TGRRL: Dune, by Frank Herbert

If you’ve made it to adulthood and haven’t heard of Dune…what’s your secret? I have to know! Few science-fiction classics have permeated public consciousness the way that Frank Herbert’s famous novel has. Sandworms, spice, and spacefolding—the words and the concepts alike have been borrowed and recycled time and again. The book, to put it plainly, is popular.

Dune-Frank_Herbert_(1965)_First_edition

This is the cover of the copy I read, some eighteen years ago; and I am sitting here kicking my own ass, because I just discovered it was a FIRST EDITION! Which was subsequently destroyed. I am truly a monster.

 

It may come as quite a shock, then, to learn that the book was rejected by more than twenty publishers. When it was finally accepted, it was by Chilton Books, whose bread and butter consist of auto repair manuals. (Full disclosure: I’m referring to publication as a novel here. The story was previously serialized in Analog magazine; in a just world, that would instantly guarantee that some publisher would snatch it up, but this—like Herbert’s Arrakis—is not a just world.) Its themes may be tropes now; but in the early 1960s, this ecology-driven work was new and unfamiliar, and very much a hard sell. Herbert didn’t shy away from that or compromise in any way—with his own history of ecological work on the sand dunes near Florence, Oregon, he unashamedly dedicated the book to the ecologists engaged in such labors. It would be two more decades before saving the world—from an environmental standpoint—would be fashionable.

Dune, however, is not about saving the world. The story simply assumes a world where conservationist measures are an absolute necessity. That’s the backdrop; the story is political and religious. Wait! No! Don’t run! Frank Herbert had a gift for taking those themes and making them intriguing. The desert world of Arrakis, colloquially called “Dune”, sits at the center of every major power conspiracy in the known universe, and for a very good reason: its ubiquitous spice, melange, is the source of the mystical prescience that allows faster-than-light travel, as well as a host of other powers in various special-interest groups—and it can be produced nowhere else. Melange is a waste product of the planet’s enormous, building-swallowing, man-eating sandworms, which live nowhere else in the universe. The story begins when the galactic emperor, Shaddam Corrino IV, displaces the noble family in charge of Dune—the Harkonnens—and replaces them with their ancient-but-weaker rivals, the Atreides. It’s a trap, however, designed to destroy the Atreides, who have long been a thorn in the side of the Emperor as well. The Atreides heir, Paul, was secretly bred by a religious group, the matriarchal Bene Gesserit as a step toward their long-awaited messiah figure, the kwisatz haderach, the “one who shortens the way”; but unknown to the Bene Gesserit, he is the Kwisatz Haderach. In the end, he upends the empire, seizes power, embarks on a bloody jihad (a term that likely had less political weight in the real world when Herbert wrote the book), and sets the galaxy on a long path of predestination and fate.

It’s been nearly twenty years since I read Dune, and my memory required a little refreshing before writing this entry.  Prior to that first reading, I was only loosely familiar with it via the David Lynch film adaptation, which I had watched as a young child, and which famously took some notable liberties with the story. (It IS David Lynch, so of course it did—but then, his experience here eventually gave us Kyle MacLachlan in the role of Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, so I cannot complain.) It’s hard for me to look back on this volume without filtering it through the lens of what came after; and by that I mean both Frank Herbert’s incomplete Dune saga, and his son Brian’s supporting and concluding novels (written with Kevin J. Anderson, and based at least loosely on notes left by Frank Herbert). A word of caution, should you wish to continue the series: those two categories are two very different animals. Frank Herbert’s novels are nearly universally revered, and justifiably so; Brian Herbert’s novels are nearly universally reviled, at least by fans of his father. I personally think that’s a bit unjust; I found them to be great books on their own, but a bit deservedly overshadowed by the original series. Nowadays there are more books by Brian and Kevin than the original series contains; but quantity doesn’t make them superior.

dune-explained

Kyle MacLachlan is my hero. Also this tweet is 100% accurate. Read the book!

 

The later entries cover thousands of years of future history, and greatly expand on the themes of predestination, fate, and prescience (that is, future-sight, a hallmark power of those who use the spice). Herbert was setting up for some kind of titanic conflict at the end; some unknown enemy still waited, of which the readers had only received hint. Compiling various sources, Brian and Kevin posited in their novels that the true enemies were the thinking machines against which humans had once fought, now returned in great strength and power. Frank, unfortunately, never got around to telling us; he passed away before he could write the final volume. At any rate, there is none of that in the first volume, which is limited to the life of Paul Atreides on Arrakis, and not even all of that. With that limitation, the book can be notoriously confusing to some, as it simply hurls its readers into the morass of intrigues without a life preserver. I, myself, find it to be the least interesting book in the series; but don’t let that discourage you; we’re dealing with a high bar here. The entire series is good, so to call this one the least interesting is no insult at all.

The bottom line: Dune is a fantastic classic science fiction story in its own right; a great political novel; and, perhaps most importantly, it kicks off one of the truly great series in sci-fi history. Its effect on the course of science fiction has been profound; of all the series out there, perhaps only Asimov’s Foundation series, which we will cover in a few months, is its equal. I feel compelled to hold back any more details of plot and character, for the simple reason that this is not an obscure book—if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? You may struggle through it sometimes, but you won’t be disappointed.

Note: Unfortunately, unlike Foundation—which appears as an entire saga together—none of the other Dune novels made it onto the Great Reddit Reading List. That’s a pity; and if you have opportunity to continue the series, I highly recommend it. God Emperor of Dune is my personal favorite, though the others are great as well. ~Timewalkerauthor

The Great Reddit Reading List

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TGRRL: Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell

It’s been a very long time since I last read George Orwell’s most famous work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. I admit that I didn’t reread it for my progress through the reading list, and so I may not be as specific in this review as in some others. Still, the book is famous; and in the era of the NSA, it comes up often enough that it gets revisited frequently in some form or another—therefore I think we’ll manage.

1984 cover

I’m attempting to include the covers of the editions that I read, wherever possible.

 

I find it fascinating how, in the past, this book was universally considered to represent the most horrible form of dystopian society. That’s still true, but only on reputation; when people begin to delve into the book, they’re inevitably faced with the fact that we’ve already allowed many of the invasions of privacy that are commonplace therein. Orwell’s ubiquitous screens have been upstaged by smart televisions; the microphones live in our homes nowadays and have names and personalities (hello, Alexa!). We know the NSA and other government agencies are monitoring much of our electronic communications; they’d monitor every bit if they could, and they’re very open about that. It’s for our own good, right? Big Brother said that, too.

There are three reasons why we don’t care, I believe—or at least, we don’t care very much. First, we love the convenience. There’s no question that Alexa and Cortana and our laptops and cell phones and smart TVs make our lives easier, more convenient, and—let’s admit it—more fun. I like the convenience of streaming television when I want it, even if everyone in the chain of provision knows what I’m watching.

Second, we didn’t receive this all at once. The book shocks us because it hits us at once—we didn’t grow up in the dystopian Oceania, and we’re discovering it in a moment. In the real world, our reduction in privacy was a gradual process. It was a very slick move to show us the convenience before we became widely aware of the universal vulnerabilities—like getting us all addicted to heroin before telling us it will destroy our lives. Now, I’m drawing a pretty extreme comparison there; I don’t think having our emails pass through a government net is literally going to kill us all. But, don’t let my hyperbole distract from the fact that there are risks involved.

And third, we aren’t—as a general rule anyway—being oppressed by means of this technology. To that, I am obliged to add an enormous “YET”. Nineteen Eighty-Four protagonist Winston Smith’s life was regulated down to the smallest minutiae, and he was actively punished for any deviation, but that isn’t happening to us. Our choices are certainly manipulated, but we aren’t feeling much pain for it.  However, the potential exists for that to change, and a less benign government—which is really saying something when we’re talking about the US government—could easily take advantage of it. It’s in our best interests not to let that happen.

One can find mountains of material treating this subject, so I won’t get any deeper into it here. If you’re reading it, you came for my thoughts on the book, not the political climate. The bottom line is that I found the book terrifying at the time I read it, about twenty-five years ago; I had actual nightmares, and not for the infamous scene with the description of the face-eating rats. I had nightmares about losing such a battle against the world and against the shapeless-but-omnipresent powers represented by Big Brother. Today, though, it’s lost much of its punch, and that is tragically unfortunate. The book has often been compared to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—mostly unfavorably, if I remember correctly, which is odd as Nineteen Eighty-Four is by far the better-known work in the popular realm. At any rate, we’ll perhaps look more at the comparison when I cover Brave New World, which is also on the list.

The Great Reddit Reading List

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TGRRL: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

The_Hitchhikers_Guide_to_the_Galaxy

 

And so begins one of science-fiction and comedy’s most highly prized works: Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It’s a rather unassuming beginning; it’s clever, but unremarkable. The first sentence is long and not particularly catchy, which is exactly how all the writing guides tell you not to do it. It gives no real hint of what it to come, or the many, many scenes and lines for which this book is famous. If you stopped here, you’d never know.

And that, friends, would be a shame. The Great Reddit Reading List was ordered according to the number of votes each book received, and there are good reasons why this tiny, once-obscure volume comes in at number one. I can very nearly guarantee that even if you haven’t read it, you’ve heard of it; or at least you’ve heard of one of its adaptations. And all of this is for one simple reason: Douglas Adams was a comedic master.

Truthfully, there’s not much I can say about the book, and its subsequent “trilogy” of five books total which hasn’t already been said. (I’m not counting And Another Thing, the alleged “book six” by Eoin Colfer; it’s certainly entertaining, but it’s no Adams. That’s not at all an insult; no one else could be Adams.) I don’t really intend to try, at any rate; you’ll find that with these reviews, I’m less interested in critiquing the book and more in giving an idea of what it meant to me. After all, it’s our experiences with books that make us passionate about them, and that make other people want to read them. This book has been dissected at great length in more reviews than I can count, and justifiably so. And so:

I won’t say that this was my first work of science fiction or comedy. I had been reading for years before I discovered Hitchhiker’s Guide at about the age of nine or ten, and had been into science fiction for most of that time. In fact, the first “big thing” for me in science fiction was Doctor Who (and if you’ve delved deep into this site, or its sister site, The Time Lord Archives, you know it’s still a big thing for me!), which coincidentally was also instrumental in Adams’s life. He wrote three successful serials for the Fourth Doctor’s era (one of them, Shada, only failed because of a workers’ strike, not because of anything about the story) and a few more unused pitches; and he served as script editor for the 1979 season of Doctor Who. His character of Professor Chronotis, from the unfinished Shada, went on to feature in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which has recently been adapted for television by the BBC.

Still, Hitchhiker’s Guide was a formative work for me. Everything is new when you discover it for the first time; looking back, I’m sure I wore out my sci-fi-loving dad with “42” jokes that he had known for years. From this book I learned that science fiction doesn’t have to be Star Trek serious; I learned that adventures don’t have to be as grand as Star Wars to be fun. I learned to appreciate wry and subtle humor (and I know what you’re thinking: Adams, subtle? Never! But consider his comedy against most American televised comedy, which would have been my only point of comparison, and I think you’ll see my perspective). I’m not accomplished at writing it myself yet, but I try to incorporate a little as I can. I leaned that absurdity in literature doesn’t have to equate to pointlessness; it can tell a story just as well as earnestness, or drama.

The fun in Hitchhiker’s Guide is in the sharing. This was the first book that ever became a social activity for me—the first book with jokes so widely known that I could laugh about them with, well, nearly anybody. They were certainly fun to read for myself, but they were so much more fun when passed around with a wink and a nudge and—sometimes—a guffaw. Now that I’m older, I’m passing them on to my children; my oldest daughter is eleven, about the same age as I was when I read the book, and we find ourselves passing Guide jokes over the dinner table while my wife (her stepmom) rolls her eyes at us. (She’s in on the joke, too; she mostly rolls her eyes when we get the jokes out before she does.) My daughter and her younger brother, age 9, are both math aficionados in school, and secretly I think it bugs them both that the answer (“42”) doesn’t match the question (“What do you get if you multiply six by nine?”, which we don’t discover until The Restaurant at the End of the Universe)—but that’s the beauty of the absurdity in Adams’s work.

And that’s that. For personal reasons, I’ll be cutting off here for today; but if you’ve never read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, give it a shot! And while you’re here, check out the rest of The Great Reddit Reading List. Next time: We’ll take a look at a particularly famous dystopian novel, George Orwell’s 1984. See you there!

The Great Reddit Reading List

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The Great Reddit Reading List!

Back in September, I posted a reading challenge, which you can find here. It gave categories of books, one for each week over a year, but it didn’t recommend specific titles; it leaves that up to the reader. Today, I want to look at the other side of the equation, and also launch a new occasional feature: The Great Reddit Reading List!

