Dan Simmons’ ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-fall-hyperionI don’t know why, but I have a bad habit of picking up series during the second book.  It seems like book two in a series always falls into my lap before I get hold of book one, and such was the case with Simmons’ The Fall of Hyperion.  I first read this shortly after graduating from high school, and although I was missing a great deal of information by not having read Hyperion first, I still enjoyed it immensely and knew I had to read the earlier volume, but I set aside this goal for awhile and forgot about it for several years.  I’m glad I did, because by the time I returned to these books, the entire tetralogy was complete and I was able to purchase the whole series at once, something I never do.  I devoured them all the summer after I graduated from college–an awful summer, in fact, and this series was one of the few saving graces for me that year.  I now consider The Hyperion Cantos collectively to be among my top ten books of all time, and that is saying something because I have a lot of favorite books.

The Fall of Hyperion tells us what becomes of the seven Shrike pilgrims now that they have reached the Time Tombs, but it also fleshes out the story of Meina Gladstone, the leader of the Hegemony of Man, as she deals with a coming war with the Ousters that looms large throughout this novel.  Bridging these two plot elements is yet another Keats cybrid–this time going by the name of Joseph Severn–whose dreams are linked to the pilgrims.  Severn serves as an adviser to Gladstone and is, for all intents and purposes, the narrator of the novel.

What’s particularly beautiful about this book is how absolutely amazingly Simmons ties up the stories of the Shrike pilgrims, whose lives turn out to be more connected than the first book let on.  And all of the pilgrims, including the cantankerous poet Martin Silenus (one of my favorite characters in the series) get to be heroes in their own way this time around.  Characters with fairly small roles in Hyperion–Amelio Arundez, the Consul’s friend Theo Lane, and so on–appear again with expanded roles.  Simmons is extremely generous to his characters in ways that feel both natural and dignified–even those who perish horribly (there is one key character whose death near the end of the novel can only be described as George R.R. Martin-level shocking) are ultimately redeemed.

Then there’s our old friend the Shrike, that time-traveling death machine whose nature is utterly impenetrable.  We do learn quite a bit more about him here, and yet it only seems to add to his mysteriousness and his monstrosity.  Yet he feels like an essential part of this universe, a sci-fi devil whose cold silver cruelty stands in stark contrast to the  golden humanity of the other characters.  Even the Ousters–who are a sort of futuristic analogue to the fair folk of fantasy, those beings who are somewhere between human, angel and spirit–aren’t quite the dreadful enemies we learned they were in Hyperion.  Indeed, The Fall of Hyperion is a novel that, although it describes the collapse of perhaps the greatest human empire of all time, is ultimately about the unquenchable beating heart of that same humanity.  No matter what we are subjected to, mankind endures.

Now, the book does delve a bit into some ideas that will probably prove a little frustrating to those fans of hard SF who don’t like their chosen religion of Pure Science tainted by mysticism.  (People who hated Interstellar, I’m looking at you.)  But for the rest of us, this all feels beyond true in the same sense that G.K. Chesterton ascribed to fairy tales.  This, to me, is what good sci-fi has always been about–not the comfort and safety of the perfectly believable but the very edge of believability, that rich realm of the imagination where the reader isn’t quite sure if its possible or not, and thus it becomes wondrous and transcendent.  Modern science fiction has largely gravitated away from this realm, much to its deficit in my estimation.  It is a genre that used to be daring and dazzling and even a little dangerous.  Now it has become oppressed by the weight of those twin yokes of political correctness and scientific accuracy.  Blech.  I consider Simmons to be one of a dying breed of sci-fi writers–the inheritors of the New Wave, who took the softness of New Wave sci-fi and brought it down to earth.  But enough about that for now–I have a whole essay planned about this very topic coming soon!

Anyway, Dan Simmons . . . this dude can write.  This and the horror novel Carrion Comfort (I can’t recall which of these I actually read first) was my introduction to Simmons; I have been a devoted fan ever since.  And I think once you have read the Hyperion Cantos you probably will be too.  If you love imaginative fiction and good storytelling, you simply can’t afford to miss this series.  From the thoroughly original take on AIs to the bizarre nature of the planet Hyperion to the obvious affection Simmons has for classic literature, references to which are spread lavishly throughout the books, this is science fiction at its utmost.  It is a thing of beauty, and you know what Keats said about that . . .

Grade: A+

I, Steampunk

I don’t generally like to just post photos of myself on the internet without some reason, and up till now I have avoided posting photos of me on this blog altogether, but I figured I would share this image because it’s fun.  I took an existing photo of someone dressed in steampunk fashion and pasted my own head (from a family photo taken twenty years ago) on it, which amuses my greatly.  I chose this particular steampunk figure because of the mechanical right hand, which is the hand that I am actually missing, so it fit.  I use the head shot from this image (with a different background color) for my io9 avatar and elsewhere on the interwebz.  I hope you enjoy it because I’m not likely to post any more photos of myself for awhile. :)

Indigo Xix as a steampunk dude
Indigo Xix as a steampunk dude

Short Story: Lone Kidd, or The Boy Who Grew up Too Soon

This is a short story I wrote a few weeks ago.  It will eventually be part of a larger project, the book The Sinister Hand.  This will effectively be my autobiography, interspersed with short fictional pieces which tie into the story of my life in some way.  Lone Kidd proposes an alternate origin for a well-known villain from a particular classic children’s book.  It shouldn’t be hard to figure out which one; hell, if you know your classic children’s lit the title alone should give it away.  Be forewarned: this story is pretty dark, as it deals with child abuse.  

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Lone Kidd, or The Boy Who Grew up Too Soon

“Now, we’ve been over this. You know I can’t take you with me, Lone,” said Captain Kidd for perhaps the tenth time that day as he tousled his son’s golden hair.

“But Papa! I’m a big boy now! I’m six . . . and a half. Why can’t I go?”

Captain Kidd knelt before Lone, who straddled the small damaged cask that served as his seat on the quarterdeck, his bare feet dangling to either side. The boy was close to tears now. His father grasped him by the shoulders and looked him square in his watery blue eyes. The impression he gave the child—part guilt, part sympathy, part parental resolve—was enough to burst the levee that held back the titanic course of his emotions. He bowed his head, ashamed of losing control of himself like that. Papa had nerves like mooring rope, braided and strong, whereas Lone was a shivering jellyfish even on the best of days. Why couldn’t he be tough like Papa? Even his little sister Lively rarely cried. Everything was upside down!

His father reached over and tipped Lone’s face up. “Now, now, there’s no reason for all that. You’re only going to stay with Auntie Liz for a few weeks, and I’ll be back before you know it. Auntie is a wonderful lady. You’ll take right to her, you’ll see. Boy, does she have some stories.”

“But I’m meant to go! I’m half pirate already!” he insisted, holding up his hook-handed right arm as testament.

“That you are, son. But it’s whole pirates I’ll be needing for this voyage. Ultima Thule is no place for a child. A cold hard land, where men freeze to death in their sleep and shaggy white behemoths roam the wastes, looking for wayward sailors to make their next meal of.”

Lone’s eyes fell wide at this piece of news, but Papa merely laughed. “No, now don’t worry about me, son. You know your old Papa could best a kraken, and I have fire in my veins to keep me warm, as well as memories of Mama, Lively and you. Ah, I know! I’ll bring something for you when I return. The Thuleans are master carvers and scrimshanders. What say I bring you a nice whale bone with a portrait of Papa carved on, eh?”

Well, that did sound intriguing, Lone had to admit. “You promise?” he sniffled.

“My boy, a pirate never breaks his promise. Code of the Sea. And especially if that promise is to a wee boy.”

“Land ho!” shouted Skully from the crow’s nest.

Captain Kidd pushed up the curled red bangs of his wig, shielded his eyes from the sun and took in the direction of the lookout’s spyglass. “Hard a-starboard!” he bellowed after, and Quartermaster Phillips obeyed, reorienting the ship. “Son, we have arrived!” He suddenly leaped and did a little jig, his sword and scabbard bouncing at his waist.

His father’s excitement was infectious, and soon Lone was kneeling at the railing, anticipating the appearance of land. It took ages before it came into view, but when it did, it looked a dream, a true tropical paradise. “Where is this, Papa?”

“It’s called Paluanta. It’s a great island, a magical place that rests atop the back of a giant coat-of-mail shell. Auntie Liz runs the show round here. When she commands, people jump. Ah, don’t look so frightened, my boy. She’s not as hard as all that. It’s just that everyone here respects her, like as all these folks on the Fair Maiden respect their captain. Aye, Auntie is the captain of these shores. She’s very kind, though it’s best not to cross her.”

“But where will I stay?” Lone inquired.

“Auntie will put you up. I stayed with her a bit myself back in younger days. Lone, promise me you will try to make friends here. Someone your age. Last I was here, there were plenty of children around.”

“I will, Papa.”

“Alright, then,” said Captain Kidd, and they went to assist with the docking of the ship.

* * *

Fair Maiden’s landing party was greeted on the beach by Auntie Liz, her manservant Kipling, a vigorous, perfectly bald brute of a man called Leake who served as her bodyguard, and several members of the local Tatuan Indian tribe. Lone wondered at the Indians’ near nakedness, which he wasn’t quite used to, and at Auntie’s ample girth and strident personality, which he was, in the form of his grandmother Guinevere. Auntie was so much like Grandma Guin it was uncanny; this put him at ease with her forthwith.

“So this is the boy, eh? And aren’t you a little doll. Come and give Auntie a big hug. Well, come on, I won’t hurt you.”

Lone fell into her embrace as one falls into a bed after an exhausting day of hard labor or hard play and was thoroughly encased in the woman’s plentitude. From the masses of colorful silk and linen gowns she wore to the tidal wave of dark, gray-streaked locks that swished across her back to the glittering vitality that rested like a beacon in her eyes, she was the very galleon of robustness and strength. And she smelled of the frangipani and orange blossoms that had been woven into the wreath she wore on her head like a crown.
But there was someone else amongst the greeters whom Lone had only just become aware of, a girl near his own age. She had been hiding demurely behind Auntie’s skirts and only just peeked around the woman’s thigh to catch a glimpse of the boy who would be staying on the island with them. When Auntie released Lone from her clasp, she turned and gently pushed the girl forward.

“Now don’t be shy, Kate. Make your acquaintances like a proper young lady.”

The little girl curtsied and said in a strange and unfamiliar lilt, “I’m Kate, pleased to meet you,” then returned to being bashful. The first thing Lone noticed about her was that her chestnut hair was nearly as long as Auntie’s, though where Auntie’s hair came down in thick serpentine coils, the girl’s flowed straight and even over her shoulders and gleamed in the sunlight. The second thing he noticed was the girl’s beauty, which is something he had never realized about girls before. Most of them were simply nuisances to him, as commonplace and irritating as burdock, like his sister Lively and her friends Anne and Maybelle. Something about this lass was different though. Perhaps it was the exotic setting, or the lovely emerald dress she wore, or the sun-painted cinnamon tint of her skin, or even some faint realization that he may not encounter another child on the island, but there was a certain allure to her. And that hair! He had never seen its like on a person his own age.

