Bryon’s Halloween 2020: The Haunted Mansion

My apologies to you all for this being so late this year. In the age of Covid, teaching is melting my brain. However, Bryon did a beautiful job on his socially distanced Halloween this year, which was themed on Disney’s Haunted Mansion. The problem with the display, as you see it here, is that a lot of it used Atmos special effects, so you can only get a vague idea of how the Pepper’s Ghost like effects work, but other parts of it you can see quite well.

Without further ado, many pictures follow.

Fantastic History #71: The Early Modern Globe by Michelle Herder

The emeralds adorning the Mughal rulers of India came from the mountains of Colombia.

The deep blue pigments of Renaissance paintings came from Afghanistan.

A bright red dye, highly sought after for carpets, uniforms, and ceremonial robes, came from insects living on Mexican cacti.

These are only some of the valued rarities that made their way around the world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Imagine the journey of many of these items: from miners or growers or makers, often in rural areas, over land to larger markets and ports; from there over seas to trading hubs like Havana, Antwerp, and Manila; and from there spreading outward to buyers in middling-size communities. Along the way, goods might be taxed, counted, sold and resold, stamped by government authorities, or hidden away to conceal them from such officials. This period, often called by historians the early modern age, was one of ever-increasing connections across long distances, a growing web in which people making goods and people buying goods became ever more entangled with other people halfway around the globe.

Not only rare and luxurious goods moved across long distances in the pre-industrial age. Cotton textiles woven and dyed by Indian artisans – by hand – were in demand throughout the world for centuries. Indian cloth-makers intentionally made their goods to appeal to the tastes of diverse markets (European, African, Chinese), and merchants bought richly colored cottons in quantity, often to trade for other highly valued materials. Cotton and other products such as porcelain became more affordable and available, and spawned imitations which could be even cheaper.

In many cases, goods became detached from their original cultural context and adopted into new ones. Tobacco, for example, was grown and smoked by indigenous Americans for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Europeans who encountered tobacco valued its medicinal uses as well, believing tobacco to be beneficial for health, but tobacco rapidly became known from Europe to the Ottoman Empire to China. Tobacco’s stimulant properties made it especially popular among soldiers and others who needed to stay alert for long hours. Tobacco smoking made its way around the world so swiftly that seventeenth-century Chinese writers had no idea where it had originally come from, associating the product only with the European traders from whom they obtained it. Chocolate, similarly, had been a lavish and high-status drink among Mesoamericans, as well as a form of currency. Spanish people who encountered it often found the foamy drink off-putting, but it nevertheless gained popularity in Europe, especially when mixed with additional sugar. Other stimulant beverages, coffee and tea, would eventually supplant chocolate as a drink, but chocolate and sugar would become staples of European confectionery.

In some ways, there’s nothing new about this kind of trade and adaptation of goods. Human beings have always traded objects across long distances. Jewelry, coins, and other items from early burial sites attest to that. But from 1500 on, the world became interconnected as never before. People moved across oceans and continents in unprecedented numbers, transporting enormous quantities of goods as they went. People around the world developed tastes for new kinds of products – cotton cloth, porcelain, sugar, tobacco, chocolate, tea – and cultivators, merchants, and artisans sought to fill the demands of those new markets.

The results, of course, were calamitous for huge numbers of people: for the indigenous peoples of the Americas who died, suffered, and became forced labor for European conquerors, for the Africans forced into slavery and transported across oceans to work in brutal conditions for the profit of others. That is the bitter foundation underlying the mass production of cotton, sugar, silver, and many other objects. These products required intense labor to mine, grow, and process, and the vast majority of that labor was coerced and unpaid. When we think about the early modern age, we need to keep that reality in mind.
That reality, however, existed as part of a tangled and complex web of connections that linked people around the globe. The early modern world was full of extraordinary journeys and possibilities. It was an era in which it could be easy to pick up stakes and run away (as the well-documented Martin Guerre did) – to sea, to the army, to anonymity somewhere well away from one’s origins. Extraordinary individual stories surface from the period, including the tale of Catalina de Erauso, who fled from a Spanish nunnery, adopted masculine clothing and worked as a soldier in Spain’s American colonies, and subsequently wrote a dramatic memoir. Lives like these were fantastic enough; how many more people crossed boundaries and transgressed norms, without leaving as much of a mark in the historical record? There’s enormous potential for fantasy in studying, imagining, and re-imagining the history of this era.

***

Professor Michelle Herder teaches courses covering the range of European history from the early Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century. Course themes include religion, violence, and the relationship between powerful groups and less powerful groups in medieval European society. She is exploring the use of simulations to study history in several of her courses. Her research interests revolve around women and religion in late medieval Spain.

Fantastic History #70: Into the Deep End by J. Kathleen Cheney

A few years back, I had a bright idea about writing just one more novella in my Golden City world. Just one more… I can manage that, right?

This would turn out to be Cristiano’s story. Who’s Cristiano? He appears briefly in the first Golden City book, when his half-brother’s half-brother comes to him for science advice. Cristiano’s a mechanical engineer, trained at the University of Coimbra alongside one of the first women to attend there: Emilia Atkinson, who studied Mathematics. Together he and Emilia become a powerhouse engineering team and, for the family boat works, build the Golden City’s first true submarine.

