Edges and Islands All The Way Down

Kage Baker prided herself on giving her stories good names and endings. An evocative title and a snappy last lineshe prided herself on those, and would labour over them for hours. She especially detested stories with lying titles and no last lines: the sort that reference some trope and then never deal with it, or just stop with no sonorous ending line.

She had read a lot of science fiction short stories in adolescence, mostly because they were all over the house. Momma read them avidly, as did I; and for a glorious while, sister Anne worked in a bookstore and brought home scads of cover-less rejects and returns. We didn’t see any cover art for Ursula K. LeGuin or Zenna Henderson for years, but Kage loved their stories; not least because they opened and closed with grace and beauty.

Sometimes a title was not accepted by a publisher, and she’d get an urgent  request for a new name ASAP. That could get both desperate and hilarious, as we sat and brainstormed over possible titles. The longer it took, the weirder they got; after primly discarding the scatological and profane, Kage would usually submit a list of possibles. The editor was just as likely, though, to use one of his own … This is how a story called “Hendrick Karremans” became “The Applesauce Monster” – a title Kage loathed, but which was felt to be catchier on the editorial level.

Dark Mondays was named after a storefront sign that used to fascinate and puzzle Kage in her childhood: what could it mean? She was disappointed to learn it meant the restaurant was closed on Mondays; so she gave that evocative and haunted title to a collection of very strange stories. They were stories that were out of the ordinary for her, stories on an edge or in some numinous limbo …

“Calimari Curls” was originally the name of the sailor-suited summoner of cthonic gods, rather than a luncheon special. “Pueblo, CO Has The Answers” got its title from a late night commercial about government DIY pamphlets. The Life of the World To Come was The Square-rigged Time Machine until the day Kage printed it out to send to Tor.

The Garden of Iden was, for the 3 years it took to write and sell, simply Mendoza – that one drove Kage nearly insane, because Mendoza was just the working title and no editor nor agent  liked it. The punnish nature of the final title never really appealed to her, but it finally came down to really needing something to put on the cover … In contrast, a novel we wrote together, back in the Pleistocene, has never had any other title but a deliberate pun: Knight & Dei. (It may yet see the light of some Dei, too, or at least a day.)

Sometimes there was even a lightning bolt, straight from the hands of All-Seeing Zeus.. We were sitting in a seaside cafe eating Sunday breakfast one day, as Kage pondered what she could possibly write about Mars and I complained about trying to run a bar under a narrow-minded bureaucracy. Suddenly Kage pointed her finger at me and proclaimed: “YOU are the Empress of Mars!” People eyed us sideways as Kage went into full-on storyline mode, but by the time we walked home she had the entire plot in her head.

They never got easier for her, titles and last lines – which heartens me somewhat, in those moments where I found myself with what seems like a never-ending final paragraph unravelling my hands. If even Kage had trouble positioning the bookends just right, I simply need to take it carefully and all will be revealed to me.

To which end – this story I’ve been piecing out under your enthusiastic watch, Dear Readers, really needs a name. I keep overlooking the reading copy because I haven’t given it a name I can remember. It’s in my files as “Aussie Story”, which is not really accurate and certainly gives the impression of a tale of beer and barbecues. Maybe drunken, venomous hamburgers … but certainly not my pretty, thoughtful Charlotte.

So!  It is now officially named “Edges and Islands”. Thus it will remain until some editor decides it needs to be named “Growing Up On Diprotodon Station”.

Though I must admit, wombats always sell …

Diprotodon optatum - the Giant Wombat

Diprotodon optatum – the Giant Wombat



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Edges and Islands VII

Kage Baker could put up with a fair amount of distraction while she wrote. Sometimes. If she was in a good mood. If Harry was singing softly instead of making muttered threats in his Monster Voice. If I was knitting quietly enough.

What she absolutely could not cope with, however, was emotional distraction. It’s why she wouldn’t answer the phone, or read reviews first (or sometimes at all). Having to worry about the nuts and bolts and inkblots and crumbs of undigested potato and general asininity of the rest of the world rendered Kage unable to write. In defense of her writing, therefore, she had an agent to handle paperwork; and she had me to read what absolutely had to be read ASAP. And the system worked to perfection.