“I’m Lone Kidd. My papa is William Kidd, the most fearsome pirate in all the Seven Seas!”

Captain Kidd laughed, went down on one knee before the girl, taking one of her small smooth hands in his large callused ones and giving it a kiss. “Not so fearsome. Pleased to meet you, milady. Your beauty overwhelms me.” The little one giggled and covered her mouth at this, though she could not hide her delight. “And where do you hail from, Miss?”

“This is my goddaughter, Katherine Strawberry,” Auntie answered for her. “She’s the daughter of—”

“John Strawberry, ship’s doctor aboard Queen Anne’s Revenge. I know him well. A fine chap. So that rascal Blackbeard has been here, then?”

“Aye, he comes round about every two months. Kate’s mother was from New Orleans, you see, and the child was born there. Jeanne le Fleur was the woman’s name, before marriage. Plague took her, poor thing. That city is ridden with disease, so John thought she would be better off here. Brought her in March and she’s been with me ever since. And now we have another! It’ll be nice for Kate to have a playmate besides the Tatuan children. I fear she’s right close to going native as it is.”

“Says the woman who might as well be their queen.” Captain Kidd kissed both of Auntie’s cheeks and gave her great round body a squeeze. “Good to see you again, Auntie. You’re looking well. Pretty as ever.”

“Ha, you’re a flatterer, Will Kidd. Always have been. Meanwhile, you could use some meat on your bones. Stay for supper, won’t you? We have plenty for the whole crew.”

“Auntie, if I could, you know I would love to spend an evening with you, but we’re already behind schedule. We best be getting on our way.”

Auntie huffed in exasperation. “Fine, fine, but you’ll be missing out. We’ve a roasted pig the size of that dinghy over there. Well, at least we brought several bushels of pineapples, oranges and lemons for you to take back with you. See that you and your men eat a piece every day to keep the scurvy off. And when you come to retrieve Lone, you are staying for at least a week, no argument.”

“You have my word,” Captain Kidd said. “Lone, you be a good boy. Auntie has my permission to punish you as she sees fit if you misbehave. I won’t have her spoiling you.”

“Pish! You’re frightening the poor child, Will. Kids will be kids. Unless they’re being destructive or malicious, I say leave them alone. And this one doesn’t look to have a malicious bone in his body. In fact, I can hardly believe he’s yours,” Auntie laughed. “Well, be gone with you, then. I can’t linger here all day. I have things to do.”

Captain Kidd and his pirates rowed their dinghies back to the ship then; Lone kept his eyes pinned to his father as they went. And when the crew and dinghies were hauled up again, he saw Papa standing at the foxhole, flailing his purple sash through the air. Lone continued to wave to him until he was out of sight, then sat in the sand and wailed like an infant, face buried in his palms. Auntie squatted to his lee side and plopped down beside him; she proved to be more agile than he would’ve guessed. Kate took a spot at Auntie’s opposite flank.

“There, there, surely you cannot miss him already. Why, he’s not been gone a full hour yet. He’s not abandoning you, that I promise. I know your papa well. Hmm, want me to tell you a story about him?”

The boy gazed up at her briefly, nodded, then dove back into his hands.

“Alright, then. Many years ago, before you were born and before your papa was captain of his own ship, he sailed with another pirate, Captain Amos Birch. Oh, he was a right scoundrel, was Captain Birch, a hard and vicious man, and he kept a crew of the same. Most of them, that is. All except William Kidd, who was the cabin boy on Birch’s ship, the Predator. The ship was a nightmare on waves, a thing so infested with the sins of its crew that some say it became haunted by them. Will was just a boy himself back then: thirteen, fourteen years old. Oh, the crew tormented that child something awful, but he bore their cruelty day in and day out.

One day they put in at Killybegs, and the crew set about terrorizing the women on the docks. One of those women weren’t no woman at all, just a girl of twelve. One of Birch’s devils had caught her as she was bringing her father his lunch on the docks. That scum was just about to do something terrible to the girl when Will Kidd showed up with a cutlass and sliced the villain’s hand clean off. The man nearly bled to death, but he lived. Would that Will had stuck that cutlass through the bastard’s heart! But he was too good a boy to slaughter an unarmed man, no pun intended. Still, he preserved the girl’s honor that day, and she and he became good friends thereafter. You know what that girl’s name was?”

Lone, listening intently, shook his head.

“Her name was Theresa.”

“Like Mama!” Lone gasped.

Auntie simply laughed and got to her feet. “Well, shall we go back to the villa and get you settled in, then?”

* * *

It was nearly a mile hike back to Villa Toucan, but it felt like only a few feet to Lone, who was exhilarated by all the new sights, smells and sounds of the island. Exotic birds made their strange calls, and monkeys screeched in the treetops. Brightly colored flowers with heady scents showed themselves all along the path. Due to the thick, variable jungle foliage on the island the light and shadow patterns were complex and ever-changing. Lone suddenly stopped cold when he saw a humongous insect resting on a tree right at his eye level. The thing was nearly as long as his forearm and had a pale body decorated with geometric patterns and a black head bearing a long snout.

“That’s a zanni beetle,” Auntie pointed out. “See the markings on it? If you see one, don’t touch it. They may be named for a fool, but their bite surely isn’t funny. It won’t kill you, though it’ll make you swell up like a bladder and wish you were dead.”

They moved on.

The Tatuan men and boys who followed them were equally fascinating to Lone, dressed in their umber breechcloths but otherwise unclothed, and all wearing their glossy black hair in identical rounded haircuts. They spoke very little, but when they did, it was in a tongue utterly foreign to the boy, who was familiar with Gaelic, French and a handful of other languages in addition to his native English; the Tatuans laughed often and heartily, however, which he found initially frustrating, for he hadn’t the slightest idea what they were laughing at. For all he knew, Lone himself could have been the butt of their jokes. But he quickly adapted to this. It wasn’t like he had never been in the company of indigenous peoples before, and anyway, there was too much to experience here to get hung up on the language barrier.

When they arrived at Villa Toucan—a two story building that combined Old World style and materials with native bamboo construction—a group of female Tatuans ranging from toddlerhood to old age, all nearly as bare as their male counterparts (they wore only their traditional grass skirts), greeted Auntie and her entourage. A little girl perhaps a year younger than himself approached Kate and kissed her on the cheek, and Kate reciprocated. The native girl then ambled over to Lone and examined him curiously, unsure about whether he was friendly or not. He stood perfectly still as she watched him. At last the girl smiled and put her hands on his cheeks, an act which he could not decipher the intent of.

“That’s T’hai,” said Kate. “She’s telling you she likes you. Now you’re supposed to do it back to her.”

“Alright.” He went to put his hands up to her face but she squealed and ran away, hiding behind the skirt of a young woman, presumably her mother. It took him a second to realize why: his hook, which he sometimes forgot about, had frightened her. He felt embarrassed by how stupid he had been, staring at his feet in shame.

Auntie came over to him then and set a meaty hand on top of his head. “Don’t worry, Lone. She’ll get used to you. It’s just that she has never seen a hook hand before. Come, come, let us go have our supper.”

They dined in the Great Hall, an open-air room that occupied the entire first floor of Villa Toucan and contained a twelve-place mahogany dining table and chairs at the room’s center and carved bamboo benches lining its walls. It appeared that nearly the entire island had shown up for the feast, including most of the Tatuan tribe and several men and women of other nationalities—mostly English and Irish, but also a Spaniard, a couple of Frenchmen, and an African—who all lived and worked on the island. Though Auntie occupied the head of the table, there was no arrangement here according to class or country or age or sex so far as Lone could discern. Some Tatuans, men and women both, sat at the table as well as Europeans and the African; likewise, a number of the Europeans sat amongst the Tatuans on the floor and benches. Only the European women, of which there were three in all excluding Auntie, did not sit on the floor. The Spaniard, Juan Pablo Huerta, sat near a door, surrounded by several Tatuan children, whom he entertained with silly faces and gestures. The African, a tall man named Fakim, was quiet and brooding but very polite. One of the Frenchman, a squat fellow with drooping mustaches, had recently taken a Tatuan girl as his bride, and they fed each other pieces of fruit.

Supper consisted of a savory roasted pig flavored with herbs and the nectar of pineapple, and assorted fresh and cooked fruits, nuts and vegetables: pineapples, of course, but also lemons, oranges, bananas, plantains, star fruits, coconuts, dates, cashews, guavas, mangos, plums, melons, tamarinds, potatoes, breadfruit, okra, squash, peppers, onions and several others Lone did not recognize. After living on old cheese, dried salty meat and pickled vegetables for so long aboard the Fair Maiden, this meal was almost heavenly to him. He ate so much that he felt bloated and his belly throbbed a little, but he was satisfied.

Following the meal, coffee was served to those who wanted it; rum and wine were also available to the adults, though Auntie allowed Kate to have a small bit of claret mixed with fruit juice.

Lone had tried wine before and found it completely repulsive much to Papa’s amusement, so he was shocked to see that this girl not only did not spurn the abominable stuff, she actually looked to be enjoying it! Sure, she supped it gingerly, in the manner that implied she was merely wetting her lips with it, but no, he saw that the concoction was slowly depleting from the glass.

“Do you not like wine?” Kate asked in her velvety New Orleans dialect.

“I tried it once. It was not very good.”

“My papa says it’s an . . . an empire taste. That means only the best people like it, you know.”

He bristled at the notion that he was not among the best people. “Auntie!” he called, and asked her for a bit of wine, which she prepared with juice as she had for Kate. He drank it all down at once as he had seen many a man, Papa included, consume alcohol. Afterward came a golden warmth inside, followed by a peculiar airy feeling and a lightheadedness he had not expected. He had the urge to stand and did, but he immediately fell back into his seat when the room tilted.

“Silly boy,” Auntie laughed, “you’re supposed to sip it. Well, that’s enough for you then. Hmm, perhaps it’s time for you to get some sleep. You’ve had a long day. Kate will show you to your bedchamber. I’ll be in later to check on you.”

At this the little girl bounced to her feet and grabbed Lone’s arm. “Come on! We sleep upstairs!”

I do feel sleepy at that, Lone admitted to himself. When he stood he was not overtaken by dizziness as before, yet he felt as if the sharp edges of the world had been sanded away, so that everything was soft and pliable as an ocean sponge. Kate directed him up an open-sided staircase that led to the second floor, which consisted of four rooms divided more or less equilaterally. His was in the corner farthest from the stairs, and it had already been made up for him. Aside from his own trunk now resting inexplicably at the foot of the bed (who had brought it up here, and when?), there were but three pieces of furniture in the room: a long-neglected bureau with peeling veneer, a nearly matching chair with a cracked leather back, and a bamboo bed that sat low to the floor. Not the best of accomodations but suitable enough for him. None of the rooms had proper doors, however, only open doorways, making privacy impossible. Having been on a ship packed with men for the last month or so, the lack of privacy was nothing he wasn’t used to, save that there were females present here. No matter though.

“Do you like it?” asked Kate from the doorway.

“Very much. I slept in the captain’s cabin with Papa, and it’s very small. I should like to have a hot bath before I go to bed.”

“Oh, shall I ask Kipling to heat up the water for you?”

