Monthly Archives: September 2015


NorstriliaNorstrilia by Cordwainer Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s something a bit strange about only children. Maybe it’s not polite to point it out, but not having siblings seems to leave one without context and make one a little bit more difficult to relate to. That’s what I felt with Norstrilia, the only completed novel of Paul Linebarger, a diplomat, foreign operative, and expert on psychological warfare who wrote and published science fiction under the moniker of Cordwainer Smith. Norstrilia is a strange only child.

Not only was it strange in content and tone, it was a bit awkward in form. The work was published originally as two separate pieces (serialized?) in magazines. It was only stitched together into a whole narrative later. And this particular work was compiled by a specialty press and included all the textual variations in an appendix at the end. Why do I get suspicious with textual variations? An author is never sure exactly what to say or how to say it, but usually they manage to hide this uncertainty. I suppose I don’t like the reminder of having it made manifest.

That all probably sounds like complaining, but I enjoyed reading Norstrilia quite a bit. I think I was prepared for it because even though it doesn’t have any siblings, it does have some cousins: those strange half-breeds and vagabonds that are the fiction of R. A. Lafferty. Norstrilia wasn’t a Lafferty, but it had several similar features: the strange, rollicking pace; the larger-than-life characters; the comfort with the bizarre; and the lack of emphasis on a tight, cogent plot.

So here’s what it’s about: in the far future there’s a planet called Norstrilia (a contraction of “North Australia”) that grows a viral serum that ensures long life for the rest of the galaxy and makes Norstrilia incredible rich by its export. (Think Arrakis with giant mutant sheep.) The planet is the epitome of the hardy, frontier lifestyle that Smith saw in his own time in Australia, and to preserve this way of life (as well as population control), Norstrilia has kept itself poor on purpose– even though most of its inhabitants are fabulously wealthy. One of the ways they do this is by making imports to the world incredibly expensive. The other is a test at the age of adulthood to determine whether the Norstrilian youth will receive full legal status or be killed (think the gom jabbar, also from Dune).

Against this weird background one Norstrilian grows up handicap, unable to telepathically spiek or hier like his peers. He uses a forbidden computer to play the markets and more or less by accident becomes the wealthiest man in the universe, and he buys the Earth. Traveling to Earth, he’s manipulated by various agencies– including Cordwainer’s famous Instrumentality of Man, the animal-engineered servants of humanity, and a mysterious agency living beneath the surface of the planet. Along the way a lot of things happen, with wild, lazy, larger-than-life brushstrokes that remind of Lafferty.

There’s a lot of bigness and beauty here, shot through with much weirdness. I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much had I not already read things along these lines– again, had I not been inoculated, so to speak, by Lafferty. I don’t know if this means Lafferty is a gateway drug, but he certain helped. There are rambles here, large figments of imagination floating like icebergs in a froth of Silver Age science fiction, and meanderings enough to annoy someone used to the clipped, brisk pace of contemporary scifi.

But there is kindness as well. When a friend recommended this book, he said he thought kindness was a theme of Smith’s work. I see what he means, though the turn is abrupt and inexplicable halfway through the novel. The main character has a crisis of faith– mitigated by a psychological hall of horrors akin to the trial that started the narrative– from which he emerges with a sense of humility, gratitude, and benevolence. He is filled with pity for the erstwhile enemy that instigated his banishment from Norstrilia (though the denouement with this character is quite weak). From what I’ve read, Smith’s high church Anglicanism shaped his writing here in some respects.

In all, this was a book I enjoyed reading for its comfort with the bizarre and its quirks, but I’m not sure how strongly I’d recommend it to readers at large. I could see it being a bit impenetrable. But if you’ve cut your teeth on someone like Lafferty or even the meandering far futures of Gene Wolfe’s New Sun, you might give Smith a try.

