Category: Short Stories

WTF? Where did this sci fi tale come from?

Montana fading in the rearview mirror and I’m looking at fairly substantial revisions to my western, The Last Hunt.

My meetings and the research I conducted while in the Livingston and Yellowstone area proved invaluable; I’ve found numerous inaccuracies that have to be addressed, many details that can be woven into the narrative to give the novel far more authenticity and impact.  There’s a small box of books to go through, a mountain of notes and photocopies, and I’m about to dive in, head first—

Instead, my Muse decides to bushwhack me and, like the worst blindside hits, I never even sensed this one coming.

I’ve had the notion for a science fiction story for a couple of years.  I’m a huge fan of the genre, grew up devouring everything space-related I could lay my hands on.  Three early efforts that had a big effect on me were “A Walk in the Dark”, a tale by Arthur C. Clarke, and two short story collections, Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun and a youth-oriented anthology titled Tales of Time and Space (edited by Ross Robert Olney).   The latter included “Birds of a Feather” by Robert Silverberg, which is still a fave.  I spotted an edition of Tales of Time and Space at a library book sale a number of years ago.  Immediately recognized it (even after an interval of thirty some odd years) and snapped it up.  I treasure that book; both my sons have read it as well.

My tale, I’ve known from the start, would have a “retro SF” feel to it:  like it could have been written back in the late 50’s or early 60’s by someone like Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, A.E. van Vogt or, yup, Robert Silverberg.  Nothing state of the art or high tech.  A small story about a lonely, little man.  Some alternative history thrown in, a universe with some important differences from our own…

All very nice.  But eight days ago I’m cleaning up my desk, sorting through papers and I come across a contest for novelettes and novellas, fiction between 7500-15,000 words, and all at once I’m overcome by this notion that my SF idea would be perfect for that length and I could use the contest, which has a decent payday, as my motivation.  Poking a finger at the prize money:  that would just about pay off your Montana trip, laddie.

Going after my conscience, my on-going worries over finances here at Casa Burns.  My Muse has no sense of propriety or shame.

One things leads to another and, heh heh, eight days later I’m done, presented with a 37-page, 10,000 word tale called “Eyes in the Sky”.  It came in a rush and would not be resisted.  Any gal who’s given birth knows exactly what I’m talking about.  The piece arrived just about fully-formed and its creation was so effortless, it made me suspicious that the bloody thing was no good.  But Sherron has reassured me.  She read a printed draft last night and gave “Eyes in the Sky” high grades. So I’m relieved.

But still perturbed to get yanked away from my western novel with no warning, no explanation.  I guess it’s an object lesson.  Something this control freak had better get through his thick head:  I am not in charge.  I am merely an agent, not the Source.  I am servant to a difficult, mercurial taskmaster.  I may grumble and groan but am compelled to obey; no rest for the weary and, as I should know by now, there’s always another story, waiting to be told…

“Love & Hydrogen: New & Selected Stories” by Jim Shepard (Book #9)

I managed to read nine books in the month of January, which (barely) keeps me on pace for the “100 Book Challenge”.

The titles I tackled reveal the diversity of my tastes/interests:  Michael Palin’s latest set of diaries, Halfway to Hollywood, along with some readings on cinema (Dark Knights and Holy Fools), history, science fiction, theology, a novella by Roberto Bolano (Monsieur Pain)…

Yesterday I finished a collection of stories by one of the best English language writers on the contemporary scene, Jim Shepard.

Love & Hydrogen brings together close to two decades of Jim Shepard’s magnificent short fiction.  Here’s the citation I wrote up for Love & Hydrogen in my book journal:

“Jim Shepard is a marvel.  He and George Saunders and Ken Kalfus are the kind of writers who make you want to sweep everything off your desk and apply for a job as assistant manager at the local Dairy Queen.  Aesthetically, they make no mistakes, the scope and diversity of their work dazzles.

Love & Hydrogen displays scope and diversity all right:  in spades.  The stories transit spans of time, the subject matter encompassing everything from the final flight of the Hindenberg to ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon’.  To my mind, any number of these tales could be included in an anthology of the finest writing of the past fifty years.  I’ve read that Shepard’s research is meticulous and that is evident in historical reconstructions like the title story, ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’, ‘Krakatau’, ‘Batting Against Castro’, etc.

