“Trust” – A Short Story

As promised, here’s the other new short story for your reading pleasure. This one was from the NYC Midnight short story context last year. For that one I had to write a sci-fi story involving “shared custody” and “a liar.” Difficult assignment, but I think I came up with a neat way to handle it.

Without further ado – “Trust”


Shaylan was reduced to this – trying to find the doorbell of a spaceship.

Hand Cannot Erase sat alone in the far outer ring of the docking station. Aside from a few hoses running to it from various huge vats it looked like a museum piece. No lights blinking. No ramp deployed for crew or visitors to easily enter. No one climbing over the outside of the ship, making last minute repairs.

She looked around one more time then pulled out her hand terminal. She was in the right place – where was her welcoming party? She thought her message, watched the text appear on the terminal, and then zip into the aether. “I’m here?”

A moment passed before her terminal buzzed. “Shit! Sorry!”

From the other side of the ship came a rush of air and a mechanical whirring noise, like machinery operating over protest.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Asulon said as she ran around to where Shaylan was standing. “I thought it was half past, wasn’t it half past?”

Shaylan held up her terminal. “It is half past.” She snapped off a quick salute, hoping it didn’t look too practiced. “Shaylan Moore, reporting for duty.”

The ship’s executive officer waved off the formality. “Save it for Captain Bhemhath. Come on, I’ll introduce you around.”

Inside, Hand Cannot Erase was tight and utilitarian. There was no wasted space, with access panels and storage cubbies along every corridor. Shaylan and Asulon couldn’t even walk through the corridors side-by-side.

“I was so glad when I saw your file,” Asulon said over her shoulder. “It’ll be nice to have another human on board.”

“Another?” Shaylan asked. She hadn’t given any thought to the makeup of the ship’s crew. All she knew was that there were seven of them, including her, and some of them were aliens. She’d said she didn’t have a problem with that in the interview, but she wasn’t sure it had been true.

“It’s just you and me, sister.” Asulon stopped and turned. “There’s nothing wrong, they’re all great, you’ll see. It just takes some time to learn everyone’s quirks. It’ll just be nice to have someone else familiar around.”

“Sure.” Shaylan didn’t know how closely Asulon had read her file. This we her first time on a ship, her first time off planet. She’d seen aliens out and about, like everybody, but she’d never worked with them. Certainly not in close quarters like this.

Asulon led her around a few more bends before she turned into an opening, knocking on the doorway on her way in. “Good! Looks like just about everybody is here.”

Shaylan turned the corner into what appeared to be the galley and conference room. Three aliens were sitting around the table, murmuring to each other. Nearby was a fourth, a green, gaseous blob about three feet in circumference, floating on the air like a dandelion seed. A tendril appeared from one side and wiggled at Shaylan.

“That’s Khels, our navigator,” Asulon said, before going down the line. “That’s Es’un, our pilot.”

Es’un, a spindly grey being with eye stalks and at least four arms, waved one of them. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Shaylan said, with a nod, thankful she had her translator implant refurbished before she arrived.

Asulon pointed to a thick, blue-scaled, lizard being who barely fit in the ship. “That’s Qhaax, head of security. Don’t worry, he’s not as crabby as he looks.”

Qhaax frowned, but didn’t object.

“And this is Zingaell, our cargo specialist,” Asulon said, pointing to a tall, thin, bald, green biped. “Don’t believe anything he says and you’ll be all right.”

The others all nodded, even Khels, somehow.

Shaylan was about to ask was Asulon meant about Zingaell when an electronic chime sounded.

“Sorry, gotta go,” Asulon said. “Captain wants me on the bridge.” She turned back to the table. “Can one of you show her to her quarters?”

Zingaell stood and nodded.

“Thanks, Zing,” Asulon said, slapping Shaylan on the back. “Welcome aboard!”

Zingaell slipped past her, into the corridor. “Come. Your quarters aren’t far.”

As they walked, Shaylan couldn’t shake the idea that this being, part of her new crew, wasn’t trustworthy. She had to ask. “What was all that about not believing anything you say?”

“A joke, nothing more,” he said, turning another corner. “You’ll learn that our fellow crewmembers think they are much funnier than they really are. You can rely on me just as much as any of them.”

Shaylan nodded, trying to shrug it off. “Sorry. Should have figured as much.”

He stopped at the next door, which was already open. “You’re in here. There are instructions for setting the biometric locks inside.”

“Thanks,” Shaylan said. “What do I do next?”

“I’ll let the captain know you’re settling in,” Zingaell said.

“Will you let me know if he needs me to come see him?” Shaylan didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot.

“Of course,” he said, smiling a thin-lipped smile.

