Book Review: SLEEPING PLANET by William K. Burkett Jr.

I have read and loved hard SciFi my whole life. However,  I first read this when I was only thirteen. It is not hard SciFi. The science isn’t even remotely accurate. But it was irresistible – unquestionably the first science fiction “DIE HARD” of its day

DSCN0835You get a resourceful hero who is determined not to lose, but who faces overwhelming odds (an entire occupation force). There is also the reliable outsider who can’t participate in he action, but whose efforts still aid the hero’s fight. And you have the clever villain, slowly tracking down and boxing in the hero.

Earth and its Venus* and Mars settlements have been at war with the invading Llarian forces for years, stalemated. To break the stalemate, the Llarians devise a plan to place the billions of humans on these planets into a hibernation-like sleep, and use them as hostages. It is spectacularly successful, except for a small handful of “unaffecteds” – humans who did not succumb to the sleep.

One among these is Rierson, an Atlanta lawyer and avid hunter, alone in the Georgia backwoods when the “big sleep” takes place. Another is Donovan, a crippled London truck driver, with a grouchy disposition and a sharp wit. Donovan uses his wits to intimidate his superstitious Llarian guards with stories about his Grandpa’s ghost wanting revenge. Riersen fights his way through squads of invading troops, while he tries to figure out what has happened.

Donovan’s tall tales begin to spread among the Llarian ranks, and stories of Rierson’s exploits begin giving them credence. As each learns of the other’s efforts, they both focus on creating fear and panic in the ranks of the Llarian occupation force.

While rank and file “Larrys” are fretting over being murdered by Earth’s ghosts, a brilliant Llarian  intelligence officer is putting together the puzzle pieces and tracking down Rierson. He sets a trap, and draws the net closer and closer to capture Rierson.

The rest I leave to readers to discover for themselves. Rierson’s tactics and  solution are imaginative, and are sheer fun to read. I always wished Hollywood would make a movie of this, and with the ILM class graphics now available, the ending would be joyously fun Hollywood magic.

Bruce Willis may have saved the people in the Nakatoma Tower, but Rierson very coolly saves the world.  This is a fast, fun, action-filled yarn from start to finish. On the Pizza Scale, I’d give it eight slices.

*I doubt the “science” in this book was even accurate  when it was first published in 1964. If not, obviously the publishers decided to overlook that weakness. I was recently surprised to find it had been reprinted (after a long hiatus) in 2012.  All they changed was the cheesy 60’s SciFi cover (robots & guns), although the new cover is rather blah (a tree – go figure). The cheesy one is actually better. And classic.

Burkett was only eighteen when he wrote this, and probably not worried about research or accuracy. At the same time, he clearly had a logical mind, and his character’s actions – both the heroes and villains – reflected that clear logic, thereby making the story more interesting (I hate when authors have smart characters do dumb things just to advance the plot). 

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Fever Dreams

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Chemo Treatments includes steroids, which are murder on sleep. The net result is that you sometimes can’t turn your mind off long  enough to get a real sleep, so you get to closely examine what may have otherwise been  dreams. This story is one result. I hung on to the idea because I thought it might let me experiment in “Flash Fiction”. However, I failed – for while it is short, it is not short enough. Flash fiction is defined as being no more than one or two pages long.

This is not in my usual genre, but I  hope you enjoy it. As usual, your comments, and critiques are welcome.

Requiem for a Cold Night © – by Jerold Heyward

The door opened slowly, admitting the biting night wind into the town tavern. A tall, slim figure entered, unhurried, ignoring the cold. The newcomer scanned the room. The old tavern was warm, heated by the oil lamps, the stone fireplace, and as much by the accumulated warmth of the patrons which crowded around the bar and tables. It wasn’t a particularly large place, low ceiling, a low wooden bar worn down in spots by elbows, a rough hewn wood floor, and stone walls. The smell of brew and sweat hung in the air.

An old man playing a squeezebox in a dark corner stopped. The cold gust drew everyone’s attention to the door. They all knew from where he’d come, though only few had ever seen him. His gaunt thin face had a hint of death. But none knew why he’d come there, now. His sober countenance alone struck a little fear.

