Nemesis By Isaac Asimov

It is the twenty-third century, and humans have moved out into the Solar System.  And not much further.  90% of humanity still lives on Earth, which the other 10% considers a noisy, crowded slum.  The rest live in Settlements, in Earth or Solar orbit.  One Settlement, Rotor, discovers there’s a nearby red dwarf they dub Nemesis.  Rotor has had it with their crowded neighborhood and leaves.

Once at Nemesis, it’s discovered that Nemesis really is Earth’s nemesis.  It will pass close enough to Earth in 5000 years to destroy it.  That doesn’t matter to Commissioner Janus Pitt.  Warning Earth would ruin his plans to build a new civilization, one not dependent on a silly planet where there would be weather and…  Ew! Cultural diversity!  Yuck!

Meanwhile, Earth and the Settlements figure out why Rotor left, and they learn that Nemesis will destroy Earth in five millenia’s time.  One could forgive the remaining humans in the Solar System for being just a tad upset about that.  They’re so upset that Earth reclaims its long-lost scientific lead to develop true FTL (or as Asimov calls it, superluminal) flight.  They’re first mission?  Go find Rotor and call them out on leaving everyone else to hang.

But this grandiose story doesn’t center on Pitt or Earth.  It centers on Marlene Fisher, the daughter of the woman who discovers Rotor.  Marlene has an odd ability to read body language.  She’s so good at it that it’s impossible to lie to her.  She leaves the Solar System as a toddler and spends most of her life drawn to Nemesis’ sole habitable planet, Erythro, which is actually a moon of brown dwarf/gas giant Megas.

Erythro has not been populated, partly because something there once caused a plague of mental instability, but mostly because Commissioner Pitt is obsessed with keeping Rotorians in space.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Crile Fisher is obsessed with seeing his daughter once again.  Sent to Rotor, where he became a citizen and married the astronomer who discovered Nemesis, he leaves before he ever learns why and where Rotor wants to leave.  Forced to leave his family behind, Fisher eventually becomes attached to the first FTL project on Earth, seducing and later becoming the willing partner and confidant to the most qualified scientist to make it happen.

Asimov is not noted for his action, and his names sometimes are cringe-worthy.  For instance, Marlene Fisher’s mother is named Eugenia Insigna, a name that does not exactly roll off the tongue.  But an Asimov story is just serviceable enough to make the hard SF he excels at appealing and accessible.  Eugenia is terrified her daughter’s ability will get her into trouble.  She’s also frightened as Erythro begins to have bizarre effects on Marlene.  Eugenia is a lioness, despite her daughter’s independence.

The story overall looks at some fascinating concepts, including one of the best theories of how faster-than-light might work, the implications of one group of people packing up and leaving humanity behind, and how Earth itself, like so many of the powers that have dominated it over the centuries, might fade from prominence.

In Lieu Of A V-Blog

I went back to writing the Holland Bay draft.  I decided that, instead of trying to tease out the ending and chase several threads, I would write the narrative and see how long it sticks with the outline.  At that point, spending time in the narrative will tell me how to get to the eventual ending I want.

On the reading list:  Set the Night on Fire by Libby Fischer Hellman.  I’m actually reading it for a review, and it’s delayed me starting the Polk biography.

I suspect if I want to keep up the V-Blog, I’ll need to go back to recording them on the weekend, when I usually write the week’s entries.  We’ll see.  Lately, I’ve taken to doing them on Wednesday nights.  However, Wednesday nights have been busy.

We’ll return you to your regularly scheduled video updates from The Dungeon next week.

New Story!!!

For those of you who thought I’d quit writing, my latest short story, “We Be Cool,” is available in the new Crime Factory.  It also features nasty nuggets o’ noir from Charlie Williams, Sandra Ruttan, Stephen Blackmoore (no relation to Ritchie), Patti Abbott, and Paul D. Brazill, among others.  Go thou and download for a buck.

The Exorcist

I’ll admit I’ve made it through 37 years without seeing The Exorcist. Part of it was because my parents would not let me see such a frightening movie.  But even afterward, the only place I could see it was on broadcast television, and I didn’t really want to see it “edited for broadcast.”

Then came the nineties and the 2000’s, and I’d largely forgotten about the movie, even though a character makes reference to it in Road Rules as one of the few truly scary movies.

