Life is just a madcap adventure in To Ride the Lightning Bolt Chapter 2

And you thought an attack poodle was scary!
(Credit: Wikipedia, Tomitheos, David Shankbone)

When we last saw Daphne Vane, she was being afflicted with what might be called an attack poodle. But never fear, her Mum is near, and she knows how to deal with bitches. Except when she’s being a bit of one herself, as Daphne finds out in “The romance of creatures,” chapter 2 of To Ride the Lightning Bolt, a weekly serial apparently featuring out-of-control animals at this point. Maybe it’ll change. A new installment goes up every Friday. If you missed the first chapter, you can start here.

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A new story: To Ride the Lightning Bolt

Meet Daphne Vane. Daphne is, in her own eyes, a perfectly normal young American woman just starting out in life. She has a family that she thinks would be great contestants in a surreality game show. As actual family, they leave something to be desired. If Daphne can’t stay ahead of them, she could end up in an arranged marriage. Or become a human sacrifice. They’ll probably give her a choice.

Yes, it’s time to start up a weekly story on the blog again. So start by reading chapter 1, “Just stopped by for a visit, Mum!,” of To Ride the Lightning Bolt, a comedy with a body count! New chapters posted every Friday before noon (GMT – 5, – 6 when Daylight Savings is in effect).

The painting, by the way, is a fresco, The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by the artist Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri, 1581 – 1641). He got the nickname because he was short. Daphne would sympathize.

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In memoriam – ICB

Last Friday, my mother, Isabella (Kyle) Campbell Bixby, passed away at age 92. She had been in an assisted living situation for almost two years, after a fall that injured her back and required her to use a walker, which she hated. And she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer back in March. So it was not much of a surprise. She suffered only briefly from pain associated with cancer, and died in her sleep. Her husband had died many years ago, but all three of her children were with her in her final days.

How does one commemorate a life? List everything the person did? That would take forever. And yet that is what makes us what we are. So any retelling of my mother’s story is incomplete. But I can try to give you a bit of her life.

My mother is the child front and middle.

She was born in Milngavie, Scotland, the third and last child of James and Isabella Campbell. Her siblings were 10 and 15 years older than her, so in many ways she grew up an only child. Her favorite enjoyment was to go to the movies in Glasgow. Her schooling ended at age 14, as was normal in that time and place. She went on to work for a noted optics firm, Barr and Stroud.

During the Depression, her older sister emigrated to the United States. After World War II, her brother, who had served in the army, decided to do the same. So when her father died in 1948, she and her mother decided they, too, should come to America, which they did the next year. They first resided with her sister Annie’s family in Groton, Massachusetts.

She hated it here at first. But after a few years, she met my father. They were living in the same boarding house at the time. Seventeen years between them, an unlikely couple. But she had a new television, rare in 1952, and he had a

The proud couple, with their home and car

new car. A deal was struck: he got to watch the television, she got rides in his car. They were married the next year. They also bought a house that cost them the enormous sum of $10,500.

Three of us came along quickly, and spent our early years in that house. My father worked full-time, my mother worked part-time, and her mother ran the household until she died in 1968. And then my father retired in 1973, and took over housekeeping. We called the years in between, when my mother was responsible for the cooking, as the “Age of Swanson,” after the brand of TV (frozen) dinners, as my mother did not like cooking.

My mother attended the commencement when I was awarded my doctoral degree

All three of her children surpassed their mother in education. My brother graduated from the regional technical high school, my sister earned an associate’s degree from a junior college, and I eventually gathered up a Ph.D. It was one of my mother’s secret pleasures that I had graduated from a private preparatory high school where she had once washed dishes.

My mother spent years active in local organizations. But after she retired in 1985, she and my father became more homebodies than anything else. He died in 2001, after she had cared for him many years. And for the next 14 years, until she fell and hurt herself, she lived, alone and independent and happy.

In sum, she was a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, even great-grandmother, clerk, friend, church member, and a lot of other roles. I can’t capture them all. With her death, a lot has been lost.

I have been regularly visiting her and managing her affairs these last two year. This is one reason why my blogging here has been less frequent during those years, and why I have been so often behind in reading the blogs of others in recent times. And will be for a while yet.

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Future imperfect: reviewing the original Buck Rogers stories

Of recent years, there have been complaints that science fiction is moving away from its roots, that it is less about heroic space opera and more about squishy liberal notions. This controversy has even upset the Hugo Awards. So I decided to go back in time and look at one of those heroic stories that established science fiction. I’m talking about Buck Rogers, introduced as Anthony Rogers in two stories by Philip Francis Nowlan (1888 – 1940): Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Airlords of Han, originally published in 1928-29 in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories.

