Fie… errr…

fireIf there are two things sure to mesmerize humans, it is crashing waves and a dancing flame. There was no realistic way to bring the thundering sea into our cozy new mountain home, but we could definitely do fire. So, a chunk of our budget for moving here was diverted to replacing an existing small gas stove with something we could sit around and watch. We figure that you’ve just got to indulge some of those primal instincts.

Initially, I wanted to burn wood. I’ve always had a “real” fireplace and the sound and smell is part of the joy. But last winter we spent a week in a snowstorm with a well-designed gas fireplace, and I had to admit that the lack of chopping, hauling, and cleaning was a joy, as was the almost instant on and off that allowed us to experience flame for just a moment here and there anytime we wanted.

So gas it was. But I balked at the fake logs. I just don’t like fake flowers or foliage and I wasn’t any more fond of watching my flames dance through simulated bark. Lucky for me, modern times have brought better alternatives. I could have glass beads or tumbled marble or river rock. Wait, real rock? That worked.

Three months and more-money-than-we-expected later, we have it and it is a joy. Something deep in our collective unconscious takes comfort from the flame, as it draws us closer.

I used both the sea and fire a lot in the novel y1, as I let each draw my disparate characters together. Fire gets its first use in the story by way of another primitive glue, music. The book mentions and links to nine different songs; most of them are contemporary and from the broader electronic dance music genre. This one is a throwback, however, as one of the older characters in the book reaches out with “Fire” to the young man who has stowed away on his sailboat. Enjoy the excerpt and song below.

tropical-sunsetAs Toby’s much-loved sailboat Miss Demeanor finally made her way through the Nanuku Passage towards Fiji’s main two islands, Toby radioed ahead to ensure that a health inspector would be available to clear the boat so they could proceed out of quarantine anchorage with minimum delay. As he spoke with port control, he watched Afi expertly use the sails to turn the boat to pass to the north of Koro Island, and Toby decided that Afi made a great crew. Perhaps he would let the boy work on board until he turned twenty-one. In which case he should learn more about him after all.

It didn’t take much prodding to find out that before being whisked off for unnamed crimes, Afi had a hobby, of sorts, in that he aspired to become proficient in the Samoan fire knife dance. Apparently Afi had practiced a lot and on occasion performed for friends and family, and even for profit. His unusual flexibility had enabled him to perfect a few unique moves that other dancers could not even attempt. Toby wondered if wanting to fire dance in the South Pacific was a little bit like wanting to play baseball in U.S.

Years ago Toby had installed a high-end J.L. Audio marine sound system on his boat, and it was one indulgence he had never regretted. He prided himself on maintaining an immense collection of music on the best MP3 player he could find. Sometimes the quiet at sea was soothing. But often, whatever music suited his mood was far better. He had genre days. One day, nothing but classical music. On another day, it was all reggae. He had theme days, like days when no song would be played that didn’t have a word describing weather in the title. On this journey he had played mostly classic rock and roll, which Afi had seemed to enjoy well enough.

51R-CmnG45L._SL500_AA280_Once he learned of Afi’s love of fire dancing, though, he decided to find a couple of fire songs as they approached Fiji. With a smile of satisfaction he selected a few oldies from the fifties and sixties that referred to fire. When he played Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire”, Afi smiled in recognition. But when the speakers began to blare the Doors 1967 hit “Light My Fire” Afi grinned at this one and started to sing along. Pretty soon both men were belting out the chorus. “Fie… errr…” drifted out over the waves of Savusavu Bay along with their laughter.

“What to do you think?” Toby asked.

“I think you have a great sound system.” Afi was honest. Toby waited.

“I think you found fire songs for me, which was nice.” Toby waited more.

“I think your music could use a little updating?”

Toby laughed. He had been expecting that remark for days.

Afi continued. “There are a lot of great new songs about fire too. Maybe in Fiji we can download some? And we can make a bigger collection, with the old and the new?”

“We absolutely can. Music is one of the supplies I continue to stock up on, even if I don’t need anything else. I usually just add more oldies, but we will see what we can find from the last five years. I promise.”

Listen to the Doors perform their biggest hit live in New York in 1968.

You can buy this song at Amazon.com.

Party like it’s ……

fireworksWho can’t fill in the blank on this one? In the introduction to y1, the millennium nears it end and thirteen year old Zane waits for the year 2000 while singing “1999” by Prince.