Then this past weekend, Nita and I watched it on pay-per-view.  The Exorcist is, indeed, a compelling film, an example of early seventies minimalist film making.  The suspense is definitely palpable.  However, much of what made the movie so terrifying hasn’t really aged well.  Granted, seeing a battered, disheveled Linda Blair speaking with Mercedes McCambridge’s affected voice – The sultry-sounding actress managed an alien-sounding male voice for this movie – still makes one’s skin crawl.  And spewing green vomit all over Max Von Sydow has not lost its ability to induce cringing.

But the effects are decidedly low-tech by today’s standards, even Blair’s head turning completely around with no damage to her neck.  Also, the foul language, shocking, even disturbing by 1973 standards, doesn’t really shock anymore.

Where The Exorcist avoids being dated is in the character moments.  We’re used to the Devil charming his victims to their doom.  Here, he’s clearly violating the little girl he’s inhabiting, doing very disturbing things to her with a crucifix, then forcing her mother to also perform a sickening act.  Possessed, the girl Regan becomes violent, punching, biting and kicking doctors, her mother, and both priests.

Counter-balancing that is the growing fear in Regan’s mother, played brilliantly by Ellen Burstyn, as something horrible happens to her daughter.  And as the special effects and language cede their ability to shock and awe to Regan’s violence and hatred – or rather the Devil’s – it becomes apparent this story is more about Father Damien’s crisis of faith.  Why would a priest wracked with such doubt take on a ritual he himself said hasn’t been done since the 16th century?  And, of course, he performs the ultimate sacrifice at the end to defeat a Devil he’d stopped believing in.

When it was released, The Exorcist was a truly terrifying film, especially when the monster takes the guise of a scared fourteen-year-old girl.  But as our attitudes – or at least our exposure – toward the demon’s language become more jaded and the special effects lose their ability to shock, the story itself rises to the occasion.  A lot goes on in The Exorcist that makes everything else window dressing.  For that, it’s ability to make us squirm on multiple levels still raise it far above today’s gory slasher flicks.

Road Rules: Stan The Man

Of our three heroes in Road Rules, Stan Yarazelski is the dimmest bulb.  And it goes back all the way to Mike Blake and Tim Mason’s days at Buckland High School.  During their student days, Stan made history by having what could be politely termed as inappropriate contact with a snowman.

Not surprisingly, Stan’s career path isn’t as spectacular as Mike or Tim’s.  He’s a repo man, and not a very good one.  But one of his jobs sets the events of Road Rules in motion.  And a flat tire along Ohio’s I-77 escalates them.

Stan was not inspired by any one person.  He just sort of evolved.  My beta readers had to help me edit out some of his more TSTL moments (“Too stupid to live”).  The snowman incident actually happened, though the kid who did it in real life had a more responsible adulthood and has a much more interesting job than most of us.  Stan?

Not so much.  I needed someone gleefully ignorant and unambitious to haul the Chest of St. Jakob to Florida.  So did Andre the Giant, but Andre wanted someone just dim enough to follow orders without question.  I needed someone who would blunder off the path and set things in motion.  So Stan actually was the first character of the three heroes.  Mike Blake came second.  Sharon Harrow was last.

What I like about Stan is he’s an unlikely hero.  His ignorance reaches its peak in Columbia, South Carolina, when he insists on dining at a barbecue joint (based loosely on the real-life Maurice’s) festooned with Confederate paraphernalia.  He can’t quite understand why Sharon, whose ancestors likely tried to flee the South, would be offended.

But Stan steps up in a big way in the novel’s final act.  When grilled by police and kidnapped by gangsters, Stan finds hidden reserves of cleverness and honesty.  Frankly, it scares Stan, who starts out the story as an unwitting Neal Cassady to Mike’s unwilling Jack Kerouac.

Find out what Stan does to redeem himself by visiting the Road Rules web site.

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MTM Cincinnati: Bobby Mackey’s Is Haunted

Across the river in Wilder, Kentucky, sits Bobby Mackey’s Music World.  It’s a night club named for the country music singer who owns it.  It is also proclaimed to be “the most haunted nightclub in America.”  Naturally, the club is pitching Halloween tours all this month.

