The Most Unkindest Cut of All

“Maybe you’re right,” [said the main character]. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living out some demented writer’s attempt to package his pet philosophy in an outrageous sci-fi novel filled with contrived, unrealistic events, bad dialogue, and flat characters who use far too many vocabulary words. Have you ever felt that suspicion?”

The Author’s face twitched a little. He seemed a bit put off by the comment.

The Resolve of Immortal Flesh, by Rich Colburn, p. 52

Quote: Nothing to Worry About

Heather … approached the water’s edge. She looked at Johnny.

“You may hear a strange sound like a transcendent being uttering terrifying speech in a foreign tongue that unravels the fabric of the universe,” she said. “But I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”

The Resolve of Immortal Flesh, by Rich Colburn, p. 375

Two Indie Authors to Check Out

What’s your stereotype of “indie” (independently published) books? Is it a tame memoir that would interest only the author’s family? A bitter rant where the author finally gets to have their say? An amateurish sci-fi filled with cringe-inducing grammatical errors?

I’ve read all of these types. (And, for the record, my opinion is not the same about all of them. The family memoirs, in particular, will be valuable historical records one day.) But in case you didn’t know it, there is so much more to the world of indie books. Here are two indie authors I’ve discovered, both worth reading and each weirder than the last.

Spectre

Specter by Katie Jane Gallagher

I discovered Katie right here on WordPress. She likes horror, which I didn’t think was really my speed, but I just had to buy her book to see the results of her self-publishing. The book is, in a word, professional. The cover, the formatting, the editing … it all looks and reads just like any high-quality YA paranormal book you’d pick up in a bookstore (or, in my case, a library). And no, it’s not a paranormal romance where the ghost is the girl’s love interest. (Thank God.)  It just features a normal, smart high schooler who starts seeing ghosts. And, refreshingly, her parents are all right, unlike in so many YA books where the parents are either dead, clueless or part of the problem.

And the horror? Well, there are some horrible revelations at the end … but they didn’t turn out to be anything I couldn’t handle. Perhaps I’ve been toughened up by watching Stranger Things.

The Collision series by Rich Colburn

Full disclosure: I knew Rich before he wrote these books. He’s weird. (I honestly don’t think he’ll be offended if he reads that.)  When, having not seen him for years, I heard that Rich had indie published a couple of books, I eagerly bought them. They are exactly the kind of books I would have expected from him, which makes them a little hard to describe.

From the Amazon blurb: “What if the spirit world was rampant with technology sophisticated beyond anything mankind has imagined? What if a sociopath got his hands on a powerful piece of this technology? What if you couldn’t die no matter how much damage your body sustained?
“Join a reluctant hero on his quest to discover what the heck he should do with his time now that he has unlimited power and the world as he knew it collides with the unseen world. Will demon-possessed biomechanical monsters kill everyone? Will there be enough coffee to last through to the end of the world? Will that play into our hero’s decision whether or not to bother saving it? These are questions we’ve all wondered about. Explore these and other important philosophical questions as you follow the adventure that was contrived to do just that.
“The Collision series offers a technological explanation for the supernatural. Human psychology, questions of life and death, and the nature of the supernatural play a critical role in the story of a man who becomes aware of the technology used by beings existing in higher modes of reality.”

The Collision books are slightly less professional than Specter. They could have used a second pass with an editor. But they are a joy to read because they are just so darned clever. To take a sampling of the chapter titles from Resolve:

Chapter 34: When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object, It’s Best If They Avoid Eye Contact

Chapter 35: Omnipotence: It’s There When You Least Expect It

Chapter 36: I Love the Java Jive but the Java Jive has Found Me Wanting

Chapter 37: Seriously? Another Plot-Thickening Thread?

Chapter 41: It Came From My Parents’ Basement

Believe it or not, these titles are not just one-liners. All of them make sense when you read the chapter. I really don’t think a traditionally published book could have gotten away with chapter titles like this.