While Zane struggled to flex his orbicularis oculi, a small but industrious segment of the world’s population was spending much of its time confronting the possibility of chaos and doom. These computer programmers, mostly aging geeks who knew machine code and legacy programming languages like Fortran, Basic and C, found themselves hired by companies the world over to fight small personal battles with ancient (that would be 1950 through 1980) software. Their mission? To see that computers, and all the myriad of utilities, finances, government records, shipping, and communications now largely run by these machines, would not all come to a grinding halt because decades ago well-meaning programmers just like themselves had told computers that years only had two digits.

As the year 1999 neared its end, another segment of the world’s population wrote increasingly horrific articles about this villain, dubbed Y2K, telling of confused computers leading to the end of modern society. As the end of December approached, security forces the world over went quietly on the highest of alerts. Just in case.

Prince’s 1982 hit “1999” was re-released again in time for year’s end, and at least seven other recording artists did timely covers of the song, leaving much of the world’s population singing that they personally intended to start partying like it was 1999. It was an exciting time to be alive, this end of a millennium.

But wait. It wasn’t actually the end of the millennium, and everyone past the age of four knew it. Because the Gregorian calendar, based on a perceived date for Christ’s birth and now in common usage the world over, had begun with the year one, not the year zero, everyone knew that December 31, 2000, not 1999, would mark the real end of the millennium. And no one cared. December 31, 1999, was the big day. It was the day on which the odometer turned over, the day on which all the nines rolled into zeroes. It was the day that everyone cared about. It was the day on which the world might end. It was the day on which everyone wanted to be somewhere safe. Or somewhere special. Or both.

20121101_215834If there is one thing harder to find on the internet than videos of performances of Disney songs, it would have to be videos of performances by Prince. Click on 1999 below to see this wonderful one from France that captures the energy of this great song. Enjoy!

1999

(You can buy this millennial hit at Amazon.com.)

With the second song of each book, I pick up on the intensity of the theme a little more. Click on to read about x0’s “We are the World“, z2’s “Only the Strong Survive“, c3’s “Heads Carolina” and d4’s “I Follow Rivers“.

“A Whole New World”

I believe that one telling characteristic of a person is the music they enjoy. So how could I not feel the same way about my characters? I think about how Zane likes electronic dance music, just like I think about how he likes video games and superpowers and chameleons. For me, this is part of the process of getting to know him.

With the help of a young man with musical tastes similar to Zane’s, I was able to put together my character’s own distinctive list of favorite songs, and weave them into his story. However, the first song in the novel is a little different in that it is a favorite of seven-year-old Zane, who loves creatures with superpowers. In 1993 he is a big fan of the genie in Walt Disney’s Aladdin and he likes to sing “A Whole New World” by Alan Menken and Tim Rice while he plays with his pet chameleon Balthazar.

For every song in y1, I’ve found a live performance that I think shows a little of a the personality of the singer or of the song itself. I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of fun seeking these out. Options for Disney songs are limited, so I was delighted to find this beautiful video of contestant Lenisa singing “A Whole New World” for The Voice Kid Australia 2014. Her initial nervousness, the tension of her family, the responses of the potential coaches and her final triumph at the end will all put a lump in the throat of any viewer. You may or may not want to continue onward to see which coaches she picks, but please, do enjoy her voice.

Excerpt from y1:

At the end of February, the television kept talking about a bomb which had gone off in the parking garage of some giant building in New York, killing five people. The man on the TV said the bomb had ended the belief that Americans were safe from attack.

His mom had taken him and Ariel to see Aladdin for a second time at the dollar theater because they had both liked it so much. The movie’s hit song, “A Whole New World,” had just made its way into the number one spot on the charts. Zane sang the title to himself. “A whole new world …” He didn’t sing very well, but Zane had liked the movie. He liked all stories about creatures with special powers, and he thought that the genie was really funny.

Zane was glad that no one else was upstairs with him that day as he sang because after Balthazar gave Zane one of his one-eyed knowing looks, his reptilian skin made its first transition from subtle greens and browns to a spectacular bright orange. Zane grinned. He didn’t know what orange meant with other chameleons, but Zane felt sure that it meant that Balthazar was very happy.

Then Zane took a deep breath. Forcing back his fear, he made himself remember that time last summer. That time he had been so scared. Every so often Zane’s dad made him go outside and play with whoever was around, and he had been playing hide and seek with neighbor boys he didn’t really like because they did more mean things than most. On this day, Zane had taken great pains to conceal himself particularly well because he especially did not like to be “it” with these guys.