“Good evening,” the newcomer intoned, a deep dark voice, but non-threatening. “I am your new neighbor.” He walked up to an open space at the bar. The men on either side of him stepped farther apart, uncertain and afraid. “I have taken up residence in the old hermitage on the outskirts of town, in the dark woods.”

“A nasty place,” challenged a burly, bearded man holding a mug, and sitting safely away at one of the tables.

“Indeed, the place has a history, and is isolated and avoided. Precisely what I prefer. But let me introduce myself, I am Count Kowalski.”

The barmaid, not knowing what to think, but feeling slightly reassured, placed a full mug in front of him. “Drink?”

The count smiled, “Thank you, this was once my favorite drink, but fate intervened and my tastes have changed.” He looked away, a hint of remorse on his face.

Another voice from the back of the room called out. “It’s colder than a witch’s left tit out there. How’d you walk here in just that cape?” The suspicion in the man’s voice was clear.

“The cold doesn’t bother me, nor the heat of a summer day. But it’s best I tell you why I’m here. I want no misunderstandings.” He paused briefly, surveying the room. He could feel their fear, and see the barely disguised hate on many faces. “ I am not like you, although I once was, in the sweet youth of my life. I am here because you lost your sheriff two days past, and I’ve heard you blame me.”

“Ripped apart, he was. Torn limb from limb. You’re nothing to do with that?” Other voices about the room grumbled in muted anger, but no one dared move.

“No. I have killed some men, and killed some women, but never like that. There is another beast that did that handiwork, but it was seeking me. Your poor sheriff came across its path at the wrong time. Last night it found me, and I slew it.”

“And we’re to believe you?” A unnamed youthful  voice in the back challenged him. The young man stood and stepped out into the light.

“You can believe what you want, but I’ll warn you of two things. I think you know what I am. And I warn you harm will come to anyone who tries to harm me. For myself, I assure I will not otherwise harm anyone in this village, nor any visitors who come through. Second, though, the creature I’ve slain had bitten one other from this village. That bite confers a curse as vile and evil as mine…

On each full moon, such as tonight, when he is exposed to the moonlight, he transforms into a wolf. This is what killed your sheriff, and there is now another in your midst. Far more dangerous, because once so transformed they have no control. They will kill anything in sight. Yet on the break of day, they’ll return to their natural form – often oblivious to the horrors of the night before. Yet once they realize the truth of their plight, they hide it. Like a wolf, they wish to cling to life. They embrace their new life because of the strength and vigor it gives them, which carries on to their daily life as  ordinary looking men. And they eventually focus their attention on my kind, because we know how to destroy them.”

“Is that why you’ve come?” It was the burly, hairy man holding the big mug. “You’re here to destroy it?”

“No, I’m here for sanctuary, for peace away from the towns and cities I’ve been. There is abundant game in these woods, and I was an accomplished archer in my youth, some hundred years ago. I can survive handily on the blood of game. But in the cities, there is no game, and I was forced to survive on the blood of men.” He looked across the room. Putting a name to his curse evoked a silent horror on the faces of the patrons. “I tell you this now, because I want to remain here in honesty and peace. I mean none of you any harm. But I will countenance no disrespect to my privacy. Be aware that I can commune with ordinary wolves. I killed the leader of one pack, and am now its leader. They protect my hermitage.”

The room was stirring. Several men around the room stood threateningly, but did not advance. The men at the bar stepped further away, fearful of a confrontation. “He’s a vampire. The devil’s own. He cannot be trusted,” the younger man in a light coat shouted. The crowd was moved. A few of the men standing now edged warily forward.

The Count’s countenance darkened. He swept his cape back over his shoulders. Beneath the cape his frame seemed sturdier and more dangerous. The other men froze. “I warn you,” the Count continued, “I can kill any man in this tavern who attempts harm to me, but I am here to help, not to fight you. When the full moon is out, like tonight, no one is safe outside while this creature is loose. When the moon goes on the wane, it will be weeks before the creature will emerge again, and it will be warier – wiser in how to conceal its identity. Inevitably, it will come for me – waiting its chance. So it is as much in my best interest as yours to stop it.”

