From the center of town, she could hear the post office tower’s bell chime out the hour.

He was close – she could feel it. The question was, where would he come from?

The attack, when it came, was sudden – her body’s instinctive reflexes were faster than her mind and she ducked just in time to miss the swinging, clawed fist.

He roared, furious. She leapt back, dropping her purse, her breath coming in sharp rasps.

He was new to this – it was obvious from the way he carried himself. But new or not, if she wasn’t careful, he may just take her by sheer brute force.

She intended to take him down first.

They circled each other – Holly hoped that something or someone would distract him long enough so that she could gain a better advantage, but she didn’t rely on it happening. She had to rely on herself.

As she studied him, gauging his skill, her analytical mind suggesting strategies that she automatically considered or disregarded, it occurred to her reporter’s mind that there were peculiarities surrounding the death of Jackson Tanner. Peculiarities that had been similar to another death…..

Her attacker growled – her eyes widened in shock as she saw him literally expand in size and knew that she was in far more danger than she had at first realized.

She had no choice now. This was a fight that would end in one way.

She roared at him until her throat was raw, her hands like claws, and she ran at him.

His first blow sliced through her shirt and opened up her belly – four neat, parallel incisions, nearly gutting her.

 

The next blow killed her.

 

Secrets & Howls

Excerpt: How to Bury the Undead

Chapter One

I’d been thinking about that encounter with the vampire a lot, lately.

Why I was thinking about him while fixing myself some tomato soup on a hot plate, I’m not sure, but I was. Behind me, Dottie Perswalski attempted to tidy up my tiny living room, which was not at all – although she was a ghost and had been for decades, she hasn’t learned the art of manifesting enough energy to move things yet. The living room is tiny because my entire living space is tiny. I couldn’t even call my kitchen a galley, with it being made up of a hot plate and a microwave on a battered dresser. The place being a crypt in a previous incarnation was why. The dead don’t take up much living space, especially if they’ve been cremated.

The crypt had been part of what used to be the primary mausoleum, a larger stone structure that fell into disuse after an earthquake in 1993 demolished the majority of it. The remaining structure (and my home) remained in use for another five years, but numerous break-ins and graffiti made the decision to inter the urns elsewhere in the cemetery a respectful and logical choice. That had been in the fall of 1998.

Dottie was one of those who had originally been interred in my crypt, which is why she was fussing about in my living room. In life, she had been one of five housemaids to a wealthy family in Wickerman Falls, some ten miles away. The daughter of immigrants, Dottie was happy with her lot in life until a fire burned the place down one night in the winter of 1925. It was a horrendous tragedy that killed everyone inside, including poor Dottie. She had been sixteen when that happened and is clearly of a generation that belonged in the here and now. She hangs out in my crypt because she still isn’t used to the new one. This probably explains why she hasn’t yet mastered the art of manifesting enough energy to move solid objects.

I don’t mind Dottie’s presence so much; actually, I kind of like hearing her chatter, even if it does border on the obnoxious. I guess it’s like having a younger sister, but being an only child, that’s all speculation on my part. Right now she was fussing over my shoulder, commenting on my lack of skill with the pot of soup. That was my cue to turn the hot plate on low and go sit down on my seen-better-days couch.

The couch came from a thrift shop in Wickerman Falls. So did the tiny, drop-leaf table, a couple of high-backed chairs, a dresser, my bed frame and the faded carpet on the floor, which hid a trap door to a tunnel. All of them had seen better days, especially the couch, but they were still serviceable and that was just fine by me. I don’t need much to live on, just enough to survive. Most of what makes the crypt hospitable for me to live in is the generator tucked discretely into an alcove outside the front door.

The alcove has a roof and door; it’s leak-proof and blends in perfectly with the exterior of the crypt. If you didn’t know where to look, you wouldn’t find it. It will never be warm and cozy during the winter, but it keeps me safe and it’s mine until it was time to move on again. I like it that way, but I will admit that I sometimes feel the pull to stay in one place for a little longer than a few months.