Out of some misguided sense of hubris, I thought I could carry this off. It’s not the historical aspect of Portugal that’s driving me batty, though; it’s the historical science.

At the time of the novella (1909), submarines had been around for some time. However, most of those could barely submerge, and then only for an hour or two. There had been some successes, though, one of which (THE ICTINEO, built by Narcis Monturiol) included the double-layered hull that I adopted for my boat. I borrowed the diesel-electric engine from its Nordic sources to keep my boat relatively cool (as compared to placing a steam engine inside a small metal body.)

But my real sticking point in this novella has been the mines.

Nautical mines were generally tethered to something on the sea floor. While different inventors (such as Samuel Colt) proposed variations on the idea, they weren’t successfully deployed until the 1850s, when the Russians heavily mined the Gulf of Finland during the Crimean War.

The tethered mine is a horrible threat, but less specific in its targeting. To target a specific ship, like I needed in my story, they have to be attached to a ship’s hull. Once builders realized they could do so with magnets, they had to come up with a way to delay the explosion so the person planting the mine could escape.

The initial solution to that amuses me greatly: Aniseed balls (candies).

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

I am not a fan of anything licorice flavored, so this seems about the best use for the things. Essentially, the candy ball would be placed inside the mine’s trigger clamp. When exposed to seawater, it would start to dissolve. Once sufficient time had passed, the ball would disintegrate and the clamp would shut, completing the circuit and triggering the bomb.

I applaud the creators for their ingenuity, although the eventual uses of their devices would be terrifying.

However, looking at the general lack of sophistication of the planting and triggering aspects of the devices, there was no reason they couldn’t have come up with this concept a few decades earlier. After all, both magnets and nasty candies had been around for a long time in 1909.

So in the novella, I’m dealing with two different technologies. I have to figure out how the submarine can possibly do what I want it to do, and I have to figure out the mines. However, I quickly realized there was a third factor I didn’t even think of when I started this.

I didn’t know how to defuse the mines.

What I finally settled on is deperming the boats instead. By placing a steel cable around the hull of the boat and giving it an electrical charge, the polarity of the boat’s hull is temporarily changed and the mine pops off. Although this wasn’t in heavy use during WWI, it became common practice by WWII, when it was relabeled degaussing.

Fortunately for me, an Englishman came up with this idea way back in 1866. Evan Hopkins actually developed this for use in preserving the accuracy of a ship’s navigational compass—which can be thrown off by a large electrical charge like a lightning strike. Unfortunately for Mr. Hopkins, it never caught on. But he left it there so my engineers in 1909 could figure out how to adapt it at the last minute.

However, all this research into all things nautical (and magnetic, because my physics knowledge is wimpy at best) has made this story slow going. But sometimes when you bite off more than you can chew research-wise, it just takes time and patience to unravel the info you need. Anyone who’s done this kind of research will tell you that.

I’m hoping that the end result will be worth it. I’m finally approaching the culmination of this story, and I hope it will be worth it. I plan, as always, to do my best.

If you’d like to read how it’s gone so far, the first 12 chapters are free here.

***

J. KATHLEEN CHENEY taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus but gave it all up for a chance to write stories. Her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City was a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). She is currently working on Book Five in this series (currently titled Princess, Empress, and Amazon, which are all fairy chess pieces)

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Fantastic History #69: The Veiled Prophet by Dawn Vogel

Many Midwestern cities play host to festivals and other events that highlight their civic pride. In St. Louis, the Veiled Prophet emerged at the forefront of this phenomenon, and his “reign” over St. Louis for more than a century stands out among similar celebrations of cities.

The initial spark for the Veiled Prophet organization had its origins in the labor unrest of the late 1870s. In 1877, a worker’s strike had brought St. Louis business to a halt for nearly a week in late July. “Although St. Louis’s business class ultimately won the strike, the disruption had a profound effect on those who had been required to use force against their own workers.” As a part of the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair, which had waned after the Civil War, the Veiled Prophet parade served “as a symbolic attempt to assert business-class control over the streets of St. Louis” and “an attempt to reclaim from the rapidly growing city of Chicago, pre-eminence for St. Louis as a manufacturing center and agricultural shipping point.” Though men in other cities organized into fraternal organizations, the Veiled Prophet organization differed from these groups in that “while it showed some degree of cultural and religious pluralism, it did not create bonds between white males of the upper, middle, and skilled working classes. The Veiled Prophet organization was an elitist organization that was important to its members because it demonstrated they were at the very top of St. Louis’s white male aristocracy.”
With the exception of the first Veiled Prophet ball in 1878, and until an activist protest in 1972 that forcibly unmasked the Veiled Prophet, his identity remained a closely guarded secret in most years. The Veiled Prophet himself, in whose honor the organization was formed and the parade was held, was more formally known as the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, who the Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote about in his 1817 Lalla Rookh. When brothers Charles and Alonzo Slayback, both members of St. Louis’s business elite, founded the secret society, they used this fictional character as the ruler of their planned parade. However, whether this was their original intent or merely happenstance is a matter of some debate. During the planning stages of the first Veiled Prophet parade in 1878, “the Slayback brothers acquired Mardi Gras float decorations from an 1868 Mistick Krewe of Comus parade themed on Lalla Rookh for $8,000.” One might assume that they then built the limited mythology around the mysterious Veiled Prophet on their knowledge of Moore’s poem. “The basic premise of Slayback’s retelling of the Veiled Prophet story was that a powerful ‘Grand Oracle’ of the ‘Veiled Prophets,’ the fictional ruler of St. Louis, would leave Persia to visit the city and witness its transformation into a place of affluence and beauty.”