It’s creaking a bit lately, that system. I may soon be without representation, unless I want to spend a lot of time and effort patching things up with one of the TWO! COUNT ‘EM, TWO! agencies presently handing me a line of inexplicable confusion. They are either both committing underhanded acts, or are both incompetent. And I fear it may be the latter … which is gonna make it harder to get things right.

What that means, practically, is that I must spend a lot of time just now requesting copies of old contracts, checking the dates and terms and Parties of Various Parts notated therein, and trying to find all the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle when I thought I had a completed landscape. On top of which, I have a few things I would like to have considered for publication, and at the moment I am facing the publishing void alone. This all eats into the time I spend being hopefully creative; not to mention my stomach lining.

Still: these things happen. And if they don’t, some other horrid things happen instead. One must bear up, bear down and labour regardless. So …let’s go on a bit and see where we can get.


Look at her little cerebral cortex sparkle.

That was Isis, I could tell – because I was hearing her through Eiluned’s mind, which was feeding her heart fire to me. I didn’t know, yet, that these strange people could talk in a silent way: like our heart fire, but mechanical. I didn’t even know what mechanical was, at that point. But her voice felt kinder, warmer, filtered like that through Eiluned. I relaxed even more.

That’s what makes her kind different – that sparkle, said Artur. It’s a specialized gift from gene complex ARHGAP11B.

That’s one of the Human Accelerated Regions, yes?

Yes. It builds the neocortex for all of us Homo sapiens etceteras. In this little flower’s folks, it also builds a special sensor for  … feelings. Emotions. All the colouration that gets lost in spoken words, and pictographs, and writing; even in this medium, where we seem to speak mind to mind.

So Neandertals are  – empaths? I thought Iris sounded embarrassed there, which was strange. I wouldn’t learn the word “empath” for some time but when I did, I was was sorry for her: because she was heart-deaf.

We were meant to be, said Eiluned. It was diminished in most of us, turned way down by the process that made us immortal.

Iris *discomfort/shame/embarrassment*

Artur radiated such deep amusement, I thought poor Iris must be able to feel it, too.

We get by very nicely with what we have left, he told her. But we want to see what can happen if we’re more careful with some of these children. Now that we have enough Operatives like you, with the proper medical training, we can Process  her more gently, and see if this little flower will bloom into a rose after all.

I – is that why you brought me here? On this run? Because I haven’t been out in the field since – well, in years. Since I was recruited.

You’re still very young, Iris. You’re barely an adult even by mortal standards, and we hoped that would make you more flexible. We wanted you to meet some of these children in their … call it their unedited state, said Eiluned.  This baby is strong and clear, which is just perfect for our purposes and for yours, as well.

When I could finally understand this conversation, a few months later, I was outraged. I wasn’t a baby! I even tracked down Eiluned in the glyptodon meadow and told her so; which makes me laugh now and made her laugh then …

But Iris said, Isn’t ESP part of the Black List? Like children with epilepsy, or Crone’s, or blunt force trauma scars?

Not yet, said Artur soothingly. And this isn’t ESP: empathy is natural, though not this strong in most humans. But by the time they think to outlaw things like that up in Far Forward, we won’t be doing them any more. And if sidestepping the prohibitions with a little time slip bothers you, then I think you need to take  that senior class in Temporal Mechanics again.

I’m not that young! Or that dumb, said Isis. Or that fond of Far Forward, either.

This time, I could feel all three of the grownups laughing, and that familiar sound sent me all the way into sleep.




Caveat: the foregoing is the intellectual property of Kathleen Bartholomew. http://doctorzeus.co/                    materkb@gmail.com



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Facing It

Kage Baker was a visual person.

She interpreted her own thoughts as pictures, or so she said – and how on earth can anyone argue with that? No one else can know for sure what you see in your head when you think; nor how it’s translated, nor into what. The strange scrips that run in other people’s heads are entirely their own – even when they share, as writers do, you have to take their word for what’s going on in there.

