The Rocheport Saga-Part 2

Last week I talked a bit about my post-apocalyptic series The Rocheport Saga. I said it was part philosophy, part family saga, part satire, part libertarian thought, part action/adventure novel, and all post-apocalyptic speculation. I also noted that the series is written in epistolary form; that is, as diary entries. I’m very fond of the epistolary format because of the intimate picture it can give us of the main character’s thoughts. Provided of course he or she is a reliable narrator. If not, then we enter a mystery world of trying to figure what is real and what is not. Either way, the epistolary novel is an ideal vehicle.

The Saga is written in story arcs, not unlike television writing, and the first seven novels form the first arc. The arc itself is divided into three parts.

Part I comprises the first two books: The Morning Star and The Shining City. And might be called “Beginnings”. This is where the story begins. Where we learn about Bill Arthur’s dream and how he intends to go about it. His dream of creating a libertarian utopia and of returning to the 21st Century’s technology.

Love Is Little, The Troubled City, and By Leaps and Bounds form Part II. The little community of Rocheport faces enemies from without and within. Our hero, Bill Arthur, is struggling to hold it all together and to do so faces the ugly reality that he will have to betray a few of his most cherished beliefs.

Nevertheless, in By Leaps and Bounds we begin to see that it does indeed look as though the community has turned a corner and will in fact survive.

Part III comprises Freedom’s Freehold and the soon to be published Take to the Sky. Whereas Part II might be titled “Conflict”, Part III could be called “Hope”. The corner has been turned and Bill Arthur feels confident the people of Rocheport will usher in a new era of peace, freedom, and technological advancement.

While The Rocheport Saga is many things, it is all post-apocalyptic speculation. The series is a realistic attempt, I think, at speculating how civilization might come back from a massive catastrophic event — and come back better than it was before the disaster. Therefore there are no zombies or other monsters in the story. Nor are there aliens from space. This is a human story of human dreams and aspirations.

The Marquis de Sade wrote philosophy in the form of pornography. And pornography was a suitable format for him to present his philosophy.

The post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophe, I found, was the most suitable format for me to express my philosophy and social views. Because, at base, the cozy catastrophe is about building a better world.

Which makes it a vehicle by which the author can criticize the current world in which he or she lives and present a model of how the problems can be solved.

S. Fowler Wright used Deluge and Dawn to portray the legal injustices against the labor class and to challenge certain social assumptions. John Wyndham used The Day of the Triffids to hint at the dangers associated with bio-engineering and to point out the dangers of military weapons orbiting the planet. In Earth Abides, George R Stewart points out how a poor black rural working family would be much more capable of surviving, than a white urban couple in New York City. Pointing out how fragile our urban worlds are. Stewart also pointed out that when push comes to shove, we are all equal by having his white protagonist marry a woman who wasn’t white. All that in a book written in the late ‘40s.

The cozy catastrophe is the perfect vehicle for world building. For creating our utopias. I’m surprised that few writers see this and utilize this form. For in the end, all writers are philosophers. Our books are either our ideal worlds or a graphic picture of what we think is wrong with the current world.

And so, in The Rocheport Saga, I present my version of what utopia would be like. No government. Sovereign and self-responsible individuals. Family centered. Social and intellectual freedom. A place where people follow the Golden Rule, respect each other, and help each other. I think it’s a vision that is very appealing and attainable.

As always, comments are welcome! Let me know your thoughts. And until next time, happy reading!

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The Rocheport Saga

 

The Rocheport Saga is part philosophy, part family saga, part satire, part libertarian thought, part action/adventure novel, and all post-apocalyptic speculation. It is my contribution to the cozy catastrophe sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction.

The story structure is that of one of my favorite forms: the epistolary novel. The story is told by means of diary entries from a man named Bill Arthur, with occasional diary entries from other characters.

Bill’s diary begins eight months after the cataclysm that kills off most of humanity, the event he simply calls “That Day”. The first sentence he writes is “Today I killed a man and a woman.” He follows that sentence with a brief explanation of what life is like in the new world where everyone is faced with a daily struggle to survive and where some do not make it.

Today I killed a man and a woman. I didn’t want to, but I had no choice. It was me or them. This is how it is now. How it has been for not quite eight months. Everyone on his or her own. The quick or the dead. It wasn’t how it used to be, though. We complained about the old days. Now anyone who remains would do anything to return to even the worst of the old days. But they are gone and will not return for a very long time. Maybe never.

The focus in the cozy catastrophe is on building a better world out of the ashes of the old one. And The Rocheport Saga is no different.

There is no focus on and very little discussion of the disaster. It happened. It was horrible. And now we must move on. The milk is spilt. No sense crying over it.

And Bill Arthur doesn’t. His quest is to preserve as much knowledge as possible and bring the Twenty-first Century back on line as soon as possible.

Of course no story, even one that is essentially “plotless”, can survive without conflict, and Bill has plenty of conflict in Rocheport. All the way from the silly and inane to the deadly serious and life threatening.

Next week we’ll take a look at the books published thus far in the series and provide a synopsis of each.

Until then, happy reading!

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TV Review: Murdoch Mysteries

murdoch-mysteries

 

Steampunk is alive well. Not only as a sub-genre of speculative fiction, but also as a lifestyle movement and a musical genre.