“Please do,” he answered, and she scampered off to find the servant.

While she was gone, Lone opened up the trunk and removed all of his belongings from it. The first thing was a toy ship that Carpenter’s Mate Biddle had made for him. Besides Papa, Biddle was Lone’s favorite crewmember aboard the Maiden. Most of the pirates were gruff and ornery men with no time or patience for a small boy, but not Biddle. Plump, jovial and perceptive, Biddle seemed to enjoy spending time with him, often bringing him seashells, old bottles or other trinkets, and he had spent several of his off hours fashioning this little ship out of pieces of driftwood and sundry items he’d been collecting. Upon completing it, the carpenter had given it to Lone; it was now one of his most cherished possessions. He held it up and pretended it was Papa’s ship, sailing through rough waters but never in any real danger. This he set atop the bureau for all to see.

Next he extracted his clothing from the trunk, putting it all in the drawers—all save his nightshirt, which he left on the bed to take with him to the bath. All that was left in the trunk now were a handful of items that reminded him of his family: some ribbons of Mama’s, a few seashells, a piece of cork, a toy cannon, even Lively’s old baby rattle. He placed these in the small top drawer of the bureau.

Kate returned several minutes later, urged him to follow. He snatched up his nightshirt and left his bedchamber with her. The girl led him back downstairs and out into a small square hut that contained only a large round copper tub that presently stood empty.

“It will be awhile before the water is heated. We could talk while we wait.”

“Hmm,” he replied, “what will we talk about?”

“Well, do you have any friends back home?”

“Aye. John Fairlie. He lives next door to me. And there’s Gideon Harker, who lives over on Whitham Street. And Ed Carrington sometimes.”

“But, do you have any friends who are girls?” Kate asked, taking a seat in one corner of the hut while Lone sat against the wall near her.

“Girls? No, I don’t like them. Except for you, I mean.”

Kate smiled at that, and blushed bright pink. A minute later she grew serious again. “How did you lose your hand?”

“I didn’t lose it. I was born without my right hand, you see. No one is for certain why. Well, Gideon says it’s a curse from God for something my father done.”

“Hmm, but that hardly seems fair,” Kate said. “Why would God punish you for what your father did? Shouldn’t he punish your father instead?”

“Papa should not be punished! He’s never done anything to anger God so! He’s a pious man!” Lone shouted.

“But he is a pirate, and pirates kill people. Oh, that must be it! Remember what Auntie said in her story, about how he cut off the hand of that other pirate. It’s like an eye for an eye, only it’s a hand for a hand.”

For reasons he could not identify Lone was taken aback by this suggestion. Could she be right? Was his missing hand Papa’s punishment for severing that brute’s hand? But why? He had saved the girl Theresa from Captain Birch’s villainous crewman, hadn’t he? Should he not have been rewarded instead of punished for that? It made no sense to Lone.
Luckily, Kate sensed his distress and mercifully changed the subject. “Have you been to the Tatuan village yet?” she asked him.

“How could I? I only just arrived, and I have been with you the whole time I’ve been here.”

“Oh.”

For the next few minutes they sat together in silence, taking each other in. It seemed like an hour before Kipling and his underlings arrived with several large pails of steaming hot water, which they proceeded to pour into the copper tub until it was half full.

“Enjoy your bath, Master Lone, Mistress Kate,” said Kipling, offering them a customary bow before departing again with his men. The children bounded to their feet and ran over to the tub, with Kate poking a finger tentatively into the water and snapping her hand back quickly. They lingered a minute or two more, until the water cooled somewhat. Then, without signal or forewarning, Kate pulled her dress over her head and tossed it aside, then stripped out of her underclothes until she stood naked before Lone, who watched the entire act with a mixture of curiosity and astonishment. She seemed not to have an ounce of shame in her—the local tribes were one thing, but civilized white girls simply did not undress in front of strange boys.

“Now it’s your turn,” the girl beamed.

“I—I can’t. You’re a girl. It isn’t allowed.”

“It is so allowed. I bathe with the Tatuan boys all the time. I even bathed with Salpoto once and he’s fourteen,” she admitted with obvious pride. “He’s very handsome, you know. Everyone says so. He even has hair down here, and under his arms. But he calls me Little Sister and laughs at me. Hmph.”

“Well, if you’re sure it’s alright . . .” He unbuttoned his shirt and let it drop, revealing his pale scrawny torso. This was nothing—he often went bare-chested around his sister and her friends back in England, particularly on hot days. Next he removed the hook, which was attached by a harness, setting it on the ground by his shirt. Then, he unfastened his breeches and allowed them to tumble down his legs, kicking them off one leg at a time. His last piece of clothing, a pair of underpants, he hesitated to remove. Only at Kate’s urging did he pull them down and off, and now he stood as naked as the girl. He was much paler than she was in the places his clothing usually covered; the girl had a more even tone, owing to the fact that she sometimes went nude under the sun with the native children. She had told him about this.

They climbed into the tub simultaneously, lowering themselves carefully into the scorching water until they reached bottom. The water was pleasantly scented and unusually murky, so that he could not see past its surface. Truth be told, Lone was happy to be hidden from sight of the girl, who had glanced nonchalantly at his main-mast (as Papa sometimes called it), just as he had looked on her maidenhood in the same manner. He had seen his sister’s before, a smooth little hillock with a cleft in it, during her changing when she was a baby, and Kate was the same. So, it must be that all girls were so arranged.  How odd.

“Can I touch it?” she enquired.

“Huh? I-I don’t think we should touch each other there—”

She tittered. “That’s not what I meant, silly. Your arm.”

“Oh.” He raised his right arm out of the water and offered it to her. Carefully she investigated the deformed limb, being particularly fascinated with the tiny vestigial hand at its tip, which she rolled gently between her thumb and forefinger. Once she had sated her curiosity, Kate let go of Lone’s arm and launched herself at him, taking his shoulders in her hands and pressing her nose into his. This way they remained for some time, exchanging giggle for giggle, both of them in high humor and frankly amused at the absurdities of the human face at close range. Kate rose and stepped out of the water; Lone did likewise. Quickly they put on their clothes again—Kate in her emerald-colored dress and Lone in his faded but clean nightgown—and returned to their respective rooms.

Once he had blown out his candle and slipped under his bedcover, Lone found himself restless and unable to sleep. This was all so new, and anyway he was used to sleeping beside Papa, with the unceasing waves rocking him to sleep. Just as he had begun to settle into the prospect of getting no sleep that night, a pleasing whisper came to him out of the darkness beyond the threshold.

“Lone. Lone. Are you awake?”

“Come in,” he offered. Relief flooded through his body as Kate clambered over his legs and lay down behind him, nestled into him, her right arm enclosing his torso. No further words were spoken between them that evening. Kate took hold of his right arm, feeling her way down to the end, where the useless little lump was. Her fingertips nipped and nudged so lightly it was almost like an ant traversing his skin. She developed a gentle, pliant rhythm that curiously did not irritate him; in fact, it soothed him, and her too. Soon she was asleep, her warm, metered puffs of breath flowering against the flesh at the base of his neck. Unlike his father, Kate didn’t snore—a blessing. Her sweet presence slowly unmoored him from reality, until he was floating along in some dark ocean of the North, following behind Papa’s ship in a miniature, cradle-like skiff that always seemed to approach but could never quite gain on the Fair Maiden . . .

* * *

“Come on, Lone!”

He was already running as fast as he could manage without tripping over all the roots, vines and bushes that Kate apparently had memorized the location of, for she leapt over them agilely and near instinctively. Was there nothing this girl was not better than him at? He had been here for two weeks and already she had proven herself to be a skillful swimmer and diver, a brilliant reader, an excellent fisherwoman, a masterful tree climber and even a gentle and intuitive caregiver to animals and babies alike. Now this!

In her short crimson dress Kate was like a torch lighting the way before him, through the dark twisting channels beneath the tropic canopies. As long as he kept his eyes fully on the flash of bright red ahead of him, he could follow her, but that meant not being able to look at his own feet! Ordinarily this would’ve caused him trepidation, but there was no time to fret now. He could do naught but follow the living flame!

By the time they arrived at a clearing he was panting hard, his lungs smarting and his heart drumming like an African rain dance inside his chest. Meanwhile, Kate was barely nonplussed by her run. She sat near a flowering bush and pulled petals one by one from their anchors.

“I come here sometimes by myself,” she told him.

Once he’d caught his breath again, Lone said, “It’s very nice,” joining her at her flower-plucking game.

“Say there!” shouted an unfamiliar child’s voice from somewhere beyond the trees that lined the clearing.

Lone jumped to his feet. “Who are you?” he demanded to know.

“I’m nobody, just a boy,” the voice teased. “But right now I’m a lost boy.”

“Come towards me,” said Kate. “Here, I’ll keep speaking so you have a sound to follow. I’m Kate, my friend is Lone. His father is Captain Kidd, a fierce pirate. My father is a ship’s doctor who sails with Blackbeard, the fiercest pirate of all. What does your father do?”

“I have no father,” answered the ever-nearing voice. “No mother as well.”

“I haven’t a mother either. The plague took her. But I don’t need one. I have Auntie, and she’s as good as any mother. And all the Tatuan women are like mothers and grandmothers to me. I love them all. Have you anyone to love?”

“Love,” muttered the voice. “What good is that to anyone? I have freedom, which is much better than love, you know.” At this the body belonging to the voice appeared in the clearing. “I can go wherever I like, any time I like. Such as here. Where is here anyway?”

The boy was near the same age as they. Pale of skin and red of hair he was; dressed in brownish green tatters and wearing a self-fashioned crown of leaves, he projected some ancient and earthy quality though he was but a child like them. The boy’s movements were quick and sudden, almost spontaneous. His narrow but lively eyes darted to and fro; vitality coursed through his musculature. He looked every bit a youthful nature deity standing there, legs angled outward, fists planted on his hips, surveying the clearing as if he had just put a claim on it.

“This is Mallapukat Forest, at the western end of Paluanta. Did your ship just land nearby?”

“Nothing like that. I simply wished myself here, you see, and now I am here. I should like to live here forever and ever, I think.”

“But where did you come from?” asked Kate.

“From Britain, of course, like you.”

“But I’m not from Britain. I’m from New Orleans. That’s in North America. Don’t you know anything?” She teased.

The boy retrieved a broken stick from the ground and pretended it was a sword, advancing and parrying toward an invisible foe. “I know just what I need to know, such as how to fight! And how to kill! And how to never grow up, of course.”

Lone asked, “How do you do that?”

“It’s quite easy, only I’m not going to tell a poxy little bugger like you.” The boy laughed then.

“Huh! You’re a scoundrel!” cried Kate. “We should go see Auntie at once.”

The strange boy fell aghast. “Auntie? I had one of those. She was horrible. I will not go see your auntie! I will not! You can’t make me!” He brandished the stick menacingly at Kate and Lone, fully prepared to strike if they tried to capture him.

Kate sighed. “Put your stick down. I’m not taking you to Auntie. You mistake me. Would you care to play with us?”