He paused, and watched closely the men who were standing. They had stopped their advance, but menace was still written on their faces. “So I offer you this gesture in cooperation. Select you one as spokesman. When you have a suspicion of someone in the village, that spokesman, that person alone, may approach the hermitage under my protection. My wolves will attack anyone they do not know. I only need a small article of clothing from your spokesman to teach them the scent, and that person alone will be able to pass unmolested. Within a month, as this creature’s mind festers, I will be able to detect it through its mannerisms and suspicious actions. Once identified, you decide what you wish to do with it. Though I’d caution, cage it first under the full moon to be sure. I don’t want you to rush deciding on human life on my word alone. Seek the proof with your eyes.”

“I’ll volunteer,” one of the silent men at the end of the bar spoke for the first time, “Sheriff Kopalec was my cousin, and a good man. He deserves revenge, and I will have it!”

Count Kowalski smiled, but it was a smile that could freeze a lake in the summer. “I think, maybe you still confuse me with a foe. It would not go well for you if you did. Another?”

The young man from the back strode forward, “I’ll do it.” The Count smiled again. He observed the young man objectively, and smiled this time more warmly. “You will do, but do you have a piece of clothing? My guards will need to recognize your scent before they’ll let you pass…perhaps that scarf.”

The young man nodded, and slipped it from his neck, a wry smile briefly crossing his face. He strode across the room with brave new confidence, folded his scarf, and handed it over.

“Excellent, brave young man. What is your name? “Luke.”

“Thank you, Luke. Now,” he turned toward the crowd. “A moment, one of my pack is standing outside the front door right now. I will let him sniff your scarf.”

A wolf at the door! Eyes widened, pints of beer froze at people’s lips, in shock that a wolf could be right outside. When the door opened, they saw him beckon. A moment later, a large head bearing dreadfully empty eyes appeared in the doorway. Count Kowalski held the scarf under its nose, and allowed it to sniff until it backed away. He spoke to it, but no one could hear. The wolf suddenly barked twice, rendered a loud, soulful howl, then withdrew.

The Count closed the door and turned to the room, a sober and serious look on his face. “That should do it. But I failed to mention one point, and nobody asked. Does no one wonder how I knew someone else was bit, infected with this curse? The answer is simple. Not far from where you found your sheriff’s body, I found a torn sleeve, bloodied, the blood not as fresh as the sheriff’s, but about two days earlier. I gave my pack its scent, so they could warn me…”

“So what,” shouted Luke, suddenly looking less comfortable.

“Are you feeling less brave now, Luke? They recognized your scent just now from that shirt sleeve. I suspected someone here might be the victim. You were the unlucky one, Luke. I knew, if given this opportunity, the creature would welcome the chance to walk through my defenses unmolested, catch me unaware. Your lupine half could not it pass up. Kill me, inherit my pack…but you have exposed yourself.”

“I’ll stand true to my word. I recommend not letting this, your man Luke, outside this tavern or near any windows tonight. Tomorrow night you can test him in a sturdy cage to see if I’m right. Keep in mind he probably has not killed yet, and his curse is not of his own making. I’ll take my leave now. Any mercy, I leave to you. I have little…but am not sometimes without the strings of remorse.”

All eyes were suddenly focused on Luke, and he made loud protestations, but the men standing crowded around him, blocking his any path, all suddenly more fearful of him.

A cold blast of air swept through the tavern as Count Kowalski disappeared into the darkness. From inside the patrons could hear not one, but a pack of barking wolves – following Count Kowalski away, back to the dark woods. But all eyes remained on Luke.

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The Rule of Right and Wrong

 

dscn0864Let’s face it, right and wrong should be simple concepts to follow. The truth is that the people who make most of the rules – regardless of their political persuasion – tend to muddy up the basic concepts with pretenses that will favor their goals.

