Syncro-Vox Heaven & the Bliss of Exploding Butterflies

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Let’s just say it’s all about metamorphosis. I spent eight hours yesterday completing the prologue to TC2, rewriting here and there but mostly adding. And adding. And, of course, I became fraught with the idea that this is supposed to be a prologue not another version of the first chapter of the novel. Stop! I tried to tell myself – what are you doing? I mean, I want to get to the end not reinvent the beginning.

Well, I didn’t actually tell myself to stop because mostly I’m still comfortable enough with my intuition and unaffected enough by the outside world, i.e., a readership, to allow everything to write itself. But a prologue? And a ten-page version at that? So be it. I pounded it out and I like it. It sets a stage I hadn’t expected to set, begins things within an ancient future, returns to everybody’s favorite antagonists, namely, the Molemen, and introduces enough mystery, drama and conflict straightaway to energize the story. I suppose you can manage to pack too many disasters into a novel so that it eventually reads like a comic book or plays like a television drama or a silly blockbuster action film but then again, perhaps not. Better to error on the side of shit happening instead of shit getting ready to happen. As if I have a choice at all. If you write novels you know that this stuff just arrives and you’re not in charge as much as along for the ride. You’re not the reader but then again you’re not the writer, either, as much as you’d like to consider yourself such. Oh, this is what I’m writing. When a chapter ago you were convinced you were writing that other thing. Such is the experience.

When it’s working and I know that it’s good (or good enough within the boundaries of what I perceive as my humble measure of talent) I mostly love the idea of routinely overstepping good taste, and erroring on the side of tropey, campy, science fiction indulgence, let’s call it; of surrendering in a wink-wink manner to the established and expected. It’s fun, after all, to give in to and get what you want out of a thing, especially when the context is SF, a genre that has always happily exploited its own absurdities and ambitions. There’s room for everybody within SF, I’m convinced of it. From hard to soft, from horror to humor, from mystery to romance and everything in between, there’s a place within SF for whatever you find yourself writing. The single requirement in my opinion, the single marker of what makes science fiction into science fiction being not so much a speculative perspective, though certainly that is a requirement – is Atwood really SF? (dunno myself, I’ve never read her) – as a sense of, in my opinion at least, and I hate to say it because it probably puts me on the side of critics versus fans: irony. Defined as the experience of something not being what it appears.

I am not hereby automatically disparaging the idea of earnestness. No. I enjoy earnestness immensely. Probably because the more intensely earnest the earnestness is, the more enlivened the irony. I was watching the inaugural podcast, just a chat, really, posted by the Crafsman and T-Nu (from Cajun Craftastrophe) and the video background or wallpaper, as it were, happened to be clips from a mid-1960s, American animated television series entitled Space Angel which apparently aired in five-minute segments (yes, five-minutes!) in its day and used the utterly campy and nowadays impossibly endearing so-called Syncro-Vox technique:

Syncro-Vox (sometimes spelled Synchro-Vox) is a filming method that combines static images with moving images, the most common use of which is to superimpose talking lips on a photograph of a celebrity or a cartoon drawing. It is one of the most extreme examples of the cost-cutting strategy of limited animation. The method was developed by cameraman Edwin “Ted” Gillette in the 1950s to simulate talking animals in television commercials.

“Syncro-Vox”, wikipedia.org, retrieved 7.7.21.

I’m not sure how I managed to miss this strange little show because as a kid I watched so many otherwise cheesy television programs, original broadcasts and reruns, from Spiderman to Bugs Bunny cartoons, from Get Smart to the Brady Bunch, from Lost In Space to Star Trek, from Godzilla to The Three Stooges, what have you, but so be it, better late than never. What do I mean by “cheesy”? Cheap, unpleasant or blatantly inauthentic? Now, of course, yes. Then? I have always been a discerner, everybody is in their way, and I can recall preferring the vastly more accomplished artistry and storytelling of the golden age Warner Bros. cartoons – Bugs, Daffy, Elmer Fudd, Peppe Le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn and the rest – over what I perceived even in my adolescence as the hackneyed technique and insipid themes of, say, Hana-Barbera episodes. With the exception of the Flintstones and the Jetsons, which I loved, so, there you go, I shouldn’t single out Hanna-Barbera as especially cheesy. (Apparently Hanna and Barbera were the guys who created Tom & Jerry before founding their own cartoon company).

Anyway, back to Space Angel. Within the Crafsman-T-Nu “craft pod” we don’t get the sound. But the images do their work.

That is to say, within the context of the friendly, earnest, self-aware, shamelessly quirky adventurism that anybody who gets SF, well, gets. We could discuss at length what makes the fiction of SF different than the fiction of Fantasy but whomever coined the idea that SF communicates what isn’t real but one day could be, whereas fantasy communicates what isn’t real and could never be, had it concisely correct. So, take your pick. And what all great storytelling shares, by the way is, you guessed it: mythology.

