Category Archives: Speculative Fiction

Nation – by Terry Pratchett

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Nation by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, like many by Sir Terry, is truly wonderful, which is why I just reread it for at least the third time. I’m not really sure. I’ve reread most of his books at least a few times. But when I went to add a “read date” on Goodreads for this one, I noticed I never wrote a review or made note of when I’d read it the first time. That would have been soon after it was released in 2008. Since around 1999 or 2000, I’d always bought hardback editions of Pratchett’s books the day they came out and read them right away. The price sticker is still on this one: $16.99 at Borders Books (which sadly no longer exists).

But, as for a review, well, this is one of the few of Sir Terry’s masterpieces not set on Discworld. It takes place mostly on a parallel version of (a regular round) Earth around 1870 or so (my best estimate). A deadly disease has killed many in England, including the king and the first hundred or so heirs to the throne. Meanwhile, a tsunami has wiped out several small island nations in the alternate world’s version of the South Pacific. The next in line for the throne of England was not in England to catch the disease, and needs to be found quickly so that he can be informed of his new job as king and have the burden of the crown legitimately placed upon his head. His daughter is on her way to join him when the ship she is on is caught by the big wave and wrecked on an island that hours before supported a small but happy nation. None are left except one young man who returns to find everything and everyone he ever knew gone. By default, he’s now the king of his one person nation.
The boy king and the girl (who does not yet know she’s a princess) meet. But this isn’t a story of young love. Sir Terry (thankfully) did not write those kinds of books. This is a story about survival, about imperialism, about racism, about philosophy and science and religion. Like most of Sir Terry’s books, it’s about us, but in metaphorical fable form. It’s wonderful, but I believe I’ve already said that.

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A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The ambassador of a small space station nation is sent to the capital of a powerful interstellar empire. There, she attempts to 1) discover how and why her predecessor was killed and who killed him, and 2) keep her little space based city state independent. It’s a well written space saga, and the work that went into writing it is obvious, but….

There were two things that kept me from loving this. The first is common with much of science fiction and fantasy, the effort to make it seem otherworldly by using unpronounceable names and titles. I can appreciate the extra effort authors go through to do this, but, quite honestly, I don’t think it adds much to the stories. In fact, I think it detracts. I doubt I’m the only reader who, when they come across a name like Teixcalaan (the aforementioned empire), they just read it as something like “Tex-whatever,” and keep going.

The second thing that made it a less than a fully enjoyable read for me was that it is loaded with politics. That can be interesting, and, again, a lot of work to create, but, quite frankly, I am so weary of politics in the real world at this point that I have little interest in putting any effort into trying to understand the politics of someplace imaginary. That said, I’ll probably read the next in the series because there’s a rather large loose end left dangling at the end of this one.

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My Books are Free

This is a quick note to let you know that digital editions of all of my books are free from Smashwords from today (Wednesday, 1 July 2020) to Monday, 13 July. You can get copies here:

New Book Release – Troubled Space

Troubled Space ~ The Interstellar Adventures of an Unknown Indie Writer

After a prolonged delay to allow editors and agents to properly ignore the manuscript, the first ebook and paperback editions of this lighthearted space opera will be released on Friday, 15 May, 2020.

TS ebook cover 2020aTed Lester writes stories no one reads. Agents reject him. Editors ignore him. Frustrated, he self-publishes, hoping the world will find value in his books. Then, early one morning, as he is yet again attempting to compose prose that might attract the attention of…well, anyone, something remarkable happens. He gets an unexpected visit from an agent, but not one he has ever queried. This agent is from outer space, and it tells Ted that one of his books has become popular throughout the galaxy, and that he, as the author, can have everything he ever wanted: fame, fortune, and above all, fans. All Ted has to do is agree to go on an interstellar book tour.

Unfortunately, not all his galactic readers are admirers. Some want to kill him.


Digital editions are now available for preorder for only 99¢:
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How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse

How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse (The Thorne Chronicles, #1)How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse by K. Eason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A bunch of fairies bestow magical gifts upon a baby princess—in a sci-fi universe with aliens and space stations. Sixteen years later, Rory, the androgynously named aforesaid princess, has grown into a spunky girl, trained in both physical self defense and arithmancy (what other universes might call ‘magic’), and she is not at all pleased when she is called upon to marry a foreign prince as a way to end an interstellar war. She’s all for stopping the war, of course, but the prince was something of dud the one time she had met him. That was when they were both young children; it was the same day a suicide assassin blew up their respective fathers.

It’s difficult to mix humor, fantasy, science fiction, and cultural commentary into a seamless story (I know this first hand), but this book does. The plot makes sense. So do the characters. The protagonist is likeable and relatable. The antagonist is fairly loathsome. It’s not exactly funny, but it is fun. I loved it and hereby endow it with five subjective stars.

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The City in the Middle of the Night

The City in the Middle of the NightThe City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

January is a tidally locked planet, habitable only along a strip of land running north and south, with frigid cold and perpetual darkness on one side, and endless light and searing heat on the other. Sophie, the protagonist of this story, is a student in one of two major cities in this zone. She makes a life-changing (and story-starting) decision when she takes the blame for a theft committed by a friend. The punishment for someone of her disfavored ethnicity is death, and she is hurled into the freezing dark and certain doom. Except it’s not. Certain, that is, due to the intervention of native monsters who may not be quite as monstrous as people believe.

The chapters in which Sophie provides the point of view are narrated in first person, present tense. The others are in third person, past tense. This felt awkward to me, but not jarring. It was the depressing setting, the oppressive culture, and the essentially unlikable characters that prevented me from actually enjoying the time I spent reading this. Dark stories can still be compelling, but this one was not. I never became emotionally invested in the place, the people, their politics, or even in the aliens, although the latter were interestingly, well alien. The ending, well, can’t give that away, but I can say that I found it less than satisfying.

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The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni (The Golem and the Jinni, #1)The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Bedouin girl comes down with a mysterious malady, and her father brings her to an unscrupulous magic maker with hope of buying a cure. Centuries later, an unlikable man wants a wife, so he goes to an unscrupulous magic maker to have one made out of clay. . . . Although not necessarily in that order. These events, relayed in flashbacks, provide the backstory of a meeting between a golem bride and a jinni in New York City around 1900. The jinni has no memory of how he got there, or of anything else for the last thousand years. The golem was born only a few days ago. Each is trying to find their place in this strange new world when a chance encounter evolves into a strange friendship between them.
The golem’s plight is especially engaging. She essentially has to invent what she is on her own, figure out if and how to interact with others, and decide on a course for her future. I found the jinni character less interesting overall, but he has his moments. I’m not a fan of flashbacks, and there are a lot in this book, but they’re handled well, providing essential background without confusing or disrupting the flow of the main story (much). Pacing is good, for the most part, although it bogs down a bit in the middle with more emotional turmoil and soap opera angst than seemed necessary. All in all, a good story.

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Prudence (The Custard Protocol, #1)Prudence by Gail Carriger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an alternate Victorian British Empire, werewolves, vampires, and mundane humans coexist in staid civility. And then there is Prudence. She has the rare ability/gift/curse of stealing another supernatural person’s form simply by touching them. If she touches a werewolf, she becomes a werewolf, and the person she touches becomes a mortal human for as long as they stay in reasonably close proximity with one another. Although she is said to be something of a scandal to her family (including both of her fathers and her mother), this is a relative assessment. Within the section of privileged society in which she travels, the main concerns are fashion, reputation, propriety, etiquette, convention, manners, and tea. This isn’t quite as funny as it might be because Prudence apparently shares these fatuous values, and it’s difficult to care much about her or any of the other characters presented in the first 200 pages of the story. And when she is sent on an adventure to India in a private, state of the art dirigible to secure a new type of tea…. Well, it’s really not all that interesting. But on her journey, mysteries begin to appear, her character begins to evolve, and by the time her airship arrives, there are signs of a respectable plot emerging. Since revealing what that is would be a spoiler, I won’t. You’ll have to go through the slow buildup to it yourself if you read this. All I will say is that the last third of the book is fairly interesting.

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Query Status ~ Week 5

There hasn’t been much action on my queries for Troubled Space this week. I only received one more reply, and it was to inform me that the agent I queried has left the business. I resubmitted to a different agent at the same agency, although she doesn’t seem as good of a fit for the kind of Hitchhiker’s-Guide-type space opera I have on offer. Still, you never know.

I spent most of my writing time this week on revising my Warden novels. Two with updated text and covers are now available in digital editions. (You can see the new covers in the sidebar of my website.) The revisions on the third Warden book are done, and I uploaded it to the publishers earlier today. (The revised Trade paperbacks aren’t yet available.) I’ve also added a page on my author’s website for Troubled Space, the yet unpublished book I’m currently querying (the cover is just a rough draft). I’m kind of rushing all of this because I recently learned that I’m “a heart attack waiting to happen,” according to my doctors. It looks like a quadruple bypass is in store for me. I doubt I’ll feel up to doing much for a while after that. Oh well, we do what we can with the time we have.

Brane of the Space Pirates reduced to 99¢

Digital editions of The Brane of the Space Pirates, the third book of the Brane Child trilogy, has been reduced to 99¢.