A few years ago, shortly after I joined Reddit, I was browsing the /r/books community when I came upon a post that mentioned the “Reddit’s Favorite Books” top 200 list. A little research took me to the original list, posted in 2010. (See below for links!) This list was compiled from several poll posts, and constitutes a checklist of sorts of the most popular books in the /r/books community. I’ve since expanded it with input from a few more recent lists, bringing the total up to 265 entries. (I’ll add it to the end of this post, and also make it a page on the site with a link in the sidebar.)

I had read about fifty of the original two hundred entries when I discovered the list. Since then, I’ve added approximately another forty. I say “entries” and not “books”, because some of the entries listed will be a series of books rather than an individual volume within the series. That’s an artifact of the standard the original compiler used to create the list; in some cases, both an individual book and the series in which it consists would get high numbers of votes, because there was not much regulation of the entries submitted. No one was trying to enforce any rule that it must be a single volume; therefore series often made the list. With that said, I’ve actually read well over a hundred, if we count all the volumes in a series; but I’m going to count each named series as only one entry.

So, what’s on the list? It’s a surprisingly eclectic mix. There are a number of classics, many of which originated in other languages. There are a large number of newer, popular books, as well, as one might expect given that Reddit’s population skews toward the young adult age group. Fiction is certainly the larger division of the list, but non-fiction is well represented, and even a few textbooks made the list. Science and philosophy are well represented. Books since 2010 are not as well represented, because that is the year in which the original list was compiled; however you will find some newer books in the list post-200, as those books were added to the list in 2016.

Certain authors appear repeatedly (and that’s aside from cases where a series is present). Neil Gaiman is far and away the author with the most entries present; about half of his novels are represented, and at least one of his graphic novels. Stephen King has a number of entries, as do William Faulkner and Neal Stephenson. Ursula K. Le Guin appears a few times. Fyodor Dostoyevsky tops the classical authors, with three entries. Kurt Vonnegut is popular. Male authors far outnumber female, but I think that is less a reflection on the list and more on the state of reading and writing in the world in general—many people, most far more qualified than me, have discussed that at length in other sources, and continue to do so.

books snoo

So, then: A new feature here! I’ve been slowly working my way through this list for a few years. I want to pick up my pace and my efforts, and in the process, post my thoughts about these books as I work through them. I confess that I haven’t been reading these in order; I made an attempt to do so, but it didn’t take long for my attention to wander. Therefore, the entries may not be in order, though we should be good for the first thirty or so. In cases where I’ve previously read the books, I’ll work from memory and research as much as possible; some cases may need a full re-read, though. I expect to get about one post per week from this feature. This post today is already going to be long enough, as the list will be attached; therefore we’ll begin with the next post. (I’ve also included links to the original Reddit posts: Here (original list), here (discussion post), and here (2016 additions)

And so, without further ado, I present the Great Reddit Reading List! How many have you read? What are your favorites? Thanks again, and happy reading!

Title Author
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams
1984 George Orwell
Dune Frank Herbert
Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut
Ender’s Game Orson Scott Card
Brave New World Aldous Huxley
The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
The Bible
Snow Crash Neal Stephenson
Harry Potter (series, 6 books) J.K. Rowling
Stranger in a Strange Land Robert A. Heinlein
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Richard P. Feynman
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
The Foundation Saga (series, 7 books) Isaac Asimov
Neuromancer William Gibson
Calvin and Hobbes Bill Watterson
Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond
Catch-22 Joseph Heller
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert M. Pirsig
Siddhartha Herman Hesse
The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid Douglas Hofstadter
Tao Te Ching Lao Tse
House of Leaves Mark Z. Danielewski
The Giver Lois Lowry
Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Animal Farm George Orwell
A People’s History of the United States Howard Zinn
The Lord of the Rings (series, 3 books) J.R.R. Tolkien
Ishmael Daniel Quinn
A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking
Lolita Vladimir Nabokov
The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas
His Dark Materials (series, 3 books) Philip Pullman
The Stranger Albert Camus
<Various Works> Dr. Seuss
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Lord of the Flies William Golding
The Monster at the End of This Book Jon Stone, Michael Smollin
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson
A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Phillip K. Dick
One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Art of War Sun Tzu
How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie
Flowers for Algernon Daniel Keyes
The Hyperion Cantos Dan Simmons
A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole
U.S. Dec. of Independence, Constitution, B. of R. Various
Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut
A Canticle for Leibowitz Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Odyssey Homer
Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
A Song of Ice and Fire (series, 5 books currently) George R. R. Martin
The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ringworld Larry Niven
A Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
The Art of Deception Kevin Mitnick
The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Freakonomics Stephen Dubner, Steven Levitt
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Robert A. Heinlein
The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan
Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad
The Forever War Joe Haldeman
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain
Lies My Teacher Told Me James Loewen
Notes from Underground Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Everybody Poops Taro Gomi
On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin
The Autobiography of Malcolm X Malcolm X, Alex Haley
John Dies at the End David Wong
The Communist Manifesto Karl Marx
Contact Carl Sagan
A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess
The Prince Niccolo Macchiavelli
Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand
The Diamond Age Neal Stephenson
War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
The Stand Stephen King
The Dharma Bums Jack Kerouac
The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien
Moby Dick Herman Melville
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera
Why People Believe Weird Things Michael Shermer
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky
Asimov’s Guide to the Bible Isaac Asimov
The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway
Collapse Jared Diamond
Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace
Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
Chaos James Gleick
American Gods Neil Gaiman
Starship Troopers Robert A. Heinlein
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Mark Haddon
You Can Choose to be Happy Tom G. Stevens
The Geography of Nowhere James Howard Kunstler
All Quiet on the Western Front Erich Maria Remarque
Candide Voltaire
Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler
The Girl Next Door Jack Ketchum
In Defense of Food Michael Pollan
The Dark Tower (series, 8 books) Stephen King
Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk
The Greatest Show on Earth Richard Dawkins
The Making of a Radical Scott Nearing
The Turner Diaries Andrew McDonald
The Scar China Mieville
Steppenwolf Herman Hesse
Going Rogue Sarah Palin
120 Days of Sodom Marquis de Sade
Rendezvous with Rama Arthur C. Clarke
Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood
Beyond Good and Evil Friedrich Nietszche
Gravity’s Rainbow Thomas Pinchon
Naked Lunch William Burroughs
Childhood’s End Arthur C. Clarke
Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck
The Book of Ler M.A. Foster
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark Carl Sagan
Johnny Got His Gun Dalton Trumbo
Cryptonomicon Neal Stephenson
Watership Down Richard Adams
Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut
Civilization and Capitalism Fernand Braudel
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs Chuck Klosterman
A Fire Upon the Deep Vernor Vinge
The Saga of Seven Suns (series, 7 books) Kevin J. Anderson
American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis
The Mote in God’s Eye Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
The Chomsky Reader Noam Chomsky
The Panda’s Thumb Stephen Jay Gould
Flatland Edwin Abbot
On the Road Jack Kerouac
The God Delusion Richard Dawkins
The Classical Style Charles Rosen
Here Be Dragons Sharon Kay Penman
An American Life Ronald Reagan
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space Carl Sagan
The Little Schemer Daniel P. Friedman, Matthias Felleisen
Life in the Woods Henry David Thoreau
Black Lamb, Grey Falcon Rebecca West
Thus Spake Zarathustra Friedrich Nietszche
Sandman Neil Gaiman
The Game Neil Strauss
Good Omens Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman
Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis
Walden Henry David Thoreau
The Collapse of Complex Societies Joseph Tainter
The Cthulhu Mythos (series, varying accountings) H.P. Lovecraft
The Stars My Destination Alfred Bester
The Pillars of Earth Ken Follett
The Prince of Nothing R. Scott Bakker
Perdido Street Station China Mieville
Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl
The Wasteland T.S. Eliot
The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini
Pi to 5 Million Places
The Blank Slate Steven Pinker
The Dispossessed Ursula K. Le Guin
Guts Chuck Pahlaniuk
Fear and Trembling Søren Kierkegaard
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Ken Kesey
Kafka on the Shore Haruki Murakami
Ulysses James Joyce
Macbeth William Shakespeare
Basic Economics Thomas Sowell
Atheism: The Case Against God George H. Smith
The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway
Sophie’s World Jostein Gaarder
Women Charles Bukowski
Red Mars Kim Stanley Robinson
We Need to Talk About Kevin Lionel Shriver
How We Die Sherwin B. Nuland
Philosophical Investigations Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Singularity is Near Ray Kurzweil
The Day of the Triffids John Wyndham
The Long Walk Stephen King as Richard Bachman
Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy
The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are Alan Watts
The Wheel of Time (series, 15 books) Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson
The Elegant Universe Brian Green
A Suitable Boy Vikram Seth
Book of the New Sun Gene Wolfe
King Lear William Shakespeare
The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell
The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica Apollonius of Rhodes
The Baroque Cycle Neal Stephenson
Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle
Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela
Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov
The Chrysalids John Wyndham
The Occult Colin Wilson
Cosmos Carl Sagan
The Fountainhead Ayn Rand
Hamlet William Shakespeare
The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell
The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
Speaker for the Dead Orson Scott Card
The Fault in Our Stars John Green
The Sirens of Titan Kurt Vonnegut
The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown
The Way of Kings Brandon Sanderson
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky
A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
East of Eden John Steinbeck
A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens
The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo Stieg Larsson
The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner
Alive Piers Paul Read
The Chronicles of Narnia (series, 7 books) C.S. Lewis
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Haruki Murakami
A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L’Engle
The Dresden Files (series, 15 books currently) Jim Butcher
The Shining Stephen King
The Wise Man’s Fear Patrick Rothfuss
Where the Red Fern Grows Wilson Rawls
The Martian Andy Weir
The Lies of Locke Lamora Scott Lynch
No Country for Old Men Cormac McCarthy
Neverwhere Neil Gaiman
The Crying of Lot 49 Thomas Pynchon
Ready Player One Ernest Cline
The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde
As I Lay Dying William Faulkner
Fifty Shades of Grey E.L. James
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K. Le Guin
The Time Traveller’s Wife Audrey Niffeneger
The Devil in the White City Erik Larson
The Ocean at the End of the Lane Neil Gaiman
11/22/63 Stephen King
Great Expectations Charles Dickens
Looking for Alaska John Green
The Man in the High Castle Phillip K. Dick
The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco
Children of the Mind Orson Scott Card
Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
The Once and Future King T.H. White
Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Colour of Magic Terry Pratchett
Anathem Neil Gaiman
The Book Thief Markus Zusak
Salem’s Lot Stephen King
Norwegian Wood Haruki Murakami
The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Wanted Patricia Potter
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
A Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving
1Q84 Haruki Murakami
Stardust Neil Gaiman
All the Pretty Horses Cormac McCarthy
The Night Angel Trilogy Brent Weeks
Night Elie Weisel
Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler Italo Calvino
Under the Dome Stephen King
Old Man’s War John Scalzi
The Trial Franz Kafka

 

Short Story: The Light of Her Phone

This short story was written in response to a prompt on Reddit‘s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit. This particular prompt is an image prompt; I’ve borrowed my title from the title of that post, and the original image is included and linked below. Credit to DeviantArt user TomTC (Tommy Chandra) for the image, and to Redditor /u/Syraphia for the prompt. I’ve posted this story on Reddit in response to the prompt, as well.

I’ve opted to set this story in a larger fantasy world on which I’ve been working. Consequently, there’s a bit at the end that may sound like an infodump; I try to avoid that as much as possible, but as this piece is tied into that larger world, I found it necessary to include some of that linking information here. Still, I hope this story is enjoyable. Thanks for reading!

paranormal_girl__practice__by_tomtc-dbnclwe

Paranormal Girl (practice sketch) by TomTC

It was only when the sun set that she began to worry. Rather, she assumed the sun had set; it was getting dark, but the patches of sky that she could see were hazy and grey, and no glowing orb was visible. At any rate, the trees obscured her view.

Her name was Olive Parker, and she was thirteen years old. She’d been wandering for several hours. She didn’t know how she had come to this rather strange place; she only knew it had happened suddenly. One second she was stepping out her own front door; the next, she felt a strange tugging sensation throughout her body, and suddenly she was here, under these ashy grey trees. That was strange enough, and troublesome—to put it mildly!—but she had recovered quickly enough, and started walking. There were paths through the trees; she had found herself on one upon arriving. Surely they must lead somewhere.

Surely not, it seemed now. For the hundredth time, she pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and checked its GPS. As every time before, it searched the skies for a signal, and then came up blank. NO SATELLITE DETECTED. How could that be? There were always satellites in the sky, right?

