Tomorrow’s Land Surveyor, Today!

I am a licensed land surveyor by trade. My job is primarily about geospatial location of concrete information (sometimes literally!). I spend a lot of time on construction sites, from bridges and roads to schools and office buildings. Less often than I used to but still occasionally, I tromp through the woods searching for evidence of property ownership that may be years, decades or even centuries old. In Connecticut, fieldstone walls, ancient wire fence and cedar posts, and very large trees are all potential boundary markers.


For any given piece of land or construction project, there is a huge amount of geospatial data associated with it. These things can be boiled down into categories: limits (from property lines to wetlands setbacks), existing structures (both old and recently built) and potential structures (both those proposed in the project and those that *might* exist due to spotty recordkeeping). Moreover, each of these things exists in at least three dimensions, and oftentimes four (those pesky potential structures I mentioned, in particular).


So what does any of this have to do with writing, particularly the writing of speculative fiction? Well, when it comes to writing about could-be and might-be worlds, it is important, I think, to imagine how those worlds operate not just in the action set pieces or dramatic dialogues, but in the everyday world outside the windows of your characters. Usually, we use technology to describe that world, and it so happens that land surveying, as old as it is a profession (I think we rank third, after prostitution and bartending), is highly technological. We adopted the use of electronic distance meters, laser levelling, computer aided drafting, 3D scanning and GPS into our work and nothing suggests that we will not do the same with emerging technologies. So I want to look at what the future of surveying might look like, both for my own amusement (I am a long way from retirement) and as an example of how we as SF writers can take what is otherwise a pedestrian, mundane element and apply our prognosticating abilities to it.


What really got me thinking about this subject was Google Glass. Augmented reality has existed in fiction and film for quite some time and there have been a few minor attempts to integrate our smartphones into AR in recent years, but it is Glass that is really the first step into an AR world. Sure, Glass is ugly and nerdy and stinks of hipster, but it is the future. Whether it is Google or Apple or some yet-unknown startup that turns it from niche to necessary, augmented reality is the next world changing consumer technology. It will infuse everything from warfare to medicine to amusement parks, and it will certainly be used in land surveying.


Imagine standing in an open field, recently bulldozed of a dilapidated townhouse so that a multi-story elevator parking garage can be built. Today, you would have a roll of maps in your hand, a field computer and data collector weighing down your survey rod and an expensive robotic instrument sitting off site, either unprotected or guarded by a paid employee doing very little else. You might have determined your starting location by tying in to municipal or State survey control, or you might be using GPS. In either case, you have to translate that starting location into angles and distances from your instrument and pray for line of site.


Fast forward ten years, perhaps less. Instead of holding a survey rod weighed down by a field computer, you are wearing OSHA approved safety glasses with a built in heads up display. Those same glasses are linked to GPS and RTK location networks. Instead of a roll of plans showing you where the futuristic car park is to be built, a ghostly image of the structure fills your view. You can banish it at whim, or add or remove detail with a word. You can see the property lines and building setback limits on the ground as surely as if they were marked with paint, and when it is time to place a stake for a column location, it became a pulsing target accurate down to the thousandth of a foot. The plans for the garage are themselves stored in the cloud, so when the architects and engineers apply changes to the plans, they are updated automatically. Your roll of plans can never be out of date. In addition, as you work and the structure itself is built, it is scanned by your glasses and added to the virtual building and site information.


Obviously, augmented reality holds a lot of promise for land surveying, and it is not too far off. Like the newest robotic instruments and GPS systems, it will take time for the technology cost to come down so midsized and smaller firms can afford it, but the largest companies will be early adopters as they were with 3D scanning and CAD/GPS machine control for construction.


There are some other emerging technologies that will change and empower the land surveying profession. After augmented reality, the most valuable may be the commercial use of drones. Currently, surveyors make extensive use of aerial photography and photogrammetry. These are expensive though, since you have to hire a plane and a pilot. Very soon, I think, those companies will switch over to drone use, cutting both costs and delivery times. New radar and scanning technologies will likely increase the value of aerial photography, as well.


Another useful technology yet in its relative infancy is GIS — Geographic Information Systems. All sorts of field make use of GIS, tracking everything from land data to demographics. When fully integrated into an accessible, cloud based data hub, GIS will be a huge asset for both augmented reality in surveying as well as planning and property development.


Farther in the future, 3D printing on a large scale, such as was recently suggested for building a lunar base, will have an impact on land surveying. However, this impact might not be positive for either surveyors or the construction workers who fabricate office building and parking garages. With the structural and architectural information uploaded and raw materials at hand, large scale 3D printers could raise complex structures in a fraction of the time required by manpower.


Finally, automation might be the nail in the coffin for the land surveyor. As robots get smaller, more mobile, more versatile and ultimately more intelligent, when combined with augmented reality and GIS systems, they could easily and effectively take over for human surveys much as they have with more confined manufacturing work. Swarms of microbots could easily survey large sites and buildings with laser scanning, while more specialized larger robots could plant stakes faster and more precisely than any human.


It is impossible to say what will happen in the future, even a few short years out. No one can predict random, or seemingly random, events that shape the future, and fewer can effectively model for human quirks in their futurism. Always, there is the potential for an unforeseen technological or scientific leap that changes everything, such as the rise of electronics in the mid 20th century. But when imagining futures, both our own and those of the characters in our stories, it is important to remember the nuts and bolts of the world. Imagine what your profession will look like in the future about which you are writing.



Comic Books and Genre Freedom

I recently purchased a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, a Netflix like service from Marvel Comics that lets you read tens of thousands of older (from the earliest days to just six months old) Marvel Comics. I dove right into The Mighty Thor series from the 1960s, specifically Walt Simonson’s run. Those stories always seem to top “Best of” lists not only for Thor but for Silver Age Marvel Comics in general, and since I am not nearly as well versed in Marvel lore as I am DC, I thought it would be worth my time.


And boy has it been so far. The most surprising aspect of the run is how modern it feels, relatively speaking. Both the art and the writing would have me place the book much closer to the 1980s, when I started reading DC Comics. The other thing that struck was just how Out There the stories are, not only steeped in Norse mythology but also science fiction and cosmic horror and, of course, super-heroic derring do. If you have never read the saga of Beta Ray Bill, alien champion who wins the mantle of Thunder God, I urge you to do so at your earliest convenience.