A few weeks ago, while looking for something to watch on Netflix streaming, I stumbled upon the retro-detective series Murdoch Mysteries. I fell in love immediately. I mean who wouldn’t love a show that features Nikola Tesla in the first episode? I’ve been binge watching ever since.

Some people might not call Murdoch Mysteries steampunk. And in a very real sense it isn’t. At least it isn’t traditional steampunk. However there are many steampunk elements that the writers incorporate in the episodes, so I call it steampunk light.

Detective William Murdoch, of Toronto Constabulary’s Fourth Station House, is an amateur inventor and a scientific sleuth worthy of Sherlock Holmes’s shoes, Inverness cape, and deerstalker hat. But Murdoch wears none of those. Just a conservative 1890s suit and Homburg, the classic hat worn by Winston Churchill, among others.

The show begins in the mid-1890s and in season six enters the new century. Numerous inventions are featured that were either invented or discussed at that time and some of them Murdoch himself invents to help him solve crimes. Also a feature of the show are the famous personalities who appear as part of the storyline; people such as Tesla, Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, and HG Wells.

The episodes are filled with humor and historical puns, such as when Constable Crabtree claps his hands to activate a sound activated switch (the Clapper of modern day fame), which makes the series almost a comedy were it not for the seriousness of Murdoch and the murders he’s trying to solve.

I believe the success of this series lies in the interaction of the main trio of characters: Detective Murdoch, Constable Crabtree, and Inspector Brackenreid. Murdoch is unrelentingly serious and conservative, in spite of his love of science, technology, and invention. When he invents “Silly Putty” to capture newsprint he can’t read on the inside of a wallet, Brackenreid wants to take some home for his boys because they would love the silliness of it. Murdoch rebukes him that the putty is not a toy.

Crabtree aspires to be like Murdoch, but has an imagination that enables him to see practical applications of Murdoch’s and other inventors’s inventions that they themselves don’t see or dismiss. When a microwave machine shows up in Murdoch’s office, having been used as a weapon, Crabtree envisions it could be used to bake potatoes. When told the machine would have to be the size of a room, Crabtree goes on to imagine homes being built in the future with potato baking rooms. Eventually in the course of the series, Crabtree puts his imagination to use and writes a novel.

Brackenreid is an old school cop who in the beginning has little toleration for Murdoch’s odd methods. He’s a blustering blowhard, who is really a marshmallow on the inside.

Of course no series would be complete without a love interest and that we have between Murdoch and the very progressive coroner, Doctor Julia Ogden.

The series also explores many social issues and can therefore be seen as a commentary on our own age, which in many ways isn’t much different from Murdoch’s.

As I noted above, many might not see Murdoch Mysteries as steampunk. But whatever genre you decide to call the series, the series is riotously good fun. Very highly recommended.

As always, comments are welcome and until next time — happy reading!

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Book Review: Beyond The Rails by Jack Tyler

beyond the rails

 

One of the defining features of the punk genres is a protagonist on the edge of society, which allows the author plenty of room to critique said society. This aspect is particularly true in cyberpunk, the original punk genre, and perhaps less so in others.

Jack Tyler, in his short story collection, Beyond The Rails, has given us not one, but five societal misfits and placed them in the colonial frontier of an alternative history 1880s Kenya. The social critique aspect of the punk genre comes in how the white and black Kenyans get along, drawing a contrast with actual history and our own contemporary society. The critique, though, is very understated. Mr Tyler just sort of slips it in. Only the adventure is heavy handed here and that’s a good thing.

Beyond The Rails has all the trappings of steampunk, airships, high adventure, fantastical inventions, and, of course, steam power. Mr Tyler has managed to capture the essence of Firefly and at the same time given us the field of an H Rider Haggard African adventure. And who doesn’t love She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed and Allen Quatermain?

There are six stories in the collection. The first three are independent and the last three actually form a novella in three parts. The first story, “The Botanist”, introduces us to the crew of the airship Kestrel and one Dr Nicholas Ellsworth. As with Firefly, the Kestrel takes on cargo and passengers for delivery beyond the end of the railroad line. And as with Firefly, the passenger we meet… Well, I won’t spoil things. If you know Firefly, you have an idea what happens. And if you don’t, you’ll just have to read the story.

I found the stories to be fun and engaging reads. They are unabashedly in the action/adventure realm, evoking the spirit of the stories I read as a kid. The focus is on the exciting story line and not so much on the characters. Which isn’t to say the crew of the Kestrel aren’t an interesting bunch of misfits — for they are. The focus, though, is on the story and not on changes or the lack thereof in the characters of the story.

As writers, we are told stories are either plot-driven or character-driven. As readers, we tend to prefer exciting and suspenseful stories (like, say, the Indiana Jones or Lara Croft yarns) or we tend to prefer stories that get into a character’s head and where the action tends to be not quite so exciting and perhaps not exciting at all (such as a Yasujiro Ozu movie or a Kazuo Ishiguro novel).

For me, from both a reading and writing perspective, it is character that matters. One of my favorite movies, Late Spring, directed by Yasujiro Ozu (1949), is very understated. There is only a minimalist story. However, the intense emotion that builds up between father and daughter is phenomenal.

That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good action/adventure story where the characters lean towards being stock, because I do—as long as the characters are interesting and colorful. Indiana Jones is certainly colorful, but he doesn’t change all that much even throughout the series of movies.

