This is where Daedala likes to play: her stickman legs thrust out before her as she sits in a patch of cloudy light, tired of her uncle Russ coaxing her — one more step, another, stronger every day, my dear, stronger in every way, my dear.
They live in the rectory, but Daedala likes it here among the grey whispering stones of the nave, near the tumbled-in wall and the bright gemshards of glass still in their leaden webs. There peeks the red graceful fold of a robe, here a fragment of a bare humble foot, and there almost entire, the Madonna, like the bombs couldn’t bear to hurt a lady.
Daedala loves the angel window best. She sits on the floor by tumbledown pews where she can see its golden halo, its staring eye, and one bright wing. She had studied it when she planned her machine, until Uncle Russ brought her a dead starling and spread its speckle-spotted wings for her. She chants the names under her breath — scapula, humerus, radius, ulna, car-po-meta-car-pus, phalange.
Daedala sits with her broomstick legs in front of her and plays. Clever fingers shape and bend, make and thread waxed parchment feathers to the skeleton of her wings. Uncle Russ had worked out the dimensions, and when she pulls the strings and spreads them wide, each wing spans half again her height.
The frame will hold the wind, but the motor is too heavy. It pulls down on her shoulders, drives the skeleton’s scapula into hers. It runs hot, and cooling will add more weight. She’d have to remake the wings, make them bigger, but even with salvage there’s not enough left. Daedala looks at the grey morning sky, and down at her bird thin legs.
Stronger every day, my dear. Stronger in every way, my dear.
Daedala looks at the sky once more. She will trade.
Rhode had been born with a thick web of skin between the first and second fingers of his right hand. In the outlying lands, such a deformity signified bad blood; even in a market town like this one, people shied away from him. They didn’t do so any more, as the crush of people around him testified. That hadn’t been why he’d cut the hand off, but it was a passable reason if he had to give one.
“That’s not what you said last time,” said the girl as she pushed her way through the crowd beside him. “Last time you said —” she paused to duck under the arm of a man carrying three plucked chickens, “— you’d had to cut it off after a member of the Goldmark brotherhood recognized your clan tattoo.” Two women shoved past her, and she grabbed Rhode’s cloak to keep from getting crushed.
“Did I?” He must have been feeling imaginative. That was getting rarer. “Well, then that’s what happened.” The merchants didn’t bother him; not many people bothered a man a foot taller than most and with a face like stone.
“And the time before that you said you’d lost it as the penalty for robbing a wizard.”
“Ah.” Rhode let his gaze slide past her to the closest market stall, where a woman sold bundles of fresh bluestalk. People passed in bright blobs, their identities reduced to a haze of garbled sound and smell.
The girl elbowed him — gently, though; she’d learned that, at least. “So which is it?”
He shrugged. “Pick one.”
She sighed and threw up her hands in a theatrical gesture, undoubtedly learned from the traveling sideshow they’d been with until yesterday. “You’re hopeless.”
He nodded. It was a good word.
This was about as small a market town as it was possible to find on the main roads. Rural country, “cow-screwing country,” so Bronze Michel had called it, old-gods country. Stheutes’ country, where the white stones rose from the bonefields. The fragments of speech he bothered to hear had a guttural accent; he supposed he had one as well, even after his years in the city.
His sister Linnet had tried to erase her accent, wanting to sound more authoritative. Their father had laughed, saying it didn’t matter what she sounded like, since Rhode would be the one following in his footsteps. Rhode had always been careful not to respond to that.
The girl tugged his elbow again. “We could pick up some silver here.”
He stared down at her, and for a moment saw Linnet in her place, and the chill in him could not for once be attributed to his own affliction.
“I could juggle,” she went on. “You could lift a few cows one-handed. Well, of course one-handed; what I meant was —”
“Think about it. These hicks probably haven’t seen a decent show since the moon was in its egg. Just a ten-minute performance?”
“I said no.”
The girl sighed again. Her gaze shifted to over his shoulder, and she went pale beneath her olive skin. “Damn. Look, can we get moving? Forget the show, let’s just get on out of here.”
A man’s voice, wheedling and high, rang out over the market, and Rhode’s skin went cold — well, colder. “— four silver for a lesser resurrection, and the blessing of Stheutes is yours, preserved forever by the god’s bounty! Stint not, friends, lest your departed loved ones sigh at your miserable parsimony!”
Was it Ranulph? He raised his head to look, remembering in time to pull up the hood of his cloak. No, the shouting man was Egaron, one of Ranulph’s old friends. His face warmed with a dull flush of relief. He hadn’t planned on meeting Ranulph away from the shrine; to meet him now would have meant a change in plans. And Rhode wasn’t sure he still had the flexibility for that.
But Egaron was here, and it was all too obvious who had hired him. His stall was too well-built to be temporary. Posts had been sunk into foundation stones, and the ceiling was sloped to shunt rain onto the sagging slats of the next stall. Egaron harangued the crowd from a little dais, the white skull-mask of Stheutes painted on a purple banner behind him. To either side stood statues of the recent dead, half the height of the people they represented. Stheutes’ bounty. Rhode closed his hand into a fist.
The girl shook his arm, then cursed and tried to hide behind him. It did no good; a hand shot past Rhode and grabbed her by the wrist. “So this is where you’ve got to, Mongoose!” a voice boomed.
“Let go of me!” She twisted, sank her teeth into the hand, and tried to pull away. “Block, help me out here!”
“Block?” The man who’d caught the girl — Mongoose? No, that wasn’t her name — took a step forward to face Rhode. “Damn. Didn’t expect you.”
Block. Who was Block? Yes. They’d called him the Block in the sideshow. Ranulph had sometimes called him as thick as a block. And Linnet had called him a fool, when their father couldn’t hear. He looked away from Egaron’s stall and focused on the man. Ophit, the head of the sideshow. “What do you want?”
Ophit reddened. “Well, it’s not so much what I want, as what the rest of the show wants. See, Mongoose here —”
“My name isn’t Mongoose!” the girl spat. “It’s Wist!”
“Mongoose stole our payroll,” Ophit continued smoothly. “Of course, I had no idea you were working with her…” He tried a smile.
