Birds and the Vagaries of Reality; It’s All Just Too Complicated.

An Out-take from Sounds out of Time

Martin Davis, defrocked rock star, sat clutching his coffee cup. The warm porcelain soothed his perpetually cold fingertips, a curse on these frigid Nordic countries. Out the window, jagged peaks were hard etched into a blazing blue sky. The sanitarium’s garden was far too green. The lake’s indigo was far too indigo. Nature screeched with too much colour and harsh line, far too much for his shattered nerves. How he suffered.

He sipped the coffee. Caffeine might take the edge off his black mood and the relentless cravings, but wouldn’t it be better if he could transform caffeine into cocaine molecule by molecule? Shouldn’t be too much to ask. After all, Pam had come by bird attracting superpowers out of the blue and for absolutely no reason. Somebody of his stature, or former stature, deserved one small chemical superpower.

Somebody plopped down on the lounge chair opposite. So rude. The facility had several small lounge areas. Why must this toadstool intrude? The bloke crossed one institutional powder-blue jumpsuit-clad leg over the other. According to the clinic director, Dr Bauthman, the unisex outfits equalised all inmates. But as far as he was concerned, the jumpsuits only made everybody look like extras in a sci-fi film. And this bloke in front of him belonged in sick-bay or the brig.

Yes, with one eye squinted, the other eye open wide as if terrified, but terrified only on one side of his body, this bloke was undoubtedly one of the mental cases.
Even the jumpsuits couldn’t disguise the fact that two classes of inmate occupied this sanatorium: addicts and mental cases. The addicts were his set: higher class, more interesting, and suffering agonies he could relate to. Whereas the mental cases were…strange, talking nonsense, moving oddly, or staring off into space. But the unrealistic director felt both populations should mix and mingle. His eyes began to roll as he considered the doctor’s do-goodism. But bloody hell! Half way through the roll, he’d made the worst mistake one could make. He’d made eye contact with a madman.

The nutter shook his close-cropped head and wagged a finger. “Listen, man. Birds aren’t real.”

They weren’t? No, wait. Of course birds weren’t…were real. This statement confirmed his impression that the man was a mental case. As extra proof, he sounded American. Most Americans, even the sane ones, were completely crazy. Diets, religions, and conspiracy theories abounded across the pond; he knew. He’d just spent a year living in California, an epicentre of crazy. Of course, the English were mad as well, but British insanity was more genteel, often involving offbeat and obsessive hobbies such as niche gardening, bug collecting, or train spotting.

Just then, a plump grey bird fluttered by the window, alighted on a branch, and surveyed them with a beady eye, a dove of some kind, appearing gentle and possibly tame.

“See! Watching us. Just like I said,” Martin’s unwanted companion whispered. Then he covered his face with his hand and scurried off, darting looks behind himself, and ducking from doorway to chair to doorway as if pretending to be James Bond under fire.

***

A few days later, he was hard at work at his new job: folding. Doctor Bauhaus had stationed him in the laundry, thinking that the relative isolation would shield incredibly famous, handsome, and glamorous Martin Davis from unwanted attention. Although Martin almost always simultaneously wanted and didn’t want attention, he agreed with the doctor’s decision. His nerves were shattered, no, bullet riddled, no, eviscerated, and he needed peace and quiet. Besides, right now, he couldn’t trust himself around others. He’d already been snappish and otherwise not very rock-and-roll to a few fellow inmates.

The crisp hand towel held the scent of tumbled dry cleanliness, a sunshiny, bleachy smell that suggested all was right with the world. And he was an excellent folder; his creases always sharp, his folds uniform, and his stacks even. Maybe he wasn’t as quick as the others, but the task wasn’t about quantity, was it? No. The task was about perfection and soothing his nerves. And yes, sometimes he considered snorting the towels’ fine white cotton loops, but only on a bad day.

“Like I was telling you, it’s not birds. It’s B.I.R.D. Bio-electronic individual reconnaissance device.”

What? Oh. God. The bird-fixated nutter was here, in his laundry, folding at the table near the door! As expected, he was a poor folder. Uneven layers, bent corners, branched folds abounded in his done pile. Disastrous. Martin stepped over to serve as an example and provide some aid.

“I considered your hypothesis.” Years tuned to Open University were still paying off with words like “hypothesis.” “But what about the poops? Must be real to poop, mustn’t one.”

The bloke glanced around the room, as if expecting eavesdroppers, and whispered, “Tracking devices.”

Martin flapped open a towel for refolding. “Tracking devices?”

“Shh! Keep your voice down. Microelectronic radio-emitters embedded in a gel-like substrate. Why do you think eighty-five per cent of bird poop falls on cars and other vehicles? Think about it, man. They want to know where we go.”

