Saturday, September 01, 2007

New Beginning 353


All the daylight hours, we laid track, slicing woods and farmland indiscriminately with the metal rails. Up hill, down hill, we sweated through the last of a hot summer and into the start of a muggy autumn. In the Emperor's name.

As we eased into the rhythm, we got better at calculating where the camp at which we'd end the day's work should be built. After the first sevenday, we didn't waste any more daylight, or work cursing by torchlight.

Forts sprang up at the trackside. The boys of the legion ran to and fro with water for the men. Dust from the ballast coated everyone and everything grey. The ground boomed as gangs cleared trees from our path and fires burnt night and day. Our mouths tasted of metal.

The spikers sang as they worked; we bolters could not find songs to match our rhythm.

Thomas and I joined rails together.

Hot and dry one noonday we paused as a lad brought us water, a scrawny, ill-favored youth, constantly sweeping wisps of black hair from his brow. "A doomed enterprise," he informed us, indicating the length of rails we'd been laying. "In the future it shall be obsolete."

"Oh? Enlighten us, great seer."

Taking no note of Thomas's sarcasm, the boy continued: "Travelers will not be bound by inflexible strips of iron; they will proceed to their destinations freely, upon wide ribbons of stone as smooth as polished marble. Nor will they be slaves to prearranged schedules, but shall control their individualized, self-powered conveyances. People wagons, they shall be called, and the passageways auto-courses!"

Thomas winked at me. "And how shall this all come to pass, my sage?"

"I shall make it happen!" the boy proclaimed, and for an instant we were struck by a sudden aura of authority that seemed to emanate from him.

With a visible effort, Thomas managed to contain his mirth. "And by what name shall we know you, O great leader?"

Straightening himself and raising his chin, the boy declared, "My name is Adolf!"

Thomas shook his head as the boy trooped off. "May the fates preserve us from the day Germania must find its leaders at the local madhouse."

Opening: Sqrl.....Continuation: Paul Penna


Evil Editor said...

Unchosen continuation:

We made a great team.

Thomas, a one-cell bacteria. Me, a more complex multi-cellular fungus. I was the brains. He was the brawn.

With Thomas and I at the helm and the legion of germs behind, we were going to make it to camp in record time. The moist red beef would be ours for the taking.

This would no longer be Nature Friends Camp.

It would be....


--Church Lady

Anonymous said...

After the first sevenday...


Anonymous said...

Ah, they're putting down rails. His name's Thomas. How could I not read this in a Ringo Starr voice?

Evil Editor said...

I like the writing. I don't like "with the metal rails," which is obvious, and "Up hill, down hill," which has the wrong tone. It sounds like a nursery rhyme. I'd delete those and say, "...indiscriminately, sweating through...

I'd delete the second paragraph. First, it's not clear enough that the sentences are connected, because you've previously taken us through the end of summer and into the autumn, and now we're back to the first week. Second, this calculation doesn't seem important enough to bring up. They're track layers; they should become more efficient the more they work.

I would expect them to be long gone before any forts sprang up, so that sentence might be a POV issue.

Finally, the sentence "Thomas and I joined rails together." feels too simplistic. If it's a paragraph by itself, it's not carrying its weight, and I'd delete it. If it's the start of a paragraph, I'd give it more complexity.

iago said...

Could be interesting, though the opening smells more of world- building than anything. Building railways; Germania; Emperor. Speculative?

Not totally convinced that their work would be indiscriminate. You could make an argument for it on the basis that they just plot a course and plough on through, but I feel there'd be some discrimination between woods and farmland.

...we sweated through the last of a hot summer and into the start of a muggy autumn.

Doesn't really make me feel hard labour. Nothing here really makes me think of the hard physical trials of the gangs that built our railways. In fact, I don't get the feel that it's coerced labour, so they're not slaves?

As we eased into the rhythm, we got better at calculating where the camp at which we'd end the day's work should be built.

I found this sentence a little difficult to parse the first time through. Maybe because the verb's right at the end. Is that the Germanic influence?

Ballast dust coated everything, yet their mouths tasted of metal. Wouldn't their mouths be more likely to taste of ballast, too?

I'm guessing the hook is the seeming incongruity between railways and what appears to be a Roman type society. I'm probably not the target audience because that isn't enough for me; I'm looking for a little more conflict and tension.

Robin S. said...

I really liked this: "Dust from the ballast coated everyone and everything grey. The ground boomed as gangs cleared trees from our path and fires burnt night and day. Our mouths tasted of metal.

The spikers sang as they worked; we bolters could not find songs to match our rhythm.

Thomas and I joined rails together." And I like the idea of easing into the rhythm of the work, and the futile, heavy feeling you evoked, of doing it all in the Emperor's name.

I'm not sure what genre this is - but it reads like it's historical fiction?

There's a diconnect for me, reading this - but I don't know how to explain it. I like what you're doing, I like most of the language.

I think it would start really well with the paragraph beginnng with "As we eased..." and then work in Germania and the information in "all the daylight hours" after the rhythm and the taste and the sound in the narrator's experience has been given to the reader.