“Play?” For a moment the redhaired boy hovered at the edge of some epiphany; Lone and Kate tensed, awaiting another outburst from this volatile child. When they saw a smile begin to spill across his face, they relaxed. “I was born to play! What shall we play first? Knights and Damsels? Huzzlecap? Oh, I have dice in my pocket! Shall we play Hazard?”

Kate said, “I don’t know any of those games. I have a better idea. Let’s go to the Tatuan village. T’hai knows lots of games. Or Salpoto can show us how to shoot a bow.”

“What? You want me to play with pickaninnies? I certainly will not!”

Anger colored Kate red. “They are not pickaninnies! They’re natives! You’re impossible . . . whatever your name is!” She took Lone’s good hand and prepared to drag him back with her. Being nearly assaulted was one thing, but this humiliation and hostility against her friends . . . “Come on, Lone. I can’t abide this cretin for another second.”

The redhaired boy jumped in front of them and jabbed the end of his stick into Kate’s belly. “What’s cretin mean?”

“It means idiot. Stop that, you’re hurting me!”

“I’m not the idiot! You’re the idiot! You and your hook-handed friend. You take that back or I’ll knock your teeth out!” With every other word he discharged, the boy pricked Kate in the gut again with his switch.

“Stop it! Stop!” Kate was on the verge of tears now as her attacker kept at her with short but vicious stabs.

Alas, a fantastic feeling overtook Lone at that moment, something he had never experienced before, a feeling that diffused his terror, replacing it with a bright violet fury. He dashed in and swiped the stick away from the other boy, turning it back on him with a battery of scourges against the boy’s head and arms that dropped him to his knees, hands raised as a defense, if a poor one, against the stinging blows.

“Please!” the boy bellowed, his face twisted in pain and coated in tears. “Please, master! I’ll be good! I’ll be good! I promise! Don’t hit me!”

It was as if Lone were in a daze; he could not hear the boy’s pleas and continued to strike him.

“Lone! Lone! Lone!” It was Kate who broke through to him, stopping him from thrashing the interloper further, who was now a bloodied and disheveled mess. “That’s enough. Let’s go back now.”

After regaining his breath and his composure, Lone broke the stick in twain across his knee, tossed the pieces at the feet of his defeated foe, and grasped the hand that Kate proffered. Hand in hand, they walked solemnly back into the forest, toward home.

* * *

By the time they reached Villa Toucan, they were straining for air and sopping wet with perspiration. Luckily Auntie was away, and the only people at the house were Fretwell the cook and his assistant Baribeau. The children could hear them in the kitchen, arguing over how much spice to use in the crab stew; they were apparently oblivious to the children’s presence. Currently the rest of the downstairs area, usually bustling with activity, lay dead quiet. Knowing there was rarely anyone on the second floor at this time of day, Kate and Lone scampered up the steps and took refuge in Kate’s room until they were breathing normally again and their hearts had returned to a more tranquil state. For several minutes neither of them spoke; they gripped each other’s hot damp palms and pressed themselves together on the floor in an otherwise empty corner of the room.

“What are we going to do?” Lone asked. “Auntie will thrash us bloody when she finds out!”

“She would never do such a thing! Apart from that, I don’t think she even knows that boy is out there.”

“I pray you’re right,” he replied. “I thought you and I were the only white children on the island. Who is he? Why is he here?”

Kate offered only a baffled expression and a shrug in way of response.

For the better part of the next hour they remained in the bedroom, Kate showing Lone the collection of objects she had obtained during her months on Paluanta: assorted seashells, including two conchs, some carved wood and stone artifacts from the Tatuans, an agate cameo depicting Cupid and Psyche as infants that Auntie had given her the day she arrived here, a golden butterfly hair brooch that had once belonged to her Mama, some pretty rocks, sea glass gathered on the beach, an expensive French doll her father had given her on her fifth birthday. Lone fetched his own favorite belongings from his room, and together they played with these items until they heard Auntie hollering up the stairs.

“Children? Are you up there?”

“In my room, Auntie!” Kate called back.

“Come down here, please.”

Lone and Kate glanced at each other wordlessly, then slunk down the stairs with cautious torpor.

At the foot of the stairs stood Auntie, the redhaired boy Lone had bested, and a strange man neither of the children had seen before. The man was in his forties perhaps and was exceedingly thin, though tough and sinewy, with brown sun-leathered skin, and was a good half foot shorter than Auntie, who wasn’t particularly tall herself. He was a hideous, scowling man with a cauliflowered nose that looked to have been broken at some point in the past, likely more than once, and ragged, gristly dark hair. Upon seeing the children, his face contorted into a cockeyed, nearly toothless grin which did nothing to improve his countenance.

At the man’s side, the injured boy stood rigid and quiet, head slumped in misery and eyes cast shamefully to the floor. He bore the wounds Lone had inflicted on him, screaming red stripes all about his arms and face, some of them flaked with dried blood. Additionally, he had a horribly blackened left eye from a blow Lone could not recall administering, as well as some nasty bruises on his left arm.

Auntie cleared her throat. “Kate, Lone, this is Mr. Paddon and his son. I hired Mr. Paddon recently to serve as ranger and lookout for Mallapukat Forest and the western end of the island. He says you attacked his son with a club and left the boy bruised and bloody. Kate, please explain to me what has happened.”

“Lone and I were just playing in the woods, minding our own business, when the boy appeared. He would not tell us who he was or from where he’d come. Even so, we offered to let him play with us, but he called Lone a bad name and taunted us with his stick. He stabbed me in the belly with it several times, and then . . .”

“Well, go on,” Auntie enjoined her.

“Lone seized the stick from the boy and struck him with it. But he was protecting me, Auntie! I swear it!”

“Hmph. Lone, is this truly what happened?”

“It is,” he acknowledged bashfully.

“I see. Well, Mr. Paddon, it seems you failed to give me the entire account. What do you say to this?”

“Madam McCarthy, begging your pardon, but my boy was only engaged in a little teasing and horseplay, which is his wont, I confess. But it was nothing to deserve the kind of beating as what these children did to him. Look at these two, not a scratch on ’em. Yet mine looks as if he’s been sparring with your Leake, he does! Surely they ought to be punished for this.”

Auntie gave it some thought, then with a great sigh, answered, “I suppose you’re right. And what would you have me do with them?”

Paddon broke into that unbalanced smile again. “If it were me, Madam, I would give them both a good bare behind caning. I’d be happy to do it meself, if ye prefer. Nothing to hurt ’em, mind. Just something they won’t soon forget.”

“I’ll not lay a hand on these children, Mr. Paddon, nor will you. Ah! I have it. Children, after you have your breakfast tomorrow, you’ll promptly go down to the western cabin, where Mr. Paddon and his boy are staying. You’ll spend the day working for Paddon, doing whatever he needs done around the place, until suppertime tomorrow evening. Am I understood?”

“But Auntie—” Kate started to protest.

“Don’t ‘But Auntie’ me, Miss Strawberry. Unless you’d rather I gave you over to him for that caning. No? I thought as much. Mr. Paddon, you have the children for a day, to work off their punishment. However, I would suggest you keep their workload reasonable. And you are not under any circumstances to strike either of these children. Indeed, if I discover you have harmed them in any way, you will meet with my justice, and it will be harsh. You’re dismissed.”

“I thank ye, Madam,” said Paddon, backing toward the door. “Ye’ll not regret this!” With that he skulked off, his redhaired son in tow.

Now Auntie pulled Lone and Kate into her and stroked their hair. “Listen to me, little ones. I believe your story, and Lone, you did right to stand up for Kate. I’m not sending you over there because you deserve the punishment. You don’t. But I saw the true face of Paddon just now. Would that I had seen it before I’d hired him on! Anyway, I know his kind. If I did nothing or gave you but a token punishment, he would hold a grudge, and that would eventually amount to him doing something awful. This way the slate is clean, and he’ll have nothing to hold against you or I. But mark my words: I don’t trust him. Be wary of him when he’s around. There’s a vicious streak in him a mile wide, and possibly a temper. That’s a bad mix, to be sure. Don’t do anything to upset him if you can help it, and if he becomes violent, come home straight away and find me. I’ll be close to Villa Toucan. Now, go get your supper and your bath, and then off to bed with the both of you. It’ll be a long day tomorrow.”

They complied with Auntie’s orders, though they both slept fitfully, dreading the day ahead, which arrived all too soon. Like siblings readying themselves for the funeral of a beloved pet, they went about their morning chores with solemn hearts, and when the time came to leave Villa Toucan, they dawdled on the path to Paddon’s cabin. Once the property came in sight, they found the ugly little man resting on a bench at the side of the cabin. Mr. Paddon had a tin cup full of some kind of stout spirits, which he had clearly been sampling for some time. His strange son sat curled near his feet, staring off into the distance. The boy barely acknowledged them when they approached.

“Well, well, well, here are my little ones at last. How ye do, children? Don’t be rude, boy. Say hello to our guests.”

When the redhaired boy failed to answer, Paddon gave a solid kick to the back of the boy’s thighs, and he jumped to his feet. “What did I do? I’m sorry, master! I’m sorry!”

Paddon shook his head in frustration. “Completely useless y’are, aren’t ye? No matter. I have me a fine pair o’ servants today, now don’t I?”

Lone noticed the man’s speech had taken on that wet, slippery quality that resulted from drinking too much wine or liquor. That wasn’t good. He had seen drunkards on Papa’s ship; they often became reckless and lewd. Or worse, violent. More than once Papa had had to toss overboard men who had become too drunk to attend to their duties or who had caused some mischief while intoxicated. He hated to do it he told Lone, but nothing else would do. A pirate captain had to be hard with his men, or he risked mutiny. So it went.

“Alright, you grubby sprogs,” Paddon grumbled, “over here in front o’ me, so as I can size you up. You too, shit-face!”

The children formed a line before their master for the day. Paddon eyeballed them each in turn, starting with Kate, who had taken the far left end of the line.

“Hmph, what’s your name again, girl?” Paddon asked her.

“Katherine, sir. Kate.”

“Kate. Ye’ll be working with my boy down on the beach, gathering up stones and shells and whatever else might be useful. There’s a couple of bushel baskets behind the shed. Fill them both up and leave them on the beach. I’ll be down later to go through them. When you’re done with that, go out in yonder woods and gather several bundles of kindling.” Paddon’s eyes moved to Lone, who felt the man’s cold, carnivorous glare twist into his mind. “Now, you,” said Paddon, “I already know your name. Lone Kidd, son of Captain Will Kidd. A feisty one, aren’t ye? Well, I’ll soon be knocking you down a few pegs, won’t I, then? Ye’ll be working here in the house today where I can keep a close watch on that sword hand of yours.”

Paddon chortled at some private joke that Lone did not understand nor wanted to. The drunken old man glanced quickly at his own son, then back to Lone again. “That’s it. You two, be gone with ya! So as Lone and I can get better acquainted with each other.”

Kate and Paddon’s son started toward the shed, only Kate stopped momentarily to watch Lone, sending him silent signals with her expression. Truth be told, though she was being sent off alone with her tormenter, she looked more frightened for Lone than she did for herself. For a second the boy felt a twinge of jealousy and anger. What right had a mere girl to feel protective of him? Wasn’t it the man’s job to defend his lady? The foolish girl had it backwards! But these feelings soon passed, replaced by a genuine dread of being isolated for the first (and hopefully last) time with this detestable individual, Paddon. But a few seconds later, he was precisely that.

