Friday, December 15, 2017
Recently, Brian Niemeier argued that success in indie publishing demands a prolific release schedule. This, in turn, demands short novels. I think he's right.
The maths is simple. A 50,000 word novel can be edited, formatted and published much faster than a novel of three times the length. An author who releases four books a year enjoys four times the product, four times the chances of being discovered, four times the odds of being recommended, and four times the potential profit (or more) than a writer who publishes merely one. While there are authors who can go for years between novels and become insta-bestsellers when their latest books hit the shelves, these authors are enormously lucky outliers, and professional writers can't count on being lucky. They have to make their own luck.
If you're disappointed with the Space Opera currently stinking up the theater, then head off to the pulp past! I recommend to you the series that coined that very term and gave every last Space Opera thereafter the standard to measure up to instead: The Lensman series, by E.E. "Doc" Smith.
This is the masterpiece series that founded Space Opera as a genre of science fiction, coining tropes and concepts that would go far beyond the realm where Doc Smith earned his fame. Star Wars, Star Trek, Green Lantern, all the powered armor/giant robot stuff (animated and live-action), and so much more stems from the roots of this literary tree.
Smith wrote for the pulps. As with another favorite here, Robert E. Howard, Smith quickly learned how to write fast-moving stories with plots that gripped you out of the gate and held you fast--turning page after page--until you finished the adventure. His heroes are dashing, hot-blooded men that wouldn't be out of place in Gurren Lagann. His heroines are beautiful, feminine figures full of love and passion in all their variation. His villains--male and female alike--are by turns pathetic, petty, wretched, and vile. The true self-defeating nature of evil is on full display in his work.
And no one has done Space Opera on the scope and scale Smith did here. TV Tropes names two recurring tropes in film and television worldwide after their Lensman examples, where they are either the originator or the codifier. The one dealing with scope and scale is this: The Lensman Arms Race.
We're talking about a war of extinction between two organizations that span two galaxies, weaponize entire solar systems into Death Star-style superweapons, use dead planets as kinetic-kill weapons against inhabited worlds and planet-sized artificial targets, pull off superpower shenanigans that make The Force look pathetic.
The titular Lens is the other big trope: The Empathic Weapon. Perfect identification, power enahancer, truly secure comlink, and able to kill anyone other than its user (and instantly destroys itself upon user death). No one's done this since, and in hindsight it's not hard to see why- it causes as many writing problems as it solves in-setting ones. That's a hard task to pull off, but Smith does it.
If this were something written today, you'd have a six-pack of fat tomes full of fluff and blather that doesn't matter- like Martin's novels. But no, Smith was a Pulp man and Pulp men wrote lean and mean. These novels are pocket-sized in their trade paperback form (which is most of those you will find used), come in at 200 pages or less in that format, and therefore move faster than light to get through their epic plots and the adventures therein.
Thanks to Amazon it's no longer the teeth-pulling task it formerly was to find copies of these books in print, and they are also out in ebook format now if you prefer, so you too can experience these fantastic adventures for yourselves- and then go on to read the rest of Smith's Space Operas (such as the Skylark series). I recommend that you read them in order of publication, which means starting at Galactic Patrol and go forward from there.
You don't need the first two books to get what's going on; go back after you finish Children of the Lens if you want the backstory. You also don't need to read Masters of the Vortex or any other tie-ins; they're wholly irrelevant to the story of the series. Finally, there is an unlicensed anime and manga adaptation; don't bother unless you want a poor Star Wars (Original Triology) ripoff wearing Lensman drag.
And that's very kind of disappointment is what we're trying to escape now, aren't we? Lensman is a classic for damn good reasons, so go read them and experience those reasons for yourselves.
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
“What do you mean, he’s gone?”
The innkeeper flipped his record book around, showing it to Freeman. “Mr Johnson and his party checked out late last night. Right after the incident at the hospital. See?”
Freeman checked the log. Jude Johnson and his drivers had checked out at 0345, about an hour after Freeman and his team returned to bed.
“Did he say why he left?” Knight asked.
“He said it was too dangerous to stay here. Something about too many demons.”