You can get a copy of this book from any of these fine online retailers:

Searching for an Agent

I post reviews of books I’ve read to Goodreads every week, but it’s been a while since I posted anything to this site about my own writing. It’s time to correct that.

The manuscript I’ve been working on for the last year is complete. That is, I’ve written the whole story and made it as good as I can. It’s probably not yet in its final form. The nice lady who edited my last few books has also volunteered to take a look at this one. She’s very good at spotting my typos or places where the prose doesn’t quite work. I appreciate her input immensely.

I’ve toyed with the idea of trying to find an agent before, but I’ve never pursued it with much vigor. I was content being an indie writer because writing isn’t my career. It’s a hobby, and I feared getting professional about the whole thing would turn it into a job. Those aren’t as much fun. My decision to seriously look for an agent for this book is proving that.

I’ve spent the best part of the last two weeks researching agents, putting together a list, drafting a short synopsis, and writing and rewriting query letters. It feels far too much like work, and I haven’t even sent out anything yet. I’d much rather be writing my next book. (Okay, to be honest, I’m doing that too, but it’s not getting the attention it should.)

So, what have I discovered about looking for an agent other than that it’s not fun?

  • There aren’t as many agents looking for the kind of speculative fiction I write as I hoped. Only eight agencies made it to the top of my list to query first. These all seem reputable, well-staffed, and (importantly) open to submissions. There are about a dozen other agencies I might go to if I don’t hear back from these. After that, nothing. I’ve got, at best, twenty to twenty-five shots at snagging an agent’s interest.
  • Different agents want to see different things. Most want a query letter. Some also want a synopsis. Some want to see the first five pages of the manuscript, Others want to see the first fifty. Even within the same agency, requirements can differ. You have to research carefully. There is no such thing as a standard query, although some places will tell you there is. Each query needs to be tailored.
  • Word for word, this stuff is far more difficult than actually writing a novel. The query letter itself is a business letter, so it has to sound, well, businesslike. But within that letter, you have to describe a creative and interesting novel. That part, a couple short paragraphs, can’t sound like boring old business. The synopsis is even harder. In my case, I’m trying to summarize a 90,000 word book into, at most, about 800 words that provide an accurate and interesting account of the entire story–beginning, middle, and end. Obviously, this leaves out a lot of great stuff about the characters and setting, which I worked hard to make interesting. Then there’s the subplot, which is important to the novel, but the synopsis has no room for it.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing. Rowan (the nice lady mentioned above) is looking at the first five chapters now. That’s the most any agent seems to want to see as part of a query.  She’s already provided feedback on the first two. Once she’s done and I’ve made all the necessary edits, I’ll start sending queries. Expected response times, for those who actually respond as a matter of policy, are measured in months. Many agents only respond if interested.

For now, I’m still polishing those query letters. With luck, I’ll be sending them out next month. If an agent agrees to represent me sometime later this year (or even early next year), I’ll announce it. Obviously, I’m hoping one will, but I’m not just going to wait around. I have another book to write. Once those letters are out, I’ll get back to that.


A unique concept & great delivery: Adventures of The Brane Child Series – Tahlia Newland

The Brane Child Series is a unique blend of fantasy, science fiction and parody set in a well-conceived alternate world populated with endearing characters.

Source: A unique concept & great delivery: Adventures of The Brane Child Series – Tahlia Newland

A new book, an older book, and one not yet written

The Brane of the Space Pirates - digital coverAs you probably already know, my latest book, The Brane of the Space Pirates, was released last month. It’s had a few sales and already has one review on Amazon (5 stars! Thanks, Adrian). For an indie book by an unknown author who really doesn’t do much by way of marketing, I don’t think that’s too bad.

DogTaleseBook11-13aThe big activity, however, has been on Wattpad, an online community that offers readers free access to stories on their computers or mobile devices. I’d never heard of Wattpad until the nice lady who volunteered to edit several of my books suggested I give it a try (Thanks, Rowan). I figured another outlet to get my books noticed can’t be bad. I chose to upload An Android Dog’s Tale mainly because the book is organized as a chronological series of short stories, all featuring the same main character (an artificial dog). I thought this would make it especially suitable to read on smart phones and tablets. Wattpad made it one of their featured science fiction offerings last month, and it has had over 3,000 reads and almost 200 ‘votes’ since! I’m quite pleased by this, although I can’t honestly say what it signifies or if will lead to more readers for the rest of my books.

As for my next project, I have a novel in very early planning stages, which means I have notes on setting, characters, and plot, but I haven’t fleshed any of them out as of yet. In the meantime, I’m working on a series of short stories. I’ve completed one, a second just needs some editing and prose-polishing, and am working on a draft of a third, with plans for a few more. I haven’t quite decided what to do with these, but I have to be writing something.

An Automotive Haiku

CrackDriving on I-4
A short, sharp pop!
A windshield crack grows.

Okay, maybe not a haiku, exactly, but it happened, and the car needs a new windshield before it’s had its first oil change.

The final adventure of the Brane Child

My next book, The Brane of the Space Pirates, will be released on 16 May 2016. This is the third and final book of the Brane Child trilogy. I hope you find it a satisfying conclusion. It was fun writing these, although it proved to be far more work and required more research than I expected.

I normally price the eBook editions of my books as low as possible. As an indie author, I have a fair amount of control over this (although not so much for the paperbacks). I have, however, been told by a few readers that a 99¢ price may be sending the wrong message. It may suggest that this is all the books are worth. I hesitate to ask the relatively standard $2.99 that many charge, let alone more. I’ve seen indie eBooks priced at $4.99, even $6.99. Yes, I think my books are worth that, but as I said in a previous post, I don’t write them to make money. I write because I like writing, and I want my books to be read and enjoyed. Charging people to read them seems, well, kind of selfish. Still, I understand that this may discourage readers from trying them, so I’ve priced this one at $1.75 for the release. If you think that’s too much, let me know.

Anyway, about the book. The first two in this series were fantasy parodies: the first of fantasy role-playing games, and the second of fairy tales. The Brane of the Space Pirates is more of a traditional space opera. Like all of my stuff, it contains cultural and philosophical satire (of a sort). This one contrasts Stoic notions about predestined fate with the Epicurean position that people make their own. (Yeah, I’ve been reading Greek philosophy…again.) It also explores what might happen in a society in which automation has replaced most human labor and Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand is given free rein. This may make the book sound a bit ‘heavy’, but I think it’s still an easy, lighthearted read. It’s difficult if not impossible for a writer to evaluate his own stuff, though, so I’d love to hear your opinions.


The following announcement is from the Fuzzy Android site:

The final adventure of the Brane Child will launch on 16 May, 2016. We’ll be doing a countdown on weekdays starting Monday, 18 April. Each day will present a ‘meme’ with a quote f…

Source: The final adventure of the Brane Child

The Invention of Science

Invention-of-ScienceThe Invention of Science: The Scientific Revolution from 1500 to 1750
by David Wootton
Hardback first edition Published by Harper Collins 2015

Wootton claims there are two major philosophical camps among those who write about the history of science. He calls them the ‘realists’ and the ‘relativists’. The realists regard science as essentially a formalized application of human common sense. To them, science is a systematic method of asking questions about the natural world, which leads to reasonably accurate answers. As these answers build upon one another, collective human understanding grows. It’s almost inevitable. Relativists, on the other hand, see science as an aspect of human culture. Both the questions it asks and the answers it finds are culturally dependent, so it never obtains any objective knowledge and consequently cannot progress in the sense that it gets us closer to a true understanding of what the world actually is or how it works. Instead, it creates stories about the world that work for a particular culture at a particular time. Relativism, he claims, “has been the dominant position in the history of science” for some time (Pg. 117). (This seems odd to me since, of the two extremes, relativism seems the most absurd, but that’s what he says. Since he’s the expert and I’m not, I’m sadly willing to entertain the idea that he may be right about this.)

Wootton sees some merit in both of these perspectives, and this book is his attempt to reconcile them. His self-appointed task can be summarized in these quotes that appear near the end of the book:

The task, in other words, is to understand how reliable knowledge and scientific progress can and do result from a flawed, profoundly contingent, culturally relative, all-too-human process. (pg. 541)
Hence the need for an historical epistemology which allows us to make sense of the ways in which we interact with the physical world (and each other) in the pursuit of knowledge. The central task of such an epistemology is not to explain why we have been successful in our pursuit of scientific knowledge; there is no good answer to that question. Rather it is to track the evolutionary process by which success has been built upon success; that way we can come to understand that science works, and how it works. (Pg. 543)

And this is what he does in an extensively researched and exhaustively documented account of the development and evolution of science. The way of thinking, which we now call science, truly was new and revolutionary. It emerged primarily in Western Europe between the times of Columbus and Newton. Wootton doesn’t claim a single igniting spark, but he gives Columbus’s voyage in 1492 credit for providing a powerful challenge to the prevailing belief that the ancients had known everything worth knowing. Although Columbus himself never accepted that the land he found by traveling west from Spain was a previously unknown continent, others soon came to this realization, and it showed that the authority of Ptolemy, Aristotle, and Holy Scripture were not as absolute as people believed. Here was an entirely new world, with strange animals, plants, and people, which the respected and authoritative ancients had known nothing about. Possibly just as significant was that the existence of these two huge continents was not found through philosophical reflection or by divine revelation. This new land was ‘discovered’ by a bunch of scruffy sailors—commoners!