She paused and looked around. The woods were dark now, and the light of her cell phone didn’t help her night vision. She pointed it toward the ground. In the dimness around her—there! Was that movement? Yes. Something… it was gone, whatever it was. Nothing too large; maybe a rabbit?

She resumed walking, using the cell phone’s screen to illuminate the ground at her feet. The roots of the trees didn’t seem to encroach on the paths, but one couldn’t be too careful. At the rate she was going, if she tripped, she’d cut herself, and get an infection and die, all before she got out of these woods. Well, that was a morbid thought. Anything, though, to divert her mind from one small but frightening truth:

There hadn’t been any wildlife around during the day.

Something dashed through the undergrowth to her left. She whirled toward it, bringing the phone up, but saw nothing. The light didn’t penetrate far into the trees anyway. She kept walking.

The woods at night were scary enough if vacant. No thirteen-year-old would ever want to admit that, but anyone would feel it. Worry turned to anxiety. She picked up the pace, though she still had no idea where she was going.

A sound brought her up short, and she froze in place. No; two sounds. Something was moving, pacing her, on the left; and something else was to her right—and moving closer.

Olive had reached the end of her endurance. She broke and ran. The light from her phone swung wildly as her arms pumped in counterpoint with her legs. The creatures on either side exploded through the brush, passing her and weaving—were they going to cut her off? She changed directions, darting down a side path to the right, heading downhill now. Ahead, she could see the faint glimmer of water—a pond, maybe? She crashed toward it.

Something huge and dark leaped onto the path ahead of her. She screamed, and darted left; she felt the wind of its massive paw swipe past her face, just missing. She blundered through the undergrowth, branches tearing at her clothes. Another creature appeared before her, all eyes and teeth; she spun to the right and ran toward the pond again, breaking out onto another path.

Ahead she could see the water, and an old wooden jetty that tilted out into the center. Something in the back of her mind registered that the water level was down from its original level; the jetty sat at an odd angle. A few feet from its end was a long, muddy rock that ordinarily (she guessed) would have been underwater. With the jetty, it made a passage across the narrow waist of the pond; she’d be able to run straight across with only a couple of hops.

She broke into the clearing around the pond and raced onto the jetty, feet thumping on the old, rotting wood. She risked a glance back as the two creatures burst out behind her; one was tall and wolfish, with matted fur and freakishly long limbs; the other was stumpy and reptilian, but with abnormally powerful legs and too many teeth and eyes. Both skidded and came up short at the water’s edge; neither seemed willing to risk the jetty, as they split and started around the sides of the pond at a run.

Olive leaped onto the rock, nearly falling into the water. She raced across and leaped onto the opposite bank, and glanced left at the reptilian creature—just in time to see the woods on that side fill with fire, engulfing the creature. The light dazzled her, but she could hear it howling in pain as it caught fire and burned. The source of the flames couldn’t be seen—what could cause that outburst? A flamethrower? Where was this place?! She scrambled up the hill away from the water.

The wolf creature bounded after her—and still there was nowhere to go, no place of safety. She could hear it getting closer, panting and growling. Any second now…

She raised the brightness on the phone screen as high as it would go. If only this one had a flashlight setting… At the last second, she spun and thrust it toward the creature’s face. The sudden brightness stunned it, and it stopped short and yowled in pain, clawing at its face. While it stood there, she turned and ran again. She made a dozen paces before it shook off the pain and came after her.

That trick wouldn’t work again. She wouldn’t get away this time. She could feel it closing the gap: nine paces. Eight. Seven…

Something—no, someone—caught her and shoved her past. She stumbled and nearly fell as the man wrenched the phone from her hand. There was no time to scream; she only managed to look back. She saw the light from the phone blossom in the man’s hand, illuminating his form; he wore a dark cloak with the hood up, but he glanced back just long enough to reveal his face, which was set in determination—but very human. Then her attention jerked back to the phone, for it was growing.

In the man’s hand, the phone expanded, blooming out as new panels unfolded from it. It became a shield of metal, glass, and plastic, pointing toward the onrushing creature. Then, it exploded with light, catching the monster in a beam of sunlike brilliance that spilled out to light the forest all around. The creature yowled and twisted, caught in the light as in a net; and its fur began to smoke. Its thrashings grew more intense; and then, finally, it burst into flames. When the light faded, and the creature’s remains fell to the ground, little remained besides charred bones.

Olive stood, dumbfounded, thinking only that she was glad to be alive. And then, the man turned to her.

“You’ve had a terrible night, haven’t you?” he said.

***

It was never easy to have one’s world expanded—and so much the more, when it was being doubled. The man walked Olive out of the woods, joined along the way by a woman in roughspun clothes, leather boots, and red gauntlets that covered her forearms and hands but left her fingers bare. “I’m Alric,” he explained, “and this is Joanna.” Then they had proceeded to upset everything she knew about the world.

When learning that she had arrived under such mysterious circumstances, Alric had explained that the Earth she knew was only one of two worlds. The forest in which they walked existed in its twin, which he called the Drylands. He explained that the two were very similar, but that some things—like the land around her home, and this forest—didn’t match up exactly. Stranger still, some people—but only from Earth, never from the Drylands—had the ability to pass between the two worlds. “That’s what you’ve done, it seems,” he said.

When Olive asked how they knew to find her, he grew chagrined. “We didn’t,” he said. “That was an accident, though a lucky one. We were on a mission.”

“A mission?”

Joanna took up the story. “We were sent to capture a rogue Zoomancer.”

While Earth produced the magic to travel between worlds, she said, the Drylands produced a different power. The Five Magicks, she said, existed in a scattering of the population, and in different proportions. By far the most common was the power that she herself wielded: Pyromancy, the mastery of fire. It was she who had set the reptilian creature alight; and she had stayed behind afterward to keep the forest from burning. As a result, she hadn’t been on hand to stop the wolf creature. There was Enviromancy, those who could control plant life and the weather; they were still common, but tended to die young, as their powers would spiral upward in strength until they became impossible to control. There were Psychomancers, the rarest form of all; these incredibly rare men and women could control the minds of those around them, and were almost universally to be feared, as their power corrupted them. Then there were Zoomancers, those who controlled and manipulated life. Not as rare as Psychomancers, but far less common that Enviromancers, these mages had the power to change and control living creatures, creating wonders…or abominations. This Zoomancer had gone a bit crazy with power, and had begun to attack the surrounding towns; and so they had been sent to deal with him. He had yet to be caught, but they were close now. It was his creatures that had chased Olive in the forest.

“But what about the fifth magic?” Olive said. “That’s you, isn’t it?” she said to Alric.

He nodded. “My magic is called Technomancy. Not long ago, there were thought to be only four magicks. Technomancy was discovered by a man we call the Engineer; or rather, rediscovered, as it was lost long ago. He taught it to many of us with the aptitude, and we teach others. It is the power to work with machinery; to understand it instinctively, and change it, and use it for our purposes. Like when I took the thing you carry—a telephone, I think it is called?—and changed it into a weapon to burn the abomination.” He smiled. “It’s a good thing you had it in your hand. My powers need something to work with—I can’t create machines from thin air. I expected some machines in the Zoomancer’s stronghold, but I wasn’t expecting to need to carry any on our journey. Without your machine, I would have been left to face the monster with knives only.”

They had reached the edge of the forest; and now they stepped out onto a track of beaten dirt. Above, the clouds had broken, and a nearly-full moon cast a silvery light. “So, what do I do now?” Olive said. “Can you get me home?”

The duo exchanged a look. “No, we can’t,” Joanna said. “If we had the power to travel between the worlds, we could take you home. But, only people born in your world can possess that power.”

“But, you can get yourself there,” Alric said. “This may have been your first time, but the fact that you got here means you have the ability.” He paused. “I don’t know how to walk you through it. I only know you have to intend to go. Perhaps think about it.”

“Like Dorothy,” Olive said. Seeing their blank looks, she added, “The Wizard of Oz? ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like…’ Never mind. Anyway, I’ll try.” She looked at each of them in turn. “Will you stick around until I see if it works?”

“Of course,” Joanna said. Olive nodded, and—thinking it would help her concentration—closed her eyes.

After a moment she looked up. “What if I come back here? What if I can’t help it?”

“Then you’ll be able to go home again,” Alric said. “Each time will make it easier. And if you are here and in need of help, head for the town of Ashdale, in that direction,” he said, pointing down the road. “Anyone there can point you to us, and we’ll help you.”

“But you should try not to come back,” Joanna added soberly. “This world is not a safe place for those who can travel between the worlds. Not now, anyway.” She exchanged a grim look with Alric.

Olive, for her part, let that go; and a moment later, she winked out of existence.

***

“Do you think she’ll listen?” Alric said. “That she’ll stay in her world?”

“No,” Joanna said as they started back into the forest. “They never do, especially when they’re young.”

“And you know this because you’ve met so many travelers?”

“No!” she said. “I mean, only one before this girl. But I hear it’s that way.” She grew serious. “Alric, if she comes back, and is captured, they’ll kill her. You’ve heard the rumors.”

“I know,” he said. “Joanna…we saved her life. We’re responsible for her now. If she comes back… we have to try to protect her. And you know the trouble that might cause.”

“I know.” There was nothing more to say after that; and they each walked alone with their thoughts.

***

Olive arrived, disoriented again, on a bare patch of paved street. It took a moment to get her bearings; and then she realized she was about three miles from home. Her parents would be worried sick…

She stopped in the light of a streetlamp and pulled out her phone. Alric had changed it back so thoroughly that she could almost believe none of it had happened. Still, here it was, nearly midnight… and a quick check of her GPS confirmed her location. She was most definitely back on Earth.

Strange as this excursion was, it was over now. Time to bite the bullet… taking a moment to compose what she hoped would be a believable story about getting lost, she dialed her mother’s number to ask to be picked up. As it rang, by the light of her phone, she started to walk.

Reading Challenge Check-In: September 2017

How’s your reading?

Given that I consider myself a writer, naturally I hope that you consider yourself a reader. After all, here you are, reading this post—and I hope that one day I’ll have books available, which you will also want to read. Reading was a controversial topic in my house, and it can be a controversial topic at large, as well; my parents have always been avid readers, and instilled the habit into their children at a very young age—but at the same time, there was always pressure to “put that damn book down and go out and play!” Eh, well, you can’t win them all, I suppose.

So, let’s check in. How’s it going this year? In my case, I use Goodreads’ Reading Challenge feature each year. In January, you set a reading goal for yourself; throughout the year, as you finish each book, you add it to your read bookshelf, and the site adds it to your total for the challenge. I like the flexibility; I get to set the goal myself. Last year, I set my target at 30 books; but what I found was that I rationalized my time away with this goal, which for me is a little on the low end. I found myself rushing at the end of the year to meet the goal. This year, I thought (and still think) I could do better; and so I raised the goal to 50 books. So far, I’ve read 36. The site is not perfect, and gets the occasional glitch; right now my list is missing one book, but duplicating another, for reasons unknown. You have to ensure that your book includes both a start date and an end date (which you can change manually if necessary), or else it won’t show in your challenge; also, though I haven’t confirmed it, I suspect that the start and end dates must be different.

Books 8

Tracking my reading this way reveals some things about my reading habits. I’m strongly canted toward fiction, as I suspect most people are; I only have two non-fiction books in my list so far, which is unusually low for me. My preferred genres are science-fiction, fantasy, and crime. Thanks to my ongoing review project over at The Time Lord Archives, I have a large number of Doctor Who novels and short story collections in my list (no surprise there). I’m working in more classics; and when I say classics, I mean not only literary classics, but also classics within my preferred genres. I’ve dabbled in horror, action, comedy, and paranormal stories, but stayed away from romance this year (a genre I do occasionally read, but not often). I also tried out a few audiobooks this year, which is mostly a new thing for me.  It’s revealing, and it makes me want to spread out my interests and become a bit more well-rounded.

To that end, I’ll wrap up with a new challenge. Of course we aren’t at the beginning of the year; to which I say this: 1) I will probably repost this and other challenges near the beginning of 2018; 2.) Flexibility is key in any challenge; and 3) you can start anytime you like—52 weeks make a year, regardless of when you start, right? This challenge is designed to stretch your horizons, not simply by changing up the genre of your chosen books, but by changing the sources. What follows is a list of 52 categories (or 51, actually; you can take the last week off as a reward for your perseverance!). You can play in two ways. Easy mode: Every time you finish a book, check off every category that applies to it. Hard mode: Even if a book fits multiple categories, only check off one category per book (for a total of 51 books). If 51 books sounds like too much for you, split the list in half (a book every two weeks) and choose the 26 categories you like most, or make it a two-year challenge. It’s your call! (One last note: To give credit where it’s due, I must say that this list did not originate with me. Credit goes to Redditor /u/tbughi1, and you can read the original listing here.)