So now you are probably thinking that the Collision series is like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And it sort of is, if that book had been written by a Christian. But it’s not just metaphysics and humor. The book also becomes surprisingly poignant (in the context of all the weirdness), and also very horrifying and tense. Especially the scene in the parents’ basement. Also, be it noted that the monster made out of corpses in Stranger Things was familiar to me because an even more horrifying version had already roamed the pages of Formulacrum.

Did You Know This? I Kinda Knew This

Human body temperature in the U.S. has decreased over time, study finds”

I figured out years ago that my own body temp is down in the low 97s. I would feel feverish but couldn’t “prove” it because I was reading 98.6 or 98.5. Later, taking my kids’ temps when they were not sick, I realized their normal temperatures were lower as well. Now, it turns out it’s not just us. It’s pretty much everyone.

Just another example of how a firmly established fact can be slightly wrong … wrong enough to cause us trouble.

Making “Coffee” from Chicory

My own sketch of the wildflower chicory, done in pen and crayon

When I think about The End of the World as We Know It, one thing I worry about is the availability of coffee.

I am sure this is a concern of yours as well.  Assuming that you get through the Zombie Apocalypse, the EMP, the Rising Sea Levels, or whatever your personal big fear is, and find yourself among a group of scrappy survivors, I guarantee you some of them are going to want coffee.  It might even become a hot commodity.  Worth its weight in gold.

The Inspiration for this Project

The Change series is also known as the Emberverse series.

The project documented in this post was inspired by S.M. Stirling’s The Change series.  In the first book, Dies the Fire, the world of the 1990s is interrupted when all electronics, engines, and gunpowder suddenly cease to function.  At that point the series becomes alternate history.  The series migrates toward Game of Thrones style fantasy the longer it goes on, but the first few books especially are more in the post-apocalyptic genre, about people surviving and starting to rebuild society in the Northwest and in Northern California.  And once they get a steady food supply going, their coffee substitute is “roasted, ground chicory roots.”

I could probably find chicory coffee at a co-op type food store, but I want to try to make it myself.  That’s the only way I can learn about the process and find out if such a thing would be feasible.

Let’s go!

Lessons from the Chicory Experiment

Chicory is a wildflower that grows all along the highways in our region at certain times of year.  Though there is an abundant supply of it on the medians, that’s not the safest place to gather it in this pre-apocalyptic world where vehicles of all kinds are still whizzing by.  So I had to seek chicory on a back road.  In this picture, the plants with lavender colored flowers are chicory and the ones with white flowers are Queen Anne’s Lace.

Today’s weather is very humid, and it’s so hot that there is a heat advisory.  Also, it turns out that chicory grows surrounded by thistles and extremely sharp-bladed grass. 

Lesson 1: Gather chicory in the early morning, before the day gets hot.  Wear cowboy boots, not flip flops.

I assumed that chicory would have a taproot similar to a dandelion’s, so I brought a small trowel.  I couldn’t find my dandelion picking tool, so I brought a large screwdriver, which is almost as good for digging down beside the taproot to loosen the soil.

It turns out that chicory roots are similar to dandelion’s, but much larger, deeper, and woodier. 

Lesson 2: I probably could have brought a regular garden shovel instead.

Here is the chicory I gathered.  I have no idea how much “coffee” this quantity will make, but I’m hoping it will be enough for one cup.  Finding out is part of the purpose of this experiment.  I don’t have the time or energy to dig more due to having come at the wrong time of day.  Clearly, I have a lot to learn as a hunter/gatherer.

Next step. Google the process just to make sure I don’t accidentally poison myself by skipping a step. (We won’t be able to Google stuff after the apocalypse, which is all the more reason to do it now.)  The search takes me here.  Hank Shaw is a “hunter, angler, gardener, forager, and cook” and he seems to know what he’s talking about.  Uh-oh, he says you need to harvest chicory in the fall.  But he seems to have harvested some in the summer with no ill effects.  Onward.