From here, he explains that these emerging ideas added new words and new (and modern) definitions to old words, such as ‘discovery’, ‘fact’, ‘experiment’, ‘objectivity’, and ‘evidence’. These all have their current meanings because of the scientific way of viewing the world that emerged between the 16th and 18th centuries. (Personally, I think his discussion of the word ‘evidence’ goes into more detail and greater length than needed to make his point, but for those in academia, it may be helpful).

He also shows how culture influenced the development of scientific thinking. More often than not, the culture of this time hindered rather than helped. Prior to the scientific revolution, philosophical disputes were decided through clever rhetoric, creative verbal arguments, and appeals to tradition and authority. Because of this, early practitioners of science felt it necessary to justify themselves by citing the works of long-dead philosophers like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius. Although none had the authority of Aristotle, they were ancient, which implied a certain respectability. The new scientific way of thinking, on the other hand, “sought to resolve intellectual disputes through experimentation.” (pg. 562)

I am more of an interested observer of science than I am a practitioner, but I have to admit that the realist view seems far closer to the truth to me than does the relativist concept. It is undeniable that science is done by scientists, that scientists are people, and that people are shaped by the cultures in which they live. But modern science originally began by challenging the assumptions of the culture in which it first emerged, and it retains that aspect of cultural skepticism to this day. I suspect that many current scientists are motivated, at least in part, by the dream of possibly overturning a prevailing theory or showing that it is somehow flawed or incomplete. In the 17th century, challenging cultural assumptions could bring a long, uncomfortable visit with inquisitors followed by a short, hot time tied to a stake. Today, it can bring a scientist fame and fortune.

Scientific progress isn’t inevitable, but it can and does reveal culturally independent facts. Scientists are products of their cultures, but the process of science intentionally strives to put those cultural assumptions aside. It may be the only human activity that does so.

The Evolution of Everything

Evolution of EverythingThe following is a rather lengthy review of The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley. I apologize for the length, but some things just need a bit more explaining than others.

People have a natural tendency to seek agency. If something momentous happens, then someone must have caused it. If something complex exists, someone obviously designed and built it. But this natural human way of looking at things leads to unwarranted assumptions. No one, for example, planned the evolution of life.

Ridley extends Darwin’s insight about biological evolution to human culture and invention. No one planned the development of language. No one planned the industrial revolution. No one planned today’s global economy. These things evolved. They weren’t designed from the top down. They emerged from the bottom up. In this book, Ridley specifically argues that Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand guides economics in much the same way that natural selection guides the evolution of life. Both emerge from the complex interplay of individual agents acting out of self-interest with no common goal. They operate without any grand plan, and yet they create (albeit unintentionally) complex, well-ordered, and reasonably efficient systems. He has great faith in the power of the Invisible Hand. Don’t try to direct it, and good things will happen.

To me, his belief in the power of the Invisible Hand seems a bit too…well, utopian. Simplistic. Possibly even a bit mystical. The Hand works in mysterious ways. We don’t know how, exactly, but we must have faith that it is all for the best and let it get on with things. As long as we don’t interfere, all will be well. Society will evolve for the better. The state will wither away, and everyone will live in peace and prosperity. His end state seems ironically similar to the one Karl Marx envisioned, and I think it’s flawed for one of the same reasons Marx’s was—people. They aren’t ready for it…yet. There are those, and I like to believe the number grows with every generation, who do not require coercion or the threat of divine or secular punishment in order to behave properly toward their fellow human beings. But many still do. The state may be an unfortunate necessity at this point in human evolution.

If it’s possible to be a cynical optimist, Matt Ridley qualifies. He makes several valid points in this book. Order can emerge from chaos. Actions motivated solely by self-interest can have unintended and broadly beneficial consequences. Human culture does evolve, and it has progressed and improved over time. But he makes an unjustified leap by concluding that it is therefore a mistake to attempt to bring about cultural change or broad social benefits intentionally. Evolution, both biological and cultural, he seems to argue, are best left to natural selection and the free market. Restraining the Invisible Hand leads to disaster.

Well, it can, except sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the Hand needs a shove. Or maybe it’s better to say that the Invisible Hand has more fingers than he seems to think it has.

Ridley often sounds like a cranky old man grinding philosophical axes*, and in this book, he vents his libertarian spleen on all things that smack of authority. This includes religion and crony capitalism, but his favorite target is government in all its current and historical forms. He doesn’t like government (which seems odd considering that Viscount Ridley is a member of the British House of Lords). He sees it as a top-down intrusion on the proper bottom-up evolution of human society. Let the free market work!

But there is no free market, and I doubt one would last long if there was. (See Saving Capitalism by Robert B. Reich Markets in our modern society depend on governments to protect capital assets and intellectual property. Governments provide the framework within which individuals and businesses negotiate contracts with one another, and they provide legal recourse in the event of contract violation. Governments maintain competition by restricting monopolies so that large corporations cannot eliminate their existing and potential competitors (e.g. through hostile takeovers, dumping goods, or intimidating suppliers). Governments also help bolster the economy by instilling consumer confidence. Because of governmental regulations, you can be fairly sure that the food and medicine you buy isn’t toxic; that your appliances, cars, homes, and other purchases are reasonably safe to use; and that whatever else you buy will function almost as well as the seller claims it will. If you are in the unfortunate position of having to work for a living, your workplace is probably safer, your workday shorter, your pay better, and you may even enjoy some kind of insurance or even paid holidays because of governmental policies.

A firm believer in laissez faire economics might argue that all of these benefits would come about on their own accord through the magic of market forces, but they didn’t, which is why these governmental policies came about. Worker exploitation, sweatshops, child labor, and unsafe working conditions were rampant only a century ago. The case of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City in 1911 is probably one of the most famous examples. ( In a bottom-up effort, voters demanded that something be done. Government responded by enacting laws. (e.g. the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972). Admittedly, these probably did not all work as well as many hoped, and some may have had unforeseen consequences, but these laws and others were passed because the ‘free’ market had not been able to prevent abuses by private businesses that exploited workers and cheated consumers. Clearly, not all business were dishonest or exploitative, but a top-down mandate was needed, not only to protect workers and consumers, but also to establish a level playing field to protect responsible business owners from unfair competition by those who were not.

So, were these societal changes examples of bottom-up evolution brought about by voter demand or were they top-down impositions on the free market by government? Both? Neither?

Personally, I think it’s a false dichotomy. Let me begin by saying that power bases emerge in human society whether you want them to or not. They form from the bottom up. We can’t prevent them, nor do I think we should try. They exist to pursue the interests of their constituents, and in doing so can provide benefits to each member that they cannot obtain as well on their own. But they can also unjustly impose their will on nonmembers. If one group becomes too powerful, or if two or more combine forces, they can oppress or exploit others. Maintaining some kind of power balance so that this does not happen can be difficult.

Prior to the Enlightenment, government, in the form of a monarch and sundry aristocracy, could be seen as a separate power base, as could the Church, landed gentry, craftsmen, and peasants. Each of these had its own unique interests, which they pursued, sometimes cooperatively but often competitively. If you wish to imagine society as something guided by an invisible hand, these would have been its fingers, the two strongest of which were the monarch and the Church.

Modern Western society has different fingers. These can be generalized as workers, consumers, business owners, and bankers. Religion is still with us, of course, and it does have unique interests and it does exert power, so it may be seen as a finger as well. As in the past, these groups may have overlapping constituencies, but they don’t have common goals, and the conflicts between them create the evolutionary pressures that move societies. Together, these five fingers shape human culture in unplanned ways. (I don’t include government as one of these modern fingers for reasons I’ll explain soon.)

All of these fingers represent their members and push society in some way. Consumers want quality products at affordable prices. Workers want secure, well-paying jobs. Religions want to spread their faiths. Businesses and banks want to earn profits for owners/investors. Democratic government is a bit different in that it represents (or should represent) interests common to everyone. As difficult as it may be to imagine at times, and despite the real differences that may exist between them, all people have more interests in common than not…safety, property, opportunity, freedom…or as the U.S. Declaration of Independence puts it, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A properly functioning democratic government has the unenviable task of ensuring equal rights for all its citizens and for being an impartial arbiter when the goals of the metaphorical fingers come into conflict. Is it more important for consumers to have lower prices or for workers to have higher wages? Are these more or less important than business owners reaping high profits or banks charging high interest? When does a religion’s goal of spreading the faith intrude on the freedom of nonbelievers? These are not hypothetical questions. All have had to be addressed in the past, and it has fallen on governments to do so because market forces can’t, at least not as well. When one group attempts to dominate, exploit, suppress, or even eliminate another, the purely evolutionary solution of allowing the strongest to win is probably not the best one for the long-term survival of a civilization. The government stands in defense of all, regardless of numbers or wealth. It codifies protected rights that apply to all its citizens, and it acts as a societal ratchet to prevent these rights from being denied in the future. Once proscribed by law, such things as slavery, child labor, and racial discrimination are far less likely to reemerge. A democratic government provides a balancing force so that the many cannot dominate the few and the rich and powerful cannot prey on the poor and weak.

