Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Why I Wrote "Trial of the Guardians"

by Alfred D. Byrd

Trials of the Guardians unites several themes that fascinate me — the Cthulhu Mythos, Kentucky's history, and the Bluegrass's strange topography. In this novella, I've tried to weave these themes into a tapestry that'll please aficionados of the Mythos and introduce new readers to it.

The Mythos needs no explanation to those who share my fascination with it. Those who don't yet share that fascination with me can learn of it best by reading works of the Mythos starting with H. P. Lovecraft's immortal "Call of Cthulhu," in many ways the Mythos' heart. Briefly put, the Mythos proclaims we humans exist but briefly in a tiny corner of a boundless, unending multiverse populated by ancient, alien intelligences that heed us only for how we may transiently benefit them — likely not for our own good. Only a few know of the Mythos' lore; even fewer of those stay sane…

The Mythos is universal and everlasting, but works itself out in forms shaped by the time and place of incidents within it. In my novella, I've explored the Mythos along the Kentucky River in the Bluegrass at the turn of the Twentieth Century, when riverboats are starting to vanish from waterways, and automobiles are starting to drive horse-drawn carriages from highways. Those ignorant of the Mythos proclaim progress that'd draw sneers of disdain from creatures of the Mythos did they deign to notice the boasters.

For my novella, I dealt with two questions the Mythos awakens: how does the earth stay safe from ancient intelligences, and how does the general public stay unaware of them? I answered the questions with "guardians," persons versed in the Mythos and taking on the challenge of using it against the entities it describes. As the guardians use the Mythos without truly understanding it — how can the finite comprehend infinity; how can the temporal grasp eternity? — the Mythos becomes in their hands "magic" worked by "spells." The magic does work — sometimes — at great cost to the guardians.

Traditionally, those aware of the Mythos have been loners, even recluses. Certainly, knowledge of it precludes an orderly social life. Making a virtue of necessity, I've made my guardians loners, too — persons dedicated to a calling setting them apart from the rest of humanity. They might be Knights Templars but that they must keep their very identity secret along with the Mythos. Their calling condemns them to be mistrusted by the very humanity they protect.

I don't specify the exact time in which my guardians operate, but those knowledgeable of history can set it between 1902 and 1910 of our era. Sadly, the guardians must operate in a time of prejudice — though can we say else of our own time? Human prejudices of those who look at the outward appearance, not at the heart, impede the guardians in their work. Theirs is a thankless task, but someone must do it. A cruel calling has determined that it must be they.

Many of the settings in Trials of the Guardians are historical. In particular, the institute of higher learning Paltiel Dunlea visits in hope of help from a fellow guardian is real, presently known as Kentucky State University, a land-grant college and a historically Black university. The name I give the institution in the novella is correct for the novella's timeframe. The fictional character Dr. Junius Breckinridge embodies difficulties a Black man of learning faced at the turn of the Twentieth Century. That he got involved in the Mythos only made his life harder.

Could prejudice extend past humanity's boundaries? At the end of Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth," I get an impression the Deep Ones could tell of themselves a much different story from the one the story's self-centered, impulsive narrator told of them and of their half-human hybrid kinspersons. In the character Kalawea, I give one of the hybrids a chance to tell that story. In respect of the Deep Ones — or of any other strangers we might meet — we may do well to keep in mind a principle my first employer taught me: "When you assume, you make an ass of you and me."

In Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas R. Hofstedter deals with an unpopular principle of science: the limits of knowability. However much we think we know, we may know far less than we think. We may even have no clear idea of how much we don't know. This principle comes into play in Trials of the Guardians, in which Paltiel and his fellow guardians must oppose with the academic equivalent of beads and rattles beings some might call gods. In the face of the Mythos, we're but children watching waves break on the shores of eternity and infinity. Lovecraft spoke best of our limits in the opening paragraphs of "The Call of Cthulhu." If you haven't read it, please do read it; if you have, you don't need me to urge you to read it again.

In Dune, Frank Herbert wrote, "What senses do we lack that we cannot see or hear another world all around us?" Maybe, we lack a sense of otherness. Looking out through the lens of our own experience, we may believe that three dimensions of space and the unidirectional arrow of time are all that exist. Even within these limited dimensions, we may see the stars only as dots of light on a night sky and project ourselves onto them. We may not conceive what beings may move among the stars — what beings may populate other dimensions that transcend ours, yet interact with them. Wanting to believe in ourselves as agents of free will, we reject predestination — but can we escape it? What can we do when beings greater than ourselves arrive in our world unforeseen and use it — and us — for purposes not our own — purposes perhaps inimical to us?

Maybe, we really do need guardians…

You can find Trial of the Guardians on Amazon.com.

You may also enjoy my collection of Cthulhu Mythos short stories, Blue Moon of Cthulhu.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Why I Wrote "Dark and Bloody Ground: Early Kentuckiana"

by Alfred D. Byrd

As a child both of whose parents came from eastern Kentucky's Appalachian highlands, and as an adult who's lived for over forty years in the Bluegrass, I've come to feel fascination with Kentucky's history. Sadly, in popular view, this had become distorted, a playground of stereotypes caught up in a game of good guys against bad guys. I've written Dark and Bloody Ground: Early Kentuckiana in hope of doing my part in correcting distortion. If we fail to see clearly where we've come from, how will we see where we're going?