In the 1990s I recall the irony-loaded (or overloaded, depending upon your opinion) Cartoon Network show, Space Ghost: Coast-to-Coast. Which is an example of driving irony in upon itself to the extent that it becomes so arch and dry and witty that it inevitably seems to destroy all they happy oxygen in the room. I liked Space Ghost. But when irony transforms from the tongue-in-cheek, poking fun perspective to the cutting, mocking, ridiculing version then, within the context of my entertainments, I’m going elsewhere.

Prologues, then. They can signify hackneyed, lazy, info-dump heavy writing or they can indeed serve as value-adding backstory or engaging foretelling (as it were) otherwise impossible to present in any other manner. And having written one and emerged pleased with the result, I can say that a good prologue isn’t an introduction as much as immersion. It’s not the first chapter as much as pre-game fireworks. It references aspects of the first novel without having anything to do with it. It’s not seeking a once-upon-a-time vibe as much as getting everybody in tale-telling mode. And in my case it serves to allow for characters who otherwise have no permanent place within the story to sprinkle their magic sprinkles and disappear into the reader’s subconscious. Or into the mysteriously entangled realm of what makes for a book series. The following linked article addresses the concerns and legitimate advantages of a prologue judiciously, which is to say mostly sans the inevitably jaded perspective of the editor type:

https://theeditorsblog.net/2011/07/06/pros-and-cons-of-prologue/

In the end, I just go with my intuition, with my gut, with what the book tells me it wants. As a novelist you’re on the high wire from the beginning anyway, risking all, making yourself vulnerable to most punishing and humiliating and soul-destroying of criticisms, right or wrong, ruthless or insightful, sensitive or insensitive, hurtful or helpful. It has to be fun, there has to be conflict, it has to be entertaining, if only to yourself. And you go from there.

Otherwise, I need to wrap this up because I have indeed been so busy hammering away at the manuscript lately that, well, blog posts require at least half a day’s honest work and lately I haven’t had the mental space nor enough hours in the day to do it right. I owe everybody my best work, or at least my best effort, after all. As an update, TC1 has sold six copies in the last three weeks, an eBook, an audiobook, and four paperbacks spread across the U.S., U.K. Germany and France, yay!

I had intended to include a quote or two from one of Nick Cave’s recent Red Hand Files because it so effectively communicates life within the creative process but better, I think, to just include the link:

And meanwhile make room here for a tidbit from TC2, as a kind of snack for everyone who has taken the trouble to read this far. What follows is the very beginning (at least as it stands today) in the second draft of the manuscript, a mere portion of the prologue. I’ve two chapters left to edit and then by the end of this week, the gods willing, I’ll be on to the third draft. I’d read somewhere that there is the first draft, the goal of which is to get a beginning, middle and end with sufficient disasters in between, followed by the second draft which aims to put in everything you forgot to add, then the third draft which removes everything you don’t need and finally, the fourth draft hones it all into publishable form. Well, I don’t believe for a moment that a manuscript is ready for publication after only four drafts but I get the idea that we need at least the four drafts to bang something into recognizable, serviceable shape as a novel. Gotta go. Thanks and happy reading, everybody.

Prologue

“Your skirmishes with the Cham have squandered manpower and resources. Your generals and captains die in the fields alongside their warriors, horses and elephants. Your women and children are taken slaves. The hydraulics are neglected. The rice is not harvested. The tax is not collected. Energy for building is wasted in war. Because of you, the completion of the temple is made impossible.”

“Great Lord,” said the king. He lay face down upon the floor of the shrine with arms outstretched, prostrate in the Khmer manner of obeisance, and reached further towards the feet of the molemen, his voice muffled by the sandstone blocks. “Holy Trimurti, forgive me. I have not properly understood. Instruct me. What alms will appease you? What sacrifices? Is it your will that the Cham destroy us?”

“Fool,” said Zero-Seven. “You do understand. And no alms will appease us. What could the Khmer possess that we require? You have lied all along and you are lying now.”

“Lord?” The king craned his neck and looked up, his pained expression made vaguely hideous by his reddened teeth and the smudged discoloration of his lips.[1]

Zero-Seven reluctantly tweaked the resolution of his auto-translator. Always there was the annoying possibility of misapprehension, of the colloquial Khmer words confounding the translation of the royal language. He prepared to repeat himself.

“Wait,” said Four-Alpha. “Suryavarman. We have bestowed upon you the power to rule. Likewise, we have blessed the Khmer with the engineering to control the waters and increase the yield of rice. And the architectural means to embody the celestial city here, at the center of this world.” He winked at Zero-Seven and rolled his eyes. “Your salvation, that of the masses and your own, is maintained by us. Hence, the Cham is not of your concern. Neither the Vietnamese. Nor Siamese. Nor even the Chinese.”