“Yet he left his guards without telling them anything,” Bates said.
Tuesday, December 12, 2017
The stairs led to what was once an underground train station. Now it was a transition zone for people wishing to enter and exit Metro City. People packed the train platform, anxious and crying and commiserating. When the Metro City troopers descended, the people loosed a hearty cheer.
Bates, Knight and Freeman didn’t join in. They carefully carried Sharpe’s body to a corner and laid him down with the rest of the human dead.
“And now we are three,” Freeman said.
Monday, December 11, 2017
Johnson had a fleet of four biodiesel-powered trucks. Clean and cool and quiet. Impossible to find outside the big cities and major polities. He had stocked his vehicles with fuel cans, leaving precious little space for cargo. Or people.
The men spread themselves into two teams. Freeman and Sharpe in the lead vehicle with Johnson, Knight and Bates in the chase truck. It was a tight fit; every spare square inch inside the cabs was filled with goods of some kind or other.
Freeman wondered how Johnson made a profit. His drivers weren’t anywhere near as chatty as he was, and Johnson himself wouldn’t discuss business. Pre-Fall long-haul trucks had disappeared with the advent of flying demons, and most traders went with cheaper horse or mule-powered wagons. The ones fortunate enough to have motor vehicles relied on high-profit low-volume transactions to survive. Food was not included in those. Johnson had to be carrying highly valuable medicine indeed.
The road out of town was rough and bumpy, the highway long dissolved into well-worn dirt. Freeman scanned the world outside the windows, his M891 close to hand.
Black dots danced in the sky. Birds or flying demons, he couldn’t tell. This far away from polities with functional air defences, it was best to steer clear.
The road led to an ancient abandoned settlement. It looked like a horde of giants had thundered through the place, smashing aside everything in their path. Out the corner of his eye, Freeman saw things skittering between piles of rubble. Johnson sped through the ruins, unwilling to stop.
Past the town, patches of Bloom marched across the land. Crystalline vines suffocated hollowed-out buildings. Here it came in multi-coloured hues ‒ grey, black, red, green ‒ showing the world what they had consumed.
“I heard demons make their nests in the Bloom,” Johnson said.
“You heard right,” Sharpe said. “We should burn the Bloom down the first chance we get.”
“That’s mighty wasteful, if you ask me.”
“Wasteful? The demons are making our world more like Hell with each passing day. We have to stop them.”
“The Bloom’s been here since who knows when. No point tryin’ to root it out. It’ll just grow back. Always does. Better we harvest it instead. Nothin’ we have on us woulda been possible without it.”
“What about the demons who use it?” Freeman asked.
“They’re intelligent creatures. Instead of tryin’ ta slaughter each other for all time, we oughta talk to them, see if we can reach an accommodation.”
Freeman shook his head sharply. “No. They want only one thing: the final downfall of man. You can not negotiate with demons. I say we kill ‘em all.”
“Amen,” Sharpe agreed. “Fire and steel, that’s the way to go.”
“You got that from your Good Book?”
Freeman nodded. “Church records show that demons don’t usually talk to humans. Those who do seek only corruption and conquest.”
Johnson shrugged. “Well, I suppose you’re the experts in this sorta thing.”
“You got that right,” Bates said.
Metro City was a living city built into the bowels of a dead one. When the Fall hit this part of the world, humanity took shelter underground and stayed there ever since.
Bloom had overrun much of the cityscape. Grey and brown growths sprouted from gutters, shops, skyscrapers. Now and then the convoy had to bypass roads choked off with Bloom.
After an hour of wending and winding through the streets, they saw the first sign of human civilisation: a bazaar.
Formerly a city square, makeshift stalls of wood and cloth now lined the sidewalks. Merchants hawked goods fashioned from the bones of a dead civilisation, and traders led horse wagons through the market and haggled for the best prices.
A pair of guards stood watch at every entrance to the bazaar. They were bedecked in Old World arms and armour: exosuits and full plate, gloves and masks, M891s and fusion goggles. It was the same gear Freeman and his team had, but newer and cleaner.