Many labor under a misconception that what's now Kentucky was all but empty when Euro-American pioneers came over the Alleghanies to claim it. In truth, what's now Kentucky had been home to ancestors of today's Native Americans for millennia before the pioneers showed up there. Over those millennia, hunter-gatherers developed into advanced cultures — the Adena, the Hopewell, the Fort Ancient, and the Mississippian — that knocked on the door of civilization if they didn't cross its threshold. Sadly, many Euro-American New Agers deny the Native American origin of these cultures' remaining works and attribute them to Atlanteans, Ancient Egyptians, Vikings, or Celts — "respectable" peoples enthralling stories can be told about. In response to these stories, I've given you facts on which anthropologists and archaeologists generally agree.

Sadly, we don't know what these cultures called themselves. They never developed writing, and oral traditions that might've retained some knowledge of them were largely lost in plagues that wiped out most of North America's native population at the time of the Europeans' arrival. Novel diseases more than warfare with European settlers plunged surviving natives into what we moderns might call a post-apocalyptic lifestyle. What was for European immigrants crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land was for natives the Tribulation. We moderns may do well to grasp that what happened to them might also happen to us if we take our lifestyle for granted.

When history's curtain rises on what's now Kentucky, most of its land was uninhabited, reserved as a hunting ground shared by New York's Iroquois Confederacy; Ohio's Seven Nations, dominated by the Shawnee Nation; and the Cherokee Nation of eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and northeastern Georgia. Still, there were native settlements in Kentucky and a native presence guaranteed by the European powers that were striving to make North America there own. Native settlements persisted west of the Tennessee River into the early Nineteenth Century; Eskippakithiki, the last native settlement east of the Tennessee River, ended under mysterious circumstances in the mid-Eighteenth Century. The mystery of Eskippakithiki's end is one of many historical mysteries I touch on in the book. Some would give you their speculations about these mysteries as fact; I'll be honest with you and say, "I don't know." How often do you hear that phrase in this day of opinions spread worldwide with a single click on social media?

I tell the heart of Kentucky's early story in terms of state parks that memorialize parts of that history. Part of every story is its setting. In Kentucky's case, the setting is varied terrain in which landscape determined lifestyle. Hollows and ridges, rivers flowing through deep gorges, old-growth forest, rock houses, caves, sinkholes, pinnacles, and outlooks — the landscape was a challenge both to the natives and to European settlers who meant to supplant them. In some battles fought in this landscape, it was the victor. The state parks preserve, not only history, but also landscape it took place in.

In a historical work, even as modest as mine, terminology's important. When I write of pre-Columbian cultures, I use terminology from anthropology. When I reach historical times, it becomes a challenge to describe the people Europeans were displacing. In pioneer days, what we now call "Native Americans" were in polite usage called natives or more often Indians, a term that perpetuated an early Spanish misunderstanding of where their ships had arrived. (Atlantis, some might've told you.) The term "Native American" would've puzzled pioneers, who might've applied it indifferently both to natives and to native-born settlers. In the Nineteenth Century, the term came to mean native-born Whites, generally of English descent, in contrast with immigrants the "Native Americans" might not welcome to "their" land. Only in the Twentieth Century did "Native American" come to have its present meaning. I've used the terms from pioneer time to give a sense of the world in which natives and pioneers came into conflict.

Popluar perception of Kentucky's early history has suffered from tall tales and stories of adventure in which good guys fought bad guys in dark forests — from morality plays in which angels contended with demons. As the first tales were told by settlers and their descendants, it was traditional for settlers to be the good guys and Indians the bad guys. These days, many reverse who wears the halo, who the horns, in their morality plays. Such a way of telling history overlooks that all in history, natives and settlers alike, were human beings with backgrounds and motivations we need to understand if we hope to learn anything from their lives. Who we see as angels and demons may tell us more about ourselves than about persons from history.

No one's story has suffered more distortion than that of Daniel Boone, the one pioneer everyone can name. Just about every detail of his popular story is wrong. The wrongness is saddening in several respects. First, it fixes in the public's mind a version of history that never took place. Second, it obscures the deeds of many pioneers who were his equals or superiors in his time. Third, it makes us think there were "good Indians" (the Cherokees) and "bad Indians" (the Shawnees) when both nations in fact played a complex role in the politics and warfare of Boone's time. Fourth, it obscures Boone's true story, a story I find more fascinating than the legend. I devote three chapters of my brief work to untangling Boone's legend from fact, but I also present to you men he overshadowed — James Harrod, Simon Kenton, and George Rogers Clarke, inter alia. You may find them as fascinating as Boone.

Much of the book deals with complex local, national, and international politics. Relations between natives and settlers were international relations in terms of the time's law, as Indian nations were then considered independent nations rather than protectorates as they are today. We get an impression that the time's politics were motivated by greed, prejudice, vengeance, and hypocrisy. Certainly, these traits were present in the time's politics, but many of the evils that came out of this were due to misguided idealism, human weakness, or just plain bad judgment. In real life, no one's a mustache-twirling villain; everyone's the hero of their own story. We moderns can of course bask in the superiority of our politics…

To understand the wars that broke out between natives and settlers, we need to grasp that these wars were fought against the backdrop of two greater wars fought among Europeans: first, the French and Indian War, just one, and not the largest, theater of a Franco-British War fought all over the world; and, second, the Revolutionary War (called the War of American Independence by the British) between Great Britain and a set of colonists. I say "a set of" to point out that none of the parties involved in the wars were monoliths. Every party consisted of a war faction, a peace faction, and, perhaps the largest set, persons who just hoped to hang on till bad times went away. In history, there are no monoliths — only spectra.