However, Moore did not intend for his Veiled Prophet of Khorassan to be such a figure. “Known in the original as ‘the feared Mokanna,’ the Prophet was a hideous dictator who mesmerized his credulous subjects with parties and ornate ceremonies that distracted them from the truth of his tyranny.” During the early nineteenth century, when Moore was writing Lalla Rookh, “many Westerners imagined Eastern governments in places like India, Persia, or the Ottoman Empire as stereotypes of undemocratic rule they could use to point out similar injustices in their own nations.” So while the elite of St. Louis touted the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan as a worldly figure who marveled in the successes of St. Louis, those more familiar with the story and Moore’s intent “might see the affair as a self-aggrandizing display camouflaging selfish urban leaders.”

In addition to the spectacle of a parade that resembled Mardi Gras, the Veiled Prophet organization also used the event as an excuse to host a ball, during which their daughters, and the daughters of other social elites, could mingle with the appropriate kind of men to be their future husbands. “Unlike the parade, the second part of the annual celebration, the Veiled Prophet ball, was not meant to be seen by ‘the masses.’ Debutante balls, about which little scholarship exists, played an important role in the lives of the elites who participated in them. The Veiled Prophet balls allowed sponsors to see themselves as being ‘good fathers’ to their daughters—and these balls enabled these men to control their daughters’ courtships.” In the early years of the event, the Veiled Prophet selected one of the young women to dance with first, and she received the honor of being referred to as the belle of the ball. But her name was not published in the newspapers, because in the late 1870s and early 1880s, “it was considered improper for a young woman’s name to appear in print.” After 1885, the belles of the ball received more public acclaim, including mentions in the newspapers, and a decade later, the title was changed to “Queen of Love and Beauty,” a title that was bestowed on one young debutante who attended the Veiled Prophet’s ball.

The 1887 Veiled Prophet parade and ball were unusual because St. Louis was also playing host to President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland had not traveled widely prior to his ascending to the presidency, and when a delegation of St. Louisans asked him to visit their city, he agreed. As part of a grand tour of the Midwestern and southern states, Cleveland timed his trip to St. Louis to coincide with the Veiled Prophet parade and ball. As such, some changes were made to the standard operations of the event; for example, the Veiled Prophet did not select a belle of the ball in 1887.

While the Veiled Prophet parade and ball have changed greatly since their nineteenth century origins, they are still a part of St. Louis’s culture. From 1981-1995, St. Louis hosted the VP Fair (the VP standing for Veiled Prophet), which took place on the grounds of the Gateway Arch during the weekend nearest to the Fourth of July; in more recent years, the name of the event has been changed to Fair St. Louis, and is sometimes held in Forest Park. The Missouri Historical Society maintains a large collection of elaborate costumes worn by the Veiled Prophet, dresses worn by many debutantes, and other ephemera from the many years of this phenomenon’s history.

***

Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.

Fantastic History #68: The Americans by Catherine Schaff-Stump

I was alive in the 1980s. I remember Michael Jackson and shoulder pads and Pac-Man. Recently, I finished viewing the entirety of the series The Americans. Because of this series, I decided to write an entry for Fantastic History about judging the historical accuracy of a time when you were alive as it is imitated in fiction.

What is The Americans? Glad you asked. The Americans is a spy show about Soviet illegals passing as American citizens, which takes place in the Reagan era of the 1980s, when the Cold War was being renewed by a bunch of Hawkish Republicans, just before the Soviet Union fell apart. The Soviet illegals pass as citizens of the U.S., having assumed the identities of people who died as children. Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are the main characters. They have two children, Paige and Henry, who do not know about their parents’ service to Russia. To make things even more spicy, their new neighbor across the street just happens to be an FBI agent, Stan Beeman.

I like SpyFy a lot. There’s the question of whether a show like The Americans perpetuates the fantasy of what it means to be a spy, and it does. There is more waiting around than a lot of spy shows, and zero exotic gadgets. There is random, grisly, and accidental death. Make no mistake, though. Philip and Elizabeth have a professional wig stylist and a make-up artist serving Mother Russia on hand, because ain’t no way they can do this themselves. Also, the lengths they go to to keep Stan and the kids in the dark are pretty dramatic, but played up in ways entirely unrealistic. The show has heavy elements of realism, but rests squarely in the realm of spy fantasy.

How do the show’s producers do with reproducing the 80s? I’m not detecting a lot of anomalies or anachronisms. The clothes look pretty good. The tech is about the right level, with rotary phones and tvs without remotes. Product placement and packages are vintage. The decorating scheme is the right 80s palette. The cars are all boats. On the whole, it looks like an effort has been made, even down to the travel agency the Jennings run as their cover, and the TWA posters.

Reproducing a historical era that viewers and readers remember is a way to bring someone out of a fantasy, but The Americans keeps me in the show. I’d recommend it if you have an 80s itch to scratch.