What Jack Tyler has given us in Beyond The Rails, is action and adventure with characters who are interesting enough to appeal to the most diehard character-driven story reader.

If you like steampunk, the stories of H Rider Haggard, Firefly, I think you’ll want to curl up with Beyond The Rails. I know I did and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Comments are always welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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Book Review: Defiant, She Advanced

When it comes to political and economic theory, I place myself in the libertarian camp. To my mind the rights of the individual trumps all. I’m opposed to collectivism and statism in all its forms. It does not take a village to raise a child. IMHO 🙂

And even though Ayn Rand was quite popular in my college days, I never read any of her books. Consequently, libertarian fiction is new to me. So when I ran across George Donnelly’s short story series, There Will Be Liberty, I decided to buy both books. After all, sci-fi and libertarianism—how cool is that?

I finished reading Defiant, She Advanced: Legends Of Future Resistance a week or two ago and decided to review it. As with all short story collections, some stories are better than others. Better in my eyes, that is. Because, as we all know, what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, is all a matter of opinion.

So let’s take a look at the short story collection Defiant, She Advanced and see how it stakes up against the competition and let’s begin with me giving you a tiny taste of the flavors that you’ll find in this collection. Then be sure to get a copy and decide for yourself!

“The Slow Suicide of Living Again” by Wendy McElroy leads off the book. The story is the most overtly libertarian of the bunch, but that isn’t bad. Wendy’s done a great job of integrating libertarian thought with the storyline and making it flow as a coherent whole. The tale begins with a restitution agent describing a tense scene where she barely escapes from sex traffickers. But that’s the least of Mackenzie Jones’s problems. For her world is soon turned upside down and reality…? Well, what is reality anyway? A very memorable story. Perhaps the best in the collection.

Stories of good guys versus bad guys are usually told from the perspective of the good guy. “Thompson’s Stand” by Jake Antares tells the story of a rebellion against authority from the perspective of the bad guy. A tale of surprising compassion.

“Under the Heel of the Aether Imperium” by J P Medved is a steampunk space opera, with all the things we love best in those two sub-genres. It is a fun-filled, rollicking adventure yarn. This story is complete, yet sets the stage for an ongoing series.

William F Wu’s “Yellowsea Yank” is another steampunk adventure. This one, though, is set on earth, in China, and is filled with action, adventure, mystery, suspense, romance, and mistaken identity. What’s not to like?

1984 is perhaps the most terrifying picture of totalitarianism ever written. George Donnelly, in “Doubleplusunhate”, gives us an Orwellian story that is dark and disturbing. Make sure your teddy bear or comfy blanket are nearby.

Steampunk and the Western frontier seem to go together. Jack McDonald Burnett’s retro-future “Get Kidd to Bounty” gives us the Old West atmosphere in steampunk trappings and does so admirably. This is a classic escape story and will keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s also thought-provoking. One of the best in the collection.

For me, Robert S Hirsch’s “The Intruder” was weak. A rather predictable revenge story, with a techno-fight scene that I didn’t find all that interesting. This was probably the weakest story in the collection.

The writing in Jonathan David Baird’s “Workaday” was very good. Unfortunately, I thought the story suffered from being too short. The storyline needed some fleshing out, because too much seemed to be left unanswered. It just seemed too contrived and sketchy to me. The writing was good, I just wished there was more of it.

“Flourescence” by J P Medved was quite different from his other story in this collection. A dystopian fantasy about a girl with a very special grandmother. The story addresses the issue of authority versus the individual. I found it thought-provoking.

The collection concludes with a long story by George Donnelley, “The Death Shop”. The tone of this science fiction story is dystopian and the story ends with a surprising twist. Even now, reflecting on this tale, I’m not sure what to make of it. I found it disturbing and it left me… Well, I’m not sure. I guess, if anything, questioning what is real and what is a dream. Read it for yourself and see what you think.

All in all, Defiant, She Advanced: Legends of Future Resistance (There Will Be Liberty, Book 1) was worth the money. There is good thought-provoking, as well as fun, entertainment here. The libertarian thought, while present, was not in your face. No preaching here. Hats off to Mr Donnelly for achieving an excellent balance in good storytelling and in presenting political/economic thought. I recommend you get yourself a copy. I don’t think you’ll be sorry. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the series.

Comments always welcome! Until next time, happy reading!

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The Rocheport Saga

The Troubled City (The Rocheport Saga #4) is now LIVE!!! Check out My Novels page for the links to the vendors who carry it.

In addition to The Troubled City joining the ongoing saga of Bill Arthur and the Rocheport crew, I’m running a sale on the first three books of the series. Now is the time to get a copy if you haven’t previously.

The Morning Star (Book 1) is 99¢.

The Shining City (Book 2) is $1.99.

Love Is Little (Book 3) is $2.99.

The sale prices are good through October 4th. Check out My Novels page to see the vendors who carry the books.

If you want to know about the series, I blogged a bit about it in my September 22nd post.

I hope you enjoy reading the series as much as I did writing it!

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The Troubled City (The Rocheport Saga #4)

The Troubled City (The Rocheport Saga #4) is coming in a few days to an ebook vendor near you!

Below is the cover and first half-dozen pages to pique your interest.

The Rocheport Saga was the first “book” I wrote after learning about the “plotless” novel. That is important, because I can’t plot the story out before hand. Try as a I might, I just can’t do it. Plotting for me is not unlike the old woman who sang a folksong to a song collector back around the beginning of the Twentieth Century. When she was finished singing and he recording, she said the song was now dead. Plotting kills the story for me.