So Kage said she thought in pictures. She composed straight onto the page (or the screen) because the words didn’t appear in her head. She had to transcribe what she saw in order to know precisely what it was. The spoken word did not yield as much as her own transcription; though anyone who ever heard her tell a story knows she was a mesmerizing tale-teller, Kage herself maintained she didn’t know what she was talking about until she could see the words in front of her.

She understood perfectly the Prologue from Shakespeare’s Henry Vth. Getting the story out of your head is a matter of such moment and conflict that a muse of fire is the least you need. Plasma would be better. Photons were, Kage felt, an acceptable compromise.

One of the many things that kept Kage on topic during a story was a good image of the characters. Often this meant drawing them out; the characters of Anvil of the World existed as sketches long before the stories began to be written down in high school. Sometimes Kage saw a photo or an illustration somewhere, and that would attach itself to a character in her mind. Then when she wrote about them, she’d put that picture up on her desk and so be able to meet her creations’ eyes as she wrote them into life.

I think in words. It’s not the sort of thing you can be uncertain of – I mean, you may not know everything, but you sure as hell know what appears behind your own eyes, right? And I see words, usually in Times New Roman – which is not my favourite font but most closely resembles what was printed in most of the books from which I learned to read. I can date early memories, in fact, by whether or not they appear in words. Only the very earliest are solely pictorial; even then, most of them have acquired captions in the intervening years.

But I have found you do need some pictures in order to write. My illustrations are fewer than Kage’s – her mind was evidently a panopticon running on flaming hydrogen. But I need some good bedrock pictures, or I can’t form the story. When I was writing Nell Gwynne II, I saw a print of Cupid and Psyche, where Cupid looked like a tomboyish girl with a classmate fainting in her arms … This pretty confusion of genders gave me a face for Herbertina, who carried a lot of the action in that book. I couldn’t have written it without her image.

As I spent the last month battling Grand Guignol depression and core meltdowns in representation, I have become aware that I need to be able to see Charlotte’s face. Australia is clear as a bell in my mind, in all its funhouse-of-zoology magnificence. But I couldn’t quite see Charlotte, except for eyes like Spanish glass and a hint of a teenaged scowl.

So I’ve been searching through Neanderthal faces. Aside from making me look at perfectly ordinary passersby and decide their heads looked funny, my search has yielded 3 treasures:

1) Charlotte at maybe 5 or 6 (Neanderthals matured early):

child Charlotte




2) Charlotte as that sullen adolescent:

Charlotte full face





3)  A page from an Operative’s private notebook, maybe indicating why they named the abandoned baby Neanderthal “Charlotte” in the first place:








The lady rendered in coloured pencil is Charlotte Bronte.

It’s always a surprise, when you find a character’s face.It’s so seldom what you had in mind! But until you do, you can’t get very far in their story.

Enjoy the personnel file pics, Dear Readers. More tomorrow.

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Having A Good Time In A Bad Place

Kage Baker was possessed of a will of iron, and an adamantine determination. She set her goals and she stuck to them until they were accomplished. Some of them took years to accomplish – but she did it.

One of her tricks was to make her home a fortress. Nothing was allowed in if it upset or distracted her: at least, as much as possible. Not even Kage could hold off reality all the time, but she succeeded a lot more than most of us do. When the fortifications fell, she lit out for the Territories – running, hiding, seeking quiet hidden places in which to do her work. Also her reading, her drinking, her research, and her life in general … she really hated being forced to partake of the world.

I’ve tried to do the same, because it works. Kimberly has given me a place where I can get away with this lifestyle, too, and has been my steadfast doorward for the past 5 years. Without her kindly sheltering me, I’d be living somewhere in Griffith Park in a shanty made of boxes of books, running my computer off a solar cell and leaving out Friskies for the pumas.

But … reality does sneak in. Worse, it’s nothing I acknowledge to be real; it’s outside crap, slithering in like emotional kudzu to block out the light and leach nitrogen from my nurturing soil.

For reasons I do not understand, this 5th year since Kage’s death has been an especially hard one for me, emotionally. I miss her more than I have since the first year. It’s harder than ever to get through a day without something stabbing me in the heart. And the world in general has been handing me burning bags of shit at regular intervals – most of them are only the burning bags of shit the world hands everyone, but enough customized crap has been added to completely blow all my circuit breakers: over and over and over.

