Razor Mountain — Chapter 19.3

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

God-Speaker found that his eyes were welling up. The voices were right. They were always right. He hated them.

“Don’t walk this path,” God-Speaker said. “Give me some other choice.”

“Step aside,” Strong Shield said, even as God-Speaker side-stepped his spear-thrust.

God-Speaker’s hands were empty. There was nothing on the table except papers.

“You are no match for me,” Strong Shield said, the head of his spear bobbing and thrusting. He approached carefully, ready to strike, making it impossible for God-Speaker to do anything but move backward, away from the doors.

God-Speaker blinked and a tear ran down his face.

“I trusted you. You think you can lead these people? Nobody should follow someone who would betray his own brother.”

Strong Shield only lunged again.

God-Speaker knew these steps, these thrusts. The voices knew much about fighting, but little about human bodies. God-Speaker had synthesized their knowledge into something practical: a fighting style he developed himself. He had taught their first warriors, long before Strong Shiels. His techniques had been refined and passed down. Strong Shield was adept, but his skill had limits.

God-Speaker threw up his arm. When Strong Shield thrust again, he sidestepped and brought the arm down, capturing the shaft under his armpit. He wrapped his arm around it as Strong Shield tried to pull it back, the barb cutting into the flesh beneath his shoulder blade. Wincing, God-Speaker brought his other hand to bear, shoving the spear down. Strong Shield was caught off-balance, brought to one knee with the butt of the spear touching the stone floor.

God-Speaker brought the other end down to his right knee. His other knee fell on the middle of the shaft. It bent, then broke under his weight.

Strong Shield staggered, now holding only the broken butt of the spear and still off balance. God-Speaker held the sharp end under his arm, but he had been forced to throw his weight downward to snap it. Instead of fighting this momentum, he leaned into it, tucking his chin to his chest and rolling forward onto his left shoulder.

He somersaulted, intending to come up onto his feet. Before he could get all the way around, Strong Shield’s hand lashed out and grasped his arm at the elbow. Instead of trying to regain his footing, the man had lunged after him, turning the fight into a grappling match on the floor.

It had only been a few months since God-Speaker had taken on this new body. It was young and strong, but not as muscular as Strong Shield, and God-Speaker was still learning the feel of it. He felt just a little too slow, a little too weak. Strong Shield took hold of his wrists as they tumbled, both men fighting to come out on top.

Strong Shield feared the spear tip that God-Speaker had pried away from him. God-Speaker held it in his right hand. He let his left arm go limp while he struggled to press the right toward Strong Shield’s face.

Strong Shield’s face had shown fear for a moment. Now he smiled, confident in his control of the situation. He held God-Speaker’s right hand firmly, elbow locked as they rolled to a stop, the larger man on top.

“This is meant to be,” Strong Shield said, twisting God-Speaker’s wrist.

“I’m sorry,” God-Speaker said. “I should have seen this coming. I should have been able to stop it.”

Strong Shield cried out in wordless victory as the broken spear fell from God-Speaker’s twisted hand. He scrambled to grab the half-spear. God-Speaker twisted underneath him, but Strong Shield straddled him, grabbing God-Speaker’s right hand with his left.

His body half-turned, God-Speaker bent his left knee, bringing his foot up to his hip as Strong Shield raised the spear point for the killing blow.

God-Speaker’s free left hand slipped a thin flint blade from a hidden pocket on his boot. The blade came up at an angle across the man’s exposed abdomen, cutting a clean line through skin and muscle, only stopping when it struck the bottom of his sternum. The blade was as long as a finger, just enough to wedge under the ribs and press into the beating heart. God-Speaker felt the twist of his wrist, the snap of the razor-thin tip of the blade, buried in Strong Shield’s chest. Then he felt the wave of hot wetness as Strong Shield’s lifeblood poured over him. The head of the spear came down without any force. The arms were already limp. The black irises were dull and empty.

For a moment, God-Speaker could do nothing but sob silently. Then he shoved the body away. He was soaked in blood. The smell and the taste of it was overwhelming. For a moment, he thought he would vomit, but he suppressed it. He stood.

The blood drained off of him, onto the floor. There was a rhythm to it, dripping, like the beating of drums. His heart beat with it, a cold rage building. Underneath it all were the voices of the mountain.

God-Speaker let his breathing slow. His anger and sadness didn’t diminish, they only concentrated to a white-hot point in his chest. He walked to the closed doors, knowing that he left footprints in blood every step of the way.

He opened the doors, letting the cold autumn wind blow over him, and looked down the small flight of stone stairs. There was a wide, flat gathering space below, where his remaining war councilors waited and talked amongst themselves. They looked up at him in shock.

“What happened?” asked Aoyura.

“I was betrayed,” God-Speaker said. “Strong Shield believed that he could lead our people better than I. He thought he could kill me. He is dead by my hand.”

A few others who had been nearby began to gather, staring open-mouthed at God-Speaker’s blood-soaked body.

“I am Tutanarulax Qatqa. I am the one who speaks to the gods of the mountain. I am the one who does not die.”

The gathered people, the councilors, all of them averted their eyes and bowed their heads. Out of respect? Fear? In that moment, God-Speaker did not care.

“Come,” he said. “Bring water. We must cleanse this place of the blood of the traitor. Then I will tell you the future I see for our city in the mountain.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 19.2

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

Strong Shield paced around the room, his hand first trailing across the maps on the table, then the carvings on one of the pillars. He was clearly agitated.

God-Speaker organized his thoughts before speaking.

“I always listen to your council, but it is council only. I will not act on advice that I know to be wrong. I gave you your name because I know you want to protect our people. You are a great warrior. What you propose will not protect them. You must look beyond one fight, beyond one enemy.”

“That is what I am doing.”

“You have never seen an empire,” God-Speaker said.

“You have?”

“The gods of the mountain show me many things. The idea of empire is new to us, but it is not new to them. Those we subjugate will hate us, and they will do anything in their power to destroy us.”

“What do you propose then? Let them attack us? That is not looking beyond the fight at hand.”

“No,” God-Speaker said. “You said yourself, we are strong and we have what we need. When we trade with outsiders, it is often better for them than for us. For many years we wanted to bring people in, to grow. Now, we are a city.”

God-Speaker gestured to the room. The cleverly slanted windows high above let in the afternoon light while keeping out the weather. Strips of golden light shone across the room, revealing sparkling motes of dust.

“Let us hollow out the mountain. We will continue to live here, but let nobody in. When we go out, we will go out in secret. Let the stories of a city in the mountains become legends. Leave a few burned remnants scattered across the valleys below. Let those put the lie to these stories that bring enemies here in search of treasure. We will make our doors and windows so cleverly that they will never suspect we look down on them from above. They will go home and tell the story of the legendary city which turned out to be nothing but spirits and burned rocks.”

As God-Speaker spoke, Strong Shield’s eyes narrowed.

