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Space Fondue

Today is Greenbean’s turn for the Thanksgiving 2021 edition of the Fondue Writer’s Club. I went science fictiony. Of course I did.

If you read this, and want to read my decidedly non-science fictiony Thanksgiving story from last year, CLICK HERE.

Thanks for reading, and tomorrow Kathy Kexel finishes us up with the last story until we launch our Christmas tales.


The Second Thanksgiving

Jamie D. Greening

            ‘It’s not a turkey,’ Mary Beth said. The words slid out of her nose more than her mouth. Her lips barely moved, although her nose turned upward just so.   

            ‘Like I told you last week when we planned Thanksgiving, there are no turkeys on Ravenna Gamma.’ Mary Beth’s father, Harold, puffed a snort from his nostrils, and finished the thought. ‘That is a part of the adventure of settling on a new planet. Everyone on Earth right now is bored of their cloned turkey and seaweed gravy solvent. I promise you that. But here, on Ravenna Gamma, we have the adventure of enjoying real wild game. They haven’t had wild game on earth in over six generations. We are truly blessed.’

            ‘Blessed,’ Suzanna shouted. Harold could not decipher if his wife was asking a question or making a statement. It was hard to read her sometimes. It wasn’t long before Harold’s uncertainty was laid to rest. 

            Suzanna said it again, ‘Blessed? This thing doesn’t even look like a turkey. I understand there are no turkeys on this planet, but isn’t there something that might pass for a turkey? Something with wings and a drumstick? Maybe a goose, hen, or even a small quail? A chicken? Is it too much to ask for a chicken on Thanksgiving Day?’

            ‘We all sat through the same orientation before we left the Earth Orbital Zone. Ravenna Gamma is devoid of poultry or flying beasts. My friend Jean-Paul says R-Gee is devoid of predators. The animals are herbivores. There was, and is still, no reason for anything to learn to fly.’

            ‘But what is it?’ Their youngest son, Theo, asked. ‘It looks like an ugly cat. I don’t think we’re supposed to eat cat. I mean, is that legal.’

            ‘I’m not eating a tabby,’ Mary Beth poked the roasted animal with a fork. 

            ‘It’s not a tabby. It is close to an opossum on earth. I ate some last week at one of the first settler’s homes. It is good. Its diet is mostly a kind of berry, so I had the chefbot prepare it with a glaze of berries gathered from the forest edge. It should be very tasty.’

            This was the tone of the first Thanksgiving on Ravenna Gamma, or R-Gee as they sometimes called it, for the Strenge family. It was the second one any human had ever observed on the planet. Of the first one hundred families that settled there, only fifteen were left. The others went back to earth after the first batches of lithium were extracted from the top of a mountain. It was lithium, and the promise of quick money, which brought the Strenge family here. Harold signed a three-year contract. The money they made would set them for life and create generational wealth for his children. On this particular afternoon, he wondered if the money was worth it. 

            ‘I’ve chewed on this forever,’ Mary Beth said. ‘It just will not give. Why can’t we just eat the regular food like everyone else.’

            ‘Because it is Thanksgiving,’ Harold said. ‘We can’t always eat the regular food, because it comes in shipments from Earth. We must supplement it with indigenous meals from time to time to make it last. The food you’re accustomed to must be stretched. The corporate leadership team decided everyone would do this on Thanksgiving, so everyone else is eating something like our little opossum friend here today.’

            ‘Did it have a family?’ Theo asked.

            ‘A family?’ Harold chewed on his bit of leg. ‘What do you mean?’

            ‘Did you kill it and rob it from its family? Did you think it might have wanted to live?’

            Mary Beth caught the scent of her brother’s disdain and pounced. ‘If everything else on this godforsaken planet is herbivore, maybe we should be too. Perhaps we should eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of feasting on the life-forms here.’

            Suzanna gasped. ‘See what you’ve done, Harold. You’ve turned our children into vegetarians. Next thing you know, they’ll want to drop out of their careers and go to college and question everything about life. Good job.’

            Harold defended himself with history, his favorite tool. ‘If it is any consolation, they didn’t have turkey at the first Thanksgiving either. It really wasn’t until the twentieth century in North America that turkeys became the tradition, and now a thousand years later here we are, in the very privileged position of reenacting a more authentic holiday. We are pilgrims, like Miles Standish.’

