The Wrath of Horus is Coming!

It is coming!

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For Gregorius Klaereon, his Trial with the god Horus isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about the fight. His temperament aggressive, his anger on display for all to see, Greg is a direct contrast to his brother Marcellus, the perfect Lord Klaereon, the prophet who can do no wrong. How Marc tolerates Greg is a mystery to Greg himself, especially as Greg knows deep down that Greg is responsible for the deaths of his parents.

On the eve of the Klaereon birthday celebration, two days before Greg’s Trial, Greg fights with his cousin Flavia Borgia, and the two of them activate a reality shard which sends them, Marc, and others to the Abyss. There, they are judged and scattered throughout the nine circles. Greg, alone, discovers his Trial was the least of his worries as he is confronted by Set, the god of destruction, in a desolate landscape where his shadow powers no longer work.

While Greg endures, certain his rightful punishment has found him, Marc and the others scramble to reunite, rescue Greg, and make their way to the Golden City of the banished Egyptian pantheon, desperate to find a way home.

Alternative Reality, or a Reflection on Yesterday’s Insurrection

Let’s talk a little bit about alternative reality.

Right now, depending on who you’re talking to, you might find that this person doesn’t have the same view of the reality as you do. This is exceptionally frustrating, because you know you’re right, as in not that you believe you’re right, but that you are Snopes Fact Check right. You know you should stay home because of the Coronavirus. You know there was not wide spread election fraud. You know vaccines do not have microchips in them. You know Joe Biden is not a pedophile Satanist. And on and on. And yet, there are people in our country who believe these things and other things like them, who ardently believe these things.

Growing up, I had to constantly negotiate two realities. There was the reality most of the factual world had, and then there was my family’s reality, particularly my mother’s and my older brother’s. My family, dysfunctionals all of us, had problems with understanding how the world worked socially and ethically, because we had our own version of this, and it interfaced with varying levels of success with the cultural values of other classes, usually poorly and disastrously.
That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about what appears to be, as I would find out years later, an unreality that crept down through my mother’s side of the family, where actual reality would be adjusted to reflect some strange belief or lie to validate the worth of the family, or to manipulate family members into doing what was wanted. I understand my maternal grandmother would make up experiences all the time, and her sisters would correct her, saying these things did not happen. My mother and older brother certainly reinvented reality. Part of my mother’s history was that she was related to the queen of England through the Stewarts. Part of my older brother’s history was that he was a Navy SEAL. My mother told people I personally knew J.K. Rowling when I started out as a writer, and I’d have to explain to many people in my small town that no, I didn’t.

We call these things my mother and my brother said lies, because that’s what they are. BUT, and this is critical, there was a strange belief in unreality on their part, an insistence that it was real. As a young girl who still believed she could repair her family with TRUTH, I used to argue about their lies. My husband found the best way to disarm the conversation was to go with the lies until they ran out, until they couldn’t be spun anymore. Then we moved on, the lies ceasing to have power.

What I learned from living with people who were looking at life through a very different telescope than me, is that they actually believed some of these lies some of the time. I expect not all the time, but the need to delude oneself, given one’s real circumstances, was mighty indeed. To a much lesser extent, we all practice this a little bit, making up stories and narratives to smooth our way in the universe.

I have never found the magical key to helping someone who is committed to believing a lie to give up the lie. The need to hold onto that lie is SO STRONG you might incite a whole bunch of people to attack the people who tell you you’re lying. If you are in a position of power you might even have enablers who help you do this so they can hold onto power. This is how my family worked. This is how all dysfunction works. The United States is working like this right now.

Those of us who can see fact need to hold onto it. Those of us who have told others the truth is relative are mingling opinion with fact. Thank you, politicians, journalists, and propagandists. You’ve done your work well in brainwashing parts of the populace desperate to believe the reality you serve them.

There are ways to untangle and tell what conspiracies are, what is real and what is fake. Conspiracies can’t exist without long shot linkages. Facts can. These lies run out. The problem, of course, is when the lies are fed, and the lies are validated. We gotta stop doing that.