Johnson exchanged some banter with the guards, and slowly drove through the bazaar. The crowds made way for them, gawking at the battered vehicles.
At the heart of the square a squad stood watch behind a ring of sandbags. A pair of tripod-mounted machine guns rested close to hand. Nearby, officials and machines awaited in booths to inspect and admit travellers.
Past the checkpoint was a stairway that led down into the depths of the hollowed city. The sign above the entrance had long ago been painted over, bearing the words ‘METRO CITY’ now.
Johnson and his crew stepped out of their vehicles. The four drivers clustered around the man, utterly disinterested in everything around them.
Freeman and his team mounted their assault packs on their massive rucksacks, shouldered their bags and spread out, watching the crowds and watching the guards watching them. He made sure to keep his finger off the trigger and his rifle pointed safely at the ground.
“Passports, please,” the guard commander said.
Johnson patted down his pockets. “Hey, what the… damn it. Must have left mine back in the truck.” He cracked a smile. “Sorry, gettin’ old. I’ll just pop out, get it, an’ come right back, okay?”
The guard sighed. “Fine. Next please.”
As Johnson sauntered away with his drivers, Freeman and his team lined up, their passports ready. The guard inspected Freeman’s little blue book and lifted his eyebrows.
“New Rome, eh?” the guard asked. “You Crusaders?”
The secular authorities of New Rome had allowed the former Crusaders to retain their passports. The guard flipped through the passport and compared Freeman’s face to the photo. “Completed your terms?”
“Thanks for your service. Please line up for inspection.”
Dogs sniffed Freeman for contraband drugs while millimetre wave scanners peeked into his packs. After that, a technician swabbed the inside of his cheeks and fed the sample into a DNA tester. No matter how hard they tried, demons could not hide the Bloom that permeated their bodies, right down to the molecular level.
When he was finally cleared, he retrieved his kit and presented his passport to the customs officer. She sat at a table just outside the entrance, a computer at the ready. It was pre-Fall tech, a slate-like device propped up at an angle on the table, wired to a thumbprint reader and a passport scanner.
As Freeman handed her his passport, she asked, “Where did you come from?”
“Holstead,” Freeman said.
“That’s to the southeast, isn’t it? Have you heard of the Eater?”
She indicated the reader with one hand and patted her slate with the other.
“Right thumb on the reader and eyes on the camera, please.”
“Thank you,” she said. “The Eater. An Elder Demon. Word is, he’s a demon in the shape of a man, or maybe a man turned into a demon. He rolls into town, all polite-like, and when he’s settled in he opens a Hellgate and gobbles up everyone. He’s been making his way northwest, eating every town along the way.”
A light turned green. Freeman removed his thumb from the reader. “What’s this Eater look like?”
“He keeps changing his human form. Only consistent description is that he keeps smiling a lot. And when he turns into a demon, he becomes this huge, fleshy…thing with eyes and mouths and—”
Gunfire ripped through the air.
The men dropped everything and fanned out.
“What was that?” Freeman asked.
“M891s,” Sharpe said.
High-pitched chattering filled the world. Men and women and children screamed. Sirens blared.
The guard commander sprinted over. “Demons are attacking! Get underground now!”
The bureaucrat blinked. “But their passports—”
“No time, dammit! Go!”
Freeman hefted his M891. “Sir, we have weapons. How can we help?”
The soldier gave him a once-over. Nodding, he pointed at the sandbags.
“Take up position over there. Cover the civilians. Don’t let any demons through.”
“Got it. Gentlemen, let’s go.”
At the checkpoint, guards manned the machine guns and urged the civilians through. Freeman and Knight positioned themselves to the left of the entrance, Sharpe and Bates to the right. More gunfire split the air. In the distance, demons ululated.
“No sign of targets,” Knight said.
“Set up for a static defence,” Freeman said.
The men set their rucksacks by their feet, donned their helmets, and dug out their spare magazines, placing the mags by the sandbags.
Freeman had six spares in his pack, three on his armour carrier, one in his rifle. A thousand rounds in all. He set the last mag down and saw Johnson and his men hustling past the checkpoint. They were hauling massive boxes and bags. Without a word, they disappeared downstairs.