“You would have us hide away from these weaklings who have no hope of defeating us? You would have us be remembered as a tribe that was utterly destroyed?”

“What do the stories of other tribes matter to you? We will be safe in the mountain. We will have what we need, and we will keep our knowledge and our wealth to ourselves.”

Strong Shield shook his head.

“You are pitiful.”

“Do you truly want to fight so badly?” God-Speaker said. “Can’t you see that it is better to not fight at all?”

“No,” Strong Shield said. “I want us to be led by someone who isn’t afraid of the outside world.”

The conversation had taken a turn God-Speaker had not expected. He realized now that the voices in the mountain were agitated. Their susurration was like a wind blowing in the depths. They saw the signs. They knew what could happen.

The sound was only audible to God-Speaker. There might be one or two others on the mountain who would feel a faint uneasiness. Strong Shield would think that God-Speaker’s sudden change in expression was a response to his words.

“You are like my brother,” God-Speaker said. “You know I want what’s best for our people.”

“Of course,” Strong Shield said. “But you can still be wrong. You are not a strong leader.”

God-Speaker clenched his jaw.

“I came to the mountain alone. I was here before you were born. I gathered the people to me. Everything we have built is because of me.”

“So you say.”

“Only I hear the voices of the gods.”

“Given enough time, perhaps another can learn to hear them.”

Strong Shield reached behind the pillar and pulled out his fine spear, tipped with a sharp barb of whale bone.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 19.1

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

The lord’s chamber was freshly hewn from the gray rock. It was new enough that the walls still showed the tool marks, and in places there were cracks and openings left behind by the caves they had widened for the construction. In time, these blemishes would be smoothed away and covered over. It was an astonishing task, the work of years and many hands, cleverly trained and carefully guided. It was a needless expenditure of effort, compared to work that could have been done on the smithy or the farms or a dozen other construction projects that would have more direct effect on their day-to-day lives. Its value lied in its beauty. Nowhere else in the world could such a place exist. It was a monument to the people of the mountain city and the knowledge they took from the gods.

The long room had large doors of heavy timber banded with bronze, marked with symbols of protection and warding. Four ornately carved and painted stone pillars told spiraling stories of the founding of the village and the many achievements of its people. The furnishings in the room were moved in and out depending on the occasion. Long tables could be brought in when it was made into a feasting hall. Ornate wooden thrones could be arranged for God-Speaker and his advisers when it was a court for the visiting emissaries of distant tribes. Today, it was a war room, furnished only with a large round table, strewn with durable parchment maps and scrawled notes on the rougher paper made from local reeds.

“Tutan, the scouts report a war party. Less than fifty people. They will come up along the deep river valley, to the place where it splits. They mean to attack the city.”

 God-Speaker’s name had changed with the language his people spoke, a creole of the varied dialects spoken by those who made the mountain their home. “Tutanarulax Qatqa” was the one who spoke to the mountain, but it had become more comfortable for him to go by Tutan, “one who speaks,” in all but the most formal situations.

“Who are these people?” God-Speaker asked. “What quarrel do they have with us?”

A woman across the table, Aoyura, lifted a piece of paper. “One of my people took meals with the traders who came just after the new moon. They said they had passed a group like this, a group girded for fighting, and the fighters bragged that they were going to take plunder from a great tribe of the mountains. The traders said they spoke little to the fighters, for fear of them and fear of arousing our anger.”

“But they made no mention of an attack to me,” God-Speaker said.

“No, I think they only hoped for good trade and were happy to stay out of it. Strangers offer no kindness to one another in these days.”

A tall, muscular man close to God-Speaker thumped an open hand onto the table. It was Kuoemanuna, who took the name that God-Speaker had given him meaning Strong Shield.

“We were gracious hosts! We gave them good food and warm beds, and a place at the storytelling fire. We gave them good trades, even for the things that are not very useful to us. The least they could do is warn us of this war party.”

“I did not say we were unkind to them,” Aoyura replied. “But the people from far away speak differently, act differently. They do not trust easily and they keep their kindness for their own.”

“Then we should treat them no differently,” Strong Shield said.

God-Speaker put a hand up to halt the line of conversation before it got any more argumentative.

“It has always been our way,” God-Speaker said. “It is what brought many different peoples to the mountain, and why they have stayed.”

“Yes, but are we not our own people now?” Strong Shield asked. “We must protect ourselves.”

God-Speaker loved Strong Shield like a brother, but he was often too eager to solve problems in the most direct and confrontational ways. Aoyura was the opposite. She was known for changing people’s minds, getting what she wanted by making other people think they wanted it too. She had taken charge of a group of talkative women who gathered information within the city and amongst the traders sent out to other tribes.

“Let us focus on the problem at hand,” God-Speaker said. “These people come to take from us. How shall we stop them?

“I think it is best to let them use up their energy and food climbing the mountains. They will have to cross the river at the mouth of the valley to the south. We prepare our defense there. Away from the city, and where the terrain is most favorable. When they arrive, we give them a choice: turn away, or face our sharp spears and swift arrows.”

Strong Shield shook his head. “We have better weapons and better tactics. They have no chance against us. We should meet them further south, where the valley is wide. Show them that even in the open, they cannot defeat us. If they fear us, they will not return.”

God-Speaker nodded. “Our people are strong, that is true. But I do not want to spend our peoples’ blood to simply make a point. If we prepare our strongest defense, that will be enough to show them how outmatched they are.”

“They will learn their lesson best on the point of a spear,” Strong Shield said. “Even if they are shamed and turn away, do you think that will be the end of it? We should at least capture them.”

“For this season, it will be the end of it,” God-Speaker said. “If they dare to return next season, they will find that we are still strong. And I will not keep prisoners on the mountain.”

Strong Shield sighed. “May I speak honestly?”

“Of course,” God-Speaker said. “Speak.”

“We have strength here, but it is wasted. Others hear stories about the city in the mountains, where the people never go hungry and have many amazing things. They grow envious of us. More and more of them will want to test themselves against us, and perhaps take these treasures as war prize back to their own people.

“And yet, the stories they tell of us only guess at what we can do. You know this. This city is a miracle, built on the knowledge of the gods. We should show them that they cannot take what belongs to us. Anyone who comes to us with spear raised should be destroyed. Then, we should send our own warriors to their people. We offer them death, as they would have given us, or the chance to become like us. New villages, just like ours, under the rule of our people. In return, we ask only that they never raise arms against us, and that they send some small fraction of their new bounty back to us.”

He stared into God-Speaker’s eyes, his own black like the water at night, but holding a glint of fire.

God-Speaker shook his head.

“You speak of an empire,” he said. The word was strange in his mouth, a guttural, foreign word that came to him from the voices deep in the mountain. There was no word for it in his people’s language.

“We will have more resources,” Strong Shield said. “Our people will be safe. And others will receive the same miracles we have received.”

God-Speaker held up a hand.