Suryavarman forgot himself and sat up. “But, Lord! Oh, my gracious Lord, the Chinese buy our Kingfisher feathers, elephant tusks, rhinoceros’s horn, beeswax, incense, pepper. And their merchants bestow gold, silver and silks, the finely glazed pottery, the tin goods, sandalwood, musk, linen, iron pots, copper trays and freshwater pearls. The ballista for war.[2]

“War,” said Six-Naught-Six. “Is nothing but childish aggression disguised as purpose. The Aztecs, Greeks and Romans at least had their sport as an occasional substitute. Meanwhile, trinkets. Luxuries. Indulgences of betel, wine, women and slaves. You are like one of your jungle crows, transfixed by sparkling objects of no utility. At the cost of everything that matters. Stand, Suryavarman. And call your rājahotar from his hiding place.”

Suryavarman II scrambled to his feet. He snapped his fingers and waited. They all waited, as usual, for the venerable high priest, a slightly built, almost toothless crag of a man who appeared to be at least twice the age of the king, to hobble from behind his elaborate curtain and assume his deferential place an arm’s length behind Suryavarman.

Six-Naught-Six toggled off his transponder and addressed Zero-Seven and Four-Alpha in their native Engineering tongue. “Testing, one, two,” he murmured. Satisfied the translator was disabled, he proceeded. “Our predicament is plain enough. The Khmer are flawed. Humans are flawed. But these Khmer in particular lack sufficient intelligence and discipline and the will to work. Suryavarman himself is lazy, stupid and distracted by his own petty self-interests. This chief, so-called engineer priest of his? Wizened, obviously. But wise? Cunning, I’ll give him that. Enough to contrive his priestly authority through, what – the reign of three kings including this one? Meanwhile, an engineer priest is nothing but a contradiction in terms.

“We have squandered ten Earth years upon this charade,” he continued, “teaching these fools astronomically relevant mathematics and the basics of stone architecture and hydraulic engineering. And now any diamagnetic advantages of an equatorial orientation for the component have been proven as insufficient and irrelevant as that of the Mayan experiment. Alongside the breakthroughs in hyper-dimensional resolution? It only makes the irony more keenly intolerable.”

“Which irony?” sneered Zero-Seven. “That we, the Angkor team, were the statistical favorites over the Maya project clods and their sprawling geographical mess and that the Giza project wasn’t even expected to survive their first round of funding? Or that the future is the past? So that a three-millennia cultural head start transformed us from frontrunners to also-rans? The Maya team failed as the bureaucratic money pit we all anticipated. Giza ought to have flopped as a hopeless one man show. Yet here we are. It’s not merely intolerable. It’s humiliating.”

“Regardless,” said Six-Naught-Six, “We have failed.”

Four-Alpha stood scowling. “We are to allow Double-Five and his crew the victory in Giza? No. I say we assume control. Smash the Cham ourselves, make an example of this little tin toy of a king and his senile priest and drive this wretched populace like the chattel that they are.”

“A tactic,” said Six-Naught-Six, “that will distort the future beyond our control. And guarantee that each of us is court marshalled. No. Your frustration only exemplifies our failure. We have accomplished nothing besides bleeding Moleman secrets into this stinking Khmer soil. And you, Four-Alpha. You would do things differently now? You allowed this petty tyrant his little egomaniacal indulgences. You allowed him to muster his army yet again and to threaten the Cham.”

“You blame me?” Four-Alpha stomped his foot. “What in blazes have I done short of my duty?”

“You have addressed this puny ruler as an equal. And you have taught him enough of our language that he is likely deciphering enough of this conversation to yet again put us at risk of a mutiny.”

“Mutiny? What would you know of such a thing? Lounging within the cloaked zone, chatting with mission control, growing fat on our rations. While I risk my neck every day on the scaffolds and in the excavations? Directing the foremen. Enduring this despicable weather and the horrible ultraviolet and the biting insects and disgusting food? I gnaw upon roasted fruit bats and pick maggots from my spoiled rice alongside the laborers. I am in the trenches, literally. If there were talk of mutiny I would know it. No. The only mutiny is within this room, among ourselves….”

Carnegie Olson, “Prologue,” Time Crime 2: Empire & Oracle, (Ann Arbor: Humble Hogs Press, 2021-22), 1-4. This citation likewise applies to the footnotes below.


[1] Like many Khmer, the king avails himself of the famous betel chew, an alkaloid-rich masticatory comprised of the berry of the areca palm tree mixed with lime and wrapped with Piper Betle leaves and used as a stimulant throughout Southeast Asia.

[2] A weapon consisting of two opposing bows, designed to be mounted upon an elephant or wheeled vehicle that shot arrows with tremendous force.

P.S. I think ya’ll might be happy to know, too, that new artwork – an illustration of the Mothman Empress! – is almost complete and it is by none other than Kevin E., whom those who pay attention to such things will recognize from the copyright and dedication pages of TC1. So, stay tuned for an eye-popping book cover update as well as a mind-blowing illustration for the interior!