Shaylan stepped inside and stowed her gear. She found the biometric instructions and coded the door lock to her eye scan, with a two-password backup. Intending to review the details of their last job, she flopped onto the bed and quickly fell asleep..

~~~~~

Shaylan awoke to pounding on her door, angry muffled thumps. She shook her head and heard a voice join in, gravelly and agitated.

“Moore? You already asleep on the job? I’ll toss you out the airlock if you don’t get out here now!”

“Captain?” Shaylan said, head still hazy. Reality clicked in quickly. She jumped off the bed, smoothed her jumpsuit, and ran to open the door. “Captain Bhemhath!”

On the other side of the door stood a squat, hairy biped with short arms. His face and hands were covered in silver grey fur. “This is not the best way to start our relationship.”

“I know, sir,” Shaylan said, fighting the urge to kneel so she could look him in the eye. “I must have dozed off. I thought Zingaell was going to come get me?”

Bhemhath shook his head. “Didn’t anyone tell you not to believe anything he says?”

“Yes, sir, XO Asulon did,” Shaylan said. Before she could go further, the captain cut her off.

“Well, do what the XO says. That’s how a ship works. I tell her what to do, she tells the crew what to do, and it gets done. Get it?” He put his hands on his hips and tapped one foot.

“Yes, sir,” she said and decided her confusion about Zingaell could wait. “Is there something I can do for you, sir?”

He nodded. “Grab your hand terminal and get down to the galley. I want to go over your duties with you and Asulon. Five minutes!” He stormed away down the corridor.

Shaylan took a moment to splash water on her face, grabbed her terminal, and headed toward the galley. She wasn’t about to be late.

~~~~~

Life on board settled into an easy routine. Shaylan’s job was to analyze potential targets for acquisition. Captain Bhemhath didn’t like the word “salvage” – “makes us sound like carrion eaters,” he’d said – preferring to think of them as engaging in targeted waste disposal. Shaylan had an office just off the cargo bay where she surveyed wrecks and other jobs, matched them with potential buyers, and figured out how much junk the ship could haul at once. After she saw the cargo bay she understood why the rest of Hand Cannot Erase was so tight and cramped – as much room as possible was given over to cargo.

Everything ran so smoothly that she didn’t get a chance to talk to Zingaell. She wanted to confront him about how he let her face the captain’s wrath, but their schedules were mixed up. They’d pass in the corridor, each on the way to somewhere else. They were never in the galley at the same time, able to strike up a casual conversation.

One day, Shaylan went to get tea on her break and found Khels floating near the dehydrator. She had to start somewhere. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” the green blob said, sounding like a drunken angel.

“It’s about Zingaell.”

The blob nodded, Shaylan was certain of it.

“When I first came on, Asulon told me not to believe anything he said,” Shaylan explained. “Then, after he left me high and dry with the captain, the captain said the same thing. How do you all work with someone you can’t trust?”

“There is no question of whether you can trust Zing,” the blob said. “He is eminently trustable. You will know that after working with him. Set him a task and he does it. Ask for help and he provides it. He is critical to what we do.”

“Then why can’t I believe what he says?”

Khels floated closer to her, like it was going to whisper. “You’ve never met a Thulean have you?”

Shaylan shook her head.

“Thuleans are incapable of speaking truth. By that, I mean, that they have no way of knowing whether they mean what they say. It’s an odd quirk of their evolution. What did he do that set the captain on you?”

“I asked if he’d let me know if the captain wanted to see me, then he didn’t tell him,” Shaylan said. “He lied to me.”

A tentacle appeared and Khels waved it, a substitute for shaking the head it didn’t have. “Lying requires that the being saying it knows it’s false. Zing doesn’t know that. It’s why you cannot trust anything he says.” It put great emphasis on the last word.

“So he doesn’t lie all the time,” Shaylan said, working it through, “but you never know when he’s telling the truth. Is that it?”

“More or less,” Khels said. “It takes time to read him, to establish the rapport, but don’t worry. You’ll get there.” It floated out of the room.