“Everyone who is here chose to be here,” he said. “No miracle comes out of blood. Our people will not be safe. Everyone in these villages, from oldest man to youngest child, will hold their hatred of us in their hearts. Our food and drink will taste sour and rancid in their mouths. They will tell themselves stories of the way we spilled their blood.”

“They deserve it for attacking us,” Strong Shield said, brow contorted in anger.

“Maybe so,” God-Speaker said. “It will not change what is in their hearts.”

“Why won’t you listen to me?” Strong Shield shouted, slamming a fist on the table.

The booming resonance of it filled the chamber, leaving behind a heavy silence. The only sound was God-Speaker’s calm, even breathing.

“Let us speak alone,” God-Speaker said. “Everyone, please go outside.”

The others nodded, walking quickly to the door. None of them had any desire to get involved.

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Three Things I Learned From Sundiver

In my recent post on dissecting influences, I mentioned the Uplift double-trilogy by David Brin. At the time I wrote that, I was looking for another book to read with my kids at bedtime, and decided that this would be a good time to revisit the series.

Now we’ve finished the first book, Sundiver, and the kids enjoyed it enough to want to keep going. It had been more than a decade since I last read the book, so my memory of it was vague and tinged with nostalgia. It’s a good book, but maybe not quite as good as I remembered. The world-building is solid and the diverse alien species are a highlight (although that all gets much further developed as the series goes on). The dialogue and characterization are sometimes a little clumsy. The main character is honestly a bit of a weirdo. But weak characterization is nothing new in plot-driven sci-fi, and I think Brin still does a better job than someone like Asimov.

The book is structured as a mystery, centered around the discovery of two new species of aliens living in the upper layers of Earth’s sun. This mystery turns out to be the focus of conspiracies and alien politics. The main character, Jacob Demwa, is a Sherlock-esque genius who is dealing with the psychological fallout of his traumatic past, and it falls to him to figure out what’s really going on.

1 – Great Clues Are Memorable, Not Obvious

As the story progresses, we see more and more of the behavior of the aliens on the Sundiver ship. Some things come off as strange, but most of it is fairly mundane. Some of the human characters parse these actions much as they would for other humans. The more savvy among them understand that an action doesn’t necessarily correlate to the same emotions or motives in aliens that it might among humans.

This serves as worldbuilding, but these alien actions are also clues. To the reader, the aliens are already a little mysterious, so it’s easy to chalk up any of their behavior as “alienness” unless it’s really clearly suspicious. Focusing on their actions, and even describing the same things repeatedly, ensures that the reader will remember these incidents. However, the significance will only become clear later in the story, as Jacob begins to understand what’s going on and as more is revealed about the alien species.

For some veteran mystery readers, this may be irritating. If you are trying to solve the mystery before the answers are all revealed by the book, it’s going to be frustrating to discover that you didn’t have all of the context and information about these aliens that would allow you to fully understand what their behavior meant.

I think speculative fiction readers may be more open to this kind of storyline, because they’re used to the exercise of discovering the details of the world as the story progresses. However, I’m more of a sci-fi enthusiast than a mystery reader, so I may be biased.

2 – Clues Should Point to Multiple Possibilities

This may seem obvious to readers and writers who have thought a lot about mysteries, but it’s an important lesson on effective mystery structure. A clue that points to multiple possibilities broadens the scope of the mystery, while a clue that only has one explanation narrows the scope.

Many of the clues laid down in Sundiver could be explained by several different characters acting with different motives.  There are at least two humans and two aliens who seem somewhat suspicious, and many of the clues could point to each of them.

The initial mystery of Sundiver is set up fairly early on, although it morphs and changes a few times before the end. At the same time, the suspicious characters are all introduced early on as well. Some of them have more obvious motives, but some of them are suspicious simply because of their interactions with the other characters. Some are just irritating, causing trouble for the nicer main characters, and that’s enough to seed at least a little suspicion in the reader’s mind.

This cast of potential scoundrels is already nicely established when problems appear and things begin to go wrong.

3 – The Detective Can Be Wrong…For a While

The main mystery of Sundiver is solved about 2/3 of the way through the book. There is a classic reveal scene where Jacob Demwa gathers the characters and spells it all out. The villain is taken into custody. At this point, my son asked if we were almost done, and he was shocked when I told him that we still had over a hundred pages left.

This is a dangerous play. Brin purposely defuses the main source of tension in the story, with a lot of the story still to be told. He only keeps a few loose threads dangling: the personal problems of the main character (which has been a B-plot for most of the book) and some concerns around those freshly discovered aliens living on the outskirts of the sun.

The book then has to reveal the true villain and lead into a suspenseful finale. This knocks the “detective” character down a peg: he was wrong about the most critical thing in the story. It also pays off all that work into clues that point to multiple possibilities, and ideally even clears up one or two things that a clever reader may have noticed not fitting neatly with the first, false resolution.

An Interesting Crossover

Sci-fi/Mystery strikes me as a challenging mix of genres to write. The difficulties of creating a believable future world and the difficulties of crafting an intricate puzzle only seem to further complicate each other. I appreciate Brin’s offering, even if there were one or two places where it didn’t quite work for me.

This is also one of his earliest works. I’m partway through the second book in the series now, and it manages to be cleaner and more tightly written, despite a much larger cast of characters. So, we’ll keep reading, and may be pulling more lessons from the rest of the series.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 18.2

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

Time was difficult to judge in the cell. There was no window to observe the cycles of the sun and moon. The bright lights set into the high ceiling were unrelentingly bright. Every cough, sniffle and movement echoed back at him from a room full of hard surfaces.

At first, he sat quietly, assuming that someone would eventually come to interrogate him. He tried not to think about what they might do to him, but was mostly unsuccessful. He thought about what he ought to say, how he might word his story so that they would believe him. There would be evidence of his stay in the bunker. The ruins of the crashed plane would still be scattered across some nearby mountainside. The airlines would have records of his ticket. His company could vouch for him. Unfortunately, day jobs and plausible excuses were probably the sort of thing a real spy would also have.

There was also a long list of unlikely events that he could not explain. Why had the plane gone down in the first place, and where had the other passengers gone? How had Christopher managed to survive the fall? How could he have guessed the code to the bunker while almost delirious and verging on hypothermia?

Could someone have set him up? Maybe he was a distraction to turn eyes away from something or someone else. Maybe he was a contestant on the world’s most sadistic game show. So far he hadn’t liked any of the prizes behind the doors.

He wondered if there was something he should have done differently. Even now, he couldn’t say it would have been any better to stay in the bunker indefinitely. If he had been found there, it was just as likely that it would be the Razor Mountain people doing the finding. Staying there, completely passive, might look slightly less suspicious. Or it might look odd. After all, who would simply accept their fate and decide to stay in a place like the bunker without making any effort to be rescued.