Except, with the other children gone Paddon’s entire demeanor seemed to change instantly, and for the better. He smiled his horrid smile as he led Lone into his home. Once they were inside, Paddon pulled a chair—indeed, the only chair in the place—back from the small dining table that hunched in the center of the one-room shanty that he and the redhaired boy inhabited. For several moments he did nothing but stare at Lone in his narrow-eyed way, though his gaze seemed unfocused this time, as if he were caught up in some sort of reverie. Hereafter he came to himself again and pointed at a large bowl on the table full of brownish-orange tubers that the indigenous people called makaynap; these were sweet and delicious when boiled and tasted not terribly unlike a yam. A small bone-handled kitchen knife lay beside the bowl. “Take that knife there and peel them mackie-naps. Ye know how to peel a potato, don’t ya?”

Lone nodded.

“It’s just like peeling potatoes, it is. The skin is a mite tougher, but not by much. If ye can manage a potato, then ye can manage a mackie-nap. I reckon ye can stick ’em through with that hook of yours to hold ’em still. And boy . . . if ye be getting any ideas about coming at me with that knife, or the hook for that matter, I will put a bullet in ye faster than ye can spit. I have a right to defend myself, y’see. Your caretaker cannot find fault with that.” Paddon suddenly removed from behind his person a flintlock dueling pistol, aiming it at Lone’s chest. “Ye know what this is, don’t ye? Aye, a pirate’s son has surely seen one of these a time or two. I’ll wager you’ve seen what it can do as well.”

He certainly had. His father carried a pair of them, much better cared for than this one, and he had shot many a man with one or the other, including his own First Mate once, who had been plotting to do him in. Dover he had been called, and Papa’s lead ball had pierced straight through Dover’s right eye and exploded out the back of his skull in a red pulpy mess. Lone had had night terrors for a week over that event.

The makaynaps weren’t as difficult to peel as he had feared. In no time he had developed a rhythm and had four of the largest ones finished. The shack was stuffy and moist though, and he had begun to sweat. Not as much as Paddon but enough to make him uncomfortable.

“Why don’t ye take some of those clothes off, boy. You’d be relieved. Ye can strip naked if ye like. Just us men here after all. Take your shirt off at least. I insist.”

Lone was not delighted at the prospect of stripping in front of Paddon. Something about the way the man leered at him made his skin crawl. But he dared not defy him either. Alcohol made men unstable and therefore dangerous. He pulled his shirt over his head. A sleeve caught on his hook, which often happened when he went too fast with it, but eventually he had it off and placed it on the table.

“Right, that’s better, isn’t it? Think I might shed some clothes myself. Maybe all of ’em. Ye ever seen a full-grown man naked before? Sure ye have, living on a ship full o’ men. Now, my boy out there, Peter. I’ll tell you a secret about him. He’s not really my son, just some orphaned little ragamuffin I found in the slums of Belfast. I’ll tell ye something else about him too. He’s a real sword-licker, that one. Ye know what that means? Well, you’ll be finding out soon enough.

“Hmph. Ye know what my occupation was before I came here, boy? I was an executioner, like ol’ Jack Ketch. Put many a man and even a boy or two like you in the ground in my time. Was good at it, too. Ye want to know something? Not all of them were criminals. Some of them . . . well, they just didn’t know when to keep their mouths shut. Are ye one of those kinds of boys, Lone Kidd? The kind that likes to gossip about a man and try to ruin him?”

Terrified, Lone hurriedly shook his head. He had no idea what Paddon was going on about; he only knew that at this point there was no one here to save him from whatever horrors the fiend was soon to heap upon him, nor any way he could escape. He could never outrun a bullet. On the verge of panic and tears, he bit down hard on these instincts which only made them smart all the more, but he knew he could not let his fear get the better of him or Paddon would have him absolutely.

“Come on ’round the table, child. I won’t hurt ye if ye do everything as I tell ye to do.”

Lone dropped the knife and started toward Paddon when a high pitched scream sounded from somewhere in the direction of the beach. Paddon had heard it too, cocking his head to listen for further signs of distress. Lone noticed his distraction and chose that opportunity to fly out the door.

“Where are ye going? Get back here, ye little shit!” Paddon shouted behind him.

It no longer mattered if Paddon shot him in the back. He had to get down to Kate. The scream had been hers, he knew, and that meant something was terribly wrong. That little monster . . . Peter, his name was . . . had done something to her. When he’d made it to the beach, he found Kate lying amidst a stretch of dark, angular volcanic rock. Blood—a lot of blood, far too much of it—was everywhere about her head. Peter stood over her, his mouth slack and his eyes wide. Clinging to the end of a medium-sized stick that lay at Peter’s feet was one of those beetles he wasn’t supposed to touch. A zanni beetle!

Paddon was huffing down the beach now toward him. He didn’t care. Let Paddon do his worst! The tears came streaming out of his eyes in torrents now, distorting his vision. Exactly what had happened came to him then: Peter had found the beetle—perhaps already attached to the limb or perhaps carefully coaxed onto the limb by Peter himself—and had intended to sting Kate with it, or maybe only frighten her. Whichever the case, Kate had been surprised by it, had screamed, maneuvered to avoid it and had fallen back, striking her head on the sharp edge of one of the larger rocks.

“Kate! Kate, get up!” he wailed. “Get up! Kaaaate!”

Paddon loomed at his side, soon apprehending for himself what had happened. “What did you do, boy?” Hate was welling up in the man, his face eclipsed by the ever-darkening crimson shadow of rage. He took up the stick with the zanni beetle and pressed the insect against Peter’s terror-stricken face. The boy screamed in pain, flung himself onto the sand and grabbed at the beetle, tossing it away, but the damage had already been done. There was now a cyclopean red blister at the left side of his face that had only just begun to swell. Paddon then commenced to thrashing Peter with the switch, again and again and again.

After awhile, Lone saw the situation true. Peter, the boy who had seemed so monstrous to him yesterday, was today a pitiful creature who deserved his sympathy. And worse, Paddon meant to kill him; it was in the man’s eyes. There was no saving Kate, but perhaps…

Paddon was preoccupied and never saw Lone coming at him, but he certainly felt the sharp agony at his mid-section. Lone’s hook had caught him in the handiest target on an adult for a six-year-old child: his groin. The bloodstain at the crotch of Paddon’s breeches was spreading quickly. The man swatted at Lone, but the boy had already started to sprint back up the beach as fast as his tiny legs would conduct him. He could not evade the man forever, but if he could reach the edge of the woods he would gain the advantage, as he could move much faster than an adult between the tight trees and saplings. His pursuer was nearly on him when the deafening blast of a gunshot rang out from the trees, and Paddon stumbled backward a few feet, one hand over his heart, and collapsed onto the ground, dead.

Auntie Liz trotted awkwardly out from her hiding place, carrying the flintlock rifle she had used to fell the monster.

“Auntie!” Lone ran to the woman and crumpled into her soft, soothing arms. She lifted him.

“Hush, hush, you’re alright. No one will hurt you now,” Auntie cooed.

“Auntie, Kate is dead!”

Auntie said nothing as they approached the little girl’s body. She gasped and set Lone upon his feet, knelt and took Kate’s little wrist in her hand, but she knew it was pointless. The child had lost too much blood. As she suspected, there was no pulse. Dropping the child’s wrist, her head fell to her chest and the very essence of sorrow overtook her face.

“Oh, dear,” was all Auntie could say. “Oh, dear.”

Her mourning was interrupted by a great wailing as Peter, understanding that he would survive this day after all, let go of all of the pain within and without him all at once. Auntie straggled over to him and shook her head at the bruised and bloodied mess. She knelt again, attempting to comfort the boy, but he batted her away. She shook her head in exasperation and sadness. “Poor, poor child. Lone, go back to Villa Toucan and fetch Kipling and Leake and the other servants. We’re going to need their help.”

* * *

Kate’s body was buried in the cemetery behind a small chapel adjacent to Villa Toucan, a large ornate cross of marble that Auntie had intended for her own plot someday marking Kate’s grave. It read:

KATHERINE ANNE STRAWBERRY
NOVEMBER 9, 1711 – JUNE 22, 1718
“REST LIGHTLY ON HER, EARTH,
FOR SHE TROD NOT HEAVILY ON THEE”

At the funeral little T’hai approached Lone, smiled at him shyly, and held his hook for the entire service. The boy learned something that day: T’hai was the name the locals gave to a particular species of spotted red-and-yellow lily.

Meanwhile, Paddon was buried in a gloomy corner of Paluanta rarely visited by the islanders. His grave was unmarked, and the Tatuans who had helped bury him had urinated on the burial mound to mark him out for Teeka’ahua, the god of the dead, so that the deity would know this one was to be taken to the shadow world. The villagers had loved Kate as their own daughter and blamed Paddon for her death.

Auntie had given over Kate’s bedroom to Peter, which hardly seemed right to Lone, but there was little he could do about it. She had slowly nursed him back to health, only touching him when it was necessary. At first the boy rejected her every touch, no matter how gentle, but eventually he grew tired of fighting her and simply remained still while she tended to his wounds or cleaned him up after he had fouled himself. The boy rarely spoke, and when he did, it was often in a series of disconnected, meaningless phrases.

“He said I was his,” he told Lone one day, “and I always would be. Paddon’s boy. Peter Paddon. I’m going to fly one day, and when I do, I will never land. Never, never land . . .”

Slowly Peter returned to his full physical soundness, yet in one capacity he never rebounded. Something had broken in his head, something vital. One day, Auntie had come to Peter’s room and found him missing and the protective bamboo shade removed from that second floor window. Neither Lone nor anyone else had seen him go. The grounds had been searched top to bottom, but not a sign of Peter had been found thereafter.

Years passed.

Lone’s father never returned to Paluanta. When he was twelve years of age, a ship came in from the west bearing news of Captain Kidd’s demise. The Fair Maiden had been sunk in a battle with an English man o’ war somewhere in the North Atlantic, all hands lost. That same year Lone had spotted a white shining face in the darkness of the jungle, watching him. He could not be certain, but he thought he’d seen red hair floating just above that face. The strangest thing was, the face looked precisely as he had last seen it, as if it hadn’t aged a day. But that was impossible, of course.

My Dream Cast – ‘Hyperion’

Alright, so I just recently reread one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Dan Simmons’s Hyperion.  There have been rumors of a film or TV series based on this book floating around for years, with SyFy supposedly planning to film it at one point, but that never materialized.  It’s too bad, because this whole book series is just aching for a cinematic adaptation of some sort, especially the first book.  As with the Dune film, if I were making this, I have some pretty specific people in mind for the key roles.  Although most of these actors where not who I initially pictured, I have come to see them as the best choices if the film were to start shooting today.  So let’s begin with . . .