His appeal was met with six eyes that rolled at him. The rest of the meal was silent chewing until they all became too tired to chew.

            The meal came to an end with a pie made from a kind of nut which came from short trees with blue bark. Suzanna retired to the game room where she played backgammon remotely with her sister who lived on one of the nicer orbital platforms over Earth. They both complained about their husband. Mary Beth went to her room and Theo went to the cinema with a couple of friends he’d made. Harold helped the housebot clean-up, because he didn’t know what else to do.

            Two of the three suns were still in the sky when he messaged his family he was going for a walk and would be back before moonrise. No one responded. 

            Walking was harder on this alien planet than it was on Earth because gravity was stronger, which is why the trees were shorter and the animals smaller. He walked through the village center, an assembly of the cargo containers from the spaceships that brought supplies and people. Each time a new shipment arrived, a new store or entertainment opportunity came with it. Rumor had it the next shipment, due just before Christmas, was destined to be transformed into an ice cream parlor.

            Soon he was at the clearing’s edge and entered the forest. He’d been in the forest several times, but never alone. He knew the trees were similar to elm and pine. They had not been given names by the settlers. The blue barked trees the pie was made from were on the other side of town on the hillside. Harold walked toward the river, which he knew would take him to the waterfall. He’d never gone that far, but he knew that was where the river went because he’d seen it on a map in one of the unending briefings and meetings he’d been forced to attend by the Settler’s Board.  

            He met the river while still in the forest. Its water was red, reflecting the light crimson daytime skies of Ravenna Gamma. He followed the river until it came to a field of wildflowers which swayed in the wind. He thought they looked like poppies. Every color the eye could behold flashed on their petals such that it seemed a rainbow had exploded in the heavens and painted the landscape. Particles floated in the air around him and he breathed in their floral scent.

            A euphoria overcame him so much so that he forgot about his family, and work, and even where he was. He was cognizant enough to realize there was hallucinogenic material inside the flowers, and that he should turn back, but he didn’t. The field was beautiful. The air was nice. A peaceful, easy feeling engulfed him. Why would he turn back?

            Soon he was at the waterfall. Gravity forced water down the cliff toward the roiling pool below. Harold judged the distance to be nearly seventy-five meters. Rocks jutted out. The water’s red hue combined with the bubbles and foam of the spray looked to Harold like a boiling pot of blood. The cataract’s roar hummed inside of him. He worked hard to focus, to not fall, but he kept moving closer and closer to the edge. 

            The music in his mind pulsated ever more colors until he could no longer withstand the attraction of the water’s lure. 

            ‘Just here at the edge,’ he told himself. ‘Just here, no further. I am safe here. Here I can feel it and love it and enjoy it.’ He edged out a little further. ‘Just here. That is enough.’ 

            Whether it was a slip of his foot on wet grass or an impulse from his subconscious no one will ever know, but Harold lost his footing and tipped over the edge of the cliff and tumbled, slowly at first, and then gravity did her work and slammed him hard into the shallows below. The last thing he remembered was the water tasted like the bubble gum ice cream his mother used to give him whenever he was sick. After that last thought, the colors vanished, and blackness took him.

            Harold’s head throbbed like a hyperspace transmission about to throw an asbestos piston. He was cold but felt a blanket over him. His clothes were missing but there was a fire beside him. He felt a presence nearby. 

            ‘Did you jump?’ 

            ‘No. I don’t know. Maybe.’

            ‘It was the flowers. I was worried they might affect your people.’ 

            ‘Your people?’ Harold, who had been lying on his back sat up and huddled near the fire. ‘What do you mean your people?’

            ‘They are not my people. They are your people. People from the corporations that have come to take the rock from the hills.’

            ‘Lithium. You mean the lithium. We need it to power the things back home.’

            ‘This is home,’ the man said to Harold.

            Harold squinted in the fire’s yellow light and beheld the man sitting opposite from him. His hair was black and his forehead broad. His cheekbones high, and his skin dark, but not dark like brown, dark like orange. 

            ‘I know almost everyone on this planet,’ Harold said. ‘I do not know you.’