On blood moons and tetrads

lunar eclipse
“Lunar eclipse April 15 2014 California Alfredo Garcia Jr1” by Tomruen – [1]. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

There is a lunar eclipse coming the end of this month, and depending on who you ask it is significant for different reasons. In fact, there has been a lot of hype about this particular eclipse (or rather, series of eclipses) in some Christian circles with the term “blood moon tetrad” often being used in conjunction with prophetic claims. I’m certainly not a specialist in Biblical prophecy, interpretation, or the history of Israel, but I can unpack some of the sensationalized terminology here and help sort out the science behind the hype.

Let’s start with the term “blood moon.” The popular press has recently started using this term to refer to a lunar eclipse. Lunar eclipses happen quite frequently, usually twice a year, when the full Moon passes into the Earth’s shadow. This causes the Moon to fade in brightness over the period of a couple hours and often take on a deep red hue due to the Earth’s atmosphere and the way it scatters light.

Consider how the sky looks during a sunset: even though the Sun is hidden beneath the horizon, the atmosphere bends the red portions of sunlight toward us. From the Moon, during a lunar eclipse, the Sun is hidden behind the Earth. The glow of a ring of sunsets casts that red light onto the Moon’s surface, making it appear duly reddish or “blood red.” This effect can be heightened if the Moon is near the horizon, depending on atmospheric conditions.

So what about “tetrad”? There are different types of lunar eclipses. If the Moon only moves partly into the Earth’s shadow, it’s called a partial lunar eclipse. The eclipse of this month is the last in a series of four total eclipses, in which the Moon passes through the darkest portion of the Earth’s shadow. A series of four total lunar eclipses without any partial eclipses between is known as a tetrad. This current tetrad includes the total lunar eclipse of last April as well as the eclipses of April and October of last year.

How rare are such series of eclipses? Glancing through my copy of NASA’s huge “Five Millennium Canon of Lunar Eclipses,” which included information on all lunar eclipses from 2000 BC to 3000 AD, I see that over the past thirty years there was a tetrad in 2003/2004 and 1985/1986 (as well as several lunar “triads”). According to the website, there will be eight tetrads in the twenty-first century, while the years 1701 to 1899 had none at all. There were five in the twentieth century.

So what does this all have to do with Biblical prophecy? According to some sources, this particular tetrad is unique because it lines up with specific Jewish holidays. Last year, the first lunar eclipse of the series fell during Passover, as did the eclipse of April of this year. Last year the October lunar eclipse was during Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, which again corresponds with this month’s eclipse.

The important thing to remember though is that the Jewish calendar (unlike ours) is a lunar calendar; its months correspond with the actual phases of the Moon. Both Passover and Sukkot begin on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month, which usually corresponds with the full Moon. And because lunar eclipses only happen when the Moon is full, it’s not strange there would be occasional line-ups between these holidays and a series of lunar eclipses. How occasional? Again, according to, this has happened eight times since the birth of Christ.

And here’s where the prophet interpreters come in, offering links between the years in which a tetrad of lunar eclipses corresponded with these holidays and important events in the history of Israel. But that’s the problem: history is a complex, messy business, and the human mind is hard-wired to find patterns everywhere, even where they don’t exist. Plus, these “significant events” are subjective: how widely do you want to interpret what events are actually important? The tetrad of 1493-1494 is linked to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, for instance, but the order for the expulsion wasn’t signed in these years and the persecution lasted for decades. Making 1493-1494 especially significant is arbitrary. And other events that would seem to be significant are ignored: there was no lunar tetrad, for instance, during the Holocaust. Finally, I should add that this whole claim of prophetic significance is offered by individuals outside the Jewish community with little insight or regard into what that community would actually consider culturally or historically important in their own past.

In my mind, searching for codes in the night sky is much less useful than simply appreciating the grandeur of astronomy for what it is. And this month, regardless of prophetic forecasts, we have the chance to witness one of nature’s most impressive spectacles. The “blood moon tetrad” will conclude with the total lunar eclipse beginning the evening of Sunday, September 27th. (If you’re still looking for cosmic coincidents, here’s another one: my birthday is September 27th.)