Fantastic History #67: Pirates of the Mediterranean by Dawn Vogel

When many people think of pirates, they think of the Caribbean. But the roots of piracy go back into antiquity, and there were pirates in the Mediterranean many centuries before they pillaged the Caribbean.

As early as the sixth to fifth century B.C., the island of Cythera (alternately spelled Kythira, Kythera, and Kithira) was a favored location for piracy. Chilon of Sparta, a sixth-century B.C. philosopher, was said to have claimed “it would be better for Sparta that Cythera should be sunk in the sea.” During the Peloponnesian War, in the fifth century B.C., Sparta established a garrison at Cythera “to prevent its occupation by pirates, and to give security to merchantmen coming from Libya and Egypt.” In the centuries that followed, Crete and Cilicia became havens for pirates. With Crete only about 40 miles to the southeast of Cythera, the small island remained at risk for piracy

The rise of Maltese pirates was a later development, and came as a response to the Barbary corsairs. The term “Barbary” was generally applied to those from North Africa; the word “barbarian” is related. These pirates were of the Muslim faith, and their goal was typically the taking of Christians for enslavement. For centuries, they were the primary force in the Mediterranean, a fact that changed only with the Crusades, aimed at regaining what the Christians considered their Holy Lands from the Muslims.

After the Crusades, Christians maintained strongholds in a variety of locations, in an effort to maintain their control. In 1530, “[t]he crusading Knights of St John Hospitaller were granted Malta as the new home of the Order.” But in 1551, Turkish forces attacked Malta, leaving the Knights to realize the need for fortifications and militarization of their stronghold. While Turkish attacks continued on a regular basis, it was not until 1565 that the Knights reached a point in their defenses that the Turkish attack turned into a war of attrition rather than an easy raid.

However, the Knights were not only interested in fortifying the island they now called home. “In addition to building up a powerful naval presence on Malta, the Knights also encouraged and systematically organised of [sic] the island’s corsairs. A small corsair fleet predated the Knights arrival; indeed, Malta’s excellent harbour had often acted as a magnet for privateers and near-pirates, just as it had for legitimate shipping.” The Maltese had different classifications within their language for the types of piracy they practiced: “Being a pirate implied a certain lawlessness; sailors who took what they wanted from whomever they encountered on the seas. Being a furban or a kursar on the other hand made you part of a very well-regulated system. The closest translation in English would be corsair.”

Ultimately, what the Knights of St. John Hospitaller accomplished by encouraging the Maltese toward a life of piracy was a counterbalance to the Barbary pirates: “The Knights became God’s pirates, and their slave galleys swept across the seas to do battle with the ‘Infidel’ Barbary corsairs.” But the Maltese pirates did not only attack those of the Muslim faith—Christians and Greeks (who were not considered “proper” Christians) also found themselves victims of these Catholic-funded pirates.

Those who were taken by the Maltese corsairs could anticipate that they would be returned to their families, for a price. Ransom was a frequently used tactic for pirates of any faith. But it did limit the victims who could be released. “The relatives … could pay ransom, if they were rich enough. The poor ones were condemned to slavery.” Some prisoners of the Maltese corsairs were released from their servitude only by their deaths.

The Maltese corsairs maintained their dominance for a few centuries. “In the seventeenth century, the Turkish authorities did not allow Christians to come up the gulf of Corinth, through fear that the corsairs of Malta would get in under the guise of merchant-ships loading currants at Corinth,…” Ultimately, however, the Catholic Church turned to diplomacy rather than piracy to achieve its aims, “and by 1740 the corso was effectively extinct.” Nonetheless, even as late as 1814, when Napoleon was exiled to Elba, he still feared the possibility of being captured by Maltese pirates.

***

Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.

Fantastic History #66: Dueling–Bringing the Past Forward by Doug Engstrom

Back in 2013, I was thinking about what work would look like in the near future, contemplating a political movement that seemed determined to take us back to the Gilded Age, and planning to combine all that into vignettes of people in the mid 21st century talking about their jobs—sort of an SF-version of Studs Terkel’s Working. As often happens, none of this turned out as I expected, but it did produce my near-future thriller, Corporate Gunslinger.

The book is about Kira Clark, a young woman trying to make her way in a world that’s been transformed less by futuristic technology than by ideas imported from the 1800’s, including dueling’s comeback as a dispute-resolution mechanism. Since it portrays Kira’s career as a professional duelist, I had to consider what the institution would look like. Though clearly reaching into the past for legitimacy, dueling would also clearly be bent to serve the perceived needs of Kira’s time. As the quote says, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

For legitimacy, the duels in Kira’s world preserve certain trappings from the past. Dueling pistols are single-shot weapons, designated “seconds” watch over the preparations, and the combatants start back-to-back, walk ten paces, turn, and fire. As is often the case, these “historical” trappings don’t have a lot to do with actual history and everything to do with popular perception.

Although they are single-shot weapons, the pistols used in Kira’s day are far more accurate and deadlier than historical dueling pistols. Crucially, they retain the drama of deciding a dispute—and possibly a combatant’s life—in a single instant, which is a key to dueling’s popularity.

In historical duels, the seconds played a crucial role in attempting to negotiate the conflict and set the duel’s terms of engagement. In Kira’s day, those roles have been taken over by professionals who manage the special dueling facilities and provide the weapons and ammunition. When private individuals duel each other, the seconds mostly watch while the professionals act. On the field, seconds supply little more than moral support for the combatant they represent, and furnish agreement when the process is complete, in pretty much the same spirit as signing off on a complex, multi-page legal document while installing software.

