The future is nothing like I expected.
In 1969, watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gambolling about on the surface of the moon, I honestly believed that before long there would be monthly shuttles to Mars and, for the super-rich, luxury holiday excursions to the outer planets and far reaches of our solar system…
That future never arrived.
Instead we have: cell phones, laptops and social media. Not quite the same thing as faster-than-light travel and flying cars, is it?
I wanted something grander, something worthy of a curious, ambitious species with big brains and clever hands. Fleets of silver, finned rockets, navigating between the nine planets as easily as my dad’s old Ford got us to town and back. Intelligent robots. Permanent colonies on the moon and Mars. What a letdown when I look around today and realize ordinary citizens are far more interested in cyberspace than outer space. Ambitious schemes to leave our safe cradle and challenge that “final frontier” have devolved into, let’s face it, a sparsely manned space station parked only a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the earth, serviced by a private, for-profit company because NASA can no longer afford to maintain a shuttle to supply it.
A human footprint on Mars? Unlikely, at least during my lifetime.
Which makes me feel cheated. That six-year-old boy, glued to a black-and-white TV, witnessing history, men on the freakin’ moon, wouldn’t have believed me if I told him that’s it, that’s the absolute high-water mark in terms of our presence in space. Sorry, kid, after this it’s robot probes and science on the cheap.
My younger self would be outraged to see his dreams dashed by the cowardice and stupidity of those who make policy and manipulate the levers of power.
A smart lad, he would have recognized a failure of nerve when he saw it. And he would have been the first to point out: a computer is not a robot.
Some might contend there’s no difference but, I assure you, there is.
Those who think otherwise are operating on an entirely different wavelength than me. They likely see nothing wrong with the way the world has turned out and wouldn’t change anything if they could.
I, on the other hand, am appalled by the reality that has been presented to me as a fait accompli and since childhood have made it my mission, my calling to reimagine the whole thing so it conforms to the better tomorrow we were all promised back in those heady, halcyon days when everything seemed possible, the universe ours to explore, the stars our destination.
I don’t intend to forsake those youthful fancies, surrender my dreams, lose my sensawunda because of other people’s temerity and lack of vision.
It’s a major reason why I started reading science fiction almost fifty years ago…and why (for better or worse) I’m the writer I am today.
“How do we change the world? By changing the story.”
I’ve always said: Hallowe’en encourages the inner drag queen.
I rarely get dressed up for any occasion, my wardrobe limited to t-shirts, ragged-ass jeans and a fleece sweater to keep the chill off my aging bones.
But this Hallowe’en coincided with the birthday of a dear friend of ours. A costume party was the celebration of choice, its theme “the Sixties”.
Several different ideas passed through my mind, but then Sherron discovered a couple of sweaters in a thrift shop and, well, we were off.
Happy Hallowe’en to my fellow Trekkies.
Photo: Karen Williams
Endless processions of driverless cars.
Delivering their contents to automated houses.
Under the constant scrutiny of cameras, overhead drones.
Smart appliances reporting preferences, behavior, patterns; mined for data, narcing to their corporate masters.
Election night: voting by remote control, hardly bothering to check the results.
Keeping your head down, mouth shut.
Addicted to livestreaming porn sites.
Disgusted by the state of affairs but powerless to effect any change.
Buying stupid trinkets to fill the void.
Drugs when nothing else works.
An epidemic of suicide in your age bracket.
Desperately lonely and neurotic, verging on anti-social.
In your solitary rooms, secured by triple locks.
Talking to yourself and the listening walls.
Waiting for the knock on your door.
© Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
I. The First Crime Scene
The suspect toes the ground resentfully, tight-lipped, shrugging in response to the Magistrate’s queries. Evincing probity and incomprehension, but also giving the impression of barely concealed insolence.
The man is a pitiful liar.
