Heralded by Blood and Other Tales

RAGE MACHINE BOOKS has published  my collection of short Dark Fantasy stories!

If you ever feel that you are doing well as a writer, I would recommend re-reading all of your old short stories. That will put a pin in any inflated sense of accomplishment right quick.

As I have gone through the process of selecting stories for this volume I have run headlong into countless cringeworthy examples of my many bad writing habits. I have shuddered with embarrassment at the numerous examples of passive voice, imprecise word choices, repetition, bad grammar, not to mention atrocious spelling.

When I began I was keen to become reacquainted with my older works, but as I slogged through I became more and more mortified at my own inadequacies as a writer. And what made it worse was that most of this work has seen print!

If ever there was an argument as to why a writer needs a good editor, I am the embodiment of it.

Nevertheless, it has been somewhat illuminating to look back at where my head was at when I wrote these stories. It is interesting, particularly at my age, to read the words of a much younger version of myself, to smile indulgently at my youth’s misconceptions, and to be reminded of the things that I once considered to be very important. As I head North through my middle age, the concerns and cares of my bygone days seem quaint, if not downright mystifying to my older (and hopefully wiser) self.

As well I have been able to track the voice of the writer Jack Mackenzie as it developed, slowly and painfully throughout my early career, such as it was. I can clearly see the influences, the bad imitations, the clumsy striving for poetic turns of phrase as well as the many places where I was just plain bullshitting my way through a story.

I fear that my naked prose is not as elegant as I had hoped it was. My dialogue seems to work, though, far better than the simple task of describing clearly and concisely what the hell is going on. Perhaps I should have been writing screenplays instead of short stories.

Well, what’s done is done. As the venerable Omar Khayyam puts it in his classic Rubaiyat;

The Moving Finger writes and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears blot out a word of it.

However, as true as that is, another aphorism about vanity may apply here, for I have not let all of my mistakes stand. I know many writers who present their earlier works “warts and all” but I simply cannot let these little darlings into the house without first insisting that they wipe their feet. I find that I am compelled to wipe away the dirt from their faces and try to smooth down the cow licks as best I can before I let company in.

I always felt that when someone comes to visit you should at least try to put your best face forward. Perhaps that seems old fashioned, put it’s how I was brought up and it is how I continue to live today even when I do not feel like it, thanks to my beloved wife.

Besides that, it is a sign of respect to one’s company to try to present an inviting and clean atmosphere – to not let the dogs run wild, to pull out the best china that you have (the sets that match best and have the least amount of chips and cracks) to serve the better quality biscuits, the nice tea and to provide some clean seats and dusted surfaces when company comes to call.

And you, dear reader, are the best company.

As for the kinds of tales these are, well, these are tales of the darkest fantasy. These are the literary spawn – bastards though some may be – of the stories that one would have read in the pages of Weird Tales, that venerated pulp magazine of the early part of the twentieth century. That pulp rag that birthed the stories of Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Seabury Quinn, C. L. Moore, and many others. These stories have percolated in those pages as well as through the fiction of Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. They have been steeped in heroic fantasy fiction, sword and sorcery, and outright horror.

One is even a sequel, of sorts, to a story by the great horror icon and popular Weird Tales author, H. P. Lovecraft.

Does this literary inspiration guarantee that my tales will inherit the quality of the stories which have provided their impetus? No. Of course not. My poor efforts cannot be faulted for their enthusiasm, however. My love for these authors and the types of tales for which they are famous knows no bounds and I have tried to infuse much of that love and admiration into these stories.

If you have a similar love for these kinds of tales, then I am certain that these efforts will prove to be acceptable to you. It is my hope, dear reader, that they provide you with a modicum of pleasure. It is my sincerest wish that they will thrill you in the same way that those Weird Tales once did.

I have tried my best, dear reader. I have cleaned the furniture and importuned the children to behave. I hope you enjoy the biscuits and that you find the tea satisfactory.

Lets spend some time visiting, shall we?