Where relevant, I’ve included the books that I’ve read for each category. Feel free to share yours in the comments!

  • 1. Read a book originally published in a language you do not know. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russian)
  • 2. Read a book by an author born in the same country or state as you. Snapshot, by Brandon Sanderson (country, USA; I haven’t read anything by a West Virginian this year.)
  • 3. Read a book from the Horror genre. At The Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft.
  • 4. Read a Romance and/or Erotica book
  • 5. Read a book written before 1950. The Stranger, by Albert Camus (1942).
  • 6. Read a book written by a man. Ringworld, Larry Niven.
  • 7. Read a book written by a woman. Six of Swords, Carole Nelson Douglas.
  • 8. Read a book in the Science Fiction genre. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein.
  • 9. Read a book in the Fantasy genre. Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erickson.
  • 10. Read a book labelled as Young Adult.
  • 11. Read a nonfiction book. The Mind Robber: Black Archive #7 by Andrew Hickey.
  • 12. Read a book with a contemporary setting.
  • 13. Read a book written after 1949. Early Autumn, Robert B. Parker.
  • 14. Read a book published this year
  • 15. Read a popular book, with at least 1 million ratings on any one website. (I’m finding that 1 million is an ambitious number; feel free to scale down if necessary.)
  • 16. Read an unknown book, with no more than 100 ratings on any one website.
  • 17. Read a book that was turned into a movie.
  • 18. Finish a series. The Ringworld Throne, Larry Niven, wrapped up the Ringworld series.
  • 19. Read a History book, fiction or nonfiction. A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (still reading it).
  • 20. Read a short story, one with less than 5,000 words. The Nine Billion Names of God, Arthur C. Clarke.
  • 21. Read a short book, one between 5,000 and 100,000 words. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (89,280 words, according to one site I saw; still reading it).
  • 22. Read a long book, one between 100,000 and 250,000 words. A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (200,00 approximately, best estimate I could find; still reading it).
  • 23. Read an epic book, one with over 250,000 words.
  • 24. Read a self-published book.
  • 25. Read an indie book, where the publisher is a small or niche house and not one of the top 6 publishers. Seasons of War, Declan May, ed. (Chinbeard Books).
  • 26. Read a book published under one of the Big 6 publishing houses. MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, Richard Hooker (Published by William Morrow Paperbacks, which is an imprint of HarperCollins, one of the Big 6. I should note that it’s more correctly the Big 5 now, as Penguin and Random House merged on July 1, 2013.)
  • 27. Read a Biography, whether normal, Auto, or Memoir.
  • 28. Read a book labeled as a Best-Seller from this year.
  • 29. Read a book about Politics and/or Religion.
  • 30. Listen to an Audiobook. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde.
  • 31. Read a book on paper. Doctor Who: Love and War, Paul Cornell.
  • 32. Read a book that was, or currently is, banned by a government. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (previously banned in Ireland and India, challenged often elsewhere).
  • 33. Read a book in the Thriller or Suspense genre. It’s a loose definition of thriller, maybe, but The Four Legendary Kingdoms, Matthew Reilly.
  • 34. Read a Mystery book. What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, Agatha Christie.
  • 35. Read a book labeled as Dystopian.
  • 36. Read a debut book from this year.
  • 37. Read a book by or featuring a character that is LGBT. Looking for Rachel Wallace, Robert B. Parker.
  • 38. Read a book in the Paranormal genre. The Omega Factor, Jack Gerson.
  • 39. Read a book with pictures in it. Popular Crime, Bill James.
  • 40. Read a book for the second time.
  • 41. Read a book that’s been on your to read-list for more than a year.
  • 42. Read a book that features animals.
  • 43. Read a book where the main character goes on a journey. The Eight Doctors, Terrance Dicks.
  • 44. Read a book where a stranger comes to town. Edgedancer, Brandon Sanderson (published as part of Arcanum Unbounded).
  • 45. Read a book labelled as a Satire or Allegory.
  • 46. Read a book from the Self-Help, Health, Travel, or Guide category.
  • 47. Read a collection of poetry.
  • 48. Read the first book in a series. Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, Marc Platt, the Doctor Who New Adventures series. (I had to cheat a little and go back to the last weeks of 2016–I have a few others, but I’ve already listed them).
  • 49. Read a book that won a literary award.
  • 50. Read a book set in your country.
  • 51. Read a book not set in your country, but exists today.
  • 52. Combining all the letters of all the titles of all the books you’ve read this year, complete the alphabet.

 

Happy reading!

Subplots and Sidequests

For some time now I’ve had a writing project stewing on the back burner. It’s a fantasy novel that I hope to make into a series.  Right now, I have the first two chapters complete, plus a basic plot outline, and—most relevant to my topic today—a chunk of the worldbuilding that has to undergird the story if I want to make it a series.  I’ll talk more about this project as it progresses, but that won’t be today; likewise, I’ll talk more on other occasions about worldbuilding and what it entails.

In the meantime, I have a problem. This story, or perhaps series, is trying to expand!  It wants to become a network of related stories, not necessarily in a linear series.  Most likely you’re familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  That shared universe encompasses the movie-based exploits of an A-list of superheroes; the television exploits of the B-list and supporting characters; and even some comic books (which is ironic, as it all started as an adaptation of comic books that are explicitly NOT part of the MCU—isn’t multiverse fiction fun?).  It has a dozen or more character threads weaving in and out from each other, and that’s just the main characters.  It’s a grand project, and for the most part it’s been both ambitious and successful—so much so that Hollywood has collectively decided that this is the wave of the future, and every film you see these days seems to be the seeds of a proposed (and far less likely to succeed) shared universe.  My story would very much like to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe when it grows up—and that’s a problem.

You see, I haven’t earned it. Marvel certainly has; you may call it cheating a bit, but they’ve earned it with decades of “shared universe” comic book stories. Then, they’ve earned it again with the execution of the MCU onscreen.  How did they do it?  I wasn’t around for the beginnings of their comic book empire (though I am old enough to remember when comic books weren’t cool—I was a bit of a comic book nerd back in junior high and high school, at a time when you could very much get beaten up for it).  I do recall the beginning of the MCU, however: they started with just a few central characters—Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, and a little later, Thor.  They put the effort into building those characters long before they put them decisively on a team together.  They gave us substance before they tried to capitalize on its existence.  Every so often, an individual story in the MCU may flop, but when it happens, no one looks at the concept as a whole and says “This is stupid”—because they’ve labored to prove that it isn’t stupid.  It works, even if a minor cog in the machine breaks.

marvel

Pictured: Subplots!!!

Chris Brecheen over at Writing About Writing has spoken extensively about “earning it”, so much so that it’s become a bit of a catchphrase. I’m indebted to him for it, because that phrase sums up something I’d been trying to explain to myself for a long time: you can do anything in your writing as long as you earn it.  When Chris says it, he’s usually talking about reusing established tropes, or breaking one of the “rules” of writing.  Here, I’m going to apply it to the expansion of your story—the subplots and sidequests that we all love to create.

(You might take issue with my use of the MCU as an example. “But,” I hear you say, “the MCU is a collection of major plots, not subplots!” Not so, I reply.  The MCU, as well as any incarnation of the Marvel universe, has room for any plot—but they haven’t opted to INCLUDE just any plot.  Right now, and throughout the next foreseeable phase of the production, they do in fact have an overarching plot, that of the Infinity War.  Everything else is supporting that in some way.  Where it goes after that is anybody’s guess—but for now, EVERY individual character movie and EVERY television series is supporting the Infinity War super-plot.  In essence, it’s subplots everywhere.)

I can’t let my project devolve into subplots that expand the universe, because I haven’t yet earned the right for that universe to even exist. I haven’t finished the first book.  I haven’t yet strung the cord on which the subplots must hang.  Nor do I think that a single book will be sufficient to do so; I expect this to be a series, and so I believe I’ll need multiple entries in place, possibly the entire series, before I can expand on this universe.  Marvel was able to do so from the beginning of the MCU because it had a rich history of comic books—these characters and events were known, at least in a large niche market.  They had a foundation in place.  I don’t have that, and I can’t get by with growing multiple parallel stories at once.  I still have to put in the work on the first one.

“But,” I hear you say again (boy, you’re all so vocal today!), “I’m not trying to write a series! I just want to write one book!” My friend, this is just as applicable to you; and for evidence, I turn to the video gaming world.

I’ve recently been playing Fallout 3 (shut up, I’m never up to date in the gaming world).  It’s a great post-apocalyptic game, with a good, suspenseful plot and a well-developed world.  It even benefits some from its history, being the third canonical game in the series; however I’m going to discount that history for the moment, because this game is the only one so far to take place within its particular setting—other games take place in other parts of the former USA.  I’ve discovered, though, that I get sidetracked from the main plot by the sidequests.    It started small—disarm this bomb in Megaton (a major town)!  Excellent!  Did that within minutes of arriving, got a little achievement trophy.  But what now?  You need me to go find and eliminate the source of these mutated giant ants?  O….kayyy….I’ve got time.  Wait, now what? You want me to go run a simulation of the Battle of Anchorage?!  Well, I guess… Oh, look, here’s an entirely new city to explore and liberate in the ruins of Pittsburgh!  Fantastic!  …Wait, what was I doing again?  Main quest? What main quest?

Fallout 3

Pictured: Sidequests!!!

I get distracted, and then I lose motivation, and then the game never gets finished. Fallout 3 has approximately a million sidequests and achievements, and most are interesting enough to keep you going—but you lose sight of the goal.  The same thing can happen in our writing, even if we’re only writing one volume.  We can include so much that we lose focus.  The readers won’t follow along; and we may not even finish writing it.  There are tricks we can use; an outline, for example, will help us stay on track.  We can better reach the goal if we, you know, know what it is and how we plan to get there.  But, mostly, it takes determination to stay on target.  If you know that introducing this new character or setting will send your story off on some wild, unnecessary tangent, then don’t introduce it.  Save it for when you’ve earned that extra story.  For now, keep earning it by keeping your plot on track.

We’re a lot more forgiving of sidequests and subplots in video games. There are a lot of reasons for that; we’ve come to expect them, for one, and games are so expensive that we feel we have to get our money out of them (by racking up a certain number of hours).  Games are less linear, and tend to have in-game features (such as checkpoints and quest markers) to pull us back on track.  Books have none of those, and as such we have to work harder at trimming out the unnecessary and keeping our stories on track and cohesive.

Does that mean we can never have a subplot or sidequest? Absolutely not! There’s still room for my novella about my principal technomage discovering his own powers two decades before the main story begins.  Just, not yet.  I haven’t earned it yet.  On the way to earning it—or any other sidequest or subplot—we should ask ourselves a few questions.  First, does it distract from the main story? A good subplot or sidequest won’t distract the reader from the main story, even while it may seem to put it on hold.  The main story should still be present in the reader’s mind (and usually this will result in a sense of some urgency to get back to it!).  Second, does it support the main story?  It may not be integral, but it should contribute something to the main story.  Third, why should the reader care?  You still have to earn the reader’s interest via good characterization, good plot, and good writing (which we’ll talk more about in later posts).  Just because your characters are “visiting” this subplot from the main plot, doesn’t mean they will be interesting here!

I’ve given examples from television, film, and video games; let me wrap up with a literary example. Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth fantasy series is the story of the struggle to liberate the magic-wielding New World (a relatively small continent) from invasion and oppression by the much larger Old World, which is led by a cult that wants to see magic eliminated from the world.  It’s the story of Richard Rahl and Kahlan Amnell, the leaders of the New World, in their fight against Jagang, a powerful telepath of sorts who leads the Old World.  Most of the books in the series take place in the New World; but right in the middle of the series, it veers off into a “sidequest” (as I’m calling it) into the Old World, when Richard is kidnapped by one of Jagang’s agents.  She takes him to Jagang’s capital, far from anyplace he knows, and he becomes a slave there.  The events of that story, in which he seeks his own liberation and the ideological liberation of those around him, have little to do directly with the fight for the New World.  However, they pass my three tests above: the presence of agents of Jagang is a constant reminder of the main plot; Richard’s actions here will eventually, several books later, serve to undermine Jagang’s power base (thus supporting the main plot); and the characters and their actions are compelling and emotionally intense.  The result is Faith of the Fallen, which is in my opinion the best and most powerful book in the series—and Goodkind earned every bit of it.

Faith of the Fallen

That’s how it’s done, and that’s how you earn your subplots and sidequests. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some earning to do.

You can find Chris Brecheen and Writing About Writing at the link in the text above, or on Facebook.

