Razor Mountain — Chapter 29.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

“I suppose I can pick up the story from there,” Cain said. “Christopher was eventually deemed to be an accidental arrival, not a significant threat. It was left to the court system to determine what to do with him, with the expectation that he would likely become a permanent resident. He must have made some friends, because his advocate registered an unusual request for relief. It was that report that was flagged in the system. When we were planning Christopher’s extraction, I set up some regular searches across all the systems I have access to, just in case someone caught wind of my plans. Those searches flagged this report by a Specialist Gabrielle Speares, the subject being none other than Christopher Lamarck.

“When I got over the shock, I immediately intervened. I confirmed that he was, in fact, the person I was looking for, and I brought him to the chamber of voices, the heart of the mountain.”

“And here we are,” Christopher said.

“Here we are.”

“All it took to recover your memories was a trip to the chamber?” Cas Bell asked.

“The process has started,” Christopher replied. “As I said, it’s going to take a while. This is not as neat and tidy as the usual ritual, where the host is a well-prepared adult, and the transfer happens under controlled conditions in the chamber itself.”

“Why is it different?” she asked. “There were hosts being groomed back then.”

Christopher blinked. He knew in his bones that it was different, but he wasn’t sure how to respond. The truth was that the chamber didn’t belong to him, not really. It was built by the voices, for their own purposes. Despite all he had built, he was still the interloper, using their tools as best he could.

“The process is difficult, and it’s not easier when making the jump under the stress of a knife in the gut. I overshot the mark, so to speak. After that, I was forced to latch on to whatever host I could find.”

“In this case, a newborn in Minneapolis,” Cain said.


There was a moment of heavy silence around the table. The bald man at the far end was the first to speak.

“I suppose the question we must resolve now is whether we should believe all of this,” he said.

Christopher stared at him.

“I’m sorry, I can’t recall your name.”

The man nodded. “I’m Reed Parricida, Secretary of Labor.”

“For what it’s worth, I can corroborate a fair bit of Cain’s account,” Cas said. “My people were involved in monitoring Christopher, and, of course, in the failed extraction.”

“That doesn’t prove he’s God-Speaker,” General Reese said.

Christopher looked around the table, spending a moment on each face. It was still a mix of familiar and unfamiliar, but he could feel relevant memories rising from the depths. He grabbed an empty piece of paper from the open folder in front of Cain, and a pen from the middle of the table.

“Ask me something you think only God-Speaker would know,” he said. He looked from face to face and began to scribble on the paper, tearing strips off as he went.

“Can you even remember the names of all your secretaries?” Reed asked.

“If you were a fake,” Cas said, “it would be expected that Cain would have coached you.”

“You already offered yours,” Christopher said to Reed. “There’s Cain Dolus, Secretary of Energy; Cassandra Bell, Director of Intelligence Operations; General Simon Reese, Director of Military Operations; you I don’t recall, although I suspect you must be the Secretary of Justice, which means you were the deputy secretary under Moira…”

In the end, he could remember about two-thirds of the people around the table, although some of them seemed more real in his memory than others.

“Surely there must be things I would know that Cain couldn’t have told me,” Christopher said. He had finished writing on his strips of paper, and began folding them in half and passing them to particular secretaries.

“For example,” he continued, “I believe I gave every one of you a code. You were each told that only you had a code, but I have to confess, that was a lie. This was a code specifically to confirm my identity after I moved to a new host. Unfortunately, like everything else, I don’t remember all of the codes yet. But perhaps the ones I do remember will at least convince a few of you.”

The secretaries’ eyes went wide as they opened their slips of paper. General Reese took out his phone and tapped the screen a few times, before holding the paper up to it for comparison.”

“God Damn,” he said at last.

“I have a question,” Reed said. He had not been a recipient of a slip of paper. “Can you tell me what you had asked me to investigate in the days before your death?”

Christopher rubbed his forehead and stared at Reed. He waited for a few seconds, in the vain hope that some memory would present itself, but nothing did. He wanted to dig for it, but that didn’t seem to be how these memories worked. They came to the surface when they were ready, and in no particular order.

“I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“Do you have any idea how long it will take to fully recover your memory?”

Christopher sighed.

“No. It’s been a very long time since this has happened. Thousands of years. It’s a lot of memories to recover.”

“No doubt. Can we assume then, that you’ll let us all know when you remember which of us betrayed you?”

“Of course,” Cain interjected. “And now, everyone knows that it’s only a matter of time. Until then, I will ensure that God-Speaker is safe and monitored, so any further attempts to harm him will be subject to the harshest spotlight possible.”

“Perhaps a foolish question,” Cas said, “but how fair is it to trust you with that?”

“I’ve done more than anyone to bring him back,” Cain said. “If that isn’t enough to exonerate me, I don’t know what is.”

Christopher felt a headache creeping from the nape of his neck toward his forehead. He suddenly felt as though his brain was trying to burst his skull. Too many memories, he supposed. Surely a human brain couldn’t hold thousands of years of memories without ill effects?

“I understand this has been shocking,” he said, massaging his temples. “I promise you, it has been even more shocking for me. I know there will be many more questions and things to resolve, but I think this is about as much of this as I can take, for the moment.”

“What will you do now?” Cas asked.

Christopher suddenly remembered a suite of rooms at the top of the city, filled with cozy firelight. A balcony to look at the stars. A private office full of books…and his sheet music! He had forgotten about his compositions.

“I think I’d like to go to my apartments.”

“I’ll bring a team to set up the surveillance,” Cas said. She turned to the room. “And we’ll make sure all of us have visibility.”