I’ve been dumped by old friends, and castigated by relatives. My agent isn’t talking to me. A prior agent isn’t talking to me either, but is attempting to talk for me on the sly. (Anybody have a spare agent they want to give away to a good home?) My cataracts are growing but are not yet correctable: so the world is literally growing darker and blurrier and there is as yet no recourse. I’m cranky, depressed, unproductive and feeling guilty because of being cranky, depressed, and unproductive. It’s a Mobius strip of desolation, drawn in black ink by the dead hand of Escher.

Still, the list of good things in my life is enormous.  I’ve had more successes than I deserve. I have tulips on my desk, hot and cold running kitties, a supportive family and you, Dear Readers. I know all that, but I have this dreadful fear that all the miracles are just barely offsetting the disasters – I’m running as fast as I can to stay in one place, and still I have the dreadful panic terror of the landscape slowly leaving me behind …

Thus my long silence; and thus the use, today, of this blog for a much less important and more mundane purpose than originally intended. I’m just whining and bitching, Dear Readers. I’m throwing my griefs around like a tantrum in a second hand store; before you know it, I’ll be blogging my meals in detailed increments and posting selfies.

Well. Probably not. I have to return a contract to my agent’s assistant for a sale to a publishing house in Italy. And I have to write. And I have a new book on parasites, which suddenly seems to be of dreadful relevance to me. Do I have one? Do I need one?  Am I one?

The answer is probably NO, to all of those questions. I just need more coffee, and a hit of nicotine. My life has always been a 3-pipe problem.

See, I don’t have to stay in the bad place. I’m having a good time. I’ve spent the morning shutting windows, opening doors, patching leaks, packing suitcases – I think I can see the way out of the Slough of Despond and back into that Wood Outside Athens.

Thanks for listening, Dear Readers. See you tomorrow.

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Kage Baker had a fondness for hands-on science. She was a woman of her hands, herself; fond and fussy of her tools, always more inclined to make something about which she wanted to learn, rather than just read about it.

Her eventual devotion to historical recreation rose from attempts that began waaay back in childhood: to make the stuff she learned about in books. We both felt that irresistable urge to make it real – I now believe that it’s a childhood symptom of someone who’s going to end up as an historian, or a paleontologist. Or someone who makes rush lights out of scallop shells, dryer lint and Crisco; or hammers armour pieces out of the skins of deceased cars.

Kage and I were, and knew, all those sorts of folks. Part of the immense gravitational pull of the Renaissance Faire was finding other people who knew how to use flint and steel, or had solved the problem of lumps in the brose.  People who knew that the hardest parts of historical clothing were finding shoes and spectacle frames. Folks who knew what the Latin parts of Boccassio’s Decameron really said …

And of course, she gave all those skills – and many others she only experimented with at home – to her cyborg Immortals. If you’re actually walking through history, as they had to, you learn all the things that ordinary people do: it’s the necessity of survival. The spectrum of how to eat grain – to essentially turn birdseed into bread and beer: that alone is a foundation stone of human life. Just what can you cook over an open fire? With some small aides like a grill, a flat rock, and a spit-boy … there are no limits.

We made paper out of papyrus, bark, corn husks and – the ultimate technology! – actual rags. (Pro tip: Ask your mother before you rip up your cotton nighties.) Making paper takes a lot more percussion than you’d think,  and your mother will not appreciate what you do to the window screens. Kage had a passion for making ink; she started more than one kitchen fire baking oak galls and walnut shells, and she poisoned herself with nutmeg, iris roots and monkshood flowers. But we also discovered a great chestnut brown dye by mashing up calla lilies, and it didn’t even need a mordant to be completely impossible to get out of cloth!

Kage’s fascination with How To Really Do It never faded. She was collecting recipes and instruction right to end, and I’ve kept on at it too. I’m less of a hands-on experimenter, to my shame; but I do read voraciously, and so I still have loads of opportunities to file away ideas. You never know when society will collapse around you, or you’ll have a boring Saturday to fill … anyway, I thought I’d share a few of the odder ones in the recent files, things I haven’t had a chance or need to try yet.