Short Story: Chasing Humanity

A few years ago, Big Finish Productions–which produces the many wonderful Doctor Who and other audio dramas I review over at The Time Lord Archives–unexpectedly lost one of its own to illness: Paul Spragg, a man who wore enough hats that just giving him a proper title is all but impossible.  In tribute to him, Big Finish conducts an annual competition in which participants contribute short stories in the classic era of Doctor Who (that is, between the First Doctor and the Eighth Doctor’s appearance in The Night of the Doctor).  The winning entry is then produced as a “Short Trip” audio drama.  (For a great example, you can download last year’s winning entry, Joshua Wanisko’s Forever Fallen, here.)  I didn’t become aware of the contest in time to participate last year; but this year I made a submission, and…

…I didn’t win.  Oh well.  There were hundreds of entries, so that’s no surprise.  Still, I was surprised to have received a response; the contest rules make it clear that there will be no correspondence (unless, of course, you’re the winner).  I’ve jokingly said that it’s the most polite rejection letter I’ve ever received.  There’s some truth to that, though–and as the letter indicated, the story was well received.

At any rate, the winner has not been announced yet, so I can’t shed any light on that.  You’ll find out at the same time I do, if you’re interested in Big Finish’s work (which I highly recommend).  What I can do is post my entry here, for your reading pleasure (I hope!).  I’ve also posted it on The Time Lord Archives.  This Third Doctor story is titled Chasing Humanity, and takes place during season nine of the classic television series, between The Sea Devils and The Mutants.  (I feel I should mention that the Third Doctor was a rare choice among the entries; according to Big Finish, most entries were for the Seventh and Eighth Doctors, with only a scattering of the others.)  For those who keep track of such things, it’s about 5700 words in this draft.

Third Doctor and Jo Grant

Chasing Humanity

It was only a hotel lobby; but from the way the Doctor looked at it, one would think it was a battlefield. His lips were a thin line, and his eyes, though alert as ever, were narrowed. Jo Grant caught the look, and took his arm. “Come on, Doctor, it’s not that bad. At least try to enjoy yourself!” She paused and looked around. “I should think this symposium would be your type of thing. What was it the Brigadier said?” She lowered her voice and assumed a haughty accent. “It’s the peak of military technology at stake here, Doctor! Who better to send than you, my scientific advisor?”

The Doctor arched an eyebrow at her. “Very talented, Jo. You’ve missed your calling; it’s a pity you were born too late for vaudeville.” His scowl deepened, and he started into the room, drawing her in his wake.

Jo sniffed. “Well then. If that’s the way you’re going to be, perhaps the Brigadier was right. He also said that it would do you good to get out and, you know, interact with people. Spend a little less time in the laboratory.”

“The Brigadier employs me specifically for what I do in the laboratory.” He steered her around the worst of the crowd.

“Yes, and that’s exactly why we’re here. You have a lecture to make regarding that work.” Specifically, he was to speak on the progress made in the field of emotional manipulation in the wake of last year’s tragedy at Stangmoor Prison. The lecture was to concern the efficacy of suppression of emotions in battlefield soldiers. However, that was tomorrow night; and Jo wasn’t sure how she was going to make it through the next twenty-four hours with the Doctor.

“Yes, well…” the Doctor muttered. “I suppose we’ll have some dinner, then. Where is Sergeant Benton?”

“He’s checking in with security and discussing the security arrangements for the symposium. Doctor, this is unlike you–you already knew where he was. Won’t you at least try to relax?”

The Doctor, of course, did no such thing. At dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, he became increasingly more dour, and even grew short with the waitstaff. The situation was not helped by an encounter with one nervous waitress; glancing around as she crossed the room, she failed to see the Doctor, and stumbled, dumping a tray of canapes into his lap. Fortunately, there was no great mess; but the Doctor’s unkind glare sent the mortified waitress scurrying back to the kitchens the moment the wreckage was collected.

The Doctor’s mood brightened, however, when they were joined by a short, bearded man in a tweed jacket. “Doctor! So good to see you here! I was quite surprised to see your name on the agenda–care if I join you?”

“Absolutely! Come, sit down!” Suddenly the Doctor was effusive. “Geoffrey, this is my assistant, Miss Jo Grant. Jo, this is Doctor Geoffrey Chambers. Geoffrey is a geologist with Oxford. We met some time ago, when he took a temporary assignment with UNIT in the wake of Project Inferno.”

“Yes, quite interesting, it was,” Chambers said. “I understand that Ms. Shaw has returned to Cambridge since then? A pity; I was hoping to see her here. Ah, well, we can’t have it all, I suppose… Miss Grant, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance! I will say, if you can keep up with this man, you are an extraordinary individual. So tell me, Doctor, what can we look forward to from your presentation?”

***

In the kitchen, the waitress dropped her tray into a dish bin, and ran out the back door to the alley behind the hotel, ignoring the shouts of the head chef. Shaking, she leaned against the wall, catching her breath. That had been a close call; and she began to wonder, not for the first time, if she could really make this work. Humans were never quite what she expected… still, there was little to be done about it, and less in the way of options. She lifted the hem of her blouse, exposing a square, yellow box on a tight belt around her waist. She regarded the box, which had a thin crack across its surface; she made a minute adjustment to a slide switch on the top, and then covered it again. Setting her nerves, she returned to the kitchen.

***

Jo was beginning to think that not even the chatty Doctor Chambers could lift the Doctor’s spirits for long. As dinner progressed, his scowl, and its attendant rudeness, returned; until finally Jo kicked him beneath the table. “Doctor!” she hissed. “Show a little dignity, please!”

The Doctor set down his napkin and pushed back from the table. “Jo, my dear, I am the very image of dignity. It’s this function that is undignified by its very nature!” He stood up. “Geoffrey, it’s been a pleasure, and I hope to catch up with you again during our stay. In the meantime, if you’ll excuse me…”

Whatever Chambers might have said was interrupted by an odd sight: the waitress who had dropped her tray came running out of the kitchen and past their table, heading for the door. “Well,” Jo commented, “at least I’M not the only one having a bad night.”

***

The chef met the waitress as she came in the door. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured, “I don’t know what happened to me out there, but it won’t happen again, I swear.”

“Just see that it doesn’t,” he said. “We are not some diner on the corner, you know. We have a reputation to maintain! I’ll not have you making us all look foolish, and especially in front of these military types. If we weren’t in the middle of this conference, you would be out the door already! Do you understand?”

She nodded and started to walk away. He scowled and grabbed her hand. “Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you! You still have work to do!”

She yanked back her hand. “No, I don’t. It’s six o’clock, and my shift is over. Just leave me alone!” She turned and ran out into the dining room; as the door swung shut, the chef saw her narrowly miss bumping into the same man on whom she had dumped the canapes. Scowling again, he shook his fist in her direction… and then winced. He opened his hand, and saw that the palm was red and covered in blisters. Now, how had that happened?

***

Sergeant Benton was no happier than Jo to share the Doctor’s company; but as the lone representative of UNIT’s armed service, the role of bodyguard fell to him. Not, of course, that there should be a need for a bodyguard here; but UNIT was not in the habit of taking chances. The trio sat in the audience of a lecture on new techniques in small arms production, as near the exit as the Doctor could manage. The Doctor spent the bulk of the lecture muttering irritated remarks about the subject matter, while Benton and Jo exchanged longsuffering looks behind his back. Only when the Doctor’s comments began to draw the attention of others in the audience was Benton able to get him to subside.

“Sergeant Benton, if we must endure this interminable lecture, we should at least be treated to accurate interpretations of the data!” the Doctor insisted, not for the first time. “If I wanted to engage in half-baked theories, I would find a coffee shop and take up the social sciences. This is supposed to be a scientific symposium!”

“Doctor, please,” Benton said, and raised a hand to forestall interruption. “Your mind might be centuries ahead of us mere mortals, but bear with us while we get there. You’ll have your chance tomorrow night, won’t you?” The Doctor gave him a withering look, but Benton pressed on. “People are starting to stare. The Brigadier won’t be happy with me if I let you get yourself ejected from a seminar. So, please, settle down and just… be in the audience, alright?”

The Doctor drew in a long breath, gave a half-hearted smile, and then nodded. “You’re right, Sergeant, of course. I will attempt to…rein in my temper. Such as it–” He stopped, and cocked his head. “Hmm?”

“What?” Jo spoke up from his other side.

“Shh.” He raised a finger. “Listen.”

Behind them, two security guards stood at the door, one to each side. Over the low drone of the lecture, voices could be heard from their walkie-talkies. “There’s something going on in the kitchens,” Benton murmured for Jo’s benefit. “They’re being cautious about what they say, but it sounds serious.” At that moment, one of the guards turned and rushed out the door.

“Well,” Jo said, “I hope everything will be alri–oh, no,” she said. Benton pulled his gaze back from the door, and saw what Jo was seeing: a speculative look of interest on the Doctor’s face. “No, Doctor! It’s not our problem!”

“Jo is right, Doctor,” Benton said. “Let security handle it, whatever it is.”

“Handle what?” the Doctor said. “I, for one,” he said, standing up, “could do with a bit of refreshment. Care to join me?” He pushed past Jo and strode out the door. Jo and Benton exchanged looks of resignation, and followed.

***

A circle of the conference’s security guards stood near the ovens in the kitchen. A second circle–more of an arc, really–surrounded them, composed of the kitchen staff, and a third arc –the wait staff– stood near the opposite walls. The atmosphere was one of confusion, dismay, and distress. The Doctor strode in as though he owned the place, cape flaring dramatically, and slipped deftly through the outer arcs to the inner circle. “Gentleman,” he said, “what do we know so far?”

As one, the guards looked at him incredulously; and then something curious happened, something which Jo was coming to regard as standard procedure for the Doctor: as one, they nodded, and began to explain. She had seen this happen on several occasions, and it never ceased to amaze her; the Doctor would step into a situation armed with nothing but an air of confidence, and people simply… accepted him, as though he belonged there. It was not new, but it remained exceptional.

One guard took the lead. “This is,” he said, gesturing down at the body on the floor, “or rather, it was, the head chef, a Mister Richard Farley. He was perfectly fine, as far as anyone can tell, right up to the moment he fell out on this spot. No one saw anything, and nothing strange has been reported. One of the other chefs made some attempt to revive him, but there was nothing to be done.”

“A heart attack?” Jo suggested.

The guard was about to answer, but the Doctor beat him to it. “No, I don’t think so.” He knelt down and turned the body over.

Jo gave an involuntary gasp. “But… he’s… he’s burned!” Every visible inch of skin was covered in mottled red burns.

“Yes,” the Doctor murmured. “Third degree burns, at that. But there’s something curious about it. Sergeant, what do you notice about this man’s condition?”

Benton knelt down beside him to examine the body. He frowned at the extent of the damage– and then his eyes widened. “His clothes aren’t charred. These burns are fresh, and some of them have to have bled, but–”

“Yes,” the Doctor agreed. “If he had these burns prior to his shift, well, he wouldn’t be here. And he wasn’t dressed after the burns, either; if he had been, there would be much more in the way of bloodstains. No, he was wearing these clothes when it happened– but they aren’t burned at all.” He straightened and returned to the guard. “And you say that no one saw this happen?”

“That’s right,” the guard said. “He’d been working, giving orders, just like always; and then suddenly, he was dead on the floor.” He shrugged. “We assumed it was an equipment accident.”

“An equipment–” Benton began, and then stopped. “There’s no way that this could have been the result of any of the equipment in this kitchen.”

“Then what do you think it was?” the guard said. His tone had gone cool. “Listen, this hotel is full of representatives from every military and scientific establishment in Europe. We will not allow any kind of scandal to interrupt the conference. In a few days, we can go back and revisit the situation, but for now, this is an accident. And that is what we’re going to tell the police when they arrive.”

The Doctor gave him an even stare. “I see.” At that moment a commotion could be heard in the lobby. “Well, then, we’ll leave you to it. It sounds like they’re arriving now. Jo, Sergeant, come along.” He turned and strode out through the dining room, carefully taking the entrance furthest from the incoming policemen.

“Are we just going to let it go?” Jo said, tugging him to a halt in the corridor. “Doctor! You know that was no accident!”

“Of course it wasn’t,” the Doctor agreed. “The question is, what was it?”

“Well…” She faltered. “I don’t know. But you have an idea, don’t you?”

“Not yet,” he said. “But there is a detail we’ve overlooked. Or rather, we didn’t have time to address it. Come and see.” He led them back toward the dining room, stopping in the doorway. From here, there was a clear view into the section of kitchen where the waitstaff still stood, now gathered in a huddle. “Look at them. Do you notice anything strange about them?”