Instead, he had gone out questing, a sad little knight-errant in strange lands. He had let himself be guided by Amaranth. He had accepted imprisonment by her people. He had gone along with Harold and Garrett in their doomed scheme to curry favor with their superiors. Was there anywhere he could have gotten off that path once he had followed Amaranth through the frozen doors to the ruined underground office building? Could he have tried to escape? All along he had felt a deep unease, like he was a train headed for disaster, but unable to jump the tracks and turn away.

Christopher stood and paced in slow rectangles, walking the perimeter of his cell. He took deep breaths, trying to fight down the rising panic in his chest. He studied his surroundings. The slight dents in the stainless steel toilet. The metal shelf: a bench or a bed. The table in the center of the room, the brackets welded to the top hinting at darker purposes than facilitating friendly conversation.

When he had entered the mountain, the air had been warm compared to the outside. Now, a clammy chill gripped him. He rubbed his arms with his hands. His skin certainly felt cold.

He rubbed his eyes. Had the lights gotten brighter as well? The white walls and glaring stainless steel suddenly felt blinding. He sat on the “bed” and pressed his back to the wall, eyes closed. He breathed, feeling his heart thumping.

The room wasn’t actually silent. Though the small noises he made still seemed abnormally loud, there was some ubiquitous noise, an almost imperceptible whine. As soon as he noticed it, it grated on him. He felt a headache coming on.

As he breathed deep, he felt his panic subsiding. It was overcome by a wave of misery and self-pity. How long had it been since he had last been able to actually relax? How long since he had been free of the nagging knowledge that the universe had turned against him, that he had to fight to stay safe, or even alive?

It felt somehow childish to be so miserable. Hadn’t he led a perfectly mundane life before this? He had been comfortable. He was hardly the first person in the world to be subjected to such hardship. How many people lived through wars? How many refugees were left to fend for themselves and their families for months or years? How many lived their entire lives in abject poverty? It seemed only fair that he take his turn.

He felt petulant. He didn’t want to do this anymore. He wanted to throw a tantrum. He wanted to go home.

Even the bare comforts of the bunker would be luxurious compared to this place. The barely-discernible whine pierced his brain like a dentist’s drill.

Christopher held his breath. In all of his misery, there was one thought he hadn’t let himself think. There was another way out, an exit that he had been studiously looking away from. The ultimate exit. The idea filled his guts with lead. No, he wasn’t ready for that.

And yet, he felt the strange realization that the idea of death no longer terrified him quite as much as it once had. Out in the woods, when the snow had fallen and he knew he didn’t have the supplies to make the trip back to the bunker, he had been forced to look death in the face. Christopher knew death, at least a little. They were old friends, even if they hadn’t seen each other in quite some time.

He thought back to that moment in the woods when he made the choice to keep going. It was terrifying, but also oddly freeing. He wasn’t sure if it was fatalism or nihilism or something else, but it was a peaceful feeling. For the moment, he gave up his expectations for the future, his desperate belief that the universe owed him something.

He didn’t realize that he was slipping into sleep until he was jerked awake by a violent banging outside his cell.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 18.1

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

The entire group marched without speaking. Boots crunched in the thin layer of snow. One of the soldiers’ radios squawked to life momentarily, issuing a series of staccato beeps familiar to Christopher from his time manning the radio in the bunker. The soldiers weren’t particularly rough, but Christopher felt corralled, like cattle, and if he stumbled in the wrong direction, there was instantly a gloved hand on his arm, shoving him back into the center of the formation.

He glanced at his ersatz companions. Harold’s face was as impassive as ever, revealing nothing about what he might be feeling. Garrett’s brow was creased and his narrowed eyes flicked back and forth, but Christopher could see that he was focused on his own scattered thoughts rather than his surroundings. Christopher suspected a battle raging inside the man’s head: would his risk be rewarded, or had he voluntarily ruined himself and his brother?

The soldiers marched them up a shallow ravine between hills, then into a deeper gorge where the ground was rocky and steep on either side. Now they were coming to the base of the mountain itself. The gorge led to a dead end, a broad stone face that had sheared cleanly from the mountain. Christopher could see the worn path where the water would run over the rocks above and into the gorge where they stood, but for the moment it was dry.

One of the soldiers walked up to the rock face and did something, his body blocking Christopher from seeing. A rectangular seam appeared as the man pulled at a section of the stone. It turned on concealed hinges, silent and perfectly camouflaged. Behind the stone facade was a heavy metal hatch, similar to the one on the bunker that was so familiar to Christopher. A lever was set within a little alcove in the door, and the adjacent keypad was also set flush with the surrounding stone, so the facade could close tightly against it.

The soldier took a step so he was between the keypad and the prisoners and punched in a code. Christopher listened to the sound, trying to guess the number of keystrokes, though he realized such little scraps of knowledge were unlikely to do him any good. He suddenly felt like his brain was buzzing, taking in everything around him.

Another one of the soldiers took out his radio and punched in another code in the keypad on its face. The soldier at the door watched him, waiting for a few beats afterward before he pulled the lever. The lever’s action was smooth and silent until it hit the far end of its arc with a satisfying clunk. The door swung open, and the soldiers immediately pushed the prisoners forward.

The entrance was too small for more than one person to enter at a time, so they had to go single-file. One soldier went through, then a second grabbed Harold by the arm and pushed him in before going through himself. Garrett went next, and Christopher was ready when the soldier next to him sent him through.

Even though it hadn’t been bright outside, it was dark beyond the door, and it took some time for Christopher’s eyes to adjust. The air was warm and carried a faintly mechanical smell, like oil and metal.

They navigated a series of long, branching hallways. Christopher couldn’t tell if the paint on the walls was a light green or a dull gray. It might have even been the naked rock, polished smooth. He wasn’t given time to stop and investigate.

He wasn’t typically prone to claustrophobia, and they couldn’t possibly be that deep underground, but he physically felt the weight of the mountain above him. It was as though the air got thicker as they went, syrupy and hard to breathe. Christopher felt dizzy, then nauseous. Sparks flashed across his vision. When it passed, his eyes were better adjusted and he no longer felt ill, but he still felt jittery and too-aware of his surroundings. He felt like he had downed too much coffee. He could differentiate the rustle of each piece of clothing as the soldiers moved around him. He could hear the tread of their boots on the smooth floor. He wondered if it was the lack of food and water over the past day catching up with him. Or just the shock of everything that had happened.

They reached the end of a hallway and moved into what looked like a separate section of the compound. The walls were brighter here, off-white. More halls branched off in three directions, but they were shorter and lined with wooden doors. At the intersection, the group split without warning or any apparent signal. One of the soldiers continued straight, fast-walking on his own. A pair of them took Christopher to the right, and the rest took Harold and Garrett to the left.

Christopher turned to look back at the brothers as they were marched around the corner. He thought he heard Garrett’s voice saying something about “bringing in an enemy spy” before the soldier behind him gave him a firm push to turn him around and keep him walking.