“Great,” Christopher said, the migraine now throbbing between his ears.

“Follow me,” Cain said. “I’ll take you home.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 29.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher studied the faces in the room. Again, there were a myriad of different expressions, from those who looked confused or irritable to those more prepared to believe. If this had been a movie, Christopher thought, someone’s face would betray their guilt when Cain accused them of harboring a murderer. He didn’t see anything like that, but he supposed that whoever had done it had already fooled him once, back when the deed was done, and he had known more back then.

“Look,” the Secretary of the Treasury said, “If this man really is God-Speaker, shouldn’t it be a simple thing for him to tell us who killed him? Or are you claiming that he doesn’t know either?”

“That would make sense, wouldn’t it?” Christopher said. “Unfortunately, I only just visited the chamber. It’s been a long time, and the jump was unexpected, for obvious reasons. I’m beginning to recover my memory, but it’s going to take a while. Days, at least.”

“Why bother revealing yourself now?”

“We thought it best to have it all out in the open,” Cain said.

“I’m still curious how you got here,” said a voice from the far end of the table. The tall, skinny, bald man.

“Well,” Cain said, “I had agents around Christopher for years. I had them push on things here and there, where I could. For example, making sure he got a promotion that would put him in the position to travel north.”

Christopher’s eyes widened.

“No shit. I thought some things about that whole process seemed strange. You had people in the company?”

“Of course.”

Christopher shook his head.

“So Sean Wallace probably did deserve the job more than I did. I thought he was going to get it.”

Cain frowned at him.

“Does that really matter at this point?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“In any case, an opportunity to get him to Alaska finally came up. At that point, I decided I had no choice but to bring someone else in on the project. I told Cas what I had been doing, or at least what little she didn’t already know. We put a team in place. We made arrangements so that Christopher would be on a plane with our people. He would be drugged, the plane would be taken off the grid, and would land here, at the airstrip.”

“We have an airstrip?” Christopher asked.

“It’s tight and carefully camouflaged,” Cas said, “and only used for special cases and emergencies. But yes.”

“As it turns out, the airstrip wasn’t used,” Cain said. “You got on the plane, but the plane never arrived. We lost contact with the team during the flight. We were only able to find the crash site a few days ago. I thought we would have nothing but forensics to try to piece together what happened.”

“That certainly seems to paint Cas in a suspicious light,” said a man in a smart green uniform. The name rose to the surface of Christopher’s mind: General Simon Reese, Director of Military Operations. His purview would be mostly local to the mountain; the military administration. No doubt one of the people who would most often vie with Cas over certain arenas of authority.

Cas held up her hands.

“Cain had access to all the same information I did.”

“No offense, Cas, but I’ll reserve any judgment,” Cain said. “Perhaps God-Speaker can shed some light on what happened?”

Once again, all the eyes in the room shifted to Christopher. He took a deep breath.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I can fill in some blanks. I woke up on the plane—drugged, I now realize. I discovered pretty quickly that it was empty. No other passengers, no crew, just me. I would have to guess that your team bailed out while I was still sleeping, and they assumed that I would ride that plane right into the side of a mountain. Instead, I tried to fly it, and when that failed, I jumped.”

Christopher remembered his confused thoughts in those frantic moments. The drug they had given him was certainly part of it, but there was something else. He remembered waking up, seeing a strange vision of a cave, hearing strange voices. He remembered something compelling him to fly the plane, to change direction, and finally, to jump into the lake.

His eyes widened. “I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know I was God-Speaker. But some part of him must have been awake in the back of my head. I changed the direction of the plane, and I jumped. I don’t know if that’s something I…Christopher…would have done on his own. I landed in a lake and somehow managed to swim to shore. I was hurt and I’m sure I was verging on hypothermia. Practically delirious. I found a bunker, one of the furthest of the old Razor Mountain out-buildings, although I wasn’t aware of that at the time. And when I punched some random keys on the keypad, it just happened to be the right code.”

“God-Speaker guided you,” Cain said. He wore a faint smile and glaze-eyed look of religious conviction. It made Christopher uncomfortable, but to the God-Speaker portion of his mind, this seemed only appropriate.

“The bunker saved my life and gave me the opportunity to recover,” Christopher said. “Not knowing who I really was, or where I was, I only hoped to be rescued. But days went by with no sign of human life, apart from the cryptic things I occasionally heard on the radio. Eventually, I decided to investigate other locations marked on a map that I found in the bunker.”

“The numbers station,” Cas said. “Coded orders.”

“Did you sense that you needed to go toward the mountain,” Cain asked, with the air of a defense attorney leading the witness.

“No, not back then,” Christopher said, honestly. “It was just a strange-looking peak in the distance. All I was hoping for was to find people and get back home. So I made a makeshift sled, packed supplies, and set off. I won’t bore you with the details, but I hiked until my supplies were gone, and all I had managed to find was what appeared to be the ruin of a building.”

“Where were you, exactly?” Cain asked. “It could have been that failed Tokamak site from the ’40s.”

“I don’t think it’s important,” Christopher said. “What matters is that I was out of food and lost in the woods, and I probably would have died if someone hadn’t found me.”

“Who found you?” asked the bald man at the end of the table.

“Some exiles,” Christopher said. “Traitors who fled the mountain and were holed up in another one of those old out-buildings.”

“Hold on,” Cas said. “You’re telling me there is a group of deserters that left the mountain without authorization? Why hasn’t this come up in any of our cabinet meetings?”

General Reese held up a hand.

“That situation is already handled. Two of the traitors gave themselves up, along with the positions of the rest. We rounded them up a few days ago.”