Shaylan leaned on the counter and sipped her tea. She couldn’t afford to let this fester. She needed to build some trust with Zingaell, quickly.

~~~~~

They made two hauls from wrecks before heading for Keneally Station, which was in orbit above a small, lush moon, to unload. This was where Zingaell was in his element shifting the cargo out, so Shaylan did her best to stay out of his way. She convinced the captain that she needed to go to the surface, “for research,” but all she wanted to do was get away for a while.

Not far from the spaceport she found a walkway that ran along a meandering river. Stalls were set up every few yards with vendors selling all kinds of goods. The sun was strong and warm, the air clingy and damp. It was a welcome change from the dry, sterile environment on the ship. She sampled a local root vegetable on a stick, roasted and covered in a savory brown sauce, while exploring other vendors.

As the river bent around a copse of trees, she saw a small stand set up in their shade. In the pale yellow grass in front of the stand she saw what looked like small, furry meatballs bounding up and down. As she got closer, she could see that they were creatures of some kind – almost perfectly round, with three stumpy legs that made them look like a cotton ball sitting on a stool. The one closest to her turned and gazed at her with its single, large brown eye.

“Oh my gods, they are so cute,” Shaylan said, holding her hand out. The creature jumped into her palm and started rubbing itself against her outstretched thumb. She stood and asked the woman manning the stand, “what are these?”

“Joyrits,” the woman said, snatching up one that had been hopping around the table. “They make wonderful companions. Great source of happiness.”

“How big do they get?” The one in Shaylan’s hand closed its eye as she stroked its back.

“No bigger than this.”

“Really?”

The woman nodded. “These are all full grown. Hypoallergenic, sterile. They’ll never breed, never grow bigger. Only need food or water.”

An idea began to form in Sheylan’s head. “Have they been cleared for transport off planet?”

The woman pointed to a graphic on the tablet laying on the table, displaying the clearance.

“Just a sec,” Shaylan said, putting the creature down in the grass, where it bounded away to join the others. She pulled out her hand terminal and searched for “Joyrit,” to see if she could find anything negative about them. All she found was countless videos of them being adorable. She thought about clearing it with Asulon or even the captain first, but decided to bite the bullet.

“I take two,” she said, waving her hand terminal over the payment droid.

~~~~~

Back on the ship, Shaylan waited until they were underway, then made it a point to track down Zingaell. He was in what passed for the ship’s library, which was really just a couple of seats in front of computer terminals.

“Hey, Zing,” she said, trying to make it sound natural. “Can I borrow you for a moment?”

“Of course not,” he said, then shut down the monitor and stood up. “What do you need?”

“Come with me.” There was a small cubby in the wall, between her office and the cargo door, that she’d managed to convince to remain open all the time. Inside, the small puffballs bounced happily around in an enclosure, chirping quietly.

Zingaell lowered his head and looked at the creatures. “What are those?”

“They’re called Joyrits,” Shaylan said. “Do you have pets on your world?”

Zingaell stiffened. “No. We find them distracting.”

Unsure what to make of his answer, she pressed on. “Well these little things, which I’ve named Bob and Betsy, are pets. They’re our pets.”

Zingaell snapped his head to face her. “Ours?”

“Yes. I want you to help me take care of them. Feed them, play with them every now and then. Keep an eye on them. Would you like to help me with that?”

“No,” he said. “What do I need to do?”

She handed him a sheet of paper.

“This feeding schedule is very detailed,” he said, studying.

“I know,” Shaylan said. “Little guys need to eat a little bit several times a day. I thought we could alternate days, you know? Share the burden, a little bit.”

“May I?” Zingaell nodded toward the habitat. At her nod, he reached in and petted one of the small creatures, eliciting a low, long coo.

“Nice, huh?”

“Not really,” he said, but his manner didn’t match the words. “Do I start today or tomorrow?”

“I’ve got today,” she said nodding.

“I’ll go study, then,” he said, waving the papers. Then he added, “I’ll help you take care of them. You can trust me.”

As Zingaell walked into the corridor, Shaylan felt that, for the first time, she could believe that.


For more of my short fiction, click here. And, yes, the ship is named after the Steven Wilson album.

Short Fiction Update (With Very Short Story!)

It’s been a while since I had something to say about my short fiction, so here’s an update and a bit of free stuff to read to boot (in this post and the next).

New Story Coming Your Way!

The update is that I’m very happy to have a short story that will be a part of a collection published this fall by Speculation Publications. They do volumes dedicated to a particular weird phenomenon filled with speculative stories explaining that phenomenon. This volume is about the “dancing plague” of 1518 in Strasbourg (in what is now France).

My story took inspiration from the great Fritz Lang film M, in which a group of mobsters unite to catch a serial killer because all the extra police attention is bad for business. More details the closer we get to release day – put on your dancin’ shoes!

More New Stories – One Right Here and Now!

I’ve also got a couple of stories I can share just for the hell of it. They’re both things I wrote for NYC Midnight competition, which I’ve mentioned a couple of time before. This one was written for the microfiction contest earlier this year. Microfiction, in this context, is 100 words or less. For the contest the assignment was to write a ghost story that involved putting flowers in a vase and used the word “free.” Here it is, “The Flowers in the Window”:

Something transitory, a final moment of beauty, is what the medium said. That meant flowers. Rhea had clipped a few stems with brilliant purple blooms from the lilac bush at the corner of the house and put them in a plain white vase on the table by the front window.

That night, she and Jason slept better than they had for months, since the accident. It was a night free from strange noises and freakish breezes.