            The man said to him, ‘You know almost no one on this planet. We have been here for seven thousand generations and are innumerable. We live on nine of the eleven continents.’

            Harold’s head hurt even more. He remembered the feeling of joy from the field of flowers. He wondered if he were dead, and this was a last momentary spasm of his mind processing the end of life as he neared oblivion. It could also be a drug-induced hallucination.  

            ‘I saved you from dying,’ the man said. ‘You hit the water hard, like an egg onto stone. I thought the fall broke your neck, but you began to flail and then I knew you could be saved.’

            ‘Thank you,’ Harold said.

            ‘I should have let you die.’

            ‘Excuse me,’ Harold’s body jolted upright. ‘Did you say you should have let me die?’

            ‘Yes, I should have. Your people are only here to take our rock. You will take and take and take and give nothing back. You are ungrateful, greedy, and selfish.’

            ‘If I am so bad, then why did you pull me from the water and keep me from drowning?’

            ‘Because our people have decided that even though you are evil, we are not. We will not interfere with you. But I do have a message.’

            ‘A message? For me?’

            ‘Yes, for you and all your people. You may have the rock you call lithium. Our Elders have determined its removal will not harm the land, even though once it is gone it cannot be replaced, and we will be diminished because of its absence. But you are human as we are human, and therefore you have the same right to it as we do, since we too came to this planet from your home.’

            Harold’s brain worked through the headache and the fog of trauma to piece together what he heard. This man was part of a society that lived throughout the planet, but they are humans who came from Earth a long time ago. ‘How did you get here from earth? Interplanetary space travel for humans is a recent development?’

            ‘No,’ the man said. ‘That is inaccurate. Again, your facts are wrong. However, you must listen to the message. You may have the rock, but you must not build more cities here. You may live on our Turtle Shell with us peacefully, but you cannot bring your corrupting ways with you. Our scrolls teach us how your ancestors allowed evil into the world in the ancient garden. We will not allow that to take a foothold here. We obey the rules of the garden.’

            ‘What are you talking about?’

            ‘The Elders told us you would not understand. You are uncivilized and do not know the true ways of life, nor The Life Giver.’

            Harold’s spine stiffened at the realization of insult. ‘We know about nature and the origins of life. I don’t know why you would think we are uncivilized. We know how the universe works, that is how we found Ravenna Gamma.’ 

            ‘Nature is not The Life Giver. Only a heathen would think everything in the created world created itself. As if a story could tell itself or a painting could paint itself. We have been studying your ways and investigating your beliefs. Fools. You are fools. Your laws and beliefs are centered upon selfishness, as if human beings were the center of existence.’

            ‘Human beings are the pinnacle of creation. There is nothing greater in the universe than the human spirit.’

            The man stood up, ‘If that is your creed, then you are indeed a fool. It does not matter, though. What matters is that you understand the message I have given you and you will take it back to your Elders, or as you call them, The Corporation.’ 

            ‘What happens,’ Harold asked, ‘if we ignore your warning and bring many more people and build large cities and cultivate this planet for our own benefit. That is what we did on four of the planets in the ZBerg system and three of them in the Smiley system. Now that we know humans are already on this planet, it will make the transition faster.’

            The man shook his head in disbelief. ‘If you ignore us, Turtle Shell itself will fight you, just as it did today with the waterfall and the flowers. You will not survive here without our help, and we will not help if you ignore us, our ways, and our requests. You cannot live without us, but we will live far better without you.’

            The man walked out of the radiant light and into the darkness.       

MAKE BELIEVE STORIES NEED MAPS THAT ARE REAL

Every evil scientist needs a secret lab, right?

I gave the bad guy in The Deep Cove Lineage, Dr. Sleeth, more than a lab.  I gave him an entire underground complex fully funded out of the covert operations of the United States.  Yeah, I was having  fun with that.  His job was to create a monster that could be useful in warfare, that could be unleashed behind enemy lines and turned lose, so to speak.

Of course he succeeded, because that is how the Deep Cove monster came to be.

The last two weeks I’ve been working on the next installment (I hope to have it out by Thanksgiving) and it is set almost entirely in the underground complex named DECOSOL, which is an acronym for Deep Cove Special Operations Laboratory.  I gave it a long acronym name because when I was in Port Orchard I was surrounded by government employees and sailors in the Navy, and those people use acronyms like you wouldn’t believe.  I mean, everything is an acronym.  Whenever they talked it was like a whole other language.  So, I made this one up as a tip of my hat to them.