Rhode glanced from him to the girl — what was her name? She’d just said it; his memory was slowing, like the rest of him — and then to Egaron’s stall. Egaron hadn’t noticed him, though he might if this went on.
He laid his hand on the girl’s shoulder in the grip Skald Six-Bladed had taught him, the one that didn’t hurt but promised pain. “Give me the money.”
Not-Mongoose glared up at him, black hair falling across her eyes. He could see her think about lying, but instead she swore and produced a thick packet from under her tunic.
“Thank you.” He took the packet from her and turned away. Something skittered on the back of his neck, and he heard the girl gasp. He looked to see her backing away, a broken knife dangling from her hand. “Stop that.”
Ophit chuckled. “Mongoose, you’re a fool. Did you think the blades we broke on his belly every show were fakes? Why do you think we billed him as the Human Stone?”
“Name’s not Mongoose,” she mumbled, still staring at the shattered blade.
Rhode unrolled the packet. “These are for me,” he said, taking out three gold coins, then three more. “These are for her.”
“The little fool’s not worth half that,” Ophit sneered.
Rhode looked at him, and the sneer wilted. He took another three gold pieces from the packet and tossed the rest to Ophit. “These are for the end of her apprenticeship.”
Ophit looked like he might argue, but Rhode turned, so that the broken bits of knife caught in his cloak sparkled. “Er. Thanks, Block. Be seeing you.”
The girl was still glaring, though shaken, when he turned back to her. She was alert, he remembered, and smart, and he could use some help for part of the way. He tossed her six gold coins, then held up the last three. “I’m hiring you.”
He handed her one of his coins. “Go buy three lanterns. Good ones. And —” he paused a moment to calculate, “— two of the red jars of oil, with the blue stamp.”
She looked at the coin in her hand. “If you’re hiring me for your doxy,” she said in a rush, “I won’t do it. I had enough of that in the sideshow, and I’m not going back.”
“I’m not.” He waited until she looked up at him. “I’m hiring you to keep me awake.”
She gave him a baffled look, but nodded anyway. Once she was gone, he turned his glacial gaze to Egaron’s stall. Egaron had gone inside, probably to bilk another mourner.
Rhode’s father would have torn down the stall, trampled the banner underfoot, and proclaimed Egaron exile from the bonefields, excommunicate for selling what should be free to all. Rhode only gazed at the skull-mask banner and thought of his sister and the shrine.
Had it just been Ranulph’s influence that brought the whole thing down? Ranulph hadn’t had many scruples, it was true, but a younger Rhode hadn’t thought him capable of murder. Could the shrine really have been so much of a prize? What sort of fight would Linnet have put up in his absence?
The girl had to tug on his sleeve several times before he noticed her. “I got you the lanterns,” she said sullenly.
“Thanks,” he said, inspecting what she’d brought him. Two were plain bronze and glass. The third was pierced iron, wrought so that the wick and oil floated in the middle of the lantern and would shine out of the bottom as well as the sides. On one side of the lantern was a crudely hammered skull. He held it up so that iron mask and painted mask faced each other.
“Now what?” Not-Mongoose said. “Got any more shopping?”
“No.” He wrenched the symbol of Stheutes off and tossed it onto the boards of Egaron’s stall. Let him find it and think it an omen. “Come on.”
She followed, but kept talking. It seemed to be a permanent feature. “What was that place? You kept staring at it, and you didn’t even notice when I poked you. What do they sell there, statues?”
“He is selling use of the bonefields,” he said.
“Oh. You mean like buying a graveyard plot?”
“No.” He quickened his pace. “The graveyards — the kind you have in the cities — are poor imitations of the bonefields. You city folk play at planting your dead, and raise a stone above them… If a skeleton is planted in the bonefields, the earth will devour it and return in its place an unbreakable statue of the person, bone made stone.”
The girl was silent a moment. “You know,” she said finally, “I still can’t tell when you’re telling the truth and when you’re deliberately confusing me.”
“Yes.” Most city folk preferred to scoff at the bonefields, even if they bothered to learn about them. The first time he’d seen a graveyard, a week after losing his hand, he’d thought someone had planted the bones wrong. So he’d gone in with a chisel to fix them. That had earned him a night in the lockup, which was where he’d met Skald Six-Bladed, who’d eventually introduced him to Bronze Michel. Bronze Michel had some assassins after him, and it had amused him to have a one-handed bodyguard to thwart them, even if said guard was a little naïve about the city.
He struck the stump of his right hand against his thigh. In those days he’d worn a boiled leather cap over that stump, set with three short blades. It had always baffled the assassins to be confronted by a one-handed man using two weapons.
But it had been good work. Certainly it was good for a former devotee of Stheutes used only to tending the bonefields. Rhode had even enjoyed the unfamiliarity of it; only his strength and skill mattered, not what he’d learned, not who worked the fields. Not who was firstborn, and therefore would be priest after their father.
He glanced back at the girl, realized he was comparing her to Linnet, and looked away again.
The sun’s glow had almost disappeared before they stopped, and then they paused only to fill the lanterns. “You walk behind me,” he said, “and keep the light on my back. I’ll carry this one up front.”
“That’ll tell any bandits we’re here.”
He glanced at her. “You’re worried about them?”
It was almost a joke, unusual for him, and it startled her into smiling. She had a nice smile, he thought. It was too bad they hadn’t met earlier. Not that it would have changed things.
“When were you planning on stopping?” she asked.
“We’re not.” He tapped the side of his lantern and adjusted its wick.
The girl gave him a skeptical look. “We didn’t stop last night either. You’re not tired?”
“No.” Weariness was only another burden among many.
“Ah. Then I’m not either.”
He got to his feet and winced as a thin line of pain twined up his ankle. “One moment. I’ll catch up.”
In the light of the bonefields lantern, it looked as bad as it felt: a faint smudge of white under the hard flesh of his leg, just where the anklebone pressed against the skin. He didn’t have much time left.
He turned down the cuff of his trouser and stood back up, muscles grinding like millstones. The girl looked at him askance. “What’s the matter, Block?”
“Don’t call me Block.” The thought knocked up against an associated one. “Your name’s not Mongoose.”
“Very good, Block.” She tried for sarcasm, but the nervousness in her voice undercut it. “It’s Wist. That’s the sixth time in two days.”