Religions have set down some concepts in pretty simple terms – e.g. thou shall not kill.  It’s something that seems self-evident even if you don’t “have religion”. The truth is it doesn’t require a god to tell us this. It is pretty self evident that if it’s okay to kill someone, that someone could just as easily be you.  Think of the line in Clint Eastwood’s modern classic “Unforgiven”, where his character says “…you kill a man, you take away everything he is, and everything he was ever going to be”.  Death is final. You don’t get any do-overs. So if you want to protect your right to live, you have to accept the need to protect other’s right to live. Nothing mystical about that; it’s just common sense.

The same logic applies to Liberty (see a theme growing here?). If you want to preserve your freedom to make your own life decisions, you must recognize the importance to preserve the freedom of others to make their own decisions too. It is a matter of principle, and if you deny another’s right, you abrogate that principle not only for them, but for yourself. And “liberty” is a pretty big and inclusive word. It encompasses all humans – i.e. it doesn’t exclude anyone because they’re a different color,  because they’re a different religion,  because they’re a different gender, or  because they have different sexual preferences. Moreover, liberty means the freedom to choose and do however one pleases – so long as one does not infringe upon the liberty of others. This is again a simple, core principle. Once any entity (government perhaps) abrogates any person’s freedom of choice, it abrogates everyone’s freedom of choice on everything.

Let’s put it this way, using a modern issue…if you abrogate the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion, you equally abrogate the right of a churchgoer to go to church. Principles only protect us when we respect them. That is the nature of a principle. It is either true, or it is not. Where it is applied is irrelevant. It applies to all.

I won’t even discuss the “pursuit of happiness”. It clearly goes hand-in-hand with liberty. The principle applies to all. Deny it to one, and you deny it – on principle – to all.

Certainly, it is possible to get into cases, egregiously nuanced definitions, and so on, and so forth.  However, these are moot – a waste of time.  What is important to know is that when speaking of holding to principles, we are not speaking of holding to “some degree” of principle. Principles are all or nothing. Every serious decision must uphold the core principles, or no rule will ever be valid or permanent. When you abandon principles, everything is lost.

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The “C” Word – Negotiating Cancer in One Easy Lesson

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This is a depressing subject. Talking about cancer – so don’t read further thinking I’ll add any enlightenment to it. It’s the disease where at best the cure feels more awful than the curse. And I don’t believe the politically correct crap that labels all cancer patients as brave or heroic, so I’ll probably be labeled a terrible misanthrope by the “politically correct” community.

I’ve just finished my third bout with cancer, and I wasn’t the one fighting cancer. The doctors did the fighting. They are the generals. Radiation and poisonous chemicals are their weapons of choice. My body was only the bleak and scarred battlefield.

I had two options in the matter – decide if I wanted to live, therefore submitting to the treatment, or whether I wanted to just let the dark side of nature take its course. My choice has been, each time so far, to say screw nature – I want to live.

I want to live to do the things I denied myself while getting through Life 101. I put work first a lot, often deferring to it even when I really didn’t need to. Life is, fairly and naturally, a struggle. Yet sometimes we embrace more struggle than is necessary.

So with cancer, I find myself dealing with one of the ugly flaws in nature. Maybe it is luck of the draw. Maybe I ate the wrong things or just ate too much. Maybe my genes weren’t up to muster. Moot point. Cancer is part of nature, and unfortunately a part of me. I’m not happy about it, and frankly – when I undergo treatment and suffer the many sickening side effects – I feel completely entitled to be sometimes depressed.

For those who have loved ones undergoing chemotherapy. I have this advice: Don’t tell them not to be depressed. They are entitled. Instead give them something helpful to distract them from their situation. Engage them. Occupy their minds with anything and everything else.

That, for better or worse, is my coping mechanism. I do my best to completely zone out when undergoing chemo. I don’t want to share stories with my fellow victims. Many are worse off than I am now. And regardless of the heavy sympathy I have for them, I’m reminded I could eventually be there myself – a place I do not want to be. Truly depressing. And it is not good to wallow in depression. I allow myself just a little bit. Allow your loved ones a little, then get their minds off it.