The second’s role for a professional duelist like Kira is another matter. A professional’s second is usually their primary trainer and appearing on the field to offer advice and support is the final step in the rigorous, full-time preparation they’ve put their gunfighter through since long before the duel was scheduled. However, this role isn’t visible during the duel, and having both sides supported by a second on the field is another superficial trapping of “fairness”—another important key to dueling’s appeal.

The drama of “ten paces, turn and fire” appears to originate more in movies of our time than the dueling codes of prior centuries. Most codes I read left the distance and other details to be worked out by the seconds, based on field conditions and the combatant’s skills. Some even specified drawing lots to determine the order in which the participants would fire, which struck me as a testament to both the combatant’s courage and the inaccuracy of short-barreled, black-powder weapons.

So, if the “historical” elements merely cloak modern purposes in the trappings of time-honored tradition, what are those purposes?
When looking at the differences between our world and the world of historical dueling, a big difference, maybe the biggest difference, is the complete subordination of all societal goals to the perceived needs of business, especially large, publicly-traded businesses. Corporations have not only won the right to “personhood” but to more than that. Today, many firms insist that customers give up the right to seek redress in the courts as a condition of doing business, and that employees give up the right to speak via non-disclosure agreements. We no longer seem to believe that the economy exists to provide for society, but rather that society’s proper role is to serve as raw material for the all-important economy.

In Kira’s world, corporate dominance is even more complete. Borrowers can be compelled to offer their freedom as collateral, sacrificing their autonomy if they default, and enforcement squads roam the streets, tracking down indentured workers who have escaped their workplace. Burdened with debts incurred to earn an MFA in acting, Kira becomes a gunfighter to escape this fate.
So, when this society reaches back into the past to revive an institution that allowed rich white guys to “defend their honor,” what’s really going on?

Essentially, businesses have won the right to murder their most difficult and persistent critics. But, of course, they can’t come out and say that.

Instead, dueling functions as the last step in a multi-part system designed to ensure that in case of disputes, almost everyone will shut up and accept what’s the company wants to offer. First, most businesses have followed the lead of financial services and compelled customers to give up the right to sue if they want to do business. When disputes arise, they’re settled by a private arbitration system, which strongly favors businesses as “repeat customers.” When people are unhappy with that outcome, they’re offered a final out with ancient resonance—the dueling field.

The proceedings are overseen by the impeccably honest Association for Dueling, and everything from the pistols to the changing rooms are not only made as identical as humanly possible, they’re assigned at random to remove any possible hint of bias.
Except, of course, for the tiny little detail—just a technicality, really—that a flesh-and-blood person must represent themselves, while a business must choose an employee. And as it happens, this isn’t some random employee, but an employee who has trained for a year and spends all their working hours preparing to be a better gunfighter.

Somebody like Kira—aspiring actor, potential debt slave, professional gunfighter, and the protagonist of Corporate Gunslinger.

***

Doug Engstrom has been a farmer’s son, a US Air Force officer, a technical writer, a computer support specialist, and a business analyst, as well as being a writer of speculative fiction. He lives near Des Moines, Iowa with his wife, Catherine Engstrom.

Fantastic History #65: Miracles by Dr. Michelle Herder

Stories of miracles occur in countless medieval European manuscripts. They were told in sermons and collected in their own right: cures, impostures, rewards, punishments, story after story of the workings of divine power in the lives of ordinary people. Fantastical stories, presented as true.

I teach medieval history at a small college, and miracle stories always present obstacles for students. They respond, understandably, with skepticism. Few of my students are believers, or at least they don’t believe in that particular way. So they ask: did medieval people really believe in miracle stories? Sometimes they try to find a rational explanation for the supposed miracle, speculating about how some real-life coincidence might lie behind a story. Sometimes they think that the medieval clergy who wrote down these stories must have been deliberately committing fraud. Often they conclude that people in medieval Europe must simply have been extremely gullible.

But if we can suspend our disbelief, miracle stories open a door. Perhaps not a literal door to a long-gone world in which divine power could heal the sick or punish the wicked directly and dramatically – but perhaps instead miracle stories can shed some light on the beliefs and mindset of the people who told them, wrote them down, and passed them around. Many stories were well-known; clergy used them as examples in sermons, artists depicted them in church decoration. The book of saints’ lives known as the Golden Legend contains numerous stories of miraculous deeds, adventures, and violence, and was one of the most widespread texts of medieval society, translated into numerous languages. (In contrast, many medieval tales that are better-known to modern people, such as Beowulf, survive in only a single manuscript.) Though European Christian clergy wrote down most of the miracle tales that survive, the stories give us glimpses of the lives of a wide range of people, including, poor, ill, and disabled people.
Around the year 1000, Bernard of Angers recorded a number of miracles attributed to Saint Foy, or Faith, according to legend a young girl martyred long ago. Bernard knows his readers might not believe in Foy’s holy influence. In fact, he presents himself as a skeptic, only recently converted into a devotee of this particular saint. Eager to demonstrate Saint Foy’s bona fides, he takes care to assure readers that he heard all these stories from people who had seen them firsthand.