“Ah. Wist.” He raised his lantern, checked the wick, and started down the road.
“Why do we even need these things? There’s a full moon, and the road’s pretty clear.”
“Light slows it,” he said without thinking. “Sunlight’s best, but lamplight works… ‘Dig by day, don’t walk by night,’ that was the proverb… There’s no darker place than under the ground.”
He glanced back after a moment’s silence to see a look of fascinated horror on her face. It made her look younger, closer to her real age. “Keep walking.”
“You’re sick, aren’t you, Block?”
He didn’t answer. Sick wasn’t the word for it.
“Will I get sick now?”
“No.” He knew that much. “Keep the light on me.”
The road was flat and monotonous, enough that it was easy to doze off even in full sun. However, there were roots and ruts that waited to trip up sleepwalkers, and one of these caught the girl some time after moonset. Rhode felt the chill of the light off his back before he heard the clatter and curse. When he turned, she was crumpled on the road where she’d fallen, lamps to either side.
He gazed at her for a long moment, then flexed the fingers of his left hand. They still moved, but not well. He had time for a delay, not time for sleep.
It took a few minutes’ work to attach one of the lamps to his belt, so that it shone its inadequate light over one side of him. By that time the girl was almost on her feet again. Against her protests, he picked her up and balanced the bonefields lantern on her chest, tucked so it wouldn’t scorch her, and kept walking.
The girl complained, but not enough to stay awake. He gazed down at her when he could spare his attention from the road. There were scars in her hairline that he hadn’t seen before, scars like the kind Skald Six-Bladed’s wire tools left. For a moment he was sorry he hadn’t killed Ophit, but there was no point in it. No point in liking her now. Perhaps if he’d been younger. If he hadn’t worked under Bronze Michel so long. If the frost beneath his skin had stayed away.
At first, he’d thought it was just the price to pay for his ageless face and unyielding strength. Then he’d remembered his hand, how he’d had to cut a second time on seeing the white smears rising in his flesh, and he’d gone to look for help.
He remembered countless hours in the circles of the city’s wizards while they consulted each other and argued and tested him with spell after spell. He gave them so much blood he thought he’d turn translucent, and one even asked for a toe-bone. In the end, all they could tell him was that it was a fascinating malady, worthy of years of speculation and study, that it had never happened before, and that it was irreversible.
Harsh words for a god’s bounty.
He’d tried to get a time estimate from them and failed. He’d pressured them (this was when he still wore the blades) and learned that they really had no idea how much time he had. One wizard, a weedy and twitchy type, had offered a few speculations to make up for his lack of knowledge. Before the end, the wizard told him, his entire being, including his thoughts, would slow as he petrified from the ground up. The last image he saw would remain in his stone eyes for a very long time. Maybe for eternity.
That was when he’d begun to plan. And those plans had led him to travel with the sideshow and meet this parcel of thievery.
He could tell himself he was going back for Linnet, who must have been cast out once Ranulph had his hands on the bonefields. But she’d always been strange to him, too avid in her studies of the bonefields in a way that had chilled him. Memories of coming upon her in the fields while she examined the bones rose to the surface of his mind and were pushed down again. There had been something cold about her, ever since they were children.
He wasn’t going back to claim the fields. He no longer had any tie there.
He wasn’t angry that Ranulph had tried to kill him. He’d been so once, but time had scoured it away.
No, he was going back for what else had been done to him. For his burial in the bonefields. For the white patches on his chest, the hardening of his skin. For the dreams in which he tasted sour earth, clawed at the dirt filling his eyes, and just before waking, he would always have his hand back, and he would always feel the slow prickle as the earth — Stheutes’ bounty — began to devour him.
For that, he wanted revenge. He shifted the girl’s weight and kept walking.
When the sun rose, he was halfway up a hill, still carrying the girl. He hadn’t even fallen, only stopped in his tracks like a weary ox.
The girl woke before him, and it was her gasp that brought him out of sleep. She stared up at him. “Block, what’s wrong with you?”
He set her down and touched the nerveless patch on his neck, where the light hadn’t reached. “A lot of things.” He unhitched the last lantern, pinched out the guttering wick, and handed it to her with the last two coins. “Go. I don’t need you any more.”
“That’s a lie. I was with Ophit longer than you, Block; I know lying.”
He didn’t answer, just walked on. When he heard her light footsteps behind him, he paused. “Rhode,” he said. “My name is Rhode. Remember it if you’re coming. If anyone says it, tell me.”
“I will,” she said, but her voice quavered.
The first townsfolk recognized him as he passed the common fields. Children watching after their family’s one cow glanced up and away incuriously, but the old women with them stared in disbelief. “They’re talking about you, Block,” said the girl. “I mean, Rhode.”
“I hear.” He tried to remember her name again and only came up with Polecat or Ferret, neither of which could be right. “Keep walking.”
They walked on, drawing near to the bonefields, and so he was prepared for her yelp and stumble; though not for how she treaded on his feet in regaining her balance. “What the hell is that?”
He raised his eyes to the fields, unnaturally bright green speckled with white, like a sheep pasture seen from far away. She was quick; she’d figure it out.
And she did, shivering and forking her fingers at the fragments poking through the turf. “Rhode, I know they’re supposed to be sacred, but they give me the cold shivers.”
“Yes.” He remembered walking among those statues, the white faces and hands reaching for the sky. Remembered hours spent with his father, learning a history and a duty believed sacred. How to care for the bone and stone, how to survive if he had to be in the fields after sundown, how to nurture the changing statues. All the rites of Stheutes, of memory, the same rites Ranulph now used to wring money from weeping families.
And yet there was always the sour taste of earth and the prickling in his right hand.
“There’s nothing sacred about them,” he said, harsher than he’d meant. “Nothing.”
The home he’d grown up in was now much bigger and prettier, with a second story built on. The shrine of Stheutes had been repaired a little, but not nearly as much as the house. New gilding limned the door, but the pillars sagged and leaned toward each other.
“Wait here,” he told the girl — what was her name? Thist? She nodded, uncharacteristically quiet.
As Rhode stepped over the boundary between house and shrine, the door opened, and Ranulph emerged, whistling, with a bundle of sticks under one arm. The merry tune died with a hiss, and Ranulph paled to the color of the statues. “Rhode?”