You can purchase the e-book at Amazon.com. The print version will follow shortly.

 

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THE PARADIGM TRAP

the-paradigm-trap-cover1626961824.jpgRage Machine Books has published my Military SF novel The Paradigm Trap.

The book takes place in the same universe as Debt’s Pledge and Debt’s Honor, but during a very different time period. Where Debt’s Pledge and Debt’s Honor take place at the very beginning of the Kreoch War, The Paradigm Trap takes place at it’s very end.

Kent McLennan is a Commander in The Fleet, the powerful military defense force that has protected the human colony worlds for generations. But McLennan is an outspoken critic of the Fleet’s admiralty.

Still suffering the effects of a devastating accident, McLennan is on the verge of resigning his commission, but when he is suddenly offered a choice assignment, leading the mission to accept the Kreoch’s final surrender, his suspicions are aroused.

And with good reason. Fleet Admiral Burroughs is a man whom McLennan does not trust. The mission has too many odd features for McLennan’s liking, from two near legendary historical figures who seem to have an agenda of their own, to a brash diplomat whose past is as inscrutable as his motives.

The Paradigm Trap is a tense and exciting SF adventure that involves deadly enemies, treachery, and a plot to change history… literally.

The Paradigm Trap is available as an ebook and in a print version from Amazon.

An excerpt from DEBT’S HONOR

Debt's Honor CoverHere is an exclusive, available nowhere else excerpt from my new novel, DEBT’S HONOR:

Jefferson Odett would have been fine if he’d just kept going, but he had to stop when he heard the voice of a dead man.

The shuttle settled down on a featureless plain on a dirty ball of a planet that was their rallying point before the troops were sent again to engage the enemy. A light drizzle from the perpetually overhanging clouds turned the ground into a sloppy mud pit and Odett’s boots squelched in and out of it with every step. His mood was already grim and this weather improved nothing.

He spied a part of the field that looked a little more passable. The mud was broken up by large rocks. He was making towards it when his communicator chimed. Updates. Orders. He didn’t bother opening the message. There would be plenty of time for that once he was warm and dry.

The first of the temporary shelters came into view. They were pre-fab constructs that had the benefit of being a barrier against the elements and little else. There were groups of them arranged to some order by various commanders. Individually the arrangement must have made some sort of sense but to Odett’s eye it was just a jumble of small huts surrounded by miserable figures wearing rain gear and looking as grim as Odett felt.

His own men were some yards away yet. He could not tell where. There was a map on his communicator but Odett did not want to look at it right now. He wanted to concentrate on his footing. He trusted he would stumble upon his men sooner or later or they would stumble upon him. They were bound to be keeping an eye out for him.

As he leaped from one rocky outcrop to another, trying to avoid a muddy patch in between, Odett heard the voice that made him stop. It belonged to a man he thought had been dead for over two years.

“I saw the bladeships with my own eyes…” the voice was saying. “I saw it carve up the transport like it was nothing! I barely escaped with my life!”

Odett looked in the direction the voice had come from. A group of soldiers were gathered round to hear the tale the voice spouted. They were an Earthborn division. Odett could tell by their uniforms and their gear, which was new and up to date and hardly used. He pushed his way through the group of soldiers, garnering stern looks as he did so, but he didn’t care. He had to know.

There he was, surrounded by a group of admiring Earthborn soldiers, looking clean and scrubbed as if he hadn’t had to lift a finger for anything.

Winters.

Odett could see he was a captain now. Unlike Odett, he likely hadn’t earned the title. He’d probably purchased it with the prize money he’d been awarded for the capture of Albert Carlysle, a wanted prisoner that Odett had, in actuality, recognized and captured – a prisoner who had saved his life aboard the Emperor Malthius.

That was the last time Odett had seen Winters aboard that damned ship. Odett had assumed Winters died with all the other soldiers.

But here he was, telling his tale to a rapt audience.

“The thing… the Kreoch ship… just clamps on to the unsuspecting ship. The Kreoch warship is like a great knife that cuts into the ship, ripping it apart.”