And, if this is buffy, I'd bet money that 'sevenday' is an historically accurate word, rather than a smerp - if a smerp is a mistake.

What is a smerp? I Googled it and got lots of strange stuff.

Good continuation - really enjoyed reading the Adolf madman thing.

greencat said...

How about,

As we eased into the rhythm, we got better at calculating where to build the camp at which we'd end the day's work.

I like this, too. I'm partial to works of fantasy (this is, right?) with railways in them. I'm not so hot on the name. If you want to evoke a German-type culture, you can do better than just change the suffix.

Is this sandalpunk, by any chance?

Church Lady said...

I agree with EE about cutting the second paragraph. And while I like the writing (love the 3rd paragraph in particular) I didn't feel grounded with it. It read like the middle of a chapter and not the opening of a story.

I hope you get useful comments.


Dave said...

I had time problems with this, as in year, time or epoch. To be in Germania and having an emperor implies Roman Empire. they are laying RR tracks so we are in alternate history. Apparently they started out inexperienced track layers.
Then we get this sentence "Thomas and I joined rails together." But previous to that he calls himself a bolter.
Now that's really painful because RR tracks are joined with thermite and that is not a trivial operation. The lengths of track are joined wtih molten metal.
RR tracks are not "bolted" to anything. The spikes let the metal rails expand and contract linearly while preventing them from moving side-to-side. Hence the rail is one piece after joining.

So I am really lost in this opening.

Bernita said...

The rulers of Germany were titled "emperor" long after the first railway was built there.
So there is no reason to conclude alternative history, necessarily, and then only in terms of the Holy Roman Empire.
Rails were joined by angle irons, and to the ties by tie plates, and still are on many lines.
Never heard of thermite so used.

Lightsmith said...

Robin S. was wondering what "smerp" meant. Here is a definition from the Turkey City Lexicon:

"Call a Rabbit a Smeerp"

A cheap technique for false exoticism, in which common elements of the real world are re-named for a fantastic milieu without any real alteration in their basic nature or behavior. "Smeerps" are especially common in fantasy worlds, where people often ride exotic steeds that look and act just like horses. (Attributed to James Blish.)

I am not convinced, though, that the author of this opening is necessarily guilty of using a smerp/smeerp with the term "sevenday." If this story does take place in an alternate history, then different names might have legitimately evolved for familiar things. Philip Pullman uses this effect in The Golden Compass, where instead of "electric" they say "anbaric."

BuffySquirrel said...

Love the continuations :). And thanks to everyone for the comments.

It isn't a para, EE, it was just where 150 words ended :). I like the ambiguity of it, but I'm not averse to sending it into the ether if required.

greencat said...

Try spelling it like smeerp. Then you'll get information.

GutterBall said...

Ha! The continuation was great!

I like this opening. Sure, it's telling, but sometimes you need to tell -- especially to set a scene that has evolved, rather than that is happening right now. I dunno. I'm easy to please.

As for smeerp-age, I think people are a little too quick to label sci fi with that. There's nothing wrong with using alternate terminology to indicate an alternate timeline. It's only when you just make something up to replace something obviously normal that it becomes a problem.

I mean, calling a fortnight "two weeks" isn't smeerp-age. It's just progression of the language. Now, calling two weeks a "fraggentope" would be. There's no linguistic progression there -- just a made-up word for a common concept.

Dave said...

I went and checked on RR tracks construction.
Before circa 1900 to 1920, individual rails were held together with "Fishplates" which were plates bolted to the sides of the rails. they made the characteristic "clickety-clack" noise.

After about 1920 in the USA, maybe earlier in Europe, the rails were joined with molten steel using thermite. These rails don't make noise and the engines can travel at higher speeds.

writtenwyrdd said...

I loved the chosen continuation. The irony was too cool.

Not sure how, but this doesn't quite work yet for me. But I liked it, overall.

I would say the opening lacked tension, but, oddly enough, I think the slow start worked here. Probably this is because it has a sense of deliberateness that goes with the building of a railroad.

The POV of the opening feels a bit awkward, a looking back from much wiser perspective in that first para that doesn't really match the following writing.

I do have a reasonable grasp of what is going on in the surroundings, although no sense of our narrating character. I would like to know more about this man, perhaps some details about him in particular instead of the situation in general?

Anonymous said...

I like the overall feel of this. It's a good description. Not sure it should be the beginning, but I write mostly MG and YA which has to grab quickly and move fast.

I love the continuation.

'Germania' as a one line beginning struck me more as a chapter heading or title. At least, that's how I mentally categorized it when I read it.

'Sevenday' didn't bother me at all, but I read a lot of SF and alternate names for time passages is not unusual. This usage gave it a more historic flavor for me.

For me, four paragraphs of description with no real action or sign of the true conflict isn't enough. I would pick this up, read the beginning, think 'yeah, that's nice' and put it back on the shelf.


writtenwyrdd said...

Why do people insist on calling any renaming of things a 'smeerp'? Seriously, it is a necessity in fiction, especially speculative stuff, to occasionally use a new word for an old thing.

