Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tales from the Trunk: That is the Law

I had completely forgotten that I ever wrote this story until I read this item in the news this morning. I don't remember if I ever submitted it anywhere -- maybe one or two places -- but I think it's kind of fun.

But hey, what do I know? Judge for yourself:



              The old bear grunted and hummed as he worked, his broad bottom spread wide across the damp cave floor. His claws held a stick of ocher which twitched spastically against the rock, trying to capture what he had seen.
             It had puzzled him for a long time after he saw it, its meaning unclear: finally he had repaired to the cave to consult with his fathers, their heads all in a row from youngest to eldest in the innermost chamber.
             Now he painted what he had seen: the buffalo, the Men who hunted them -- and, drawn with the most fervid strokes, the Man who had carried the stick. He bore horns on his head like those of the buffalo, and each time he pointed his stick at one of the buffalo the other Men would converge on it. This man had magic.
             Every bear knew something about Men. They knew that they came in two kinds, the Big-nosed and the Small-nosed, or as some bears had it the Heavy-browed and the Light-browed. They knew, too, that Men could walk and talk as bears did, but that both kinds were much the lesser in craft and in wisdom. No bear had ever feared a man, not even when they had taken up sticks and rocks and begun to hunt prey much larger than themselves. No bear would ever let himself be trapped like a buffalo, or driven off a cliff as they were.
             Still, something about the horned man had disturbed the old bear, and when the Men were done with the buffalo he had followed them. Instead of bringing the meat to their camp the horned Man had led the others to carry it to the camp of the Heavy-browned Men. Then, when those had fallen hungrily on the gift, he had pointed his stick again -- and the heavy-browed Men, every last one, had been killed.
             The old bear had waited a long time after that, anxiously licking at the greasy fur of his belly. He did not understand why the Men had killed their cousins; they had not taken their bodies for food, but had left them to rot. And so the old bear had gone back to the cave, to hear the wisdom of his fathers.
             Now he drew on the cave wall, trying to capture that wisdom so all bears could see it. Scenes of Men and beasts covered the rock, telling the story that they had to hear. He heard the first of them arriving at the mouth of the cave, tried to organize his thoughts.
             It was wisdom, more than anything else, that Men hated and feared; it was craft they could not suffer to live. That was why they hunted their cousins and left the bodies uneaten -- and, the old bear knew, they would do it to him if they knew.
             All bears had to be told. Men could not be allowed to suspect -- had to think they were only beasts, like the buffalo. Only if a bear was sure to die, or to kill all those that saw him, could the truth be shown.
             Would Men remember? Would they tell, around the fires of their camps, tales of the days when bears had spoken and walked as they did? Or, when they saw the paintings and the homes that the bears had made, would they ascribe them to their own fathers? The old bear worried on that question for a while, let it go. So long as all bears bound themselves to the rules he gave, they would survive.
             One by one the bears came into the cave, drawn from all the corners from which he had called them. The old bear uttered a prayer to his fathers and turned to speak.
             Not to go on two legs. That is the law.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Another link masquerading as actual content

I'm still neck-deep in audio files, but fortunately I have another guest item on another blog, answering three questions for Maggie Slater about "The Afflicted," which is the first story in the upcoming anthology Zombies: More Recent Dead as well as being in Irregular Verbs. Maggie kindly says "There’s a definite reason Johnson’s story was chosen to kick off the collection."


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Guest blog up at Novelocity: What fictional creature would you most like as a pet?

No time for a Spoiler Space this week because I've been in the recording studio (don't worry, I'm not starting a singing career; I'm recording audio for an educational computer game we're doing at the day job.) Luckily, my guest blog at Novelocity has been posted: I'm in fine company among Leslie Williams, Lawrence M. Schoen, Beth Cato, Ken Liu, Steve Bein, Fran Wilde, Tina Connolly and Michael R. Underwood as we all talk about what fictional animal we'd most like to have as a pet (hint: I get to use the phrase "two tons of psychic warmoose.")


Thursday, August 07, 2014

Video: "Irregular Verbs" reading from the CZP summer book launch

A couple of Fridays ago ChiZine held a launch for their summer books (Kenneth Mark Hoover's Haxan, Brent Hayward's Head Full of Mountains, and of course Irregular Verbs) at Maxwell's here in Ottawa. The crowd wasn't too bad for summertime and they seemed to enjoy the readings a lot. Luckily for me Rob Olsen, of Geek Inked magazine, was there to film it. Enjoy!