“Yes.” Rhode didn’t stop. If he stopped moving now, he’d never start again. “You tried to kill me.”
Ranulph blinked, then glanced at the shrine and seemed to come to a decision. “Yes. Yes, I did. Rhode, I thought you were dead —”
“I hope so.” He took another step — Ranulph hadn’t even tried to flee — and laid his hand on Ranulph’s shoulder, like a friend offering comfort. “Do you know what happens to a living body in the bonefields, Ranulph? A body under the ground, away from the light? It isn’t just bone that changes down there. Stheutes will take flesh too.”
As if summoned by his speech, daggers of cold sank into his feet and worked their way up. White patches blossomed over his still-hidden skin; soon they would be visible. Ranulph backed away, but too late; he’d given himself no room, and Rhode was too close.
Rhode flexed his fingers, bones audibly creaking, and laced them around Ranulph’s throat. Ranulph squeaked, but Rhode’s grasp was set. This is what I wanted to see, he thought, what I wanted fixed in my eyes as I die. “Do you know what happens?” he repeated.
“I do,” a woman’s voice said behind him.. Not the girl’s.
He forced his muscles to turn as stone crept through his veins. The girl was almost within arm’s reach, at the edge of the garden, and behind her stood a woman he would have known no matter how many lines time wrote on her face. Linnet. His sister.
She wore the gray surcoat of Stheutes’ anointed, their father’s surcoat, but the horn-handled knife she held to the girl’s throat was no tool of the priesthood. “I’ve had time to wonder, and time to find out. We found your hand, but never the rest of you. I’d wondered how far you could go with the bonefields in you, but I’d never have guessed you could go twenty years.” She smiled, and it was the same cold smile, stripped of any innocence. “Now we can place your statue beside Father’s.”
She didn’t hear him. “Now let go of my husband, or I cut your doxy. And believe me, I’ll bury her still breathing if he comes to harm.”
He drew a deep breath and released Ranulph, who sank to his knees. “Linnet — you —”
He lurched backward blindly, twisting to reach her. But the stone had worked its way too far into him, and his bones gave first. Something snapped as his knees ground themselves to splinters. He roared and fell as far as the stone would let him, crumpled over his petrifying limbs.
Linnet shook her head. “You’re still a fool, Rhode.”
The girl — Twisp? Quis? — snarled and wrenched his sister’s arm away. “Don’t you call him that! Block and me are no fools!”
She twisted out of Linnet’s grasp in a move that was definitely learned in the sideshow, and her foot caught the back of Linnet’s knee.
Off balance, Linnet stumbled and fell. He dragged his leaden arms to catch her, expending his last moments of mobility. She shrieked as he grabbed her by the wrist, and the knife tumbled to the earth. White blooms rose to the surface of his skin and spread, his fingers a loose shackle that could not be undone now even if he had wanted to let go. “The stone of Stheutes is unbreakable,” he murmured, just loud enough for her to hear. “You can get away from me, Linnet, but you’ll have to lose what I lost.”
Her eyes widened, and her screams grew even more shrill.
Craven, he thought; compared to his fate, her punishment was much lighter.
“Rhode!” Wist cried.
The muscles of his neck creaked and protested, but he forced them to move till he could see her. Wist knelt in front of the garden, a stricken look on her face. He tried to smile, to reassure her, but the stone reached his face as his lips formed the barest curve. Then sight froze forever, leaving him the image of her trying to smile back.
It was, the last spark in his mind told him, not such a bad vision to have for eternity.
Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo caught me off guard. The premise — a gay photographer named Angel rescues a troll cub from brutal teenagers and all that follows — blurs the line of real and make believe. Blending both, Sinisalo mixes doses of encyclopedia entries, newspaper articles and books, and Angel’s point of view, all focused on the one implausible piece: that trolls exist, and most particularly, this troll, whom Angel names Pessi. On the outskirts of this event are the people who surround Angel — an ex-lover, an unrequited love, a wannabe lover, and an abused mail-order wife who lives downstairs. Each becomes aware of the troll’s existence as Angel exploits them for what they can give, nor does Angel draw the line at manipulating humans for what he needs.
Still, Angel loves Pessi. And Pessi, it turns out, loves Angel.
Based on all the information we’re given about trolls thoughout the novel, it’s a given that no troll/human love story will end happily. This is a fairytale in the spirit of the Grimm Brothers, rather than a Disney-modified version. The dark is always with us, from Angel’s discovery of Pessi to the required journey through the forest and into self-knowledge. While trolls have always been regarded as the monsters, this book makes us wonder just who is the real monster. The answer is neither resolved nor undisturbing.
Despite all the wonder, there are some faults. I had no idea Angel was male initially, so the discovery that he was surprised me. I remain unconvinced that Sinisalo did this accidentally — it served the purpose of getting me off balance and the rest of the tale continued along that path. It took me a while to adjust to the point of view switches between the various characters. (Hint: Pay attention to the scene headers.) I also would have preferred less of the nonfiction-styled entries. I was far more intrigued in the relationship between troll and human and wanted to see more interaction between them, rather than skimming the articles, pointed or not. However, Ms. Sinisalo did not consult my preferences, and even with the lapse in judgement, she’s done a darn fine job.
Troll: A Love Story won the Finlandia prize for best fiction published in Finland, and deservedly so. I’ll be on the lookout for more of her fiction, and if you haven’t read this one yet, it’s well worth the money for the trade paperback.
Unless they’ve been cut off from humanity for a good while, every serious Science Fiction reader knows that Jack McDevitt has been working at the top of his field for more years than he’d probably care to remember. His first novel, The Hercules Text, won the Philip K. Dick Special Award and since then, as they say, he’s never looked back, making regular appearances on the final Nebula ballot, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Hugo list. The recent release of Polaris, his eleventh novel has provoked a fresh tide of critical acclaim for his story-telling abilities.
With a new novel, Seeker (set in the same universe as Polaris), in the works, we caught up with him to ask him about his work, how he got started in the field, and well, just about anything really. What we discovered was a refreshingly forthright individual who has never lost his sense of wonder at the universe around him and who maintains a real sense of passion for his field.