I do believe the complaint of 'calling a rabbit a smeerp' is that the author is trying to instill a False Sense Of The Fantastic.

Let's not go crazy with supposed rules here, or none of us will ever be right. ;)

writtenwyrdd said...

I have to mention, Dave, that 20 years ago, when I lived right beside railroad tracks, there were still those plates with bolts through them. I think it depends where you are and how large and fast the trains were going.

Bernita said...

My information about tie plates and such comes, Dave, from someone who actually worked laying/repairing main line track about 40 years ago.
The welded rail only became common on main lines since mid this century.
Jointed track was standard before that. The joints included bolts. Allowed for expansion and efficient repair.
Wikipedia has photos which clearly show the joints and bolts.
So I don't find anything particularly incorrect about the description in this piece.

Dave said...

Yes, RR tracks are constructed both ways - fishplates and thermite welding.

I did a story about the thermite process. I had thermite on the brain, so to speak. hot stuff ;)
Thermite works on Railroads because they don't require precise control of the metallurgical properties of the steel track. They tried a similar process (called electroslag) on a bridge and the resulting joint cracked. I saw that crack in person. It was impressive. What that did to the crystal structure of that steel was just awful. The bridge (with the big steel patch plates) still stands. But I digress.

So the Author can have it either way since we are unsure of the time period. EE was correct though. that last line cannot stand alone.

I also don't see "sevenday" as a smeerp.
Perhaps I'm wrong, but this seems to be a alternative world with a Roman style emperor and steam engines. Slaves are laying the tracks much like slaves built the Appian Way. I'd expect all sorts of anachronisms in that story.

Robin S. said...

Thanks, Lightsmith - and thanks for the spelling help - I was using the "smerp" from the anonyomous commenter - 'cause I didn't know better.

Now that you've shown me what it is, I agree with you, as much as I "get it" now- that sevenday is used well.

Is this novel the steampunk genre people were talking about several weeks ago - where old technology/modes of travel are used in fantastic ways, or something ike that?

And buffy, for what it's worth, I like your Thomnas sentence, because it makes me curious about the narrator's relationship with him, and what evolves with that.

iago said...

Well, I'm going to take the opposing view and say that I didn't buy "sevenday" either. To me it drew attention to itself in a passage in which all the other terms are quite familiar. We hae bolters, spikers, a muggy day, ballast...

While "sevenday" may not be a smeerp in the strictest sense, it does feel unnecessary in the context of the rest of the writing, and for me it broke the flow.

It's nothing to do with following a set of artificial rules. It to do with "does it sound right?" and "does it make a contribution?"

I'm not convinced.

phoenix said...

FWIW, I like "sevenday" and I like the evocativeness of the prose.

What threw me a bit was the time jumping from the first 'graph to the second. EE's already noted that, so I'm just seconding.

The other thing that threw me was the "Forts sprang up at the trackside" line. On first read, I thought this was progressing the story ahead a few years. How are the "forts" different from the "camps" in the paragraph before? What are the forts protecting when the railway isn't finished yet?

Other than that, I really like the sentence cadence for an opening. However, I think it would get tiresome if carried through for very long. I'm sure you will be prudent. :o)

Ali said...

Love this: "The spikers sang as they worked; we bolters could not find songs to match our rhythm."

I thought "sevenday" worked well to tell me that even though I associate this kind of track-laying with 1800's America, it isn't. (OK, the emperor reference is also a clue).

I say keep the second paragraph. It shows how this community of track-layers works: no supervisor telling them it's quitting time. No quitting early to build camp with a couple hours of daylight left, shirking duty.

I'd read on.

ME said...

I liked the writing of this. By the second para, I was easing into the rhythm of the words, but I agree with EE & others that the shifting POV/time-frame is distracting, or does that all shake out sooner or later? I also agree with Phnx's asute observation about this being an opening cadence, especially because I have a very high tolerance for pretty phrases, but others may not.

I am surprised to read (in the comments) that this is fantasy. It seems quite different, i.e. no elves, and that kind of intrigues me. I would read more.

Great conts.!!

Khazar-khum said...

This is probably going to sound silly, but is the word "Germania" at the top supposed to tell us where the action is, or is it something the narrator uses?

I like the idea of a RR--trains are romantic in ways cars & planes can never be.

Anonymous said...

I don't think we can judge from the excerpt if sevenday is a smeerp or not. If this world has a nine-day week, for instance, then it clearly isn't. If it is simply calling the seventh and last day of the week something other than it's regular name, then it is.
On the other hand, as Shakespeare said, a rabbit by any other name would be as fluffy. (I may be paraphrasing)

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Seems like "sevenday" really has drawn a lot of attention to itself.

Bernita said...

I like "sevenday," and don't think it's a smeerp/smeep/smerp anymore than the use of 24/7 or "kay" for distance measure is.
Language is to be used.

Anonymous said...

I don't think "sevenday" is a smeerp. It's not an obviously made up word without linguistic root; it's far from exotic.

I do think it clunks here though. But I read it the way I read it; you read it the way you read it. The book shall be judged by its readers. No big deal.