I’d seen this cover a zillion times, but until I read “Air Lords,” I didn’t know what it was about.

My thoughts in brief? We don’t want to go back there, but the stories have some merit. Read at your peril.

I’ll begin by summarizing the plot of the two stories. Tony Rogers is accidentally cast into suspended animation in 1927, only to awaken in 2419. He finds America had been conquered by Mongolians, who destroyed American civilization, set up their own cities, and live independently of the countryside around them. The Americans have gradually recovered their civilization, and are just about ready to confront the Han, the Mongolians who rule in their cities scattered across America. The two stories describe how Tony becomes a leader among the Americans, and how the Han are eventually defeated.

Cool, eh? Nowlan did not try to stretch the credibility of his story too far, so Tony is just one of the leaders of the Americans. But he engages in many heroic and important adventures, and wins a wife from the 25th century Americans. The story features a lot of discussion of futuristic technology which, while nonsense, was no doubt reasonably credible in 1928. And, note this well, you guys who can’t imagine anything other than hard science and warfare, Nowlan spends a fair amount of time on the social changes among the Americans and Han. In short, Nowlan is a better writer than some regressive fans of today are readers. True, he does bog down at times, particularly in Air Lords, which has longer passages of exposition than Armageddon. But otherwise it’s a straightforward adventure story with a lot of science fiction trimmings.

Yes, there is a Wilma in the original stories, she does play a military role, and she does kick ass. But she’s also married to Tony and sometimes acts like a 1920s housewife.

But . . . ah, but there is this little problem of racism. No, make that a BIG problem. How big? It’s the Yellow Peril versus White America in Armageddon. It’s so blatant that there are no Black people at all in the first story. Someone must have told Nowlan to dial it back a bit between the two stories, because in Air Lords he makes the Mongolians/Han partially alien, and even has a backhanded compliment to the “simple, spiritual Blacks of Africa.” But let’s face it, there’s a reason science fiction/fantasy took a while to get a racially diverse audience in this country, and stories such as these are partially to blame. Flash Gordon, who was created in the image of Buck Rogers not many years later, wasn’t much better; just think about why his most famous villain is called Ming the Merciless.

Should you read these two Buck Rogers stories? Armageddon 2419 A.D.  is a good archetypal science fiction adventure story. It’s also part of science fiction’s origins. On both counts it is worth a read. But the racism . . . well, it’s pervasive. If you can’t grin and bear it, skip this one.

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Going back into time for historical fantasy novel reviews

While I’ve not been writing, I’ve been reading to recharge my batteries. I tackled two recent historical fantasy novels, Stephanie Burgis’s Congress of Secrets (2016) and Walter H. Hunt’s Elements of Mind (2014). Odds are you might like one or the other, but probably not both: Burgis for romance, Hunt for looming horrors.

Princess Catherine Bagration, called the Naked Angel, whose passions would affect diplomatic affairs

Normally, I don’t tackle romances, but Burgis lured me in because her novel is set during the fabulous Congress of Vienna in 1814. This was the peace conference that settled Europe’s political organization after the Napoleonic wars. Burgis does name-check the main figures and gives them things to do that actually affect the plot, so they aren’t completely ornamental, which is good. (Though Wilhelmina, Duchess of Sagan, loses out to the Naked Angel in page count. Stephanie Burgis, I know whose side you’re on!) And I really liked the political side of her resolution of the crisis at the climax of the book. It was clever, period. Burgis demonstrated she understands the implications of her own premises; that’s a rarer talent than one would expect.

The alchemical magic and the romance do not fare as well. Considering how pivotal the alchemy is, we don’t learn enough of it for the magical resolution to the climax to carry the same level of plausibility and rightness; indeed, Burgis throws in a romantic twist that gives that resolution too much the flavor of a deus ex machina. And the romance is a bit too formulaic. Please save me from yet another couple who begin by hating each other and end up in bed together! That said, again, Burgis did a good job of laying the romance’s foundation within her story.

So, if you like historical fantasy romances, I’d say give this novel a read. Or if you like to see a writer who understands how to construct a version of this world with magic in it, then, yeah, it’s worth a try. If romance isn’t your strong field, but you love history that is important but also has more than a breath of scandal, try reading an actual history of the Congress. Burgis recommends Harold Nicolson’s The Congress of Vienna (1946); I’d offer 2007’s Rites of Peace by Adam Zamoyski as a more recent popular account.