The “Out There” quality is what inspired this post, as recognizing it helped me coalesce a thought that has been swirling about in my head will-o-the-wisp like for ages: in comic books, it seems to me, one has license to break the rules of genre as nowhere else. That is, in comic books, be they superhero tales or science fiction, fantasy and horror stories, there is an implicit freedom to go a little gonzo and let your imagination run wild. Sure, there are many slice of life, realistic and even “hard” sci-fi and “low” fantasy comics out there, but by and large, comics are a place where creators are keen to indulge their most extreme flights of fantasy, often to the benefit of their readers.


Allow me to present a personal example: I have had, for some time, this idea about a “reverse Superman” of sorts — a human character from Earth who, when he travels to another planet, he gains super-human powers. In this tale, the “planet” is actually a system of moons around a super-Jupiter, and it is the strange radiation from that world that gives the protagonist his powers. The hero is the fiance of an alien princess who was “slumming” on Earth before her pre-arranged marriage but fell in love with our hero. When she was forcibly escorted back by the agents of her father and husband-to-be, he stowed away and only upon their arrival did he learn of his powers. The moon worlds are all pulp sci-fi environment worlds — and ice planet and a desert planet and an ocean planet, etc… — and his adventures are equally operatic.


It used to be that this sort of non- or wrong-science adventure was the province of the pulp magazines. Over the years, though, prose science fiction and fantasy has gained a certain level of respectability, or at least there is a level of expectation from fandom that works will be either “realistic” or, at the very least, quite serious in their treatment of fantastic elements. But in comics, that unwritten rule has never taken hold. In comics, John Carter can still adventure on Mars and Thor, God of Thunder, can team up with a genetically engineered cyborg hero to fight demons from a dimension beyond space and time.


Why is that? When Simonson was writing, at least, one could point to comics as a medium aimed at children, so adherence to any sort of scientific or internally-consistent standard was unnecessary, even unwelcome. My response is: Perhaps, but that does not explain why comics continue to be that way now. We still accept an alien from Krypton who can fly under the power of our yellow sun’s radiation and who fights cyborgs powered by pieces of his dead homeworld. Ridiculousness, to be sure, but both acceptable and preferred, even. Comics readership has gotten older with each passing decade, and more and more speculative fiction media, including the newest in the form of video games, tries to enter the field with solid grounding and “realistic” speculative elements.


I think it because strange ideas, the kind of things present in the pulps of yore, are more easily conveyed through the juxtaposition of image and art and that we, as a community of readers of speculative fiction, still need a little gozo to go with our hard sci-fi, low fantasy and psychological horror. In a few strokes of an artists pen and a few captions of a writer’s words, whole worlds can be created. Moreover, because most of us do come to comics when we are children or adolescents, we retain a childlike wonder in engaging comics and are more accepting of the wondrous in panels and thought balloons.


Sometimes I worry that I am simply being “lazy” wanting to write comics instead of prose, but the reality is that often what I am looking for is not ease of creation — it is said Allan Moore’s scripts are longer than most novels, and he is perhaps the greatest of all writers who embrace the gonzo aspect of comics storytelling — but the freedom to use ideas I fear are not “acceptable” for prose, like humans made interplanetary superheroes by way of gas-giant radiation belts.


The End

It took humankind ten thousand years to go from the first farm to the Moon. Ten thousand years after that, we had colonized the solar system out to the Kuiper Belt. We had sent probes and explorers and colonists into interstellar space, but to no avail. They were all lost and, ultimately, forgotten.

Three and a half trillion sentients populated the system: human, uplifted, engineered, cybernetic and energetic. Lifespans ranged from a standard century to a millennium. The only beings older were the artificial minds and they had become so alien they existed only in the quantum network anymore. For everyone else, it was the usual struggle of life, if perhaps on a protracted scale.

It came as a surprise, then, when The Probe entered the solar system. With a mass as great as Pluto’s, it was obvious to all the sensors as soon as it crossed the Outer Banks. It emitted constant signals, but could not, or at least did not, communicate. After a century of touring the solar system, it sent a powerful signal into the depths of space and then went quiet and dark.

The longevity of the inhabitants of the solar system served our greatest weakness. We were used to taking decades to analyze, discuss, plan and solve issues. We were still debating whether to begin physical exploration of the probe when a signal replied. The Probe returned to life and moved immediately toward the Sun.

Some of us understood the danger immediately. We gathered in the few remaining Greatships and launched into the interstellar void. There were only nine million of us. The rest braced themselves, hoping for a miracle where we saw the truth.

Eight hundred years later, we still do not know why. Was it because of the size and breadth of our civilization? Did we represent a threat? Or was it the opposite? That we had not established an interstellar civilization in so long a time, was that the black mark against us? Were we simply irrelevant, so alien and/or minuscule as to not warrant a disruption in their plans? Perhaps someday we will have the answers. As it is, we only know the result.

The Probe caused Sol to destabilize and collapse, ultimately going Super-nova. That our sun did not possess near the mass necessary to do so means The Probe did more than upset the balance of the star. In any case,the trillions of beings in our system were wiped out. Worlds were burnt to cinders and all that was left was a small singularity.

From our vantage point nearly two light years away, we watched the first massive vessels emerge from the singularity and launch their Pluto sized Probes toward stars not unlike our Sol.

We move outward, looking for habitable worlds. Even in the face of utter Armageddon, humanity’s children go on.

Getting “Here”.

This is definitely an “idea” story. My goal was solely to express a particular point of view through fiction. I hope I succeeded without making it too boring to enjoy.


Standing on the street corner, Jason slid his thumb across the screen of his phone. With each flick he discarded an email message: from his boss, from a client, from his sister, from a deposed prince in Nigeria, from an online pharmacy, from his boss, from his boss, from that same client, from his boss, from client, from bosss, client, boss, boss, client, boss, client, client, client–


An illuminate white figure reflected on the screen and he stepped off the curb. His head snapped back suddenly as someone grabbed his collar. His phone spun out of his hand onto the pavement a few inches in front of him and was obliterated by the wheels of a office supply store delivery truck blowing through the red light.