Rowntree & Negus: It’s documented that your first Science Fiction short story, “The Emerson Effect”, was written as a result of encouragement from your wife, Maureen. Just how important has the support of your family been to your career?
Jack McDevitt: Essential. Without Maureen, none of it would have happened. Writing professionally seemed to me a capability beyond my reach. (Some might say I was right.) I was on a one-year TDY assignment at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centre in Brunswick, GA, in 1980, training customs inspectors. I got bored at one point and my wife encouraged me to try my hand at writing.
R&N: Do you think you’d have come to writing at all without Maureen’s encouragement?
JM: Impossible to know for certain. But probably not.
R&N: What other factors were important in you becoming a writer?
JM: I have a lifelong passion for SF. And there were things I wanted to see up close. I wanted to be able to watch a white dwarf from nearby, to follow the action while a binary system encounters a third star, to ride along while archaeologists unearthed an alien civilization, maybe to be present when we actually encountered a set of neighbours. We live in a remarkable place. I wanted to have a hand in looking around. (Even if it was a fictitious hand.)
R&N: The advent of the PC means more and more people are trying their hand at writing these days. On your website there are a couple of articles to help beginners. With those and your background in English teaching in mind, do you have any tips for people starting out today?
JM: I occasionally hear people wonder whether the editors gave them a fair chance. Whether they read deeply enough into the story (or the book). But the editor has no obligation to do anything other than — in a short story — read the first few paragraphs. It’s up to the writer to make sure that once the editor picks it up, he cannot put it down. Use the opening paragraph to grab the editor by the throat, so that he will not be able to sleep until he finds out what happened. In a novel, the writer will be granted a bit more leeway. Maybe a chapter. But the same principle applies.
R&N: How would you recommend that a new writer break through the mountainous slush piles cluttering up editor’s offices?
JM: See above. Write a standout story. Start with a first paragraph that grabs hold and won’t let go. Editors love to discover new writers. There’s a reason most of the stuff never gets published: It’s just not very good. You can’t evade the slush pile, except maybe by marrying into the family. But write a great story and they’ll be watching for you.
R&N: Many beginners enroll in creative writing courses, workshops, and the like. Sometimes at great expense. Do you think this is a sensible route or perhaps have some other suggestions on making sure that that manuscript meets and reaches a professional standard?
JM: Workshopping has its place. What everybody needs, beginner and established pro alike, is an in-house editor. We need somebody close by, a spouse, a friend, a cousin, someone with decent taste, who can look at our work and tell us what he really thinks. Not what we want to hear, but the truth. If you can find someone like that, every time they tell you something you don’t want to hear, take him to lunch. And never ever make him pay a price for his honesty because then you’ll lose him. Listen to the comments, and make your judgment on their probable validity and not on the basis that he’s criticizing something we’ve written. Then, if more work is needed, get to it. Always remember that when people criticize your work, they’re criticizing a narrative, not you.
R&N: Was there anything that might have made you give up? How close have you ever come?
JM: I gave up after winning the annual Freshman Short Story Contest at LaSalle College. They even published the story in the school’s literary magazine, Four Quarters. I was on my way. Then I read David Copperfield and realized I could never write at that level, and therefore I should find something else to do. I joined the Navy, drove a cab, became an English teacher, took a customs inspector’s job on the northern border, and didn’t write another word for a quarter-century. Generally, when people give up, I think it’s because they lose confidence in themselves. The good news is that most of us seem to be more talented than we realize. We spend our early years with all sorts of authority figures telling us don’t do this, don’t do that, look out you’ll break it. Even teachers generally show us what we are doing wrong and ignore what we are doing right. What shines. After a while we begin to believe it.
R&N: With last year’s release of Omega you seem to have concluded a journey started in 1994 with your novel, The Engines of God. Did you originally conceive of the ideas and themes for one novel or was a there a realization then that to fully explore them more novels would be needed?
JM: I’d like to claim I planned the Omega novels from the beginning. The Engines of God, though, was intended to work as a stand-alone. But readers wanted to know more about the clouds. And I guess I caved to pressure.
R&N: With Omega nicely tidying up the plotlines developed throughout The Engines of God, Deepsix, and Chindi, is that an end to the Priscilla Hutchins/Academy Universe?
JM: That’s my intention. But I’ve learned not to rule things out. If a story-line shows up that would work well in the Academy universe, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.
R&N: Your most recent novel, Polaris, released November 2004, is a sequel of sorts to your novel, A Talent for War. Already attracting critical acclaim and excellent reviews – How would you sum it up for your avid readers?
JM: Three starships travel to the edge of known space to watch a white dwarf collide with a class G sun. After the collision, two of the ships start back. The third one, the Polaris, reports Departure Imminent. And then no more is heard from her. When a rescue vessel arrives, six days later, the Polaris is found deserted. Pressure suits are still on board. The lander is in its launch pad. There’s no place to go anyhow. (The sun has collapsed.) There are no other ships within range. And there are no aliens.
Sixty years later, when the antiquities dealer Alex Benedict has a chance to buy some artefacts from the ship, the fate of its captain and passengers is still a mystery. But Benedict has already solved one enigmatic puzzle in A Talent for War. This one looks like a bigger challenge.
R&N: Polaris has received great reviews both from the general press and SF-orientated publications. Did this have any bearing on your choice of ‘universe’ for the next novel, Seeker? Or had you already decided upon this before the release of Polaris?
JM: Seeker was completed before Polaris was released. So, no. Obviously no effect whatever. I enjoyed writing Chase as a viewpoint character, and I have a passion for mysteries. Especially classic ones, like the Mary Celeste. Or, as in Seeker, the Roanoke colony.
R&N: Seeker reunites readers with prominent antiques dealer Alex Benedict and his companion Chase Kolpath. Can you tell us a little more about the plot?
JM: By the beginning of the Interstellar Age, America had become a theocracy. Several thousand ‘malcontents’ set off in the Bremerhaven and the Seeker for a destination, a colony world, whose location they refuse to reveal. The ships are owned by the colonists and, as expected, do not return. But nothing of them is ever heard again.