Hence The Rocheport Saga is a massive, sprawling manuscript (over 2200 handwritten pages) and has no real plot. It is the fictional autobiography of a man after the world as we know it has come to an end. There are story arcs, but no real plot per se. Just the plot we all live out every day of our lives over the course of our lives.

Each book in the Saga, is edited from the original manuscript. I clean up the text, sometimes add new elements from things I’ve learned since writing the original, and work the manuscript into a conveniently sized novel. I’m guessing there could be up to 10 books in the series.

I’m considering putting in a cast of characters, because if you pick up a volume other than the first and start reading you will probably not understand who is who and what is what for at least some of the book. Other parts will become obvious after some reading. That is one advantage of self-publishing, I can tweak things to make the book better whenever I want.

The novel is in the form of diary entries. In The Troubled City, we start with the hero, Bill Arthur, the leader of Rocheport, going on a month long exploration to see what is out to the west of the little town of Rocheport, Missouri. What becomes quickly apparent is that there are three factions: one opposed to Bill, one supporting Bill, and those in the middle. When Bill returns to the city, he finds it slowly sinking into chaos and discovers no matter what he tries he seems incapable of stopping Rocheport from imploding. That is until he finds help from a person who will dominate the central books of the series.

The cover art is done by my wife. Enjoy the sample and look for the novel later this week!

The Troubled City copy

The Third Year After That Day

March 23rd

From the diary of Melanie Hanks:

Dad and Mert said goodbye early in the morning (Merty even gave me a hug and a kiss) and rode out of town on their horses through the north gate, with Andy and Kayla. Most everyone was there to say their goodbyes. Mom, Helena, Ash, George, and I waved until they disappeared from view. That’s when the dogs started whining, especially Asta. Mermaid nuzzled Helena’s hand to get her to pet her.

Just two days ago we were all standing in the same place, saying our goodbyes, and waving until they disappeared from view. Only to have them all return yesterday with two dozen people from Boonville, who decided they wanted to move to Rocheport for a better life. Now, Dad, Mert, Andy, and Kayla have left us again and I have a feeling this time we won’t be seeing them so soon.

There were lots of tears, today. I think others were thinking the same thing. Mom and I wiped our eyes and cheeks. Rain and Raine were crying. Emma, too. Cassie tried to hide it, but I saw her wiping her eyes. Reverend Rhonda’s cheeks were wet. We might never see them again and that scares me. Dad tried to make light of that fact, but it is true. The world is a dangerous place. Merty has always been there and now he’s my only family. Well, my only real family. I love Bill and Sally and call them “Dad” and “Mom”, but they aren’t my real parents. If Bill and Mert don’t come back, I guess I’ll have to love Sally, Helena, Ash, and George all the more. They’ll be all I have.

Not everyone was sad. I noticed Billy-Rae Thornpot was smiling and Reverend Powers didn’t have that mean look on his face. Steven Crane was even laughing. I think Harry Wirtz is going to have his hands full.

Our friends made sure we knew they’re here for us. Rhonda, Harry, Jerry, Jocelyn, Ralph, Cheryl, James, and Mary are good people, as my real dad would have said. I think they really will be there, if we need the help.

The Wrodkowskis walked home with us and Mom said they could stay, if they wanted, we have plenty of room. Rain and Raine were very happy and accepted the offer.

We and the Wrodkowskis went to Reverend Rhonda’s church service and afterwards, at the community dinner, that’s when the crap hit the fan. Reverend Powers found out there are a bunch of Catholics in the Boonville group and even a priest. He like totally lost it. Even Rachel, his wife, had a tough time getting him to calm down. And Steven Crane had to be right there all totally psyched out. It was Billy-Rae Thornpot who finally got them quieted down.

I felt so embarrassed. I mean like what are all these new people going to think? We’re all a bunch of psychos? Sometimes adults act so dumb.

After dinner, everyone helped the people from Boonville get settled. Billy-Rae even got Reverend Powers to help. He didn’t help the Catholics, though. Just the Baptists. I heard Harry Wirtz grumbling about “selective treatment”. “People are people,” he said. Apparently Reverend Powers doesn’t think so.

Most of the new people are older. There are a couple kids and three teens. There’s Zibby. Kinda hard to forget a name like that! She’s tall, like five-ten, and pretty too. She has long, kinda frizzy red hair and a few freckles. She acts like she totally knows what she’s doing. Her full name is Zibby Pandora White. She’s eighteen. Grace and Blair are the other teens. Grace is nineteen, about my height, with brown hair and eyes. Blair is eighteen. He’s kinda cute. Tall and broad shouldered. Blond hair and blue eyes. I’d like to get to know him.

From the diary of Bill Arthur:

We rode west and instead of going to Boonville, turned north to New Franklin. There are somewhere between twenty and thirty people living there. Mostly along the river. They greeted us warily and we decided it would be best if we moved on.

North of New Franklin is Fayette. Home of Central Methodist University and Morrison Observatory. The town itself is pretty much abandoned. The survivors having moved to the east shore of Rogers Lake and built a small village of shacks and tents surrounded by a palisade. There are around eighty survivors: fifty former students, the remaining being townsfolk.

