The Stories Behind the Stories

The Book’s first story, First Contact, was the last tale in the tome to be added. It almost didn’t make it into this edition, as I was going to send it to the magazines. But it turned into a pretty long short story, and the book was a few hundred words short of what I’d considered its minimum length.
As the name suggests, it is about biologists from Earth studying life on an alien planet. Now, I’m agnostic on the idea that this isn’t the only place life is, but I tend to think we’re not. But we have no scientific idea how life started to begin with. It’s possible the universe was born, lived, and died a billion times before there was life; it’s just not known.
But not knowing doesn’t stop me from writing about space aliens. If there is in fact no other life, we could not know it because of how unimaginably huge the universe is.
If we do find life, even intelligent life (what the story is about), it most certainly won’t look anything like us and probably unlike anything on Earth. Forget about Vulcans and Klingons, we will never meet creatures like those. I made fun of shows and stories with human-like space aliens in the book Nobots.
My youngest daughter said she didn’t like the name because so many other stories have the same name, but I think it’s perfect on many levels.
The character “Russ Rhome” was named after a drinking buddy who asked that I put his name in a book. The real Russ isn’t a scientist, just as the real Dewey Green isn’t a rich engineer. The character was originally named “Ralph” for a late friend who was in the Navy in World War Two. Ralph Wiebe died in 2007 at age 87.
Weights, distances, and temperatures are all in metric in this book. The US is one of a very few countries not on the metric system, and all science is done using metrics.
A meter is a little longer than a yard, a kilometer is a little longer than half a mile, and a centimeter is about half an inch. A kilogram is a little over two pounds. With temperatures, zero Celsius is thirty two Fahrenheit, and a hundred Celsius is two hundred twelve Fahrenheit, the temperature water boils. Twenty Celsius is sixty eight Fahrenheit.
I started The Pirate after I realized that between the novel Mars, Ho! And the other works in this volume, there were an awful lot of pirates, but we never get to meet any of them except the two brigands in the title story, and then only slightly.
Happenings in the novel Mars, Ho! are mentioned briefly in the story (the attempted kidnapping of Dewey’s daughter), and several of its characters return in this narrative, as well as in later stories.
I’ve given nods to folks I’ve never met but have a lot of respect for. For instance, William Nigh for “Bill Nye, the science guy”. Leonard Knapp was Lester Del Rey’s real name. In stories later in the book, Ed Waldo was Theodore Sturgeon’s birth name.
There really is an asteroid named Hebe, they really do think it has a satellite, and they really did nickname the satellite “Jebe”. And Hebe really was “bartender to the gods”. Most sources say “cupbearer to the gods”, but a thesaurus tells me that “bartender” and “cupbearer” are synonyms. I researched this stuff, folks!
Hebe is in fact one of the ten most massive objects in the belt.
If you’re wondering what a maser is and if it’s real, it is. The word “laser” is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulation of Emitted Radiation. A maser is the same as a laser, except that it operates in the microwave frequencies rather than the optical frequencies. Think of a microwave oven on steroids; a real ray gun, and masers do exist. However, today’s masers are huge things requiring enormous amounts of power to run.
The next two stories are flash fiction, which is what I mostly wrote before about five years ago. As with Stealth, as Stephen King said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a story is just a story.”
Watch Your Language, Young Man! is obviously about how language changes; when I was a kid, “bitch”, “damn”, and “hell” couldn’t be spoken on TV, but many of the obnoxiously racist yet often heard words back then are forbidden in polite society today.
The Naked Truth came about when I saw a Facebook posting that showed a photo depicting a mug of beer, with the caption “Beer—because no good story ever started with someone eating a salad.” When I saw it, I decided to write a good story that starts with someone eating a salad.
I believe I’ve succeeded, mainly (and ironically) because of the rejection slip from Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. Publications like that get up to a thousand story submissions a month, and since they print an average of a half dozen every month or two, only the very best are published. Rejection slips are almost always form letters, word for word identical no matter what magazine.