Thousands of years pass. The event acquires a legendary status. People begin to think of the colony the way we think of Atlantis. Until one day Alex Benedict finds himself in possession of a plastic cup, marked in English characters, and bearing a Seeker icon. Alex thinks little of it until, on a whim, he tests it and discovers it is nine thousand years old. Of course, it might have been no more than a souvenir of sorts. Might never have left Earth. On the other hand, it begins to look as if somebody might know where the Seeker is.
R&N: Many of your novels take a very reasonable, ‘ships passing in the night’ approach to the Fermi Paradox. Do you subscribe to a particular view on this? Or is the vote still out?
JM: Clearly the vote’s out. But I suspect it’s pretty empty out there. We’re talking immense ranges of time and space. It’s not only going to be a long walk to any neighbours, but they are very likely to be lost in time as well.
R&N: Some commentators say that sense of wonder SF is dead and that baroque, darker futures are taking its place in novels from newer writers. Your work seems to hark back to sense of wonder themes and also nod in the direction of their loss — on the one hand sense of wonder, on the other pointing to its loss, the missed opportunities. Was it a conscious decision on your part to marry the two together almost as an epitaph to that format? And are themes of loss, loneliness, and regret things that you are interested in exploring?
JM: I don’t care much what’s currently popular. I write to my instincts. But it does seem to be true that I write frequently about things that get lost. Years ago, when I was in graduate school, we were at a professor’s home having lunch, and the conversation drifted toward Renaissance Italy, with all these scholars heading off to Greece and coming back with plays and histories and philosophical works. One of the professors had a story about one man returning with a trunk full. But a storm blew up and the ship went down. Along with the trunk. What was in it? Maybe other epics of the Homeric cycle? Maybe some of Sophocles’ lost plays? And I wondered what became of the scholar. Those kinds of events present dramatic possibilities that are overwhelming. Employing them seems to me the most natural thing in the world.
R&N: The list of awards that you have won and/or received nominations for is impressive. With all that behind you, what motivates you to continue?
JM: See above. I love writing SF. If I weren’t doing this, I doubt I’d be writing at all.
R&N: We’re not suggesting that any author might write simply to add another notch to his award belt, but is there any prize out there that you’d really like to get your hands on?
JM: Seeing my name on the spine of The Hercules Text gave me a pretty decent charge. And there were a few awards. But that first sale: That’s recognition unlike any other. Or at least it was for me because I never expected to see any fiction of mine in print. Sure, I’d like to win a Nebula or a Hugo, actually take one home. But so many good things have already happened, I can’t bring myself to worry much about it.
R&N: Winning the John W. Campbell award for your novel Omega was no small achievement, especially when you look at the competition. Can you tell us how it felt? What kind of a day was it emotionally? And what it means to you?
JM: It felt pretty good. I understand I am now tied for the all-time record for most nominations without ever winning a Nebula, so taking home the Campbell persuaded me that anybody really can be president. It was one of the finest moments of my life. And the fact that the award was presented by Gregory Benford had special meaning.
R&N: As well as writing novels, you’re a prolific short story writer. While we’re forever being told that the short story is dead, we’re yet to see the evidence of that. What do you believe that a short story, particularly an SF short story, has to offer the contemporary reader?
JM: The short story is probably the more natural form for SF. We are present at a discovery or, more frequently, we witness the result of a technological breakthrough. Usually of course, things have gone wrong, and therefore SF often serves as a cautionary tale. But we learn that immortality may not be all it’s cracked up to be, that contact even with congenial aliens may have a downside, that designing babies may create serious problems. The idea is presented, we watch the action, and the narrative moves to its natural conclusion. SF is at its best when only one thing has been changed, allowing us to see the result clearly. In a novel, a lot of things change, or the impact of the technology gets lost in 400 pages of charging around. This is not to say the novel doesn’t work in the genre, but simply that the short story is the purer form.
R&N: When some short story writers move into writing novels as their favoured form, the humble short is often forgotten, while others use the short story to fill the transition period between novels. Does maintaining an output of short stories serve any kind of function for you, or do you write them when inspiration strikes?
JM: I enjoy doing short fiction, which can pack a concentrated wallop that you can’t get from a novel. I’ll write one whenever I have a serviceable idea.
R&N: Science fiction fans are sometimes viewed as a nerdy bunch who’ve spent a lifetime cultivating acne whilst barely setting foot out of doors in daylight hours. How would you sell SF to someone of that opinion? What do you believe it has to offer that mainstream fiction or other genres don’t?
JM: I feel sorry for people who have never discovered SF, who have never ridden the Centauri Express, who have never stood beside a Martian canal, who don’t know what it is to set down on a distant world. SF is basically about change. The world is moving very quickly. My father was born before the Wright Brothers flew, and he lived to see the moon landings. That’s a lot for one lifetime. But people are hardwired to resist change. That’s why older folks are always behind the curve and we need our kids to get rid of the virus when it shows up. During the last two administrations, we encountered ideas that have been kicking around the field a long time: clones and genetic engineering. The two presidents involved, and the majority of the American public reacted as if the issues had fallen out of the sky. Of course, we banned clones, and we banned stem cell research. And if somebody figures out how to make a healthier kid, we’ll ban that, too. SF is about discovery and the future. It’s a literature for people with brains, whose interests go somewhat beyond adultery in the suburbs.
R&N: If you could recommend one really great read to that person, what would it be and why?
JM: My personal favourite is Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. I don’t see how anyone can sit with the crew of the third mission and look out at that small Martian town with its picket fences and its church and its frame houses, open the hatch and hear someone on a piano playing Beautiful Dreamer and ever be the same again. The book is filled with dynamite, the guy left behind on Mars who can never get to the phone before it stops ringing, the sentient dying house in “There Will Come Soft Rains,” the kids whose father takes them to the canal where they can see Martians.
R&N: Which writers have most influenced you throughout your career?
JM: I assume you mean SF writers. Those are Bradbury, Clark, Heinlein, Wyndham. Outside the field, Mark Twain, Dickens, Dostoevski, Tolstoi, Dos Passos, Charles Lamb. And Jean Shepherd.
R&N: What made you fall in love with science fiction as a genre?
JM: Strange places, the ultimate in romance, escape from a city where the stars were always dull. I suppose the answer is the same one that drove Ulysses: the sights.
R&N: What else do you read?