“All of them?” Christopher asked.

General Reese glanced away for a moment, and Christopher read a flash of uncertainty on his features.

“There’s one who is still at large, but the situation will be wrapped up soon.”

“I want them unharmed,” Christopher said. “Especially the girl that your soldiers are no doubt chasing aimlessly through the woods right now.”

“I don’t think we should be discussing sensitive intelligence in this meeting,” the bald man at the end of the table said, “at least until we understand this situation.”

“He clearly already has knowledge of the situation,” General Reese muttered.

“Write it down,” Christopher said, pointing at the general. “No harm to any of them.”

“They’re traitors.”

“They’re the only reason I’m here, alive, right now,” Christopher said. “When I was lost in the woods, and someone from the mountain was taking pot-shots at me, that girl got me out safely, and those exiles took me in. Granted, they immediately interrogated me, but it was a much more pleasant interrogation than what I received when I got to the mountain proper.”

“How did you finally get here?” Cain asked.

“Those two traitors who gave themselves up,” Christopher said. “They wanted a little extra bargaining power, and at least one of them was convinced that I was some kind of spy. So they tied me up and snuck me out from under their compatriots. Then they brought me here, gave me up to the authorities, and begged for mercy.”

Christopher turned to General Reese. “Did they get any mercy?”

“They’re incarcerated in preparation for military tribunal,” General Reese said.

“So was I,” Christopher said. “I was thoroughly interrogated in a variety of ways that we will reevaluate in the near future.”

“Our methods with outsiders are not new,” General Reese said, scowling. “Perhaps you’ll be able to remember who instituted those policies in the next few days.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 29.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher let Cain lead the way into the conference room. The cabinet members were already seated around the long, rectangular table. The group was quite old, most of them white-haired and heavily wrinkled. Through windows along one side of the room Christopher could see a panoramic view of the city below.

He had waited in a nearby room for the rest of the cabinet to arrive for the meeting. “Better to explain once than invite questions from each and every one of them as they enter,” Cain had said. Of course, that meant that Christopher would now truly make a spectacle of himself as the stranger entering the most private meeting of the de facto rulers of the city.

“Who is this, Cain?” one man grumbled, before Cain had even made it to his seat. Some of the others had taken notice of the stranger in their midst as well. They watched as Cain pulled out the chair at the head of the table and gestured for Christopher to sit. There it was, the king on his throne.

Cain cleared his throat.

“There really ought to be more fanfare, but I suppose we’ll make do. This man was born Christopher Lamarck, but he is, in fact, the reincarnation of our long-missing leader, God-Speaker.”

He pulled out a chair next to Christopher and sat, as if the matter was now settled. For a moment, it was quiet enough that Christopher could hear the clock on the wall ticking.

And then the clamor of voices rose up like a wave to crash over him. He leaned back in the chair involuntarily.

He was distinctly aware though, of a feeling lurking beneath the discomfort and uncertainty. There was a giddy, self-satisfied feeling. It came from a place that Christopher was beginning to recognize as God-Speaker’s influence, and it was slowly growing.

“What kind of game are you playing, Cain? He’s been dead for decades.”

“This is absurd. Why would he need you as his mouthpiece?”

“How is this possible? Are you sure?”

The general feeling Christopher heard in the cabinet’s exclamations was disbelief. One or two of the secretaries immediately suspected Cain of some sort of soft coup. One or two others, however, seemed more willing to hear him out. Christopher did not consider himself terribly good at reading people’s emotions, but God-Speaker did. Christopher noted the crease of a brow here, the shape of a mouth over there. It was almost like a movie, where the camera zoomed in on some tiny clue, and the voice-over explained what it all meant.

Christopher found that he recognized some of these people. There were familiar faces. He had names or titles for some, but not for others.

A woman in a black silk blouse stood and held out her hands over the arguing secretaries like a benediction. Christopher’s brain helpfully offered up a name and title: Cassandra Bell, Director of Intelligence Operations.

“Everyone, stop. This isn’t productive. Let them speak, and then have your argument when there’s something substantial to argue about.”

Cain stood as well.

“Thank you, Cas.”

She nodded and sat.

“I think I know more than most, but I’d still like to hear what you’ve been up to. From the beginning.”

“If he’s really God-Speaker, why don’t you just let him speak?” asked a man at the far end of the table, whose name Christopher couldn’t yet recall.

“I’d actually love to hear what Cain has been up to,” Christopher said. “I haven’t gotten the full story yet.”

“Of course,” Cain said. “As most of you know, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time down in the basement, in the chamber of voices, the resurrection chamber, the place where the oracles learn their craft.”

“Or at least where they used to learn it,” someone muttered.

“Yes, yes, we all know about the basement. Can we get on without your mystical pomp and circumstance?” someone else said.

“This is the culmination of half a lifetime of work,” Cain said. “I think I should be allowed a little ceremoniousness.”

Christopher sighed. These were the rulers of Razor Mountain. He could imagine the years of petty squabbling that had gone on in his absence.

“While I appreciate all your hard work, I think we had better be concise for now,” he said.

Cain nodded.

“After the body was found and the Secretary of Justice was…convicted…I began spending as much of my time as possible down in the heart of the mountain. At first, I was simply hoping to find clues to the murder, or some explanation as to why nothing had happened when the oracles were sent back with their warnings. And very slowly, I began to see glimpses of things.”

“Is this all going to boil down to you seeing the truth in a vision?” said a man halfway down the table. The Secretary of the Treasury, Christopher thought.

“Is that strange to you?” Cain asked. “Is that any different from what the oracles do? What God-Speaker does?”