The Consul (Hugh Laurie)

Hyp-Consul
Hugh Laurie; Consul from ‘Hyperion Characters’ by Liam Syles Chang

He’s the informal leader of the Shrike pilgrims and the last character to tell his tale, which involves a huge secret with respect to the Ousters which is vastly important in the scheme of the entire series.  He’s a man with a lot of weight on his shoulders and as such he is bound to look haunted and haggard.  Who better to portray him than Hugh Laurie, who may be the most haunted-looking man in Hollywood?  Laurie, who is best known for playing Dr. House in the eponymous series, can grow his hair out a bit and put on about fifteen or twenty pounds and I doubt anyone would be more suitable to play this key role.  And with Laurie set to appear in the upcoming Tomorrowland, I’m guessing he will have a built-in science fiction fan base very soon.

DeviantArt: T0nkatsu 

Fedmahn Kassad (Naveen Andrews)

Naveen Andrews; 'Kassad' by Gabriel Sandoval
Naveen Andrews; ‘Kassad’ by Gabriel Sandoval

Colonel Fedmahn Kassad is a member of FORCE and is definitely a badass.  Middle Easterners don’t often get a positive portrayal in American media, let alone in science fiction, so Kassad is an interesting anomaly.  One of the few actors I could think of who could fill those shoes is Naveen Andrews, who is actually of Indian descent rather than Palestinian like Kassad, but he’s probably the closest we are going to get out of Hollywood, because there are just not a lot of choices here.  Nevertheless, I am confident that Naveen Andrews would do an amazing job as the clever and tough-as-nails soldier who vows to take on the Shrike single-handedly.

DeviantArt: Gabos

Lenar Hoyt (David Tennant)

David Tennant; Paul Duré and Lenar Hoyt from 'Hyperion' by Kwenos
David Tennant; Paul Duré and Lenar Hoyt from ‘Hyperion’ by Kwenos

This was actually one of the toughest choices for me.  Who is fit to play a man who starts out as a humble, long-suffering servant of God and ultimately becomes one of the major villains of the later books in the series?  There were several worthy candidates, but ultimately I had to go with Tennant, who sci-fi geeks will immediately recognize as the Tenth Doctor from long-running British science fiction series Doctor Who.  I don’t know why but I just have a feeling that Tennant would knock this one out of the park.  And let’s face it: you know you want to see Tennant play a pope, which, if the whole book series was filmed, you would eventually get to see.

Martin Silenus (Harvey Fierstein)

Harvey Fierstein; Mask of Silenus
Harvey Fierstein; Mask of Silenus

I have read Hyperion twice now, and each time I had either a vague picture in my head of most characters or had different people in mind each time.  But one character has always been clear in my head as to who should portray him and always will be, no matter how many times I read it.  That character is the poet Martin Silenus, and in my mind only one person can ever play him: Harvey Fierstein.  Silenus is a rotund little satyr of a man (no, really–at one point he literally has himself surgically remade into a satyr), a snide, vulgar-tongued hedonist through-and-through, but also, as befitting a poet, a man capable of great insight and beauty.  Simmons also describes him as having a deep and distinctive voice, which is what initially made me picture Fierstein, and the more I thought about it, the more perfect this particular actor felt to me, to the point where now it would seem a great travesty if he wasn’t cast as Martin Silenus!

Brawne Lamia (Gina Carano)

hyp-brawne
Gina Carano; Brawne Lamia from ‘Hyperion Characters’ by Liam Syles Chang

Brawne originates from the high-gravity world of Lusus, and Lusians tend to be muscular and powerful thanks to the additional g-forces they are subjected to.  Meanwhile, Carano originates from the high-badassity world of mixed martial arts, but she has also done some acting, most notably in Fast & Furious 6.  I have no doubt that she has what it takes to play Brawne, a private detective who gets in over her head when she takes on a case that turns out to have strong connections to the TechnoCore, a bunch of super-advanced AIs, some of whom would like to help humanity become extinct.

Sol Weintraub (John Landis)

John Landis;  'Sol and Rachel Weintraub' by Victor González
John Landis; ‘Sol and Rachel Weintraub’ by Victor González

Okay, Landis is primarily a director, but he has done some acting as well, including in such genre classics as Death Race 2000, Darkman, Spider-Man 2 and (a cameo appearance in) Stephen King’s The Stand television miniseries.  He’s smart, he’s Jewish, he’s the right age and most importantly, he looks exactly the way I picture the scholar from Barnard’s World in my head.  Can’t you just see him cradling baby Rachel in his arms like in the illustration above?  I know I can!

DeviantArt: vicorantian

Het Masteen (Ian Anthony Dale)

Ian Anthony Dale; Het Masteen from 'Hyperion Characters' by t0nkatsu
Ian Anthony Dale; Het Masteen from ‘Hyperion Characters’ by t0nkatsu

Simmons describes the Templars of God’s Grove as being extremely tall and thin and having Asian features.  At six feet tall, I’d say Dale is immanently qualified.  If they need additional height for him, there are plenty of camera and CG tricks for that.  Het Masteen is captain of the Yggdrasil, one of only four treeships (which are made from actual gigantic trees!) in the Hyperion universe.  He is quiet, stoical and mysterious, and he’s the only one of the seven pilgrims who doesn’t get to tell his story in the novel; for spoilery reasons I will not go into the reason why here.  Anyway, Dale has done a few films, but he is mostly a well-established presence on television.

Paul Duré (Jeff Bridges)

Jeff Bridges; Paul Duré and Lenar Hoyt from ‘Hyperion’ by Kwenos
Jeff Bridges; Paul Duré and Lenar Hoyt from ‘Hyperion’ by Kwenos

Father Paul Duré is not a Shrike pilgrim, but he is the subject of Lenar Hoyt’s tale and a fascinating character.  At the time Paul Duré is on Hyperion, he is a representative of a Catholic Church which is almost extinct, but he will play an important part in its eventual resurrection (almost literally) thanks to his discovery of the cruciform, a cross-shaped parasite that integrates with its host’s body and brings them back to life whenever they are killed, though every time they come back they are a little less human than before.  And that’s not the cruciform’s only downside.  Duré, who is essentially an exile on Hyperion, is a fairly tormented fellow to start with, but things only get worse for him.  Much worse, in fact.  In the second book, Simmons describes Duré as an older man who is tall and thin but who conveys power.  I’ll be damned if that doesn’t describe Bridges.  Well okay, maybe he’s not so thin anymore, but if he was offered the right role . . .

Meina Gladstone (Sigourney Weaver)

Sigourney Weaver
Sigourney Weaver; ‘Meina Gladstone’ by Marcocartoon

Meina Gladstone is CEO of the Hegemony, making her the most politically powerful person in the Hyperion universe.  Although she doesn’t play as large a part in the first book as she does in later ones, it would be essential to cast the right actress early on.  Gladstone is described as an attractive older woman with short-cropped gray hair.  Because of the hair, one may be tempted to go with, say, Jamie Lee Curtis or Judi Dench for this role, but I had someone else in mind while reading the book.  Gladstone is a shrewd, tough-as-nails politician.  Weaver has practically built her career on playing shrewd and tough-as-nails women like Dian Fossey from Gorillas in the Mist, Dr. Augustine from Avatar and, of course, Ellen Ripley from the Aliens franchise.  Maybe it’s a bit of typecasting on my part, but I can’t help it: in my imagination Meina Gladstone has the face and voice of Sigourney Weaver.

Moneta (Unknown)

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‘Moneta’ by Marcocartoon

Moneta is the mysterious woman who appears to Kassad while he is engaged in virtual combat practice and becomes his lover within that virtual domain.  She is a woman of aggressive passion and sensuality.  Okay, there’s no one in that picture, I know.  Originally I did have someone here–Emilia Clarke–but there’s a very important reason why it can’t be her (or really anyone) that isn’t revealed until the second novel, The Fall of Hyperion.  So basically, my idea is that, if the film is to stay true to the books, they pretty much have to avoid showing Moneta’s face at all.

Johnny Keats (Daniel Radcliffe)

Daniel Radcliffe; 'John Keats' by William Hilton
Daniel Radcliffe; ‘John Keats’ by William Hilton

Daniel Radcliffe may seem like an odd choice to play Romantic poet John Keats (or rather an AI-created facsimile of him called a cybrid), but hear me out.  First off, Keats was English, and so is Radcliffe.  That’s a small thing, I know, but consider that the real Keats was a really short man: exactly five feet in height.  Now, Radcliffe isn’t that short, but at only 5’6″ he is one of the shorter actors working right now.  And have you seen him in Horns?  If you haven’t, you should watch it immediately.  Seriously, go watch it right now, it’s a great film.  The rest of this article isn’t going anywhere.

Wikipedia: William Hilton

Rachel Weintraub [age 26] (Natalie Portman)

Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman

The daughter of Sol Weintraub is an important character in Hyperion, even though she appears mostly as an infant.  It is because of her that Sol ultimately becomes one of the Shrike pilgrims.  She is a young archeologist studying the Time Tombs when she is struck by the bizarre illness that causes her to begin aging backwards, and Sol and his wife are stuck with the heartbreaking task of watching their only child regress through her youth and childhood years, unable to remember what happened the day before every time she wakes from sleep.  Although Rachel’s face was initially pretty vague in my mind, I later came to see her as a bright and attractive young lady of Jewish heritage with dark hair and dark eyes: in other words, someone exactly like Natalie Portman.

Rachel Weintraub [teen] (Mackenzie Foy)

Mackenzie Foy
Mackenzie Foy

When casting a younger version of a character, I would try my best to get someone who is not only talented but also looks like the older version of the same character.  I know people can change a lot once they go through puberty, but few things irk me more than seeing a film or TV show where a child or teen version of an adult character clearly looks nothing like their older self.  It takes me right out of the story.  Which reminds me: hey casting directors, you really need to do a better job of casting older and younger versions of characters, and even characters who are blood-related.  Anyway, Mackenzie Foy.  Most people probably know her best as little Renesmee from Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt. 2, but we won’t talk about that.  Besides, nothing that was bad about that film was Foy’s fault.  And, with the help of some colored contact lenses, she could certainly pass for a younger version of Natalie Portman.

Melio Arundez (Diego Boneta)

Diego Boneta
Diego Boneta

Melio Arundez is Rachel Weintraub’s co-worker and eventual lover.  I have never had a particularly clear image of him in my head save that he is handsome and has a short, well-trimmed beard.  I chose Diego Boneta mainly for his outstanding performance in the musical Rock of Ages.  It’s not a particularly good film, but it has a certain over-the-top spirit and joyfulness which makes it fun to watch anyway, and it has an incredible cast, including this young man who plays one of the leads.

Merin Aspic (Jack Quaid)

Jack Quaid
Jack Quaid

One thing I considered when thinking about who could play Merin Aspic, the Consul’s grandfather (whose story is told to the other Shrike pilgrims by the Consul) is, what kind of guy would a wide-eyed native girl from an out-of-the-way, sparsely populated tropical world fall for?  The answer: probably a guy like Jack Quaid.  He has that broad, open face that seems to project qualities like honesty, sincerity and trustworthiness.  Plus, being the offspring of Dennis Quaid, he has more than a touch of that same goofy charm that his dad made famous in films like Great Balls of Fire!, Postcards from the Edge and Everybody’s All-American.