Anyway.

I was thinking about vampires in general and my first and only encounter specifically because, in the course of fussing and chattering, Dottie had let it slip in her naturally gossipy way that the “oh, isn’t he dreamy” pastor was in a big bother over some vandalism that kept occurring at night at the church, some of it on the inside next to the podium. I considered telling her that nighttime was usually the best time to commit vandalism, but refrained. Dottie doesn’t understand my sense of humor.

I kept muttering “uh, huh” as she spoke, which, I realized too late, only encouraged her chatter. Then she changed topics and began comparing the pastor to some guy named Rudolph Valentino and that’s where I lost interest, especially when the dreamy sighs began. I wondered what she would make of today’s movie stars – Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt or (I shudder to think) George Clooney. I wouldn’t get any peace, that’s for sure.

Something in my jeans pocket pinched and I scowled, shifting so that I could pull out my stupid cellphone. It was a basic model, the kind that opens and shuts like a clam-shell and also wonderfully cheap. I eyed it, thoughtful. The date to change it was looming and I’d been trying to work out how to explain the change in my number to my current boss.

I turned thirty a month ago, but I didn’t celebrate it, not even with a special cupcake from the local bakery. It was on my sixth birthday that put me on the path to where I am now, so I’m not fond of them. The spot between my shoulder blades began to itch and I squirmed, trying to reach it and failing.

The pastor Dottie was mooning over was Pastor Devon Maclaine, who moved to the area over a year ago and presides over the local church. To hear her go on about him, you’d think that he was a strong mix of good looks and charm and resembles Rudolph Valentino. For a modern comparison, think of a David Boreanez type. I didn’t see it, but then I’m not a teen-aged ghost with a tendency to develop huge crushes on a guy that even passes the neighborhood of being kind of cute.

I’d spoken to him more than once, but while he was intelligent and easy-going, he seemed out of place in Sleepy Eye Cove. I wasn’t sure of the appeal a small town had for him or why he chose to settle here. The congregation is on the small side, since most of the locals tend to lean towards the mediumistic. But he seemed okay with it, the few times I’d seen him out and about in town. People liked him, made a point of engaging him in conversation and inviting him to social functions.

I think he’s too good to be true, personally. Since he discovered that I had landed in Sleepy Eye Cove in late March, he’s been encouraging me to join in on the social scene, such as it is (there isn’t one). He even suggested the local historical society. I think my job at the cemetery gave him ideas that it would be good for me.

About three weeks ago, he had begun dropping hints about the local softball league. I knew about this because of the flyers left in my mail cubby in the cemetery office. Tryouts were in late April, practice beginning in May and the season ending in October. Since I wasn’t planning on sticking around that long, I had passed on the idea. Twice. It’s now mid-May. I’ve made a point to avoid him, which so far has been successful. The flyers kept coming, though, and I’d resorted to tossing them in the trash.

I know he hasn’t given up on making me a part of his softball team. I’m not sure why. As pleasant and as concerned as he is, I always felt a little uncomfortable in his presence. I couldn’t explain why, even to myself, so I just kept quiet about it and kept my distance.

Abby Somers, a part-time gardener at the cemetery and practicing witch, says he has a lost-cause complex. I suppose that’s one reason to go into the seminary.

And another very good reason for me to keep my distance.

“Quit sighing so loud,” I said, feeling cranky. “I get it, I get it. You think Maclaine is cute.”

Dottie pouted. “And why not? He has a singular light about him that only Mr. Valentino possessed.”

Typical teenage girl, according to Abby. I had asked her about it shortly after moving into the crypt and was faced with the permanent teen angst. I wouldn’t know, not having any normal teen experiences to compare it with. My teenage years were more concerned with escaping from a mental hospital with help from one of the nurses. The main part of the asylum was shut down officially in 1990. The children’s ward, where I had been placed at the age of six, was shut down a decade later, shortly after I had escaped. I still have nightmares of that place haunted by the living, also known as an asylum.