“I’m sure it doesn’t do me any good,” Christopher said, “but I’m just someone who got lost out here in the wilderness. That guy is determined to try to use me to help himself, and he’s going to say whatever he thinks will help him. I’m really not anyone special.”

The soldier ahead of him barely glanced back. “Please be quiet, sir.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Eventually, they stopped in front of a doorway and ushered him inside. On the other side of the door was a big, high-ceilinged room. In each corner of the room was a jail cell made of bright metal bars. Each cell contained nothing but a metal toilet on one wall and a narrow metal bench on the other. The four cells left an open, cross-shaped central space. In the center was a metal table. On either side of this was a metal chair. All of them were bolted to the floor. The desk had four brackets welded to the otherwise smooth surface.

The soldiers brought him to one of the cells and opened the door with a small key. He felt them cut the zip tie around his wrists, before shoving him into the cell. The door closed before he could turn around. The soldier turned the key and tested the door, then the pair turned and went back out the way they had come.

Christopher grasped the bars and took a moment to study the room. Then he sat on the bare metal bench that was apparently supposed to serve as a bed. He stared at the lines on his hands, then up at the ceiling.

He had never been in jail before. He had certainly never had an experience like this. Even so, he felt a jarring sense of familiarity. He closed his eyes and pressed his head back against the wall.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.3

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

When the sun was above the horizon, they continued walking. Harold took some jerky from his pack and gave a piece to Christopher and another to Garrett. They walked in silence.

Christopher noticed that Garrett seemed to be scanning the ground as they went, and he finally stopped and picked up a straight stick about three feet long, with all the bark missing. He paused to take a plain white tee-shirt from his pack, and using his pocket knife he cut a square of fabric from the torso with two extra strips hanging off. Then he used the strips to tie the fabric to the stick. Finally, he tied the flag to his backpack so that it stuck up just above his head, hanging like a dead thing in the still air.

He also unloaded the rifle and slotted it onto the opposite side of the pack, through a series of straps that seemed to be designed for it. He pointed to Christopher and looked at Harold.

“Keep an eye on him.”

It didn’t seem to matter much whether Harold kept an eye on Christopher or not, because Garrett also made Christopher take the lead while the brothers walked behind. That meant Christopher would be the the first thing any sharp-eyed resident of the mountain would see, and the first thing they’d be likely to shoot at. Christopher thought about asking if he could wear the flag, but he already knew what Garrett’s answer would be.

“It won’t be long now,” Garrett said to Christopher. “We’ll either run into a patrol or be seen by a spotter. If you want to stay alive, don’t do anything that could be construed as remotely threatening.”

“That’s actually my standard operating procedure,” Christopher replied.

“Cute. If you’ve got any info that we could use to negotiate, now’s the time.”

Christopher shrugged. “Even if I did, wouldn’t it be better for me to hold onto it? Why would you do anything to help me? All you’ve done so far is kidnap and insult me.”

“What helps us helps you,” Garrett replied. “If they have reason to believe you’ve been cooperative, it might make you look a little better.”

“You think they’ll be lenient on the supposed spy who collaborated with the traitorous deserters?”

Christopher glanced back in time to see Garrett’s irritated frown. Harold looked oddly unperturbed for a man who had very recently suggested they might all be murdered before they had a chance to realize what was happening.

Christopher sighed.

“You want real truth? The truth is that, as far as I can tell, all of you have been wildly misinformed about what the outside world is like. Nobody has been very eager to share much with me, but it seems like you think it’s a lot worse out there than it really is. You’re all worried about Russia and I can’t tell if you think the Cold War is still going. I suppose it makes sense, being right next door to them, but you all still seem way too concerned.

“I realize it doesn’t really matter what I say. I’m an outsider, and everyone here has a lot of trust issues. I don’t know whether that’s justified or not, but the fact that your people are on the run from the military and might just go to prison or get shot makes me think at least some of the fear is reasonable. Meanwhile, I’m stuck out here, having been dropped down the shittiest rabbit hole this side of wonderland, and I’m more and more of the belief that I’m going to end up dead because of you. So thanks for that.”

“Just walk.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

They kept walking, a thin, hard layer of snow crunching beneath their feet. Despite the talk of being shot, Christopher couldn’t stop his mind from wandering. The human brain could only keep up the tension for so long in the face of sheer boredom.

“So what’s it like up there?” Christopher asked, pointing at the mountain that now dominated the sky in front of them.

“More like down there,” Harold said.

“What, underground, like that office where your friends were?”

“They’re not our friends,” Garrett said, “and we’re not here to play tour guide.”

“I was friends with a couple of them,” Harold muttered.

“What’s the point of all the secrecy anyway?” Christopher said. “Your people already told me that there’s this base here, and there are certainly enough other buildings littered around here to make even someone as clueless as me start to wonder what’s going on. Other countries must have satellite cameras. These places must be visible in infra-red or something.

“Knowing there’s something is a lot different from knowing what that something is,” Harold said. “You’ve heard of Area 51, right? Everyone has.”

“Sure.”

“What exactly do they do there?”

“Okay, that’s a pretty good point.”

Christopher gave up his questioning and marched in silence for a while.

The trees began to thin out. The land rose in fits and starts, hills piled upon hills, with unexpected little dips and gullies hidden by scrub bushes. They had to find narrow places to jump across or scrabble down and up. A few of these low places had ice at the bottom, and one had a thin trickle of dirty water. Christopher imagined them flooding with snow melt in the summer, the water carving up the land into little puzzle pieces, the inexorable pull of gravity doing its work over hundreds of years. Once again he was captivated by the beauty of this lonely landscape. It felt like a place outside of time, like he could walk these paths a thousand years before or after and see the same things in only slightly different arrangements.

They came up a slope and found themselves on the edge of a wide open, treeless expanse with a clear view of Razor Mountain. Perception was tricky: the roots of the mountain might only be a few hundred meters away, or still miles distant. For the first time, Christopher could see the entire vast mass of rock in all of its glorious crenulations and textures. The sunlight glinted here and there on facets of the rock and gilded the deeper ridges with liquid gold. There was very little foliage visible among the shattered boulders and jutting rock, and the nearly vertical faces made the mountain look almost as though it had burst from the ground in a single violent incident. It was a mingling of dull reds, grays and blacks. The broken twin peak was dusted with snow, but even in the bright sunlight the dull black rock looked as though it had been scorched from above by heavenly fire or some unruly dragon.

Garrett stopped and adjusted his makeshift flag. Christopher saw a meaningful look pass between the brothers before Garrett looked to him and motioned him forward. They stepped out into the open space, completely devoid of cover.

A stiff breeze blew through, whipping and cracking the flag dramatically, then everything went quiet. Christopher felt the tension hang between them. He stepped carefully; his footsteps in the gravel seemed loud. Off to the side, somewhere in the low brush, unseen birds chirped and chattered at one another. The breeze blew over the rough grass in uneven waves.