Part one

Part two


Monday, August 04, 2014

Unwise Speculation: Funding cut for On Spec magazine

I've just read that the Canada Council for the Arts has decided not to provide funding to On Spec, saying that "the quality of the writing remained low." (Diane Walton, On Spec's managing editor, excerpts some of the letter here.) Apparently for the last several years the Council has been moving towards judging On Spec by the standards of Canadian literary writing (suggesting that they publish "a higher quality of fiction" and publish "better-known" Canadian writers) and the axe has finally dropped.

The timing of this is particularly stinging considering that this year sees the publication of the 25th anniversary collection of stories from On Spec, which is being launched next weekend at When Words Collide. I'm honoured to say that this collection includes "Closing Time," my first published story, and I'm far from the only Canadian SF/F writer to have got my start there. On Spec has been a central part of the Canadian SF community for a quarter century and has played a major role in the growth of Canadian SF in that time.

Here's Diane's summary of the situation: "After twenty-five years, we should know what our own readers want and like. It is painfully apparent the juries at Canada Council do not. But who are we publishing On Spec for? While it has been suggested that perhaps it is time we begin to kowtow to the tastes of these gatekeepers of Canadian literary culture, we simply cannot do this."

The Council's decision is final, but there are things we can do to help On Spec: getting a subscription or buying individual issues or donating money through Patreon. Just as importantly, you can help to show that speculative fiction is an important part of Canadian literature by writing to and expressing your opinion to the Grants for Magazines staff. (I'll be posting mine as an open letter when I'm done writing it.)

Musical bonus: to explain the situation to non-Canadian readers, here's Kari Maaren performing "Can Lit":


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tales From the Trunk: "Heartless"

Not every unpublished story made it into Irregular Verbs, and there's a good reason for that. "Tales From the Trunk" looks at those stories that didn't quite make it: today it's "Heartless."

Though I've said that one of the things I like about this collection is how different the stories are from each other, there are also a lot of connections between them. Many of the stories share common settings, even if those are only alluded to: "Lagos" and "The Last Islander" are in the same future (as is "The Ninth Part of Desire," which was left out of the book) and all of the time travel/time alteration stories have a rough connection to each other. Most of the secondary-world fantasy stories also take place in the same world, though quite different parts of it: there's one textual connection between "Closing Time" and "Irregular Verbs," while the Dead Men in "The Dragon's Lesson" are called that because there's no H sound in the language spoken by the people in "The Wise Foolish Son." (Long story.)

Aside from "Public Safety" and "Au Coeur des Ombres," "Heartless" is the story I've written that has the nearest connection to another one: it's actually set in the same part of the same world as "The Wise Foolish Son" and, like that story, involves two characters from the same two different cultures. While I think it's a modestly moving little story, I decided to leave it out because, unlike "The Wise Foolish Son," it doesn't really connect to anything bigger than itself.

But hey, what do I know? Judge for yourself.