The full moon rises in the east at sunset that evening. By 9:15 the Moon has begun to enter the darkest portion of the Moon’s shadow, marking the most vivid phase of the eclipse. It will be at its darkest at about 9:45, and the moon will begin to emerge from deep shadow at about 10:20. The Moon will not be completely out of the Earth’s shadow, however, until after midnight. As far as visibility, this will be an easy lunar eclipse to observe—taking place when the Moon is high in the early part of the evening. (Last year I had to make students get up before dawn to spot the eclipse.) So definitely take the opportunity to wonder and ogle, but try not to prognosticate.

This column first appeared in the Kankakee Daily Journal, August 28th, 2015.

Shimmer #27

Shimmer 27

Shimmer is a gem, and I don’t say that solely because they’ve given a home to two of my disheveled little pieces. Shimmer finds itself home to a lot of beautiful strays. It’s a speculative fiction magazine that has carved a place for itself for bedraggled bits of wonder, lovingly polished and arranged. I’m proud to be a part of it, especially this, its latest incarnation.

In the introduction to issue #27, the editor writes that all the included pieces all fit together if viewed from the right angle. (She says something like that.) They’re like interlocking puzzle pieces, but you have to cock your head just right to see how the combined scene flows. I like that, because it’s just true enough. You’ll come away from these stories knowing how they fit together, and I’ll come away knowing the same thing. But we’ll probably know differently.

To me, besides the gilded edges of wonder common to whatever Shimmer publishes, what held these stories together was a sense of loss. An ache. Something departed.

We start with Alix E. Harrow’s piece, “Dustbaby.”

No, we don’t. We start with the cover. Judge this magazine by its cover. The watercolors that Sandro Castelli does for each issue are one big detail that holds Shimmer together and makes it work. They’re lovely and lend a haunting consistency to the magazine’s shelf-appeal.

Now, start with Alix E. Harrow’s piece, “Dustbaby.” I don’t think I’d go so far as to call it an end-of-the-world story, because it’s not among those pieces of ecological devastation or infection or whatever that I’m getting tired of reading. It’s a bit deeper than that, and by that I mean historically richer. We’re back in the Dust Bowl, reimagined. What if the Dust Bowl had been the end, the casting off of a thin crust of tired soil so that something greener and wetter underneath could reemerge? What haunted those hills before our plows passed?

Harrow, herself a historian, does good work here. The images are rich, moving, and disturbing, and we get a reminder that some of the best stories don’t have endings but rather just larger beginnings—part of what’s so much fun about short stories.

(If you like magical apocalypses like “Dustbaby,” you might check out my own “The Crow’s Word,” published in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.)

My favorite piece in this issue (and yes, I might even be including my own) was K. L. Owens’ “A July Story.” Who doesn’t love a haunted house? And who doesn’t love a house with a mind, a mute tongue, and rooms stretching backward and forward in space and time? It might sound too much like the plot of an episode of Doctor Who, if “A July Story” wasn’t so steeped in character and place.

What makes this story work so well, beyond simply a compelling idea, are the characters: Kitten and Lana, and the place: the Pacific Northwest. Kitten’s a child of the English Industrial Revolution, torn out of time, marooned everywhere and nowhere. Lana’s a young girl from today. Their encounter, dialogue, and ultimate trajectories make a haunted house story a lot more than you expect. It’s also an especially strong tale because it takes place on a deeply textured backdrop of a particular time and space, which Owens makes clear in the interview following. Highly recommended.

Then you get to read my story, which is called “Black Planet.” I explained about this a bit in my interview in the issue (which you only get if you purchase the entire issue), so I won’t repeat that here. But I really like this little piece; I think it’s among the best I’ve written, and it’s for my sister.

The final piece in this work is the shortest, “The Law of the Conservation of Hair,” by Rachel K. Jones, which reads like a prose poem (and in fact might be in actuality a prose poem) about love and alien invasion and loss. Read it at least twice. Favorite line: “That we will take turns being the rock or the slingshot, so we may fling each other into adventure.”

So what about the common theme? Things get lost in different ways. Land, lives, siblings, and loves. Why do we sometimes feel richer for the loss—or rather, for the expression of the loss?

Do yourself a favor and grab Shimmer #27.