Christopher felt certain that something was coming, the crack of a gunshot or a shout from some hidden spy. His muscles were tight, vibrating with nervous anticipation. He glanced back and saw the fear in Garrett’s eyes. Harold studied the landscape around them, but he still looked calm. Whatever he thought would happen, he appeared to have made peace with it. Christopher felt a faint pang of envy.

Christopher didn’t see where the soldiers came from. He only saw the sudden change in the brothers’ expressions. He turned, and found himself facing six men in gray-green camouflage, helmets and body armor. They shouted orders as they surrounded Christopher and the brothers, though Christopher didn’t process exactly what they were saying. Something about not moving and getting on the ground, he supposed, because they immediately pressed their captives face-down to the earth. Christopher heard a thud near his head as Garrett’s backpack was removed and tossed aside. The tee-shirt flag lay on the ground nearby.

More voices and footsteps joined the others. Christopher kept his face in the rough, sharp grass, adjusting his position only to avoid getting jabbed in the eyes. He half-expected to hear the sound of gunfire or Garrett making some desperate excuses. But the guns and the brothers remained silent.

After a quick, whispered conversation among the captors, Christopher felt hands firmly grasp his arms and haul him upright. The soldiers weren’t rough or cruel; they exuded an aura of professionalism. This was what they did, and they’d do it efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Christopher saw that Garrett and Harold now had their hands behind their backs as well, bound with black zip-ties. Two soldiers held their backpacks.

The soldiers gathered in a loose formation around the captives, weapons held ready, and they began to march, once again, toward the mountain.

Though he still had a tight knot of fear and worry lodged just below his heart, Christopher couldn’t help a slight smirk at his situation. He had swapped captors three times in as many days, but he was still headed toward the mountain. In opposition to the seasonal flow of water, pulled by gravity toward distant lakes and oceans, Razor Mountain had its own gravity, and no matter what he did, Christopher couldn’t escape its pull.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.2

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

Christopher guessed that they walked for at least an hour after coming outside, though he was sure he was slowing them down. It was harder than he would have guessed to hike without being able to see or use his hands, even with someone else guiding him. His captors must have felt the same way. After another muffled disagreement, they stopped, sat him down on an uncomfortable rock, and unceremoniously pulled the bag off of his head.

The light was so bright after the forced darkness that he couldn’t see anything clearly for a moment. It wasn’t sunlight though, it was the full moon high above them. Christopher was still blinking and squinting away the blurriness when the gag was pulled down and he could breathe the icy air.

“Please don’t shout,” Harold said, “or we’ll have to put it back on.”

Christopher felt something prod him in the side, and saw the indistinct shape of Garrett next to him, holding a rifle.

“Be good, like you have been, and we won’t have any problems. You’re slow with the hood on, and I’d like to go faster.”

It was apparent now that it was just the two men with him. They were stopped next to a cluster of boulders on a lightly-forested low hill. Far to the right, half-hidden by trees, Christopher thought he could see an escarpment, perhaps the foothills of the mountain. It was the same sort of terrain he had come through with Amaranth just a day or two ago, but he didn’t see any specific landmarks that he recognized.

“Where are we going?” Christopher asked. “Why are you doing this?”

Garrett smiled grimly. “We’re turning you in.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that nobody comes here by accident. I don’t know exactly where you’re from or what you think you’re going to accomplish up here, but I’m sure that people on base will be very interested to find out.”

“Well, you’re wrong,” Christopher said. “I’m either incredibly lucky to be alive, or incredibly unlucky to be alive here, but I definitely did not end up here by choice. I don’t know what I can tell you to make you believe me.”

“Nothing,” Garrett said. “Don’t bother.”

“What about the others?” Christopher asked.

“What about them? They still think Ema is going to come up with some brilliant plan to get out of here. She doesn’t know any more than the rest of them. They’ll either be stuck out here, starving until they get picked up by patrols, or they’ll die out in the wilderness.”

“So you’re abandoning them?” Christopher asked.

“They made their choices. Now I’m making mine.”

“No choices for me, huh?” Christopher said.

“’Fraid not,” Garrett said. “Now let’s keep walking.”

They made their way through the forest, the long shadows of the trees slowly shrinking as the sun rose higher in the sky. The two men had packs, and Harold gave Christopher a few bites from a granola bar, but it was just enough to make Christopher acutely aware of his own hunger.

“What’s the point of bringing me with you if you’re just going back,” Christopher said. “You really think I’m that dangerous?”

“You don’t seem that competent to me, but somehow you had everyone else fooled,” Garrett said.

Suddenly, Harold held up a hand. They all stopped, silent, and listened. Harold and Garrett’s heads swiveled as they squinted into the trees.

There was the snap of a branch breaking to their left, and Garrett brought the rifle to bear. After a few seconds there was another sound, like a small animal scrabbling up a tree with sharp claws. The pair let their breath out slowly.

“Maybe we should find someplace without snow,” Harold said. “Throw her off the track.”

Christopher frowned. “You’re worried about Amaranth.”

Harold nodded. “You’ve traveled with her right?”

Garrett shook his head irritably. “Even if feral girl figures out where we left the compound, she’s not going to have time to catch up. We don’t have that far to go.”

They kept walking. They were traveling steadily upward, and Christopher caught glimpses of the mountain through the trees. From this angle, he could clearly see the black crack that split the peak in half, one side slumped, the other tall and sharp like a blade.

It was hard going, and not just because his hands were still bound and his shoulders ached. Christopher realized that when he had walked with Amaranth, she had been navigating the easier paths up the slopes, avoiding the areas of woods with tangled undergrowth, avoiding the areas with rough, rocky ground. Garrett kept them going in more or less a straight line toward Razor Mountain, regardless of minor obstacles.

“You know,” Garrett said, “you’d be better off telling us what you’re really up to. We’re a lot more pleasant to deal with than the professional interrogators on base will be.”

“I told you what I know,” Christopher said. “You didn’t seem like you wanted to hear it.”

“Hmph.”

Christopher thought for a minute. “You know, I think you should be the one who’s worried about interrogators. It sounded to me like all of you are going to be branded as traitors, and I’m guessing they’re going to expect you to tell them all about the others and where they’re hiding.”

“Not a problem,” Garrett said. “I’ll tell them whatever they want to know.”

“Just going to sell out your friends? That seems shitty.”

“Friends?” Garrett asked. “You think we were just out on a camping trip? Ema convinced everyone that the chain of command was lying to us, and that she knew how to get out. She’s a liar. I don’t owe anything to any of them.”

“That’s not what it was like,” Harold murmured, “and you know it.”

“Shut up,” Garrett said. “You’re just like the rest of them.”

Harold sighed. “This is going to go badly.”

“I said, shut up.”