Siri [young] (Saoirse Ronan)

Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan

For Siri, the native girl from the planet Maui-Covenant who falls for FORCE:space recruit Merin Aspic, I can think of few actresses who could sell that part like Saoirse Ronan.  She is absolutely one of my favorite young actresses working right now, and I can only foresee great things  ahead for her.  Hanna is now one of my favorite films, and that is based in part on the strength of her performance.  Before that she was utterly fantastic as 13-year-old Briony in the film Atonement, and as Lina Mayfleet in City of Ember.

Siri [middle age] (Helen Hunt)

Helen Hunt
Helen Hunt

An interesting aspect of the Consul’s grandparents’ story is watching them become estranged due to the effects of time dilation.  When Merin and Siri meet, he is 19 and she is 16–he is a full three years older than her and a little wiser.  But while Merin is off in space for mere months, every time he returns to Maui-Covenant Siri has aged years, and her frustration with his naivety becomes more and more palpable.  Again, I tried to come up with someone who could believably pass for an older version of Saoirse Ronan as well as someone who could convey the complex emotions the older Siri experiences in the conflict between her love for Merin and her hatred of what he stands for.  For my money, Helen Hunt is pretty much the perfect choice.

Siri [old] (Vanessa Redgrave)

Vanessa Redgrave
Vanessa Redgrave

Two words: Vanessa. Redgrave.  That is all.

Sad King Billy (John C. Reilly)

John C. Reilly
John C. Reilly

Sad King Billy is a strange character.  He is part of Martin Silenus’s story, and as a man who holds himself partly responsible for the slaughter of an entire city at the hands of the Shrike, he is a haunted and pathetic figure.  Reilly is a versatile actor who has played a variety of different roles, many of which he has been nominated for, but to my knowledge he has never won any of these awards.  That’s a damned shame.  But Sad King Billy is exactly the kind of supporting role that, in the right hands, could be transcendent, even Oscar-worthy.

Dan Simmons’ ‘Hyperion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-hyperionThis is the first book in a science fiction tetralogy called The Hyperion Cantos by the versatile and consistently readable Dan Simmons.  I won’t even try to beat around the bush here to pad out this review: The Hyperion Cantos is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi series, so I recognize that there is simply no way I can be impartial about this.  But I’ll do my best.

As the first book in a series, it is hard to imagine a better example than this one.  Simmons took a fascinating premise–a story of several travelers on a pilgrimage to meet a powerful and mysterious monster–and created a work of timeless beauty and originality that stands as a testament to what the sci-fi genre, in the hands of a true master, can be.  The characters are memorable, the story is epic and the pacing is pitch perfect.  If you are a fan of science fiction at all and space opera specifically, you simply must read this novel.  I guarantee you won’t regret it.

The  novel follows seven pilgrims in the distant future who are, each for their own reasons, on a quest to meet the murderous creature called the Shrike, a being who has come to be worshiped as a god by many in this universe and who can seemingly control time.  It is an homage of sorts to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, as, during their voyage, each of the pilgrims tells their own story on why they are going to see the Shrike (knowing full well the whole time that the Shrike will almost certainly murder them).  And as each of their stories is laid out, we slowly begin to see the big picture unfold before us and realize that the stakes here are much, much higher than the lives of these seven individuals.

There is Father Lenar Hoyt, a drug-addicted priest from the nearly extinct Catholic religion, whose missionary predecessor may just have discovered the key to eternal life, or something close to it.  There is Colonel Fedmahn Kassad, a brilliant soldier of the galactic military group FORCE, whose love for a mysterious woman could change the entire course of human history.  There is Martin Silenus, a decadent poet whose epic poem the Hyperion Cantos is intimately tied up with the Shrike’s existence.  There is Het Masteen, a member of a religious order devoted to nature, whose spaceship is carved from a single gigantic tree.  There is Professor Sol Weintraub, a Jewish scholar whose daughter had an accident at the very destination the pilgrims are traveling to which causes her to age backwards.  There is Brawne Lamia, a female private detective hired to solve a mystery that the most powerful AIs in the known universe want to keep buried.  And there is the Consul, a man who holds the secrets of the Ousters, the biggest military threat to the Hegemony of Man.

Of course, none of that is likely to mean much to you until you actually read the story.  And read it you should, as well as the rest of the series.  But we’ll get to those in time.  Right now it is enough to say that this should be required reading for sci-fi fans, particularly those who are less interested in the mechanics of gee whiz futuristic technology than in the development of human civilization and the evolution of humanity across hundreds of diverse worlds.  Simmons deftly explores the nature of religions, whether ancient or new, and how both humans and intelligent machines deal with the question of God in a civilization no longer bound by the old rules or the old geography.  He also addresses the inevitable conflict between those factions of society who seek to hold on to the old ways and those who are interested in forcing technological progress no matter the cost.  In fact, I would say if there is an overriding theme in this book (and the series as a whole), it is the true price of abiding ignorance.  There are no obvious heroes or villains here, merely humans dealing with their lives as best they can.  Even the horrific Shrike–and he is horrific–may be an agent of the greater good in the end, for all that is known about him.

Hyperion was first published in 1990 (winning both the Hugo and the Locus Award that year); it’s hard to believe this novel is a quarter of a century old at this point.  Like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, this is book that only seems to become more relevant with age and, like the Shrike, ultimately may be timeless.  If you’ve never read anything by Dan Simmons, this is a great place to start.  It will stick with you long after you have closed the back cover and set it aside.  Simmons knows how to write characters that resonate with purpose, intensity and humanity.  He also understands what makes great sci-fi great: that it’s not just about bad-ass spaceships (though there are plenty of those here) or exotic alien worlds (ditto).  It’s about asking the tough questions concerning human destiny.  Where will we wind up in the future, and why?  Are we, like the old adage says, really doomed to repeat our greatest mistakes again and again?  Can we learn to get along despite all our differences?  Maybe, but can we do it before we destroy ourselves?  For Simmons, the answer is both troubling and hopeful.

Grade: A+

Two Month Hiatus…Done

So, as of today I haven’t posted anything here for exactly two months.  The reason is, I got pretty burned out on blogging for awhile and needed a rest from it.  But now I’m back and ready to get back on it.  Coming up: a review of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, another taste of my novel in progress AL+ER, and perhaps even a short story that tells the origin of a well-known villain from a famous children’s book that I wrote largely over the hiatus.  And, of course, artwork and other stuff I happen to like that I’ve discovered in my travels across the web.  Glad to be back, guys!

Facing a Hard Truth

Well, folks, it’s been over a month since I last posted anything, and so I need to remedy that now . . . and apologize.  The thing is, I had planned to have the early draft of AL+ER finished by now, but I am nowhere near ready.  I dropped off somewhere around the two-thirds mark when I ran into a wall.  This happens with writing sometimes.  What I couldn’t understand initially was that there was a reason I was preventing myself from finishing the book, and that reason is, it wasn’t the story I really wanted to write.  It started off strong, but as soon as my protagonists got to the little Southern town of Milton’s Eye, everything went to crap.  This is the part of the story where the horror elements were supposed to kick in, but I quickly got bogged down in cliches and skewed motivations, and worst of all, I just wasn’t being true to myself.  This was not the book I wanted to write.

And so, I ran out of steam sometime in November, moving on to working temporarily on another novel, The Sinister Hand (which is exactly what it needs to be so far, though I’m not sure I am ready to spring it on the world yet).  Anyway, I finally realized last night that this story just wasn’t going to work.  And so, I am officially changing gears here, backtracking to the point where I think the story goes off the rails.  A couple of the early chapters are (mostly) salvageable, so it’s not a total loss.  Even so, I am not happy about it.  You want to know what I’m feeling the most about this?  The answer is, pissed.  I’m pissed that I spent months working on something that ultimately failed.  I imagine there are inventors who feel this way after toiling away in their garages for months on some contraption, only to find that it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, and what are writers if not inventors of the intellect?  And so, it is with heavy heart that I bury this version of AL+ER and move on.

That said, I’m excited about the new direction, because it is the story I really want to tell.  It’s a love story . . . of sorts.  Will there be horror in it?  Almost certainly.  Will there be dark fantasy?  Absolutely.  Will it work?  Let’s hope so, because I don’t want to go through this again.  It’s a bit like a terrible breakup, I think: I just gave this story months–actually years, if you get down to it, from the point of conception to now–of my life, only to see it betray me in the end.  Gaaaahhhhh!

Well, back to the drawing board, as the old saying goes . . .

Justin Cronin’s ‘The Passage’ – A Review

IX-cronin-the-passageLet me say up front that I tend to dislike horror stories where the antagonists are just masses of soulless interchangeable monsters: zombies, giant ants, swarms of mutated bees, you get the idea.  There are exceptions to this rule, but they are exceedingly rare.  James Cameron’s Aliens is a grand example of how such monsters can be interesting in their own right. The xenomorphs were well-designed and unique enough to be memorable, and anyway the film was built on the legacy of a single xenomorph from the earlier Alien film.  I also generally dislike stories where the monster is just some variant of a conventional monster that’s been explored a million times . . . like vampires.  Well, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the first book in an eponymous trilogy, ticks off all of those boxes, so I was skeptical about reading it, but the hype claimed it was very different from all of those others, and to a point it is, though perhaps not to the extent that it could’ve been.

When reviewing a book, I generally start with its overriding flaws first, and so I shall.  The biggest problem with The Passage is that the vampires are not that memorable either as a species or as individuals, which is somewhat mitigated by their status as a hive mind, because even a hive-mind can have a personality or voice, and this one does, but that only works if that personality is a compelling one, and unfortunately, the motivating force behind the smokes (as the main group of protagonists in the book call them) isn’t that interesting.  The concept of vampirism being more pathological than supernatural is interesting in itself, of course.  Though not a new idea, Cronin does give us a fairly fresh take on it by adding the hive-mind twist, and by putting them in a post-apocalyptic setting (even if they caused the apocalypse in the first place).

But the thing is, the best monsters–whether individuals or hive-minds–have something that makes them fascinating, some fundamentally human trait or motivation that raises them above a mere force of nature.  My general rule-of-thumb for monsters is, if I can’t relate to them on any level, then they aren’t good villains, and they probably aren’t even particularly good monsters.  When a monster is completely void of humanity, then they are little more than allegory, an idea, and not a real character.  That can work if it is an underlying theme of the story, but here it isn’t.  Hell, Jaws had more personality than these guys!  Which leads to another problem: the original twelve human experiments that become the leaders of their own vampire tribes were all criminals of one sort or another, most of them murderers and violent sex offenders spared from execution by participating in the government program that ultimately turns them into the Twelve (this is established early in the book, so I’m not giving much away here).  So the message seems to be that sex offenders are basically just like vampires whose craving for blood overrides every other motivation and is essentially unquenchable.  I don’t know how familiar Cronin is with criminal psychology, and I’m not exactly a fan of sex offenders either, but this notion is fundamentally ignorant and borders on being childish.  Of course, the book never makes this connection outright, but the idea is there, buried in the subtext.  It’s hardly surprising, of course, but I do expect better from a writer of Cronin’s caliber.  Still, because it is subtextual and not dwelt on too much, it’s a fairly forgivable error.