Some of you might dimly remember the Congress of Vienna from a modern European history course. But very, very few of you will know about the early history of animal magnetism or mesmerism in Britain. Oddly enough, a lot of the beliefs of the early mesmerists shape today’s popular view of hypnotism, i.e., the idea that the hypnotist overpowers the will of his subject. One of their real discoveries was that mesmerism could be used as an anesthetic to reduce or eliminate pain in surgeries. Indeed, James Esdaile (1808 – 1859) ran a “mesmeric” hospital in British India!

This is from an 1837 American study of the “science” of animal magnetism

So when I found Esdaile’s name on the back blurb of Elements of Mind, I was hooked. Hunt’s novel assumes the powers of animal magnetism to control other people were real, and that they were allied with other apparently supernatural powers. Using historical figures who were interested in mesmerism in Britain in the 1840s, he constructs a story of supernatural and political power struggles that come near to costing a young woman her sanity, and almost costs the life of his protagonist, the rather lower-class Rev. William Davey, now the not-much-loved leader of the English mesmerists.

The story has the air of Wilkie Collins about it, using various kinds of narrative to unfold the story, much as Collins did in The Moonstone. Davey, who begins as the unchallenged leader of the English mesmerists, is confronted by powers and threats even beyond his imagining, as he tried to recover James Esdaile’s great secret for Davey’s society of mesmerists.

There’s a lot to like here. Hunt builds his characters with reasonable strengths and weaknesses. The use of mesmerism in the early parts of the story seems like a reasonable extrapolation of how it might have developed if mesmerism had really been a force. And the play between the British and Indian ends of the plot usually works well, though the Indian end sometimes sinks into stereotypes.

My biggest complaint is with the ending. I can see what Hunt was aiming for, but the pacing at the end is off. Hunt finishes too quickly for the significance of the ending he wanted. The reader’s apt to go away thinking, “good read, but looks like he had a page limit and had to cut the ending short.”

Hunt’s is a slow but enjoyable read for people who enjoy intellectual horror. Thanks to its unfamiliar subject matter, James Esdaile and William Davey hardly being household names, a lot of people who might otherwise like it will pass it by. But if you’re tempted, and want some background history, pick up and read Alison Winter’s Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (1998).


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Wrapping things up in the epilogue to As the Wyrm Tyrns

soe_orm_1555With the Breydon wyrm going back into its slumber, and the Faroe Islands female wyrm away from Great Yarmouth, our team’s business is almost through. But there remain a few loose ends to tie up, and Geoffrey MacAlpine’s the man to do it. Read about his curious conversation with the most subtle person involved in the laying of the wyrms in “Epilogue: Two days later,” the concluding chapter to my weekly serial, As the Wyrm Tyrns. If you want to read the story from start to finish, you can start here or here.

This was originally going to be a short story, a gift to two fellow bloggers when I went to visit one of them last summer. And yes, I did ask their permission to create thinly disguised alter egos of them. One has a photography site and blog that often features Florida birds, the other writes a fiction blog, though she, too is branching out into photography of the Norfolk (England) landscape. Pay them a visit if you want to see the work of Jacintha’s and Calpurnia’s originals.

As I say, this was meant to be a short story. It’s a curious fact that I usually know how my stories will end, but the route they ultimately take to get there is more complicated (and I hope more interesting) than what I initially envision. I had some fun with this one, but in the process turned it into a story that runs 75 pages in manuscript! And I’m so used to “Calpurnia” and “Jacintha” than I have taken to calling their real-life originals by those names when I’m not being careful. For that reason alone, I’m glad to be wrapping up this story.

And it’s time to take a break. I don’t expect to start up any new stories or have much else to post for about a month. After that, we’ll see. Thanks for following the most recent story, and I hope to see you back here when I return.

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A comedy of errors in chapter 19 of As the Wyrm Tyrns

The Nude Snake Charmer by Paul Trouillebert (1829 - 1900)

The Nude Snake Charmer by Paul Trouillebert (1829 – 1900)

Our heroes have made their share of mistakes. Geoff and Gwen just got dumped into Breydon Water thanks to one of them. But it’s a long wyrm that has no tyrning, and the Breydon wyrms are 60 feet long, so they have a lot of tyrnings! Watch our valiant team of magicians (and their associates) engage in “The laying of the wyrms,” in chapter 19 of As the Wyrm Tyrns.

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