“What the hell?” Knight said. “Their cargo worth dying for?”
“CONTACT FRONT!” a guard yelled.
Pillars of smoke rose from the far end of the bazaar. Civilians scattered before them. Freeman turned on his goggles and peered through the smoke. No go; the smoke was too thick and hot for his thermal vision to penetrate. Through the haze the demons fired indiscriminately. People screamed and died, but Freeman saw nothing.
“Anybody see anything?” Sharpe asked.
“Nothing,” Freeman said. “Be ready. They’re going to—”
They came. Through gaps in the crowd and in between the stores, demons streamed towards the checkpoint. Like the ones at the Anderson farm, these superficially resembled men, but their bodies were covered in jet-black carapace, and their four eyes blazed red. Their left hands ended in wicked claws, and their right arms were machine guns grown from their flesh.
They advanced in bounds, shooting at every human they saw. Freeman aimed, but there were still too many civilians in the way.
“GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” Freeman yelled.
The demons fired. The machine guns answered.
Blood sprays and body parts flew. The surviving civilians screamed, diving to the ground and crawling away from the guns. The smoke began to disperse.
Through the chaos, Freeman saw a cluster of demons. Freeman patted Knight’s shoulder and pointed.
“Demons! One o’clock, two fifty metres, by the store!”
Knight fired short bursts of six. Two demons went down. The rest scattered. One of them ducked behind a nearby wooden cart. Freeman walked fire left to right, right to left. Shredded cabbages and tubers and wood went flying. The demon slumped over, falling out of cover. Freeman placed three more rounds into it.
A high-pitched CRACK rose above the gunfire.
Next to Knight, a Metro City trooper fell from his machine gun, a massive hole in his head.
“Man down! Man down!” a soldier yelled.
That trooper dragged the body aside and took up the gun—only to have his face explode before he could fire a shot.
“SNIPER!” Freeman shouted.
Knight ducked and scooted away. The other mounted machine gunner stepped off, and a heavy shard blew through his chest.
“The sniper’s targeting the machine guns!” Knight yelled.
Freeman turned on his thermal vision and poked his head up.
The sniper had to be on the move. That was fine. All he needed was a glimpse—
—a flash of red—
Freeman pumped out rounds as fast as he could pull the trigger. With his left hand, he pulsed his weapon laser.
“Engage my target!”
A red crosshair appeared on his display, and everybody else’s. They opened fire ‒ Bates with single shots, Knight with disciplined bursts. Sharpe fired his forty. The window exploded in fire.
“Got ‘im,” Sharpe said.
A loud ripping noise.
Sharpe toppled over, shards embedded in his helmet, his face, his throat.
“Man down!” Bates yelled, pumping fire downrange. “Contact, ten o’clock!”
The demons advanced like a tidal wave, pouring out from behind cover. Their arm-guns pointed at the sandbags, firing with every step as they steadily advanced. Most of the shots went wild. Freeman ignored them, flicking to full auto.
“FPF!” Freeman called.
Final Protective Fire. The men unleashed storms of full-auto fire, punishing the enemy wherever they concentrated. The demons scattered, hiding behind barrels, stores, carts, and corpses. Freeman fired through them all, his high-velocity flechettes tearing apart everything in their path.
The magazine went dry. He grabbed a fresh one and scanned.
The Metro City troopers had rallied. They were back on the machine guns, taking over where Freeman’s team had left off. Freeman slapped in the drum, hit the bolt release, and saw more troops bearing heavy weapons charge out the stairwell.
They crammed themselves next to the living defenders and loosed an impenetrable wall of firepower. Freeman joined in, dialling down to single shot and firing at everything that remotely resembled a demon. Aim, fire, aim fire, aim—
“Cease fire! Cease fire!”
Freeman released the trigger.
It was over.
Previous parts: 1, 2
For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
The men removed the bodies, dug a firebreak around the house and set the house ablaze with an incendiary grenade. The wood burned, taking the Bloom with it.
Freeman dug out his radio and tuned it to a clear channel. “Sheriff Hart, this is Freeman. Do you copy, over?”