I hate dry history. I believe that good history should be good storytelling — just storytelling based on logical conclusions drawn from facts. In writing Dark and Bloody Ground: Early Kentuckiana, I've tried to tell the events of colorful lives in colorful ways. I see humor as a teaching tool that helps students recall lessons that dry recitals might not fix in their minds. I don't mean to be irreverent — at least, too much.

If, as I hope you will, you read Dark and Bloody Ground: Early Kentuckiana, you'll notice it holds references to concepts and works of fantasy and science fiction. I wrote articles that became chapters of this book for a fanzine, The Reluctant Famulus, free copies of which are available on line in .pdf format. The settlement of Kentucky by pioneers would work as a space opera: exploring unknown space, a meeting with strange cultures — an alien invasion. When we read history, we need to understand that, wherever we go in whatever time we're going, we take ourselves with us. All right, Buckaroo Banzai said it better!

"What if I like tall tales and stories of adventures?" you may ask me. Don't worry! I finish the book with a treat for you — the tale of Jonathan Swift's Silver Mine — a mystery that generated mysteries. It's a tale Dan Brown could've written. If only it had an ending…

If you want to know more on this subject, you can find it in Dark and Bloody Ground: Early Kentuckiana on Amazon.com.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Why I Wrote "The Ghost of Pelfrey's Bend"

by Alfred D. Byrd,
author of The Ghost of Pelfrey's Bend

William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." In The Ghost of Pelfrey's Bend, members of Eastern Kentucky's Bradley family learn this lesson from a vengeful ghost out of the family's forgotten history. The ghost, which has killed members of the family over the years, tells its latest prospective victim, "One in each generation will die till a seed is raised up to me."

What can keep the curse from coming true again? The answer to that question lies in the nature of the ghost in question. Ghosts, according to many accounts of them, come from persons who die with unfinished business. In cases of sudden death, something someone's deeply emotionally invested in will come to naught unless they can resolve it after death. The unfinished business of the Ghost of the Bradleys dates back to the Civil War, which, according to lore I've heard from guides at many a battlefield, generated regiments of ghosts. A blast of canister, a Minié ball's impact, a slash from a saber, a bayonet's thrust — a person with dreams and dreads falls dead, earthly course run. Any fulfillment of hopes and fears must then occur out of body. Has a ghost been born?

Were all of the ghost's dreams and dreads, hopes and fears, bound in the issues of slavery and secession? Likely not. Although we moderns see the men and women involved in the war through the lens of those issues, those who lived through the war were no more ideologues than we ourselves are. Like us, they had lives beyond politics' divisive passions. Even our enemies form, not a monolith, but a spectrum. Even amid an all-encompassing conflict, fighters felt hates and loves born of family, friendship, and romance. These hates and loves can provide unfinished business enough for any ghost.

They do for Jonah Goodhaven, a Confederate Partisan from Eastern Kentucky. Caught raiding out of uniform in his home county by the Union, he's betrayed by his best friend, Thomas George Bradley, who'll do whatever it takes to wed Jonah's fiancée. From the gallows, Jonah shouts to Thomas the Curse of the Bradleys. Despite the curse, Thomas weds the woman he lied for. After he's had children with her, he becomes the first to die in a grotesque accident — or is it? Those who know of the Curse of the Bradleys attribute his death to the Ghost of Pelfrey's Bend. One in each generation follows Thomas in a bizarre death till, just after the turn of the Twenty-First Century, an otherworldly maiden learns of the curse…

Leah Bradley's quest to save a doomed relative takes her on an odyssey through an Eastern Kentucky of the imagination. Having been a regular visitor to it (both Eastern Kentucky and imagination) throughout my life, I've peopled her odyssey with versions of persons I've met and set it in places that, though fictional, readers of The Ghost of Pelfrey's Bend have recognized as their home counties. On her odyssey, Leah learns a truth all of us have learned: every family has a skeleton in its closet — or is it a ghost?

Leah's quest takes her along many winding pathways: country highways, homely farmhouses, oral history, genealogy, elderly women who know strange secrets, forbidden lore, and ancient rituals. On the quest, the computer, a hypermodern invention vaguely imagined by the Victorians of the Civil War era, plays a role. On her quest, Leah learns who she is and comes to see for herself a future once hidden from her. To her, the ghost's a gift; to her relative under a threat of death…

Although the books' characters are fictional, some of the book's settings and incidents come from my own family history. Kirk Bradley's house is the house my parents retired to; Tom Bradley's house is an aunt's I often visited in my parent's birthplace, Morgan County. The stories Leah's paternal grandmother told are stories my mother told to me. The story of Fred Bradley's brothers-in-law teaching him to fire a rifle is based on my older brother's teaching me that skill. I did better than Fred did, though barely. No one will call me "a mighty hunter before the LORD," as Kate (mockingly) calls Fred. As for the lavish meals served by Delores Bradley — meals my description of which made one reader of the book say that it made her hungry — I myself have eaten them at Delores's table.

The poems attributed to Amber, Fred's wife, in the book are original compositions of mine. Like Fred and Amber, I've read The Lord of the Rings more times than I recall. Like Tolkien, I like to include verse amid my prose. Could I be a stay-at-home version of Amber who expresses wanderlust in fiction? In any case, Amber's poetry gives her her own unique means of telling her version of stories she gets caught up in. Shouldn't we all have such a means?

The Ghost of Pelfrey's Bend is complete in itself, but characters in it continue a life begun in An Exile from Atlantis, also available in a shorter, more romance-oriented version as Thistledown.

The Ghost of Pelfrey's Bend is avaiable from Amazon.com and other on-line book vendors.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Why I Wrote "To Serve in Heaven"

by Alfred D. Byrd, author of To Serve in Heaven

How did the idea for the Volants come to you?