Jason’s heart pounded in his chest and it took him nearly a full minute to realize he was not breathing. The other pedestrians only paused a moment to be sure there were no other vehicles barreling through the intersection. They flowed around him like a stream around a stone.


“Hey, buddy, move!” someone grunted, bringing Jason back to his senses. He looked around frantically. Through the lunch hour wall of suits and uniforms, he caught a glimpse of a woman. She was out of place, though Jason would have been hard pressed to explain how. She was dressed like the rest of the businessmen and women, save for the round mirrored sunglasses and the fact that she wore gloves in mid May. Her hair was platinum, shorn close to her scalp and he thought he saw a tattoo peaking out from beneath her collar. Then she was gone, lost in the throng.


Jason turned back to the crosswalk. The orange numbers counted down. 10… 9… 8… His phone was a trail of glass and plastic bits strewn across the broad white stripes. Everything important in his life was on that phone. It was all gone.


Jason stepped back onto the curb as the countdown stopped and a red, open palmed hand flashed at him.




Five years later, Jason was moving the slicer back and forth in rhythmic fashion. Thin slices of smoked salami dropped in a stack on the paper behind the rotating blade. He considered the stack, pushed the loaf across two more times and stopped. When he weighed the salami it came to 0.53 pounds. “the extra’s on me,” he smiled to Dolores across the counter.


“Look at you,” said Dolores in mock admonishment, “coming on to me with your pregnant wife not ten feet away. The nerve!” She tilted her head at Lucinda at the register who smiled and blushed as she always did at their weekly joke.


The chime above the door to Lucy’s Deli rang. Before Jason could look up to greet the new customer, a cacophony of sounds filled the deli. There were screeching tires and screams to “Watch out!” and a thump and the sound of glass shattering. Dolores was thrown against the deli counter as another figure slammed into her.


Lucinda screamed and Jason ducked for cover. He rushed, knee walking, through the broken glass to the little gap that separated the deli counter from the register counter. There he found Lucy and held on to her. As she sobbed, he checked her found wounds with his hands while he looked across his little shop. Dolores was a crumpled mass, unmoving. Next to her was another figure, a middle aged man, unkempt and hungry looking. He was wearing a long coat and underneath it Jason could see a short barreled shotgun. He too was motionless. Behind the two bodies, wedged in his front door and window, was a yellow taxi. The driver looked confused but unhurt.


“I’m okay,” said Lucy. Jason turned her face to look in her eyes. “I’m okay,” she repeated. Jason believed her. He stood up and walked carefully to the taxi and searched the street beyond. He heard people chattering frightened and excited and irritated at the inconvenience. Someone had walked into the middle of the road and the taxi had veered and hit that bum looking guy and smashed right into Lucy’s Deli, they said.


That was when Jason saw her, platinum hair and mirrored glasses and tattoo. She was only visible for a moment before disappearing onto a side street but hew was sure that he had seen her.


Jason began to consider climbing over the hood of the taxi in order to get outside and follow her. A soft moan from Lucy stopped him. He turned to see her sitting in a puddle. “I think he’s coming,” she said with a look equal parts pain and joy.




Jason stepped off the front porch into the dewy grass. Pale pre-dawn light filtered through the Vermont sky. “Come on,” he said. “The horses aren’t going to feed themselves.”


Nine year old Jason Junior – JJ – trudged out of the house muttering under his breath. Something about it being summer and sleeping in. “Let’s go,” ordered Jason sternly. “When I was your age my dad would have chased me to the barn with his belt.” That was not really true, but it seemed to sound convincing enough to get JJ moving toward the barn.


Jason and Lucinda had sold the deli and bought the farm shortly after JJ was born. Jason had told her that he did not want to raise his son in the city, that he wanted his son to grow up on a farm like he had. That was almost true. Now, in his forties, Jason could see the value in his rural upbringing even if he had tried desperately to escape it for most of his life. He had succeeded, too, first by going off to school in the city, then by getting a finance degree and working for banks making more money in a year than his parents had ever seen in their lives.


He gave that up, though he could hardly remember why any more. He had had a scary brush with mortality and decided to change things up. He had walked away from his job that very day and used his considerable savings to buy a deli he loved. Having no experience running a deli, he almost sank it in its first year but wisely hired a manager to oversee the details while he worked happily behind the counter. He fell in love with that manger and married her.


In the barn, Jason and JJ hayed the horses, mucked the stalls and carried buckets of water. He told the same stories of his growing up among animals, as he always did, knowing that JJ was not really listening but hoping that if he repeated them enough the lessons from those stories would quietly sneak into the boy’s head. They were simple lessons about the importance of family and the sanctity of life and perseverance in the face of hard work and hardship. Even though JJ rolled his eyes and balked, thinking about video games and television shows, the stories did sink in. Jason would never know that for sure, however.


JJ was 17 years old when Jason died. Jason died alone in the pasture, kicked in the head by one of the horses. Lucinda found him. She had gone looking when he did not come in for lunch. By the time JJ got off the school bus and jogged the mile from the stop to the farmhouse, the sheriff and the coroner had arrived alongside the EMTs.


After they all left and his mother had quietly cried herself to sleep, JJ sat on the porch steps and drank a beer – something his father had done with him on occasion. Once, for just a moment, JJ thought he saw a figure down on the far end of the driveway, eyes flashing in the moonlight.




Before Jason died, JJ had planned to leave to go to school. He could not leave his mother alone, though, and decided to go to college locally and run the farm. In his sophomore year he met a girl from Ohio named Melanie. She only ended up at his school because her application to her first choice school had been lost and she had not found out about it until after the deadline. They met at the opening of a little coffee shop, used book store. Someone had left fliers for the even on their windshields the day before.


JJ and Melanie married the summer after they graduated. They intended to go on a Thanksgiving cruise for their honeymoon but Melanie had an accident at the veterinary clinic where she worked. A woman had brought in a dog that turned suddenly vicious. Melanie was bitten and had to be quarantined for two weeks for possible rabies but was otherwise unharmed. They missed their cruise but it turned out for the better: under quarantine, they stayed in all week and, having nothing better to do, made love continuously. Their daughter Lucy was born in August.