The balance breaks down if one societal power base exerts too much influence over governmental policies. Business control of government is just as detrimental to a society as governmental control of business. But democratic governments are self-correcting. They change from the bottom up. The dominating powers will fight to preserve their privileged positions. They’ll try to bend public opinion to maintain their position, but when voters feel that one group has too much influence, they’ll vote for change…and they might even achieve it. We may be seeing something like that happening now in the U.S. Time will tell.

There is much about Matt Ridley’s argument with which I do not agree, but his central point that complex systems evolve in unexpected and unplanned ways is undeniable. They do. No single strategy directed the course of human progress. The scientific discoveries and cultural changes humanity has made since our ancestors first chipped stones into knives two and a half million years ago (or thereabout) have created a world that no one could have imagined, let alone planned. These advancements emerged incrementally, iteratively, one thing leading to another, with all the parts interacting in complex and often unpredictable ways. In short, our society evolved. There was no grand plan, but many of the little steps along the way were planned, which is where the comparison of scientific and cultural progress with biological evolution breaks down. The two processes appear similar from a great enough distance, but they differ in the details.

Biological evolution lacks intent. Cells and microbes can’t imagine the future. They can’t plan. Over time, the individual cells that comprised the earliest forms of life came together, differentiated, and specialized to form larger and more complex organisms. This improved their survivability, but they didn’t adapt to survive. They survived because they adapted. This is an important difference. It’s a matter of cause and effect. It took natural selection billions of years to go from those earliest microbes to creatures like us because it operates without intent. It doesn’t build to a plan. Discrete biological changes (to DNA) are close enough to random to think of them as such, and most of those random mutations are fatal. Natural selection can create astounding complexity in this manner, but it’s hit or miss, and it takes a while.

Cultural evolution is faster. The time span from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens took almost two million years. The time span from steam engines to nuclear power was less than three hundred. Why? Well, a lot of reasons, but complexity isn’t one of them. There are more differences between Newcomen’s steam engine and a nuclear reactor than there are between you and your multi-great grandmother a couple million years ago. A big factor for the difference in time scale is that each evolutionary step from pre-modern humans to us relied on unplanned natural selection. Each development between steam power and nuclear energy was the result of human premeditated action. Each improvement, every new idea along the way was proposed and developed by a human mind with intent.

Ridley summarizes his position in the epilogue of his book. “To put my explanation in its boldest and most surprising form: bad news in manmade, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves.”

Ah, if only reality were that simple. The unfortunate truth is that most evolutionary changes are failures. Unplanned evolution doesn’t always bring success but neither does planned change. Most plans people make fail as well. What Ridley’s argument seems to boil down to is that evolutionary changes that have survived are successful. True, but tautological. Extrapolating from this dubious insight by claiming that unplanned evolutionary change is good and that manmade change is bad is simply absurd. It’s like claiming that doctors shouldn’t cut out tumors, prescribe antibiotics, provide vaccinations, or attempt to cure genetically inherited diseases because the bacteria, viruses, and genetic mutations they are trying to eliminate have evolved through natural selection and therefore must be good.

Let me offer an alternate idea. Human culture and technology have advanced rapidly because when people see problems, they take action to fix them. They don’t wait around for the slow plod of evolution to make things better or, alternately and more likely, to drive them to extinction. Humans are toolmakers. The things we create, from hammers to stock markets, are tools that we intentionally design to accomplish certain tasks, and we improve upon them over time to make them work better.

By all measurable criteria, our species’ quality of life has improved over time. People today (on average) are healthier, eat better, live longer, are freer, safer, and enjoy more material wealth than at any time in history. No one planned the current state of human affairs. It isn’t anyone’s imagined end state or ultimate goal. There is no end state. There is no final goal. Evolution is a continuing process. The reason our cultures evolve faster than our biology is partly that they have something biology does not. When it comes to the components of human culture, such as our religions, laws, forms of government, economic systems, philosophies, ethics, educational systems, music, art, inventions, and all other creations of the human mind, an intrinsic part of all of them is that they include an element of intent. People designed them from the top down in response to conditions imposed from the bottom up. They saw situations that they wanted improved, considered ways of adapting what they knew to the problems facing them, and came up with ideas they thought might work. Some did. Some didn’t. Those that work are more likely to survive. Richard Dawkins calls such ideas memes, but the important point is that these ideas do not spring up spontaneously. They originate in human minds. And although each of these ideas may be intended to address separate, seemingly unconnected issues, each forms a small component of a larger evolving system. Unlike biological evolution, human progress has an aspect of intelligent design.

Which brings me back to Ridley’s issue with government and the free market. The Invisible Hand of the free market is not a separate ineffable force any more than the human mind is separate from the brain and body that create it. Both can be seen as emergent properties. But perhaps a better way to view the free market for this discussion is as a process. Just as evolution describes the process of living matter reacting to its environment, the free market describes the process of humans interacting to improve their lives. To do this, they build tools. If those tools don’t work quite as well as we’d like, we try to improve them.

Businesses are tools. Banks are tools. Government is a tool. All of these are designed, built, modified, and used by people in order to improve their lives, and, over time and not at all miraculously, our lives have improved. Since this was and is the common intent, I’d say we’re not doing too badly. Evolution gave us our toolmaking ability. It would be a shame not to use it.

*So am I, but that’s beside the point.

A few recommendations for further reading on this and related subjects:

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker (

Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth, by Juan Enriquez, Steve Gullans (

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt (

The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, by William Rosen (


Star Trek Self Destruct Initiated

LCARSSelfDestructWhat’s the best way to destroy an entertainment franchise?
Piss off its biggest fans.

That’s what CBS and Paramount are now risking by bringing a copyright infringement lawsuit against Axanar, the latest of a long string of fan-produced Star Trek films. While many of these are distinctly amateurish, with weak scripts, poor acting, and cardboard and duct tape sets, a few of the more recent ones have a far more professional appearance. Some are quite good. Axanar promises to be one of the best yet.

Despite all the time, effort, and money needed to produce them, these fan films don’t make a profit. They aren’t intended to. Actually, the producers spend their own money, along with that of contributors, to make them, and they are free to watch on YouTube and other places. Profit is not the goal. Fans produce them as an expression of admiration for Star Trek, which many see as distinctly different (and better) than most science fiction and fantasy entertainment offerings. It’s not just a juvenile, action-packed explosion-fest.

I can’t know why CBS and Paramount have decided to target Axanar. Is it because it promises a truly professional product? Is it because it has generated a million dollars from contributors to help produce it? Is it because it is already generating a following and people are looking forward to seeing it? Are they jealous? Are they worried it may be better than the stuff they’re producing? Like I said, I can’t know, but I do know this lawsuit isn’t earning them any friends. I’ve already seen comments on social media from fans threatening to boycott Star Trek Beyond, the next official Trek movie. (It has a $150 million budget and a planned release in the summer of 2016).

I can understand the big corporations wanting to protect their copyrights. They ‘own’ Star Trek. They don’t want others cutting into their profits. But I don’t think fan films do that. Quite the contrary. Fan films are like free advertising for the franchise. They provide additional exposure and can generate new followers. They keep fans engaged between the official films and TV series. They promote discussions in online forums and maintain interest. Rather than bringing a lawsuit against Axanar, CBS and Paramount should be thanking them.

That’s just my opinion, of course. I’ve been following Star Trek pretty much since the beginning. I’ve seen all the TV shows, watched all the movies, and own several DVDs. I have signed photos and Trek posters hanging on the walls of my office. My Christmas tree this year was hung with Star Trek ornaments…. I can’t say I’m Trek’s number one fan, but I appreciate it, and I especially appreciate all the hard work that the producers of fan films (even the bad ones) put in to keeping it alive. Unlike the big corporations, their work isn’t motivated by profit. It’s motivated by a love for the show. The people who make and watch the fan films are Star Trek’s strongest followers and advocates. Alienating them would be an extremely bad business move. Bringing suit against Axanar could do that. It seems petty. It may, I fear, turn Trek’s greatest fans against the corporate owners and harm the franchise.

Defying Fate – An Epic SFF Free Kindle Promotion

Defying Fate – An Epic SFF Free Kindle Promotion

DefyingFateCoverRev15Amazon will be running a FREE Kindle promotion of Defying Fate starting on Thursday 27 August 2015 and running through Monday 31 August. This exclusive Kindle edition includes two full-length novels, The Warden Threat and its sequel, The Warden War. These books tell the exciting and lighthearted tale of a young, naive prince and his quest to prevent an unnecessary war prompted by claims of a mysterious WMD (Warden of Mystic Defiance). Combining epic fantasy with light science fiction, this is a great story for readers of all speculative fiction genres yearning for something fresh and different.