Odett sighed inwardly. Everyone knew that now. When he’d told the admiralty about it after he’d made it back to Earth they had a hard time believing his incredible story. Since then there had been documented proof of the existence of the Kreoch bladeships, and the unimaginable damage they cause to hapless vessels unfortunate enough to encounter them.

“How many Kreoch did you kill?” a voice asked.

Winters shrugged and smiled. “I don’t know. It was all a blur and I didn’t keep count.

“Hard to kill Kreoch when you’re cowering in a lifepod,” a voice countered.

Odett was somewhat surprised to realize that the voice was his own. He’d thought it and said it aloud without meaning to.

DEBT’S HONOR is available at Amazon in e-book and in paperback.

Jack Mackenzie & G. W. Thomas Shoot the Poop!

The publisher of Rage Machine Books, G. W. Thomas and I sat down and had a bit of a back-and-forth about writing: Here’s how it went:

 

 

GW: How did you ever decide to become a novelist? Certainly there are easier ways to express yourself. Finger painting. Interpretive dance?

Jack: Well, as much as I love interpretive dance as a medium for expression (and, honestly you should see my “Dying Swan” It brings people to tears), my chief medium for expression has always been words. And, I’ve always loved books, chiefly Science Fiction novels. The authors who wrote those books were my heroes growing up, so it was natural that I would try to emulate them. Short stories are great, sure, but novels are like a big canvas. That’s where you get the chance to stretch out and do world building.

It all boils down to not stopping, I guess. You just write. As Neil Gaiman says writing is like laying bricks. You pick up a brick, you lay it down. You pick up another brick, you lay it down beside the first. You keep doing that until you build a wall. With writing you write a word. Then you write another, Then another. Then another. It’s that easy and it’s that hard. It’s all about how long you can stand to keep doing that. I found that I could stand to do it for long stretches at a time. How about you?

GW: I’m not sure I’m really all that fond of the full-blown novel. The 20,000 worder seems more fun to me. Sadly, the Pulps are gone so no one is going to call it a “brand new novel” by G. W. Thomas. They were pretty loose with that term.

Jack: Well, they keep saying, with the rise of e-books, that shorter, tighter works are becoming popular again. Do you think that is the case or is Google just giving everybody short attention spans?

GW: I do think that ebooks do open up a door for shorter works. The issue in paper publishing is: what do I do with less than a 50,000-80,000 word piece? Different people tried small paperbacks or small brochures. Think of the Dime novels. They were saddle-stapled booklets. Hugo Gernsback supplemented his Pulps with a booklet series. (Those are incredibly hard to find now.) The 1980s small press horror field exploded with saddle-stapled booklets. (I miss those!) But nobody has made any real money on small books. With ebooks now, books can be any length. And priced accordingly.

Jack: What’s your process for writing?

GW: The fiction writing process for me has been a binge thing. With a day job, you grab time where can. When I was young and poor this was pretty easy. I’d write at the dentist office, on the bus. Now that I am old and fat, the distractions are more difficult. Mostly wasting time on my computer or phone. Or watching Netflix. I have to leave my house and go to a coffee shop.

Is your process for nonfiction the same as fiction?

 

Jack: My process for writing nonfiction is different from my fiction writing process. Currently I am treating my fiction writing process like a job. I start at a certain time, I have a target for the amount of words I want to get done. I tend to work at it every day from Monday to Friday and take weekends off. Within that writing time I will block out some time for nonfiction. For me most of the time I spend writing nonfiction is doing research. Once I think I have what I want to say worked out then I will sit down and start writing. The actual writing doesn’t take a lot of time. Sometimes I’ll have to spend some time doing supplemental research while I’m writing which slows me down a bit but for the most part the nonfiction writing itself happens fairly quickly.

And, yeah, Facebook, Netflix and phone are all big hazards for any kind of writing.