There’s a shiver of authenticity present in all of his fiction, an emotional honesty that defies sentiment and still manages to be heart-wrenching.  No one in Jim Shepard’s universe is blameless, everyone complicit; perhaps it’s his version of original sin.  We quickly recognize ourselves in Jim Shepard’s peerless short stories and novels and that (among numerous other things) is what makes him so great.”

* * * * * *

…and along with that reading I’ve been spending most nights of late snuggled up on the couch with Sherron, watching one or two episodes of the first season of “Mad Men” (a Christmas gift from my sons).   Intriguing and addictive.  A little bit more of Don  Draper’s past swims into focus with each episode, some of the murkiness dissipating…and a very scary picture emerging.

Next month:  the first season of “The Wire”.

After “The Wire”, my friend Gene assures me, everything else on television pales in comparison.

We shall see.

“Robot Boy” (1969-70?)

The show was called “Robot Boy” and I’m hoping at least some of you remember it.

Each episode was six or eight minutes long—it was really just filler so you never knew what time it would run.  Anywhere from 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning until the “Star Trek” theme music cut in at 10:00 sharp.  It’s possible the show was produced out of the nearest TV station, which was in Yorkton, about seventy miles away (the only channel that came in clear).  “Robot Boy” had that really home made look, the production values pretty shabby.  But I didn’t care.  I was an avid fan.  Hated it when I missed an episode, just about inconsolable for the rest of the weekend.  Yeah, even then I was a bit of a diva.

The premise was stupefyingly simple:  Robot Boy (really just a cheap, windup toy) is insatiably curious and one day wanders away from the safety of the toy box to seek adventure in the great, wide world.  But unfortunately he soon gets lost and embroiled in various unfamiliar situations, trying to logically decipher what’s happening with his tiny robot brain.  Some of the conclusions he reaches are hilarious, way off the mark.  He’s totally naive when it comes to things that go on in real life.

There are shots of Robot Boy shuffling slowly down the sidewalk, going about 50 feet an hour, gigantic human shoes stepping over him, nearly knocking him into the gutter, legs moving past in the background, everyone oblivious to the lost little robot creeping through their midst.

My favorite episodes, the two I have the clearest memories of:   Robot Boy is menaced by a ferocious dog…but interprets its behavior as a warning and thanks it profusely while the dog strains to reach the tin figure, just an inch or two out of reach.  And there’s the episode where Robot Boy gets accidentally locked in a supermarket overnight and wanders up and down the aisles, admiring all the “exhibits” in the “museum”.

I Googled “Robot Boy” and found a few bloggers who reference the show.  There’s even a loose association of people who post on forums, swapping old news and rumors.  The main problem is there were only ten or twelve episodes of “Robot Boy” that were ever aired and no copies in any form seem to exist.  Which gives even more weight to my conjecture that the show was locally produced.  Maybe at one time it was even shot on videotape.  But those tapes are long gone or erased and reused.  There are still photos, grainy, not entirely convincing, their provenance unclear.  Forum members are divided, the rhetoric sometimes heated.  People are touchy when it comes to nostalgia.  Some have gone to all the effort of building scale models of Robot Boy, their attention to detail bordering on the obsessive.

I made mine out of cardboard boxes I found in the garage.  I was seven years old and the ugly duckling of the family…but when I slipped inside my cardboard costume I became Robot Boy.  My other life forgotten, my human existence shed like an itchy, constricting skin suit, too tight in the crotch.  The boxes smelled of apples and old newspapers.  I hung my arms out holes I cut in the sides.  Hands instead of pincers and an aluminum pie plate taped to the front, the dial sketched in with black marker.

I kept it in the basement, away from prying eyes.  In a cubbyhole by the furnace, where my sisters would never look.  My alter ego and guardian angel.  Big and blocky and comforting.  Made of indestructible metal.  Powered by atomic cells.  An obedient, loyal friend, willing to endure anything for me, even long hours in the dark.  I loved him and he loved me.   We understood each other.  And when “Robot Boy” was canceled, I grieved and felt a genuine sense of loss and betrayal.  I went down and I kicked the hell out out those boxes, kicked them to pieces.  They never showed re-runs and I wouldn’t have watched them anyway.  Robot Boy was dead to me.  That part of my life was over…

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This is blog posting #150 and, well, I wanted to make it something special.

