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Retro Review: The White Mountains by John Christopher

Retro Review: The White Mountains by John Christopher

In which I make an effort to fill some of the gaps in my knowledge of the science fiction and fantasy published before 2000 (or “in the 1900’s,” as my daughter would say, but that just makes me feel old).

The White Mountains by John Christopher
Copyright © John Christopher 1967
Edition read: Second Collier Books edition 1988

Cover: The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher. A enormous dome atop three articulated legs menaces two boys while drawing a third boy toward the dome via a retractable tentacle.

I was lucky enough to have a fourth-grade teacher who loved science fiction. Fourth grade was the last year in which teachers read to the class as part of the daily curriculum. (This was around 1980.) That year our teacher read Ray Bradbury stories (“The Fog Horn” and “All Summer in a Day” being particularly memorable from that time), Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (of course)–and The White Mountains by John Christopher. When I spotted an aged copy at the library book sale, I picked it up, whereupon it accumulated nostalgia and dust for two years. I found it the other day, and needing something to read, decided to revisit the book that had so frightened me and helped to shape my early understanding of science fiction.

My memory of it was confused, at best. I suspect that I conflated it with the later books in the series, which our teacher may have also read, or maybe I picked them up on my own. I remembered the books being far-future science fiction, absolutely terrifying, and largely taking place in a snowy mountain range, with a solitary protagonist in ever-present danger.

Instead what I found was a post-apocalyptic story set in the current time, a return to a feudal society after the fall of human civilization at the hands of the enormous, robotic Tripods, who now rule through mind-control via the mesh metal “caps” that are placed on every person coming of age. No one knows where the Tripods came from, whether they were made by humans or arrived on Earth from somewhere else—but capping brings an end to curiosity, a confident knowledge of one’s place in the world, and a social harmony that makes the presence of the Tripods a thing that most people neither object to nor fear.

Will, our protagonist—his name likely being symbolic—is starting to question the necessity of capping as he has just lost his closest companion, his cousin Jack, who has been capped and has joined the society of adults. Will in his grief and loneliness meets a Vagrant, a type of man whose bond with the Tripods didn’t take, leading him possibly to madness, but certainly making him an outcast in a society that functions in complete unity. This Vagrant calls himself Ozymandias, and his cap is a fake that allows him to travel without suspicion. He convinces Will that his fear of capping is valid and reasonable, and tells him that there is a society of free boys and men who have refused to be capped living in the White Mountains, who he could join, if he has the courage.

Will makes the decision to flee before his capping, leaving his family and future behind, and inadvertently teams up with his boyhood antagonist, Henry. Together they leave the land (England–a discovery to me, but maybe obvious to those who know the place), and cross the channel into France,  where they adopt a third member of their party, a young man with an inventive mind who they call Beanpole as they can’t decipher his accent (it’s really Jean-Paul). When Will falls ill, he is taken in by the nominal ruling family and nursed back to health, separated from his companions and maintaining the cover of being an average, if adventurous, Tripod-compliant boy. The three must escape the feudal enclave—where Will must part with Eloise, a girl he has grown close to, who will soon be offered up as a sacrifice to the Tripods and will live out her life in service to them, wherever it is that they abide—and outrun, outsmart, and survive the Tripods that have picked up their trail.

It was not unusual for literature of the time to have little in the way of women or girls as capable of adventure as the boys, and I tried to bear in mind that such books were written specifically for boys (we girls were meant to be reading Little House and Trixie Belden mysteries—which I happily also did); even so, I did find it odd that there were absolutely no girls or women in the entire world with curiosity and strength of will equal to three pre-teen boys who could reach the free people in the White Mountains. If I were to see a reboot of this today, I think Henry would make an interesting Henrietta, and curious and defiant people would not be limited to a single gender.

The prose in The White Mountains is formal, but simple and evocative, and the diction never gets in the way of the action. Even now I found I didn’t want to put it down, and having forgotten most of it in the intervening decades, I was eager to discover what happens next. The tension in the Tripods’ pursuit was as chilling now as it was then, and the strange traditions around Capping Day were fascinating and creepy. Will himself grows and changes in productive ways, at one point realizing that he has treated Eloise with terrible disrespect and deeply regretting it.

I’m glad this is part of a trilogy; there are simply too many unanswered questions about the Tripods, as nagging as an unscratched itch. In this book their unpredictable nature and unknown origin makes them ominous and terrifying, but if I didn’t believe that answers might lie ahead in the second and third books, I think I would leave this one unsatisfied.