They were quite friendly and eager to learn about the world beyond their doorstep. We ended up sleeping in the city park because things are very crowded within the palisade.

The people of Fayette seemed to be a harmonious group. At least they didn’t admit to any infighting and I didn’t sense any. They were growing their own food, hunting, and fishing. It’s nice to know there are people who can get along.

What I found disheartening was that while the former students might have been on their way to being prepared for life in the world before That Day, they were totally unprepared for life in the world after That Day. The ones enabling the community to survive are the older folks. The ones who grew up in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. The ones who have some idea of how things work. Practical knowledge learned on the job or from their parents.

I suggested they glean what they can out of the college library. Preserve any books which tell how things work. They are the key to the future. The leaders of Fayette appreciated the suggestion.

March 24th

From the diary of Bill Arthur:

In the morning we bid farewell to the people of Fayette and rode west to Glasgow, a small town on the Missouri River. We found the people very friendly and eager to learn any news we had to share. They use bicycles to get around and have a couple horses which they use for farming.

Thirty-one people call Glasgow home and appear to be doing okay for themselves. Unlike us, they seem to have avoided large scale turmoil and strife. Makes me wonder how effective a leader I am. The people of both Fayette and Glasgow working together for everyone’s mutual benefit, while we are constantly fighting and bickering.

The surrounding countryside was farmland which is now reverting to grassland and forest. What was once covered in crops, is now giving birth to stands of saplings. We’ve seen no one in the open countryside. My guess is the solitaries have either died, been killed, or joined with some group.

We’re two and a half years into our new age and the survivors are clustering together, forming new communities out of the old. Doesn’t mean renegades and bandits aren’t about. There’ve always been Vandals, Huns, Vikings, you name them — the ones who’d rather take the fruits others have planted instead of planting their own. Today is no different. Mostly because people are people. That Day didn’t change who we are.

March 25th

From the diary of Melanie Hanks:

At the town hall meeting tonight, Reverend Powers, as usual, was a pain. We sang our anthem and even sang “Love is Little”, but when the time for new business came up Reverend Powers stood and demanded to know why the community wasn’t consulted concerning the Boonville people.

Harry Wirtz, who’s the leader while Dad is gone, looked really mad, although you couldn’t tell it from his voice. “Bill made the decision based on what he saw and what those people needed.”

Powers didn’t give up. “He should have discussed their situation with the community first.”

“Well, he didn’t. And since Bill isn’t here, we’re going to sit on this until he gets back,” Harry said.

Steven Crane jumped up. “What if he doesn’t come back?”

“We’ll deal with the issue then,” Harry answered.

From the look on their faces, Reverend Powers and Steven Crane didn’t like Harry’s answer but they didn’t say anymore about it. Good thing the Boonville people weren’t at the meeting.

March 26th

From the diary of Melanie Hanks:

At breakfast this morning, the Wood family and four others were sitting with Reverend Powers’ group. That doesn’t look good. The last thing we need is for more people to join Reverend Powers.

Zibby asked if she could sit with me. I said sure.

“I hear your dad is Bill Arthur, the guy who invited us to come here.”

“Yes. He’s my adopted dad.”

“Oh, sure. Lucky for you. No one took me in. I’m by myself. Some of the people back in Boonville helped me. Mostly, I just help myself.”

“I’m sorry. I mean not having anyone and all.”

“Thanks, but I’m okay. Your dad’s the one in charge, right?”

“He’s the leader.”

“Cool. I like you, Mel. We’re going to do alright.”

We talked about stuff and then went to school.

At dinner, Zibby, Blair Novak, and Grace Parchette sat with our family and the Wrodkowskis. The four of us were at one end of the table. I found out Zibby and Grace are Catholic, although Zibby doesn’t really believe it anymore.

Zibby said, “Blair, Grace, and Michael — he’s over there — and I kinda hung out together back in Boonville. We got a house together here.”

“You all live together?” I asked.

“Yeah, now we’re going to,” Zibby said.

Grace added, “We aren’t boyfriend or girlfriend. Just friends. No sex.”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

Zibby laughed. “I hear you guys have some crazy arrangements over here. At least that’s what John Wood said. He got it from that Reverend dude. The nutso.”

I practically snorted my milk at Zibby’s description. “Yeah. Powers is a pain in the butt. Doesn’t like anything. He and Dad don’t agree on much and if Powers doesn’t agree with you, look out.”

Zibby didn’t say anything. The look on her face suggested she was filing the information away. Grace and Blair just shook their heads and said it sounded like their group in a lot of ways.

We went on talking. What I didn’t like was how Zibby kept wanting to get into family stuff. Like she was prying. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t have a family? I don’t know. I just didn’t like it. When dinner was over, Blair said he was glad he made the move and was looking forward to getting to know everyone. He made me feel kinda mushy inside.

From the diary of Bill Arthur:

Glasgow is thirty-six miles away. I think it a bit much to hope for regular trade and communication with them. The travel time has to be measured in days now and there is so much to do. To spare three or four people for several days is something of a luxury and yet I don’t want to not follow up on our contact. At some point we are going to have to reach out and begin trading with other communities and sharing information and technology.