If you haven’t read these yet, now is your chance. Grab a copy for your Kindle while this promotion lasts. Then, check out D.L. Morrese’s other books. You’ll be glad you did.

Happy Reading!

Originally posted in Defying Fate – An Epic SFF Free Kindle Promotion.

What is Counter-Fantasy?

Counter-FantasyCounter-Fantasy: noun – a subgenre of science fiction

There are, as I see it, two major subdivisions of speculative fiction.

There’s science fiction, in which the setting and all (or at least most) of the props and trappings have a basis (albeit sometimes implausibly) in known science. Within the context of the story, the aliens, whiz-bang technology, and special effects are presumed to be scientifically explicable. We may not know how to create warp drive or gravity plates, for example, but if the people of a science-fictional universe figured it out, the story implies that they did so using scientific principles and (importantly) without violating any known laws of physics.

And then, there’s fantasy, in which imagination has free rein to disregard physics, or any other scientific constraint if the author so chooses. In fantasy, mythological creatures, mystical forces, and magic dominate the setting, and their scientific inexplicability (or impossibility) is no detriment to their existence within the story.

This is, of course, a purely academic distinction. It defines different genres of fiction, but individual stories are often a mix of several. Fantasy, romance, sci-fi, adventure, comedy, and mystery can all coexist happily in a single and entirely enjoyable story. Star Wars is one well-known example that mixes both science fiction and fantasy. The setting, with its space ships and blasters, looks like science fiction, but it’s the mystical Force that drives the story.* If you want to attach a genre label to it, ‘science fantasy’ works about as well as any.

But, getting back to reality…I mean fantasy, there is a subgenre sometimes referred to as ‘magic realism’. This may sound like an oxymoron, and I suppose in some ways it is, but stories in this subgenre place magic and supernatural elements in a setting that otherwise feels realistic. Within the story, the characters may regard magic as an ordinary part of everyday life. The distinction between natural and supernatural doesn’t exist. While immersed in the story, the reader is encouraged to suspend disbelief and accept that the magic could exist in the real world.

Counter-fantasy is the reverse of that. The stories are set in worlds that feel like traditional fantasy, but either the magic doesn’t work the way characters in the story think it does, or it is clear to the reader that the magic can only exist within the confines of the fictional fantasy universe. Rather than blur the line between fantasy and reality, it emphasizes it.

The idea for counter-fantasy came to me due to the influence of two great writers, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. For reasons I could not explain at first, their books seemed different from those by other writers. I enjoyed them more, and it wasn’t simply because of the humor. After several re-readings, the underlying reason finally dawned on me**; they don’t ask me to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. They don’t require that I abandon reason, intellect, or common sense to visit their fictional worlds. It is always clear that their settings are not real and that the reader is not supposed to believe that they could be real. They’re fiction, pure and simple. The stories aren’t to be taken seriously, but, at the same time, they present serious truths beneath the absurdity. They do what traditional fairy tales were intended to do. They provide a clearly fictional example to convey a serious nonfictional point.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a short book about some poor sap named Arthur Dent who hitches a ride with belligerent aliens just as they’re blowing up Earth…but that part of the story is nonsense. The aliens are ridiculous. Their motive of creating a hyperspace bypass is absurd. It’s a surface story, and the reader isn’t supposed to regard it as anything other than that. It is simply an entertaining framework that ties together several observations about humanity, from the soulless momentum of bureaucracy to the human search for meaning in a vast, uncaring universe. Kind of depressing, that, but couched in humor, the point, the ultimate point in the book comes through. Don’t Panic! The universe is what it is, it will do what it does, and if we think we can make much of a difference in that, well, that’s funny.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy stories make a different point—several in fact***. They don’t laugh at the ultimate absurdity of human action; they stress its importance. Humans choose what they will do and what they will be. This may not matter to the overall fate of the universe, but it matters to individual people and to those around them. Pratchett’s stories address greed, sexism, prejudice, jingoism, religion, belief, tradition…. And they do so in stories featuring witches and wizards. But unlike magic realism, Pratchett isn’t trying to make the setting feel real. After all, the stories take place on a flat world resting on the backs of four huge elephants standing atop a planet-size turtle. This absurdity provides a constant reminder that the surface story is fiction and shouldn’t be regarded as anything else.

Both of these great authors create superbly entertaining stories that readers should not take seriously to convey points that they should. That’s what I saw in them, anyway, and that’s what most impressed me. I have a fairly skeptical nature. I don’t suspend disbelief easily, and both Adams and Pratchett provided meaningful and enjoyable stories that didn’t require me to.

A lot of modern fantasy, and even some science fiction, carries a serious tone that clashes with settings that simply cannot be taken seriously. Basic absurdities are presented as if they are not. It’s as if the author expects the reader not to notice clear violations of the laws of gravity, motion, thermodynamics, or probability. Perhaps I have a hair-trigger BS**** reflex, but things like this tend to ruin the story for me. If the story has a serious tone and I read, for example, that some witch or wizard turned someone into a frog, my immediate reaction is, “Where did all the extra mass go?”*****

The thing is, I like fantasy. I enjoy fairy tales. But a good many of the more recent fantasy stories I’ve read (or began to read and gave up on) seemed to take themselves far too seriously. It was as if the writers forgot the meaning of fantasy. It’s not real.******

So, that’s how I got the idea for counter-fantasy. It’s lighthearted speculative fiction with a fantasy-like feel, but it doesn’t try to make the fantasy elements in the story seem as if they could exist outside of it. It maintains, even emphasizes the lines between natural and supernatural, rational and irrational, and knowledge and belief. This, I hope, allows readers to enjoy the story without triggering their BS reflexes. It’s a bit less immersive, a bit less escapist than some fantasy, but I think it provides a good alternative for readers who like to keep one metaphorical foot grounded in reality even when enjoying a work of speculative fiction.

* I’m fairly sure George Lucas intended Star Wars to be a fairy tale with space ships. “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…” is far too much like the traditional fairy tale beginning (“A Long Time Ago, In a Land Far Away…”) to be a coincidence.
**I can be a terribly slow learner at times.
***With over 40 Discworld books in the series, a lot of points can be made.
**** BS, of course, stands for Balderdash & Stupidity. What else could it possible mean?
*****In Pratchett’s story A Hat Full of Sky, a young witch turns an unlucky fellow into a small frog and Sir Terry wisely notes that the extra mass manifests as a pink blob nearby.
******Sometimes, I also suspect that there must be some kind of competition going on to see who can create the darkest, most depressing, and unenjoyable books possible, but that’s a separate issue.

Related Posts:

Release of The Scarecrow’s Brane

ScarecrowCover1aThe Scarecrow’s Brane, the second adventure of the Brane Child, will be released on 3 July 2015.


The Story: Commander Lisa Chang and the crew of the experimental spaceship Brane Child make a hasty emergency landing on a planet that resembles Oz and accidentally open Emerald City to the covetous ambitions of tyrannical Red Witch of the South. The only way to fix the mess they’ve made is to embark on a hazardous journey through the Wild Lands to Munchkinland, where Lisa must somehow convince the Great and Powerful Blue Wizards of the East to construct a new protector for Emerald City.


The digital edition of this book can now be preordered for only 99¢ (U.S.) from any of these fine online retailers:

Please note, regardless of where this book is sold, it is in one of the contemporary dialects of American English.


Questions and Answers about this book:

How does this book relate to your previous books?
The Scarecrow’s Brane is a sequel to Brane Child. Like the previous book, this one is positive science fiction—upbeat, hopeful, and sometimes even funny. There is also a smidgeon of cultural satire. In this episode, the crew finds themselves in a land a bit like Oz with lots of characters and situations from other stories and fairy tales.

Why is it only 99¢?
As far as my writing is concerned, I’m more concerned with obtaining readers than I am with making money. Everyone should have access to stories they enjoy regardless of their finances, and the price for the digital edition is the lowest many eBook distributors will allow. (The paperback editions are more because of the cost of printing.) The low cost does not imply a short book or poor editing. The trade paperback edition of The Scarecrow’s Brane is 328 pages or about 80,000 words. (For comparison, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Fahrenheit 451 are each about 47,000 words. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is over 587,000 words. My books tend to be around the same length as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone or Terry Pratchett’s earlier Discworld books. They are also edited, revised, and extensively proofread prior to publication to meet or exceed reader expectations.)

So, What comes next?
The next book in this series will be the third and final I currently have planned for it. All I can tell you right now is that it will bring Lisa and her crew somewhere unexpected.

2015 Towel Day / Wear the Lilac Day


The 25th of May celebrates the lives and works of two innovative and inspirational writers, Douglas Noel Adams and Sir Terry Pratchett.

Towel Day came about two weeks after Douglas Adams died unexpectedly of a heart attack on May 11, 2001. He was only 49. The ‘Towel’ in Towel Day, of course, refers to the iconic towel that all intergalactic travelers are advised to carry in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.*

In 2007, Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with are rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease known as Posterior Cortical Atrophy. Wear the Lilac Day began in 2008 with ‘Match It For Pratchett’, an unofficial fan initiative that called on Discworld readers to donate money for Alzheimer’s research and to wear lilacs on May 25th to promote awareness of the disease. The symbol and the date derive from a fictional event in Pratchett’s book Night Watch, which was published in 2002. Sadly, Terry Pratchett died on 12 March 2015 at the age of 66. Wear the Lilac Day now appears to be evolving into a general commemoration of Sir Terry.

Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett have often been compared. Both were British, both wrote humorously meaningful speculative fiction, and both might be described as cynical optimists with strong humanistic outlooks that came through in their fiction. The style and content of their writing, however is quite different. Adams’ has more of an absurdist, laugh out loud, quality. Although Pratchett’s books may also provoke laughs, they tend more toward quite, contemplative smiles and richly constructed settings and characters. Both, however, provide insights into what it means to be human. What humans are. How they behave. How they think.

In Adams’ books, the world happens to people, and they deal with it. His widely acclaimed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with a normal fellow going about his normal life, concerned about normal things, when, to the surprise of all, Earth is destroyed by aliens creating a hyperspace bypass. What he’s telling us is that, in the cosmic scope of things, our normal concerns are not all that important. This is good to remember. When you find yourself wallowing in personal troubles, step back and get some perspective. At least there isn’t a Vogon constructor fleet in orbit above you threatening the extinction of all life on Earth.

Pratchett does much the same with Discworld, but rather than the world happening to people, people happen to the world. In the cosmic scope of things, we may not be all that important, but what we do matters, at least for a while. Many of his tales are like morality lessons in which the human characters take a stand against sexism (e.g. Equal Rites), prejudice (e.g. Unseen Academicals), dogmatism (e.g. Pyramids and Small Gods), jingoism (e.g. Jingo), slavery and oppression (e.g. Snuff)…. Well, you get the point. He wrote over 40 Discworld stories (and about 30 others), and most of them point to some human foible worthy of examination.

Both writers also clearly maintain a distinction between fantasy and reality. Adams demonstrates this with absurd aliens (e.g. Vogons) and such things as the Infinite Improbability Drive. Pratchett does it by having a flat world that rides on the back of four elephants atop a spacefaring turtle. The settings aren’t intended to be taken as even remotely possible. Their fiction is, well, clearly fiction. You’re not supposed to take story on the surface seriously, although the stuff behind it is a different matter entirely. Don’t be confused by the humor. There is some serious literature going on here, and the obvious lies these authors tell us reveal subtle truths about human nature.**

Both writers have a large and devoted following, with considerable overlap between them. Chances are good that if you like one, you will like the other, which is why I think 25 May is a good day to celebrate both. I admire both of them. Much of who I am and who I am becoming is due to the influence of their writing. Words have power.***

So, for all you hoopy froods out there, Happy Towel Day, and to all Discworld visitors, Happy Wear the Lilac Day. If things are getting you down, don’t panic. Read (or reread) one of their books. They can help make your journeys through life, the universe, and everything more enjoyable.

* See my 2012 post In Recognition of Towel Day (link below)
** Personal note: I have a pet peeve with fiction that attempts to portray fantasy settings as ‘realistic’. They’re not. I have a rather incredulous and highly skeptical nature, and, consequently, an aversion to suspend disbelief. In fact, I dislike stories that seem to take themselves too seriously because it feels like intentional deception. Fantasy can, however, highlight and magnify things that are true. Both Adams and Pratchett do this extremely well.
*** “…words can be even more powerful than magic.” Quoted from Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, a parody of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.


Related Posts:
Discworld – The Final Sunrise (A Fan-Fic Tribute Mar. 2015)
A Tribute to Terry Pratchett (Mar. 2015)
Marvin’s Towel Day Present (A Poem for Towel Day 2014)
‘Twas The Night Before Towel Day (A Poem for Towel Day 2013)
In Recognition of Towel Day (2012)

**GNU-Terry Pratchett**

Why we care that Terry Pratchett has died (10 reasons)

This is one of the best tributes I’ve seen to Terry Pratchett and eloquently explains much of what I have experienced in his writing.

Occasional Mumbling

Sir Terry Pratchett has, as you know, died. The general reaction to this has been one of unalloyed and exceptionless dismay, tempered only by the comfort of knowing how close the nature of his death was to his stated hopes, and by the reassurance of the author’s many wise and uplifting sayings about death over the years. It feels almost rude to grieve too passionately over the death of a man who chose the Latin translation of “Don’t fear the reaper” as his heraldic motto.

So people have taken no doubt some comfort from knowing that Pterry (as his fans have long called him) died well – and, indeed, so far as the public can judge, lived well. But there has still been great distress, or at least a very deep grief, at his passing.


I guess that seems a somewhat harsh question to ask. After all, people are…

View original post 9,359 more words

Book Review – Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

GoingPostalTitle: Going Postal
Author: Terry Pratchett
Genre: Fantasy, insightful humor, social commentary

WARNING: This commentary on the novel Going Postal is loaded with spoilers.

Going Postal is an enjoyable and heartwarming story of greed, corruption, deceit, and murder. But that’s only part of it. There always seems to be more to a Terry Pratchett novel than first meets the eye. They are, of course, wonderfully enjoyable and cleverly written stories. But ingeniously woven into the plots, characters, and settings, you find deeper meaning, literary tropes, scholarly references, philosophical insights, social commentary…. Yeah, I’ve long been a Discworld fan.

At the surface, Going Postal is a story about a personable conman given a stay of execution on the condition that he performs a specific benefit to society. All we know at the beginning is that Moist Von Lipwig* is given the choice of dying for his past crimes or of taking on the job of postmaster and returning the Ankh-Morpork postal service to operation. He chooses the latter, thinking this will allow him breathing space (literally) to run as far and as fast as possible. Much to his surprise and dismay, this is not possible, and the job of postmaster is far more…complicated than he could have imagined. The post office hasn’t functioned in years—decades, in fact. The building is near ruin, it is crammed with undelivered mail…and it may be cursed. The last four appointed postmasters died suddenly shortly after taking the job. And it turns out that these aren’t the greatest challenges Moist must face.

But enough about the plot for now. Engaging as it is, there are other things I would like to point out about this book.

Pratchett’s skill with creating interesting characters is immediately apparent in Going Postal. In the first few pages we are introduced to:

• Moist von Lipwig, an ethical thief and conman who takes pride in never having hurt anyone.
• A couple of considerate jailers who wish to make the short stay of their death row guests as pleasant as possible (given the circumstances).
• ‘One Drop’ Trooper, a kindly hangman who takes pride in his work and treats his clients with friendliness and respect before he drops them through the gallows trapdoor to their very final destination.
• A moral golem, a man of clay who cheerfully says to Moist, “I Have Nothing But Good Feelings Toward You, Mr. Lipwig!”
• And then there is Vetinari, the selfless tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, whose primary, if not only, concern is the city and the wellbeing of its people.**

Do you see what he’s done here? These characters are juxtapositions of opposites, or presumed opposites: an ethical thief, considerate jailers, a kindly hangman, a moral golem, a selfless tyrant. You don’t normally think of tyrants being selfless. Tyrants are selfish, cruel, vindictive, capricious, avaricious…. What Pratchett does with these characters, other than making them interesting and inherently humorous, is to tell the reader to put their prejudices behind them for the sake of the story. Things on the Discworld are not always what you may expect them to be, and, well, you know, they may not be so on our round world either, for that matter. He doesn’t come right out and say it’s a mistake to judge people by their job or their looks or something else superficial, but he shows us in a very entertaining way that such assumptions may be wrong.

There is often some philosophical aspect to the Discworld stories. Take, for example, an early scene in this story, it which Pump 19 (the golem mentioned above who is currently serving as Moist’s probation officer) calmly informs Moist that he has killed “Two Point Three Three Eight People.” Moist objects, insisting that he’s never even carried a weapon, let alone killed anyone. This is what the golem tells him.

“No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.”***

Moist may be unthinking, at times, but he’s not stupid. He understands the golem’s point and it affects him. He has always rationalized his actions as little worse than a harmless sport, and he has prided himself with never having hurt anyone, at least no one who did not deserve it. But his nonviolent crimes have hurt people, innocent people—not just bankers and moneylenders and other financial moochers—he’s harmed people who actually work for a living. He can no longer deny this to himself. It’s a moment of self-realization for Moist.

Speaking of financial moochers, the antagonist of the story personifies them in the character of Reacher Gilt.**** Gilt is another swindler, like Moist but without a conscience. Moist doesn’t want to hurt people and is upset when he can no longer deny that he has. Reacher Gilt sees hurting people as just one more way of making money for himself. The man is a corporate pirate, something he advertises with his manner and clothing. He even wears an eyepatch and has a cockatoo that constantly squawks, “Twelve-and-a-half percent.”***** Through trickery and deceit, Gilt has taken over the clacks company (a system of semaphore towers), ousted its developers, and suppressed its competitors. He’s running the clacks into the ground, but he’s making a great deal of money in the process.

The aspect of social commentary here is obvious. Pratchett is pointing out the inherent problems with things like privatization, corporate takeovers, and monopolies—actions that a morally bankrupt owner can use to squeeze a business dry for every penny it can provide. He’s not lecturing. He’s not criticizing any specific case in our world. He’s simply telling a lighthearted story, but he’s making a serious point.