Jo got it this time. “They’re all red in the face! Like they were–”

“Sunburned, yes,” the Doctor said. “But it’s late, and the sun has been down for a few hours. And why would all of the staff, who don’t come and go together, have the same burns? Except, of course, for the head chef, who certainly got the worst of it. No,” the Doctor declared, “there’s more at work here, and I want to know what it is.”

***

The next morning’s breakfast brought no answers; but it provided more questions. “The kitchen staff is short this morning,” Jo said as she joined the Doctor and Benton at the table. “Four workers called in. Doctor, what do you make of that?”

“I’m not ready to make assumptions yet,” the Doctor replied. “Though I suspect–”

“Doctor,” Benton interrupted. “People get sick all the time. Maybe it’s a virus. We should probably wash our hands once in awhile, but I don’t see how this could connect to what happened last night. Or even more likely, they just called in because of the trauma.” He glanced at Jo, who shrugged.

“It makes sense to me,” she said. “Though I trust the Doctor’s hunches, when he has them.”

“Well, it’s not going to matter this morning,” Benton said before the Doctor could recover the conversation. “Doctor, you’re due to participate in a panel discussion in ten minutes. Look, I know you aren’t happy about it, but the Brigadier said–”

“No, no, it’s quite alright,” the Doctor said. “I’m looking forward to it, actually. Besides, the tedium will give me time to mull over our situation.” He smiled at them, and got up and left the table.

“Was that sarcasm?” Benton said. “Or was he being serious?”

Jo tossed her napkin onto the table. “Oh, who can tell with him?”

***

An hour into the panel discussion, Jo struggled to stay awake. She found these events more difficult than the lectures; at least those gave interesting new information. This was just debate, and she could get her fill of that in the UNIT offices. The Doctor seemed to be enjoying his part; but here in the audience, the heat and the droning were making her drowsy. Finally, she whispered to Benton and excused herself, and headed for the washroom to freshen up.

***

In the kitchen, the waitress’s hands shook as she listened to her coworkers talking about the death of the head chef. It simply wasn’t going to work, she feared. If the local authorities turned their investigative eyes on this place, soon enough they would begin to look into the staff, and then… well, her cover was good enough to get her the job, but she doubted it would stand up to real scrutiny. Perhaps it was time to move on.

The problem was that she would need a new form. It would be best to change now, before slipping out of the hotel; if anyone saw one of the staff leaving when she should be working, they might become suspicious, and she wanted no trail to lead to her. She might not have committed a crime, but she certainly would be a person of interest. That presented a problem, however; it had taken her weeks to prepare this form, using composite features from several individuals. There was no time for that now; she would have to simply copy someone. Well, there was no time like the present–even her world had that cliché–and so she excused herself and headed to the washroom.

***

The washroom door opened as Jo reached for it on her way out. “Oh, sorry,” she said, “I didn’t see you there–” The rest of her words were cut off. The door closed on the sounds of a brief struggle, and then there was silence.

***

Doctor Geoffrey Chambers stepped out of a conference room and into the lobby. If only there had been time to say goodbye to his friend, the Doctor…ah, but here was an answer! “Oh, Miss Grant, it’s so good to see you!” he called out, and stopped the young woman with a touch. She gave him a glance that, had he noticed it, would have been taken as bewilderment; but she stopped. He paid no mind, and kept talking. “I was hoping to say goodbye to the Doctor, but I see from the schedule that he’s occupied at the moment. I wonder if you could convey my greetings to him? You see, I have to leave early– my daughter is, well, expecting– I received a call that the baby is on the way… she’ll be expecting me at the hospital eventually, you see–”

The young woman was caught off guard by the torrent of speech, but she managed a nod. “I’ll– I’ll let him know, yes.”

He gave her an effusive smile, and then unexpectedly embraced her. “Splendid!” Abruptly, he realized what he was doing, and pulled back. “Oh… er… well, you must forgive me and my scattered brain today. It’s been quite the pleasure to meet you, Miss Grant! Do take care of the Doctor, please. Ah, if you’ll excuse me, I must gather my things.” He turned and made his way to the elevators.

Jo gave the man a final, long look, and then turned to complete her own exit. She made it ten paces before she was interrupted again, this time by the Doctor and Benton as they exited the panel discussion. “Ah, Jo, there you are!” Benton said. “Ready for lunch?”

“Lunch? Oh… I, ah…” she stammered, but the Doctor took her arm. “Oh, well, that won’t be… necessary…” she trailed off as he started toward the dining room.

“Nonsense, Jo,” he said, “we’ll all do better with a good meal. And then we can begin to look into last night’s events.” At his side, Jo stiffened, but he didn’t seem to notice. She glanced away, but Benton was on her other side. There was nothing for it but to go along.

Jo said little during the meal, and only picked at her food. Finally the Doctor stood up, and Benton followed suit; Jo did likewise. At the door of the dining room, the Doctor stopped her. “Jo, are you feeling alright? You look unwell.”

A way out! Suppressing a smile of relief, Jo glanced up at him and quickly shook her head. “I– I think I’d better go lie down. Headache,” she added by way of apology.

“Oh, alright,” Benton said, “We’ll take a look around and try to piece together what we can about last night–” Jo gave him a startled look before she could stop herself–”but first, we’ll walk you to your room. Right, Doctor?”

“Oh, no, that won’t be–”

“Absolutely, Sergeant!” the Doctor overrode her. “Truth be told, Jo, I must admit I was rather rude to you last night. If you’ll allow me, I’ll make it up to you in courtesy now.” He was already starting toward the elevators. Irritated, she followed, with Benton bringing up the rear.

***

The Doctor and Benton saw Jo into her room, and heard the lock click before turning away. “She’s acting odd, isn’t she?” Benton said as they made their way down the hall.

“Quite. But she isn’t the only one acting strangely in this hotel… nevertheless, she should feel better after a nap.” They rounded the corner toward the elevators. “I would think– eh, what’s this?”

Ahead, a small crowd consisting of the concierge, two security guards, and a housekeeper had gathered around an open door. A third guard poked his head out of the doorway as the Doctor and Benton approached. “Call for a doctor!” he instructed the concierge.

“I’m a doctor,” the Doctor interjected as they reached the crowd. “What’s going on?” The concierge gave him an odd look–too much good fortune, perhaps, that a doctor would already be on hand–but he allowed them in. “The front desk received a call from this room, asking for help,” he said. “He sounded as though he was in pain.”

“Indeed he was,” the Doctor said as he knelt. There, on the floor, lay Doctor Geoffrey Chambers, who was covered head to foot in severe burns, burns which left his suit and tie untouched. Unlike the unfortunate head chef, he was still breathing.

“Geoffrey,” the Doctor said gently, then more forcefully: “Doctor Chambers! Can you hear me?”

Chambers’ eyes opened, revealing bloodshot whites and darting irises. “D-Doctor? Is that you? Oh, what’s happened to me?”

“Lie still, Geoffrey. We’ll get an ambulance.” He motioned to the concierge, who nodded and went for the room phone. “Geoffrey, I need you to tell me what happened to you. How did you get these burns?”

“They… they just… erupted, all over me. Very quick. So… painful. Doctor, I… I’m dying. And my… grandchild… I won’t see…”

The man was slipping away. “Geoffrey,” the Doctor said, “who have you seen in the last hour? Who did you see last?”

Chambers looked puzzled. “Why… the last… it was your lovely assistant, Miss… Miss Grant.” He exhaled then, a final breath that lasted too long, and was gone.

The Doctor exchanged a dark look with Benton. “The ambulance can see to Doctor Chambers. Sergeant, I think we’d better get back to Jo. Come on!” They leaped to their feet and ran from the room, leaving the startled staff behind.

“What’s going on, Doctor?” Benton said as they ran. “And why Jo?”

“Because,” the Doctor said as they reached Jo’s door, “I fear Miss Grant is not herself at the moment. Listen, I don’t have time to explain it now; we’ll save it for later.” He pulled a short, silver rod–his sonic screwdriver–from his pocket, and aimed its circular head at the door. The screwdriver buzzed, and the lock clicked open. Benton threw the door open, and they burst inside.

Jo was nowhere to be seen. The window on the far side of the room stood open, curtains blowing in the breeze from the alley below. They ran to the window and leaned out. Two window ledges over, a fire escape snaked down the back of the building; Jo Grant was making her way down the iron stairs. Already she was nearly at the bottom. “Sergeant Benton,” the Doctor said, “go downstairs and find Jo, the real Jo. If I’m right, you’ll find her somewhere in the building, unconscious. I’ll retrieve the imposter. Go!” Not waiting for an answer, he climbed out the window.

***

Benton searched the lower floors with military efficiency. Storerooms, offices, conference rooms, lecture hall– all proved empty. He stopped by the front desk, fists on his hips, and looked around, pondering. If she was nowhere to be found down here, that meant searching the guest rooms… which would take time and manpower that he didn’t have. There had to be something he’d overlooked.

A thought occurred to him. Deliberately, he set aside his own thoughts, and tried to put himself in Jo’s shoes. She had to have been taken during the panel discussion, when she left the room… where would she have gone? When he realized the obvious answer, he kicked himself, and then turned and ran for the ladies’ room. Fifteen seconds later, in a locked stall at the back, he found a very disgruntled Jo Grant, wearing a waitress uniform and just beginning to awaken. Her face, he noticed, was red with what appeared to be a sunburn.

***

By the time the Doctor reached the bottom of the fire escape, the woman who wore Jo’s face had reached the open end of the alley. He pounded after her, calling out Jo’s name– for he didn’t know what else to call her– but to no avail. She gave him a single look, and turned left onto the crowded sidewalk.

He was in better shape than his appearance would suggest, and he narrowed the gap; but it wasn’t going to be enough. Soon she would reach a more crowded public plaza ahead, and there he would lose her. He poured on as much speed as he could muster– and then skidded to a halt. Just ahead of her, a fire hydrant stood on the sidewalk. It was a dirty trick, perhaps, but any port in a storm…

At the carefully-aimed buzzing of the sonic screwdriver, the cap popped off of the hydrant; and then, as the woman passed, the valve spun. A torrent of water knocked her from her feet, leaving her dazed in the street.

The Doctor caught up as she began to pick herself up. He shut off the water, and turned his attention to her… and saw that ripples were spreading across her skin, like waves in a pond. “Careful now,” he said, “let me help you.” He pulled off his cape and draped it over her, careful not to touch her directly, and then helped her to her feet. “Come on, let’s get you back to the hotel.”

“No!” She started to pull away, but his grip on her arm through the cape stopped her.

“My dear,” he said, “I assure you I am not trying to harm you–but in a matter of moments, everyone on this street will see you in your true form. I can’t say I know what that will be, but I suggest you may want to prevent that outcome. If you’ll come with me, I can help you.”

She looked as though she still intended to bolt– until another ripple ran across her form. Finally she nodded, and started walking with him.

***

The ripples were coming faster as the Doctor and the woman entered the lobby. Benton and Jo waited in chairs near the dining room; they leaped to their feet as the bedraggled duo entered. “Doctor!” Jo shouted. “What– What’s going on here? Who is she?”

“Patience, Jo, we haven’t time to talk just yet. If the two of you will come with me…” Still leading the soaked imposter, he escorted them into the kitchen, and quickly sent the staff out. “A minute or two, that’s all I need,” he said, “and you can all get back to work.”

When they were alone, the Doctor stepped back from the woman. “Jo, Sergeant Benton, allow me to introduce Lorana Sitel, of the Charidzi people. Lorana, you should turn it off now, I think. You’re safe here.” The woman nodded, and reached to a box hanging from her– or rather, Jo’s– belt. Her form rippled again, and changed, flowing like water from head to foot. Where a perfect duplicate of Jo Grant had stood, there was now a much taller figure, taller than Benton or the Doctor, slender and willowy, with a high forehead and a bald skull. Her skin glinted in shades of blue and silver, and– most strikingly– she had four eyes, two on each side of her face, each pair aligned vertically. Her fingers were long and bore more joints than human fingers, but had no nails. She still wore Jo’s clothes, but ill-fittingly on her long frame.

“A… shapeshifter?” Benton murmured.

“Quite. Lorana, would you care to explain why you’re here on Earth? If it isn’t too painful, please,” he added gently.

She nodded. “My planet is a lot like your Earth. We have some technology that exceeds yours, but culturally, we’re not that different.” Her voice–which was similar to that she had used in her waitress form, but with a reedy lilt–became wistful. “I am nothing special. On my planet, I was perfectly happy. I was… what would you call it… a travel agent? I arranged holidays for people. I had a husband, and two children. My life was quiet.” She paused. “And then, my family were lost. They were coming to visit me for a meal one day while I worked, and their vehicle lost control and struck another. The other driver survived… my family did not. I was suddenly alone.”