The F&SF rejection came straight from the desk of C.C. Finlay, its editor-in-chief. The story had made it all the way to him. The slip said he was intrigued by the idea of a murder mystery set on Mars, but he didn’t like the ending.
I’m pretty proud of that one. Mr. Finlay said on his blog that he wishes he could print a third of the submissions he gets, and that rejection tells me this is one of them (I suspect he was disappointed with the way things turned out).
When I started writing it I had no idea what it was going to be about, except that it was going to start with someone eating a salad. Sometimes it feels like the stories write themselves.
Cornodium started with even less than The Naked Truth—absolutely nothing, not even a guy eating a salad. I was in a bit of a slump, having started a few stories that went nowhere. So I started writing this one cluelessly, having a guy wake up with a headache. At first, until I figured out what the story was about, it was just the radio relay message.
I wrote the narrator as if he were me, and realized in the editing phase that he could be a she; only two words needed to be changed to neutralize the character’s gender.
If you look at the narrator as a woman, there is an unstated hint of romance with Roger. Me reading it, it’s an old friend I’ve known a long time, even a drinking buddy, not a lover. I never even thought of that when I wrote it. But at any rate, I’m hopeful that it will make the story more enjoyable to women without lessening men’s enjoyment.
By the time the guy dies, the story had come to me. This was going to be an answer to the Fermi Paradox: the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates, like those given by the Drake equation, for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. Actually, I think there is no real paradox, but that the Drake equation and others like it are missing an awful lot of variables. After all, we have no clue how life started here. All we know is how it evolved after abiogenesis occurred.
I’ve discovered that sometimes my stories’ vocabularies are a bit large for the average high school graduate. One woman was reading my novel Nobots in a bar once, and asked me if “Australopithecus” was a real word (it is). Someone else asked if she looked up those words, would they be in a dictionary? Most of them, including “abiogenesis” (the original changing of the lifeless to the alive). There is in fact no such thing as “cornodium”, but there are piezoelectrics. They have been used for over a century in acoustic and electric applications. The rest of the words are also real.
Moroned off Vesta is a tribute to Dr. Isaac Asimov and his first published story. No, I won’t apologize for the bad pun and yes, it was deliberate.
This event was mentioned briefly at the beginning of the novel Mars, Ho! When the transport captain is called in to see the company CEO, and is sure he’s going to get fired or worse for the occurrence.
I’ve never been to New York and am not a newspaper journalist, but I did really get the email referenced in The Exhibit, with the same subject line as the email in the story. There really was an art show at the address in the story that was as described, and the artist’s name was in fact Evan Yee.
I had to use Google to find out a little about New York, like how long it took to get from the Times to the exhibit.
Agoraphobia came to me as I was writing Voyage to Earth, when John and Dick are discussing the discomfort they’ll experience on Earth after an extended time on Mars’ one third of Earth’s gravity. I thought “hmm… someone born on Mars would find Earth pure hell!”, a thought that apparently never occurred to Robert Heinlein when he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land.
In the story, people from the asteroid belt are called “Asterites”. I’d like to take credit, but I first saw asteroid people called “Asterites” in a Poul Anderson story written under the pen name “Winston P. Sanders” titled Industrial Revolution. Asterite is a mineral also called “star stone”. Clever of Mr. Anderson, as when viewed from Earth through a telescope, asteroids (including the dwarf planet and the protoplanet) look like stars but are in reality really big, gigantic stones, or piles of them.
Not counting the silly stuff I wrote on my old Quake web site (much of which is in the book Random Scribblings), A Strange Discovery was my first science fiction story. It’s been almost five years since I wrote that one, and I can’t remember what triggered it. The same goes for the next few stories.
Weird Planet is a story with a few grandiloquent words and quite a few bogus words. One of the longer real words is defined when used, and if you haven’t figured it out yet or didn’t already know, dihydrogen monoxide is H20, the chemical name for water. Water is actually burned hydrogen’s ashes. I only include it because googling it likely will lead you to mostly joke sites instead of explanations.
Yes, I try to sneak learning into these stories, as so many science fiction writers before me have.
Here is a short list of definitions of some terms, both real and bogus:
“Gorflak” and “lorg” are alien vulgarities.