They walked in silence for a while. Garrett was clearly in his own head, getting worked up and irritated. Christopher could see his shoulders hunch as he stalked ahead. He wondered how much he dared to push the man.

“Why are you doing this?” Christopher said quietly, hoping that only Harold could hear.

Harold shrugged. “He’s my brother.”

“Huh. I’m sorry.”

Garrett stopped and turned. “You think you’re going to turn us against each other? You pretend you’re just a bumbling idiot, but I see you trying to get information out of everyone, trying to manipulate them. I don’t know if you think you’re clever, but it’s obvious to anyone who’s paying attention.”

Garrett grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him forward. Christopher stumbled and narrowly avoided falling on his face. He walked in front now, with the brothers a few feet behind, whispering irritably to each other.

Christopher knew that every conversation he had been in with these people, he was, in fact, trying to get information out of them. It wasn’t nefarious. He just wanted to know what was going on. On the other hand, he realized that he had been searching for ways to manipulate the two brothers without really thinking it through. It just seemed natural. They were so different, Christopher thought he might be able to get them to turn on each other. He had never thought of himself as manipulative. Where had that inclination come from?

The next time they stopped to rest, the faint pink light of dawn was beginning to color the sky and lend texture to the mountain ridges. They sat and ate from an unlabeled foil bag of mixed nuts. Harold shared his with Christopher. Garrett, unsurprisingly, did not.

After staring into the sky thoughtfully, Harold looked at Christopher, then at Garrett.

“I think there’s a pretty good chance that the 550th will just shoot us all on sight.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.1

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

Christopher woke as someone was pulling something tight over his mouth. A moment later, more fabric slid down over his face. He felt himself choking, unable to get enough air, and he clawed frantically at the cloth, trying to breathe. Hands grabbed his wrists and pulled them behind his back, where they were tied together with rough rope. Without thinking, he bent his neck and rammed his body, shoulder-first, toward the assailant he couldn’t see. He struck a glancing blow and heard a grunt, then lost his balance and fell forward and to the right, landing hard and banging his forehead.

A violent static filled his vision and hearing. He felt like he was plunging into the lake again, sinking into the darkness.

He was being captured, or kidnapped. But that didn’t make any sense. Wasn’t he already captured, already a prisoner among this strange group? Once again, he was overwhelmed by the frustration of not knowing. There was more going on among these people than he had been told. They were obviously afraid of the Razor Mountain people. Maybe they had been found?

The sparks and waves that filled his vision began to fade into more ordinary darkness. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t see anything. He realized that he had been pulled to his feet while still dazed, and he was stumbling forward with an unseen hand pushing between his shoulder blades. Another clamped his left arm, guiding him.

He took slow, shaky breaths through the fabric and found that he could still breathe reasonably well. It was only the animal fear of being smothered in his sleep that had made him think he was being suffocated. He could hardly enunciate with the fabric bunched in his mouth, but he tried to shout, to make some noise. It sounded muffled, even in his own head.

“Quiet,” said a familiar voice on his left, and the hand on his back shoved harder.

Next, the hand pushed down on his shoulder, forcing him to bend. He tried to straighten up, only to scrape his head on something above. He bent forward, letting himself be guided and propelled. He thought about the collapsed section of the building and wondered if he was being pushed beneath that low ceiling.

He walked, half-crouched, listening to the scrape of feet and the faint sound of breathing nearby. The guiding hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled back. He found he could stand at full height again. For a moment, there was no hand gripping him. The idea of running or flinging himself away from his captors flashed through his head, but it was nonsense. Where could he go when he couldn’t see or use his hands? He had no idea how many people were with him, although it didn’t sound like more than two or three.

He took another deep breath and tried to calm down. He didn’t understand what was going on. He didn’t have enough information to guess. He had to just accept that. He also couldn’t escape at this point. He had to wait, try to be patient, and look for opportunities.

Although his heart was still beating loudly in his ears (and pulsing in the lump he could feel rising on his forehead), when he stopped to listen he found that he could make out a quiet conversation going on behind him to the left.

There were two voices, both familiar, but one that he recognized right away. It was the low, slow voice of the big man who had been assigned as his guard, or at least his observer. Harold. So he was still with the same people as before. Probably.

Before Christopher could really parse anything they were saying, a hand grabbed the rope binding his hands behind his back and ushered him forward once again. They turned to the left and there was the sound of a door opening in front of him, then closing gently behind him. He felt cooler air on his face, though not as cold as the outside air.

The sound was different here too, the scrape of footsteps echoing as though they were in a bigger space. The voices were whispering again, and this time he could hear snatches of the conversation. The low voice, Harold, sounded like he was arguing with the other voice.

“…bad idea…choice…won’t help…”

Christopher thought he recognized the other voice too. It wasn’t as deep. It was a voice that was irritatingly self-righteous. A voice that knew everything it needed to know, and expected everyone else to come around to its viewpoint. Christopher was pretty sure it was Garrett, the argumentative man from the mess hall who had even managed to get Amaranth riled up.

A gust of wind hit him, and now it was brutally cold. Now it felt like they were facing the outside. He was shoved forward again. As he walked, he was forced to rely on the hand on his shoulder or arm to guide him.

He felt the crunch of snow underfoot, and the subtle rise and fall of the rough ground. He had to concentrate on his steps to make sure he didn’t slip on slick spots or trip on the rocks and grass and whatever else he trod over.

His world of darkness lightened a little, to a deep gray, and he thought that the sun must be rising.

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Dissecting Influences — Sci-Fi From My Childhood

If you’ve been around here for a while, you might remember that my favorite writing podcast is Writing Excuses. In Episode 17.7, the team discussed dissecting your influences.

We all have stories we love, whether they be books, shows or movies. The idea of this episode was that it can be useful to take apart our favorite things and figure out why we like them, because it guides us toward things that matter to us. The themes and ideas that draw us to these works will often be fertile ground for our own writing. And while it may seem obvious that we all know exactly what we like in media, the truth is that we often leave those stones unturned. It might even be surprising to dig into what really brings us joy in a favorite movie or book.

After listening to this episode, I started compiling a list of my own favorite media. It wasn’t hard to start. In fact, it was hard to stop. The things closest to mind were mostly books I had read recently or old favorites that I’ve been re-reading with my kids. But I soon started to remember books from childhood, poetry, and even influences outside fiction altogether.

With this list in hand, and continuing to add to it, I thought it might be fun to dissect my own writer brain in public. I have to limit myself to a reasonable size for a blog post, so I’m going to pick a somewhat arbitrary classification to pull out a handful of entries.

The Grown-Up Sci-Fi of My Childhood

That’s right, it’s some of my first loves in science fiction, way back when I was still in school. The actual dates of publication vary quite a bit, from 1965 to 1994, and these are all novels aimed at adults. One of the things that drew me into these books was the faintly illicit idea that I, as a child, could read stories intended for grown-ups. It felt like a window into ideas and worlds I wasn’t yet allowed to enter. Going from “Choose Your Own Adventure” and Goosebumps to heady books like Dune is a real shock to the system.