Do you fancy graphene, Dear Readers? It’s one of the newest of new potions, and is used to make all sorts of light, strong, flexible parts: or will be soon. Now’s the time to play with it, as great things are expected of it. One of its more interesting uses is as an aerogel: foam so light it won’t bend a blade of grass. And you can make it on the kitchen counter!

New Paper Explains How To Make Supermaterial Graphene In A Blender.  To wit, per Nature News: Place 0.5 l water, 10-25 ml detergent, 20-50 g graphite in 400W blender, and run 10-30 min. Nature paper: Scalable production of large quantities of defect-free few-layer graphene by shear exfoliation in liquids.

graphene aerogel

Then there are games you can play with dyslexia. Kage was dyslexic; so am I. And yet, we both were/are good at pattern recognition, puzzle solving and seeing through optical illusions. Kage was fascinated by optical illusion games, as she could tune her vision in and out of the illusion like fine-tuning a radio through the static between stations. To a lesser extent, so can I – and I must say, there’s an actual physical pleasure in the substance of the eyes that comes from seeing through the distortions: especially in those Magic Eye things.

We were both also fond of the work of Escher. Kage loved those stairs that worked in every direction, regardless of gravity! And this article sort of explains why:


If you try some of the things it suggests, you may find a new and interesting past time. And then the CIA or the NSA or Dr. Zeus might find a use for your special pattern-busting talents …

One never knows what will be useful, you know? That’s what makes knowledge, power. Especially if you take the time to find out how something really works.

Or so Kage always felt.





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Rain, Stone and Irony

Kage Baker was an accomplished gardener.

That’s why Mendoza is a botanist; Kage wanted to make her main character’s POV as easy as possible to assume. Of all the skills of which she was possessed – juggling brooms, pouring Black & Tans, illuminating manuscripts, applying gold leaf, tying a turk’s head knot – she figured botany would be most likely to resonate with unknown readers. As she wisely noted, Everyone has at least grown carrots and radishes in the backyard.

And she loved the quiet and order of a garden. On the rare occasions when writing failed to soothe and occupy her soul, she went out to work in the garden. I came along for the grunt work; I dug holes, mowed the lawn, held the armfuls of flowers and vegetables she triumphantly harvested. It was a good division of labour, because I’ve never been that crazy about gardening on my own – but when you follow a talented gardener around, you inevitably learn stuff.

Thus – while the spectre of drought has ridden the train into Grand Central downtown, settled his fedora at a cool angle, and moved into the Roosevelt Hotel for the duration – Kimberly and I have been deciding on the transformation of the front yard. For 23 years or so, it has been a nice polite handkerchief of green, flanked by rose beds, shaded by a mulberry tree. It’s been a lawn alive with squirrels, ravens and black pheobes; skunks and raccoons have danced on it by night, until the coyotes come along with their gunslinger swagger to chase everyone up on the roof.

But the mulberry does shed big fat squelchy fruit. which results in stoned birds and tipsy squirrels. And its roots get far too intimate with the plumbing – the last time we replaced a pipe, we found the old one choked with enormous bright carrot-orange roots: Kimberly’s not trusted the mulberry since then. And the grass … well, the grass simply refuses to thrive, unless it is kept in a state of hydration more suitable for a peat bog. With the drought dancing its fandango on the dun-dry hills, grass is become too much of a luxury.

Kage expected California gardening to come to this point – and she only missed it by a little. But, historian that she was, she knew the psychotic storm patterns we enjoy here; she started changing her gardening habits to native, drought-resistant plants years ago. So as it’s become more and more obvious over the last year that English lawns were not an option here anymore, I had a good idea where to start.

We decided to convert to xeriscaping.

Let me draw your attention, Dear Readers, to a wonderful company called Turf Terminators. You may not live in Los Angeles, or anywhere else that is essentially an oasis on the edge of a vast desert. But here  – where that is  where we really live – the Department of Water and Power has now come to the point where they are paying people to replace their lawn with something that needs little or no waters. Turf Terminators are one of the companies that have sprung up like morning glories on the freeway verge, to accomplish the change.

