24 September 2010

Test Case (The "Blurb")

I've been working on a blurb for the Dream Land series, or at least the first volume.

The Dream Land by Stephen M. Swartz

Book I: Long Distance Voyager

How far would you go to save the love of your life? Through a portal to another world?

Sebastian and Gina, high school sweethearts, discover a doorway in an abandoned quarry and step through it to a world of magical beauty and terrible violence. She decides to stay while he, fearing losing touch with his home, chooses to return to Earth. Nevertheless, he finds himself drawn back time aand time again for his own neferious adventures and to rescue Gina from her sordid escapades. They must always help each other because, as Gina says, "soul mate outranks spouse or lover."

Hiding out as a night-shift worker at the local I.R.S. service center, Sebastian once again feels the pull of Gina in trouble. It’s been a while so he is hesitant to step through the doorway again, remembering all the horrors he experienced during previous journeys, such as the tragic romance with one of the natives of Ghoupallesz and being caught in a masssive invasion force as a regimental commander. So he enlists the aid of two co-workers who also need a place to escape. He must save Gina--this time, like every time!

But is the adventure reality or is it just the dreams of a psychotic serial killer?
That’s what the police want to know when Sebastian returns to Earth without his coworkers.

The Dream Land rides a growing wave of interest in parallel dimensions and imaginary worlds (The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Golden Compass are a few recent Hollywood examples) and will have immediate appeal to readers of Philip Pullman, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and the late Roger Zelazny, among others. The Dream Land also "works" as pure psychological thriller.

Stephen Swartz, sociolinguist and English professor, calls on his years of research into cutting-edge self and identity issues in psychology and the nature of consciousness, as well as quantum mechanics, parallel realms, alien languages, time travel conundrums, and near-death and out-of-body experiences. In his carefully drawn characters, Swartz presents a "realistic" portrayal of people who encounter the unbelievable and learn to move graceful within an alien world.

22 September 2010

A Week Later . . . (Come hither, Autumn!)

I've heard that autumn doesn't arrive here in central Oklahoma until a week before Christmas. For someone who likes it cold, that is a depressing thought.

I welcome that first crisp day with the sky bright blue, cloudless, and the trees touched by the first change of color. A year ago, living in upstate New York, that first day was beautiful. A year before that, living in western New York, I also experienced that first day of autumn as a great relief to my senses.  After all, I had struggled through several months of heat and humidity--too much sweating, too much weight gain! That kind of weather forces me to downshift, trying to relax, keeping cool by not being active and living in the artificial A/C environment, drinking milkshakes and eating ice cream, just trying to stay comfortable. When autumn arrives, I awaken from hibernation and become active, start eating healthy food, and actually begin to feel alive again. It is a beautiful experience to awake to life once more.

In New York, however, the autumn did not last very long; winter came early. Last year the first snow fell (but did not stay on the ground) the last week of September. The biggest snow storm, which dumped 24 inches on us, came at the end of March. And even on Mother's Day in May, snow was filling the sky most of the morning. I like seeing snow fall; I do not like driving in snow.  My years in western Pennsylvania, among the hills and forests of the Alleganies, seemed the perfect balance between a too-hot summer and a too-snowy winter. There, I had four equal seasons; I felt in sync with the world.

Now, I'm not exactly the sort of person to jump into piles of leaves--especially if I spent time raking them into piles, nor am I obsessed with Halloween or pumpkins. However, the arrival of autumn signals to me that closure is coming. Throughout the spring and summer everything is growing, everything has potential, nothing has an end to it. That first nip of cool air in the morning gets my attention and lets me know that the end is coming. And that means I must hurry to finish whatever I may have started. I must refocus on achieving something, anything, before the circus of New Year resolutions arrives. Autumn is a time for reflection, for settling accounts, for adjusting expectations. Autumn is the time for accepting reality.  It is also the prime measure of my life: How many autumns have I experienced? Indeed, in anyone's life there are but a couple dozen autumns that are lived, remembered, and enjoyed. Others pass, certainly, but we are too young to recall them, too busy to enjoy them, too harried to live them as we might wish to. We notice--and fully appreciate--only a handful of autumns during a lifetime. When an autumn rolls to its end I feel a pang of regret at missed opportunities, at beauty faded, at a life yet unfulfilled.

As I look ahead from today, I see maybe 20 more autumns I can experience. But I also know that some of them will be rainy, others will find me kept inside working, or I might be busy and not get much opportunity to live in the season. I will see it passing and wish to stop what I am doing and go out and play in the season, but I will tell myself I have next year for that. Someday, I will be too old: I could see the signs of autumn outside my window, perhaps, and I might even persuade a nurse to open the window for me, but those will be my final touches of autumn. The end of my life will surely come with the end of the year, I feel. It seems symmetrical that way. I like having balance and, as John Keats wrote in his Ode to Autumn, ". . . with patient look, / Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours," I, too, shall watch with keen interest the fading light, the vast orange sky over the black gloaming landscape, and close my eyes slowly as the sun drowsily blinks shut on the last autumn night of my life.