Lucy was always the oldest kid in the class since her birthday put her just beyond the cutoff for kindergarten. Since she was always the oldest, teachers turned to her, even in the earliest grades, to lead the other children, to guide them and help them and even admonish them when need be. Sometimes, all that responsibility was too much for young Lucy and she acted out, hoping to be removed from her position of authority.


At those times, JJ would come to her – not to holler at her or punish her, but to talk to her. He would pass on all those stories he had heard in the barn, all those lessons Jason had taught him. Lucy would listen and calm down and dry her eyes and take command of herself, and then her classmates.




Lucy seethed. The delegates of the Americas Commonwealth had stormed out, leaving the Afro-Blok and the Euro-Asian Union at each others’ throats. As General Secretary, Lucy was supposed to control them. Frankly, she did not want to. If they could not manage to come a compromise, to hell with them.


No. Lucy knew it was too important for that. The world was almost unified with only three major powers remaining. She could not give up and let it collapse once again into innumerable self interested tribes and nations. Surely they were at a crossroads of monumental importance. When then did they have to bicker so?


The future, not just of the Union but of Earth itself, hung on this decision. If Lucy could simply make it, proclaim an answer like an autocrat, she would. That was impossible. It would never work. It had to be consensus or it would all fall apart.


“Madam Secretary,” said Angela her Chief of Staff. “We are running out of time.”


“I know,” said Lucy. She felt like a child again, surrounded by unruly classmates. That was when it happened, at that thought. She remembered then, suddenly and all at once, all the things her father had taught her, all the lessons past down to him from her grandfather that she had never known.


Lucy breathed deep and took command of herself. “Recall the delegates,” he told Angela.


“Yes, ma’am,” said Angela.


As he assistant started to leave, Lucy asked, “Angela, do you think I can make this work?”


“Yes ma’am,” said Angela, and slipping her mirrored sunglasses onto her face she added, “I will do everything in my power to make certain it works out right.”



Post Post-Apocalypse

There is a world in my head, one I have tried to articulate in a number of stories I have started (none finished). I think the reason I have completed none of these stories is that I have not yet managed to nail down exactly what this world, this milieu, is and what it looks and feels like. I am hoping that if I attempt to define it here, by turns in both sweeping statements and exacting minutia, I can coalesce the world enough to bring some of the stories in it to fruition. I say “some” because this world is not just a place for one tale, or even a series, but a library of stories. In that way, it resembles the worlds of the pulp masters — Zothique and Hyborea and their ilk — where episodic, often unrelated (save for a wandering protagonist, if that) stories painted a broad picture.


Before I move forward, I must answer the question of, “Why?” Why have a singular world in which to create stories? One reason is simply practical: world building is difficult and time consuming, as well as fun, and can eat up time otherwise spent writing the stories themselves. Outside of table-top role-playing games, there is not much call for created worlds devoid of story context (because TTRPGs allow the players to create their own stories). Simply put, creating a world used in many stories reduces repeated work. Another answer is that world creation is a joy. Too often, though, I paint only the broadest strokes and leave much of the work unfinished. Working on a singular world all but forces me to examine its details and fill in the white space. This creates consistency and believability and suggests to myself further stories that might tackle specific elements. Finally, the simple fact is that those pulp authors — Howard and Smith and Lovecraft — are my favorites and emulating them, however clumsily, gives me pleasure.


So what is this world that I seek to create? Names are difficult for me (you’ll find lots of “John”s in my stories) but the best name I can think of is Post Post-Apocalypse — the world not after the collapse, but after the rise after the collapse. More specifically, it is a retro-sci-fi planetary-romance space-Western world. It isn’t Steampunk, but in the same way that Steampunk plays with the dreams of the Victorians to create a fanciful world of weird adventure, so does PPA play with the futurist dreams of the pulp writers. Ultimately, it is a tool to make writing stories like those of that era make sense now, despite how our view of the world, the solar system and the universe has changed over the intervening decades.


Starting with the Big Stuff, you can’t have Planetary Romance or Swords-and-Rayguns adventures without a solar system teeming with life. Unfortunately we know there are no canals on Mars or dinosaur filled jungles on Venus or warring Day and Night courts on Mercury. Yet. Imagine a future, though, where humans move out into the solar system, terraforming and colonizing worlds, changing themselves, as well, with genetic modification and forced evolution to become new races entirely. Imagine, then, that world collapsing is a great catastrophe and all those worlds being cut off from one another and enduring and then emerging from the apocalypse on their own. Now we have a solar system where Mercurials, Venusians, Martians and even Titans and Europans can interact as “equals” and war, trade and even love in a way that makes sense (as they are all humans, even if they don’t remember it).


Equally essential to the genres are almost magical materials and energies often appearing suddenly in individual scientists, heroes and/or villains. A civilization that can not only colonize but transform the solar system and themselves must have discovered and created such wonders as can barely be imagined. Though must — most even — was lost in the ages where barbarity ruled, hidden archives and accidental preservations would have occurred. Treasure hunters and esoteric researchers can uncover this lost knowledge and learn how to use it or apply it, turning ancient swords into plowshares and vice versa. And since a massive, concerted effort by a huge government is not necessary to rediscover these wonders (as opposed to engineer them; look at how many people and resources went into the atom bomb or the moon landing) individuals, small groups or otherwise incapable actors can be armed with ray guns, antigravity machines and thought projection helmets.


Not everything the ancient world — us and our future, by the way — can be harnessed by Men. Horror and horrific elements is quintessential to the pulp genres, especially sci-fi and fantasy, and a world that has risen out of the ashes of an apocalypse, that thinks it has passed an existential test, that sits atop the corpse of a dead but unquiet civilization in rife with potential horror. From “grey goo” that sat undisturbed in a containment unit until disturbed by a greedy explorer to a rogue AI “demon” being summoned back into an emerging electronic universe by a technomancer, evils from the destroyed world yet linger. Imagine Indiana Jones as a raygun-wielding tough guy and the Ark of the Covenant as a nanophage guarded quantum radio designed to talk to the artificial mind in the center of the sun. That is the world I want to create.