The Year in Yant, 2017 Edition

The Year in Yant, 2017 Edition

I wasn’t going to do a year-end thing this year, but my friend Luna convinced me that it was worth doing. Though there may be more to it than that—a lot of things seem a lot more worth doing than they did a short while ago. More on that in a moment.

2017 saw my first publication in three years: “Things That Creep and Bind” in The Sum of Us from Laksa Media. This was a solicited piece, and I am so deeply grateful to Lucas Law and Susan Forest for inviting me to the project. If they hadn’t, I might not have written any prose at all in 2016.

And then they did it again, inviting me to contribute to next year’s anthology, Shades Within Us, and once again, I wrote when I otherwise would not have. The result was the completion and sale of my first novelette-length work, coming in around 9,000 words in the end. The story was a major overhaul and expansion of one of the first stories I’d ever submitted anywhere (so there may be some editors out there who recognize the title when they see it). Finishing something that long was a major victory for me, especially given that I’m most comfortable under 3,000 words.

I am also grateful to Diabolical Plots editor David Steffen, who bought “Her February Face,” which will come out this spring. Additionally, two comics that I either wrote or co-wrote in 2016 were published this past summer, along with at least one of the four I edited. And in the category of “passive victories,” a story of mine was optioned, which is a thing I didn’t really expect to ever be able to mark off my bingo card.

I started a new day job in the wine industry, which has been great. It gets me out of the house and talking to people other than my immediate family a few days every month, and I find it low-pressure and fun.

My D&D party wrapped up a seven-year campaign, if you can believe that. (We did take a year off in the middle while various party members dealt with big scary adult things.) We’re already thinking about our characters for the next one, due to start in January.

I started work on that comic that I blogged about recently. It’s a secondary project for now, because my primary project is a novel manuscript I originally started in 2014, which I returned to this year. I even went on a brief AirBnB retreat, where I drank copious amounts of tea and added nearly twenty thousand words. I’m still working on it, and there’s a long way to go, but I’m working at it consistently, because now I can. Which brings me to…

In the final quarter of this year I saw a new doctor, who asked me some pointed questions that no other doctor had asked. I suppose I should not have been surprised by the results. The upshot is that my depression—which I have likely suffered from to varying degrees my entire life–is now being treated. It’s early days yet, but I can report that virtually every part of my life seems better, like my baseline state of being has been upgraded from “persistently defeated bordering on miserable” to “just fine.” Previously when something exciting would happen, like a story sale, I might spike into “pretty satisfied.” Yesterday a cool thing happened–that option payment and a very kind note from the producer arrived–and I felt good. Happy. I’m able to stay on task; I’m able to take actual satisfaction in getting things done, instead of feeling that every accomplishment is merely another battle in the losing war against entropy. It’s a surprising and extremely welcome change.

So that was 2017. The state of the world aside, I’m hopeful for the coming year. My goals are fairly modest, I think, which is fine. The important thing is that they seem achievable.

As ever, I wish you and yours a happy holiday season, and a hopeful new year. I think we all earned it.

Full Circle

Full Circle

I was just listening to Liz Gilbert’s Magic Lessons #207 with Neil Gaiman (who apparently is my Jungian Archetypal Muse of choice, about which more in a moment) for the nth time while also trying to plan out a project that I am terrified to begin.

I’ve always been a reader and writer–you know what I mean, because you probably were, too. I was the kid who checked out three books from the school library in the morning, read them under my desk, and exchanged them for three more the next day. Growing up, I was most passionate about Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle, Lois Duncan, Stephen King, Meredith Ann Pierce. Words were my thing, even while I dabbled in painting, drawing, sewing, and collage. I wanted to be a writer, a creator of books like those on the library shelves. There was nothing more important, more beautiful, than the written word alone and the ideas it could express, the aspects of humanity it could illuminate.

Then, in 1991, I walked into a comic book store and my life changed forever.

The first thing that drew my attention was called Black Orchid, because (a) it featured a female protagonist who was not wearing spandex, and (b) was illustrated in a style that felt more…authentic? Outsider? I don’t know. These were not cartoonish panels; this was something else, pencils and pastels, soft and beautiful. A melding of illustration and text that spoke to me of the possibility of the medium. The publisher was Vertigo, a still new-ish imprint of DC. The art was gorgeous, but the writing was something I could identify more directly with, and having loved Black Orchid, I then devoured everything else the writer had out; namely, Sandman, which tickled all of the right neurons and completely re-wallpapered my gothy little brain. I was 21 years old, newly married, broke, and pregnant, and my life’s goal was to write for Vertigo, and then-editor Karen Berger.