“The Charidzi,” the Doctor said, “have an empathic power. They sense the emotions of others. It’s not as invasive as telepathy, but it can still be overwhelming at times. It may sound strange, but as a result, sympathy is not a strong trait for the Charidzi. After all, it’s hard to be sympathetic when you feel every pain, every awkwardness, every moment of judgment.”

“I couldn’t take it,” Lorana said. “I couldn’t stand watching them all look at me, and feel the things they were feeling, and not be able to stop it. So, I left. I scheduled a trip for myself, to several planets. And when I reached yours, I decided it would be a good place to disappear.”

“But, what about the deaths?” Jo said.

“The Charidzi are not biological shapeshifters,” the Doctor said. “It is not a natural ability, but a technological one. It takes advantages of some unique genetic traits, and allows them to change form.” He indicated the device Lorana still held. “The power source of that device emits an unusual form of radiation, which also is found in the light of the Charidzi sun. The Charidzi are quite immune to its effects; their bodies soak it up without harm. Humans are not so fortunate. And as you can see, Lorana’s device is damaged. She was not aware of the risk, of course; it’s quite harmless to her Charidzi DNA, even in human form. Unfortunately, she’s been emitting a low dose of radiation to everyone around her.”

“The sunburned faces,” Jo said.

“Yes, Jo, including your own. But this type of radiation can be communicated through touch, as well, assuming the one doing the touching has absorbed enough of it. Lorana, I am going to guess that you touched the head chef last night, didn’t you?”

“He touched me,” she said. “He grabbed my hand after I dropped my tray on you. I’m… I’m sorry about that.”

“No matter there,” the Doctor said. “Unfortunately you had no way to know what would happen to him. Nor did you know what would happen to Professor Chambers. I am going to guess that he accosted you when you were trying to get away. And the reason you were fleeing is because you feared suspicion in the wake of the first death. Am I right so far?” She nodded.

“I didn’t know,” she murmured. “I never meant to hurt anyone. I came here to not be hurt. When I’m in human form, my empathic sense is dulled. It seemed safe.”

“And so it is.” The Doctor straightened. “The question, though, is what to do with you now? We can’t have you running around exposing people to radiation. As it turns out, I too am not of this world; and I imagine my people could get you home. But that would be to return you to veritable torture. A dilemma, eh?”

“Doctor,” Jo said. “There could be another way.”

***

Jo and Benton sat in the audience, listening to the Doctor’s lecture. “What do you think, Jo?” Benton said quietly. “Did we make the right choice? More importantly, I suppose: Did Lorana?”

Jo gave it a moment’s thought. “I think she did. And I think we did too.”

“Well,” Benton said, “now that the Doctor repaired her transformation device, she won’t have to worry about hurting anyone. On the other hand, I suppose she’ll have to learn to be human.”

“Well, she was already on her way to that,” Jo said. “Besides, that’s not such a bad goal, is it? To be human?”

“Not at all.” Benton pointed to the stage. “When do you think our resident alien will understand that?”

“Sergeant Benton,” Jo said, “if there is one thing the Doctor will never be, it is human.” She said it with a smile, though.

Onstage, the Doctor was beginning to wrap up his presentation. “While the research indicates that full emotional suppression is possible,” he said, “I feel obligated to recommend against its use, in soldiers, or in any other profession. In addition to the long-term risks that I’ve already noted, I’ll simply say in conclusion that emotions are a vital part of what makes a person human. Of course too much, in the wrong place and time, can be a hazard–as some of you may well know.” For a moment, he caught Jo’s eye. “We must of course have every aspect of ourselves in its proper context. But, regardless of the effect on our performance, to eliminate our emotions would make us something less than we are– and far less than what we should be.”

In the audience, Jo turned to Benton with a smile. “Maybe,” she said, “he’s learning something after all.”

Third Doctor party

Short Story: Of Conversations and Consequences; or, How Buster and Rachel Reached an Accommodation

I know, I know; nothing for five months, and then two posts in one afternoon?! Preposterous!  Well, it wasn’t planned that way.  In the course of cleaning up some pages today, I discovered that one story was supposed to be posted months ago, but somehow never made it to the blog.  Can’t let that stand; and so, rounding out my Buster and Marley trilogy of short stories, I give you Of Conversations and Consequences; or, How Buster and Rachel Reached an Accommodation. (You can read the previous entries here and here, and see Buster’s first appearance, sans Marley, here.)

 

“…And, bazinga! Cookies, caught!” Marley said as she scooped up the package of Oreos from the floor.  Buster, the golden retriever, leaped down from the kitchen chair that was situated against the counter, and sniffed the package, inhaling chocolate goodness.  “Buster,” Marley said as she plopped her three-year-old body on the floor, “we have this down to an art.  We make a great team.”  She handed the dog a cookie, and he wolfed it down.

“What,” he said between bites, “do you mean, we?  I’m the one doing all the—“

“Ah-HA!” Dog and toddler froze at the same time.  “Caught you!”  Marley’s mother, Rachel, strode into the room and grabbed the pack of cookies.  “Did you two really think you were going to get away with this again?”

“Be cool,” Marley whispered to the dog, “she only knows about the cookies, I think—“

“I knew this dog could talk!” Rachel announced.

“Busted,” the dog said, and gave the doggie version of a shrug.

***

Rachel sat in the kitchen chair, elbows on knees, looking down at the dog. Buster, for his part, managed to look sheepish.  Marley, much to her indignation, was two rooms away in the living room, behind a baby gate.  Rachel could hear her harrumphing loudly every few seconds.

“Alright, talk,” she said to Buster. “It’s no use acting like you don’t know how.  I’ve caught you doing it more than once.”

“And I was counting on you fainting every time,” Buster muttered.

“Hey! That was just once.  Give me some credit!”

“Twice,” Buster corrected.

“Hey—alright, fine, twice. I can’t believe I’m arguing with a dog.”  She shook her head.  “Well, go on!”

“What would you like me to say?”

She sputtered a bit. “W-well,” she said, “explain!  Explain you!  Where did you come from, how did you learn to talk, why are you different?!”

“And why,” Buster said, raising his head, “would you assume I’m different?”

“Because you are! I never heard another dog talk before.”

He gave her an even stare. “Did you ever try listening before?”

She stared back, and laughed. “This is crazy. I must be crazy.  Dogs don’t talk!”  She paused.  “Except you, obviously.”

“Well,” Buster observed, “maybe you humans just aren’t good conversationalists. “

“Oh, really?”

“Really. Or maybe we know what kind of reaction we’ll get.  You know, my last owner tried to take me to the pound when he heard me.  And it was completely unfair; all I did was try to help him out.  Poor guy couldn’t handle it.”

She sighed. “I know how he felt.”

Buster made his doggy shrug again. “Can’t be helped, I suppose.  So what are you going to do?  You know, we could just carry on as we have.  It’s a good deal—you get a dog, I get a home, Marley gets a companion—“

“And that’s another thing!” she interrupted. “You talked to Marley, but not to me?  How can a three-year-old possibly be better conversation than an adult?  Or for that matter, how can a three-year-old keep a secret like this?!”

“I can hear you!” Marley yelled, her little voice full of indignation.  Rachel ignored her.

“Well,” Buster retorted, “maybe I’m not the only one getting misjudged around here. That little girl is a smart cookie.  And we all know how good cookies are,” he reflected.

Rachel sat for a long moment, staring at him; then she threw her hands up. “Okay, this is silly. You’re a talking dog.  You’re some kind of scientific wonder or something.  I should turn you over to some government lab or something.  They’d probably even pay me for it!”  She jumped up and moved to the kitchen table, where a laptop computer sat.

Buster stood up, alarmed. “Uh…wait, you don’t really wanna…well, haven’t you ever seen E.T.?!  You know what the government does with things it doesn’t understand, right?  Hold on a minute!”

“Can’t hear you, I’m Googling!” she announced from behind the screen.

Buster gave her another look, then ran into the dining room. Marley lay sprawled melodramatically on the floor on the other side of the baby gate at the far end of the room.  “Marley!  Get up!”

Marley turned her head without sitting up, and arched an eyebrow at him. “Oh, well, if it isn’t my old friend Buster.  Buster the betrayer!  Talking to my mom without me!”  She turned her head away.

“Marley, don’t be silly. I didn’t have a choice, I’m just as much the victim here as you are!”  She ignored him.  “Alright, look, I’m sorry, but we have a problem!  Your mom wants to send me off to some lab somewhere!  You have to help me!”

“Oh, sure!” she declared.  “Just run off to some nice lab without me, where you can eat all the cookies by yourself!  Never mind me, your best friend, sitting here alone with no dog and no cookies!  I see how it is!”

Marley!” he said.  “It’s not a good thing!  If I go, I’ll never see you again, and there won’t be any cookies, either!  You have to help me!”

Finally, that got her attention. She rolled over again, sat up, and gave him a considering look.  “No cookies?” she said at last.

“No cookies,” he said, putting as much solemnity as possible into his voice.

“That’s not fair! We have to stop her!”  She climbed to her feet.  “But how?”

“I…um…hmm. I don’t know…oh, why does opportunity never knock when you need it?”  He was interrupted by a two-note ringing.

“Sometimes it rings the doorbell?” Marley said, and the dog barked a laugh.

“I’m coming!” Rachel called out from the kitchen. She passed by the dining room on her way to the front door, and the duo heard it click open.  “Hi, can I help you?”

Buster listened a moment to the conversation that followed. “Sounds like a door-to-door salesman.”

“Is that a thing?” Marley said.

“It used to be. Apparently in this fictional universe it still is,” Buster remarked.

“What?”

“Nothing.   Something something fourth wall.  He sounds pushy.”  It was true; the salesman seemed to be building up a head of steam, and Rachel seemed to be having difficulty getting rid of him.

“Is he selling brushes? That’s a cliché,” Marley declared.

“Yes it is. Hey, we can use this!  Step back.”  Marley moved out of the way, and Buster jumped the gate in a single, neat leap.  “Okay, first I need you to get me out the back door.  Can you do that?”

Marley nodded, and ran to the door. “If mom knew I could do this, she’d be mad,’ she announced; then, nimbly, she twisted the lock switch on the door, grabbed the knob, and pulled the door open.  “Okay, what now?”

“Just don’t let me get locked out. And when the salesman stops talking, you make a distraction in here.”

“How?”

“I don’t know…break something!”

She put her hands on her hips. “Buster…I like the way you think.”

“Not surprising. You like plans that might involve getting injured.  Remember jumping out of the swing and onto me?  Anyway.  Be ready!”  He darted out the door.

***

“Oh, no, I really don’t need—“ Rachel was trying to say, but the salesman wasn’t giving her an opportunity.

“That’s the problem with these situations,” he interrupted, “you never know when the need will arise. It’s better to be prepared than to be caught off guard, isn’t that right?”  She had that weary look that told him she was almost ready; he prepared to close the deal. “So how about—“

“Hey!” a voice yelled from the direction of the street. “You kids get away from that car!  I mean it!”  The salesman spun around, searching for the voice, but saw only a golden retriever in the yard, facing toward his car.  Looking over his shoulder, Rachel’s eyes widened.

“That’s right!” the voice shouted again. “Oh, you think you were smart, hiding on the street side.  But you get caught letting the air out of those tires, and you’ll be sorry!  You better run!”

Alarmed, the salesman turned back to Rachel. “Ah, excuse me just a minute.  I need to check on that…I’ll be right back.”

At that moment, there was a crash from the living room, and the sound of glass breaking. Rachel’s head whipped around.  “Marley!” She turned back.  “Maybe another time.  I need to go check on my daughter.  That sounded…not good.”  Abruptly she slammed the door; the salesman heard the lock click into place.  Without any time to think about it further, the salesman turned and ran for his car.  In his haste, he didn’t notice that the dog had gone.

***

“I can’t believe you two set this up,” Rachel muttered, still pacing in the living room. The broken vase had been cleared away; now Buster and Marley sat on the floor in front of her in equally contrite poses.  Rachel stopped pacing abruptly and looked down at them.  “Couldn’t you have made a plan that didn’t involve breaking things?”

“We didn’t have much to work with,” Buster replied. “Or much time.”

“We saved you, Mom!” Marley announced.

Rachel broke into a grin, and scooped the child up into a hug. “Yes, you did, baby.  You saved me from wasting a lot of money on something pretty dumb.  Thank you.”  Then she eyed Buster.  “And you,” she said.  “I guess I owe you some thanks, too.”

“Well,” he said, “about that…you could let me stay here.  I would accept that form of gratitude with no questions asked.”

She set Marley down, and sat down on the sofa. “No, I…I don’t think so.  You’re a talking dog!  How weird is that?”

“Only as weird as you want it to be. I don’t talk to just anyone, you know. “

“But—“

“After all,” he interrupted, “we’ve done just fine so far, haven’t we?”