Continuity has been an issue with this story, now the fifth one in the series, but the biggest problem has been the actual layout of the compound.  In The Deep Cove Lineage I mostly described individual rooms–the lagoon where the monster was kept–the cafeteria–private quarters–administrative areas–you know, the places things happened.  What I didn’t do was work on a unified map of the complex.  Shame on me, because now the plot requires an almost systematic walk-through of the facility, and I need to describe where the characters are, where they are going, and how they get there.

So, with my large red Sharpie I made a map.

TOP SECRET:  A map of DECOSOL
TOP SECRET: A map of DECOSOL

I am not much of an artist, but in my mind I need to know where things are because those things matter when telling a story.  I recently read a novel that had people on a spaceship and, although the book was good, I never could get a mental map of where they were on the spaceship and what was happening where.  I don’t want my readers to have the same problem.

I don’t think sharing the map gives too much away, and you probably can’t read my handwriting anyway.  The bottom of the map where it says “Above/Below” is the entry place.  I really liked that piece in the story.  You’ll have to buy it to find out why.  From there, on one side of the compound is the lagoon, which I sometimes call the lair, and on the extreme other side (top left) are the private quarters for the bad guy Dr. Sleeth.  I had to shrink them down a bit because I ran out of paper.  In between those two areas is essentially an H-shaped facility.  Again, I was thinking about government buildings here.  One hallway is filled labs that heads into the cafeteria.  A hallway joins that large room to another large room, what I call the workroom.  To the right of the workroom is a hallway that runs parallel to the labs, but it has living quarters for the scientists.  Above the workroom, along a zigzag hallway is Dr. Sleeth’s bedroom, living room, and private laboratory.  There is lots of cool stuff inside his private lab.

The blue ink line represents the water line.  Everything to the right of that line is actually built under the lake.  And yeah, that matters.

I share all of this just to say that when writing it is sometimes helpful to draw it out, or diagram it, even if the actual picture or image never makes it into the text itself.  This kind of grunt work is a part of the background story, and that is what I think gives even far-flung fiction like government engineered lake monsters a feeling of reality.  I am reminded of a story I once heard about C. S. Lewis.  Apparently he made the first map of Narnia when he was about seven years old.  When he was an adult, he could write about Narnia as an adult with clarity, even though Lewis still had some major continuity problems, but that is a topic for a different blog.

I resisted the temptation to put a “You Are Here” sticker on the map.  I am proud of myself.

If you’re interested in reading the first four stories, head over to my Amazon author page (click here) and pick them up.  Most of them are only 99 cents.  The first two, Deep Cove and Deep Cove: The Party Crasher are pretty short, but The Deep Cove Lineage and The Deep Cove Investigation are both good sized short stories, about 12,000 words each.  Those last two are also more sci-fish than the first ones, which are more horror/monsterish . If you read Lineage and Investigation, you have the essence of the story.

JESUITS IN SPACE–A REVIEW OF THE BOOK “THE SPARROW”

Sunday night I finished The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.  I read it as part of the sci-fifantasy group over at Goodreads.  I love Goodreads, but it irks me that they combine sci-fi and fantasy that way.  Anyway, back on subject, The Sparrow was published in 1996.   The paperback edition I read was released in 2008.  334176

Overall

I give the book an overall grade of A-.  I have never read anything by Russell before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  I had heard about the book and knew that it was highly regarded as one of the best sci-fi books of the past generation and she is favorably compared with the masters of the genre.  I can see why.  The book is interesting throughout.  It is not a perfect book, as I will get to below, but a well-thought-out plot with fascinating characters is more than most sci-fi books achieve.  It gets a “minus” because the whole Jesuit in space thing has been done a time or two and the adverb issues which I address below.

Plot

Without spoilers, the story is about the discovery of life on another planet in the not so distant future.  Before governments can form a response, a group of Jesuits lead an interstellar expedition of people from various technical and religious backgrounds to investigate.  As you might imagine, all does not go well.

Strengths

This book has three strengths.