I trust you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.

Feel free to share your thoughts, on “Robot Boy” or other relevant matters.  Here’s hoping for a great year ahead in 2011 for one and all.

Review of “The Reality Machine”

Well, what do you know:  an early Christmas present.

Corey Redekop is a terrific Canuck writer–his debut novel Shelf Monkey is anarchic, funny and viciously satirical.  Thus, I was mighty chuffed when someone directed my attention to a review he’s just posted of my 1997 short story collection The Reality Machine.

I’ve been searching for blurbs for the print version of So Dark the Night and Corey just handed me some on a silver platter, with little sprigs of parsley on the side.

Bless you, Corey…and don’t take too long with that followup to Shelf Monkey.

Helluva writer, that boy…

Listen to my work on audio

imagesWith the help of the tireless Anthony, a support staff member with WordPress, I’ve figured out how to add a special “Audio” page to my blog.

You’ll find it by looking to the right hand side, under the “Stories” widget.  Just click on “Audio” and you’ll discover a large selection of my stories, poems, commentaries, even an excerpt from my novel So Dark the Night. All available for free listening and downloading onto whatever device (iPod or cell phone) you currently favour.  Many of these pieces are accompanied by music, which provides dramatic highlights, a soundtrack that is either pleasing or provocative (or both).

The most recent offering is a six-minute chat about “indie” writing I recorded because I’ve received a host of questions, both here and in various forums where I hang out.  People want to know what it means to be an independent writer…and I want to do what I can to dispel this notion that one goes the indie/self-publishing route because your work can’t cut it with traditional publishers.  Hey, kids, I chose to go my own way because after 20+ years of dealing with inept, sociopathic, moronic editors, I’d had enough.  New technologies like blogs, podcasts and print-on-demand put more control into authors’ hands, a situation I welcome with open arms.

For the record, here’s what I said–

Indie Writer

–and after giving it a listen, I hope you’ll have a clearer understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish with this blog.  And please check out the rest of my audio releases, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the production values and the power and intensity of the work.

Theatre of and for the mind…

The Scariest Story Ever Told

imagesGot a little Hallowe’en treat for you, kids.

I’ve been in a somewhat grim state of mind of late, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into.  So I was sitting down today, nursing a blue funk, pondering the imminent arrival of All Hallow’s Eve.  I turned on Garageband and started playing around; came up with some wacky tracks of music and thought about adding a few words, flipped through my notebook for something appropriate…and for some reason recalled “Darkness”, a poem Lord Byron wrote wayyy back in the early 19th Century.  Dug out an old Norton poetry anthology, found the poem in question…and my face split into a nasty grin.  It was perfect.  Went with the music I’d laid down so nicely it sent a chill through me.

Here it is, a little something for the ghoul that resides in each of us, the darkness beyond the edge of town, as Mr. Springsteen would put it.

Enjoy…

Darkness (Words by George Gordon, Lord Byron)

“Death Threats” (Short Story)

images-1It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

All this fun I’ve been having with Garageband means that I’ve been a trifle negligent with new blog posts and for that, my apologies.

But I’ll try to make it up to you by posting a new short story that I absolutely love.  This time it’s a longer effort, around 2000 words–titled “Death Threats” for reasons that will become clear as the story progresses.  I’ll post both an audio version and a PDF for those of you who either don’t like the sound of my voice (understandable) or who lack the ability to download the recording.

I have a great deal of affection for this story, which was written in mid-late May (2009).  Have no idea what took me so long to add it to this blog.  My guess is that this tale sort of fell by the wayside while I worked on the four linked stories that devoured my entire summer.  This is a stand-alone effort and I feel quite confident that it will find favor in your eyes (and ears).

Enjoy, my friends and please do let me know what you think:

Death Threats_ (Story)

Death Threats (PDF)