15 September 2010

Being Happy on B'day

So here it is again: the ubiquitous birthday.  Same day every year.  Why are we not tired of it already?  It returns each year like a plague, with swarms of expectations threatening to overwhelm us.  Nevertheless, it seems quite reasonable that each of us deserves a special personal day--no matter how naughty we may have been.  One day of the year.  That's all.  24 hours, give or take.  That's harmless enough, isn't it?  Everyone should get a day off from work, school, hassle, red lights, dirty laundry, taxation, crying babies, etc.

My history, however, proves that my birthday is usually the worst day of the year for me.  I've analyzed the reasons for this phenomena.  It probably has to do with the higher expectations I have for the day.  Or the timing of the day among the starting of the school year or the football/autumn season.  Things seem to happen at this time of the year.  One year there was a flood that drew everyone's attention away from my day.  Then there was the terrorist attack on September 11th.  I'm not claiming that those events occurred exclusively to thwart celebration of my continued aging.  Just coincidences.  My birthday was a coincidence: my mother often tells the story of how I was "due" eleven days earlier.  If only I had been born on time!  Perhaps the world would be different now.

So, given the randomness of a birthday and its almost obligatory acknowledgement, what can we do to properly deal with the many expectations and the certain failure we have to meet them?  Some would go to extremes to indulge themselves.  It's only fair.  Others would gather family and friends and have a round of cake and ice cream.  One day won't hurt.  Some will lie about the advancing years, hide their true age as though it were some fatal disease.  My father still insists with every passing birthday that he is "turning 39"--again; which makes me, what? six? year after year.

No, what I want is quite simple:

Just let everything go my way, just for one day.  I don't care about a party; I'm an adult now.  I don't care about gifts; I can buy what I want now.  I don't need celebration; It would either be trite or downright embarrassing.  I'd rather pass the day alone, locked in my home, safely away from the world.  Inside my fortress of solitude, of course, I'd indulge myself in various ways.  Sleep late.  Watch a favorite movie.  Eat my favorite foods.  Play video games.  Read a book I've been waiting to get to.  Do something absolutely unimportant and unproductive.

And so, for the mother who suffered through labor, for the teachers and classmates who had to deal with me from nursery school through college, for the relatives who alternately tolerated, or were horrified or amused by my life events, for the strangers who happily avoided me, for the colleagues from university and work and extracurricular activities who with some disdain endured the annual rituals of self-abandonment on this day, for all of the people I have encountered, for better or worse, let me say a humble thanks for not getting in my way on the one day of the year when I really do wish, with the maximum amount of sincerity and straight from the gut, to say to the world: "Leave me the hell alone! ...at least for 24 hours."

Thanks, and see you all next year.

10 September 2010

Example of Irony

Yesterday I was sick. Cold, with all the usual symptoms. A messy proposition, so I called in "sick" and loaded up on drugs and vitamins. A few hours later I realized that I could be doing more than just being sick.  I could be using the time to do some business.  With the medicine working well, I did not feel too bad.  So I got myself ready for public display and headed out to take care of some necessary errands.

Based on previous research, I went to the office nearby where I could get a new license plate (sometimes called "tag") for my vehicle, now that I've been here a month.  It was an involved process, of course, but I got through it with little difficulty.  Next stop was the driver license office several miles away.  I waited there for almost two hours to transfer my license from my old state to my new state.  No pictures taken, however.  No, I was required to go back to the first office, show them the paperwork from the second office, and they would take my picture and make a driver license for me.  The picture was servicable.

During the four hour errand-running period, I got my car tag, my driver license, an electronic box for the turnpike charges, and registered to vote (and, subsequently, to be eligible for jury duty). Then I headed home, with my meds quickly wearing off and illness returning.

However, it was some new illness that disturbed my afternoon, something of the gut variety. I was forced up from my nap to deal with what some may describe as a stomach flu--or food poisoning.  What had I eaten?  I couldn't match up the before and the after.  I was just glad to be rid of it.

This morning the irony finally hit me.  Feeling better, I was determined to go back to the office, so I got up and got ready and hit the road.  I was using my turnpike pass for the very first time.  I was on the highway, had just passed by the toll booth where I usually had to stop and throw coins at the machine but now could whiz on by, and was excited to have such freedom when I suddenly was confronted by flashing lights. A highway patrol car had approached me from the other side, had turned through the median, and was now coming up behind me!  I checked my speed: 77 in a 70 zone, usually not enough to raise eyebrows.