In the morning, Rhea went downstairs, to the front room. The flowers were gone. She said a silent thanks. Her daughter was finally free.

Short but bittersweet (I hope). Click over to the next post for another new story.

Artists Need to Eat, Too

There’s been some interesting talk online about some of the economics of writing or, rather, being a writer. I have a day job I love that pays the bills, so this isn’t something I lose a lot of sleep about, but if you enjoy reading books or watching movies or listening to music, it’s worth remembering that the people that make them have all have bills to pay and families to feed, too.

Things sort of got summed up by John Scalzi on Twitter over the weekend:

I suppose this is an offshoot of the idea that artists need to suffer to make great art, which always kind of mystified me. Yes, there are writers and musicians that are tortured souls and managed to turn that into great, moving works of art. But there are just as many who seem pretty well adjusted and just love doing what they’re doing, the only real suffering coming from when people expect them to continue entertaining them for free or, worse, “for exposure.” “Happy” and “artist” should be used in the same sentence together a lot, I’d thihk.

Growing up, I sort of assumed that anybody who wrote a book or released an album made their livings doing that. It really wasn’t until I dove into the progressive rock world in college that I realized how many amazing musicians actually had day jobs to pay the bills (hopefully in music or some related field, but oftentimes not). That sort of opened my eyes about how economics and the arts intersect in the United States.

Now in the era of streaming services things are even worse for musicians. The per-play rate for a song on even the most generous service is pennies (and often a fraction of that). Fans need to realize that if they want more of their favorite music, they need to do more than just stream it. Buy LPs or cassettes, if your that particular kind of hipster. Or buy downloads directly from the band (or via something like Bandcamp) as a way that puts the most money directly in their pockets. Love and adulation is great, but it doesn’t pay the rent.

But whatever you do, don’t buy it, listen to it, and then return it.

I didn’t even realize this was a thing until posts like this started circulating from writers no Twitter:

As this article explains, Amazon allows you to return Kindle books within a week after purchasing them. Although this is to allow refunds for “accidental” purchases (mistakes happen, after all), some folks have spread this as a “hack” to allow readers to buy a book, read it quickly, and then return it for a refund:

It’s not immediately clear if new videos about returning e-books in the form of a “Kindle hack” were being spread around, but it was the subject of discussion on BookTok several months back as a debate over whether returning a fully read Kindle book could be considered “stealing.” Some who think the claim is nonsense compare returning a book you don’t like to returning a top that doesn’t fit or being comped for a meal when you find a bug in your food.

It should be obvious that returning a book that you read to completion is nothing at all like returning a piece of clothing that didn’t fit or getting bugged food for free. In both of those situations the product you received was defective in some way. They analogize to situations with books where you honestly buy the wrong one, get something other than is advertised (it’s a short story, not a novel, for example), or the file is corrupt and unusable.

But if you buy a book (or an album or a movie) and you read it then that’s it, you’ve got no right to a refund. It doesn’t even matter if you didn’t finish it because you thought it sucked. There’s a certain about of buyer beware that applies to any purchase, but that’s doubly true for art. It’s simply impossible to buy something to which reactions are so subjective with an expectation that you’ve got a money-back guarantee. Trying a new author or checking out a new band is an act of faith, of hope that it will be amazing, but you’ve got to be willing to accept that it might not be.

To return to the restaurant analogy, if you and a friend decide to try a new place that has a great reputation and seems just up your alley, but you don’t find that it met your expectations, you still have to pay for the meal. Sometimes, where matters of taste are involved, things don’t work out the way we want them to. That’s life.

A good rule of thumb for negotiating the world or books, music, or any other artistic thing in the modern era is to ask, “is this going to mess with the livelihood of the person (or persons) who created this?” before doing something that impacts their bottom line. If the answer is “yes,” think long and hard as to whether that’s justified. Deep down, I think you’ll realize it very rarely is. At the very least, before you start demanding your money back it ought to rise to this level:

Programming Change

I know that I decided this was going to be my month of lists, but other writing circumstances have conspired to push the final two installments back a week (or two). I’m working on a short story (with an interesting subject) to submit to an anthology that’s due on May 24. I need to focus my energies on that until then, so while I will be back with lists of favorite movies and books, they’ll be delayed a bit.

Wish me luck!

My Black Pages

One of the little bits of world building for the Unari Empire books that I had fun with was thinking through the newspaper situation in Cye. Given the steampunk(ish) setting, it’s the most plausible form of mass media and how it’s regulated says interesting things about the world. Hence, the “real” newspapers are known by how closely aligned they are with the Imperial regime, since to officially publish they need a literal seal approval.

When it came time to write Widows of the Empire I needed to expand my thinking a bit and figure what underground papers might look like and what they might be called. I settled on small papers crammed with type, so much that each page looked nearly black. Naturally, characters refer to them as the “black pages.”