Especially about the doctor who oversaw my treatment. Heavy-set and gray, he would peer at me through his glasses, his gaze unreadable and discomforting. I didn’t like the looks he gave me and hated the therapy sessions he insisted I have. Looking back, I suspect that he knew that I was telling the truth, that I talk to ghosts, and that he misdiagnosed me in order to keep me under lock and key to study me. My parents were much relieved at no longer having to be responsible for my blasphemous accounts of ghosts.

If it hadn’t been for the nurse who had once been assigned to my part of the hospital, I’d still be there. I say ‘once been assigned’ because she had been dead fifty years before I’d gotten there, had worked there when it was an actual place of healing and despised the creepy doctor and his methods, especially when it involved children. I didn’t think that he’d stop looking for me, even though I had become a legal adult long ago. That doctor had an agenda, one I wasn’t privy to, even though I was central to it. And he wasn’t the type to let that go, once he got his guinea pig.

I shook off those thoughts and continued to ponder the idea of vampires as I stirred my soup in slow circles. I’m not exactly sure why they had leapt immediately to mind when Dottie mentioned the vandalism at the church. She hadn’t mentioned anything in particular that would have labeled it a vampire problem. And besides, vampires are unholy creatures of the night – hallowed ground is not easy for them to breach unless it had been defiled by suicide or something.

And as far as I knew, the local church had not been the scene of such an incident.

But then, since I was a fairly recent resident of the area, that didn’t mean much. The thing to do would be to ask around. There were plenty of locals to talk to, and most of them were my neighbors, of the spectral kind. Ghosts are really chatty, probably because so few of the living can hear them, so it wouldn’t be too hard to get them talking about the past. Plus, they wouldn’t ask any of the awkward questions that the living seem so fond of.

Pastor Maclaine was not on my list of those to ask.

My soup was bubbling, so I turned off the hot-plate and lifted the pot, pouring the red liquid into a bowl. Steam rose in a cloud, and I inhaled the tomato scent with a sigh.

Vampires. God, I hate those bloodsuckers. At least they clean up easily with a broom after staking.

I shuddered.

A cemetery in the afternoon.
A cemetery in the afternoon.

****
Editor’s Note: This chapter also appears in a slightly different form published on March 2, 2012 on Hubpages.com.

So, one of the things I like to do is travel……

…….and it’s something I try to do as often as possible, just to recharge my creative spirit. I have a few favorite haunts that I travel to, such as Morro Bay or Long Beach (both in California), and they have that vibe that resonates and makes me feel refreshed. But I often think about places that are further away, like Romania or Egypt or Greece. These places fire my imagination with their histories, their cultures, their mythologies.

Early morning in Morro Bay
Early morning in Morro Bay

I’m not suggesting that in order to write, you must travel and experience different lives and customs, but it helps. If traveling is not in your budget, then reading about your favorite countries and their people is a definite alternative, as is reading their literature and viewing their films and television shows. It’s not the same, sure, but it’s better than nothing. Who knows, you may end up being inspired to set a goal and put a budget aside for something as exciting and as different as travelling to another country.

In addition to the countries I named above, I’ve always wanted to travel to the countries my ancestors emigrated from (there are eleven, mostly north-western European/Scandinavian, but also from the British Isles). I want to breathe in the air that they grew up in, loved and lived in, to walk the streets they did. It’s a secret fantasy that I’ll find and connect with cousins several times removed. If it happens, no one will be more thrilled than I, but it’s not something I expect to occur.

In any case, the point of travel is to experience life in a place that is not familiar, to interact and learn what it is that is the same, as well as what is different. As an artist of any type, whether of the written word or of canvas or music, travel will enrich your soul and mind, which will then translate itself into whatever creative work you’re planning. Get a passport, even if it takes nine years for you to use it. Buy travel guides and maps and foreign language dictionaries of the countries that fascinate you the most.

Travelling is, when you do it, you leave pieces of yourself behind, but you also take pieces of what you encounter with you.

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Nichelle Nichols, in her own words…….

……remembering Dr. King.

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