The idea for the Volant Flyway came to me in a strange way on my thirtieth birthday, back in 1984. Disgusted with all of the fiction I'd written to date, I was looking over titles of books on my bookshelves for inspiration for a new departure in my writing. My eyes kept alighting on Poul Anderson's War of the Winged Men and Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess of Mars. All at once, these merged in my mind into a hybrid title: The Winged Men of Mars. Spurred on by this title, I began to visualize winged humans sporting in thermals of Valles Marineris on a terraformed Mars. Sadly for my writing a story about the winged humans, they looked too happy to have a conflict, any story's core. We do like reading about dystopias more than about Utopia, don't we? Just then, in the way of writers, I had an evil thought about my characters: What if they can't get to Mars? What if they're trapped in a space station above Mars while they await terraforming that politics and prejudice against them ensure will never happen? Thus, Volant Habitat, the scene of To Serve in Heaven, entered the Volant Flyway.

What exactly is a Volant?

A Volant's a member of a human species genetically engineered, by excision of some human genes and insertion of animal or artificial genes, to have wings for flight in the air of a terraformed Mars. Having just taken a course in human genetics at the University of Kentucky when I came up with Volants, I wrestled with all kinds of ways to give them a useable wing till Helen E. Davis suggested to me they'd do best with a pterodactyl's wings, which would leave the Volants functional hands. To make the Volants flightworthy, even in Martian gravity, they also need a number of other modifications to the basic human design. Wingborne Cecilia explains these to a visiting human, Gareth Powell, in the opening chapters of To Serve in Heaven.

How did you come to write To Serve in Heaven?

Once I'd conceived of the conflict and setting for a story about Volants, I needed a viewpoint character. Into the role stepped Nicholas Calliope Glinda, a troubled youth growing up in a habitat bursting at its seams with overpopulation. Although impulsive and self-centered, he's not intrinsically hateful, yet his bad choices put him at risk of receiving Volant Habitat's ultimate judicial penalty, radical personality reconstruction, a product of psychotherapy, drugs, and dream induction. Nicholas' struggle to avoid what he calls "The Zombie Treatment" and escape from a meaningless life became a novelette called "To Serve in Heaven." You can read a much revised version of my original Volant Story in my short story collection Dreamcatcher's Awakening and Other Stories.

How did you turn a novelette into a novel?

After I'd written "To Serve in Heaven," I saw I'd packed the background for a whole novel into a novelette. In particular, I'd brought Nicholas together with two characters, his cousin Cecilia and a non-Volant bard named Gareth, both of whom have conflicts as complicated and absorbing as his own was. Cecilia, Gareth, and Nicholas are bound together by their encounters with an ecologicial activist, Peter Erica Carmen, who wants to fulfill the Volant dream of flying free in the skies of a terraformed Mars. Guided by the twin poles of a hopeless world of the present and a hopeful world of the future, I expanded Nicholas's story into a novella and intercut it with novellas from the viewpoints of Cecilia and Gareth. The three novellas became a novel of three versions of a common struggle for freedom in a world that's ceased to allow it.

Before you tell us of that struggle, could you explain Volant names?

The three-part Volant name reflects the Volants' origins. At the start of the Twenty-Second Century, two thousand Volants were gestated in and delivered from simulated uterine environments on a space station in Earth's L5 point. These Volants were the Ancestors. In response to mistreatment by the rest of humanity, which turned against the creation of artificial species in the Great Reaction, the Ancestors set up a society that they felt would let them express their unique nature as flying humans. In the Ancestors' society, each person belongs to a matrilineal clan, or Line. A person's name consists of a given name chosen by their mother, the mother's name, and the name of the Ancestress who founded the mother's Line. Thus, Nicholas Calliope Glinda is the son of Calliope, a descendant in an unbroken female line from the Ancestress Glinda. You'll meet Calliope in To Serve in Heaven, along with Cecilia's mother, Marissa.

What's Cecilia's role in the novel?

Cecilia, an earnest young woman who wants to do good, but fears she can't change a world disintegrating around her, takes on the challenge of escorting a visitor from Earth, the bard Gareth, through Volant society. During that task, she faces three main conflicts. First, she must try to keep her wayward cousin, Nicholas, from receiving the Zombie Treatment. Second, she must care for her father, who's already received the Zombie Treatment for an offense unknown to her — an offense the Volant courts have put under a judicial seal. Third, she wants to become a nun in a Volant religious order seeking recognition by the Roman Catholic Church — recognition the Church denies.

What's the Church's conflict with the Volants?

The Church is wrestling with a profound theological question: are Volants human in the sense that Christ's sacrificial death and resurrection provide them with redemption and the hope of life everlasting as the Passion provides them to genetically unmodified humans (which volants call Basics)? This question breaks down into subsidiary questions: (1) does humanity end when one's maker admixes artificial and especially animal genes into the human genome? and (2) can God accept the products of human presumption in creating an artificial human species? If theology matters to you, these are far from trivial questions — questions we may in time face in real life.

Why did you hand this conflict to the Roman Catholic Church?