We signed the paperwork this afternoon. The grass will be replaced with golden stone chips, lovely decomposing granite that will match the stone in the Hollywood Hills. Under it will be a parsimonious drip water system, and a fabric flooring to help keep moisture in the water table. And through it, we’ll plant a lot of bright, hot, sun-loving and water-thrifty flowers to replace the grass. I learned their names from Kage, in our various gardens: penstemon, all manner of sages, the orchid rock roses that she called “Jewels of Ophir”. Rosemary, lavender, ceanothus in every colour of the sea. All of these bear flowers, and all of them attract and nurture bees and hummingbirds and butterflies.

We’ve planted our tomatoes, cucumbers, peas and beans in pots – along with milkweed for the Monarch butterflies. They can all be watered by hand. The lemon tree is ancient and tough as a thorn, and simply doesn’t care what the drought does; the young plums can thrive on grey water. The roses, too, are mature and hardy.  But that great horrid mulberry tree, with its squashy, water-greedy fruits, is being replaced with a Chinese pistache tree. It’s drought resistant, gives shade, and in the fall turns colours like a maple tree.

The squirrels are going cold turkey and will have to learn to like peanuts.

So, Life picks up and goes on. Winter stayed in my heart like the snow on the East Coast – March was especially bad. But today, picking out plants and coloured rocks, it felt like it was melting away at last. The garden will be a going concern this year.

And of course, now that we’ve made our choices and our plans, it’s started raining. Los Angeles is staring up into the sky tonight like a turkey in a pen, rain in her eyes and her mouth hanging open: the City has almost forgotten what rain is like. Irony, that’s what it’s like … but now we can be sure that when the rain stops – as it will – and doesn’t resume for another 8 months – as it also will – the new garden will prosper.

It doesn’t matter how Spring comes. As long as it does.






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Marking The Place

Kage Baker was an anxious user of bookmarks.

She said she could never remember where she was in a book, or a movie, or a story. She’d use anything that came to hand as a marker – Post-It Notes, hair ribbons, popsickle sticks, parrot feathers … you could often tell what else she was doing while reading a given volume by which concert ticket or candy wrapper remained fossilized in the pages.

She hated turning down page corners, though, and often yelled at me for doing so – not that I did that very often. I seldom put a book down long enough to need a bookmark; and I could easily memorize the page number where I last ended. But Kage forgot so little of everything she heard or saw, that it was harder for her to recall where in a narrative she’d ended – hence the use of pens, earrings, flowers, ribbons and occasional onion rings to mark her place.

Our books were awfully lived in …

When movies and music began to exist in formats like tape and magnetic ink, she learned to note playing time marks. I was astounded, as it was a mathematical usage none of her teachers would ever have expected to see. But Kage didn’t use those numerals as actual mathematics – she used them as coded markers, that was all; eldritch symbols that meant where to pick up the action when the right marks rolled into view. Like cherries and diamonds on slot machines. Kage left the timing marks on sticky notes stuck to tape and CS cases, and matched them up with all the functional dyslexia of an archeologist who cannot read the pictographs she is nonetheless capable of identifying.

She actually had to stop and translate what the numbers meant before she could tell how long a given track was on a record she was recording to tape or disk. I know this for a fact, because I asked her. Even I had trouble believing she didn’t think about how many minutes the numbers meant, but she just shrugged and said:  It doesn’t matter how long it runs! I just need to know where it starts and stops.

Which is not a system most of us can use, but Kage could. And that was all that mattered.

I find, myself, that I don’t need to mark where I am in writing. I’m trying to resume it now, after the long dark travail of March – and I’ve no doubt at all where I am, in the half dozen projects I’m pursuing. However – I do know that it’s only 7 minutes until the next 24 hours starts, and I need to get a blog in to keep my own tally running in a way that satisfies me.

Hence this little diversion on marking spaces, marking places, keeping time and rhythm. You, Dear Readers, are my bookmark.

Thank you.

And now, back to work.


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