And I tried. My then-husband and I bought 50 comics we couldn’t afford every single month. I studied. I drew. I wrote Sandman fan-fiction comic scripts.

Then I had a baby, and a divorce, and complicated things further by discovering a thing that Gaiman had previously done with Black Orchid artist Dave McKean called Violent Cases (which I must have encountered in one of its re-releases, as it was in color and it must have been 1993 or 1994 when I found it). I read it, cried a bit, read it again, and then despaired, because frankly, they’d done it. They’d made the thing I had wanted to make, but they’d done it better than I could ever hope to. I was a single mother living in poverty. There were rats in the apartment and childcare to pay for. The comic I’d always wanted was in the world; why bother making anything else? I had more important things to worry about. So I quit.

Several years later came a second marriage, and a second baby, and long nights up with my new daughter, and I remembered. I started again. And I had a dream:

A night street, a corner under a street light. I’m worrying about the comic I’m writing, or trying to write, which I’m supposed to pitch to someone in the dream-building across the street; a portal fantasy about two sisters based on my daughters, which I’ve titled “Keys.” How to fill 26 pages with panels and beats and a splash page and tight dialog; I just don’t know enough. Out of the mist walks a dream-Neil Gaiman, hands in the pockets of his signature black leather jacket, who pauses beside me for only a moment. He doesn’t even look at me, as if he’s addressing the street light, or the moon: “Not twenty-six. Four pages. Start there.” And he walks away.

I took this to heart. Four pages. How do I write a story in four pages?! I came to understand that I needed to learn more: plot, character, voice, and most importantly, how to finish a story. I was now 30 years old, and I’d learned a few things about life, such as: When you want to learn how to do something, seek out people who are doing that thing, and do what they did.

So I learned to write prose, from people whose work I admired, and from workshops and conferences and online critique groups. As luck would have it, my favorite author had started one of those new-fangled “web-logs” as he worked on his next novel, which would be called American Gods. I looked to his blog for advice on creativity and drive; I looked to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for advice on craft and the business of publishing. And I had another dream:

A loft; red brick walls; clearly something I got from television or film, since I’ve lived in California all my life and spaces like this one just don’t exist here. It’s a party, and in the corner is none other than Dream-Gaiman, surrounded by friends and admirers. Someone beside me encourages me to approach him, and assures me that I can ask him absolutely anything in this moment: any advice, anything at all, and he will definitely answer. I approach, nervous, and he looks at me, expectant; I freeze, and realize that there’s nothing he can tell me at this point, because I already know what he will say: Make mistakes. Finish things. This time I’m the one to walk away, leaving him to his people.

Eventually I finish things; I make any number of mistakes. I start sending my stories out; eventually some of them are published; a few get a little bit of attention. Anthology invitations and reprint requests come. I volunteer for a magazine, in an effort to study and learn the difference between mediocre stories and great ones. (Eventually I meet Neil, and he even does me a favor as a friend-of-a-friend, a favor related to someone else’s dream of him, which makes all of this feel even weirder.) Eventually I edit an issue that champions women in the science fiction field; the work wins a Hugo and a British Fantasy Award, which I am very proud of.

None of which, you may have noticed, is making comics.

Now I’m 46 years old, and I’m working on a novel, which is the thing that we who come from short stories are all supposed to do. Life has been generous enough to arrange itself so that working on the novel is my job. I love my novel.  It’s fantastical and sexy and gothy and grotesque; it has science and magic and politics and passion. I’m deeply attached to it; I’ve put countless hours into it. I think it has great promise.

But lately I’ve been thinking about those comics I started all of this in the service of. Those four-page comics that my Jungian-Neil Muse told me to start with. I’ve started thinking about how some of my shortest stories might fit into that format. I’ve started gathering materials: paints, papers, fabrics, beads, embroidery hoops, broken glass, chalk, rusted nails and paper dolls (things comics aren’t typically made of, but I’ve always thought they SHOULD be made of, things Dave McKean convinced me they could be made of). I’ve started sketching panel layouts.