GW: My non-fiction process is messy. I start lots of pieces and finish them as the reading gets done. For instance, I have a piece on Francis Flagg that is two-thirds done. But I need to read any eight stories first to finish it. When will that happen? As the mood catches me. There’s no dire consequence to finishing it, so I guess that makes me a hobbyist. Of course, three other pieces may get finished this week instead.

Well, it’s been fun yakking. We’ll do it again soon.

 

Science Fiction as Social Commentary

Despite its far flung settings and futuristic subjects, the best SF still has ties to the here and now

The very best science fiction, whether it be literature or in the movies or on television, the kinds of science fiction that resonates most strongly with the readers and viewers, is not the science fiction that merely shows us the wonders of the world of tomorrow, but the science fiction that comments on the world of today.

Despite a recent loud and disruptive movement within science fiction fan circles that proclaimed that science fiction should only focus on rocketships and rayguns, robots and whiz-bang action and decried any other type as propaganda from rabid leftist social justice warriors, science fiction and social commentary go hand in hand. It has done from the very beginning.

From the fantastic adventures of Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1735 to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to today’s fiction in print and on movie screens and television, science fiction that reflects and comments on current events usually has a more profound impact. Indeed, some will argue that is the very purpose of science fiction, to illuminate aspects of our world and our lives today. Science fiction holds it up to a funhouse mirror, distorts it, stretches it, and then examines it in ways that cannot be done without current cultural biases interfering. By couching a subject in the language of the rockets, rayguns and whiz-bang action, greater insights can be wrung from certain subjects and issues that are too “hot button” to talk about directly.

But how much of this is deliberate? As the aforementioned loud and noisy movement has accused the establishment of science fiction of doing so, how much of this “message” is deliberately inserted into modern science fiction as a form of “propaganda” and how much of it occurs naturally, an unavoidable by-product of writers who are keenly aware of our contemporary society’s ills and wish to provide commentary on such, if not prescribing their so-called SJW remedies?

This, it turns out, is not a new discussion. Nor is science fiction’s penchant for presenting social commentary disguised as fantastical adventures.

SOCIAL COMMENTARY

I mentioned Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels earlier. Anyone who has taken a literature course in high school or college knows that Swift’s fanciful adventure was not merely a rousing tale of a hapless traveler in far flung lands. Swift constructed his fantasy world of Lilliputians, Brobdingnagans and Houyhnhnms not as a mere distraction, but to make pointed observations about contemporary European society. He did this deliberately. Indeed, Swift himself is quoted as saying that he wrote Gulliver’s Travels “to vex the world rather than divert it”.

His criticisms of contemporary society did not impinge upon the book’s sales, fortunately. Indeed, the book became popular as soon as it was published. John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.”

Mary Shelley’s debut novel, Frankenstein, is considered to be one of the first science fiction stories. The English science fiction writer Brian Aldiss has argued that it should be considered the first true science fiction story because, in contrast to previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character “makes a deliberate decision” and “turns to modern experiments in the laboratory” to achieve fantastic results.

But what does Frankenstein say about society? Shelley says that the world is cruel and monsters will not be tolerated but shhe also asks how will technology change us? The character of Victor Frankenstein is modern man, poised on the cusp of great discoveries that will challenge God, but also poised at the point at which we become the monsters. Victor rejects his creation, goes back to a world that does not embrace change. But change, in the form of Adam, has other ideas.

This battle with change will define the next two giants of Science Fiction: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Verne portrays scientific change as a wondrous process that will bring adventure. He often does not show how this will affect human lives. (Captain Nemo is perhaps the closest he comes to it.) Wells rejects Verne’s naiveté and returns to Shelley’s grim view. Change will be painful. Traveling in time, becoming invisible, alien invasion, giant monsters, all will be terrible. Wells is not afraid to make social commentary, in fact, did nothing else at the same time that he predicted tank warfare, aerial bombing and other future realities. His novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, for instance, was written as a fundraiser to stop animal vivisection. Wells moved away from narrative as he progressed, abandoning the Science Fiction adventure for proselytizing novels and non-fiction.