Saint Foy’s miracles are shockingly punitive. People who denied her monks their donations were killed by a collapsing roof. An unfortunate fellow named Vuitbert, blinded through a mentor’s cruel betrayal and reduced to poverty, received his sight back through his devotion to Foy. But, Bernard tells us, the miracle turned out to be conditional: when Vuitbert succumbed to worldly temptations and paid less attention to his saint, his sight once again dimmed, and only a performance of penitence and devotion to Foy restored his sight again. Though the stories praise Foy for her beauty and purity, she evokes a jealous fey rather than a holy martyr. But this does not appear incongruous to Bernard, who takes these stories as examples of Foy’s great power.

In some stories miracles compensate for personal failings. In one, a young nun flees her cloister and embarks on a life of sin, retaining only her devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Much later, the woman regrets her choices and returns to the monastery… where she finds that Mary herself had taken her place, adopting the runaway nun’s appearance and living an entirely virtuous life. The runaway could therefore resume her place without confessing her adventures outside the cloister to anyone. This admittedly begs the question of how the story came to be known at all – but the point is that Mary rewards devotion, even from those who might seem unworthy of her favor. Like Foy, Mary blesses those who are loyal to her.

Miraculous cures are the perhaps the kind of miracle story we would most expect to see, and at the same time the hardest for a modern reader to believe without reservation. Take, for example, the case of a boy born deaf and mute; at the age of eight he had been taken in by a blacksmith, who taught him to help around the forge. The smith also took him to church with his family, where the boy learned the movements and gestures of prayer, though presumably without understanding. By age twenty he had moved on to other work, and then followed along with the massive royal entourage conducting the body of King Louis IX to its burial place near Paris. At the tomb, so the story says, the boy had a revelation: during a Mass he suddenly acquired the ability to hear and speak. Frightened by the unfamiliar noises of the world, he made his way back to the blacksmith, who took him in again and began teaching him words. Eventually, the formerly deaf young man took the name Louis, in honor of the saint whose miracle had cured him.

In another story from the same collection, a widowed laundress named Nicole suffered a paralysis at age forty-two. Unable to work, and able to eat only soft foods, she relied on her friend Contesse, who cared for her and took her to the public baths in hopes that the hot water would help her recover. Another friend, a woman called Perronele the Smith, paid for a cart to take Nicole to the tomb of Louis IX. There she was cured of her ailments, and walked home with her friends.

It sounds as though Nicole experienced a stroke, something from which people do recover. But a person born deaf suddenly gaining the ability to hear? That scenario sounds far less plausible to a modern reader.

In that case, however, Louis himself testified to this miracle before the investigators who were collecting miracles for Louis’s saintly portfolio, just as Nicole did. In documenting cures, the investigators noted details of the witnesses’ lives and experiences, to make their case for Louis IX’s sainthood convincing. Those details themselves show how people helped friends and neighbors who had become disabled, and how a deaf boy found work, and a place in the world. Fantastical though they are, miracle stories give us glimpses of mundane details and motivations that bring the medieval past to life.

Further reading:

Sharon Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris, Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sherry Reames, The Legenda Aurea: A Reexamination of its Paradoxical History, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Pamela Sheingorn, The Book of Sainte Foy, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

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Dr. Michelle Herder Professor Herder teaches courses covering the range of European history from the early Middle Ages through the end of the 17th century. Course themes include religion, violence, and the relationship between powerful groups and less powerful groups in medieval European society. She is exploring the use of simulations to study history in several of her courses. Her research interests revolve around women and religion in late medieval Spain.

Fantastic History #64: Six Tricks I Use in Writing About Dinosaurs by Rosemary Claire Smith

Whenever I tell someone that I write stories featuring dinosaurs, a smile crosses their face. I mean really, who isn’t captivated by dinosaurs? These fantastical creatures are gigantic, incredibly ancient, and dominated the world for over 185 million years. I’ve talked to a number of authors who’ve thought about writing dinosaur stories, but shy away from doing so. Wouldn’t it be fun if more writers gave it a try? After all, you use precisely the same techniques and tricks you draw upon to write about many other specialized topics.

1. Start with what interests you the most about dinosaurs.
Yes, I’m talking about steak-knife teeth of an Allosaurus, or the football-shaped thagomizer at the tip on an Ankylosaurus’s tail, or the undulating motion of a Spinosaurus as its tail propels the monstrous beast through Cretaceous waters, or the leather-like wings of the Quetzalcoatlus northropi stretching as wide as a small biplane when it soars over Mesozoic skies, or the trumpeting of the Parasaurolophus blowing air through the resonating chambers of the three-foot-long hollow horn atop its head. I’ve relied upon a number of these features in my own stories and my interactive fiction role playing game, T-Rex Time Machine.

That said, several aspects of dinosaur physiology simply don’t interest me. For example, I’ve never managed to read to the bitter end of a scientific paper about dentition or hypothesized jaw musculature or chewing motions of herbivorous Ornithiscian dinosaurs. Nor do I find this a hindrance. In fact, forcing myself to work in these topics risks losing the interest of my readers, for they will unerringly pick up on my own boredom.