Every story's rooted in what its writer brings to it. I'm a Baptist, a member of a way of faith and practice that makes all decisions at the congregational level. If the Volant conflict arose in a congregational setting, it'd likely be solved by a church split in which those who accepted Volants as their brothers and sisters in Christ would go in one direction, and those who didn't accept them would go in another. You can see that dynamic at play on the earth in congregational ways of faith and practice today. For the story, I needed a way of faith and practice that makes its decisions at a common center and makes them binding universally so that there would be no easy way out for Cecilia and her brothers and sisters in the order. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church has been such a way of faith and practice throughout its existence. It's been so across two millennia; why not for five hundred years more? Having read widely in Church history, I felt I could do justice to Catholicism in Cecilia's story. I've tried not to make the Church a villain in the stand it's taken in the novel. Rather, I see the Church as a set of concerned humans wrestling with a difficult question that's arisen from human acts that some might call presumptuous. In response to that question, Volants say: We didn't create ourselves; why should we suffer for our creators' choice to make us what we are?

What's Gareth's role in the novel?

Gareth's an outsider of our own kind who looks at Volant society with our own eyes and sees in it things Volants themselves might miss or think obvious. Ostensibly, he comes to Volant Habitat as a visiting professor of musicology who wants to learn of a unique form of poetry Volants have invented for themselves. He comes to Volant Habitat with personal baggage: a brother's recent death from abusing dream induction, a breakup with a strong love interest, and a mandate to spy on the Volants. His decisions, colored by ignorance and impulsiveness, get him involved in a political controversy with interplanetary implications.

Gareth isn't a great white savior, is he?

When I wrote the first draft of what'd become To Serve in Heaven, I hadn't heard of the concept of the great white savior. That being said, I'd read books that figure appeared in — particulary Burroughs' John Carter and Tarzan novels. I saw at once that such a figure wouldn't work in Volant Habitat. What a man of action, whatever the good or evil of his intentions and deeds, might get away with on a far frontier would get him at once arrested in a settled society. Rather, Gareth's a tourist who struggles with culture shock and speaks and acts in ways that win him both friends and enemies among the people he's come to visit. Rather than being a conquering hero from fantastic literature, Gareth's a figure we read of all of the time in the news: a foreigner who gets caught up as a political pawn in another nation's conflict. In trying to become an agent rather than a pawn, he seeks a form of redemption — for himself and for his new friends.

What's with all of the court cases your characters end up in?

After I'd read a lot of action-adventure literature, it became unbelievable to me that the characters in those stories — even and perhaps especially the "good guys" — could break laws right and left and never get arrested or go before a judge. I chose to put some real life into Volant Habitat. At the time of writing the novel's first draft, I was thinking of a career change to legal assistant. I never made the change, but the research I put into it came in handy for the novel.

Why's the Volant government so British?

When the Volants became confined to Volant Habitat and had to set up a government for themselves, they used Great Britain as a model of parliamentary democracy. Thus, the Volant Republic has a queen, a royal family, an aristocracy, a prime minister, a House of Lords, and a House of Commons. These should make the Volant government, at least, familiar to readers. The Volants, as they do with everything else, take parliamentary democracy in their own direction.

What's the Assembly?

The Assembly is where the novel's strands of conflict converge. When multitudes contend for a host of ideas and ideologies, what can there be but conflict? I based the assembly on things going on at the time of the novel's writing. Back in the 1980's, political activists seemed to me poised to make direct democracy real through initiative, referendum, recall, open primaries, nonpartisan primaries, and even a second Constitutional convention. I gave the Volants an Assembly to use initiative to convoke a constitutional convention to settle their problems of overpopulation and exile from their destined world. You may've noticed that direct democracy has progressed little since the 1980's. We may even be receding from it. Could fear of what happens at the Volant Assembly be why? In history as in physics, for everyaction there's an opposite (though not necessarily equal) reaction.

How did the United Nations grow as powerful as it is in To Serve in Heaven?

Back in the 1980's, I was already aware of predictions of climate change and global warming. Taking the worst-case scenario as the basis for the Volant Flyway — the scenario we may be living in today, sad to say — I conceived the idea that humanity dealt with a series of catastophes in part by strengthening the United Nations. I came up with a whole set of reforms to its charter to make the UN a workable interplanetary government, but, for the novel, only two of these matter. First, each nation is overseen by a "governor general" called a Procurator, who ensures that human rights and international treaties are observed and protected. Second, so that every nation has permanent representation in the Security Council, nations are grouped into "regional authorities" overseen by procurator generals. Sadly for the Volants, but fortunately for the story, any theory of government founders on the human beings who practice it.

Who's in charge of the surface of Mars?

Most of the surface of Mars — all of its desirable surface — is controlled by a nation called the Federation of Martian States, founded to block Volant immigration to Mars and to slow the pace of that world's terraforming. The Volant Republic and the Federation of Martian States belong to the local regional authority, the Republic of Mars. Any Volant will gladly tell you that the FMS, the ROM, and the UN do all in their power to ignore the Volant Republic's existence. Still, you can't keep a good winged human down, can you? Did I mention that the ROM has the Red Helmets?

Why did you put off publishing To Serve in Heaven till now?

While I was working on the novels of the Volant Flyway, the field of sf was changing in two significant ways. First, with the most direct application to To Serve in Heaven, the publication of Kim Stanley Robinson's monumental Mars novels overshadowed everything else written about Mars. I feared that the market containing the Mars trilogy would be unfriendly to my relatively modest works. Second, dream induction as it appears in the Volant Flyway didn't fit the zeitgeist of a field dominated by cyberpunk. Now, Red, Green, and Blue Mars have become classics, and the wave of cyberpunk has receded. It seems to me a market friendly to the Volant Flyway has come around again. You can be a judge of whether it has.

Did you revise To Serve in Heaven to reflect the present political situation in America?

