Night Train to Hardwick – Forward

One of my favorite novels of recent memory was Night Train to Rigel, the first of Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail series. The part that appealed to me the most was the sense of claustrophobic danger, trapped on a train full of strangers, working with a person who could stab you in the back at any moment. Most of Zahn’s novels are fast paced adventures with a tinge of mystery and layers of intriguing strategy and Rigel is no exception, but this particular tale has a layer of suspense that few other scifi adventures I’ve read have even approached. 

Ever since I read it I wanted to try my own hand at a story in this kind of contained, tense atmosphere. When I first though of the idea that became Hexwood my idea was to tell the story of a sky train crew and the many mishaps they had crossing the country. My first idea was for the crew to face train robbers. My second idea was… there was no second idea. I had a hard time generating any ideas beyond that. However the idea of some kind of event on a sky train stuck in my mind. 

Fastforward to the end of Firespinner. I casually added a line suggesting Roy was a member of the Packard Railway Detectives, for no other reason than to suggest the existence of an equivalent to the Pinkerton Detective Agencey in Columbia’s world. This wasn’t really meant as a serious story hook, just a random worldbuilding element and an excuse for Roy to easily move around the West on the way from one job to another. 

But almost as soon as I finished the end of that story, the beginning of this one sprang into my mind. I knew I had several new characters I wanted to add to Roy’s life, and a meeting on a train seemed fateful. Destiny isn’t a huge theme in Roy’s life but for this one a touch of providence seemed appropriate. And, with my long standing love for Final Fantasy VI‘s ghost train sequence added to the mix, a fairly simple, self-contained premise built itself in the course of about two days. Fleshing out the details was a lengthy but straightforward process, then it was a matter of writing everything down and refining it. 

I’d always intended to look at Roy through the eyes of other people. But one of the things that made Night Train to Hardwick so appealing to me was the opportunity to look at Roy through the eyes of a druid, the order of magic users he’s accidentally stumbled into membership with. Another, of course, was a chance to try my hand at some of those atmospheric dynamics that made Night Train to Rigel so interesting. But another part was that it gave me a direct, very immediate sequel to Firespinner rather than a followup story that alludes to previous events. 

Now you don’t have to read Firespinner to understand Night Train to Hardwick. But since I am trying to unpack Roy’s character a little more by looking at him through other eyes, it might help you to hear the entire first story, which is told entirely from his perspective and get a firmer sense of his character from that. There’s also a bunch of allusions in here that you’ll appreciate more if you have the greater context of that story. Most of all, you’ll get a broader sense of the world, its history and how it functions from that story. This tale is very much about a single sky train, its passengers, and what happens to them one night as they make the trip from Sanford’s Run to Hardwick. 

So all aboard, dear audience, and present your tickets. The train will be lifting off in seven days! We hope you’ll enjoy your trip. 

Water Fall: Foreward

You are too dangerous. By nature, what you are and what you can do is too great a possible threat to let into the world. Certainly, you could do great good. But the very fact that you could also do great harm is enough to cause panic, terrify people into either fighting you or bowing down before you. Neither one is good, and the fact that you have the potential to cause both is enough to warrant preventing them entirely. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just the way the world is. Or it’s the times, or the culture or the conclusion of a more enlightened age. Regardless, we all have to live with it. You’ll just have to live more carefully.

It’s a simple premise. In troper terms, it’s called The Masquerade. It’s the foundation of a thousand and one paranormal/urban fantasy story lines. In fact, it’s at the heart of Project Sumter and an inescapable influence on the lives of independent talents like Open Circuit, Heavy Water and the Grappler.

It’s a lie.

On some level, everyone understands that. But the lie makes life so much easier. Just do away with the uncomfortable ideas, hide them from people and drag anyone who uncovers them into your Masquerade and you’ll never have to deal with any large scale problems, am I right?

Except the very act of stifling the information in itself raises problems, often far greater ones than the ones you hoped to suppress. Squashing the truth, spiriting people away, coercing cooperation and browbeating silence all comes with consequences. Ask the Soviets. Grudging acceptance and growing resentment are a powerful and dangerous combination, a powder keg just waiting to go off. Instead of constantly working on a better, more stable solution you wind up running around putting out ground fires while a volcano is about to erupt just underneath your feet.

That which you have whispered in secret will be proclaimed from the rooftops.

Sometimes it will come from avenging angels, come to set the wrongs to right at last. But far more likely it will come from upset, middle aged men who have spent their whole lives struggling against heavy handed declarations of what is best for them, working to understand why they cannot seem to use their best abilities for their own edification and the betterment of themselves and others.

Worse, these people will come out of the woodwork with no mind for negotiation, little or no thoughts for the ramifications of their ideas and no mercy at all. The world they’ve lived in has left no room for such things, and it will be at least partially the fault of the people who have worked all those years for secrecy. That’s not to say there’s no fault resting with the other side. When two people come to blows, there’s usually plenty of blame to go around. But when you’ve spent the entire time trying to keep them quiet, why should they keep trying to talk to you?

So what do you do when your duty is to keep law and order but the way law and order has been kept until now is both immoral and chaotic? For a long time, people like Double Helix, one of Project Sumter’s most powerful and experienced talents, have been pondering that issue. But pondering isn’t change, and when the situation calls for change nothing else will do.