  Welcome to you all, my brothers. It is an honour to have you all here, where I might show you those workings of which I am most proud; a rare honour, indeed, since we who make study of the Lord of Lightning and his substance are not, as a general rule, sociable in nature. I well remember the fear and suspicion that had to be overcome to organize our first meeting -- and the treachery and theft that nearly made the second the last. We guard our secrets jealously, as craftsmen will, but still we have pride, and a wish to show our workings to those that can appreciate them. And so here we are.
It is on that very matter -- our solitary nature -- that I mean to speak to your today. For all that I agreed to host this meeting, I am not immune to the suspicion of which I spoke. Rightly so: for while you have all been, I hope, impressed by the workings I have shown you -- I am particularly proud of the bottomless chalice of wine I passed around earlier, though I fear Atan may have drained it -- nevertheless I will tell you today that I once nearly lost something more precious than any of those, indeed my very greatest treasure.
This story begins on a winter afternoon, in a wood between Kaman and the civilized lands. I had heard, some bells earlier, the cry of a she-bear giving birth -- if you have never heard it, it is a sort of rONNNk! -- and had gone in search of it. It is a widely known fact, of no great value, that the young of bears are grown unformed, and do not take their shape until the she-bear licks them into it. The she-bear, after giving birth, is very thirsty, and must go in search of water to lick its young into shape. If a boltforge can acquire the mass while the she-bear is absent, it can be shaped instead into a little servant, most clever with both domestic tasks and duties of enchantment; Kuyurken, who was passing the chalice earlier, is one such, whom I crafted much later.
On that day, however, I was unsuccessful, and the she-bear returned to her cub before I could find it. As I made my way back to my home, though, I heard another sound, not unlike the she-bear's cry but much quieter. Curious, I followed it; in a clearing I saw the dead bodies of a man and a woman. Each was clad in Kamanai skins and jackets and their throats were torn out, their blood staining the snow for poles around. The only question was where the sound was coming from. I had no doubt this was its source, but could not see what was making it. I had left my ghost-seeing eye at home, not expecting to need it, and so was momentarily perplexed; after a moment I saw, hidden under snow in a small cave made by a deep tree root, a girl. She was crying.
My curiosity satisfied, I turned back towards home, but called out. "Help me, please," she said.
This was a surprise. I had been wearing, for protection from the she-bear, a bronze mask of my own devising, shaped with the eyes of a hawk, the ears of a cat and the nose of a dog; this was meant to hide me from all sight, hearing and smell, and it had done so successfully earlier. How then did she know I was there? Clearly she could not, and I took another step away.
"I can see your footsteps," she said. "Please, whoever or whatever you are, help me."
A-ha; of course I still left traces, in the snow -- something a bear might miss, but a child would not. I turned back towards her, removed the mask. She betrayed no surprise when I appeared in front of her, but squirmed out of the space under the tree. Clearly she was the child of the dead man and woman: she had on the same clothing, and was tall and thin, with bright red hair that fell straight to her shoulders. She was, to my eyes, rather tall to be a child, but her slim frame and unlined face, as well as her voice, showed that she was. "Is that your bear?" she asked.
I frowned. "My bear?"
"Did you send it to kill us? You look like a spirit-man." She spat at my feet. "Did you come to kill me too?"
"Why did you call out to me, if you thought I would kill you?"
She threw her head back, no doubt trying to look defiant. "I'm dead when night comes anyway, in this cold. Maybe if I face you I can kill you and take your magic, like in the stories." She balled her small hands into fists, stood ready to strike.
I smiled, looking at the bundle of bone and skin that faced me. "I'm afraid I am not one of your wild spirit-men, child, nor did I control that animal. Your parents simply ran afoul of a she-bear protecting her young."
"Oh," she said, looking deflated, and her hands relaxed. "But how did you keep me from seeing you?"
"It is my craft to do such things." I put the mask back on, was rewarded with a gasp as I disappeared, then took it off again. "I am a boltforge; my craft is that of Tivakar of old, and it is the blood of the Lord of Lightning that powers my workings." A bit overstated, I admit, but it is rare enough in my life of solitary study that I get to enjoy the awe I create in others.
"Are you going to save me, then?" she asked.
"Save you?"
"If you're not going to kill me, are you going to save me? In the stories, if a girl meets someone in the woods they either try to kill them or save them."
"This is not a story, child," I said. "Go home."
"I don't have a home," she said, her eyes moistening. "We were on our way to our spring camp. Baba and Papi were all I had."
I looked at her, unnerved as she began to cry.
"I'll freeze out here tonight," she said. "Can't I stay with you, just for one night?"
Frowning, I looked her over again; thin to the point of starving, but clean enough for a Kamanai, and she did not seem louse-ridden. "How old are you? What is your name?" I asked.
She paused for a moment, no doubt counting in her head. "This is my fifteenth winter," she sniffed. "My name is Vasilyusha."
"I can't say that," I said, "It's not a proper name. My name is Erkekan, and I will call you Tikasai."
"What does it mean?"
"It means this," I said, turning the mask around to show her the amber stone set into the forehead. "That is what I came to this land to find, so that is what I will call you."
We soon arrived at my home, which at that time was within the trunk of a hollow oak; she was properly impressed when the space within opened up to us, and she found herself in the anteroom. There were some blankets there which I often used to warm myself up after I had been outside, and I gave her those to make her bed. Then I called upon the door that led further in and retired to my chamber.
I found her awake in the morning, and led her to the kitchen so she could have a small breakfast before going. The appearance of a door in the formerly smooth wall startled her, and I admit to some pleasure at that.
"You may have another helping, if you wish," I said after she had finished a deep bowl of porridge. "I cannot promise you will find any food on your journey."
She looked up at me, porridge still on her lips. "I thought -- you said --"
"I said you could stay here for a night, and you did. Now you must go."
"No," she said, crossing her thin arms. "I've got nowhere to go to. If you let me stay, I'll -- I'll do your cleaning, your cooking."
"I have no need of that," I said.
She frowned at me. "I can tell just by looking at you, you don't know how to cook."
"Nor do I care for cleaning. But it gets done; look at your bowl."
"Why?" she asked, then near to jumped from her chair; six of my ai gimerkai, tiny bronze men just a finger high, were turning the bowl over and cleaning it with wire bristles on their hands. Her surprise gave way to wonder, and she reached out to touch one.