Of course we don’t have to be limited to horses. We could start making steam-powered automobiles and trucks. Or expand Jerry’s still and make more alcohol. The alcohol could be directly used in modified gasoline engines; combined with soybean or sunflower oil, maybe even corn oil, to produce biodiesel; or used in external combustion engines to produce steam. Because we have plenty of solid fuel, I’m inclined towards building steam-powered vehicles fired by solid fuel, rather than liquid. To produce liquid fuel from grains, seeds, and beans requires a lot of work. That is why we didn’t have it in the old world. It wasn’t overly cost effective. But we do have plenty of internal combustion engines around and we don’t have to fuel all of them. So it is an idea. This could be a community project. The Costigan’s Needle for Rocheport.

That science fiction novel keeps sticking in my mind. Those people stranded in another dimension, stopped their infighting by focusing on building the machine that could get them back home. We can’t go back, just as it turned out they couldn’t go back. But we can focus on the future. I want cars, not horses and buggies. Maybe building our own cars and trucks could be what pulls us together.

One valuable piece of information we got from the folks in Glasgow was confirmation as to the location of two salt licks. Eleven miles south of Glasgow is the famous Boone’s Lick site and across the river is Saline County, which was so named for the numerous salt licks that were once very actively used. The only ones that are easily identifiable are those in the Blue Lick Conservation Area, south of Marshall. Although the Glasgowites thought there were a couple others not too far to the west of them. They were not aware of anyone currently processing salt.

We bade them farewell, wished them luck, and rode west. The first town we came to was Gilliam and it was abandoned. Rusting cars. Houses slowly falling into ruin. The surrounding farmland was like all the other farmland we’ve seen. Slowly returning to forest.

Riding farther west we came to Slater and like the people in Fayette the Slater survivors had relocated to the shore of Slater Lake. Forty-some people form the community. They’ve built two dozen huts and have four tents surrounded by a wall of cars and logs. Hunting, fishing, and some extensive gardens are enabling them to get by. They invited us to stay and eat with them, which we did. Afterwards, they let us pitch our tents within the compound. We exchanged news about our respective areas. They’ve had turf wars with the people in Marshall over hunting and scavenging areas. Their own community has been pretty stable. Some leadership issues early on, but they were able to get them resolved.

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The Wonderful Machine Age: Mass Marketing/Consumerism

Then I saw in my dream, that when they were got out of the wilderness, they presently saw a town before them, and the name of that town is Vanity; and at the town there is a fair kept, called Vanity Fair. It is kept all the year long. It beareth the name of Vanity Fair … because all that is there sold, or that cometh thither, is vanity… One chanced … to say unto them, ‘What will ye buy?’

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was published in 1678. His description of Vanity Fair predates the Industrial Revolution by eight decades and the Machine Age by two centuries. And yet nothing characterizes the Machine Age and the Modern Era so much as the question, “What will ye buy?”

Mass marketing and the accompanying Consumerism began in The Machine Age. And as it began, so did the hue and cry arise for us to return to a simpler life and eschew the call to “Buy! Buy! Buy!” Writers such as John Burroughs, David Greyson, Edward Bok, Ralph Borsodi, and Theodore Roosevelt wrote books and articles and gave speeches extolling the virtues of a life without “stuff”. And all the while the Ad Men appealed to our sense of need.

I know for myself there is life before iPad and life with iPad. I confess, I prefer life with iPad. Although I could live without the iPad, it would be much more difficult to dispense with the world wide web altogether. I’ve become used to having volumes of information at my fingertips that would have been difficult for even my local research librarian to glean a mere 40 years ago.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca, very much a voice for our age, counseled his friend that wealth was not in and of itself bad. What was bad was thinking we can’t live without it or that we should have it.

With stuff comes anxiety and the modern age is filled with anxiety. Thoreau’s image of the man pulling a massive barn-sized wagon down the road with all of his worldly possessions piled high in it comes to mind. There is something a whole lot simpler about a backpack.

How then did Mass Marketing and Consumerism arise? They arose out of the scale of production and the means to produce tens of thousands of an item, whereas previously only a hundred or two had been produced. They arose out of the dreams of our Victorian ancestors of what constituted progress and plenty.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, goods were generally produced at home or in small shops. What today we call cottage industries. Local artisans and craftsmen produced goods to order in addition to what they produced for themselves. The extra money helped to supplement what was produced on the farm.

For example, in the American Revolution muskets and rifles were produced by hand. The British government contracted with gunsmiths to produce a certain number of weapons in a given period of time. An agent then went to the gunsmith’s place of business, collected the weapons, and paid the smith. The same was done for uniforms before the big textile mills were built.

The process was slow and costly. Production of goods was often secondary to the main livelihood of the producer, which was usually farming. With the advent of steam power and the invention of machines to manufacture goods, the scale of production went up. Instead of maybe ten or twenty pairs of socks a cottage industry could produce by hand, the mills could produce ten or twenty thousand in the same period of time or less.

This, however, caused a problem for the manufacturer. He simply had too many items on his hands. The cost to him to produce a thousand was often greater per item than to produce ten thousand. The economics of scale gives us a lower cost per item the more we produce because it is cheaper to buy in bulk than singly. So what was a manufacturer to do with the extra goods? Enter the Ad Man and the Salesman and the call, “What will ye buy?”

An interesting article is “The Commercial Christmas”, which gives a quick look at how the Victorians commercialized the holiday. And by 1890 editorials were appearing in The Ladies Home Journal complaining of Christmas being too commercial.