“Freeman, Hart here. How’s it going?”
“We’ve finished investigating the Anderson farm. We encountered demons and Bloom on site, including a Hellgate in the attic. Six demons KIA, Hellgate shut down, and now the site is being purged. No sign of the Andersons. But we saw six bodies being digested.”
Hart sighed. “Copy. Guess we know what happened to them. I’ll round up a posse and swing on over. We’ll be there by dawn.”
“Roger. And Sheriff?”
“We need a priest.”
The team took turns to stand watch through the night. At dawn, a dozen hardy men headed up the main road. Hart was in the lead, and at the rear was an elderly man in a black cassock and white clerical collar. Freeman raised a hand in greeting, and Hart returned the gesture.
“Mornin’ gents,” Hart said.
“Morning, Sheriff.” Freeman coughed; his armour had stopped the shard, but it had left a deep bruise that he was only feeling now.
With a broad sweep of his arm, Hart gestured at the smoking ruin and the Bloom-covered field.
“Looks worse in daylight, don’t it,” Hart said.
Hart looked at the bodies laid out by the road. “Those the demons?”
“Ugly way to die. But at least we don’t have to... Is that a child?”
Freeman sighed. This was never easy. “Yes sir. The demons must have taken her. Changed her into one of them.”
Hart crossed himself. “My God...”
“That’s demons for you.”
“Horrible business, what they do to humans.” He paused. “I only see four of you.”
Freeman pressed his lips together. Steadied himself with a breath. Looked into Hart’s eyes.
“We lost a man.”
Hart shook his head sympathetically. “I’m sorry. At least you stopped the demons before things got worse.” Digging into the pocket of his coat, Hart extracted a small bag. “Here. Your reward. I know it won’t bring your man back, but at least y’all did the right thing. And don’t worry; we’ll take care of the rest.”
Freeman stuffed the coin bag into a cargo pocket. It was so heavy his pants sagged.
“What are you planning to do with the Bloom in the fields?” Freeman asked.
“The Mayor’s going to ask AYG Mining to look at it. Might even sell land rights if the price is right.”
Freeman bit his lip. He’d rather burn it all, but he knew remote communities like this would see things differently.
The Bloom was both bane and blessing. It leeched out the life from the land around it, sucking up nutrients, metals, and other materials buried in the Earth and concentrating them in itself. When the demons were hungry or wounded, they ate the Bloom to restore their strength. When they needed reinforcements and there was no Hellgate nearby, the Bloom turned human prisoners into more demons.
When humans learned how to harvest the Bloom, it had marked the turning point of the Tribulation. Everything Freeman had on him ‒ his gear, weapons, ammo ‒ were perfect reproductions of pre-Fall tech. The Church had preserved the knowledge to create them, but only the Bloom had made the raw materials readily available.
“Think it might breathe life back into town?” Freeman asked.
“That’s the Mayor’s thinking. Got to make the best of a bad situation. For now, my boys are gonna guard it.”
“Fair enough. But be careful. The Bloom spreads fast. You’ve got to station the guards at least half a kilometre from the field.”
The priest stood at the smoking ruins of the house, offering a prayer. Freeman and his men waited until he was done then approached him.
“Father, we need your help,” Freeman said.
“What’s the matter?”
“We lost a man last night. We’d like you to perform a burial service for him.”
The priest nodded. “My condolences. The Sheriff said you were Crusaders. Is that right?”
If the priest were an ordinary civilian, Freeman would have opted for an obfuscation. But he had never lied to a priest before, and this was no time to start.
“We… We were, Father.”
Freeman held the priest’s gaze. “We’re from the Order of Saint George.”
The priest pursed his lips, disgust lighting his eyes. “I cannot help you.”
“Father, please. He helped to save—”
“You are excommunicate and anathema. The sacraments are forbidden to you.”
“Can’t you spare—”
“You are no longer of the Church!” the priest snapped.
Knight laid a hand on Freeman’s shoulder. “It’s no use,” Knight said. “We’ll take care of him our own way.”
The priest grunted and walked away.
The four men carried Knowles’ body to a flat patch of ground, dug a hole so deep the Bloom wouldn’t touch him, and gently lowered him into the hole.