No. Scarily, I didn't have to change a thing in the novel's politics. The political situation in Volant Habitat was colored by my memories of living through 1968. I was hoping not to see that year again. Still, history runs in cycles, and the scariest things we meet in space may be ourselves…

You can find To Serve Heaven on Amazon.com.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Why I Wrote "Dinner of the Loving Dead and Other Stories"

by Alfred D. Byrd

For decades before I began to write The Dhitha Tapestry in 2003 (you can read the start of it in Through the Gate of Horn), I toyed with different ways of telling the story. In "The Convert," written in the 1980's, I explored some of the tapestry's key concepts. I tell the story from the viewpoint of a Vulguth, a member of the Vulg, a species of agressive, cannibalistic vampires. They're products of natural selection — or are they? In all of the tapestry's iterations, the Vulg are locked in existential conflict with the Dhitha, who are the opposite of all that the Vulg is. The Dhitha are Humans taken by aliens — or angels? — from the earth, genetically altered to express powers of telepathy and telekinesis, and transplanted onto the distant world Tena. Vithyes, the Vulguth viewpoint character, confronts the Dhitha's religion of The Way of the Sacred Fire, which has cursed the Vulg to soullessness for atrocities against the Dhitha. What Vithyes learns changes his world — and the worlds — irreversibly. The Vithyes of "The Convert" isn't the Vithyes of the published Dhitha Tapestry. The action of "The Convert" recurs in the reimagined Dhitha Tapestry in Of a Door to Hope: A Thread of the Dhitha Tapestry.

"Dinner of the Loving Dead," the collection's title story, is a tale of Gothic horror. When I originally published the story as an independent e book, I wrote an analysis of it in "Reflections on Dining with the Loving Dead." In this analysis, I explore the human attraction to horror and the horror that can result to you from being born into a family. I hope that yours isn't as dysfunctional as Johnny's. I wrote the first draft of this story in one night during the Polar Vortex of December 2013.

A recurring theme in my writing is the doomed city. Always, someone arises to defend it; not always does that someone successfully defend it. "Heart of the Warrior," dating to the early 1980's, is my earliest exploration of that theme. In this story, I explore a question that, in the Vietnam War's aftermath, haunted me: why do soldiers go off to war? I myself hadn't gone, but many of my relatives had, or would go. They volunteered to go, but not everyone who goes to war volunteers to go. In my short story, I focus on two men, neither of whom wants to be in their war — two men who by nature would be friends had their choices — or lack of them — not forced them to be enemies. How often does their situation arise in real life? How often is the doomed city Deimes saved by their choices? The version of "Heart of the Warrior" in the collection is heavily revised from an earlier version that appeared in . The earlier version was heavily revised by the editor, Helen E. Davis. The present version incorporates elements from my submitted manuscript, from Helen's revision, and from my continued development as a writer. You can learn more about STARWARD Bound at its Web site.

Would a writer fascinated with doomed cities feel attracted to Atlantis? If that writer's me, yes. "Ignis Deorum" ('Fire of the Gods') is one of three versions of Atlantis' fall I've written. My short story "The Earth-Shaker's Answer" appears in the anthology Quest for Atlantis: Legends of a Lost Continent; my novella The Drowning Land: An Atlantean Alphabet" recounts the end of the Land amid the Sea as a series of pieces of flash fiction. For me, Atlantis is a literary trope that lets me explore how civilizations fall through their own weaknesses. I see Plato's description of Atlantis in Timeas and Kritias only as early speculative fiction. That being said, I see no reason why Lewis Spence could not have been right when he suggested in The History of Atlantis that a lost Stone Age civilization like that of the Maya could have existed on exposed continental shelves during the Ice Age. I use his speculation as the basis of my four-volume contemporary-fantasy series Last Prophet of Atlantis, starting with A Name Concealed. If you like "Ignis Deorum," you may like the rest of my Atlantean work.

The character of Anthemrela, an entertainer who's also a priest of the Sacred Fire, has persisted throughout the reimaginings of the Dhitha Tapestry. In "In the Watches of the Night," she wrestles with the nature and reliability of prophecy, another theme running through my writing. She foresees a doomed city… This story is from the same period of my life as "The Convert." The rite of divinination used in "In the Watches of the Night" appears also in the Dhitha Tapestry.

"The Key to Otherwhen" is a set of three short stories about a youth getting ready to go to wizarding school. I'd meant to write four more short stories about his adventures in that school, but life intervened before I did. In any case, stories about wizarding schools are now a dime a dozen, so I'm content to have ended the series where it does end. I believe I wrote the existing stories in the late 1990's. Reviewers of some of my published short stories have remarked I must be influenced by Clark Ashton Smith and by Jack Vance's early Dying Earth stories. Guilty as charged! Certainly, those authors' influence shows up in "The Key to Otherwhen." Simon Mason, the stories' protagonist, works his way through family as horror, the danger of ignoring good advice, and pangs of young love. The trope of a parent's suppressing a child's ability appears elsewhere in my fiction. I've long liked trying to combine horror and humor; you can judge whether I've done so successully in Simon's three adventures. I had a lot of fun writing these stories. I hope for you to have fun reading them. By the way, I knew nothing of Covid-19 when I wrote of Tamar Godwinson's death. Was I a prophet? Simon never takes the road that leads down. It would've been tragic for him. Maybe, he lucked out in my having written only three of his seven adventures. "The Key to Otherwhen" incorporates traces of what I've learned from self-study of Kabbalah. I don't accept the existence of Lilith and pre-Adamites descended from her, but they fit the stories.