On that note, let’s start with Herbert’s masterpiece.

Dune

Having read this book at least three times—and one of those times quite recently—I have a hard time going back to the headspace I was in when I read it originally. I think I was in high school, and I’m pretty sure the reason I started reading it was because I saw a mention of it where someone said it was as influential in science-fiction as Lord of the Rings was in fantasy.

I think Dune is a pretty great book for young people who are starting to get into science fiction. On the one hand, it reduces the many political and economic complexities of the far future into a feudal culture where the only thing that matters are the machinations of a handful of powerful factions. The protagonist, Paul, is a ducal heir with adult responsibilities, but he’s still not quite an adult. Interestingly, the whole feudal system and it’s quasi-European royalty end up falling apart by the end of the book, with young Paul engineering their downfall at the hands of colonized people.

I remember this book being interesting because it sets up a world where people and decisions hundreds of years previous can have profound and complicated effects on the present. It’s a world of complex, interrelated systems that nobody can completely understand, and even a single person putting a wrench in the gears in just the right way can totally change the universe.

I also genuinely love Paul’s relationship with his own psychic powers. He hates them. He is constantly vacillating between seeing the future and being unable to steer it, or losing that sight and the fear of not knowing. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that handled that kind of power in quite the same way.

I have to at least mention the other books in the (original) Dune series. I read them all, although not right away. I don’t think any of them quite measure up to the original, but I appreciate how strange they are, and Herbert’s audacity in choosing to set them thousands of years apart in far-flung futures that are less and less similar to our own modern lives.

Ender’s Game

Another book with a child protagonist? Possibly a theme. Ender in this book is much younger than Paul is at the beginning of Dune, but he deals with some comparable drama. This is another book that I re-read recently with my kids.

This book was astounding in a few different ways. Firstly, while it’s not exactly dystopic fiction, it does depict a world where war with aliens has resulted in hardship for average people and a government with dictatorial power. We learn early on that Ender is special because he’s a “third.” In a world where the government limits how many children each couple can have, he is a rarity.

All of the main characters are children: Ender and his siblings, and all of the kids at the battle school. Parents and adults are present, but they have little time “on-screen.” Like the dictatorial government, they show up periodically and force some seemingly arbitrary and often cruel new rules onto the children, but it’s the children and their relationships that matter. This is a book that understands what it feels like to be a child, to feel like adults don’t give you all the information and many decisions are left completely out of your hands.

Ender is bred to be a soldier and a leader. He’s trained for it. He is subjected to insane cruelty, to the point where he ends up having to kill other children to defend himself, all because it’s part of the program. But the ultimate cruelty happens at the end of the book, when he discovers that the supposedly wise adults who forced this horrible life on him didn’t even understand the enemy that they trained him to kill. The entire war is nothing more than an interspecies miscommunication, and he finds out by accident.

And then he leaves. He finds the one person he loves and who loves him: his sister. They get on a spaceship and fly away. He leaves behind all the systems of abuse and control that defined his entire life. Maybe a metaphor for growing up.

The “Ender” series continues on. Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind are all great books, but again I feel like the original is still the best. The series is similar to Dune in the way it jumps large spans of time in a wildly changing galaxy. The Dune series eventually had a bunch of new books written much later, by Herbert’s son. I heard they were terrible and I never read them. The “Ender” series, on the other hand, had more and more books still written by Orson Scott Card, but I got to the point where I just wasn’t that interested by yet another rehash of the same story from a different secondary character’s perspective.

Before we move on, it’s worth mentioning that I’m still disappointed that Orson Scott Card turned out to be a homophobe and the sort of person who politely states their deeply held and hateful beliefs. Card was one of my early writing heroes, and I still hold his books on writing in high esteem, but as a person, he really bums me out. He kind of did the whole “J.K. Rowling” thing before Rowling.

The Uplift Saga

While the above two entries are the first (and I would argue, most important) books in a series, David Brin’s “Uplift” books are inseparable in my mind. There are six of them, in a pair of trilogies:

  • Sundiver
  • Startide Rising
  • The Uplift War

…and…

  • Heaven’s Reach
  • Brightness Reef
  • Infinity’s Shore

I suspect this series might be the most influential set of books in my childhood, but I came at them in a very weird way. I’m honestly not sure if I even remember it correctly. I know I read them out of order, because I bought one of these books at a garage sale, completely unaware that it was part of a series. I can’t be sure, but I think it was The Uplift War, the third book in the first trilogy.

That might sound a little insane to some readers, but it’s something I did multiple times as a kid. I even read through the fifth book in a series once, and didn’t realize it was part of a series until the ending completely failed to resolve the plot. One of the crazy things about being a child is that the world makes no sense. Every time you open a “grown-up” book, it’s like being transported into a completely new universe. Of course it’s confusing. Everything is confusing when you’re a child. It’s the ultimate introduction to the concept of “in media res.”

While Dune imagines a sci-fi future with no aliens whatsoever, and Ender’s Game has only the buggers, who seem to be mindless insectoid killing machines, the Uplift books are absolutely chockablock with all sorts of aliens. They are not your usual little green men. They are crabby things with 360° vision or energy creatures that live in the corona of the sun. They are varied and logical for the environment they came from.

The Uplift books depict a humanity that has just made contact with a galaxy full of aliens. There is a galactic culture. It is full of aliens who are much more advanced and powerful than humans, and we are forced to very abruptly change our own assessment of how awesome we are.

Humanity has started the process of advancing the intelligence of chimpanzees, dogs, gorillas and dolphins through genetic manipulation and technology. It turns out this is a pretty damn important concept to all the aliens, who call it “Uplift.” In fact, it’s the glue that binds all these different cultures together, as the uplifted races are forced into millennia-long servitude to the race that gave them the gift of sentience, and the races providing “Uplift” have a higher social position. Of course, the top dogs of the galaxy aren’t excited to see the newcomers, humanity, get that kind of respect, let alone the servitude of multiple freshly uplifted species.

Again, we have a fictional world that is too big for its characters. Hell, even the entire human race (and super-dogs/chimps/gorillas) is just trying to keep from drowning in a galaxy where almost everything is out of their control. I think, as a child, I was fascinated by the idea that everything we know and have ever known on planet Earth might be utterly inconsequential in the wider universe.

Overtime?

I have to admit, when I started writing this article I thought I might not have that much to say. Now I’m almost 2,000 words into this, everyone has probably stopped reading, and I only made it through half the books I intended.

I’m going to call it here. I found this to be a really fun exercise, but I’m curious if anyone else will be interested. I got more out of it than I thought I would, not the least of which is the desire to go and re-read the entire Uplift series. If anyone enjoys this, I might make it a regular feature. I have a lot of books, shows, and movies on my list.