“The oracles are a rare few,” the man said, “and they all age out of their abilities when they’re far younger than you. And of course God-Speaker is altogether different.”

“Be that as it may, I began to see things,” Cain continued. At first it was nothing but jumbled images. Eventually I began to notice the same things repeating: the same rooms in a particular house. The same few people over and over again. And all of it revolved around one person: a child named Christopher.

“Now I will readily admit, I had no evidence. I had only grief. But I had an unshakable feeling that this child was God-Speaker. I became convinced that he had reincarnated, as he always does, but it had somehow gone wrong and he was far away from the mountain.

“It was at this point that I enlisted help for the first time. I began “borrowing” external operators from Cas every now and then, and I collected as much information as I could on this boy, while doing my best to not reveal who I thought he was.”

Cas Bell smiled. “I will say, it took me entirely too long to realize what your suspicions were. You’re not the worst spy.”

“In any case,” Cain continued, “Our people found the boy, his family, and his house: everything I had seen in my visions. I discovered that Christopher was born on the same day God-Speaker died, perhaps even the very moment of his death. It was too perfect to be a coincidence. The more I learned, the more convinced I was, and more determined to keep my beliefs hidden. I knew I needed to bring him back here, but I didn’t know how to do it without revealing what I knew, or putting him in danger.”

“What danger, exactly?” said a tall, bald man at the far end of the table.

“He had just been murdered,” Cain said. “There was no reason to believe it wouldn’t happen again, especially if he came back in the body of a small child.”

“McCaul was already locked up,” someone said. Christopher recognized that name. Moira McCaul had been the Secretary of Justice, head of the civilian police under the mountain.

“McCaul never had a trial, and she wouldn’t have been convicted if she had,” Cain replied. “That was a sham, and I think most of you know it. You all wanted some sense of closure, but there was never enough evidence to know who did it.”

“We’ve been over and over that case a dozen times,” the bald man said.

“Not enough, it seems,” said a woman near Christopher’s end of the table. She was clearly the youngest of the secretaries. Christopher suspected she must be the new Secretary of Justice, the deputy who had taken the position when her boss was imprisoned. He couldn’t come up with a name.

“There is very little doubt in my mind that someone in this room was responsible for God-Speaker’s murder,” Cain said bluntly. “And if they did it once, they’ll do it again.”


Four Things I Learned From The Uplift War

A little while back I finished reading David Brin’s first Uplift Trilogy with my kids. It was an interesting experience for a few reasons:

  1. It was published in 1987, which is a period that (to me, at least) doesn’t feel old enough to qualify as “classic” sci-fi, but is certainly old enough to see how the genre has changed and compare to more modern stuff.
  2. I originally read it when I was in my early teens, possibly before I even had an inkling that I wanted to be a writer. Now I’m a middle-aged dad writing my own sci-fi. It gives me a very different perspective.
  3. I read it out loud. This is something I pretty much never did before I had kids, but now I’ve been doing it for more than a decade. Reading aloud is slower, and different in ways that are a little difficult to quantify.

1. Life Goes On

The Uplift Trilogy encompasses three stories that take place in the same universe, but are only very loosely related. Interestingly, The Uplift War doesn’t even resolve the loose plot that ties the last two books together: the scout ship Streaker fleeing from alien armadas with secret information that may upend the galaxy-spanning pseudo-religion.

Each story in the series is wrapped up by the end of the book, but the backdrop is a galaxy in flux, and the larger picture is left unresolved. Startide Rising follows Streaker as it crash-lands on an inhospitable planet, and the crew fights mutiny and the threat of the aliens giving chase. They escape, but they’re still on the run.

The Uplift War is about the invasion of Garth, a small and battered Earthling colony world, invaded by one of Earth’s most dangerous enemies. By the end, the invasion is foiled and the Earth gains some new allies, but the outcome of the war is far from certain.

For some readers, I have no doubt that this lack of resolution on a grand scale would be frustrating (especially before Brin wrote a second trilogy in the same universe). For me, it makes the setting feel more grounded, more real. The story of this particular place and time may have a beginning and an ending, but the galaxy keeps on turning. Just like in real life, there are always loose threads and uncertainties.

2. Don’t Use Difficult-to-Pronounce Names

Okay, this might be a little petty, and it was admittedly influenced by the fact that I was reading out loud.

Here are some character names from the book: Uthacalthing, Athaclena, Mathicluanna, Prathachulthorn. Oh, and also Robert, Megan and Benjamin. Can you guess which ones are aliens and which ones are Earthlings? Well, you’re probably right about everyone except for Major Prachachulthorn, the most shallow and under-utilized villain of the series, and decidedly human.

Oddly, I am perfectly willing to deal with names that are difficult to pronounce when they come from a real culture and are just unfamiliar. And I have little doubt that if we ever make contact with real aliens, they’ll have impossible-to-pronounce names, if they have names at all. But made-up alien names composed entirely of X’s, Z’s and punctuation are deeply irritating to me. I’d much rather sacrifice a tiny bit of verisimilitude for a heaping helping of readability.

On the other hand, I’m a firm believer that it’s an effective and easy aid to the reader to make all your important character names very different, especially in books with huge casts of characters like these. These unpronounceable names are pretty good in that regard. You’re not likely to confuse Uthacalthing with Prathachulthorn. Or Benjamin.

3. Appendices Suck

Okay, The Uplift War doesn’t actually have appendices. It has a glossary and cast of characters and two different maps. I’m talking about pretty much everything that takes up pages before or after the story itself.