I like writing verse more than I like writing prose fiction. In "Knives," I fulfilled an ambition to write a short story wholly in verse. "Knives" is told from the viewpoint of a ghost and incorporates murder by stabbing and a dysfunctional family. I'm skeptical of ghosts' existence, but the common trope ghosts arise when a person leaves life with unfinished business is well worth exploring for a writer of speculative fiction. It takes completing the unfinished business to free a ghost from its bondage to the world; in "Knives," it takes the ghost's hearing inconvenient truths, as the phrase goes, about its mortal life. I wrote this story in verse early in the 2000's, likely in the year 2002, while I was working on what would become An Exile from Atlantis, in which the character Amber writes verse in the sprung meter of "Knives." If you like "Knives," you may like a much longer story of mine in verse, City Everlasting.

What if the characters of All in the Family made first contact with aliens? I think that that was the question that prompted me to come up with the plot of "A Mind of Their Own" one night in the early 1980's when I chose to walk home some three miles from my job as a research analyst at the University of Kentucky. Maybe, my Tercel was in the shop. It was a wonderful car, but, to my shame, I drove it hard and put it up wet. In any case, when I got home, I wrote the short story in a single sitting in a rush of what writers like to call "white fire." I present it to you exactly as I wrote it then, as a capsule of its time. I wrote the story as a satire of the science fiction I'd been reading and watching since the 1950's. Much of this was politically incorrect by today's standards, and so is the short story. To readers born since the early 1990's, you don't know what you're missing in not having grown up during the Cold War. Maybe, the story will give you a taste of it. My depiction of barely concealed Soviets is no worse than many other takes in print, on television, and in movies in those days. If someone tells you, "Humanity never progresses," you can point to "A Mind of Their Own" as proof humanity does progress. We hope.

I'd be lying if I said that a short story containing a character named Wesley Herbert who reanimates mummies wasn't influenced by H. P. Lovecraft's immortal "Herbert West: Reanimator." "Shadows on the Screen," which comes from the early 1980's, stems from my then passion with Egyptology — a passion that recurs now and then and has led to my marrying a woman who writes Ancient Egyptian Biblical fiction. Yes, that's a genre. I've written in it myself. In "Shadows of the Screen," I followed the advice "Write what you know" by setting the story's opening scenes at my undergraduate alma mater, Michigan State University, where, like the story's nameless protagonist (a Lovecraftian phrase if there ever was one), I lived for two years in McDonel Hall and often visited the Sanford Natural Area. Like the nameless protagonist, too, I moved after graduation to a Southern university town: in my case, Lexington, Kentucky, where I'd get a master's degree in microbiology from the University of Kentucky. To get details of the story as right as I could, I read through E. A. Wallace Budge's translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead. My short story and countless mummy movies should cure you of any urge to read that book aloud in its original language. Watchers of 1980's movies will readily identify the story's "berserk warrior." An earlier version of "Shadows of the Screen" appeared in The STARWARD Bound Tome of Horror.

"A Tale of Two Rivers: An Archaeologically Correct Sumerian Origin Myth" comes from my study of Sumer for background in Biblical history. I like writing about history in unconventional ways, and history as myth seemed to me the way to go with Sumer. Maybe, reading the myth will move you to look up the works of Samuel Noah Kramer and his successors. Sumer fascinates me nearly as much as Ancient Egypt.

I've long been fascinated with vanished civilizations, but lacked means to visit their sites — at least till I belatedly learned that the Eastern Woodlands had hosted a set of vanished cultures collectively known as the Mound Builders for their constructing monumental earthworks. I grew especially fascinated with Ohio's Hopewell Exchange, about which I wrote a time-travel fantasy novel called Hopewell Dreamquest. "To Seek the Key of Dreams" is a prequel this, both in the present day and in Hopewell times. The short story recalls a visit I made with Helen E. Davis to a Hopewell site called Fort Hill. You'll notice that the dream of incubation rears its head again. In Hopewell Dreamquest, Lazy Bear has become Bear Shaman.

In my novelette A Touch of Death, I write again of Mound Builders. The Mound Builders in this story are Mississippians from the ultimate Mound Builder site, Cahokia, in what's now Illinois. I've set the story in Kentucky's Bluegrass, though, in real life, no Missisippian settlements have been found here. In the novelette, Madeleine, the archaeologist, is careful to point out that the settlement, known as Abomination Mounds for its bad reputation among both Native Americans and Kentucky's Euro-American settlers, is ectopic. Into the novelette, I've injected a man curse with the gift of feeling the past with his hands and an alien creature inspired by, though not necessarily part of, the Cthulhu Mythos. Salvage archaeology, renamed cultural resouce management, is a real thing, as too many Mound Builder sites have been obliterated by Euro-American development.

I generally shy away from writing for and submitting to shared-world anthologies. That being said, when I read the requirements for STARWARD Bound's Conrad's Folly, "Trial by Storm" leapt full blown from my mind. Conrad's Folly is a world where landfalls of dangerous hurricanes are frequent — maybe, a world itke the one our own world is evolving into? In any case, a Conrad's Folly hurricane became the setting for a longstanding conflict involving race, colonialism, and, above all, faith versus skepticism. What'll prevail when proponents of incompatible ways of life submit their differences to trial by storm?

You can learn more about Dinner of the Loving Dead and Other Stories at Amazon.com.

Monday, April 4, 2016


Alfred D. Byrd

Doubtful of purpose,
Leah receives a visit
From kin in trouble.

Mysteries give her,
Keeper of ways from the past,
A call to duty.

Family stories
Sometimes can give her insights
Leading to action.

Siblings are useless:
A verse hides light in darkness—
Someone may grasp it.

History shows her
Shadows of motives for hate
That threatens loved ones.