"So you see," I said, smiling, "I have no need for housekeeping. There is --" I stopped. Now it was my turn to be startled: one of the gimerkai, which should have been cleaning the bowl, had instead climbed onto the finger she had reached out with. It stood in her palm, holding itself still for her to look at it. "What did you do?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "I just wanted to see it better, and I touched it -- then it climbed up with its bristles. They sort of tickle..."
"You made it come to you," I said. "Perhaps -- perhaps you have a place here after all. I made the ai gimerkai to be sensitive to command by one with the touch... here." I picked up the gimerkai, drew the tiny chip of amber out of its lone eye with my fingertip. It fell still, lifeless once more.
"What did you do to it?" she asked.
"This is the power in it," I said, holding the stone out to her. "It will revive once I've replaced it. But right now I'd like you to hold this, concentrate on it."
"Close your eyes. Imagine a little fire inside the stone."
I watched carefully as her eyes closed, wondering if the gimerkai's action might have been a fluke. Shortly, though, the chip flashed with a tiny light. "What was that?" she asked.
"Your future," I said. For I had, after all, been looking to make a servant to help me with my workings; by the Lady's grace it seemed I had.
I taught her the door charm first, so she could get into the kitchen; when I thought she was ready for another working I made her a room and showed her how to call a door to it. When she had done so I taught her to call the door to my outermost workroom, and she began to assist me with my less difficult workings. If I had doubted at first that she had the Lord of Lightning's touch, I surely did not now. She advanced quickly in her skill and knowledge, and as the years passed she learned much of my art, and learned to call on more of the doors in my house. In that time she showed no interest in leaving, being fully absorbed in her studies. I raised the matter once or twice more, but before long I thought her help invaluable to my work.
Time, as we here all know, passes swiftly when one is at work; the space of ten years was nothing then, and before I knew it Tikasai was a skilled boltforge in her own right. She had grown, too, into a woman. Though she had always a slender frame, a steady diet helped to fill her out so she no longer looked to be on the edge of starvation, and for the first time in many years I wondered if she might be better to leave. She had not learned enough of my craft to give away any of my true secrets, and I knew -- or remembered, from my youth -- that by her age most women were married, and often had borne children. One night at supper, therefore, I asked her if she wished to return to her people, or journey south to civilized lands.
"Why?" she asked. "Are you unhappy with me?"
"No, no," I said. "But this is a lonely life -- I wished only to know you had a choice, now that you are grown."
"I don’t find it lonely," she said. "Besides, why would I want the life I would have had? Married young, children at my breast, moving from camp to camp with the tent on my back -- no, thank you."
I smiled. "There are more doors open to you now. Not all boltforges live as I do, in study; many serve captains and princes, or even themselves, and many of those are very rich. It might be a wise thing to do, before you get too much older."
"Do boltforges grow older?" she asked, laughing. "I was starting to think we didn't. You don't look a day older now than you did the day you found me."
"That's none of your business," I said -- a bit fiercely, I realized by the look on her face.
"I'm sorry," she said after a moment. "I didn't mean to..."
I felt sorry for having snapped at her. "Forgive me," I said. "You're right; I do not age, and though I feel pain and cold, neither can kill me. You must swear, now, on the Lord of Lightning, that you will tell no-one what I am going to tell you."
"I swear," she said.
"I have done a thing greater than even Tivakar himself ever crafted. Each of us has, within us, a death. I drew my death out of me, and hid it, so that so long as its vessel is intact I will live."
"Could I do that?"
I shook my head. "It took me a lifetime of study to learn it. It is my greatest working."
She smiled. "Then," she said, "I suppose I had better get to work."
Her words inspired me. In the years since I had accomplished that working, my studies had become arcane and obscure. Now, in her company, I again became ambitious. Endless hours we worked, struggling to recreate the great legendary workings and to break new ground of our own. Her learning progressed quickly, the charms to the various doors in my home serving as benchmarks; when she learned to open each one she was permitted to work in that room. So it was that she saw more and more of my workings, learned more and more of my secrets, as the doors opened to her. Finally came the day she surprised even me -- or rather, the night; for it followed the day we recreated Teken's Atomile Tempest, a working thought lost to time. It was a triumph for us both, and on that night she showed she had learned the charm to my door.
Oh, it was never a great passion, I suppose. Not the stuff of ballads or legends, certainly. But we cared for one another -- or at least, I found I cared for her, and believed she cared for me. Our work continued, more and more now as equals (or nearly so) than as master and student. Many and happy were the years that followed, and many were the great workings we made.
Love, though, is no bar to time; it is a thing of mortals, not the Powers, and has no force outside the heart. So it was that I, ageless through my art, did not notice the days that were laid upon her one by one, until finally they weighed so heavily she could not even leave our bed.
"My time is almost up," Tikasai said to me as I sat by her side. "But my life has been full of wonders. I think sometimes perhaps I am still in the snow, and all this has been a dream of my last moments."
"If so, then I am dreaming too," I said.
"If all the things I have seen and done were real," she said, "let me see one more. Teach me the charm to that last door that is unopened."
She meant, of course, the door to my innermost room, the door where lay my greatest working -- that with which I had drawn out my death. At that moment I could not bear the thought of seeing her die, so I taught her the charm, which she mastered easily. That door then opened for us, and I carried her into the workroom.
There it sat: still my greatest working, even after all we had done together, untouched for years past counting. I cannot tell you how it works, of course, but suffice to say that at its core was a suit, close like a stocking, stitched of copper thread, which was to cover the whole body, and though Tikasai could barely stand I fitted it onto her. Her life was clearly ebbing, and I began to teach her the charm that would call the working into life.
As I did I began to reflect that when I taught her this, I would have no more secrets from her. She would know all that I had ever known. Nothing but her love would keep her from leaving, teaching those secrets to others; and love, like all mortal things, dies in time. But she would never die.
"What's the matter?" she asked when I hesitated. I saw on her face, with eyes clear for the first time in scores of years, the look of a thief about to escape. "Erkekan?" her fading voice called. "Why are you stopping?"
All of you here know how precious are our greatest treasures; I am amazed, still, when I think of how close I came to losing that which was mine...