Because little by little, Open Circuit is changing the status quo. And with every crime, a little bit of the Project’s control of the situation is lost. They strike the Project like drops of water, slowly leaking through a crack in the dam. Each one carries away a little of what holds the Masquerade together, widening the crack until the whole edifice must way, and the flood begins.

The water starts falling next week. It will be a sight to see.

Echoes of Granduer

I’ll admit that last week I may have made a poor analogy.

People aren’t metal, you can’t just beat the problems out of them. Life would be much easier if we could. All those incredibly detailed, well thought out schemes for perfecting society might actually have a chance of succeeding. We wonder, if it seems like fixing our problems should be so simple, why is actually doing it so difficult?

More than that, why do we even find ourselves wanting a fix in the first place?

Let me try a different example, one that I think is a little more suited than the metal smith analogy. Picture if you will, an ancient stone castle now abandoned to time. You’ve probably seen pictures of them in England or Europe. Fortunately, you don’t have to have visited them personally to appreciate this analogy, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to come up with it.

Now, there’s not doubting that these buildings are impressive in their own right. Their towers and walls fill us with a sense of the size and accomplishment that just building them must have been for men with only hand tools and human ingenuity.

However, for all the greatness that we see in these buildings, they are still obviously incomplete. The are lacking the rugs and tapestries that warmed the halls, the furniture that made them comfortable and, in many cases, they are even lacking important structural features like walls or a ceiling. They’re not complete, not what they once were.

We are a lot like those castles, I think.

We feel like we should be a great building, safe, comfortable and useful. We see what we once were, and we want to be that again. But the roof is missing, the walls are crumbling and the flagstones are damp and uncomfortable. Clearly, we think, some adjustments need to be made. So we bring in some new carpet and hang some new tapestries, maybe even try to rebuild the walls with whatever is on hand.

Yet, even with a decent understanding of what the castle might have looked like we’re likely to find that, after a few months exposed to the elements, our attempts at repair start to look shabby and moldy. Without the blueprints, without materials of the original quality, we’re not likely to get far.

The conflicts and struggles that come between people, the kinds of conflicts that a writer struggles to portray in a good story, come when people cannot agree what the castle once looked like, how to rebuild it and make it great. Given free will and the need for each person to make their own decisions, that kind of thing may be inevitable.

That doesn’t make it easy or pleasant. And the fire of conflict is, in some ways, much like the heat of the forge. As we struggle over the nature of our castles the petty furnishings we’ve put up burn away and leave only the enduring stone, and we find that, as often as not, we’re back where we started, wondering what it is that will truly endure.

When the heat is on, will what we’ve made really last?

Terminology

Authors tend to eschew the terms “hero” and “villain” for a variety of reasons, some of them technical and some of them emotional. We tend to use the terms “protagonist” and “antagonist”. These terms give us a lot of flexibility. For example, a story can be told from the perspective of a person with no heroic, or even admirable characteristics, someone who we wouldn’t want to call a hero, and we don’t have to change our terminology.

On the other hand, these terms also embody a more realistic perspective. People are not all one thing or the other, and stories need to reflect that. This is what’s called verisimilitude by authors, and it’s so important that we try to include it in every aspect of the story, even in how we talk about that story.

At the same time, authors, just like everyone else, have a problem with antagonists. If you look at them closely, you tend to find that you have a lot in common with them. Sometimes, the antagonist is much more beloved than the protagonist of a story. And we don’t like to call them villains, because who wants to be a villain? Much better to go with terms lacking any kind of moral overtones. Then, there’s no need to loose any sleep over who you sympathize with more.

Now even protagonists who are meant to be heroic tend to have something wrong with them. Once again, that’s verisimilitude. People have issues. And since I am the protagonist I am most familiar with, as I’m sure you are the protagonist you are most familiar with, and I have issues, I expect the protagonists I read about to have issues as well. I suspect you are much the same.

In fact, if you look at it closely, you’ll find that protagonists and antagonists are very similar. They tend to be flawed people driven into conflict with one another by decisions they have made. And sometimes you’ll look at a story and find hero and villain very hard to parse.

There’s been a lot of ink spilled over that. We want people we can understand to be good people, so all kinds of things have been proposed. Morality has been dismissed, good and evil called constructs, and, of course, terms have been changed. The intelligentsia of the modern age have a thousand and one reasons for why you should stop worrying about good and evil and just get on with protagonizing* your own story.

But when we come face to face with life, when it beats us over the head until we’re ready to run screaming for the hills, or at least to mommy, when we’re tired of the grind and we just don’t want to get up any more and we know there has to be something more than this, we find the lie in that stance.

We realize that we don’t want to be protagonists. We want to be heroes.

Everyone wants to be a hero.

And everyone is corrupt. No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to be the heroes we want to be. Are actions are tainted and leave us unsatisfied.

What does it take to get rid of the corruption? In olden times, flawed metal had to be melted down and the slag either burned away or siphoned off in order to be purified. Are we the same? Is it all the melting and pounding worth it?

There’s a heat wave coming. Are we ready?

 

 

*Protagonize (proh – tag – uh– nize)

verb

1 – To present your story in the most philosophically and existentially correct way possible, thus causing unimaginable agony to those reading it. Not recommended for parties.