In the wake of World War I, society as a whole began to change in earnest. Mechanical inventions had been seen on the battlefields of Europe and now, in peacetime, they were making their way into people’s homes. Certainly the early twentieth century was not devoid of social criticism, but in the aftermath of the Great War, it was mostly in the purview of art and culture movements. The surrealists, the Dada-ists, the Bauhous movement. These were, for the most part, intellectuals talking to other intellectuals, and not making many inroads into popular culture. Indeed, that these movements set themselves aside from and opposed to popular culture was a point of pride.

But in 1920 a unique stage production in Russia was about to change all that.

ROSSUM’S UNIVERSAL ROBOTS

R.U.R. is a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). It premiered on January 25, 1921 and introduced the word “robot” to the language and to science fiction as a whole.

The word “robot”, which displaced older words such as “automaton” or “android” in languages around the world would itself become a trope that would offer science fiction writers copious opportunities to play, poke fun at, or otherwise satirize a host of society’s foibles, not the least of which, mankind’s desire for institutionalized slavery. Indeed, in Czech, robota means forced labour of the kind that serfs had to perform on their masters’ lands and is derived from the word rab, meaning “slave”.

The name Rossum is an allusion to the Czech word rozum, meaning “reason”, “wisdom”, “intellect” or “common-sense”. It has been suggested that the allusion might be preserved by translating “Rossum” as “Reason” but only the Majer/Porter version translates the word as “Reason”. R.U.R becomes one of the first examples of science fiction using a new technology and a fantastical future world to say something profound about the contemporary society from which it sprang.

The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots), from synthetic organic matter. They are not exactly robots by the current definition of the term: they are living flesh and blood creatures rather than machinery and are closer to the modern idea of clones. They may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but a robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race.

Again, the social commentary does not hurt R.U.R.‘s public reception. The play was successful in its day in both Europe and North America. R.U.R. quickly became famous and was influential early in the history of its publication. By 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages.

Perhaps by today’s standards using a play about mechanical creations to send the message that slavery is bad may not seem like a very controversial move. It’s pretty well de rigueur today. If you have robots or artificial people in your story, at some point you’re going to have to talk about slavery and how it is bad and how all sentient beings should be free to make their own choices, etc., etc. That message can be found in at least one episode of any of the various Star Trek iterations.

But, of course, the using of science fiction to comment on society would not end with R.U.R.

THOUGHT PROVOKING

There is a phrase that always seems to accompany science fiction of this type. “Thought provoking”. That was always kind of a code phrase that the science fiction you are about to read or see, which may have all the cool, whiz-bang trappings of science fiction that fans love, will also have a “message”

Science fiction that was described as “though provoking” could also be synonymous with “heavy handed” or worse, “boring”.

As L. W. Michaelson observed in his article for The Antioch Review in 1954, “Social Criticism in Science Fiction”: “What better way to reach the adolescent mind than with a glorious action story filled with blasters and super-rockets and energizers and what not and then carefully sandwiched in between the action, some little gems of information that will impart a perspective on our society as a whole?”

There are obvious works that can be described as “message” fiction. Orwell’s 1984 is an obvious warning against totalitarianism. Huxley’s Brave New World is a warning about the dangers of utopia.

This is in contrast to the science fiction published in popular magazines. From Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories magazine and to the many others that popped up in its wake, science fiction was a venue for telling fantastic stories of brave industrialists who overcame society’s indifference or disbelief, and built powerful rocket ships to travel into the far reaches of space. Early science fiction tales were rightfully disregarded as little more than chewing gum for juvenile imaginations.

THE POST WAR ERA

But that began to change. In the post war era of the 1950’s, science fiction writers had transformed from happy-go-lucky champions of technology to gloomy prophets of doom. Indeed, in the nuclear era the “Frankenstein’s Monster” of the day was the atom bomb. It was a powerful and terrible weapon with devastating consequences that raised moral concerns among even the most hawkish of writers.