Bowing their heads, they gathered around the grave. Freeman cleared his throat.
“Lord, we commend unto thy hands the soul of our departed brother, and we commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He gave his life in service to you and to humanity. Please have mercy on him and grant him the absolution he sought in life. Please continue to watch over us as we continue to walk the road. Thank you. Amen.”
“Amen,” the men echoed.
“Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.”
“Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.”
Back in town they divided Knowles’ belongings with the mechanical manner of men who had performed the same unpleasant task too many times before. Food, water, ammo and money they divided among themselves. Everything else was sold or traded to the town merchant. The gold they received was heavy, but it was the one currency accepted everywhere in the Fallen world.
With that out of the way, they made for the saloon. Checking in their firearms, they ordered drinks and clustered at a table in the corner. They rarely drank, but today they made an exception.
Standing, Freeman raised his mug. “To absent companions!”
They drained their glasses in a single pull and slammed them on the table.
“And now, we are four,” Freeman pronounced.
“Gone too soon,” Sharpe said. “Too damn soon.”
“Oliver was the best of us,” Bates said. “No better friend, no worse foe. Saved our hides who knew how many times. Sent back too many demons to count. What the priest said doesn’t matter; if anybody earned redemption among us, it’s him.”
Knight signalled for another drink. “Amen, brother.”
“We’ll walk the road in his place,” Sharpe said. “We’ll finish what we started.”
A tall, thin man entered the saloon and scanned the room. He fixed his gaze on Freeman, smiled and sauntered over.
“Heads up,” Freeman said. “Single male approaching.”
The man raised his hand. “Hello. Mind if I join you?”
“What’s the occasion?” Knight asked, his tone taking on a studied air of neutrality.
“Just wanted to thank y’all for dealing with the demons at the Anderson place. Terrible business.”
The man had the strangest accent Freeman had ever heard. It sounded like it came from all over, a mix of hayseed twang and slicker sophistication.
“You’re welcome,” Freeman said.
“Heard the demons killed someone too. Friend of yours?”
“My condolences. Mind if I get the next round?”
The man flagged down a waitress and ordered five beers. Then he pulled up an empty seat and joined them.
“Don’t mean to intrude,” the stranger said. “Just wonderin’ if y’all are soldiers or mercenaries or something.”
“Pilgrims,” Freeman said.
The stranger’s smile grew broader. “Packin’ heavy firepower for pilgrims.”
“Dangerous world out there.”
“No kiddin’. Looks like you’ve got some trainin’ too.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You dress the same way, carry the same kind o’ gear, keep watchin’ the room even as we talk. You Crusaders?”
Freeman pondered his response for a moment. On one hand, lying was a sin. On the other, the men still had to earn their keep.
“We completed our terms.” Freeman paused, locking eyes with the stranger. “But we still keep the faith.”
“Ah. Well, are you boys interested in a job?”
“I’m more interested in your name right now.”
The man laughed. “Of course, of course. Where are my manners? Name’s Jude. Jude Johnson. I’m a travelin’ merchant. Heard the demons are actin’ up again ‘round these parts. Lookin’ to hire guards for my caravan.”
“What cargo are you carrying?” Knight asked.
“Medicines and food mostly. Nothing that goes against the Good Book, I assure you, but this cargo won’t keep for long and I’m itchin’ to offload them ‘fore they go bad.”
“You don’t have a freezer?” Freeman asked.
“I do, but they cost me money every day to run. I’ve got a real tight margin already, and if I don’t start sellin’ I’m gonna start bleedin’. I’m willin’ to pay a premium if you can get me to market safely.”
“Where’s your destination?”
The four men exchanged a look. Freeman raised an eyebrow. Knight, Sharpe and Bates nodded as one.
“We’re in,” Freeman said.
For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.
Saturday, December 9, 2017
Something stirred in the dark.
Dropping to a knee, William Freeman powered up his helmet-mounted fusion vision goggles. The machine combined night vision and thermal imaging into a single image, delivering it to the heads-up display over his left eye.
He saw it. The Bloom.