Again the Magistrate demands that the creature divulge the circumstances of his crime and reveal the location of the body. Corpus delicti. Yet despite Supreme Jurist’s obvious frustration and rising anger, the guilty party continues to fend off his remonstrations with hostile silence.
And then, miracle of miracles, the accused mutters something, a curt, sly rejoinder, sotto voce, practically inaudible.
The wretched beast actually raises his eyes, no longer cowed and obeisant, meeting the Magistrate’s gaze directly. “I said, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’”
The Magistrate is stunned. Everything abruptly freezes, a complete cessation of sound, movement extending across twelve dimensions and countless timelines; the equivalent of a collective, celestial gasp.
Oblivious to the dismay he’d wrought, Cain is washing his hands in a nearby stream, immersing them in the pure, clear water.
Frowning at the stubbornness of the stain.
II. The Last Crime Scene
ARU-2466/TLS-13 spots a glint of white at the base of the escarpment, near a recent slide or rock fall, descends to fifty feet, hovering.
It looks like…could it be…
There are mandatory protocols to follow, the ARU unit knows this. Any evidence of the Ancestors must be recorded and transmitted, the site left undisturbed. After all, this is sacred ground.
But the drone lingers, awed by the scale of its discovery, observing at once that the skeleton, though well-preserved, shows indications of massive trauma. The legs shattered, spine and skull split and sundered. An accidental fall from the precipice above?
A series of rapid, almost instantaneous calculations. Answer: unlikely.
Like many of its counterparts, ARU-2466/TLS-13 is aware of the legends surrounding the End Days. The Ancestors, once a great species, reduced by war, famine, disease and deprivation. Squabbling over increasingly scarce resources, raiding and killing until they were all but extinct.
Could this be one of the last survivors? Isolated, forsaken, appalled by the poisonous wasteland its kind had made of the planet?
Remorseful, perhaps, capable of one final act of contrition, a form of ritual self-slaughter.
The evidence is persuasive but hardly definitive.
ARU-2466/TLS-13 drops a beacon, dipping its wings respectfully as it makes one final pass.
Others will investigate the site, draw their own conclusions.
The drone returns to its regular search pattern, a virtual grid superimposed over a bleak, exhausted terrain.
Continuing an eternal, seemingly fruitless search for signs of life.
© Copyright, 2015 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
One final plug for my short story “The First Crime Scene”.
Remember? Or maybe I “Tweeted” about it…
Anyway, I entered it in an on-line contest because I liked the site, Inkitt, and its founder was nice enough to issue a personal invite. I’m a sucker for civility.
You can check out the story here, decide for yourself if it’s worthy—and if the answer is “yea”, please click on the little red heart to register your vote.
It’s a good story and if I get a few more tallies, “The First Crime Scene” might sneak into the top five.
It’s not prize money I’m after, my name in lights—no, I genuinely believe this little, itty-bitty tale manages to accomplish a lot in 500 words. Have a look and you’ll see what I mean.
I’ll close off this brief post because, well, I can’t sit here any longer. My first really serious bout of sciatica. A week of pain and finally the meds and my wife’s TLC are starting to make a difference.
Yes, boys and girls, time to do some house-cleaning, add a lick or two of paint, shake out the cobwebs, freshen up the ol’ joint a little.
Presenting a reboot of “Beautiful Desolation”, hopefully a version that is more readable and easy on the eyes.
Let’s celebrate these latest renovations with some new music.
I mentioned I’d purchased a MIDI keyboard for my Mac—well, yesterday I put the finishing touches on the first batch of music I’ve created with the MIDI and today I loaded a whopping fifty-three minutes worth of aural oddities on to my BandCamp page.
Here’s a sample cut from Primordial, a trippy number called “Corona” that’s quite representative of my recent work.
To listen to the album in its entirety, click here.
New music, new look…a good beginning to my summer.
And there’s more to come. Much more.
Keep watching this space.
I comment on different topics: “The Writing Life”, “Inspired by Fear”, “Why I Love Science Fiction”.