1. The characters are written well.  This is brought out with crisp dialogue and believable action.  Russell’s intelligence and research on Jesuits, science, linguistics, and history makes every character human.  The only flaw in her characterizations are that every major character is just a little too competent and perfect, but I can live with that.

2. There is an almost perfect balance in the book between science and fiction.  It is in this way that the book reminds me of Ray Bradbury.

3. The book asks sincere theological questions without giving pat answers, either for or against.  Russell seems to delight in the intentional ambiguity.

Weaknesses

1. The pacing of the book is sometimes less than ideal.  About one third into the book it felt like she kept repeating the same basic things.  She could have told the same great story with 50,000 fewer words.

2. Russell is guilty of adverb abuse.  She loves, loves, loves, loves to have people doing “ly” things.  For example:

D.W. lied cheerfully

Two lines later:

Emilio said seriously

I just pulled that out randomly by opening the book (page 51).  They are all over the place.

3. At times I lost the POV.  Sometimes she would switch right int he middle of a paragraph with no warning.

Audience

There are some mature themes to be sure, and the language is rough.  Who knew Jesuits talked like that?  If you are easily offended at different religious worldviews, you shouldn’t read this book.  However, if you like to see how others might wrestle with difficult issues, then this book is for you.

There is a sequel to this book called Children of God.  I do not know when I will read it, as my TBR pile has grown out of control, but I will indeed read it.  In fact, I’ll probably buy it today at Amazon.

WRITING PLAYLISTS

I’ve had several exchanges with folks on the twitterverse and interwebs lately about their writing playlist.  I’ve come to the conclusion that music, and what kind of music, helps me write.

Old Blue Eyes Is A Muse
Old Blue Eyes Is A Muse

The most important thing about a writing playlist is that it should be something I’m familiar with.  If my mind is focusing on the music or the lyrics, then my mind is not engaged in the work of writing.  That is why streaming music or listening to NPR doesn’t work for me when writing.  It has to be older stuff I’ve heard a million times.  So here goes some of my writing playlists.

Dialogue (generic)–Something instrumental.  For generic dialogue I don’t need words in my mind as I’m trying to find out what my characters are saying to each other.  I don’t want my characters quoting George Jones or Jimi Hendrix.  Classical is okay, but so too is blues and jazz.  Green Onions by Booker T. & The M.G.’s is excellent to just loop over and over until the scene is written.  Yo-Yo Ma is great for this too.

Dialogue (intense/arguing)–Church hymns.  I don’t know why, but something about church music makes me think about arguing.  Let the reader understand.

Dialogue (internal)–When I am thinking about what another person is thinking there is only one authority:   Johnny Cash.

Theological Themes--Pastor Butch Gregory stories always have theological themes, and for that I need to listen to Rich Mullins.

Dream Sequences/Flashbacks–Norah Jones, because she just sounds so dreamy.

Crime/Violence–I’ve got a playlist I call “War/Spy” that has a heavy dose of Talking Heads, James Bond theme songs, Blondie, U2, Hall and Oates, and Mumford and Sons.  I know that doesn’t make a lot of since genre wise, but it does to me.

Fight Scenes–Guns-N-Roses.  It is important to know where you are.  You’re in the jungle baby.

Travel Scenes–I’ve found that my characters seem to always be traveling somewhere, and when they do, Led Zeppelin Rambles along.

Plot Development–Frank Sinatra.  I’ve got him under my skin.

Romantic Scenes–I don’t put a lot of romance in my books, but when I do, I prefer Cole Porter.

Techno–While writing sci-fi, sometimes I need to describe technological things which may or may not be real, but which are technological.  There are two groups that help me with this.  One is R.E.M.  I mean, Michael Stipe may actually be a character from a sci-fi novel.  The other is ZZ Top.  In my universe(s), all megalomaniac evil scientists wear cheap sunglasses.

Michael Stipe, SCI-FI
Michael Stipe, SCI-FI

When In Doubt–Sometimes you don’t know what is going to flow out of the fingertips, and when that happens I hit an 80s mix.  Duran Duran always gets the creative reflex going.

There are a lot of other artists and genre’s I listen to, but these are the ones that most often find their way into my ear bud while writing.  I’d be interested to know what you listen to when you write.

images from therecordingrevolution.com and aleim.com