Today we have, through the world wide web, everything at our fingertips and ad agencies convince us we just can’t live without _________ (you fill in the blank). The amount of consumer debt is frightening. In the US, as of 31 March 2015, household debt was $11.85 trillion. Of that credit card debt was $684 billion. And as of the end of 2013 28% of Americans had more credit card debt than savings and only 51% had more emergency savings than credit card debt. And this doesn’t include other debt, such as school loans, car loans, and mortgages.

Consumerism is alive and well. Every government in the Western World worries when consumers stop spending and every developing country’s government  tries to figure out how to get its people to buy. The modern world is built on consumerism.

So why don’t we see more of this in our retro-future novels? Clearly the Steampunk and Dieselpunk real life worlds saw the beginning of mass marketing and consumerism and were in large part formed by them.

Is it a case, perhaps as with television, they are so much with us we see no fictional value in them?

I think of the short-lived, late ‘80s sci-fi TV show Max Headroom. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, it was a satirical and cyberpunk look at ourselves “20 minutes into the future”. The first episode, entitled “Blipverts”, explored mass marketing. [Spoiler alert here.] People were mysteriously exploding. It was discovered that Network 23 was using high-intensity commercials which had the ability to overload people’s nervous systems, causing them to explode.

Of interest is that the atmosphere of Max Headroom was about as depressingly noir as one can get. I think it was cyberpunk at its finest.

Surely there is something in this the steampunk or dieselpunk writer can use. After all both steampunk and dieselpunk are children of cyberpunk. I see both subgenres ignoring major expanses of territory which need to be explored. Where is the inventiveness of Jules Verne and H G Wells? Or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Fritz Lang (the movie Metropolis from 1927).

Both subgenres are science fiction and from my observation (of my own work too), both have degenerated into using highly selective tropes to produce works which are simply mysteries or romances or adventure yarns set in an alternative historical universe. There is nothing wrong with this. I just think there is so much more. Something like “Blipverts”.

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The Wonderful Machine Age – His Master’s Voice

Who isn’t familiar with the picture of the dog focused on the phonograph horn listening to the voice of his deceased master? Such is the power of sound, especially familiar sounds.

While typing this post, I was listening to the incredibly beautiful work of music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, entitled “The Solent”. Prior to 1877 such would not have been possible. For in that year, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and within decades home entertainment was revolutionized. The piano in the parlor began to collect dust and piano lessons began to become a thing of the past.

Edison’s machine used a needle to record little hills and valleys in a wax cylinder, which when played back produced sound. In 1887, Emile Berliner patented the gramophone which used a flat disc. The needle followed a track with moved side to side instead of up and down.

Below is Edison’s phonograph from 1899.

EdisonPhonograph

Eventually Berliner’s gramophone won the commercial battle because the process of producing records instead of cylinders was cheaper. A record cost 20¢, whereas a cylinder cost 50¢. For the cost of 2 cylinders, I could buy 5 records. Pretty simple math and the cylinder became a footnote in history. Ironically enough, Edison had already contemplated the disc but favored the cylinder because it was scientifically more perfect. I guess even geniuses make mistakes. And that’s why many of us grew up collecting records instead of cylinders.

Below is picture of a wind-up gramophone.

$_32

Edison’s phonograph was the first machine to both record and playback sound. However, an earlier machine, the phonautograph, invented in 1857, made a visual image of the voice for study by doctors and scientists. The image could not be played back. At least not until 2008 when, with the help of optical scanning and computers, the pictures were turned into digital audio files and listened to for the first time. The oldest recordings of the human voice.

Just as Bell had competition for the telephone, so did Edison with the phonograph. That competition came in the form of Charles Cros’ paleophone. Cros, who was a poet and amateur inventor, came up with the idea to use photoengraving to transfer the phonautograph image to a disc or cylinder for playback. He wrote a letter describing his idea and deposited it with the French Academy of Science on 30 April 1877. Cros’ idea became public on 10 October 1877, however by then he had improved upon his original concept by inventing a way to capture and record sound using an acid-etch method.

Learning of Edison’s machine, Cros had his April letter opened and claimed scientific priority over Edison.

Cros’ method became standard procedure to produce the metal masters from which the flat records could be pressed. Unfortunately, he died in 1888 and could not enjoy his triumph over Edison. Today, no one’s even acquainted with the name of Charles Cros.

The phonograph, or gramophone, is perhaps one of the most iconic inventions of The Machine Age. Rivaled only by the telephone and the automobile. It appeared at the age’s beginning and was going strong when the age faded away. Today, the phonograph has morphed into the ubiquitous iPod.

There was a gramophone on board the Graf Zeppelin on its round the world flight in August 1929. Brought on board by millionaire Bill Leeds, Commander Hugo Eckener had it promptly removed. Leeds retrieved the machine and told Eckener if weight was the problem he’d leave behind his luggage.

Bram Stoker, in his novel Dracula, had Doctor Seward record his diary on a phonograph. Seward, however, was worried the count might be able to melt the wax cylinders with his mysterious powers and destroy Seward’s recordings of the vampire’s machinations. That is perhaps the first literary example of the dictaphone, which has also gone digital.

Of equal lineage with the phonograph is the tape recorder. We don’t really use them anymore but we do use digital versions to record our voices.

The tape recorder was invented in 1886 by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory. The machine used a strip of paper coated with beeswax. Magnetic recording was first conceived of in 1877 and demonstrated in 1898, first using wire and later tape.