2. Keep up with new developments (without letting them overwhelm you.)
Spinosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Velociraptor: These are not your father’s dinosaurs. Much more has changed than just the demise of the dimwitted tail draggers of days gone by. In fact, there’ve been tons of new developments after the release of the first Jurassic Park/World movies. A paleontologist I know recently estimated that for roughly the past fifteen years, an average of forty six species have been discovered and/or described in the scientific literature EVERY YEAR!

The existence of feathers made a big splash, as did microscopic evidence of pigmentation and skin impressions. But there’s more. Vast Hadrosaurus rookeries have been discovered complete with eggs containing unborn dinosaurs. That’s not your bag? Then how about theropods such as Deinonychus that may have hunted in packs? The point is you don’t need to confine yourself to overworked tyrannosaurs or plodding, plant-munching Diplodocus, or graceful giraffe-necked sauropods. Not when there is the possibility that, like bighorn sheep, bone-headed Pachycephalosauruses might have been the head bangers of the Late Cretaceous.

A plethora of scholarly journals and periodicals aimed at intelligent laypersons publish articles on recent excavations and new paleontological research. Few writers can possibly keep up, but we don’t have to! On line courses provide a great way to organize your knowledge and fit isolated facts and bits of information into a coherent framework. These courses never fail to give me new ideas and stimulate my writing.

3. Don’t worry about your research becoming as outdated as canals on Mars or cold-blooded tail-draggers.
Speaking of recent developments, I once asked a friend who also writes dino tales if he worried about the premise, or even some of the telling details, becoming obsolete after his recent book was published. He said there were things that had become outdated before publication. Did that worry him? Not in the least! If it’s a good story, it’ll survive. Not convinced? Then consider the vast swaths of time and territory from which we have no fossils whatsoever. It’s entirely possible that the species or anatomical feature you lovingly describe or the behavior you postulate was close to correct somewhere once. Fun fact: It is estimated that less than 10% of the varied dinosaur species living during the Mesozoic left fossilized remains that we’ve discovered. Some undiscovered specimens lie beneath the 75% of the world covered with oceans. Others are buried by layer upon layer of sedimentary rock hundreds or thousands of feet deep. A great many individual creatures succumbed to decomposition or predation upon their deaths, leaving no remains that ever became fossilized. Even when fossilization did happen, subsequent metamorphic processes or simple erosion destroyed those remains.

4. Do fieldwork (safely).
I may not have a time machine, but I can still learn a lot by direct observation. My subjects are birds and reptiles, the more exotic, the better! Today’s alligators, crocodiles, and birds are the closest living relatives of dinosaurs. In fact, paleontologists consider modern birds to be avian theropods. As such, birds and crocodiles can give us insights into traits and behaviors they have in common with dinosaurs, such as laying eggs. This might also extend to vocalizations, territorial defense, seasonal migrations, and mating practices. I had great fun using these as jumping off points in “Dino Mate,” T-Rex Time Machine, “Not with a Bang,” and other stories.

Nevertheless, I’m no Steve Irwin, nor even Richard Attenborough, when it comes to my risk tolerance. While I stick close to home these days, my backyard provides fascinating examples of nest building, food acquisition, and cooperative behavior among the cardinals, crows, doves, robins, chickadees, sparrows, and suchlike. For more excitement, nature shows are another great source of ideas.

5. Set your story in a fascinating setting.
“White room syndrome” is the bane of many writers who dislike ginning up settings and tend to skip over descriptions when reading for pleasure. Too often, writers fall back upon settings that have done to death. Dinosaur stories are no exception.

It doesn’t have to be that way. With dinosaur remains having been discovered on every continent, including Antarctica, there is simply no need to situate a Mesozoic tale in an overworked location such as the high plains of the United States or Canada. I set one dinosaur story, “Dinomate,” in Subsaharan East Africa where the Kentrosaurus once roamed. I think of this Jurassic dinosaur, which is a relative of the Stegosaurus, as a dinosaur designed by committee. Half of that committee favored a ridge of plates arching along its spine and the other half went for three-foot long spikes. So in the finest committee tradition, the Kentrosaurus sports both plates and spikes. Similarly, I used the temperate Cretaceous forests of Antarctica as the backdrop for my story, “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs.” Looking ahead, I have plans—big plans—to hop backward to Cretaceous Northeastern China. That’s where paleontologists discovered Epidexipteryx hui a weird little tree-climber sporting a finger about a third the length of its body.

6. Smash disparate notions together in your large idea collider and work with whatever falls out.
The first story I sold, “Mom and the Ankylosaur,” came out of desperation while I attended a writers’ workshop. I cast about for a new, interesting angle regarding my favorite critters. Another writer attending the workshop knew and shared a great deal about hypnosis. That’s how I embarked upon a story about my mother trying to hypnotize dinosaurs. But rather than picking a standard off-the-toy-store-shelf sauropod, I chose an Ankylosaurus, that armored tank of the Cretaceous. Similarly, “Diamond Jim and the Dinosaurs” grew out of the fact that Antarctica not only had dinosaurs like Antarctopelta (a variant on Ankylosaurus) and Giraffititan (a type of brachiosaur), but also kimberlite formations suitable for diamond mines.

Looking back, I got my start in the dino-tales business not because I had a formal degree in paleontology, but simply because I’ve loved these great beasts ever since I first set eyes on a Brontosaurus skeleton at age five. If dinosaurs are your jam, then go for it. Doing research will be great fun, I promise you. On a cold winter day when the wind howls outside, there’s nothing like checking how warm it is amid the Jurassic cycads. Hmmmm…maybe I’ll crank up the temperature another degree or three for my protagonist. Those dinosaurs won’t mind.