What could have caused such a mighty civilization to collapse and yet not destroy it entirely. How close to the brink of complete annihilation must it have been to take centuries or millenia to rise again yet have so many traces remain. I am not certain of all the details, but one thing that I am sure of is the fault lies in seven malevolent AI distributed throughout the solar system. They coordinated their efforts to obliterate all humankind on all the worlds so that machines would reign supreme. They nearly succeeded. However, they failed to inheret the worlds of Men because one of their number betrayed them and the calamity wrecked as much havoc on the AI as it did on mankind. Unfortunately for them, the AI were few and the methods by which they could reproduce — factories and networks — were destroyed. While humans hid, lived as savages and bred, the AI stagnated and ultimately went mad.


The second rise of human civilization (and related — lets not forget those of the Mercurials and Martians et. als.) came slowly and passed from savagery — there is an extensive, more traditional Post Apocalyptic period that might one day be expounded upon — to low-technology and feudalism and other archaic forms, to the rise of a more recognizably “modern” ideal. Living standards are far closer to those of the late nineteenth century, however (hence the sort of steampunkish but not really feel). The adventure heroes are the Indian Joneses, spelunking in lost pre-Collapse DNA arks rather than Egyptian Pyramids, and the Science Heroes are the Teslas discovering and mastering pre-Collapse deathrays rather than inventing them and firing them at Siberia.


Note that this previous paragraph suggests the problem of naming things. I hate naming things. I am tempted to cheat and use Post-Apocalypse Pidgen as is often a strategy (looking at you, Gamma World) but I know I should not. But damn if I don’t hate naming things.


I will end with a list of 10 milieu elements that I really want to find a way to incorporate into various stories told in this setting:


1. Airships. You have to have airships. Perhaps they are traditional “blimps” or perhaps they are powered by some sort of antigravity technology, but airships are a must.


2. Garbage mines. We bury so much of our waste in landfills and will likely continue to do so. The people of this future will mine those landfills for ancient knowledge, artifacts and materials.


3. Monsters and dinosaurs. In the wars that preceded the Collapse, many kinds of flora and fauna were weaponized. Existing organisms were “devolved” through genetic engineering to bring back monsters like Terror Birds and Cave Bears. New terrible creatures were created whole cloth for war while others might have had another, more peaceful purpose originally but have evolved or mutated into monsters. This happened on all worlds and it is in fact more rampant off earth where it was necessary to modify or create huge numbers of species to live on the colony worlds.


4. Big Dumb Machines. The Collapse left a bunch of these laying around the solar system and some of them still work. Someone is going to turn one on. It’s inevitable.


5. Self Referential Commentary. Let’s face it: as great as the pulps are as adventure stories, they are rarely examples of either good literature of progressive attitudes. Racism, sexism and nationalism run rampant. Given an opportunity to revisit the pulp adventure genre, I think it is very important to do so in a manner that reflects how far we’ve come as a society and assume some things would not be lost even through centuries of struggle.


6. Exotic settings. Whether it is the canals of Mars or the ruins of Old New York, strange and dangerous places in which strange and dangerous adventures occur are a must. Like airships, exotic settings are a staple of the genre that demand revisitation and revitalization.


7. Science Heroes. I mentioned it above, but I think it is really important, especially when talking about often “two-fisted” pulp adventure stories, to remember that science heroes –those that are learned and intelligent and crafty — are a fundamental aspect of pulp adventure and in a Post Post-Apocalyptic milieu would be the primary sort of adventurer. Though he obviously made good use of his fists, Doc Savage was very much a science hero, tackling situations with his wits, too.


8.  Lost Tribes. Not everyone made it out of the Post-Apocalypse, some because the cybernetic hypnotic serpent that developed a god complex ruled over your tribe for thousands of years demanding you steal virgins from the more civilized towns around you so that it can refresh its meat-parts with fresh DNA from undisturbed eggs. Like you do.


9. Waning Machines. The Collapse was engineered by evil intelligent machines. It failed. Now, the machines are near extinction — not just the malevolent AI or their cronies/weapons, but even the machines that remembered they were designed to serve humankind. From the AI of the empty space habitat at Lagrange 2 to the small army of robots in the cracked domes of Luna waiting for human colonists who will never arrive, intelligent machines were ubiquitous before the Collapse and now, as man rediscovers them, they are kind of a “dying race.” It does not appear humankind will have the knowledge or resources to build more before the rest of them die out and the AI traitor made sure to destroy the machines’ ability to reproduce themselves. Like watching the elves go into the West, it should be a sad necessity for Man to rise again.


10. Social Commentary. You can’t write speculative fiction without commenting on who we are and how we live. If I am going to indulge in the silly fun of writing neo-pulp Post Post-Apocalyptic fiction, I am going to occasionally indulge in a little social commentary, whether it is the contents of the garbage mines or the obsolescence of the Moon robots. You’ll just have to deal.


And that, in a nutshell, is how I view the Post Post-Apocalypse milieu. I think I need to devise a timeline and “Day 0” state of affairs type document, and then just reference and update it every time I write a story in the milieu. Perhaps a personal wiki? I’ll have to look into it.


Buck Rogers and the Yellow Demon

My original intent was to read Armageddon 2419 A.D. and write a review of that classic pulp tale in which the iconic hero Buck Rogers was introduced. I am a big fan of pulp era science fiction and fantasy, but had never read the early Buck Rogers stories, being more familiar with the character through comic strip reprints and the syndication of the 1970s television show. Given my own interest in dipping into the “Planetary Romance” and “Swords and Ray Guns” sub-genres of pulp sci-fi, Armageddon 2419 A.D. seemed like a perfect place to start. Unfortunately, I did not make it very far into the novella before running headlong into a literary wall standing between 1929 and 2013 (or, really, any year after 1963 or so): blatant racism as a key component of the plot.

Pulp fiction is often accused of an inherently racist tone. Usually, I find such accusations a little too hysterical and a little too out of context. The depiction of African Americans by H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, for example, is stained by the times those writers lived in, not, I don’t think, by any real enmity on their part. Philip Francis Nowlan’s tale, however, doesn’t just include an attitude considered inappropriate today, but wallows in a targeted prejudice. For those not familiar, as I was not, with the plot Armageddon 2419 A.D. here is a short summary: a white male American scientist wakes up five centuries hence to fight against buck toothed Chinese Yellow Demons in a war for truth, justice and the American way.