JM: Everything except westerns and mainstream fiction. I am currently reading Grant’s Memoirs, James Trefil’s Are We Unique, Peter Watson’s The Modern Mind, and Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. I am about to start Stellar Collisions, Mergers, and Their Consequences, edited by Michael M. Shara. (Anyone familiar with my work will smile at that last one.)
R&N: Which contemporary writers do you most admire?
JM: In SF: Benford, Kress, Sheffield, Bear, Brin.
R&N: We noticed on your website that there s a top ten films list containing several British comedies. Is there a particular reason for this?
JM: I should have included Schindler’s List. But yes, I was blown away back in the fifties by Alistair Sim, Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness, and the others. I don’t think anyone does comedy the way the Brits did during those years. Regrettably, they seem to have lost their touch and become Americanized. Everybody falls down a lot now.
R&N: Jack, because of the way you speak about your writing, and science fiction as a whole, you strike us as a passionate man. Could you give us a little more insight into the man behind the pen? What are your other passions in life?
JM: My wife and family. I enjoy chess, bridge, moonlit beaches, encountering old friends, lunch, Sherlock Holmes, astronomy, rainstorms, the Phillies and Eagles. I read almost any kind of book. I do a one-hour workout daily — most days. I like a good movie, a good mystery, a good thriller, a good comedy. I like chocolate. Dogs, cats, and parrots. I have always been gifted to understand that the moment is priceless, that we don’t have forever, that there’s never been a time in my life that I didn’t realize the day would come when I would wish heartily to be able to return to it, to that moment, to see the people again, to remember how it felt. I admire H.L. Mencken (who showed up in Deepsix as Gregory MacAllister), Bob Hope, Goldie Hawn, the astrophysicists who are working to get the first visual of an extra-solar star. I’m entranced by the improvements during my lifetime in medicine and dentistry. And automobile technology. I also like Indiana Jones and I retain my fondness for the Lone Ranger and Captain Midnight. My favourite all-time radio/TV show is probably I Love a Mystery from the 1940’s.
We would like to thank Jack McDevitt for his time. His latest novel, Polaris, is available from Ace Publishers, ISBN 0-441-01202-7, priced at $24.95. Go on, treat yourselves.
Lu, slender boy body leaning towards the mirror, bare to the hips, skin as smooth as the glass he peers in. “Thank the good lord for glitter,” he says as silver arches form from his fingertips, curving where eyebrows once were. Behind his back, Greta, light and dark like a silent film star, rolls large, gray eyes, and I smile in return. Across the invisible mirror flashes Lu, Homecoming Queen in high school, roses in arms, sparkling tiara in dark hair — he has never gotten over that. Nor has the football-star golden boy who was king. My laugh is as silent as Greta’s film star looks. I lean on Lu’s shoulder — bone under the warm skin pressed to my cheek — and there I am, manifesting in the periphery of the mirror, smear of black hair, scarf, dress, pale brown face, newly real to the world on the other side.
The words slip from my mouth, murmured, slurred perhaps from the warmth of Lu’s skin, the warmth of brandy in my belly. “Ella crea que pareces como una puta,” the words say, and I smile — too many smiles on my lips tonight. The mirror shows me that too much of me is mouth. I think of feathers brushing across my lips, teasing the smile out of me — Lu is made of feathers, I think, knowing that it’s not quite true.
Glitter from Lu’s fingertip brushes across my eyelids, and his voice answers, soft, floating — from the mirror or from his mouth, I can’t tell. “¿Qué sabe ella? Parece como una….” Hand on hip, undulating and puckering drag queen style, and we laugh together, silently.
Greta breaks it, though, flicking ashes from her cigarette into the cold fireplace, pouting with her small, bow-perfect Louise Brooks mouth. Her words fall from her mouth, break the quiet in the room, but I love her no less for it. “You know I don’t like it when you do that,” she says, jealous of the hours Lu and I sit together, foreheads nearly touching, the atoms of us touching, in front of the lit fireplace, reading El Amor en los Tiempos del Colera with softly rolled r’s and silent h’s, while the fire heats us like a fever and we imagine ourselves melting like glass. Heavy eyelids dropping, fingertips still cold, trembling on pages, Lu would sigh, “One hundred years, alone alone.”
“I’m here, I’m here,” but my words are light off glass, Lu as cold as glass. Greta, hot words spilling from red lips, fire in her touch, has no reason for jealousy. The only thing Lu is jealous of is the image in the mirror. “No country for old men,” he says, his fingertips touching nothing but light off glass, lips barely able to melt the ice of his reflection.
And so we maunder, mad women in our blacks that crackle and drag, and my long coat billows behind me — A sail! A sail! — on the chiaroscuro streets, streetlamps loving Lu’s skin, shadows clinging to the hems of Greta’s skirt, and mine, my cheek near Lu’s warm shoulder, left hand touching Lu’s cold fingertips, right enveloped in the heat of Greta’s hand. Our shadows heighten his light, never invading it as the night invades daylight, taking it by degrees; “Está frío, frío.”
“Como el frío si estés muerto,” I answer, catching the melody in my voice so Greta will understand. She still does not, so I hum the opening strings and then murmur, “Plainsong.” She nods, and her laugh is not silent — I hear the hammer on hot yellow metal, the delicate work of tapping out gold into leaf — a little goldfish or a little golden bird on a golden bough. All this, all that Lu sees through the mirror and wants to be, Greta is in a single gesture. I touch his shoulder — he is solid, he is real. But impermanent. Not like Greta, eternal Greta’s artifice. Lu imitates — the enameling of his fingernails, feathers of false birds on his shoulders. But cold fingertips betray him. Art is hot, hot, hot as the fire that tempers gold, hot as Greta’s laugh, hot even when the air freezes the surface of dirty puddles on the Divisidero.
Poor blind Lu, sick with desire, I think, and the words shape my lips, and the sounds slip from my throat before I can stop them. And Lu stops, lets go of my hand — I am glad, for it was growing cold. I slip it into my pocket, curling fingers round warm wool and wads of tissue turning to fluff. “¿Qué dices? Who’s blind? Em? Em?”