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Rosemary Claire Smith’s interactive fiction adventure game, T-Rex Time Machine, is available from Choice of Games. She’s an AnLab Readers’ Award finalist, a former archaeologist, a lawyer, a photographer, but most importantly a fan of dinosaurs as well as just about any oversized furry animal. She’s been blogging for the past 156 million years. Her shorter work appears, or is forthcoming in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Fantastic Stories, Amazing Stories, Hybrid Fiction, Drabblecast and other magazines and anthologies. Follow her on Twitter at @RCWordsmith or Facebook as Rosemary Claire Smith.

Fantastic History #63: Turning Points and Alternate Histories by Laurence Raphael Brothers

The turning point is one of the key conceits of alternate history stories. As readers, writers, and day dreamers, we naturally want to redress the many grotesque injustices and horrible outcomes of real world history, but it’s daunting and sometimes rather unpleasant to consider these events as the emergent consequences of all-but-inevitable tides of historical processes. It’s much more fun to consider a particular dreadful executive decision from a head of state, or to analyze that one crucial battle in which that one general got up on the wrong side of bed and inexplicably botched their orders of the day. Sometimes we may want to use our time machine not to fix the problem, but to find the culpable party responsible for some all time bad decision and just slap them silly.

Winston (slap) Bloody (slap) Churchill (slap) what (slap) were (slap) you (slap) thinking (slap) when (slap) you (slap) came (slap) up (slap) with (slap) the (slap) idea (slap) of (slap) an (slap) assault (slap) at (slap) Gallipoli (slap slap slap)? And that wasn’t even the worst thing he did in his career. If it wasn’t for his conduct during WWII, he might well have been one of the worst British politicians of all time, including even the current crop of monstrous clowns.

But of course you might equally well abuse the Khwarezmian governor at Otrar for his cosmically bad decision to execute Genghis Khan’s trade embassy out of hand, or perhaps suggest gently to Pericles that Athens probably can’t win a war with Sparta after all, or even advise secretary-general Hammarskjöld that laudable as his intention to fly to Katanga might be, his peacekeepers will be just fine if he only lets the whole situation well enough alone…. Or perhaps you have more humanitarian motives and will swoop down to rescue Hypatia from the Alexandria mob, or Archimedes from the Romans, or, for that matter, Oscar Wilde from Reading Gaol. None of these last are classic turning points, but who knows what kinds of butterfly’s-wing consequences they might entail.

This kind of fiction has broad precedent and comes in several varieties. Starting perhaps with Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp (1939), there’s the common trope of a time traveler who changes history deliberately. In de Camp’s case, this is achieved by rescuing the Gothic revival of the western Roman Empire from Belisarius and Justinian through sheer technological prowess.

Then there are alternate historical setpiece dramas with no fantastic element involved in the historical divergence. In some of these (say Neal Stephenson’s gonzo Baroque Cycle books, 2003-4) the points of historical divergence are fairly obvious (the duchy of Qwghlm, precocious computing machinery research, alchemical gold-based immortality, etc.), but in others the story is just plain fabulism with no fantastic explanation for the historical deviation. Examples of this type include The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (1962) and Tirant lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell, published in 1490 and possibly the world’s first alternate history story. This kind of story can sometimes be a sort of roman à clef temporelle (to coin a phrase) in which part of the reader’s fun is figuring out exactly what the crucial turning point might have been. Then there’s the radically different magical or steampunk version of the world where for unexplained reasons familiar historical figures and historical events recur despite the profound differences in setting and technology. For a recent example of this type, consider Naomi Novik’s delightful Temeraire series (2006-16) in which the Napoleonic wars proceed more or less along familiar lines at least at first despite the presence of overwhelmingly powerful dragon forces on all sides.

In the first volume of my WWI-era historical fantasy duology, Twilight Patrol, set at the end of 1917, there are no turning-point deviations from history whatsoever, not on the large scale, anyway. Though I suppose in the real world George IV probably didn’t send a scout squadron to the Celtic otherworld in response to a request for assistance from the previously only thought to be mythical Seelie Court. I chose total historical authenticity to the extent I was capable of offering an accurate presentation of the war time situation. Apparent deviations from history are the author’s mistakes. However, there’s the strong implication of some kind of enormous turning point deviation to come. With their discovery of the otherworld, the Triple Entente can hardly play out the rest of their hand in quite the same way as before… and then there’s the question of the otherworld’s influence on our own, as well. In the second volume, the consequences of actions in the otherworld will reverberate from the fields of Flanders to London, Paris, and Berlin, not to mention Rome, Vienna, Istanbul, and Washington DC.

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Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and technologist. Over 25 of his short stories have appeared in such magazines as Nature, PodCastle, and Galaxy’s Edge. His WWI-era fantasy novel Twilight Patrol has just been published by Alban Lake and is available for purchase on Amazon. His urban fantasy novella The Demons of Wall Street will be published in 2020 by Mirror World, and his Gothic historical fantasy novella City of Magic and Desire will be published by World Castle. Follow him on twitter: @lbrothers, or visit his website for many stories that can be read or listened to for free online.