She gave it a moment’s thought. “I suppose we have.”

“Please, Mom?” Marley said from the floor.

She glanced from one to the other, then back. “Alright! Alright!  I can resist one set of puppy-dog eyes, but not two.  Buster, you can stay.”  Marley clapped, and the dog dipped his head in acknowledgment.  “But!  No getting anyone in trouble.  If people found out about this, I wouldn’t be able to stop something bad from happening.  Got it?”

“Absolutely,” the dog declared. “I know where the boundaries are.”

“Then it’s agreed. “ She stood up to leave the room.  “Well, I need to make dinner.  Try to behave.”

As soon as Rachel’s back was turned, Marley dug into her pocket. “We should celebrate!”  She pulled out two Oreos, confiscated from the pack earlier.  She stuck one in her mouth, and held the other out to Buster…only to have it snatched away.

“And just because you think I don’t see it,” Rachel announced, “doesn’t mean I don’t know about all those cookies you keep stealing! Chocolate is bad for dogs.  Have this instead.”  She dropped a dog biscuit on the floor.  Buster gave her an indignant look, sighed, and flopped down to gnaw on the biscuit.

“I think I liked it better before she knew,” he grumbled.

“Can’t win ‘em all,” Marley said, and took another bite of her cookie.

Short Story: Performance Review

Lately I’ve been giving the lion’s share of my time and energy to the Time Lord Archives, my Doctor Who-themed blog.  As a result, things have been looking pretty dead around here this year, and that’s unfortunate.  Still, I haven’t forgotten this blog or those who follow it; and so, here’s a new short story.  This story, Performance Review, comes courtesy of a writing prompt from Reddit’s /r/WritingPrompts subreddit (although I haven’t posted the story there–it’s exclusively here for now!).  The prompt in question, submitted by user Mistah_Blue, reads: “It’s common knowledge that lab accidents sometimes result in superpowers.  You’re repeatedly trying to engineer lab accidents in order to gain them. Much to your disappointment however, all your accidents just result in monumental scientific discoveries.”  Happy reading!

Superhero

Artist unknown.  Picture borrowed without permission from the website of consulting firm Travois.

 

“John,” the man in the lab coat and tie said, “you know why I’ve called you here, don’t you?”

The man across the desk was younger by a good fifteen years, and his lab coat was considerably more rumpled. He slumped in his chair and gave a half-hearted nod.  “Yessir, Dr. Corbin.  My performance review.”

The older gave him an impassive look, and then glanced down at the floor beside his chair. “That’s right…the dreaded annual review!  Now, don’t be intimidated.” From the floor, he picked up an absurdly large and overstuffed file folder, and set it on the desk.  It made a disconcerting thump, and John jumped in his chair a little.  “Let’s get started, shall we?” He opened the file and perused the top page.  “Now you joined us last year—well, of course—from one of our subsidiary internship programs.  Very high marks, as I recall.  But you’ve, ah, had an eventful year! Why don’t you tell me a little about it?”

John remained sullen and silent. After a moment, Dr. Corbin looked back down at the file, then back up.  “John, I want you to understand that I’m not here to make you nervous.  Your work here isn’t in jeopardy—in fact, your performance has been spectacular beyond anyone’s expectations.  It’s remarkable, really.  You have nothing to worry about.”  He paused and pushed his glasses up on his nose.  “What I want to talk about is how this happened.  Your review is excellent, so we can get that out of the way.  I really want to hear your take on your experiences here.  Fair enough?”

John nodded again, and finally looked up. “What do you want to know?”

That seemed to be the cue for which Corbin was waiting. He flipped a few pages in the folder, and then planted his index finger on an entry.  “Well, alright.  Let’s start with the fusion incident.  This happened, I believe, about a month after you joined us.  What happened there?”

“The experiment failed,” John muttered.

“Failed?” Corbin seemed shocked. “What do you mean?”

John sighed. “It was like this, sir.  Do you remember Jeremy DuPont?”

Corbin nodded. “The so-called Atom Man.  He actually interned in the same program as you, a few years earlier, though he went on to a different employer before his…accident.”

“Right. Anyway, sir, as you know, all of his research notes were famously lost in the lab fire that sparked his new, um, career.  Well, I thought that I could reconstruct his research.  There were certain markers in his statements about the work that led me to a certain path of study—“

“Wait a minute,” Corbin said. “Are you saying you intended to repeat the experiments that turned Jeremy DuPont into…” He trailed off.

“…A superhero,” John said.

“Yes, that.”

“Yessir.”

Corbin gave him an even gaze. “You are aware of the phrase ‘lab accident,’ aren’t you?”

“Yes. I’m aware that it was an accident that gave Atom—that gave Jeremy his unusual abilities.  But I thought that the process could be standardized, and made safe.  Imagine it, sir! The ability to create superpowers on demand!  To give people the ability to—“

“—The ability to fly, but also to constantly emit lethal levels of radiation, such that one can’t have anything approximating a normal life?”

John dropped his gaze. “Nobody’s perfect, sir.”

“No, I suppose not.” He returned to the file for a moment. “At any rate, there WAS a lab accident during your research.”

“Yes. But the experiment was a failure, like I said.”

“A failure? Because it didn’t make you into a new Atom Man?” John shrugged. Dr. Corbin looked incredulously at him.  “John, your accident gave us a stable process for cold nuclear fusion!  That’s one of the greatest and most sought after discoveries of this century.  It’s already revolutionizing the energy industry!”  Seeing that John was unmoved, he sighed.  “Alright, let’s move on.  Tell me about…” He flipped a few more pages.  “The variable-mass experiment.”

“Alright. I had been reading up on the work of Dr. Emilia Nox.  A few years ago she experimented with mass variability through particle acceleration—quantum mass variability, she called it.  She was making very good progress with it, until…well, I suppose you know.”

“A lab accident,” Dr. Corbin said. “Yes, I remember.”

“Right,” John said. “Well, I thought I could expand on her work by incorporating some of the equations about dark matter.  It’s not as though we had access to any, since no one even knew if it really existed, but we know enough about its properties in a mathematical sense.  I figured that I could incorporate some of those equations and overcome some of her hurdles.”

A suspicious look had dawned on Corbin’s face. “Those hurdles you mentioned…those wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that her unfortunate lab accident gave her the power to turn invisible, would they?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it unfortunate, sir. And besides, it’s more to do with her ability to change her mass at will.  That makes her quite a threat to criminals, you know.”

Corbin glanced at the ceiling in a longsuffering gesture. “Superpowers again.  Well, anyway, your calculations must not have worked out as expected, because you encountered the same accident as Dr. Nox—or should I call her by her chosen name, Doctor Night?”

“She’d probably like that, sir. I’ve met her; she seems like a great person.  And anyway, yes, but it was also a failure.”

Corbin consulted his file. “That failure, as you say, resulted in a new, lab-reproducible, commercially-feasible method for not only detecting dark matter, but isolating samples for use.  As I understand it, as soon as the trial phases clear, that discovery alone stands to make you a very rich man, John.  I’m not sure how it’s a failure.”

Again, John shrugged. “It’s a nice accomplishment, but it wasn’t my goal, sir.”

“A nice acc…oh, never mind. Let’s go on.”

“If you insist, sir.”

“Well, that covers your first two months with us. In your third month…” He searched the file.  “Ah!  You switched your focus from physics to artificial intelligence.  It’s good to see a multidisciplinarian! What prompted the change?”

“Well, sir, I thought that since I’d had a few noteworthy failures already, I must be doing something wrong. I figured that if I could set up a workable AI, it could help me with monitoring and troubleshooting on my other goals.  The problem with current-generation AI, as you know, is that it inevitably goes rogue in some way.  There’s that famous case of the chatbot that turned into a neo-Nazi, and those security robots that killed themselves…and that’s just what we’ve seen on a small scale.  Large-scare AI could easily try to take over, so we don’t dare risk it.  Well, I thought I might get around that by keeping a human element in the system.  I wanted the AI to be dependent on a human brain, not for its processing power, but for its existence.  If a human is in the loop, he or she can shut down the AI with a thought if anything starts to go wrong.  So, I started looking at brain-computer interfaces.”

“It’s a novel approach,” Corbin admitted. “What made you think of that?”

“I, uh…well, sir, do you recall a situation where a microprocessor array blew up in a lab assistant’s face? This would have been a Microsoft project, about ten years ago.”

Corbin thought for a moment. “Ten years ago…ten years…oh, yes, I do recall it, it was a very…wait a minute.” He sat up straighter and shot a look at John.  “You’re talking about Technoman!  The processors penetrated the tech’s brain, and gave him the ability to interact with electronic systems by thought alone.  He calls himself Technoman now, and fights cybercrime, right?”

“That would be the one, sir. Anyway, I thought that if I could implant the processors rather than have it happen by accident—“

“But there was an accident.  A processor array did explode, and you were struck by a flying processor.  I remember it now.  You were out on medical leave for a few weeks.” He arched an eyebrow.  “No Technoman?”

“No Technoman, sir. Even though the processor couldn’t be removed.” He scratched at his temple.  “It still itches.”

“But this was a success for you as well,” Corbin said. “When the lab was burning, your AI made the leap to the local mainframe and took charge of the fire suppression system, ensuring that you lived.  It saved your life; and when questioned later, it expressed loyalty to you.  Examination of its code revealed elements that were clearly not designed, but that in hindsight render it both safe and loyal to humanity—elements that could only have come from its brief contact with your brain.  You advanced the science of artificial intelligence by at least two decades.  I suppose you’re going to call that a failure?”

“Yes sir.”

Why?”

“I needed that AI for a lab assistant. But now it’s so busy being examined and studied that I can never get access to it for my work!”

Corbin sat back, unsure how to proceed. Finally he spoke.  “John…I think that you and this company may have different goals.”

John looked up, alarmed. “Sir!  That’s not true.  You’re not…terminating me, are you?”

“Oh, no, not that.” Corbin shook his head.  “John, we’re a research institution here.  We innovate.  We make discoveries.  Usually those discoveries are incremental, because that’s how science works—well, except in your case.  But you, John…I really think you’re just here to get superpowers.”

John’s face turned red. “Sir, I—“

“No need to defend yourself,” Corbin said. “It’s reasonable enough.  We live in a day when there’s an established history of lab accidents granting powers to individuals.  And it’s a good thing too—with most superheroes having a scientific background, they’re more likely to use their powers responsibly, don’t you think?”

He leaned back and put his hands on the desk. “Your goal is noble, John, but it conflicts with ours.  And I have to admit, I’m conflicted about it, because while you’re causing what is frankly an obscene number of accidents, your results are amazing.  Here, look.”  Flipping through the file, he stopped at section after section.  “May of last year, the monofilament situation.  You wanted a way to strengthen your own skeletal structure with carbon monofilaments; what you got—after blowing up the extrusion chamber—was a brand-new method for structuring the atoms in monofilaments, increasing the tensile strength by a factor of a thousand.  June: One of the technicians says that you mentioned wanting the ability to teleport.  Your experiment put you in the hospital overnight, but it gave us the ability to carry out quantum teleportation on the macro scale, albeit only on small objects—but still, that’s unheard of!  July: You wanted to be able to fly, so you worked on manipulation of energy fields in localized areas.  We lost eighty thousand dollars of lab equipment on that one, but we can now generate stable force fields!  Shall I go on?”

“No sir,” John said.

Corbin shook his head. “John, do you understand what all of this means?”

At last, John sat up straight, even defiantly. His face was red, and there were tears in his eyes.  “Yes! It means that none of my theories were true! I haven’t been able to complete a single experiment all year, and besides, I’ve caused lab accidents every single time!”

Corbin gazed at him, and a smile twitched up the corners of his mouth. “No, John,” he said quietly.  “It means you don’t need to look for superpowers.  You already have one.”

That was not what John expected to hear. “I…what?”

“Yes. John, you’re the luckiest man in the world.”  He held up a finger.  “Think about it.  First, you survive accident after accident with little more than a few superficial injuries.  And on the one occasion when your injuries were serious, you survived something that would have killed anyone else.  Moreover, everyone else present for any of these accidents has survived, so clearly your luck is communicable to those around you.  And last of all, you’ve had an unbroken string of amazing scientific discoveries, all quite by accident! Now, what would you call that if not superpowered luck?”

John was silent for a long minute. “Well, when you put it that way,” he said at last.

“I do.” Corbin sat back.  “Now get back to work.”

John’s jaw fell open. “So…you’re not going to fire me?”

“I said that earlier, didn’t I? I’m not going to fire you.  In fact, I’m authorizing a raise.  HR will get with you about the details.  Now, go do some experiments.  Just,” he added, “do them in a different building, will you?”