Family stories,
Despite how often repeated,
Bind her to kindred.

During a welcome,
Hunger is driven away,
But shadows gather.

Elderly women
Sometimes shelter memories
Needed to save us.

Dangerous roadways
Bring you to one who may know
The secrets of sleep.

Sometimes, just sleeping
Leaves us still wanting a cure
For ghosts that haunt us.

Zealously researched,
Acted with hope and vigor,
Rituals fail her.

Preaching and prayer,
Zealous although they may be,
Leave room for action.

Sudden visitor
Brings us the sense of strange words.
A marriage is needed.

Hidden documents
Tell her a tale of her love,
The heir of rebels.

Union will bring her,
Finding her purpose at last,
A future of hope.

If you want to learn the story behind this poem, you can read it in The Ghost of Pelfrey's Bend.

Monday, March 21, 2016


Alfred D. Byrd

Facing a future darkened with doubt,
A maiden muses on kin and fate.
A lover is kind, but fails to close
The gap between "desire" and "fulfill."
A lore of dragons begins to pall;
The folks are away, leaving their child
To grope for answers amid a fog.

A knock is sounding, routing daydreams;
Relatives coming in search of help
Must trust a child in place of parents.
Hearing a tale of death by a ghost,
Convicted Rebel, vengeful and proud,
Who stalks a traitor from son to son,
She learns her mission, saving the last
Of those who can pass her name through time.

"Decide" is easy compared with "do."
She tries what works in the hands of one
Who lived a life beyond her knowledge.
"Easy" for one is "hard" for others.
Failure spurs her to search through stories—
Memories holding the souls of kin—
For something turning darkness to light.
A spark appears. Will it leap aflame?

A call to siblings yields her no help,
At least in terms of ghosts of vengeance.
Father, stepmother — absent from home.
Their letters waken only questions.
Answers, her lover suggests in vain.
An uncle should learn at least what's up,
Although his wisdom strikes her as dim.

A trip awakens a gift of art
To sketch what she sees along the way.
A house at once depressing and glad
Provides a welcome to two who search
For answers likely never to come.
A war that split a nation of hope
Provides, however, a gleam of truth:
A rebel betrayed by one who gave
Both her and her kin the gift of life
Has grounds for vengeance across the years.
Unless appeased, he may kill again.

As she and they are crossing the hills
To get, they hope, advice from elders,
Heading backwards from present to past
Awakens stories — ancient gossip —
Holding the secrets of who they are.
Perhaps, recalling the past will help
Subdue the ghost that haunts their present.

Welcomed by those whom she's come to help,
She welcomes her welcome, a meal of love,
But soon muse turn to words from the past.
A record of lies that shaped her world
Records betrayal, the root from which
The fruit of murder by ghost has grown.
How many would dare disturb the past
If they knew what deeds their kin had done?

The trip before her won't be easy.
Seeking relatives, often she finds
That they've moved from where she knew they'd lived.
They've changed in more than where they reside.
Ancestral customs, they've set aside
To honor the One Who lives on high.
The end of the road seems near at hand
When she hears a voice effaced by time:
An elder tells her of one now lost
Who may retain rejected knowledge
Needed to handle what's lost to her.

Revenge has winnowed a line of sons
To pass on a name through years to come.
If she fails to find what lies concealed,
She'll miss her purpose and mourn a loss.
A journey along a cliff reveals
The home of one who knows a secret
Hidden in plants of healing and sleep.
Because of insults that stay alive,
The one who might help is shy at first.
A gift of stories eases offense
And wins advice that might be helpful,
Worthy of testing on one at risk.

A dinner welcomes helpful kinsmen;
Brewing a draft foreshadows success
In treating the ill that dooms a line.
In sleep, however, one meets with dreams
From which the draft prevents awaking.
Messages spoken by lips of mist
Repeat a warning: "Appease or die!"

A quest for a book will lead her clan
Back home to where her journey commenced.
A sister, coming out of the blue,
Reveals what's needed to do a rite
That crossed an ocean to fight a ghost.
Without belief, they perform the rite
In hope that "do" is greater than "doubt."
Belief, however, is what's required.
The rite has failed; the ghost will haunt on,
Dispensing the fear of deaths to come.
Amid confusion, parents arrive.
Accountings have come, but hope as well.

Her father, storied master of words,
Takes charge of laying the ghost to rest.
Amid the giving of gifts to all—
Amid discussions of trips and food—
He calls on the One on high for light,
But darkness brings forth a guest instead.

A sister's sudden coming brings her
Answers to riddles lightless till now:
A marriage of two who share the blood
Of thief and victim can seal a breach
Through which the hand of vengeance enters,
Culling the sons of the blood of theft.
Before, however, the two can wed,
A son with no house must learn his name.
A trip through darkness begins in hope.

A letter preserved in trust for years
Contains a tale that answers questions:
The ghost's descendant hovers nearby,
Beside the daughter of trust betrayed,
His name and lineage hidden from him
Until his love could kindle healing.
Many might gossip of what the two
Have chosen to do to change the past,
But they, prepared to face the journey,
Hasten ahead to become as one.

The ghost is happy, at least for now.
Its goal of justice will be attained
Through union of two who join the lines
Disjoined by treason in times gone by.
A whirl of getting ready follows,
Ending in words that mean forever—
Often intended, often broken.
This time, the two becoming as one
Will face the future with gifts of hope
From those whose lives have shaped the present.
Mystery links them, children of dreams,
To past and future with tales of joy.

If you want to learn the story behind this poem, you can read it in The Ghost of Pelfrey's Bend.