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Spoiler Space: "The Wise Foolish Son"

This is a story about how history becomes legend. It's also, like a lot of the stories in this book, about what happens when cultures collide. It's not hard to guess that this story is inspired by Russian folktales, but it was also inspired by Russian, or rather pre-Russian history, in particular the fact that the earliest Russian cities were actually trading posts set up by Norse traders (known to the Slavs and Greeks as Varangians; the Byzantine Emperors, who were not overly fussy about distinguishing between hairy northerners, had a Varangian Guard that at times included Anglo-Saxon refugees from the Norman Conquest.) What's fascinating about this is that within just a few generations there was practically no trace of Norse culture: as F. Donald Logan put it in The Vikings in History, "in 839, the Rus were Swedes. In 1043, the Rus were Slavs."

As much as cultures get diluted, assimilated and even annihilated, they resist too: the Chinese under the Manchus, the Tibetans under the Chinese, even the English under the Normans, but I don't know any other cases where the founding dynasty of a nation was completely absorbed into the culture of the subject people. So this is a story about someone who tries to bring his culture (though it hasn't done him any favours) to a "savage" people and, though they're changed as a result, winds up one of them in memory.

It's also a story about growing up in Canada, and in Ottawa in particular. Like a lot of cities on rivers, Ottawa has a twin across the water, Hull (now technically part of the amalgamated city of Gatineau) but the division is greater than in most such cases because the two cities literally speak different languages. Though like most Ottawans of my generation I learned French growing up, Hull always seemed like a foreign country -- something only exacerbated by the fact that I my early childhood was spent during the leadup to the Quebec separation referendum of 1980. The landscape that Dasatan moves through is also very much like the country I spent my summers exploring in the Gatineau region of Quebec. In some ways this story is a twin to "The Coldest War": while that one is about surviving winter, this one is about how "summer pays for all."  

Sources: I'd been in love with Ivan Bilibin's Russian Fairy Tales for years before I wrote this story, and both the text and the images were a huge influence on it. I've also always been a fan of those big Time-Life Great Ages of Man books -- I wouldn't necessarily recommend them as history but they're great for writers since they're crammed with visual material and fascinating little details: I mostly used the Barbarian Europe and Rise of Russia volumes for this story.

The material about how you find amber is all true, but I don't remember where I found it. Sorry!