Another obvious parallel to our world is the clacks as a stand in for the birth of computers and the internet. More broadly, it represents the early days of any new technology, I suspect. I imagine that the young innovators of the telephone and steam engines before that had the same drive and passion that the clacks workers in this story exhibit, and it provides a kind of tribute to such technological pioneers. They are dreamers, idealists, inventors, and tireless workers trying to bring about something not just new but revolutionary. They may be obsessed, possibly even a bit insane (like the Smoking GNU in this story), but they are the kind of people who literally change the world.

I love this quote from the book in which Pratchett praises human ingenuity in reference to the clacks:

“But what was happening now…this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse, used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the words, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal around it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this…thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight.”

This review is getting a bit long, but there is one more thing I want to say about Going Postal that I feel is appropriate given Sir Terry’s recent death.****** There is a convention among the clacks operators that when one of them dies while working on the risky towers, their name is sent via a clacks ‘overhead’ message to the tower nearest their home. For some who are especially admired by their peers, the message is turned around so that it is constantly being transmitted. It’s called ‘living in the overhead’. The clacks code preceding such messages is GNU.
G – Pass this on.
N – Do not log.
U – Turn around at end of line.

So in honor of Sir Terry: GNU-Terry Pratchett—A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.

Footnotes (of course there are footnotes):
*Pratchett had a Dickensian talent for names. Going Postal includes especially marvelous examples of this with Moist von Lipwig, Adora Belle Dearheart, and Reacher Gilt.
**Vetinari is to Ankh-Morpork what Granny Weatherwax is to the Ramtops. They are strong, competent, possibly even maternal caretakers—well, protective, anyway—although not necessarily kindly, especially to those who threaten their respective charges.
***Lipwig previously told Pump 19 that the ‘w’ in his name is pronounced ‘v’.
****The name may simply be a Dickensian form that reflects that the character grabs for money, or it could be a reverse image of Ayn Rand’s John Galt character. It may be both.
*****12.5 percent as a fraction is 1/8, so Reacher Gilt’s bird is actually saying “Pieces of Eight” but in a way more suited to the world of financial businesses.
******March 12, 2015 at the far too young age of 66.

– Tropes noticed in this book:
– Dickens use of character names:

Related Posts on this site:
• Discworld—The Final Sunrise (A Fan-Fic Short Story Tribute) –
• A Tribute to Terry Pratchett (Mar. 2015) –
• Hogfather for the Holidays (Dec. 2014) –
• My Problem with Terry Pratchett (Jul. 2014) –
• A Discworld Update (Feb. 2013) –
• Will the Discworld End? Should It? (Nov. 2011) –
• Discworld (May 2011) –

Discworld – The Final Sunrise

Click the cover for a PDF of this story.

Click the cover for a PDF of this story.

It is difficult to imagine something coming from nothing, but whole universes are made this way. It’s quantum. Nothing is a need that strives to be satisfied. It’s an empty hole, a vacuum, and nature, as we all know, abhors those. Nothing needs to be filled with, well, with something. Sometimes that something is hard and logical and makes sense—if you take time to think about it. Sometimes, however, it is a bit more…creative.

Open your imagination and focus your eye on a dot that has appeared in the inky blackness of space. It is something extraordinary, a spark of brilliance struggling to fill a previous void. As you approach, you see a small and unlikely sun illuminating a flat world riding on the back of four elephants atop a giant turtle swimming through space. This is the Discworld.

One of the enormous elephants lifts a leg to let the miniature sun go by as it circles the disc, providing what many hoped would be a never-ending cycle of days and nights. Light moves slower here, but it gets there eventually. It’s not in a rush because it’s already been everywhere, from its perspective. That’s quantum, again.

A more rational universe would scoff at such a world, although many of its inhabitants would swear that it, or something much like it, was absolute truth for a few millennia first. But after a suitable time, some wars, and a dark age or two, such an absurd cosmology would be sent off to its metaphorical retirement.

But in this universe, it survives quite well. It has a purpose. It provides a clear distortion of a harsher place that is taken far too seriously by those who live there.* The Discworld welcomes visitors from that other universe and offers them a place to rest and reflect for a while. Some have found it a positive and fulfilling experience.

But today, the small sun rises over the far edge of the Disc and flairs, once, twice, forty times or more, before it falters and grows dim.

The inhabitants of the Disc notice.


ankh_morpork_city_watch_by_funkydpression-d61bg5dFar below, in one of the better sections of the great and memorably fragrant metropolis of Ankh-Morpork,*** a grizzled man, far from young but not quite old, stood outside watching the spectacle with a boy who looked much like him by his side.

“The sun’s gone out, Dad,” the boy said. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, Sam,” his father replied. He glanced at the nearest clacks tower. The operators had lit the lanterns inside against the gloom, but the shutters flashed no urgent messages warning of impending disaster. “It’s probably those overstuffed idio…” He caught himself in time. He had been trying not to infect his son with his own chronic cynicism. “Those gentlemen at Unseen University,” he continued. “They must have opened another hole into the Dungeon Dimensions or something. Nothing for you to worry about. It’ll all get sorted in the end. I’ll run down to Pseudopolis Yard and see what I can find out. You stay here with your mother. Help her feed the swamp dragons their breakfasts, okay?”

“Sure, Dad.”

Sam Vimes, knight, duke, and Commander of the Ank-Morpork City Watch raced through the dark streets, judging his location and speed by the feel of the cobbles beneath his thin-soled boots. His wife, Sybil, kept buying him new ones, to the great benefit of beggars with his shoe size throughout the city, but he preferred these. Even in the dark, he literally knew where he was with boots like these.

He rounded a corner and slipped on the remnants of one of Dibbler’s infamous sausages, no doubt discarded by someone with functioning taste buds or a healthy respect for their digestive system. Vimes would have fallen except for the quick action of a tall, broad shouldered man with red hair who was wearing a shiny breastplate that smelled of metal polish.

“Captain Carrot! What are you doing here?” Vimes said.

“I was coming to get you, sir,” Carrot said. “Lord Vetinari has called a meeting with all the leaders of the city.”

“Why didn’t you just send a clacks?”

“He doesn’t want to cause a panic, sir.”

Vimes glanced at the gray sky. “You mean because the sun has gone out.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I expect people have noticed already.”

“It is rather hard to miss, sir, but those were his orders.”

“Okay, let’s see what this is all about.”

They arrived at the Patrician’s Palace a short time later to find a crowd demanding action. None of various constituents of the growing mob outside the walls seemed to have any suggestion as to what specific action this might be. That’s not what crowds are for. Crowds gather to say they’ve noticed they have a problem and want someone else to fix it for them. This one was doing that in the traditional fashion with placards, chants, and slogans, most of which specified that NOW is when they wanted this action to occur. Even for a place like Ankh-Morpork, where dramatic street drama seemed to be able to form spontaneously from even the most minor occurrence, this was quick.

Carrot shouldered his way through the milling citizens, making a path for Vimes to follow. When they got to the gate, the anxious guards let them in immediately.

“Ah, Vimes,” Lord Vetinari said when they arrived at the oblong office. “So glad you could join us. It seems we have a problem.”

“Yeah, the sun’s gone out,” Vimes said. “What caused it?”

“We were just discussing that, but I feel it’s safe to say that we don’t know, isn’t that right, gentlemen?”

There was a delicate cough from the back of the room.

“And, of course ladies,” he amended. Queen Molly of the Beggars’ Guild and Mrs. Palm, head of the ever-popular Guild of Seamstresses, both nodded forgiveness for his initial oversight.

Not all of the guilds were represented in the room, but all of the major ones were. Archancellor Mustrum Ridcully of Unseen University, and his brother, Hughnon, high priest of Blind Io were also there. If this wasn’t neutral ground, the Assassins’ Guild could probably make a killing in more ways than one.

“As I was saying,” Vetinari continued in the calm and intimidating tone for which he was so well known and feared, “I need some answers, and am looking to you ladies and gentlemen to provide them.”

Vimes turned his attention to Mustrum Ridcully. Most of the others did the same.

“Humph,” he said. “I already told you it isn’t because of anything we did. This isn’t magic. We think it’s more like god stuff. That’s not our territory.”

All eyes shifted to his brother.

“It’s not the gods,” the high priest protested. “They’re as confused as we are.”

“I have always assumed this was the case,” Vetinari said. “But if it’s not magic and it’s not the gods, what is going on? What has happened to the sun?”

“We’re not entirely sure,” Hughnon Ridcully said. “But it definitely isn’t anything the gods on Cori Celesti have done. It has nothing to do with us or with Dunmanifestin.”

It is important at meetings like this to establish early on that you are not personally responsible for whatever major or minor disaster prompted the call for the meeting. Both Ridcully brothers knew this and were satisfied that they had fulfilled their obligations to their respective organizations. Shifting the blame to an organizational opponent was a bonus, if it could be done safely, but that was a secondary concern to absolving yourself of any and all culpability.

“But aren’t those just the major gods?” Mrs. Palm said. “Could it be some kind of divine retribution by one of the minor deities? Maybe one of the stuffier sort, if you know what I mean?”