Here are the roots after being washed.  I need to cut them into thin slices, dry them for two or three days in the sunshine, and then roast them as directed.  Cutting them yields mixed results.  Some have a woody core so tough that I have to saw it, with dirt trapped between this core and the outer, soft layer.  Others are softer, solid and cuttable all the way through, more like cutting a carrot.  My guess is that Hank’s nice, plump “root chicory” is more like this.

Lesson 3: Wild chicory might not be the way to go. It might be smarter to cultivate it.

My roots have yielded this measly tray of chicory slices. Following the expert, I sun them on the back of my vehicle.  They dry out for a few hours, and then promptly get rained on.  I sop them up with a paper towel and move the tray to our sun porch.

Lesson 4: Obvious.

After two days of drying on our sun porch, the chicory slices had visibly shrunk and felt dry. I put them in a 350 degree oven for about an hour and a half.  During this time, the house filled with a curious warm malty smell, as predicted on Hank Shaw’s web site.  This was reassuring, because it meant that I was in fact roasting the right kind of root.  On the other hand, my family complained about the smell.

Lesson 5: There is going to be a lot of complaining around our house after the apocalypse.  But I kind of knew that already.

This is what the chicory roots looked like after about 90 minutes.  They look done.

Next, I ground the chicory in a food processor …

… And put it in a one-cup coffee filter.  As I had hoped, it was just the right amount for one mug.

As you can see, the roots don’t grind up nice and even like coffee grounds.  There are some bigger chunks, and then there’s some powder that’s as fine as French Press coffee or even baking powder or something.  Perhaps I could have gotten the chunks chopped up further if I’d been willing to grind them for longer, but as I was grinding, fine dust kept escaping from the food processor and coating the surrounding counter.  I stopped when I figured the grounds would be sufficient.  If you were grinding roast chicory in large quantities, there’d be certain to be a lot of dust.

If there were no electricity, I guess I’d be forced to crush it in my marble mortar:

I poured hot water over the grounds, and it worked great!  A very creditable cup of something that looks exactly like coffee.

The wet grounds, and the liquid itself, smell very smoky.   I’m going to try it black first, because after the apocalypse there is unlikely to be spare milk, let alone hazelnut creamer.

It tastes exactly as Hank Shaw describes it: “a brighter acidity than coffee and … ‘earthy.'”

I give a sip of it to my trucker husband, who ought to know about mediocre coffee.

Me: Does it taste like truck stop coffee?

Him: Truck stops couldn’t sell coffee if it tasted like this.

Well, it tastes OK to me.  But I might be slightly invested, seeing as how I made it.

I add milk and continue to drink.  It tastes most coffee-like when hot.  As it cools, it begins to taste more and more like … smoke. Now I realize I’ve had this before.  I think it was called “smoke tea.” It must have been chicory.  I like the flavor, but I realize it wouldn’t be for everybody.

But the bottom line is: I did it!  I did it!  I dug up a common wildflower and forced it to yield a coffeelike substance.  It was a bit of a project, but not hugely inconvenient and actually took less processing than I’ve heard real coffee takes. 

Lesson 6: It is possible to make a coffee substitute from chicory, even if you have little previous knowledge or skills.

My New Favorite Person: Recently Deceased SciFi Author Gene Wolfe

I can’t believe that I didn’t know this guy existed until he died.

He wrote dense, “baroque” science fiction, and he helped to invent the machine that makes Pringles. What’s not to love?

On a more serious note, he cared for his wife as she was deteriorating with Alzheimer’s disease. Many many people do similar things, and all of them are heroes.

No, I haven’t read his books yet, but after reading this obituary I am definitely going to look for them. I think that eating Pringles while reading them would be a fitting tribute.