Don’t get me wrong, I love maps. Maps can be art. I play TTRPGs, and let me tell you, you’re going to see some maps when you play those games. In fact, I think maps are much more suited to something like that. The maps in The Uplift War aren’t art. They’re bare-bones representations whose purpose is clearly just to show you the basic lay of the land.

The glossary and cast of characters read like reference material. Because they are.

All of these things solve the same problem: what if the reader gets confused? The answer to that question should be fixing the story so that they don’t get confused. If the reader can’t remember which character is which, that means you have too many characters or they aren’t interesting enough to remember. If the reader is confused about the lay of the land, it means you haven’t described it very well. And if the reader doesn’t understand how to conjugate verbs in elvish…well, then your name is probably J.R.R. Tolkien and you should have just written a separate linguistics study for your made-up languages.

World-building should happen in the story, not in appendices.

4. Don’t Write Sexy Alien Girls

This trope was worn out before Captain Kirk started seducing every green-skinned babe in the galaxy. It feels like adolescent wish-fulfillment. Which is fine, I guess, if that’s what you’re going for. But it’s out of place in otherwise serious sci-fi.

If your hunky main character absolutely has to fall in love with a hot alien, at least have the good sense to make them a sentient cloud of nuclear plasma or fire-breathing kaiju.

Reblog: On “Prose-Forward” Writing and the Pleasures of Different Genre Conversations — Lincoln Michael

Good Lord, Lincoln Michael is a treasure. He lives with one foot in genre fiction and one foot in literary fiction, and he’s erudite enough to use that vantage point to illuminate the literary landscape.

Every time I read one of his Substack articles, I come away with five tabs open for further reading, and a whole new vocabulary to describe topics that I had vague ideas about, and which he has described with exacting precision.

In this post, Michael suggests that the common discussion of “invisible vs. visible” prose is shallow, and Max Gladstone’s tension between “textured and aerodynamic” prose adds to the conversation. He follows that up with a discussion of yet more theoretical axes for comparing fiction: plot-forward and prose-forward.

As an author who is published about equally in the SFF ecosystem and literary fiction ecosystem, this is a topic I think about a lot. It’s very easy to say “all these labels are false and mean nothing!” And obviously as someone who writes both SFF and “literary fiction” I think the binary is bullshit, the snobs on both sides are annoying, and all of these terms are fluid, overlapping, and spectrums. Etc. At the same time, questions of what gets called literary and what is embraced or rejected by SFF readers is a practical concern. Saying “it’s all bullshit” or “it’s all just marketing” doesn’t change the hard reality of where your work gets published, whether you have shots at awards, and how readers will find or fail to find your work.

I often hear SFF people ask why some speculative writers are embraced by the literary world and others aren’t. I think “prose-forward” is much of the answer. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that “prose-forward” writing is the defining quality of what is called “literary” in general. (Note that in my view authors can be simultaneously literary and genre. This is a Venn diagram, not a binary.)

Prose-forward doesn’t mean a specific style but rather that the prose itself is an integral part of the work. The texture of it, to use Gladstone’s metaphor. That texture might be dense and lush like Southern Gothic or gritty and minimalist like dirty realism or a million other things. But the literary world places great focus on the texture of sentences, whatever that texture might be.

I’m a big fan of anyone who can get past the supposed binaries that people love to define for these kinds of topics, and Michael is great at sussing out those details and making me want to dig deeper.

Check out the rest of the article at Counter Craft…

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 28

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Remember When This Book Had No Dialogue?

Having just written yet another chapter that is almost entirely characters walking and talking, it’s hard to believe that this book started with a single character, completely alone in the wilderness. For the entirety of Act I, Christopher had nobody to talk to. God-Speaker had his tribe, but even in those early chapters they didn’t have much to say to each other, and I purposely limited their vocabulary and the ways they communicated.

In Act II, that began to change. Christopher was slowly introduced to more people: Amaranth, then the exiles, and finally the people of Razor Mountain itself. God-Speaker built up a society around himself, becoming more sophisticated and social.

Now, in Act III, I’m finding that every chapter is stuffed full of dialogue by necessity. Dialogue is a fantastic tool for rolling out exposition in a natural and interesting way. I need to resolve all the mysteries that were set up along the way, and that means getting a lot of information across. Dialogue is great for that.

The potential downside of all that dialogue is the way it slows the pacing. Dialogue naturally tends to slow a story down, because it feels like it’s happening more-or-less in real time. An entire chapter of dialogue can span only a few minutes of time within the story. Narrative description, even when it’s flowery, can often pack more time and more events into fewer words.

I’m trying to keep the dialogue tight to counter this slowing effect, but I’m sure I’ll come back later and find more that I could have done. For me, dialogue is one of the hardest things to edit, because changing something early in a conversation can cause cascading changes throughout the rest of the conversation, like redirecting the flow of a river.

Parsing Feedback

Feedback for this book has been a strange beast. I get some real-world feedback before I publish a chapter, then it goes out onto the blog, Wattpad and Tapas, where it (sometimes) gets more feedback, mostly in the form of comments. And sometimes I’ll get comments on chapters that I wrote months ago, as new people find the story. This process, with a publicly available serial story is a very different experience from writing the whole book and then getting feedback from a curated group of people.

That said, I’ve been getting great (that is, useful) feedback on the last couple chapters. Hopefully that means readers are engaged and excited about the direction the story is going. It’s really helpful to see what questions readers have and what they’re wondering about at this stage.

As mysteries start to resolve and questions get answered, I think readers naturally become more and more aware of the questions that haven’t been answered yet. Getting feedback on what readers are wondering about is really useful here, because it can tell me whether I’ve really answered some questions as well as I think I have. It also tells me what I should emphasize in upcoming chapters.