What is unforgivable though is Amy, a key character who is the very embodiment of the magical-child-as-MacGuffin that ruins so many good stories of this nature.  She starts out as a normal six-year-old girl, and I have to say, she has more heart and personality at this stage (which is a fairly brief period in terms of the book’s narrative) than she does as the nearly century old demi-mortal she becomes later.  Now, I do not have an issue with the magic child trope itself, but they should still have identities and personalities of their own and not just be single-minded (read: simple-minded) MacGuffins who need a ragtag group of bad-ass adults to transport them across dangerous terrain so that they can fulfill their destiny or whatever.  I think I speak for many when I say, it’s time for this trope to die a painful and miserable death.  Kids are people too, dammit!  They deserve better than this.  Granted, Amy is a quasi-child really and not a proper young girl, being as she is ninety-six, but in a way that makes it worse.  What’s next, Cronin?  Are you going to magically age her to complete adulthood when her youthful nature and appearance are no longer convenient?*

Now let’s focus on the positives, shall we?  The #1 selling point of The Passage is that Cronin is sure-footed and confident as both a writer and a storyteller.  Aside from Amy and the virals, his characters are compelling and well-drawn, and the settings are easy to picture (which is why the book will translate well to film).  Peter, Alicia, Circuit and the rest are really the focus of the book anyway.  The science fiction aspects of the novel are strong, and luckily Cronin leans heavily on them. He’s less adept at handling the supernatural side of things, and there is a touch of that here, but luckily not much.  Sci-fi horror is a tricky business, I’ll admit, and to his credit, I think he is aware of the book’s flaws and for the most part does an outstanding job of diverting attention from them: Look away, nothing to see here folks.  Now if you really want to see something, step this way . . . 

Consequently, I’m willing to overlook a lot here.  If not for the author’s skill, the book could easily have become just another ‘special child travels far to fulfill her ultimate destiny’ story, but instead we get an entertaining and insightful examination of the internal politics and changing roles of the last handful of survivors of the collapse of human civilization . . . within a story about a special child who travels far to fulfill her ultimate destiny.  All in all, I think the book is somewhat overhyped, and possibly misclassified.  As a horror novel, aside from a strong start, it fails.  Despite having a metric crap-ton of vampires (who are bioluminescent, incidentally, a cute joke at the expense of some certain other sparkly vampires), it’s just not very scary.  But as an epic post-apocalyptic adventure tale, it really hits its stride.  We’re invested in the main characters and we want them to succeed.  As the first book in a planned trilogy, it also plots out pretty well, tying up the Babcock storyline but promising much more to come.  At over 760 pages it’s a long book, and there is perhaps some extraneous stuff in the middle, where we are getting to know the members and structure of the First Colony.  Nevertheless, it is a fairly gripping look at a micro-society organized around surviving and fighting off a menacing new species.  The ideas here are nothing new, but they have been sufficiently tweaked to feel new, and if you like this kind of story, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Grade: B 

* Yes, I’m aware of what happens in the second book, thanks for asking.

Disabilities in Fiction vs. Real Life

Here is something I haven’t mentioned before about myself, mainly because I don’t want to be defined by it, but it’s time: I was pretty much born without a right hand.  More accurately, I was born with a right transverse upper partial hemimelia.  This means that the right forearm and its  extremities are severely underdeveloped, to the point where the “hand” is little more than a tiny boneless nub at the end of a rounded off limb, and that’s it.  When my sister and I were kids, she astutely nicknamed it my Ziggy arm because of its resemblance to the popular cartoon character when looked at straight on, right down to the smile.  Anyway, this was only one of a few health problems I had as a kid, but one thing at a time, right?  And it is the biggie.

As a one-handed leftie, I was pretty much doomed from the start.  Everything in the world is oriented towards the two-handed and righties.  Everything.  To make matters worse, I was a complete introvert.  You’ve heard of those kids that are missing limbs–often more than one–who go on to do incredible physical feats?  Yeah, that wasn’t me.  Not even close.  I absolutely hated sports and extreme physical activities of all kinds.  Still do, in fact.  Oddly, though, I did pick up some martial arts skills during the several years I was forced to go to karate class by my parents.  At the time I didn’t like going, but I am grateful now that they made me do this.  Not because I want to be a bad ass (I’m not anyway), but because it taught me early that attaining anything of value mostly requires sacrifice of some kind.  Luck plays a part in it too, of course, but yeah.

Now, I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite hangouts is Gawker Media’s science fiction site io9.  Recently Lauren Davis at io9 published an article called 10 Story Decisions Sci-fi and Fantasy Writers Ended Up Regretting, and one of those decisions was comics writer Robert Kirkman’s decision to have Rick Grimes lose his hand in The Walking Dead comics series (on which the AMC television series of the same name is based).  The reason he regretted it is  because he didn’t like having to deal with Rick’s small everyday struggles in having to adapt to his disability.  But I have a problem with this, and it boils down to a fact that many minorities deal with: seeing that the media accurately represents them.  The thing is, it totally makes sense that in an apocalyptic world where zombies exist, people are going to lose limbs.  Rick loses his in a confrontation with the Governor, but the example I gave at io9 was that a zombie bite to an arm might necessitate a speedy amputation to keep the zombie venom or mutagen or whatever from infecting the whole person.  And I can just see Kirkman’s thoughts at the time: I’ll take his hand–that will be shocking!  But then, once he dropped that bomb on his readers, he no longer wanted to commit to it, and therein lies the problem.

My suggestion for writers who want to write accurately about apocalyptic warfare: get used to the idea of dealing with characters who are permanently wounded.  If you need motivation, consider all of the people who are even now coming back from the Middle East conflict blind, deaf, confined to a wheelchair or missing one or more limbs, and there are a lot of them.  For soldiers who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were over 13,000 soldiers who came home wounded–most of them permanently–from the period of March 2003 to June 2005 alone.  That is a little over two years of the war, and that war was significantly shorter than the Afghanistan War, which has produced thousands more wounded.  Permanent disabilities have always been a major component of warfare, and what is the current zombie craze if not a way for us to process the Middle Eastern conflict?

Hey, writers, go get to know one of these vets and see what it’s like to to learn to live with their disability.  Oftentimes it is a slow adjustment, as there is both a physical component and a psychological component to the process.  Just psychologically the matter is complex.  There are esteem issues and identity issues that come into play.  Physically there is the matter of relearning how to do things, as well as figuring out your limitations again.  These are things which would be especially relevant to people for whom a great deal of physical prowess would be requisite for survival . . . like those living through a zombie apocalypse.

So, yeah, part of being a one-handed person when one has spent their entire life with two is the small everyday struggles like buttoning a shirt, using tools meant for two-handed use (like manual can openers or wall-mounted pencil sharpeners), carrying heavy objects and so on.  These struggles are simply going to be part of the development of any character who has lost a hand and writers need to respect that.  It doesn’t mean they always have to show it, but it should be intrinsic to the character that has been put into that situation, and they should be prepared to demonstrate it if they want to portray such an event realistically.  Unfortunately, many writers fall woefully short here.  In fact, there have been problems with literary portrayals of one-handedness and others disabilities for ages.  I won’t go into all of them here, but this article does a good job of outlining the major issues with media representation of the disabled, and this study, entitled Disabling Imagery and the Media, goes into much more depth about these issues.  Let’s look at a couple of them that are pertinent to one-handedness.

Traditionally, one-handed characters have been villains.  Think of Captain Hook from Peter Pan, Han from Enter the Dragon, Dr. No from the James Bond film of the same name (just one of several disabled or differently-abled villains in the Bond universe, actually) or the one-armed man from The Fugitive.

And with sci-fi specifically, we are often given characters who lose a hand but are given an instant replacement that is equal or superior to the original.  This is cool, but these stories invariably never tell us anything about living with this disability.  In this category we have Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars franchise, Ash Williams from the Evil Dead series, who had his hand replaced with a chainsaw–very useful for fighting zombies, Tetsuo Shima from the manga series Akira and Alex Murphy from Robocop (who had his entire body replaced rather than just a single limb but loses much of his identity in the process).  These can be cool and add context to the story, or they can become deus ex machinas.  As much as I love Luke Skywalker, I feel like his cybernetic replacement hand is a bit of a cop-out because he never had to do much to adjust to it.  But it was fairly forgivable there because the Star Wars universe has always had a ton of gee whiz gadgetry to fill in the gaps, so at least it’s consistent with the SW universe in general.  I mean, what is Darth Vader if not a walking mechanized prosthetic?  But then, he is evil, isn’t he?

Well then, have any writers gotten it right when it came to the portrayal of a one-handed character?  Not counting books or movies based on true stories, I can’t think of a single perfect example.  I should point out that that hardly means they don’t exist.  Although I do occasionally dip into literary fiction, my reading does tend to be limited mostly to my favorite genres, where there are some examples I like better than others.  There is Jaime Lannister from HBO’s Game of Thrones series (I haven’t read the books yet), for example, and although the show doesn’t offer us much in terms of Jaime’s everyday physical struggles, I think it does a decent enough job of showing how the legendary swordsman’s identity is impacted by the loss of his sword hand and how he must mentally adapt to it or die.  Consequently, he learns to sword fight left-handed.  That is no small feat.  And let’s be honest: Jaime is hardly a paragon of morality.  But by far the best portrayal of a differently-abled person is Tyrion Lannister (played by the fantastic Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who is realistically flawed but not really villainous.  He does murder King Joffrey and his own father, Tywin Lannister, but both of them were terrible people who probably deserved it.  Really though, in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, Tyrion is overall one of the better and humbler people.

I also like the character of Amy Sullivan from the film John Dies at the End (again, I have not read the book), even though she is an example of the Magic Cripple, the disabled equivalent of Spike Lee’s Magic Negro, albeit a one-trick pony on that front.  Nevertheless, I consider this forgivable mainly because the story presents a clever twist on the concept of the phantom limb, and because through the majority of the story Amy’s missing hand is simply taken for granted and not dwelt upon.  Another interesting dimension here is that one rarely sees one-handed females in genre fiction, even though there are tons of males who are missing arms or hands, and it was fantastic to see a handsome male lead in a film dating a disabled girl, even if her disability is clearly in the story for a reason.

In my own semi-autobiographical novel in progress The Sinister Hand, the protagonist’s disability and how he deals with it is pretty much front-and-center.  The book is structured something like the recently reviewed Pilgrimage by Zenna Henderson, where there is a framework story (which comprises the actual biography of the character in this case) and several short stories, which are Noel’s dreams and fantasies, all of them sci-fi, fantasy or horror stories in which the protagonist is either missing a hand or has a deformed or augmented right hand that is symbolic within the context of the story.  In this way, I deconstruct several of the myths and stereotypes about disabilities, especially congenital deformities.  Right now this book is slated to be my second finished novel, after AL+ER.

Just remember, authors: it’s great that you want to use disabled characters in your fiction.  I praise that decision; there needs to be more of it, not less.  But if you do, commit to it.  Don’t just throw it in there to shock or amuse and then stick it in the background.  Do the research and find out what disabled people struggle with and what they overcome, and present them honestly, as real people, not just tropes.  Hey, I’m easy to please and hard to offend, but I think you guys need to do better than you’re doing with these issues.  Thanks for listening.