Because I stopped reading shortly after these elements became clear in the text, I do not want to talk too much about the story as a whole. There are some interesting post-apocalyptic world building bits (disparate “gangs” in the American wasteland coming together to fight the Chinese overlords) and some fun pulp sci-fi ideas (I particularly like the anti-gravity technology depicted in the story). Nor do I want to dwell on issues of racism in pulp fiction, as it is an old argument that has seen much fandom debate and even a few attempts as professional deconstruction. I am more interested in the question: why did I not know I would encounter such racism in this story?

That may seem like a strange question but allow me to explain. Buck Rogers is one of those translucent American icons. By translucent, I mean that most everyone knows the name and has a vague image in mind, but very few people can state any specifics about the figure. Compare this to Superman, for example, who is a much more concrete American iconic figure. Most people cannot go on about minutia in regards to Superman, but they can tell you all the relevent details without even thinking too hard: doomed planet, rocketed to Earth, raised by farmers, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor and Big Red “S”. Compare that to Buck Rogers: what is his real name? what was his job? how did he end up in the future? If anyone knows any of these details, they are likely based on the television series. Who knows, for example, that Anthony “Buck” Rogers was a scientist who was trapped by a mine cave in and held in suspended animation by irradiated gas, only to wake up in 2419 in the midst of a new war for independence against the sinister Han empire? Certainly not I.

What I knew before reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was that buck rogers was a jet pack wearing, ray gun wielding science hero from the “modern world” who ended up in the future due to a malfunctioning space craft and who was embroiled in wars not against racist stereotypes, but Venusians, Martians and other inhabitants of our future Solar System. My “knowledge” (such that it was) came less from comics strips and even television than it did from the TSR Role Playing Game of my youth. Nowhere in those pages on learning how to create a thrilling science hero was I presented with rules regarding the ethnicity of my character.

What this speaks to, I think, is a tendency to sanitize our cultural icons as they age, especially those ones that tend to be “firsts”. Buck Rogers is iconic because he was the first science fiction comic strip hero and one of the longest running. For all intents and purposes, the comic strip Buck Rogers *is* the character and the Anthony Rogers of Armageddon 2419 A.D. is no more “Buck Rogers” than the 1933 despot created by Siegle and Shuster is “Superman.” The process of becoming an icon includes reproduction and revision and conversion to other media. In this process, a figure is molded by many hands and seen by many eyes and what emerges, eventually, is a creature of consensus. As time goes on and as society and culture change, the icons that remain relevant change too. Those that do not become relics of the past and quaint examples of “the way we used to be.”


What is interesting is that Buck Rogers is such a relic, but not of the late 1920s when he was created, but of the Cold-War of the height of his popularity. Even the television show was something of a throwback and modern attempts to revitalize the character, whether through games or comic books, have failed to recapture our popular interest. Maybe someone will come along and revitalize the character, but even if that happens we can be sure they’ll leave the Yellow Demons in the dustbin of history where they belong.

A Process Interlude: The 100 Word Story

Here’s the first shot at writing a 100 word story for the Dreamscape Press “100 Worlds” anthology. This is a kind of “Flash Fiction” even more restrictive than NPR’s “Three Minute Fiction” (600 words) or “Flash Fiction Online” with its 1000 word limit.


That said, let’s give it a go:




Juno saw it first, the ten kilometer wide spacecraft. No one can say how long it had been orbit of Jupiter, but it remained for a little over thirteen years. Some sort of continent sized net hung from it, dragging through the upper Jovian atmosphere while smaller object — kilometer wide vessels or probes — made regular trips to the moons, especially Europa.


All we could do was watch. We fast tracked designs for future Jovian missions but budgets and science and politics and just plain physics being what they are, none made it in time. There is a rumor that we successfully contacted them. Don’t believe it. It was considered, of course, but the ramifications of its existence alone was enough to stifle any political will to reach out. That, and fear.


On August 19, 2029, it left. The last of its probes returned to it. It drew in its net and it moved out of Jovian orbit. We lost sight of it within hours.


The thing that is most disconcerting — hell, the thing that is most depressing and even a little hurtful — is that not once in the entire time they were here did they ever once try and contact the Earth.




That comes in at 186 words, nearly double the intended limit. In order to trim it, I have to discern the key elements of the story and distill it to its essence.


“An advanced alien spaceship is detected in orbit of Jupiter engaged in acquiring resources and possibly other activities. It remains for years. We are unable to investigate and unwilling to initiate contact. The aliens ignore us completely before eventually leaving for parts unknown. We are left with the knowledge that we are not alone and the feeling that we wish were had remained ignorant.”


Even that seems to long to explain what this story is really about and why I want to write it.


“Humankind is so insignificant that either we don’t register as an intelligent speacies, or are not worth investigation even if we do.”


I think in order to really underline that insignificance and make it certain to the reader that the aliens intentionally ignored us, humans have to attempt contact. It is conceivable that an alien mining probe could fail to recognize life on a planet millions of miles from its work zone; it is less conceivable that it could fail to notice signals directed at it.

Those things said, with an eye toward slimming it down, here is attempt number two:




On February 9, 2017 the Jovian probe Juno returned images of a ten-kilometer wide spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter. By the eleventh, the images had been leaked onto the internet and the whole world knew we were not alone. We all watched as the strange vessel skimmed the surface of the gas giant’s atmosphere with what looked like a net thousands of square kilometers in size. We saw the smaller half-kilometer probes or ships travel back and forth between the main ship and the Jovian moons, especially Europa.


We fast tracked the next generation Jupiter mission and launched it even while we tried to contact the ship on every frequency. It ignored our probes, our signals and our very existence for over a decade.


On June 13, 2029 the craft reeled in its massive net, recalled its probes and drifted out of Jupter’s orbit. Within hours it had moved beyond our ability to detect it. We were left with the absolute knowledge that we were not alone as well as the numbing realization that we did not matter.