This is not an accident.

Readers of The Water Road and its sequels know that I use a lot of musical references in my books. Lots of places in that series are named after musicians, the more obscure the better! The “black pages” are no different, as I’ve stolen the name from a song (or a few) by Frank Zappa.

Frank originally wrote “The Black Page” as a percussion feature, kind of on a dare. After an orchestral session, drummer Terry Bozio related that some of those players talked about the fear of facing “the black page,” prompting Frank to write his own. The song evolved from a short piece for drums and percussion into a song for a full band, in various guises.

In this video, musician Doug Helvering works through the first two versions of the song, with excerpts from the score to prove the that the song was well named:

A decade after that second version, the song morphed again, into a “New Age Version” that was performed on Zappa’s final tour:

Even laid back, it’s kind of a bear.

Names can be tricky for fantasy and science fiction writers. My suggestion – take inspiration wherever you can, even if it’s in an insanely complex song.

Why Not Just Write Fantasy?

Over the winter my wife and I discovered The Great*, the Hulu series about (very loosely) the early reign of Russian empress Catherine the Great.

While I’m not certain the series quite lives up to the title, it is very entertaining and, in spots, riotously funny. What it definitely lives up to is the little asterisk the end of the title (as displayed in the opening credits, at least), which notes it is either “An Occasionally True Story” (season one) or “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story” (season two).

This post is very much not going to take the show’s creators to task for playing fast and loose with history, particularly since they admit it up front. Truth is, literature and theater and film/TV is full of examples of historical persons or events remolded for dramatic purposes. I know Salieri didn’t really work Mozart to death (they were pretty good buds!), but I still love Amadeus. Dollars to donvts Julius Caesar did not turn to Brutus and “et tu, Brute?” him in real life, but Shakespeare makes it work.

But as a writer, I wonder about the choices other writers made when playing with history. History is full of lots of interesting story fuel, after all. I’ve used some of it myself. I’ve said before that the idea for the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy came from seeing an “on this day” thing on Wikipedia about the anniversary of Napoleon’s return from exile to start the Hundred Days. I thought that sounded like something out of a fantasy series – a vanquished foe returning to the world to wreak further havoc – and wheels started turning in my head.

What never occurred to me was the make the story about Napoleon. I didn’t want to tell his story, but another one that might have echoes of his. Being a fantasy writer that’s not an issue, but with more traditional fiction things can get complicated. After all, a made up character doing made up things is the grist of fiction – sometimes everything even happens in made up places. But a made up town or neighborhood is one thing, what about a made up country?

I got to thinking about this again due to this piece in the New York Times about the recent glut of true-crime limited series that are all over streaming services. Things like Netflix’s Inventing Anna and Hulu’s The Dropout (both pretty good, though I’d go with the latter) are telling true-crime stories of recent vintage that, in most cases, have been thoroughly aired in other settings (Inventing Anna came out of a long-form magazine piece, The Dropout from a podcast of the same name). I don’t agree that just because these stories have been told in other mediums means the fictionalized TV versions are superfluous (not everybody consumes podcasts), but the author makes an interesting point:

Now, it is absolutely true that real life does not always give you neat “Rosebud” explanations; real people are often simply jumbles of unresolved contradictions. But that’s one reason we have drama: to make emotional, if not literal, sense of this kind of figure. (Hence Orson Welles reimagined William Randolph Hearst as Charles Foster Kane.)

Indeed, it seems much easier if you want to tell a story about a particular kind of person to do it with a fictional character rather than a real-life one. Legal issues aside, it allows you to mold and shape the story as dramatic (or comedic!) stakes dictate, without worrying about people complaining that you’re not “getting it right.” After all, fantasy only has to be compelling, not accurate.

So why not, if you want to tell a story that pretty much set in a fantastic version of a historical place, why not make it fantasy? What’s the pull of using a historical figure whose actual history you’re going to discard anyway? I suppose it’s easier to market a series about Catherine the Great (who’s not that well know in the US, anyway) with an ahistorical twist than it is to sell a bloody, bawdy, fantasy series nobody’s heard of before.

As I said, it’s silly to get bent out of shape about The Great’s lack of rigorous historicity. They’re doing something much more fun and not even hiding the fact. Nonetheless, it does make you think.

Come, join us in our fantasy worlds. The water’s fine – unless that’s not what you want! Huzzah!

Hey Kafka (Or, Ruminations on Dead Authors and Duties Owed to Them)

Five years ago I wrote a post about dealing with requests from writers to destroy their unfinished (or other) work upon their death. It was sparked by the destruction of the recently passed Terry Pratchett’s hard drive by running it over with a steamroller, per his desire. As I wrote then:

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchett’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

I got to thinking about this again reading Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.