And then, last Tuesday, I had another dream, the details of which don’t matter. Just Dream-Gaiman, who looks up briefly from what he’s doing and says:

“You know, I’m still waiting for you to show me what you’re capable of.”



RIP Chewbacca Flufferton Yant, 2008-2017

RIP Chewbacca Flufferton Yant, 2008-2017

It’s taken me a few weeks to be able to write this. I haven’t been able to look at pictures until now, and even now looking at them really, really hurts. Those who have had that special companion, that animal who was more than a dependent and amiable tenant, but who was your legitimate friend–you’ll get it. Those who can put the words “just a” and “cat” together in a sentence won’t.

Meeting Chewie at the shelter, 2008

I saw him on Petfinder in early 2008 and immediately knew we were each other’s. He’d been left in the night drop at the shelter; he was probably six months old at the time. He was with me for nearly a decade, through some very shitty times and some incredibly good ones. He grew from a fairly timid and skittish kitten into an incredibly affectionate, confident, reliable friend with so much personality.

Chewie is having absolutely none of your shit. None of it.

He and Suki got along great from the start. Before the other cats came along, if I asked Suki, “Where’s the cat?” she’d eagerly bound over to him and boop him with her nose. (On the other hand, when we added Jack, our Aussie mix, to the family he made a very big show of attempting to climb the fence and run away from home. He couldn’t get over the fence, and quickly learned to ignore Jack.)

Chewie is never coming home. Not EVER. Unless he gets hungry. Or it gets damp.

When John came into our lives Chewie immediately adopted him as his own, and eventually even warmed up to all of these interloping kittens we kept bringing home. Yoda was his go-to cuddle buddy, but everyone wanted Chewie’s attention.

But human people were his favorite. He had a way of sitting on you while somehow channeling gravity to make himself heavier while he settled into a good long purr. Purring was really his default; he could purr contentedly, indignantly, furiously, or anything in between. Preferably while sitting on you and being petted.

Photo by Remy Nakamura

He also liked clothes. Our guess is that it made him feel special and more like one of us, being the only cat who got to wear clothes. He would practically strut in his walking harness.


Safety Officer Chewbacca Flufferton is on the case

None of these pictures really do justice to the sheer volume of cat that was Chewbacca. For scale, here he is with my daughter, who then was roughly 5’1:

On September 14 I found him on the bed, with Yoda sitting next to him looking at me like it was MY FAULT his friend wasn’t cuddling with him. He was just gone; there was no more Chewie animating all of that floof. It was totally unexpected. We’d had two other cats in and out of the vet over the previous weeks, but Chewie was fine. He was down to a good weight and perfectly healthy. Except for the part where his heart stopped and he died. I cried for fifteen hours straight (I didn’t even know that was possible) and continue to, off and on, almost a month later. I’d had the good fortune over the past few years to have forgotten what a broken heart feels like.

Chewie was one of a kind, absolutely irreplaceable, and nothing feels the same without him.

I miss you, buddy.

By Faerie Light reviewed

By Faerie Light reviewed

Nerds on Earth has reviewed the anthology By Faerie Light, in which I collaborated with Jeffrey Scott Petersen on “Blight.”

From the review:

“A township is in dire peril as a seemingly unkillable beast terrorizes and consumes their citizens. Their only hope might be a tenuous bargain with a dreaded creature of legend.

really dug the approach to this story, as a fable held the key to a possible savior for the village. Will the party believe the young child who offers it as a solution? Will they risk an alliance with one evil to defeat another? And will things go as planned…?”

I’m tickled that the reviewer called out “Blight” as potential “campaign fodder”–especially since I’m currently working on one of my own as my D&D group crawls toward the end of a six-year campaign. That forest of bone might have to make an appearance…

By Faerie Light is available for the Kindle for $4.99.

The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound

The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound

The Sum of Us final cover This week the cover for the upcoming anthology The Sum of Us was revealed! I am delighted to have my story “Things That Creep and Bind” included. The theme of the anthology, as described on the Laksa Media site:

If we believe that we are the protagonists of our lives, then caregivers—our pillars—are ghosts, the bit players, the stock characters, the secondary supports, living lives of quiet trust and toil in the shadows. Summoned to us by the profound magic of great emotional, physical, or psychological need, they play their roles, and when our need diminishes . . .


These are their stories.

The book will be available in September 2017. More information, including the complete Table of Contents, can be found here.