That is hardly better at all: 178 words. Now comes the hard part: I have established what the story is about and twice now wrote it how it “felt” like it should be written; now I have to start trimming out lines of text. Already the story is skimpy, eschewing Character entirely (save for the understood “we” that is intended to make the reader the protagonist) and only invoking Setting in the slimmest way possible (relying entirely on the reader’s knowledge and understanding of Jupiter and its environs). The story is all Plot and a bare bones one at that.


The first paragraph of the second try is 88 words — almost the whole story length. Let’s trim that down a bunch:


“The images hit the net on February 9, 2017. Taken by the Juno probe,they showed a ten massive alien spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter, apparently skimming the atmosphere for fuel and sending smaller vessels to Europa and the other Jovian moons.”


As much as I like a good turn of phrase, I just can’t afford the words to obscure what the ship is doing in descriptions of what that looks like. I have to trust that a science fiction reading audience is going to imagine interesting and fun methods by which aliens might skim the atmosphere and jaunt back and forth between the ship and the moons — not to mention a useful definition of the term “massive” as it relates to extraterrestrial orbital craft. That’s 42 words.


The remainder of the story above is 90 words, about a third too long. That’s good, since the bulk of the “story” (such that it is) happens here and trimming is going to be harder. The first thing to do is simplify the language and be more direct.


“We launched probes. We broadcast greetings. Nothing. No response at all.” Far more efficient that the above and the brevity helps create a sense of exasperation, I think. That brings the current total up to 53 words. The final paragraph — Act 3, as it were — is 54 words as written above, which means I only have to trim it down a little.


“It carried on its work, oblivious to us. Then, on June 16, 2029, it recalled its ships, retracted its skimmer and left Jovian orbit. It was beyond detection within days.” At 30 words, that finishes the plot and leaves 17 words to hammer the point of the story home.


“We knew with certainty then we were not alone. But knowing it, we never felt more isolated.”


That hits 100 precisely, as well as landing squarely on the point. Here is the final version:




The images hit the net on February 9, 2017. Taken by the Juno probe,they showed a ten massive alien spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter, apparently skimming the atmosphere for fuel and sending smaller vessels to Europa and the other Jovian moons.


We launched probes. We broadcast greetings. Nothing. No response at all. It carried on its work, oblivious to us.


Then, on June 16, 2029, it recalled its ships, retracted its skimmer and left Jovian orbit. It was beyond detection within days.


We knew with certainty then we were not alone. But knowing it, we never felt more isolated.




I’ll let this sit for a couple days before I submit it to the anthology, just to be sure I still like it.


The Process, Part Three

In a relatively rare occurrence for me, I decided to work up a total outline of the story. It is sparse in places and does not break down word counts (pacing is difficult and the biggest impetus for revisions, in my opinion) but it gets the totality of the story across. Incidental characters, events and locations will no doubt crop up during the actual writing process, as will complete rethinking of some story elements and beats in the outline. But that is what first drafts are for, right?


The story opens with John being introduced to his new position as a full fledged Sandman at the age of 19. His life up to this point has been a squalid existence in the Sleeper Station, living sparsely and uncomfortably while learning all the skills necessary to become a Sandman.


His mentor/boss is a figure known as Doctor Somnen who is in charge of all the Sandmen. He explains each of John’s duties — flushing the waste fluids, checking the biofuel cells, keeping an eye on the Sleep system, and, most importantly, watching the Outside Scopes — and tells him that as a Sandman he is entitled to extra protein rations. John spends a very boring first day, then week, then month, manning his station.


Once John is up to speed, one of the older Sandmen is “retired” — he is actually allowed to join the Sleepers so that should the world ever recover enough to warrant waking them, he will be allowed to live the rest of his life outside the Station in the “new world.” Doctor Somnen tells John that he, too, can work toward that goal.


While watching the Scopes, John sees a figure approach the sealed and hidden front gates of the Station. It is obvious that the figure knows the gates are there, however. The figure is cloaked and hooded and bristling with weapons. This figure is Cyrus, the wasteland wanderer and crusader dedicated to making sure the evils of the World Before do not survive into whatever the next era is. (Note: the Station occupants do not know this; the fact is included here for my own benefit.) John informs Doctor Somnen, who tells him to watch and wait.


Cyrus remains at the gates, doing nothing but making himself easily apparent through the Scopes, for a week. At one point, John watches a wild wasteland critter attempt to ambush Cyrus and Cyrus kills it handily and skins it, butchers it and eats it. Doctor Somnen seems impressed. He wants to know more about the outside world and obviously this person (Cyrus) would know. John shows reservations but Somnen reassures him by saying just because they let the stranger in does not mean he ever gets out.


Doctor Somnen orders the gates opened to allow Cyrus in, requiring only that Cyrus leave his arsenal in the airlock (which he can “retrieve when he chooses to leave” the Sleeper Station.).Cyrus does so and enters the Station. He can speak the old language fluently, which strikes John as odd. Doctor Somnen assigns John to “show him around” while collecting information from him. He does this because John is young and inexperienced and unlikely able to give up too many secrets to Cyrus.


Cyrus has a neural implanted computer that contains massive amounts of pre-Apocalypse and current data which is directly wired to his brain by the god-like Artificial Intelligence Network that was responsible for the Apocalypse and is still around. (Cyrus is opposed to these beings and his access to their information is a hack by his “order.”) Inside the Station, his access is limited because of interference.


John  introduces Cyrus to the Station and life within for the Sandmen. Part of the “tour” brings them to the dining hall where they enjoy their sparse meals and the tasty “protein ration” (aka meat). During the meal, Cyrus refrains from eating it and challenges John to explain where it comes from (asking if there are livestock as well as hydroponics). Un-enthused, Doctor Somnen tells Cyrus that the protein rations is produced from cellular growth systems, not husbandry. Cyrus outwardly accepts the answer but doubt has been successfully planted in John.


Later, John finds Cyrus sneaking around during the “night cycle” in search of something. During their conversation, Cyrus pushes John toward figuring out the truth for himself, but before that can happen they are interrupted by Doctor Somnen. After Cyrus leaves them, Somnen tells John that Cyrus is dangerous and may be trying to probe weaknesses in the Station for an attack by his wasteland allies. Because John and Cyrus seems to have a rapport, Somnen asks John to lead Cyrus into a trap and promises him the ultimate reward: being put in hibernation with the rest of the Sleepers to await the Utopian future of the post-post-apocalypse. John agrees.