So, if you’re reading and you have feedback, please drop me a comment! It’ll only make the story better.

Next Time

Chapter 28 turned out to be a long one—so  long that I broke it in half. In Chapter 29, Cain and Christopher will confront the cabinet, and more will be revealed about what happened in the years while God-Speaker was gone from Razor Mountain.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 28.3

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

They walked to a less populous, more industrial-looking neighborhood at the edge of the main cavern. Christopher felt a sense of familiarity, even more so as Cain led him to a door and unlocked it. Once again, they were back in the maze of dull hallways.

“We might still be able to turn your unexpected arrival to our advantage. If it surprised me, then the others are even more in the dark.”

“There’s just one big problem,” Christopher said. “I hardly remember anything, and what I do remember is a disconnected jumble.”

“Well,” Cain said, “we could wait for you to recover more of your memories, but everyone has their spies. They’ll all find out eventually. If we give you more time, we give them more time.”

“Including the killer, if they’re still around,” Christopher said. “How many of the original secretaries are still working?”

“Most of them,” Cain said. “Everyone has just gotten older. The Secretary of Justice was replaced. The Secretary of Education died of cancer ten years back. Her deputy took over as well. That’s been the way that succession has been handled. But her deputy wasn’t as interested in the role once she found out more of the details of the job, so we had to pull the next in the hierarchy. There’s too much distrust in the group for any kind of election process.”

“If we reveal…me…what was your plan?”

Cain stopped walking and looked at his watch.

“There’s a cabinet meeting scheduled for today, about thirty minutes from now.”

“I just sit down with them and tell them I’m God-Speaker?” Christopher said.

“Something like that. I can do as much of the talking as you’d like.”

“And then all hell will break loose?”

“Undoubtedly. Some of them might be willing to believe, especially if you can offer them some proof. Others will be skeptical. If the person who killed you is in that room, they’re going to be extremely worried.”

“It’ll paint a target on my back,” Christopher said.

“You’ve already got a target on your back,” Cain replied. “This way we’ll know to watch out, and everyone else will be watching too. If we wait, we won’t know when or if they know about you. They’ll still have an opportunity for a cover-up. If we reveal you to everyone, then you can hunker down and wait for your memories to return. The traitor will know that they have very little time. They’ll either slip up, or be forced to flee.”

“So I’m the bait,” Christopher said.

“You are the bait.”

“I’m not entirely excited about this plan,” Christopher said.

Cain nodded. “Do not misunderstand. I am only making a suggestion. The moment you opened your eyes in that room, you became my leader again. You are God-Speaker. Whatever you want to do, we will do. I’ve spent half of my life trying to bring you back, and I didn’t do it to order you around.”

Christopher sighed.

“No. I’m practically a stranger here now. You’re the one who has been in the middle of this for years. If you really brought me back here, then I think it’s only right that we continue to follow your plan.”

“You say that like this is all carefully thought-out,” Cain said. “The truth is that I’m improvising.”

Christopher felt a twist of fear in his stomach, but also excitement. It would be dangerous, maybe deadly.

“Then let’s improvise together,” Christopher said.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 28.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

The walk back up from the depths was slower. Christopher felt shaky and a little weak, like he had been running laps for too long. They took the elevator back up into the utility hallways, where every corridor looked more or less the same. Christopher recognized it, or at least pieces, in a way he hadn’t before. This was familiar. This was home.

Cain led him out into the city. They stuck to the side streets. There were people going about their business here and there. Christopher felt like someone who had moved away from the town where they were born and raised and returned for a visit many years later. Most of the familiar landmarks were in their expected places. In fact, very little had changed. He found himself studying the faces of the people they passed, looking for any that he recognized. An older woman stood out to him, but he couldn’t place her or summon her name from his jumbled memories.

Their journey was accompanied by a faint murmuring, and Christopher eventually realized it wasn’t the voices in his head. It was Cain talking to himself. He seemed to be having a mumbling internal debate.

“You seem uneasy,” Christopher said. He wondered at the choice of words. Would he have said it the same way before his visit to the chamber below the cavern? Was he speaking, or was it God-Speaker? Was there a difference?

“I had so many plans,” Cain said. “Years upon years of plans, and none of them worked out. Then you fell out of the sky, quite literally, by the stories I’m told.”

“This wasn’t part of the plan?” Christopher asked.

“Not exactly. All at once, everything is falling into place. I wasn’t prepared, but we just have to make the best of it.”

“And how do we do that?” Christopher asked.

“Exactly what I was trying to figure out,” Cain said.

“What’s the situation?” Christopher asked.

Cain looked up, his distracted gaze refocusing, as though seeing Christopher for the first time.

“Of course. I’m sorry if I overstep my bounds. It’s just that you’ve been gone so long. We’ve had to make do.”

Christopher laughed. “Assume I know nothing about what’s going on. Overstep away. I’m not even sure I know who I am yet.”

“There’s something very important,” Cain said. “Do you remember what happened to you, before…”

A flash of memories assaulted Christopher. Pain and blood. The dark office. Falling. Scrambling. A looming shape and a glint of light on the edge of a knife. The memories did not form a neat sequence. They tumbled out in a disordered mess, like some cartoon closet overflowing with forgotten things.

“I was stabbed,” he said. “It was unexpected.”

“Yes,” Cain said. “We found your body. Your former body. Do you know who did it?”

Christopher tried to piece the memories together. He had known the person in the moment, but the memory was focused on other, more immediate concerns. He shook his head.

“No. Someone I knew. Someone I trusted.”

“Do you remember a face? A name? Anything?”