I am not a criminal, I thought.  I produced my new driver license and my proof of insurance.  I explained that I had just gotten my driver license the previous day, had gotten my car tag and my turnpike box also the previous day, that I was new here, that I really had not intended to speed (I usually put the car on cruise and don't worry about it), and I was able to negotiate a "warning."

Besides, twenty cars pass me in any given trip to one car that I pass.  So many other drivers come up behind me (I'm in the right lane, the "slow" lane) and tailgate or flash their headlights to express their derision that I am going "only" seven miles over the speed limit.  Then they will swing out into the left lane, and charge angrily ahead, then bluntly back into the right lane--once in a while accompanied with a select finger of salute.  I, on the other hand, am a good driver and have not had a real ticket in more than ten years. But the irony still remains.

And I just spilled some grape juice down the front of my new white shirt!

03 September 2010

Evil Comparisons! (Part II)

Finally the summer spell is broken: a thunderstorm followed by a cold front blows through during the evening!  So I can return blithely to the subject at hand.

When the idea for the first volume in The Dream Land series came to me during a dream, I rushed to craft the storyline, drawing partly from my childhood fantasies and partly from my [then] modern sensibilities with regard to plotting.  I was careful not to drawn from any sci-fi on TV or film. Of course, I believed my own idea was unique and did not want to dilute it by making allusions to other sources, or by borrowing any ideas, no matter how minor. However, just as I was completing the manuscript in 1993 and revising it for submission to publishers in 1994, I was suddenly bombarded by the trailers of a new sci-fi film coming out: Stargate.

One irony of this event was that I had already had my characters speculate what to call this portal they had discovered. While I settled on tangent as the main reference and "tearing the curtain" as euphemism, my protagonists, Gina and Sebastian, also tried the name "stargate". They referenced Watergate, a common shared experience in the '70s, but ruled out "stargate" because it referred to transportation to a star--where a voyager might "burn his ass off" [sic]. (In the last major revision, this phrase was sanitized, along with the change of the "stargate" reference to sci-fi usage in general.)  But there was the film, seen by millions, and which eventually even spawned a TV series on the cable TV's Sci-Fi channel.

Stargate (1994) follows the adventures of a team of mercenaries and a scientist as they travel through a "portal" that leads to a quasi-Egyptian landscape ruled by a kind of pharoah/alien character with special powers. Much is made of the similarities of this new pseudo-world with Earth's ancient history. Obviously, knowing Earth's ancient history makes it easy to create a world that approximates that ancient Earth history, all the more to compell discussion of who or what gave rise to the first civilizations on Earth. Theories of ancient astronauts, advocated by Erich von Daniken and later Zecharia Sitchin and others, seemed to fit some of the quirks and curiosities archeaologists have found, as well as references in the Bible.

I did not have any concerns about ancient astronauts in relation to the plot of Dream Land.  In the back of my mind, however, I had ideas. I had read Von Daniken's first book Chariots of the Gods and was intrigued enough to consider the possibilities. Readers of science-fiction regularly consider possibilities. I had no intention of deliberately working some of those ideas into the plot. My focus was on two young people randomly discovering a portal to another dimension--which according to the laws of astrophysics must be located on a valid planetary body somewhere. The focus was on their relationship, and what they do to try and stay together, then find each other, then live together on that other world.

(Note to self: you focused on the adventure in the original writing but after many years and two major revisions, you now accept that the story is, at its roots, a love story with elements of adventure, rather than the reverse.)

I did not whine too much at the time about the unexpected hijacking of my interdimensional doorway motif by Stargate.  Instead, I sought ways to exploit that similarity. Things usually come in threes in Hollywood and perhaps also in the book publishing business. So if people were excited by the Stargate film, perthaps they would grab a copy of my novel which had similar elements (though much different in focus and style, closer to what I like to call "literary sci-fi"). I marketed Dreamland (never considering a sequel) as another Stargate-like story. I got encouraging feedback and a few compliments on its style and scope, but ultimately I did not make a sale.

Time passed and I started other projects. Meanwhile Stargate: SG1 was showing on the Sci-Fi channel. I caught a few episodes by chance but never intended to become a fan. I felt that it was the enemy--though they had no knowledge of me or my universe. After several years the series ended. After several years I finally completed the second book in the series. The second book did draw on some elements that had, by then, entered the common sci-fi lexicon, notably the time-travel aspects of interdimensional portals (e.g., enter at a slightly different angle and you arrive in the same place but at a different time or in a slightly different place in the same time).

Nearing the completion of the second Dream Land book, I began to feel the continuation of the story into a third book. The idea was already there, having been stuck in my subconscious since just before the Stargate film was released, the idea of how this all got started. That is the reason for the third book's title: Diaspora.