Update: Since drafting this post, I have picked up The Land Across (2013) from the library. In it, an American travel writer goes to an unnamed Eastern European country to research for a book. He is met on the train by some border guards (possibly?) who confiscate his passport and then place him under house arrest for not having one. Things go downhill from there. On the plus side, there are spooks, including (possibly?) the ghost of Vlad the Impaler. What more could you ask? It’s a page turner, and Wolfe does a great job of rendering in English conversations that take place in the local language or in German. I would not call this book sci-fi (not yet anyway), but more of a thriller with supernatural elements.

“Haven’t You People Ever Watched Any Sci-Fi?”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The following is a rant.  Enjoy.

There is a type of sci-fi that is triumphalist.  In this kind of sci-fi, people colonize space, improve their health so that they become immortal, enhance their brain powers, or even change the basic nature of humanity … and all goes well.  This is welcomed as a good thing. 

Then there is another type of sci-fi, where the implications of changes like these are thoughtfully teased out.  This is what sci-fi is for, after all: thought experiments.  “What would be all the implications for our everyday lives if X were not only possible but routine?”  This thoughtful strain of sci-fi is neither hidebound nor reactionary, and yet … these thought experiments so often end up becoming cautionary tales.

It is these cautionary tales that I think should be required reading or viewing for policy makers.  All of this stuff has been explored, in fiction, and it never ends well.  I can’t tell you how many times, when I hear some harebrained social experiment being suggested, I just want to scream, “Haven’t you people ever watched a single sci-fi movie?”

Here are a few examples …                   

Think it would be great if all parents could afford to edit inherited diseases out of their child’s genome?

Go watch Gattica.

Predicting people’s behavior and assigning them roles in society based on their genetic predispositions?  Perfectly efficient society with no freedom?

Gattica again.

Interested in “designer babies?”

There is an episode of The Outer Limits in which the genetic editing seems to work, but once the designer kids reach adulthood, there are unintended side effects that cause them to become outcasts from the very society that created them.  They are understandably bitter, and become a criminal class made all the more dangerous by their genetically edited strength and smarts.

How about perfectly executed plastic surgery to make everyone conform to contemporary beauty standards?

There’s an episode of The Twilight Zone for that.

Creating a human/animal hybrid?

The movie Splice.

Storing all our important personal information on the cloud so that it’s always at our fingertips?

The Net.

Audio and visual recording equipment everywhere?

1984.

What if we take this wonderful stream of information and give everyone a brain implant so they can access it at any time?

Back to The Outer Limits.  In one episode, “the stream” takes on a consciousness of its own and begins to control the people by feeding them lies.  The only person who can even read the hard-copy manual in order to shut it down is a guy whose brain wouldn’t accept the implant because of a birth defect, so he has had to take a job as a janitor and has been forced to read physical books at a normal pace.  Poor guy.  (Of course, we don’t even need to look at The Outer Limits because we can already access “the stream” at any time, and it’s driving us crazy.)

How about “smart homes,” where our electronic assistant can work our garage door, locks, thermostat and so much more?

I give you HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And also every other book or movie where the electric grid goes down and suddenly no one can function.

Really smart AI?

The Terminator.

How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised communally?

Logan’s Run and The Office of Mercy.  Oh, and Soviet orphanages.

How about a perfectly controlled society in which children are raised in families, but these families are assigned by a central government so that each child lives in an ideal home?

The Giver by Lois Lowry.

How about we find or create a portal through hyperspace and just start throwing stuff randomly into it?  Or how about we touch it? It’s OK, the person touching it has a cable attached to him, should be fine, if anything goes wrong we can pull him right out …

Event Horizon.

(But actually, we shouldn’t need a movie like Event Horizon to tell us that it’s not smart to send anything through a portal that we don’t know where it goes.)

OK, OK, you’re right … no one is seriously suggesting that we try to travel through space/time wormholes.  Not that I am aware of.  Let’s try one that people actually are suggesting:

“I know, let’s bring back an extinct creature and create an ecosystem for it to live in!”

The Jurassic Park franchise.

Post your own examples below.