That’s about all I have to say – no pearls of wisdom. However, I’ll add that life is meant to be lived to its fullest and brightest. Do your best. Be your best. And allow yourself life’s rewards when you’ve earned them. Otherwise, you’ll only regret not showing yourself some kindness when it was deserved.

Last word – my life is my own. Your life is your own. The doctors don’t own it. Neither does the government, church or anyone else. When anyone reaches the point where they are no longer able to physically function on their own without pain, it is their right and their decision alone whether to end it. By all means, rage against the dying of the light, but rage too against living without hope. For end-of-life decisions, you must make your own rules.

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The Joy and Tragedy of Writer’s Rules

Now what?
Now what?

The past three years in my scant spare time I’ve rediscovered the joys of writing. Of course, I’ve rediscovered the grief and frustration that typically goes hand-in-hand with writing too. Does it have to be that way? I am sure there is an unwritten rule. It is part of the inherent nature of writing and writers.

What I’ve learned most thoroughly is that there are rules to writing, and that those rules are also meant to be broken. You should heed them, but you shouldn’t build a shrine to them. In fact, sometimes breaking a writing rule might help your work transcend the ordinary and connect with your readers in a new and exciting way. But don’t count on it.

The three most oft-harped upon rules are “show, don’t tell”, “include beats” (mannerisms and action which individualize the character), and “create conflict” (or tension) in each scene.

All of these are important, and valuable. Wherever you use these rules in your stories, you will likely improve the scene. Being an iconoclast though (I’ve been called worse), I usually resist the call to “one size fits all”.

For example, in semi-serious Science Fiction (my favorite), there are often chunks of science for the reader to digest. Sometimes these may be divulged by having characters discuss the ins and outs, but this can become lengthy. So the question is how is this information important to the reader.  Is how your character learns of this science important? If so, then the reader will expect to be shown how. Is this science mainly part of the back-story – part of your world building – then your reader only needs to be aware of it. “Telling” this piece of the world’s backstory is okay.

I have read award-winning SciFi novels, where the author expounded upon – told, didn’t show – the story’s science for several straight pages without eliciting boredom. The key is in how interesting and accessible the author makes the science. Such world-building can be done this way in any genre, provided it also contributes to the reader’s understanding of the main story.

I confess that “beats” was a new term to me just three years ago. I learned about beats almost immediately from all three writers groups I joined. Many of my original characters (alas!) were stillborn or born with arrhythmia. To remedy this I had to imagine mannerisms, speech patterns, and stray gestures to differentiate them from each other, and to assuage the sensibilities of the esthetically dependent.

Unfortunately, being “beat challenged” , I required sensitivity training. Considering I now call myself a writer, I tend to overlook such detail. I’m the one who complements my wife on the new painting she’s hung up, to find out it’s been there for over a year. I’ve always thought writers to be exceptionally observant. That’s not true, or I’m the exception.

Now, all good stories thrive on conflict and tension. The more amped up the author can make the narrative, the longer their readers will keep turning the pages. The advice frequently offered in writer’s critique groups is to include some form of tension in each scene or chapter. This is a good rule of thumb. But as you must know…it is not good to be all thumbs.

Some scenes needed to nudge your plot along are naturally passive scenes. That may break the rule, but won’t necessarily do harm unless you drag them on. If the scene creates a long and dull lull to the action, the reader will stop turning pages, go to bed, and maybe forget to pick up the story again. So the rule to this exception to the rule is keep such scenes short. They should never be more than a small speed bump that the reader notes in passing.

What else? Again, I’d go back to SciFi novels. Those same chapters where I said you can sneak in scientific tech talk, are the chapters where you’ll be forgiven for skipping away from action and conflict. Nevertheless, these chapters still need to be interesting and compelling to your readers. The information you (essentially) dump must still hold their imagination and either contribute to the reader’s knowledge of the world you’ve created, or contribute toward a plot point that will be important later in the story.

The final take-away is that there are rules – as Jack Sparrow well explained “The Pirate’s Code” – that are really kind of guidelines.

(Utmost apologies to any grammar sticklers. This post humbly submitted unedited -jh)

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