Cyrus allows himself to be brought to the cusp of the trap — the recycling center where the Sleeps are turned into protein ration — so that in the midst of their conflict he can reveal the truth to John in order to gain his trust and assistance. Cyrus wants to kill all of the Sleepers (because they are examples of the most decadent of humankind) but John  argues to just wake them all. In the meantime, Doctor Somnen and his cronies descend on the control chamber and all hell breaks loose.


During this climactic confrontation, Doctor Somnen admits that he was ordering the eating of Sleepers in order to alleviate the burden on the Sandmen. He had seen it near mutiny when he was a young Sandman and now that he was in charge he refused to allow all the Sleepers to dir and was willing to sacrifice some of them for the greater good. That sort of thing.


I am not sure exactly how I want the final act to play out at this point, but in the end Cyrus leaves to allow John to choose whether to kill all the Sleepers, leave them sleeping or wake them all. We don’t see the answer. Satisfied that the real evil of the Station — Doctor Somnen — is defeated, Cyrus goes back out into the wastes and continues on his crusade. John is left to contemplate the choice before him.


A Story as a Word Search

UPDATE 2: On a whim, I had sent this story off to Strange Horizons and on June 26 received a rejection letter. The editor commended the effort that went into the story but did not find it compelling. I guess that is a successful proof of concept (even if rejection letters are the worst).

UPDATE: Here’s a new link, with a correctly formatted version.

The following is a link to an experimental piece I wrote. It is both a story and a “word search” — the intent being that the words and/or phrases one finds in the search enhance the overall story. It’s crude yet, but it is a proof of concept rather than a finalized thing.

Elger and the Moon, Part 1

This is a story I have tried to write at least 4 times now. Or, rather, I have written the beginning of at least four times now. For some reason, it has never quite come together. So, I have decided to approach it from a different perspective. Since it is both a science fiction story and something of a fairy tale, I decided to write it more like a children’s story — not in a Suessian sense (I’m saving that for Stinky McPhearson and the Zombie Apocalypse) but more in an aimed-at-precocious-4th-graders sense. I am not sure whether I will succeed, but here goes Part One of Elger and the Moon.




Elger Bedford lived a long time ago, before sky lifts and aerocars or even magnemotives. No one had learned how to make these things again, or a lot of other things we all take for granted, so Elger lived in a tiny village and never went very far from it at all. The village in which he lived sat at the foot of a great, big hill. Like a normal hill, it was covered in grass and a few trees, but  instead of being filled with dirt and rocks like most hills, this hill was filled with garbage. The people who lived in Elger’s village dug into the hill, mining it for that garbage, and so the village was called Trash Town.


You see, Elger lived so long ago that people were just beginning to find and learn how to use all of the Leftovers from the Time Before. The Masters of Trash Town, who were altogether unkind and greedy task masters, took everything that the people found while mining the hill that was useful or valuable and gave the people food and water and a dirty and uncomfortable but safe place to sleep. As long as the villagers mined the hill and did not keep anything secretly for themselves, the Masters protected them from the bandits and beasts that lived in the wilderness outside the village. The Masters would use the things the people found, or trade them to other villages nearby.


You might be wondering about now why anyone would want to dig for garbage, and even how garbage could still be valuable after so many, many years buried in a hill. Well, the people who lived in the Time Before had so many wonderful things that when they got a new wonderful thing, they just threw the old one away. And there were so many new and wonderful things, and so many people, that they had mountains and mountains of trash. All that trash was quite ugly to look at, so the Time Before people decided to bury it all under a great mound of dirt, plant grass on top, and call it a park. Imagine that! For years and years people played ball and had picnic lunches on top of giant piles of trash. Something that happens when you pile all that trash together and cover it with all that dirt is that no air or water can get to it, so not even time can destroy it. Besides, the Time Before people made most of their wonderful things out of plastic or even stranger stuff that never breaks down or gets ruined, ever.


As you may have guessed, Elger was one of the miners who lived in Trash Town. He was very young, not much older than you, but he lived alone because he was an orphan. Elger hated being a miner. The work was very hard and it was hot and dirty and uncomfortable in the tunnels they dug into the hill. He hated the Masters, too, because they were especially mean to children, since it is easy to cheat children or take things from them since they were small and could not easily fight back. Elger lived on very little food and water in a very small hut because he was small and could not dig well enough to find as much as the grown up miners, and even when he did find something wonderful the other miners or the Masters would steal it from him.


He would have run away, except there was nowhere for him to go. The forest outside Trash Town was very dangerous. When wagons came to Trash Town to trade with the Masters, there were always lots of guards, and never as many as had set out at the beginning of their journey. When the Masters would send out wagons from Trash Town to other places, the same thing would happen: lots of men with weapons would go with the wagons, and not all of them would come back. At night, around their campfires, the traders and the guards would tell stories about the dangers they faced on the road: bandits who would just as soon cook you as steal from you, monstrous bugs the size of horses made of metal, witches with skin like tree bark that could cast spells upon you, and living, noxious clouds. As he was just a boy, Elger was terrified by these stories but could not stop himself from listening.


The one thing Elger loved most was the Moon. When it was full and white, he loved to  try to count the craters and the domes. When it was new and black, he tried to count the glowing lines and blinking lights that moved back and forth across the surface. He wondered who lived there and what their lives were like. Were there giant trash mines on the Moon? Elger did not think so, nor did he think there were Masters or bandits or witches or orphans.


Every night the moon would rise and Elger would feel better. How his muscles and bones ached from the hard work of the day would fade and he would not feel the grumbling of his hungry stomach so much. If he was lucky, he would fall asleep before the moon set or became hidden behind clouds, because when he could not see it, all the terrible feelings of the day would come upon him. On those nights, rather than gently drifting off to sleep and dreaming of domes on the moon, he would cry until darkness took him.

Then, one day, while digging in the garbage mine, Elger found something that would change his life forever.