Christopher could sense long pent-up frustration behind Cain’s words. He shook his head.

“It’s all a blur. I remember the pain and the knife. I don’t know whose hand held it.”

Cain sighed. “This is the mystery that has haunted me these long decades while you were gone.”

“There were no clues?” Christopher asked. “I…it was a meeting with someone.”

“You had many meetings, every day,” Cain said. “But who you were meeting with was not common knowledge. You had a tendency to keep things secret, unless others really needed to know.”

That word, “secret,” reverberated within Christopher. It was deep in his core, the desire to hide things, the inability to trust, the unwillingness to let his guard down, or show any weakness. For all the good it had done him.

“I think you’ve probably barely begun to understand the secrets I’ve kept,” Christopher said.

Cain smiled.

“These things happen over a few thousand years.”

“There were no clues left behind?” Christopher asked.

Cain sighed. “Precious few. There are surveillance systems throughout the city, but not in your office or home, or the immediate surroundings. At least none that we were able to find. Nobody knew who you might have met with, or nobody was willing to say.”

“What about the office itself?”

“There was plenty of blood,” Cain said. “Two or three smeared footprints that yielded no matches. No murder weapon ever found.”

“So whoever killed me was never caught?”

“Things got messy fast, once you were found,” Cain said. “The cabinet met, and accusations were thrown around. There’s no hierarchy among us, and nobody trusted anyone. The investigation was difficult because of it. There was a sort of trial held, but you can imagine how well that goes when everyone is simultaneously prosecutor and possible suspect. In the end, we held a vote. The Secretary of Justice was imprisoned.”

“You don’t think he did it?” Christopher asked. He couldn’t call up a memory of the Secretary of Justice.

“She,” Cain said. “There was some circumstantial evidence, but nothing concrete. Nothing that would have held up in an actual court. It wasn’t a trial, more like a desperate attempt to put the thing behind us and try to keep the place running.”

“Who do you think did it?” Christopher asked.

“I don’t know. There wasn’t enough evidence to say. I abstained from that vote.”

“What happened after that?”

Cain shrugged. “Some of the others pretended that it was resolved. Myself and one or two others quietly decided to keep looking into it. The Deputy Secretary of Justice was promoted to the council.”

“No more murders?” Christopher asked.

“Not among us. Murder isn’t unheard-of in Razor Mountain, but it’s rare. There’s been nothing that seemed related.”

“I would have assumed this person was trying to consolidate power,” Christopher said. “Maybe it was really just a grudge.”

“Maybe,” Cain said. “Maybe they were after power, but they knew that another killing would completely upend the system. Putting the Secretary of Justice away at least had some semblance of a resolution to the whole bloody ordeal.”

“Was there some attempted coup then?” Christopher asked.

“Nothing so obvious,” Cain replied. “Just years of endless jockeying for power. Arguments over little slivers of administrative control that fall somewhere between our individual domains.”

Christopher shook his head. “Of course, I never bothered to think about what might happen if I were gone.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 28.1

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Christopher lay on the floor, groaning.

“What did you do to me?”

Cain still stood in the doorway of the room, as though he were blocked by an invisible wall.

“What does it feel like?”

Christopher rolled onto his back and struggled to push himself to the edge of the room, eventually coming to rest with his back against the curved wall. There was a deep thrumming behind it, an endless note played below the range of human hearing.

“It feels…crowded,” Christopher said, squeezing his eyes closed, hands pressed against his temples.

He lay with the wall inches from his face, a matte gray, not-quite-metallic texture with strange shapes etched into the surface. But it was distant and unreal, like an image on a screen. Christopher felt lost inside his own head, a misty void filled with half-formed shapes. They milled around aimlessly, whispering. They were lonely, desperate for someone to listen to them, but Christopher also sensed a frustrated haughtiness; a royal irritation. They needed him, and they hated him for it.

It was possible to ignore the voices only because there were so many of them. If he concentrated, he might be able to pick out coherent ideas, but when they all washed over him it was just noise. That noise was a carrier signal, and he could follow it back to its source.

It was above, in the darkness and the weird, eye-rending purple light. Or perhaps it was in the walls, or the mysterious throb of hidden machinery beneath his feet. Despite his difficulty tracking its physical location, he was sure that it was buried with him under the mountain. Mentally, he had no trouble following that thread back to its origin. It was a vessel and a prison. It had brought the voices here, saving them from one disaster, only to deposit them into a new one. The voices had brought their tools with them, but they were unable to use them.

Christopher found himself laying on the floor in the fetal position. Cain squatted in the entrance to the room, watching him with some sort of pent-up emotion that Christopher couldn’t read. The scene barely registered.

Christopher found a place of memories. With a jolt, he recognized them as his own. They were past lives, a long, unbroken sequence back through time. He could see they were there, but he couldn’t fully process them. They went back so far that the world, the people, became almost unrecognizable.

When he reached the end of this human lineage, it didn’t stop. Shrinking back in horror, he saw another sequence of lives. The voices. They went back much farther, in endless generations before humanity; before any life on Earth was more complex than sludge in a fetid tide pool. They had experienced so much, and knew things far beyond human understanding.

He reeled away from those ancient, foreign memories, but the sequence of human memories called to him. He felt his connection to them. They wrapped around him like a warm blanket that threatened to suffocate. He could see flashes of the past, moments of memory, but they were jumbled and confused.

Instinctively, he found a balance between this new internal world and the external world he had lived in before entering this room. He couldn’t tell if it was something he had discovered or something remembered. In any case, he sat up, his head no longer spinning. He took a deep breath.

“I think I understand,” he said.