What I thought was going to be a particularly timely look at the social or political factors behind drives to ban books was actually a love letter to libraries and archives and the need for society to protect and support the collection and retention of knowledge. No great surprise, I suppose, given that Ovenden is the librarian at the famed Bodlean Library at Oxford.

In a couple of chapters, Ovenden discusses particular situations where authors either took affirmative efforts during their lives to destroy their unfinished work or asked executors/family to do the destroying once they were dead. In some instances (like Franz Kafka) it was unfinished work, where some others involved personal papers like letters or notes. Ovenden’s point of view is clearly that any loss of this information is a cultural travesty and implies that the heroes here are people who go against the wishes of their friends/loved ones and preserve their work anyway.

I get that, on the one hand. Destroyed knowledge is pretty much gone, after all, without any hope of getting it back. The world is undeniably richer for having Kafka’s unfinished work or the papers of someone like Sylvia Plath that gives insight into a writer’s life and process. But whose decision is it to make that determination?

The author’s wishes deserve at least some consideration, right? Maybe because in one side of my life I’m a writer and in another I fight battles to vindicate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy (usually unsuccessfully, alas), but airing things the original author never wanted to see the light of day seems like a violation. I’m not sure the world is entitled to anything the author doesn’t want to show it.

As is happens, after Burning the Books, I decided to read one of the most famous posthumously published works, Kafka’s The Trial.

I’d had it in my collection for a while but never got around to it. I’m glad I did, just to have been able to say I’ve read it. As a lawyer, you’d think it would be required reading, although the deep secret buried in The Trial is that there never is an actual trial that takes place. I sort of know that’s the point, but I expected a little bit more procedural chicanery – the kind of stuff that happens in regular courtrooms that get dubbed “Kafkaesque.”

The Trial definitely feels unfinished. My understanding is that the first and last chapters were actually written and designated as such by Kafka, but the rest was assembled by his executor, Max Brod, after his death. That said, it does have a memorable ending, so it doesn’t just peter out. I also found the atmosphere to be more dreamlike than nightmarish. The main character, K, is more frustrated and aggravated by the situation than he is terrified. In a way that makes it worse.

While there is no trial per se in The Trial, lawyers and the court system come off pretty badly. The part that stuck with me the most is a scene where K is in the court building and passes a group of litigants just huddled around not doing much of anything. It’s explained that they’re waiting for rulings in their cases, some of them for years, and that all they can do is continue to wait. That put me in mind of several of my clients who have watched their cases languish in court, just waiting for the judge to make a decision. They’d rather the judge get it wrong but actually get it done – at least then they could move on to the next phase of things.

My ultimate conclusion about The Trial is that I think K was dead the entire time. The suddenness of the accusation, the ultimate futility of fighting the charges, and the references to K needing to defend his entire life make me think that he’s in some kind of limbo (from which he’s ultimately released in the end). The way “the law” is discussed, too, sounds more like a religious concept than a purely legal one. It doesn’t ultimately matter, but it’s what jumped to mind while reading it.

Since I was on a Kafka kick, I decided to wrap things up with a book that dove more deeply into the battle over his literary legacy, Kafka’s Last Trial, by Benjamin Balint.

The titular trial here took place in Israel in this century and was a battle over where Kafka’s literary legacy would have its home. It stems from how Brod dealt with Kafka’s literary estate and whether it should be retained by the descendents of his secretary or should be taken into the National Library of Israel as a cultural treasure of the Jewish people (or even in an archive in Germany). The legal wrangling isn’t that interesting (it turns on technical distinctions between different kinds of gifts – you can read up on it here), but the question of legacy is really fascinating. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the issue of whether Kafka was a German writer (though he lived in what is now the Czech Republic) who happened to be Jewish, or a Jewish writer who happened to write in German and what the answer to that question means.

Of course, that issue could be hashed out regardless of whether Brod had destroyed Kafka’s unfinished works as asked (assuming Kafka became a big enough name without it). And it would have avoided an awful lot of expensive litigation generations later. So, in the end, is it better to encourage executors, friends, and families to abide by the wishes of the writers who trust them to do so?

I’m inclined to think so, but I also think that the question may be moot. After all, once a writer is dead he or she isn’t going to know what their executors do one way or the other. One pleasant thing about death is you don’t have to worry about your reputation. Weighing all the considerations, maybe Brod was on to something in the first place.

Who Does Your Main Character Work For?

A little white back, my wife and I saw The East, a 2013 film starring and co-written by Brit Marling:

Marling’s character infiltrates an off-the-grid terrorist organization that’s been striking out at corporations that have gotten out of hand. One is responsible for an oil spill, another for despoiling a town’s water supply, and a third for releasing a drug onto the market that has horrible side effects. Part of what makes the movie interesting is that Marling isn’t a cop or a crusading journalist, but rather an agent for a private security firm. It made me think about the importance of who your main character works for in a story and what it means for their development (or lack thereof) as a character.