Allegedly, the club is haunted by the spirit of Pearl Bryan, a woman murdered in 1896 in nearby Ft. Thomas.  Bryan was found with her head cut off.  Since then, many local legends have sprung up claiming that her killers were devil worshipers who sacrificed her in a Satanic ritual.

Later, a dancer at the club in its pre-Bobby Mackey days (Mackey set up shop in the late 1970’s) committed suicide there.  Named Johanna, she was distraught after her father killed her lover and took her own life.

Whatever the origins, over the years, legends of the haunting have come to center around a well in the basement, which Mackey says is a gateway to Hell.  The well was dug for a slaughterhouse that existed around the time of Bryan’s murder.  The well was sealed up when the slaughterhouse was demolished and the roadhouse that is now Bobby Mackey’s was built.

Over the years, staff, police, and even clergy have reported flying objects, disembodied voices, and even violent attacks.  It’s made television over the years, most recently on Ghost Adventurers. It also was the subject of a book, Hell’s Gate.  I watched the Ghost Adventurers episode, which was actually pretty funny.  One of the ghost hunters kept talking smack to the evil spirits in the well.

More at the My Town Monday blog.

A Poisoned Season By Tasha Alexander

Lady Emily Ashton, aka “Kallista” as her husband called her, is a widow in Victorian England hoping to endure “The Season” with little drama.  Unfortunately, she crosses the path of one Charles Berry, a lecherous American who claims to be heir to the Bourbon throne in France.  Soon, a thief is breaking into homes around London stealing items originally owned by Marie Antionette.  One owner of such an item is murdered.  When the widow asks Lady Ashton to investigate, Berry less-than-politely tells her to butt out and go back to studying her ancient Greek.

Of course, London society is having none of that.  Tongues are a-wagging that Lady Ashton is not pursuing a new husband this season, and London high society finds her amateur sleuthing and classical studies absolutely scandalous.  Lady Ashton finds everyone else’s horror as absurd as most of us these days would.  Unfortunately, she lives in pre-World War I Britain, not modern London.

It was interesting to read this one so soon after reading Dracula.  Alexander’s attention to detail brings Victorian England to life in a way that only seems to survive from that time in the work of Doyle, HG Wells, and Bram Stoker.  But some differences stand out.  In Dracula, Stoker presents Mina Harker as a working wife, doing stenography for her husband’s law firm after being a school teacher prior to her marriage.  Stoker makes nothing of it because the reaction of the reader to an employed Victorian middle class woman is supposed to be a given.  The reader is supposed to be shocked by Mina at face value, something that hasn’t quite held up since WWI.

But Alexander is writing from the vantage point of the mid-2000’s, and a modern Oxford-educated writer is the perfect woman to give this first-person novel a sense of exasperation with the trappings of Victorian society that might have been squelched during that era.

Road Rules: Tim Mason And The Art Of The Con

At the beginning of Road Rules, I thank someone for introducing me to the real Tim Mason.  Now the devious claims rep in Road Rules is not a real person, but he was inspired by one.  What does Mason have in common with the man who inspired him?  Well, I’ve accused both of looking like Ronald McDonald.  And they both are major goofballs.  Beyond that?

While Mason’s real-life inspiration was a lech and a bit of a schemer, I doubt he’d steal another man’s wife as revenge for shabby treatment in high school.  Nor do I think the real person has the ambition to screw an insurance company out of several million dollars.

Tim Mason, though, existed before I came up with Road Rules.  His real-life inspiration was one of those guys whom a writer couldn’t resist basing a character on.  Originally, I thought of making Tim Mason a goofball coworker of a Cincinnati lawyer named Anne Ripley, who appears in the stories “Annie” and “Standoff.”  That series never took off, and so I had characters I wanted to use with no place to use them.

Then came Road Rules.  I needed someone to broker the theft of the Chest of St. Jakob.  He would have to be an insurance man working on the inside.  And he’d have to be, if not likeable, at least entertaining.  Well, there was Tim Mason, a character with no story.  And there was no reason he couldn’t be a villain.  Once I made him the hapless member of the trio of Mason, Andre the Giant, and Julian Franco, torturing him became fun.

So how far do I go in making his life miserable?  Why download Road Rules to your Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, or iPad to find out?

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