In this post-war era many science fiction writers felt compelled to include a healthy serving of social commentary along with the aliens, robots and ray-guns. Indeed, it was argued that science fiction was one of the few genres that could do this without too much fear of public censure.

L. W. Michaelson in his essay for “Social Criticism in Science Fiction”, makes plain that the use of science fiction as a cloak or a disguise in order to more freely speak about subjects which were not generally brought up in polite society is a deliberate and an inherent feature of the genre:

“The channeling of man’s critical sense, via science fiction, from the currently inhospitable field of the present to a more secure area of the distant future or past, is due in part to the increasing sensitivity of Americans to criticism of any kind. Al Capp, the cartoonist, noted this in his article in Life (March 31, 1952) and concluded that his comic strip, Lil’ Abner, would have to eliminate social satire entirely and concentrate upon “trivialities” and/or the matrimonial difficulties of his hero.

In regard to this sensitivity, perhaps we feel our way of life is engaged in some ceaseless competition, or is continually on trial before the eyes of an indifferent or hostile world. Thus, if the science-fiction Gulliver mentions the year 2186, or better still 3547, this sensitivity is correspondingly dulled. In other words, there is an inverse ratio to our dislike of criticism; the farther away in time and space the criticism seems to lodge, the less the irritation or concern.”

In the 1950’s science fiction had become so caught up in moralizing and philosophizing about society, that in 1951, editor Raymond J. Healy felt compelled to publish a collection of science fiction tales, New Tales of Time and Space, that were deliberately more positive and light-hearted than the majority of what had become the “message” fiction of the day. In the introduction to the book, magazine editor Anthony Boucher noted about the stories in the collection: “For all their positiveness you’ll find many of these stories markedly critical of the present state of man’s world – many of the authors markedly unconvinced that contemporary American culture is the ultimate and unchangeable Way of Life.”

The criticism of society as a whole from science fiction writers was so obvious that in 1953 conservative editor, Thomas. P. McDonnel, wrote an article for Catholic World Magazine on “The Cult of Science Fiction”. In that essay, he complains that “liberals in general are now using science fiction as a kind of intellectual underground communication system or as a semi-secret club lecture platform.”

And you thought that loud and disruptive movement was a new thing.


This is actually only about half of the article that I wrote. You can read the entire thing and more in the latest issue of DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY. Download issue # 2 for FREE right here, or click on the image below!

Current Issue button 2

Dark Worlds Quarterly #2

DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY #2 is available as a free download from Rage Machine Books. I have a rather longish piece in this issue about Science Fiction and social relevance which has contributions from Daniel Abraham, one half of the writing team James S. A. Corey, author of the Expanse novels, and from David Gerrold about the original Star Trek..

There’s lots of other great stuff in this issue as well. Check it out:

The second issue of DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY is here!

Our second issue features an interview with BYRON CRAFT about his novel THE CRY OF CTHULHU and its sequel SHOGGOTH. Byron regales us with his stories of trying to sell a faithful Lovecraft film to Hollywood back in the 1970’s and his encounters with film producers James R. Nicholson, Samuel Z. Arkoff and Dino De Laurentiis.

G. W. Thomas examines the tales featuring Etheridge and Peters, Thorp McClusky’s supernatural policemen.

We take a lighthearted look at that most sci-fi of science fiction tropes, the Big Brained Aliens! We also take a look at depictions of Cave Men (and Women) in SF and Fantasy from the serious to the silly.

G. W. Thomas writes about Keith Laumer’s BOLO stories, M. D. Jackson looks at how we view aliens and Jack Mackenzie examines science fiction as social commentary.

And for you nostalgia fans we take a look back at the Long Playing Record Album – the LP – and highlight some of the best SF and Fantasy themed music from the old “Prog-Rock” days!

Our second issue of DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY tops our first one at 106 pages of articles, essays, opinion and interviews are ready for your enjoyment! It is colorfully illustrated, loaded with good stuff and it’s FREE!

You can check out our download page or just click on the button below and begin reading it on your preferred device.

Download Now!