Ultimately, holding onto lies is about holding onto beliefs and insecurities about yourself or your culture or who is responsible for the position you’re in. It is our life’s work to make our country better for all our citizens, which we have never done. We’re great at exploiting the needs of the many for the needs of the few. And yes, I’m talking to my white friends, but I’m also talking to my straight friends, and my citizen friends, and even my friends with computers. The assumptions about what is “fair” or “normal” or what “rights” we should have is about perpetuating lies, not meeting people where they are.

People have been saying America is better than what we’ve seen the last few days. Nah. This is where we’ve been since I’ve been alive, with the exception of the idealized and integrated world I can remember watching as a child on a few episodes of Sesame Street.

So, what we should be saying is America CAN be better. And we gotta stop fomenting lies, both about microchips and vaccines, and how we treat BLM versus how we treat white terrorists. We gotta get our shit together, especially those of us who are in a position to call out the crazy. Don’t enable. Call out the crazy, and work as hard as you can to work with those who will let you make the world a better place.

And if people want to stay crazy? We crowd out the crazy people with crazy stuff like education, living wages, responsible citizenship, ethics, health care, the basic tenants of what we should provide for all, rather than living our life as temporarily disenfranchised millionaires who want what’s coming to us. We invest in rights for the disenfranchised. We treat each other with respect. We give dacism the middle finger.

And yes, I know, gross oversimplification followed up by a healthy dose of idealism. It’s what I do. I choose to do better than I have done in the past, and I hope you do as well. Let’s get to work.

Fantastic History #72: Series of Small Walls by Dawn Vogel

Humans have always been fascinated by what came before them, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the study of archaeology. As early as the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, historians and other antiquarians examined the cultural remains of previous civilizations, particularly those of the Greeks and Romans, and attempted to understand what they saw. By the seventeenth or eighteenth century, tentative steps had been taken in the direction of making the study of the past based on the artifactual record more scientific.

By the nineteenth century, the field of archaeology was dominated by male scholars from upper class backgrounds. Many of these men were looking for artifacts of great monetary value: “The history of excavation began with a crude search for treasure and for artifacts which fell into the category of ‘curio’. These curios were the subject of interest of antiquarians.” Others, on the other hand, wanted to be the first to explore an abandoned place. While their scholarship provided them with the knowledge on where to dig to find their desired ends, most of the work was done by local, working class laborers.

As time progressed, the science of archaeology became more defined, and “excavation techniques … developed over the years from a treasure hunting process to one which seeks to fully understand the sequence of human activity on a given site and that site’s relationship with other sites and with the landscape in which it is set…. It was later appreciated that digging on a site destroyed the evidence of earlier people’s lives which it had contained. Once the curio had been removed from its context, most of the information it held was lost.” Archaeologists began to focus on that very context in the later parts of the nineteenth century.

One of the most prominent archaeologists who focused on stratigraphic excavations was Heinrich Schlieman, who believed that the written works of the ancient Greeks, such as Homer, could be used as maps to locate archaeological sites of great importance. He used Homer’s account of the Trojan War to locate the area where he believed Troy could be found, in what was by then a part of Turkey. The location he found was a type of hill known as a “tell,” named from the Arabic word for a hill or mound. A tell is “a man-made hill made up of the ruins of ancient dwellings, built one upon the another [sic], for millennia upon millennia.”
In excavating this tell, Schlieman focused on artifacts he found—broken pottery and metal objects—but also the layers of walls that he was certain had belonged to Troy. “In Schliemann’s day though, no one had ever done such a thing before: no one knew anything of dirt archaeology in the Middle East; no one could read the sides of the deep trenches he was cutting and recognise tell-tale changes in the earth’s colours and textures, changes you might only see in different angles of light. Such small changes, if excavated carefully and followed out across the excavation site, allow modern archaeologists to map real ancient living spaces once again, to walk carefully on the most fragile ancient floors, and to re-create, through analysis of animal bones, pollens and other spare remains, how the ancient people who once inhabited them had lived.” Though he may not have found Troy during his dig in the early 1870s, Schlieman revolutionized the way in which archaeology was conducted.

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)

Social Media Links:
Twitter: @jkcheney

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.