M, M, M. What of that? My name turned to a single syllable, a letter. Lu’s voice slips into the cold of the air, and I scan the street for my name — there, on the cross street sign; there, in the name of a passing car, all neon reflection in the dark; there, on the yellow tag on Lu’s boot. “I live not in myself, but become portion of that around me.”
“What are you talking about?” Greta’s voice now, the voice of a silent film star, unreal, music made by clockwork birds. “Em, you’re not making sense. Em, you’re always doing that. You know everyone doesn’t understand. Why do you do that?”
“It’s part of my pose, sweetie, you know that. We’ll go into Dead Air and you’ll see all the poses. Look at Lu. He has a pose. He wants to be you. You have a pose, but you’re nothing but the pose, honey, so you seem like you’re not posing at all. Lu wants to be like that.”
“Not true!” Lu’s voice has no artifice, no artistic tinkling. He whines. No wonder he wants to be what he sees in the mirror, no wonder he spends all his time weaving images in his mind of what he thinks he sees in his reflection.
“Lu is half sick of this world, not of shadows,” and my laugh is in the words.
“You’re not making sense, Em.” Greta pouts, Eros’s bow bending before he lets fly an arrow. I have seen that arrow pierce through the thickest of leather jackets, eluding steel chain, eluding Peter Murphy-posed indifference.
Lu puts his hand in my pocket. “I’m sorry, Em. You’re mad at me. I’m sorry.” He doesn’t know what he did wrong. He didn’t do anything wrong.
“You don’t need to be sorry, mi’jo. I’m not mad at you. It just seems like you don’t know as much about you as I do sometimes.”
“Em, you shouldn’t say things like that.” Greta bumps her hip into mine. “That’s not nice.”
“No, not nice, Greta, but not un-nice either.” I confirm, steam from my mouth out in a sigh like Lu’s sighs when he’s longing for glass images. No answer, but a squeeze from Greta’s fiery hand, and Lu’s cold hands thrust deep into velvet pockets.
There’s Dead Air, spot of fizzling neon on the drab street, sign not really broken, only rigged to sputter and waver drunkenly. “There’s your Byzantium,” I say, and laugh, not liking the sound of it, the sound so cold. “Like the cold if you were dead,” I sing under my breath, imagining the words in the steam, and hold out my hand. The man at the door, flash of bald scalp, silver eyes, knows us, brandishes his stamp like a quill, and then there are stars, inky black on my skin, bleeding into the tiny lines of my skin, might as well be part of my skin those stars are there so often.
And then we’re inside, black walls and blue smoke and colored lights and beating music, scuffed dance floor as familiar as if we’d taken our first steps there. Greta’s first steps were dancing steps, never clumsy in platforms, never heavy like mine in buckled boots. Eternal, this place, as if it knows everything we’ve done, everything that’s been done to us, hiding it all in the dark mirrors behind the bar, fragmenting it all in the ludicrous mirrored globe, and showing it back to us every Saturday night.
And in the invisible mirror flashes a vision of shards of reflection, a jagged wedge reflecting the black of the ceiling, splashed with darkening, sticky crimson. I squeeze my eyes shut until light like golden chrysanthemums floats across the darkness. Push down the image of feathers drowned in the syrupy red that my buckled boots slide in, the image of white stars on indigo as I hit the floor, the pound of my body into the floor, into the wall, the pound of footsteps that are running towards choking screams, my voice stuck in a loop: mi’jo, mi’jo, mi’jo, mi’jo.
No. Estoy aquí. I’m here, I’m here. There is no blood, no screams. No gurgling from the lips barely able to melt ice, no once half-cold hands gone as cold as stone. Dead Air may show me that, the invisible mirror may be etched with the images, but it is a lie. This is what is real, as real as Greta’s pose:
My hand in Lu’s soft, cold clasp, and we’re heading towards the back, to the purple-painted bathroom, to the full-length mirrors, silver-smooth worlds made of light. A look back at Greta, glass beads around her neck like hard candy — John Ruskin would not approve — fishnets and patent leather, a wink of a pale gray eye, red curved smile, wiggling fingers to bid us ta-ta. I raise my eyebrow, shake my head. Lu’s hand freezing my fingers as I watch the heat rise around Greta like a halo, Dead Air’s beats pounding through me like her pulse, my soul split between them, my soul half Greta’s and half Lu’s and all Em, my soul which I’ve always pictured as an uneven wedge of blue light, dotted with gold, though silver-haired Anna told me it is black with burgundy splotches like crushed flowers.
Cold porcelain, cold tile, fading disinfectant smell, and two Lu’s — one who is, and one who wants to be. “What is it that you’ve been saying, Em? I don’t understand. Greta’s right. Nobody understands.”
I put my fingers on his glitter eyebrows and the soft feathers at his shoulder, feathers brushing against my lips, and I smile. “You understand, Lu. You said it yourself — That is no country for old men. ¿Recuerdes? Byzantium.”
Lu’s eyes light up like jewels, jewels set in polished gold, jewels hiding mechanical wheels, turning and turning. “Therefore I have sailed — ” he begins, but I shake my head.
“No, Lu, no. It’s cold there.”
“I’m half-cold already, Em. Don’t pretend. It’s where I belong.” And he touches fingertips with the other Lu.
“Why here? Wait till we’re home, wait until we’re near the fire.”
He shakes his head now. “Homes come and go,” he says, “but Dead Air stays.”
“Then out there, Lu, not in here.”
A wink, raised glittering arches. “The lighting’s better in here, Em. I couldn’t see you and Greta out there, couldn’t hear you.”
“You won’t hear us — do you hear what goes on there? And maybe you won’t see anything at all, Lu.” My lips, my fingertips, my toes in my buckled boots, all numb, my body trembling, my arms twining round him like vines, trying to bind him to me. “Lu. I was mean. Greta was right, I was mean. I’m sorry. I wasn’t mad at you. Please. I need you to stay. Lo siento, mi’jo, lo siento.”
“It’s not because of you, Em. Don’t apologize. You were right. I’ll be nothing but a pose.” And he smiles like angels, and touches the glass, cold fingertips on cold glass, cold lips on cold glass. My arms drop as the lingering warmth, the last bit of life still clinging to his body, disappears. I raise my eyes to the mirror, and see only myself looking back, silent as Greta’s filmstar looks.