Below is an early magnetic wire recorder from 1898.

Magnetic Wire Recorder 1898
Magnetic Wire Recorder 1898

The record player and tape recorder were everywhere in the 20th century — even more widespread than the TV. I think retro-futurist writers with a little imagination can easily come up with something true to form and yet truly fantastic. Bram Stoker did so simply by including a phonograph in his novel. Now what if that record player or tape recorder could fit inside a small brown box about the size of a deck of cards?

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The Wonderful Machine Age – Television

One of the things we take for granted here in the West is television. It is everywhere. You can find it in doctor’s and dentist’s offices, bars, and of course at home. Television is used for security monitoring and it has gone to outer space. Television is out of this world. Where would we be without it?

I have always known television. Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I watched plenty of the black and white world of the tube. And when color came along in the later ‘60s, I thought I’d entered paradise.

Even though we may not be able to imagine a world where TV doesn’t exist, it wasn’t all that long ago that it didn’t exist. My parents grew up with radio for entertainment in the ‘30s and ‘40s. For them, television was something as fantastic as Buck Rogers and his space ship or Superman or Dorothy in Oz. I can remember my mother saying, while listening to radio dramas as a girl, how she wished she could see the show instead of just listen to it. She did get her wish.

So when did television begin? Would you believe the foundational technologies and machines responsible for TV were developed in the 1840s and 1850s? That the name itself was coined in 1900? And the first instantaneous transmission of images occurred in 1909? It is all true. The Victorian and Edwardian eras laid the foundation for what eventually became television.

I am continually amazed at how many things we take for granted today, were first conceived of or initially developed or had their roots in the Victorian era. The 19th century, second only to the 20th, was the most fertile time period for human inventiveness. The human imagination was operating on steroids.

Mechanical Television

Television, as we more or less know it today, began in the 1920s through the work of the Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird, and three Americans: Charles Francis Jenkins, Herbert E Ives, and Frank Gray (the latter two worked for Bell Telephone Laboratories).

The first TVs were mechanical devices and depended on a spinning disk called a Nipkow Disk for transmission of the picture. The disk separated a picture into lines which could then be transmitted by wire or wireless technology and then the disk played back the picture and the eye, due to persistence of vision, saw the picture as a unit.

Baird marketed his TV as the “Baird Televisor”. They were very expensive: costing $1000 back in the early depression. Somewhere between $13,000 and $14,000 today. A kit could be had for $39.50, or about $576 in today’s dollars.

The work of Ives and Gray led to the creation of the first television station, W2XB, known as WGY Television, in 1928 in the US. The station still operates today.

The BBC in 1929 had 30 regularly scheduled programs and in 1931 there were 25 stations broadcasting in the US, some in Iowa and Nebraska.

However the mechanical television had two major problems: small picture size and poor picture quality. Below is an example of what people would see on a Televisor. Do note, the reproduction is poorer than the actual image because the light level of the original is so low. But it gives you an idea of the wonder that was early TV.

30line-TV-picture

This site has an animated version of what a mechanical TV picture was like: http://www.talkingelectronics.com/projects/MechanicalTV/MechanicalTV-1.html

The picture size was small due to practical limitations in how big the Nipkow disk could be made. Picture quality was poor due to there only being 30-60 lines per frame instead of the 525 for US standards or 625 for European standards.

Consequently, image size and quality killed mechanical television. The public just wasn’t interested. Broadcasts ceased in the US by 1933, except for a few universities which kept broadcasting until 1939. The BBC stopped in 1935 and the Soviet Union quit in 1937.

Electronic Television

While mechanical television was enjoying its day in the sun, work was progressing on the cathode ray tube, first invented in 1897. As early as 1914 a system for image transmission was developed, but image quality was very faint.

Image improvement came from Kálmán Tihanyi’s invention of “charge storage”, whereby the camera tube (or transmitting tube) accumulated and stored electrical charges which enhanced picture quality. RCA bought Tihanyi’s patents. In 1929, the first live human images were transmitted. They are 3 1/2 inches in size and used a system developed by Philo Farnsworth, a competitor to RCA.

The EMI engineering team in Britain won the race to produced a new camera which could make viable television images and in November 1936 began the world’s first regular high-definition television service.

Interestingly enough, Kálmán Tihanyi in 1936 described the principle of plasma display and the first flat-panel display system. Flat-screen TVs and Plasma TV are pure dieselpunk. Who would have thought it?

I don’t recall writers from the time period using TVs, which I find rather odd since they did exist. If they could envisioned fantastically futuristic airships, space ships, and death rays — why not fantastic televisions?

What’s even more odd, to my thinking, and I’m just as guilty, is why aren’t we retro-futurist writers putting TVs into our stories? Everything is possible in the retro-future, so why haven’t we put TVs into our stories?

The development of the TV is incredibly fascinating reading. Contributions came from all over Europe and the US to give us what we take for granted today. And now that I know about it, you can bet your next paycheck Rand Hart is going to be watching TV the next time he’s on the Hindenburg. Maybe a broadcast of the opera “Fedora” by Giordano.

Further Reading

http://www.earlytelevision.org/mechanical.html

http://www.tvhistory.tv/1920s%20TV%20Picture.htm

http://www.talkingelectronics.com/projects/MechanicalTV/MechanicalTV-1.html  This site has an animated TV picture.

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