A lot of stories are about main characters solving some kind of mystery, figuring out the solution to some problem. It’s no surprise, then, that lots of stories have main characters whose jobs require them to solve those mysteries – cops, private detectives, journalists. It gives them not just a motivation for getting into the problem in the first place but a destination as well – an arrest, the confirmation of a dark secret, an expose article. But it can also give them interesting limitations, blinders, or obstacles to overcome.

The natural job for a character like Marling’s in The East would be a cop of some variety – a person tasked by society with taking down bad guys. A person who should, at least in theory, be motivated to serve justice and help people. We’ve seen that story before, however, so making Marling’s character a private security operative boxes her in interesting ways since she’s not working for society in general, but for specific clients.

There is a scene, for instance, where she winds up in a middle of a plot the group is pulling that will poison dozens of people at a drug exec’s party. When she realizes that and calls her boss for guidance, she’s gently reminded that the drug company is not their client, so she shouldn’t try to stop what’s happening, just keep gathering info for the client that actually hired her. It creates an extra amount of tension over what she’s going to do and why, which I thought worked pretty well.

I’ve been thinking about this as I work on the sequel to Moore Hollow.

Yeah, so, I’m doing a sequel to Moore Hollow, the first of many, I think (currently now being worked on around the final volume of the Unari Empire trilogy, Heroes of the Empire).

For the books going forward, Ben Potter, the disgraced journalist who is the main character of Moore Hollow, permanently relocates to West Virginia and throws himself into investigating the area’s rich tradition of beasties, legends, and general weirdness. In the second book, though, he hooks up with a lawyer to help represent a particular client. That will give him different motivations and restrictions than his normal work as a paranormal journalist. I hope to explore how those roles are different as the series goes forward and Ben sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t work with that attorney.

Of course, those choices don’t always work for every reader/viewer. Consider this view, from a review of The East:

Yet the biggest issue with The East is that Batmanglij and Marling so thoroughly rig the script in the environmentalists’ favor. By casting Marling as a corporate spy instead of a government agent, it sets up a fatally compromised situation where her bosses have the same profit motive as the companies being jammed. So choices that might be made in the name of justice are instead a matter of loyalty to one set of values that’s clearly more compromised than the other. Environmental activists like the ones in “The East” live by a code, but the same can’t be said of Sarah’s employer. Going native is easy when you don’t have to follow the letter of the law.

But for me, it’s precisely that lack of direction that makes the character (and her journey) interesting. In the end, I think she finds a lot of commonality between her employer and the would-be do-gooders.

What I’m saying is that, oftentimes, our main characters born out of what they’re going to do in our story. Still, it’s useful to think about the context in which they’re going to do it, which includes how they’re making a living. It can open up some interesting storytelling avenues.

On Time Jumps

As it happens, I wound up reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series not too long before the TV show began. As a result, as the TV series went on I read the next book in the series just before the new season dropped. Now that the TV show has finished, after six seasons, and the book series has wrapped up, after nine volumes, I decided to plow through and finish the books in one go.

The first of the last three (The Expanse is sort of three linked trilogies, really), Persepolis Rising¸ starts with a pretty audacious gambit – it skips the story forward three decades.

Before we dive in further, let me specify just what I mean when I say “time jump.” I’m talking about a narrative (either within a single work or across multiple ones) where there are large breaks during which a large period of time passes. I’m not talking about the usual passage of time – most sequels or new seasons don’t pick up right after the prior one, after all. Nor am I talking about flashbacks or flashforwards or stories about characters who, to borrow a phrase, have come “unstuck in time.” I’m talking about situations where the main narrative is still driving forward, but it’s like somebody’s picked up the needle and we’ve skipped some tracks.

It’s a bold gambit because, presumably, the world of the story continues to exist during the time that’s skipped over. Things change, just as they do in regular life over years. Picking up months or years in the future should be a means of exploring how those changes impact the characters.

A good example of this I recently read is Middlegame by  Seanan McGuire.

In the world of Middlegame, an alchemist in the modern United States is using semi-fraternal twins as a means to bring about the presence of a great power he wants to tap into. The book is the story of two twins, Roger and Dodger (the rhyming names are quite intentional) who, in spite of attempts to keep them apart, keep finding themselves over the years. The book proceeds in hunks (while also skipping around in time), first when the two are young kids, then when they’re college students, and then grown adults. Between hunks, years pass and it matters. Not only do the characters change, but their relationship to each other does, too, partly because of the passage of time.