As the one boy came close to the bushes in which Zane was so carefully hidden, Zane had noticed his bare foot was still sticking out onto the orange-brown soil. He dare not move it now. So he had thought hard about his foot muscles and did his best to flatten the foot tight against the ground, and to hold it very still. While he did this thing, the skin on his foot had started to burn and itch too. Zane looked at it, alarmed at first, and saw that his foot was blushing. At least, it had turned a shade of red orange brown that mimicked the dirt. And that had been his first inkling that he could do more than make his body’s shape twist and warp a little more than most people could. Zane had watched his orange brown foot in fascination while the neighbor boy ran on by.

Afterwards, Zane worried that he had imagined it. But then every so often after that, Zane’s skin would surprise him, just like his muscles had already sometimes surprised him with what they could do. After awhile, he could feel a color change coming, this kind of burning feeling, and he knew what to expect. So he finally figured that he needed a teacher. A wise teacher. Like Balthazar.

Zane watched the chameleon’s orange skin with fascination.

“Can I learn to do that when I want to, wise one?” he asked.

He tried hard to make the feeling inside that he felt when his skin did this all by itself. He concentrated hard on his arm. At first nothing happened. Then, yes. He felt the feeling. He made the feeling. His skin on his arm went from its normal light tan to a tan orange.

“You and I are going to be great friends,” Zane told the chameleon quietly. “You are going to help teach me ways to fight the bullies in this world. And you are the only one who is going to get to know just how really strange I am.”

Zane could have sworn that Balthazar turned even brighter in delight.

You can buy seven year old Zane’s favorite song at Amazon.com.

The fact is that I started each of my novels off with a special song. Click to read about x0’s “Time After Time“, z2’s “Fame“, c3’s “A Texas Kind of Way” and d4’s “Lights“.

Posted in joy.

Shape Shifting Without Magic

The character Zane lived in my head for years before he became the hero of my book y1 and I knew exactly what he could do. He could control the muscles of his body, and particularly his face, well enough to alter his appearance at will. It seemed theoretically possible to me, and it sounded like an ability that would make for a fun story.

One problem was what to call it. It was shape shifting in my mind, but in the world of fantasy shape-shifting often describes taking on the form of an animal, with the change brought on by a full moon or by a bite from another shape shifter. These are magical changes. The physics and biology don’t have to make sense, because reader and writer have agreed to pretend that a 120 pound girl can turn into a 400 pound lioness, behave as an animal, and turn human again. This is all great fun if you are into stories like that, but it wasn’t the kind of story I was writing.

My favorite shape shifter of all time took the process a step further.  Actor René Murat Auberjonoi’s wonderful character Odo on Star Trek Deep Space Nine could actually turn into a silver liquid at will, slither under a door or through a crack in the walls, and emerge on the other side as a solid of any shape. Shape shifting doesn’t get much more versatile than that. In fairness, Robert Patrick’s Terminator T-1000 in Terminator 2 could do much the same thing, but with a decidedly more villainous twist. Both were fabulous to watch, but Zane had to stay solid and keep his human body.

normal 1Lucky for me, the Earth we live on is full of creatures who really can do some variation of what I wanted for Zane.  Cuttlefish, octopi and chameleons head this list, as this wonderful TED video on shapeshifters in the real world shows. My version of shape shifting was destined to be less eye-popping, but I hoped that the trade off would be that my reader might wonder if maybe, just maybe, a real life Zane could exist.

Here is an excerpt from y1 which explains much about Zane’s unique talents:

Lack of time was one reason why Zane had never tried out for a school play. Tennis, the sport he had finally settled on in high school, kept him busy, not to mention the real time killer for the college bound of studying for standardized tests, taking standardized tests, and the visiting, applying for, and getting into college routine that has become almost a full-time job for today’s aspiring young person.

There were other reasons as well. His father would certainly have winced. Zane wasn’t all that keen himself to be identified with the theater crowd, mostly because they tended to be a flamboyant bunch, and Zane preferred keeping a low profile. Blending. Which was why, in his own way, he had become a rather good actor even if his style was not particularly well suited to the stage.

He sounded more Texan in Texas, more East Coast at school, more educated on campus, and less educated in a bar. He could carry himself like a preppie, gesture and stand like a rodeo kid, walk like he was from the inner city. He never consciously mimicked people; it just happened. He’d known from early on that his mind was a precious thing. It gathered input, deduced quickly, and remembered well. Therefore, his body’s main job was to protect his mind from harm. He figured that his body had found and developed all the skills it could to do that.