“Do you remember?” Cain asked. Christopher could sense the excitement under the calm facade.

“Some things,” Christopher said. “This place…jostled everything loose. I remember your face. I remember you, but younger. I know bits and pieces. I think it will take a while for everything to come back.”

“Do you remember who you are?” Cain asked.

“Tutanarulax Qatqa,” he said, his tongue stumbling over the strange words. “I’m God-Speaker.”

Cain nodded.

“But I’m still Christopher. It’s…not comfortable.”

“You never told me what it was like,” Cain said, “so there’s not much I can do to guide you.”

“Of course I didn’t,” Christopher said. “I hardly told anyone anything. This is so odd. It’s like seeing different viewpoints out of each eye.”

“Do you need some time?”

“I’m fine,” Christopher said, standing. “I mean, I can stand up again without falling over. I can tell what’s real and what’s not. Mostly. But it’s going to take a while to integrate. Days, maybe weeks. It’s never happened like this before.”

They stood together in silence for a moment.

“That last jump did not go well,” Christopher said.

“Yes, I know,” Cain replied.


The Internet Archive Lawsuit

For those who aren’t aware, there is a lawsuit brought by four book publishers against the Internet Archive over their “National Emergency Library” initiative, which ran for about 3 months in 2020. During that time, the IA allowed unlimited lending of the books they had digitized. The updated program, which is still in effect, allows one person at a time to “check out” books, copies of which are supposed to be held in reserve by partner libraries.

The initial judgement was handed down recently, and it was not in favor of the IA. The judge ruled that the programs did not fall under fair use protections, and the IA would need permission from publishers to make such programs legal.

People Have Opinions About This

Author Chuck Wendig wrote a post about it—apparently he got hit by one of those social media firestorms that just keeps flaring up periodically—and says that he opposes the lawsuit. Meanwhile, Nathan Bransford (author, former agent and current freelance editor) fully supports the lawsuit, and links a Twitter thread by Nate Hoffelder explaining why the IA’s programs are bad for authors.

There are a couple reasons each camp has to support the publishers or the Internet Archive. The supporters remind us that at the beginning of the pandemic, many library systems shut down their physical buildings, and the “National Emergency Library” program was only active for a few months to help people who otherwise would have gone to those libraries. The current program is designed to limit the copies lent out in a way similar to existing libraries, so it’s less problematic. And, of course, the handful of very extreme “all-information-must-be-free” people are shouting the things they always shout, namely that most copyright and intellectual property law is bad for the human race and should be abolished.

In the opposite corner, the arguments are almost exclusively for authors’ rights. The IA ran a program that did nothing to compensate the authors of the books lent out, and was therefore pure enablement of piracy. Even the more restrictive program, while supposedly reserving library copies for each copy lent out, doesn’t have stringent controls and isn’t working with the publishers. (It’s worth noting that libraries do pay for books, and authors get a cut of that. There are systems for this that have been worked out over the years and strike a pretty good balance between compensating creators and making books available to a lot more people.)

Of Course, There Are Caveats

I do not see many people arguing in favor of the big publishers, which is telling. The truth is that authors and consumers both often feel like they’re being abused by the remaining handful of publishing conglomerates. Nobody is all that excited to go to bat for them, aside from the paid lawyers. But publishers are often the ones who end up fighting battles that benefit authors, for the simple reason that authors mostly get paid when publishers get paid.

Finally, the library systems of today have some pretty big flaws. While the advent of e-books has made it possible to borrow from libraries without getting off the couch, publishers also took the opportunity to make e-book lending far more advantageous to themselves, requiring additional payments after an amount of time or number of borrows. Plus, you have Amazon controlling a huge swath of e-books and outright refusing to lend, smaller presses being much harder to find at your local library, and a ton of people in the rural US (and certainly throughout the world) that do not have local library systems available to them.

My Thoughts

I’m somewhat inclined to forgive the IA for the brief run of the “National Emergency Library.” The beginning of the pandemic was a bad time, and nobody really knew how it was going to go. However, I have to acknowledge that I come at this argument from a place of privilege. I worried about a lot of things during the height of the pandemic, but I had a steady job.

The vast majority of authors don’t make enough money from their writing to live above the poverty line. That means they mostly aren’t wealthy and have to rely on other income streams, like spouses or other jobs. It also means that many authors work hard and struggle to eke every dime out of their work. Authors went through the pandemic just like readers, but the IA’s arguments don’t seem to worry about how authors might have been affected by the uncompensated lending of their work.

In terms of actual law, it seems pretty likely that the IA will lose their appeals. To win, they would need to carve out some new territory under fair use, and this doesn’t seem like the kind of judicial climate (especially if it gets to the Supreme Court level) where that is likely to happen. I like a lot of other things the IA does, and I hope this doesn’t hurt them too badly.

While I feel strongly for fellow authors, I don’t have much sympathy for the big publishers. They’ve made e-book lending worse than it could be, in misguided attempts to crank up profits. This would be a great opportunity to reevaluate and improve the relationships between publishers and libraries.

E-book lending theoretically solves a lot of the problems of locality that physical libraries have. It would be great if libraries had a little more legal authority to force reasonable deals with publishers for lending (and maybe even prevent companies like Amazon from locking out lenders altogether).

If we’ve learned anything from the digitization of movies and music, it’s that you can’t eradicate piracy. From Napster to Kazaa to BitTorrent, fighting pirates is like playing whack-a-mole. Some people are determined not to pay, and digital goods are just too easy to copy. The way to fight back is to make your legally-sold digital product as cheap, easy-to-use, and high-quality as possible.