Another good somewhat recent example is the jump in time between seasons two and three of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. At the end of one season Gaius Baltar is installed as president. At the beginning of the next a year has passed and we can see what “President Baltar” really means – everything goes to shit and the Cylons return! The time skip moves the plot along while providing the writers a good way to show what went on in the interim and the impact it’s had on the characters.

Sadly, Persepolis Rising doesn’t handle the time jump nearly as well. I understand the bind  James S.A. Corey (actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck working in collaboration) was in – the story needed to jump ahead decades in order to play out, but what to do with the characters you’ve spent six books lovingly developing? The answer here is mention a few extra aches and pains and leave it at that. For the crew on the Rocinante, thirty years passing was just like thirty minutes.

Which is supremely disappointing! The five folks on the ship are in exactly the same shape they were in at the end of Babylon’s Ashes: Holden and Naomi are still together, Amos and Clarissa have their weird connection, and Bobbie and Alex have whatever they’ve got. Alex has, in the intervening decades, been married and divorced again, but the only outgrowth of that is a son off screen he occasionally worries about. There’s no aggravation/shifting of loyalties that have occurred over three decades of doing the same damned thing in the same damned (small) place.

All of this violates what I’m officially dubbing Rufus’ Rule of Gullibility, which I discussed in a book review many years ago:

There’s a scene deep in Kevin Smith’s Dogma in which Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, explains to a credulous Bethany who she can be a descendant of Christ. ‘Mary,’ she points out, ‘was a virgin.’ Rufus explains that while it’s true Mary was a virgin when Christ was born, she was married to Joseph for an awful long time after that. Why assume she stayed a virgin? He concludes: ‘The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.’

I just can’t believe that five people could live in such close quarters for three decades and nothing changes. This fall I’ll will have been in my current job for just twenty years and there has been a consistent churn of turnover among my coworkers the entire time. And we don’t have to worry about the rigors of space travel! It’s just not plausible that things stay the same all those years (after all, as the song says, things change).

Which is a shame, because where the crew ends up by the finale works really well and changes the game up significantly. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have other flaws – the bad guys aren’t nearly as interesting as those in prior books and the POV bad guy, particularly, is a dweeb – but it’s still a really good read about characters we’ve come to care about.

Time jumps can be a valuable tool when writing, but you have to ask yourself two questions if you’re going to play around with them. First, why do you think the story needs to jump ahead so much? Second, what are the effects on the characters moving that far forward? If you don’t have good answers to both of those questions, probably start rethinking.

My Fantasy Confession

If you’re reading this, you probably know that as an author I primarily write fantasy stories. As I’ve said before, I love that fantasy basically has no rules and, so long as the world you build makes sense on the page, you can do anything you want. Given that, I figure it’s time that I came clean about my deep, dark secret as a fantasy writer:

I have never read a word by J.R.R. Tolkein.

It’s not that I have anything personal against ol’ JRR. I’ve seen all the movies! Not the super-extended versions that take entire years to watch, but all the ones as released in theaters. I enjoyed them, too (well, the actual Lord of the Rings ones). But if I’m honest, the Tolkien link that has the most meaning to me is the fact that Marillion was originally called Silmarillion, before changing their name early on to avoid any legal problems.

Nor was this a case of conscious avoidance of Tolkien’s work as a reader. I just never really was that interested in diving into it. When I was young and first encountered traditional fantasy books it was the first couple of Narnia books and, particularly, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, which I really enjoyed. But once I finished those my tastes turned more towards science fiction.

I wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really dug back into reading fantasy, thanks mostly to my wife, who introduced me to Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin. While both of them would, assuredly, note the influence of Tolkien on their work, their stuff (or at least the stuff that appealed to me) isn’t very Tolkienesque. Gaiman’s work like American Gods and the Sandman series showed me that “fantasy” was a much broader thing than stories about wizards and goblins and the like. A Song of Ice and Fire draws deep on Tolkien-style world building, but does so in the service of a story that’s more about political maneuvers and human failings than it is about grand quests.

That part of the fantasy world hasn’t appealed to me that much lately. I’ve got nothing against a good quest – I’ve got a quest story percolating I hope to write one day – but I was more drawn to weird worlds and things that didn’t require the explanation/technobabble of science fiction. That’s where I found my inspiration to tell stories in worlds that aren’t our own, but aren’t necessarily filled with magic.

Am I missing out on something? Possibly. Am I going to try and rectify that situation? Not necessarily. I read for pleasure and so I’m not likely to decide to read something as homework just because most others might. Hell, I write for pleasure, too (that others enjoy the end product is a bonus), so I can’t see taking the time to force feed any particular author’s work.

The bottom line is I know enough about Tolkien to understand the memes and spot the references in progressive rock songs. Right now, that’s all I need. Plus I got to play the first movement of this in high school:

Doesn’t that count for something?