“No. We’d know if it was,” Hughnon said. “We’re quite sure it’s not any of the gods. We think it may have something to do with the Creator.”

“Oh, him,” Mustrum said with a knowing look.

“Indeed,” his brother agreed, nodding slowly.

“The Creator?” Vimes said. His grasp on religion wasn’t all that firm, but he had always assumed that one of the gods would have taken credit, deserved or not, for bringing everything about. “What on the Disc are you two talking about?”

As far as he was concerned, the sun going out was a crime, which meant there must be a criminal. That was clear logic. The wise nods and knowing looks of the two Ridcully brothers were not telling him who that criminal might be, and he had a growing urge to plant his truncheon in both of their smart backsides for being unhelpful to the police in pursuit of their lawful inquiries. It was personal, this time. He had a family and a city to protect.

“Well, you see, there is a belief—” Hughnon began.

“A theory,” Mustrum corrected.

The high priest waved a dismissive hand. “Whatever. There is some…speculation that each new day on the Disc is formed fresh from the mind of the Creator. A new day doesn’t just happen; it’s made, intentionally. If the Creator does not imagine a tomorrow, there will be none.”

“So you’re saying the sun has gone out because this Creator has stopped imagining new days for us?” Vimes said.

The high priest and the archancellor nodded sagely.

“Don’t do that!” Vimes yelled. “Explain what’s going on. How do we reach this Creator? How do we get him to stop…or start again? You know what I mean. I want my tomorrows. I have a son, for the gods’ sake. He deserves his future! It can’t all just stop!”

“Commander Vimes is quite right,” Vetinari said. “The Century of the Anchovy has barely begun. I have plans for this city that will bring us a new and prosperous era. Those plans have been progressing acceptably over the past several years. They must continue. The post office and clacks system are working again, our banking system is sound, soon, we will have a new railway and drainage system, but there is work still to be done. You gentlemen are the wise…the most knowledgeable people in the greatest city on the Disc. Surely you can think of something we can do to ensure our future.”

The two brothers shared a look that clearly stated that each hoped the other would have an idea. Neither wish was fulfilled.

A nervous silence filled the room.

“So, it’s over then,” Vetinari said. “Is this what you’re not saying?”

“Well, we’re not exactly sure,” Hughnon said. “I mean, we’re still here, right?”

“That could be an effect of residual belief,” Mustrum told him. “It can sustain us for a while if there’s enough of it. We can’t know how long it will last.”

Vimes sagged where he stood. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t right. There had to be some way to appeal, some way to make the future happen. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. He needed the world to go on. He needed…justice.

An old scar on his armed tingled. It hadn’t bothered him in some time, but, on occasion, when things seemed especially dark….

“This is wrong,” he whispered to himself. “The darkness can always be dispelled. There must be a way.”


GrannyWeatherwaxIn a tumbledown cottage high in the Ramtops Mountains, Granny Weatherwax felt a shudder, a cry of anguish that touched every life she could sense around her.

She stepped outside into what should have been a bright morning, if the sun had been doing its job properly. It wasn’t. A gray orb hung motionless in the sky above her. The air was already beginning to feel chill….

No, that was something else.

“It ain’t my time yet,” she said. “I’d know if it were.”

Witches knew when they would die. This foreknowledge wasn’t the perk it might first seem, but it did avoid unnecessary expense stockpiling firewood, pickles, and such that they’d have no need for.


“I see that. Something strange is going on, for sure. The entire world is hurting. I can’t tell what’s causing it.”


“Stopped what?”


“Don’t be daft. There’s always a tomorrow for someone. Everything on the Disc can’t die on the same day.”


“You would,” she admitted. Death was the leading expert on death. It was part of the job description. It went with the scythe, the long black robe, and the perpetual joyless grin. “So everyone on the Disc is dying, then?”


“Who canceled them? Is it those…things that wanted to kill the Hogfather and stop time? I heard about that. Not much of that kidney goes on that I don’t hear about, eventually.”


“So what is it? You’re not making sense.”


Granny Weatherwax wasn’t arrogant, well, maybe she was, sometimes, but she appreciated that there might be things that mattered that she didn’t know about. Not many, but a few. She knew quite a big about creation, though. Procreation, anyway. She’d borrowed birds, raised bees, assisted in new births, and sat with the dying to ease them on their way. It was all part of being a witch. That kind of thing wasn’t what Death meant, however. She knew that much, and whatever it was, it was outside her experience, which meant it must be outside everything. She stood silent for a few moments trying to fit pieces of many different puzzles into a single bigger picture.

“So, this Creator isn’t someone on Discworld, physically, I mean.”


“But he makes stuff happen here.”


Granny felt the chilling breeze, heard the leaves of the trees rustle. She extended her awareness to the complex web of life around her. She felt the purposeful pursuit of the bees, the curiosity of squirrels, the life force of everything that walked or crawled or flew for miles around. She was uncommonly impressed.

“He must have spent a great deal of time on it.”


“He did good work.”


“But he’s not doing it anymore.”


She considered some more. “Well, it can’t be because of something we’ve done, because we wouldn’t have done it otherwise, I suppose.”


“So, he’s dead then, ain’t he?”


“I don’t suppose there’s anything you could do about that.”

Death shook his skull. I TOO AM A CONSTRUCT OF THE CREATOR.

“I suspected as much. Still, I thought I’d ask. You never know. We’ll just have to carry on without him then, I suppose.” Granny’s voice carried a determined tone, as it most often did. She never backed down from challenges. She’d always met them head on before, and she saw no reason this time should be any different.


Granny took a deep breath of forest air. It still felt alive and so did she, and as long as she had breath within her, she could not simply surrender. That had never been her way.

“It ain’t over until I says it’s over,” she said defiantly.


“That just shows what you know, and it ain’t everything, despite what you may think, let me tell you. There’s always a choice. That’s what being a witch is all about. That’s what being human is all about. We make choices. All the time, every day, every situation offers choices, and we make them. Sometimes they ain’t so good, but we still make them. Well, I’m making one now, and I’m not going to roll over and allow my world to fade away.”


“That may be. I’m not saying it is, mind you. But it might be. Fact is, I don’t know how to make a future. Not for a whole world. But I’ll be damned to every hell any bloody-minded god ever made if I can’t keep the world we have from dying. If I can keep today alive, then maybe, someday—or whatever—someone will find a way.”

She closed he eyes, extended her senses again, and realized she had been wrong before. The anguish she felt earlier wasn’t touching the lives of those around her. Those lives, or rather the thought of them ending, was causing anguish to someone outside. A great many people outside, she suspected. She didn’t know where that outside was, or even what it was, but it didn’t matter. It was flowing into the Discworld. Riding with it was a power that could make gods, the power of belief, or something much like it. It was the power of suspended disbelief, but it was close enough. This too could make the unreal real, or at least real enough, for a time.

Granny closed her eyes again and provided a focal point, an outlet for raging emotions that desperately needed one. All of the profound grief, the disappointment, the tears over the death of an entire world and its Creator surged into her and sent her to her knees. The Discworld may have been the creation of one man’s imagination, but the passion for it that flowed into her was real. And it came from millions. She had never felt such power. She couldn’t hold it all, and what she could, she could not hold long. It was too much. It would overwhelm her in seconds.

Her iron composure rusted. Tears steamed from her face. The feelings were far too strong to contain, even for her. Still on her knees, she raised her head and lifted her arms to the dying sun. “This I choose to do,” she croaked through a throat choked with grief. “The light of Discworld shall not die!”

Power surged through her open palms and struck the sun. It sputtered and ignited. Daylight happened.


Granny dragged herself to her feet and wiped the tears from her face.

“I know. I’m just trying to keep the light on, as it were. There may be no tomorrow, but today and all our yesterdays will be safe. That’ll have to do, for now.”


“So I guess you’re out of a job.”


Granny nodded. “Since you’re not likely to be busy for a while, whey not come inside and have a cup of tea? I have some nice Klatchian stuff that Nanny Ogg brought over.”


“Yeah, some fancy store bought ones that I got from Mrs. Ivy down Slice way for curing their sick cow.


Granny led Death back to her cottage to share some tea. There they stayed, reminiscing about the past, and talking about what might have been.


Atuin WallpaperIn the pitiless void of a not quite parallel dimension, the Discworld drifts on, unchanging, enduring, timeless, eternal.


* This is rather in the same way a curious child can use a magnifying glass to examine an ant colony.**
** The ants really hate this.
***An area with more people than rats and there was less chance of your neighbors disposing of their trash by tossing it over your garden wall in the middle of the night.

Written by D.L. Morrese with respect and admiration for Sir Terry Pratchett, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, who died on March 12, 2015.


A PDF Download of this story is available here:

Related Posts:
– A Tribute to Terry Pratchett (Mar. 2015) –
– Hogfather for the Holidays (Dec. 2014) –
– My Problem with Terry Pratchett (Jul. 2014) –
– A Discworld Update (Feb. 2013) –
– Will the Discworld End? Should It? (Nov. 2011) –
– Discworld (May 2011) –

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