There are no such things as “actimar limbs”, I made that up. Context is king.
“Large, stationary life forms” are trees.
A “gorflag” is nonexistent, at least as far as anyone knows. “Iglaps” and “Lokfars” are imaginary units of time.
All the rest of the words are in dictionaries.
With Dewey’s War, sometimes a revolution is just a revolution.
In Plutus’ Revenge, Plutus was the ancient Greek god of wealth, and Vulcan was the ancient Roman god of fire. Schnee is German for “snow”, and raj means “paradise” in several languages.
Theia was the Mars sized object that collided with the early Earth, the molten splash later coalescing into the moon.
Ragnarok comes from Norse mythology. It fortells future events that lead to a great battle that kills the gods Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdallr, and Loki, leading to a natural disaster that floods the entire world. Afterwards the water recedes and two humans repopulate the Earth.
Sentience is pretty self-explanatory. You might want to google “John Searle”.
Or not.
I was writing Voyage to Earth when I got the idea that hey, maybe if I could get these stories published in a magazine it would really increase my readership. The first story I submitted was Dewey’s War, to Analog, before Voyage was finished. They held on to it for eight or nine months.
I knew nothing of submitting stories to magazines, and had to do quite a bit of research. I learned what formats magazines demanded, and so forth; all have posted guidelines, making it easier.
Voyage to Earth garnered my first rejection slip; F&SF responds quickly. I didn’t know at the time how much competition there was, so didn’t realize how unusual a rejection from a person who actually typed out an e-mail was. A slush reader or junior editor wrote that it was a good story and well-written, but the beginning didn’t grab her.
So I took a story titled “Amnesia” and combined it with Voyage to Earth, which had referenced events in the other story, anyway; Amnesia starts out well, grabbing the reader right off the bat. As I had already posted Amnesia, neither it nor the expanded Voyage could be submitted to anyone except the few low-readership places that accept reprints, and there’s no point, since I write to be read, not to be paid.
The “Richardson Death Ship” is from my novel Mars, Ho!, where a miswritten schematic diagram could endanger ships. The idea came from my teenage years when I bought two Heathkits; one, a shortwave radio receiver and the other a guitar amplifier. Heathkits were just that: kits that had to be assembled, and back then there were no integrated circuits, all was discrete components that one had to solder in.
Back then, electrical plugs weren’t polarized; most things didn’t need it. Polarized plugs, with one blade wider than the other, came about in the seventies. But the polarity did matter with the amplifier; the wrong polarity caused a hum. So the designers made the power switch with two “on” positions, with “off” between the two powered.
But both the schematics and wiring instructions were wrong. The way they had it wired had both “on” positions feeding power in the same polarity. After fuming for a couple of weeks, figuring I’d screwed up somehow, I studied the schematics closely, especially the switch wiring, and it didn’t make sense. So I got out my soldering iron, rewired like I thought was logical, and it worked!
Half a century later, Richardson’s death ship was born.
When I announced to co-workers that I was retiring a few years back, they were aghast. “But what will you do?” Anything I want to do, of course. I didn’t live to work, I worked to live. But that was actually the impetus for my sequel to Kurt Vonnegut’s 2BR02B.
If Mr. Vonnegut had published 2BR02B a few years later, I would not have been legally able to write my sequel, since they passed the Bono act. That legislation extended copyright far beyond what the founding fathers wanted, ninety five years for a corporation, and ninety five years after an author’s death if privately done. It’s just wrong. Please contact your state’s Senators and your congressperson and ask (demand is fine too) that the Bono Act (sometimes called the “Steamboat Willie Preservation Act”) be repealed. The public domain is a terrible thing to lose.
However, I don’t see it happening in my lifetime. More realistic is to ask them, and hope that they comply, to add to the copyright law that after a work is out of print it enters the public domain. That would at least solve the “orphan works” problem caused by the Bono Act.
In the story, it’s casually mentioned that lemmings rushing into the sea is a hoax, and in fact it is a hoax, perpetrated by Walt Disney and his film company.
In closing, thank you for reading this book. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.




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