Over the years Zane had been able to find many examples of physical mimicry in the animal world, and he had long since satisfied himself that while he had developed some unusual capabilities for a human, there was nothing magical about him. As an adult he didn’t even believe in such things. He figured that he just had a better mind-to-body link than most and had been gifted with particularly adept fine muscle control, which he himself had worked hard to hone over the years. In the end, there had been a lot of time spent in front of mirrors playing around to get good at what he could do. The results would have astounded his friends and family.

Zane knew that there was one peculiarity about his skills. When the male cuttlefish turns its skin from brown to white to warn approaching males that it is going to fight, the cuttlefish, as far as we know, does not give the process a lot of thought. Perhaps no more so than the man who places his hands on his hips defiantly. But the difference is that the man can choose to do something else with his arms while no one is sure whether the cuttlefish chooses anything. So here is where it got confusing.

Zane did, after all, have a human brain, and making choices was one of the very things his brain had evolved to do. So while his abilities in biological mimicry would often occur without his conscious choice, like a reflex, other times he could and would choose to control them. He could stop changes he felt starting to happen and had gotten better at that with practice. He could undo changes which had already happened, and that seemed to be a little easier. Finally, over the last few years, he had gotten significantly better at learning how to instigate changes of his own conscious choosing. That last ability turned this whole thing into way more than a reflex, he thought, into way more than what the octopus or chameleon could do. It was no longer just a quirk. The things that Zane’s mind could make his body do were a gift.

Certain things of course could not be altered. Clothes, obviously. So Zane often carried a second shirt in his backpack in case he wanted to disappear. Hair of any kind was a problem, made up as it was of dead cells with no ability to respond. So Zane kept his medium brown misbehaved mop cut short and wore hats a lot. Sometimes he took alternate headgear with him as well.

His size could be altered a little, but not as much as he would have liked. Zane guessed maybe plus or minus ten percent. He’d learned to modify his shape mildly. For instance he could make his chin recede more or his shoulders appear broader. But he couldn’t make himself have a third arm coming out of his back. At best, he’d managed to produce a short lump that looked like a tumor between his shoulder blades. He kept working on it on though.

He had always been good with color, as long as it involved pigments contained by his cells. There was no turning turquoise. But it was sometimes convenient to change ethnicity, and occasionally still convenient to turn his skin toward the color of his surroundings if he could manage to get the clothed parts of him otherwise camouflaged.

Afi had asked him if he had ever tried modifying his texture. He hadn’t, but he liked the concept and so had practiced it a little, with some minor success. He smiled at the memory of Afi, a little surprised to notice how thinking of Afi generally made him smile.

For all that Zane had enjoyed the challenge and simple entertainment of learning to better control his gift, tonight would be the first time that he had ever contrived ahead of time to use it to purposefully mislead someone. He recognized that another person might have gone there years ago and done so often. What an ability for a con artist to have. But to Zane, well, misleading was lying. It didn’t feel comfortable. He had neither the need for nor the interest in it.

But tonight he was armed with dual justifications. He had convinced himself that Peter Hulson’s quest for information before he died was something of a noble cause. He recognized that it probably provided a much-needed distraction for a man in a good deal of emotional and physical pain. So he had already resolved to make his reports accurate and frequent. If a little subterfuge was needed to achieve that end, he had decided that he was okay with that.

Then a second incentive presented itself. Earlier in the week, Chloe had invited him to join her and Raven for drinks after work again today and he was kind of looking forward to it. Then yesterday she had postponed the outing. “Raven will be having drinks there without us,” Chloe had volunteered with a shrug, “doing what a girl’s gotta do.”

“What’s that?” Zane had asked a little puzzled. Chloe rolled her eyes.

“When the great and powerful COO of a company wants to take a lowly sales rep out for a drink and stare at her tits for an hour, she goes. I just hope he’s content with staring and doesn’t try to strong arm poor Raven into more. She’s had trouble saying no to powerful men before. I think it’s daddy abandonment issues myself.”

So Zane had come into work today with a backpack containing a shirt he would never wear out in public himself, a hat that classified as the same, and plans to go to the nearby bar and try to sit as close to Neil and Raven as possible. He was thinking he’d go for being a little smaller and darker, with considerably more Asian features. Given his good hearing, he should be able to listen in just fine.

And what if Neil started to pressure Zane’s friend who was a little easier to push around than she should be? The time for assertiveness training for Raven would be later, Zane thought. If he heard anything he didn’t like, Zane was planning to find a way to accidentally knock an ice cold drink on Neil’s lap.

For more information on this subject see:

Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus
Chameleon changing colors http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=060YXITlyOE
TED’s David Gallo http://youtube.com/watch?v=YVvn8dpSAt0