Hope you find something worthwhile in these monologues, insights into the way I approach my craft, the psychology behind some of my best known stories.
I’m still pondering James Wood’s rather unenthusiastic review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks.
I read the review about an hour ago and now that I’ve had a chance to shower and clear my head, I’d like to get some thoughts down, try to sum up why I think Mr. Wood—and a number of other critics—have missed the point. Let me make clear, I have nothing against Wood, I think he’s a thoughtful, articulate reviewer, a smart man…I just don’t always agree with him.
There’s a taint, if I can put it like that, to his review, a whiff of innuendo. Mitchell’s a good storyteller, he allows, and The Bone Clocks is admittedly “entertaining”, but…
Well, apparently, The Bone Clocks lacks coherence, there’s a dearth of human significance and, then, near the conclusion of his critique, Mr. Wood finally lets the mask slip and his biases show:
“Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism—the human activity—is relatively unimportant…the emphasis is shifted away from the human characters toward the supernatural goings on, and the human characters become mere decoders of the peculiar mystery that has befallen them: detectives of drivel. The fantasy rigs the narrative, so that there is something wearingly formulaic whenever Mitchell stages, as he regularly does, a spot of ‘realistic’ skepticism.”
I’m not sure how much fantastic fiction Mr. Wood has read but he must be aware of some of its noble practitioners, Kafka and Borges, Maupassant and Poe. While Mr. Wood opines that “supernatural” skullduggery detracts from the human story, I wonder if he would say the same thing if he was reading a novel or short story by one of the authors I just cited.
What I like most about Mr. Mitchell’s work is that it refuses to acknowledge genre constraints; he delights in playing with tropes and is fearless about introducing SFnal elements to his narratives, creating a vast and varied universe that astonishes literally at every turn.
Mr. Wood’s final assertion, that The Bone Clocks is a “theological allegory”, reflecting a “bleak Gnosticism” must have made the author laugh out loud.
Really, Mr. Wood?
I suspect David Mitchell’s bookshelves are extensive and a good deal more eclectic than James Wood’s. He (Mitchell) is also of a generation whose childhood was enlivened by tales of the mysterious and macabre, whether in books, movies or on TV. From “Dan Dare” to “Dr. Who”; Lord of the Rings to the magic of Ray Harryhausen. All of those influences going into the creative hopper…and what emerges is a mashup that doesn’t discriminate between “literary” and “genre” fiction, employing elements of both, worshipping at the altar of neither.
Maybe that’s why a number of science fiction scribes I know are less than approving of Mr. Mitchell’s body of work. They think he’s nicking their best material without giving due credit, while some of literary crowd (like James Wood) would accuse him of slumming every time he goes off reservation and presents them with a “bad-faith tussle with a fantastic assailant who has already won”.
I’ll admit, initially I found the supernatural elements in The Bone Clocks a bit off-putting. I’d read no reviews or advance articles on the novel, not wanting to risk spoilers (and you won’t find any in this piece, I promise). The book startled me, intrigued me, then absolutely drew me in. Imagine a collaboration between Jonathan Carroll and Thomas Pynchon, both operating at the top of their form. There are conspiracies and mazes and secret societies and psychic shootouts…but, sorry, I swore I wouldn’t ruin the fun for you.
If The Bone Clocks was a song, it would have “crossover hit” written on it in big, block letters. The novel defies mere description and resists being slotted into any safe, comfortable niche.
Like its author, it is ambitious, ridiculously intelligent, culturally attuned, charming, witty and serenely confident.
David Mitchell is a marvel.
He’s managed to surprise us, yet again.
What a guy.
It flutters and at first I think it’s a leaf or a feather.
Run to catch it.
But it moves in my hands!
Drop it like it’s hot.
Go and get Mother.
Telling me to shush as she kneels beside it.
Looking up at me, crying.
“It’s called a butterfly. Butterfly.”
Making me repeat it, so I’ll never forget.
© Copyright, 2014 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)