“Perhaps, but how would you explain the mulberry tree?” He demonstrated his signature move, a crisp half-fold, then a tri-fold flip with the thumbs. Press the lower half to his belly then fold down, and voilà.

“What’cha mean?”

“The tree isn’t even on my Mum’s property. It leans over from Mrs Fitzhugh’s next door. Mrs Fitzhugh, by the way, sells shoes in town, hence she’s a person of no interest to the government and doesn’t even own a car. But flocks of birds land and eat those berries, squawking and flapping like real birds. Then they perch on the wire that runs to our house and shit purple all over Mum’s car.” Well, when he’d been living at home and had forgotten to pull the car into the garage, which was often because of the spider… “A real junker that car, and believe me, Mum is also of no interest to the government. Why track a suburban library assistant, I ask you? Consider with a clear head; most people aren’t that interesting. Are they? Most people’s worst crime is pinching the odd secretarial supply from the office. Following everybody via bird poop to track a few boxes of paperclips could never be worth the expense.”

Martin looked up, expecting a rebuttal, but the man had disappeared.

***

During his afternoon session with Dr Bathhouse, Martin stated his case in support of “real birds”. The doctor stroked his moustache, possibly covering up a smile. Not that Martin blamed the stout little subcontinental. The situation was entirely ridiculous.

“You were generous to carefully consider Mr Peterson’s theories.”

Still clinging to the idea Martin Davis was a good person, was he? Truth be told, Martin Davis was a gullible, thick witted rotter, a fact that’d been proved time and again.

“Well, Peterson was somewhat convincing, given his grasp of advanced technology. You don’t suppose he’s from another time?”

The doctor chuckled. “No, Mr Peterson is from this time, an era in which many struggle with critical thinking and rational thought. But Mr Peterson’s delusions have been especially persistent. I don’t recommend trying to argue him out of his theories.”

***

The next morning, Martin strolled the sanitarium’s extensive grounds hoping to clear his head of last night’s Technicolor monstrosity of a dream. Dr Baumner promised the dreams would pass, once he’d thoroughly detoxed. “Soon.” When exactly was soon? Not bloody soon enough.

He paused under a tree which was shedding little white things, petals or seeds. He bent and scooped up a handful. Oh, God. Suddenly, a heap of cocaine lay before him, and he was carefully carving it into lines with his monogrammed silver razor blade, the subtle scritch of razor across mirror. Gradually, he tamed the powder into perfectly straight parallel lines of ecstasy. Then the rolling of a C-note, a delicate snort, a numbing tang on his palate. He could almost feel the rush.

But, no. He was on his knees in a carpet of plant bits outside a dry-out clinic. Reality could be so cruel.

Peterson stepped from behind the tree. “Conspiracy goes back to J. Edgar himself. He commissioned NASA to design the bioelectrics and radio-frequency eye transmitters. He authorized the mass avicide. Without real birds, entire ecosystems are collapsing, thanks to the CIA. Happy to spell out the tie-in to Watergate, if you need me to.”

Martin ran his hand over the false-coke and silently grieved at the turn his life had taken. Sure, Doc Balustrade recommended against arguing with this lunatic. But damn it, if these tree-droppings couldn’t be cocaine, then bird-droppings couldn’t be radio-transmitters either. Fair was fair.

“Listen. It’s just not true. I know birds. My wife sings to birds, and they like her. They even protect her. So, I’ve seen birds up close. And very recently, a bird died from a gunshot, BAM, right in front of my face. Blood splattered everywhere—real blood, no wires, no gubbins, no knobs. And if the birds were real, the whale must’ve been real too. And it was! I felt the whale’s skin under my fingers. Trust me; it was real. So were the barnacles. Listen, NASA can put a man on the moon, but they can’t make a bioelectric whale with real-feeling skin. No way.”

Silence hung in the air like a group of friends ignoring a fart, the usual reaction to Martin Davis babbling nonsense. He sighed. It was all so exhausting.

Hands in pockets, head hanging, Peterson used the toe of his shoe to scrape a semicircle in the plant snow. “Sorry man. Sounds like you have serious problems. Better talk to the doc about the…um…whale.”

Then a plop sounded close to his left ear. He turned his head seeing a gooey bird dropping sliding down the shoulder of his powder-blue jumpsuit. Above, a big black crow loosed a raucous caw and winged away.

Peterson eyed the whitish goo and shot him a meaningful look. “Better clean that off ASAP.”

***

But was Peterson correct? Decide for yourself at https://birdsarentreal.com/

A Queen Among Crows by M.S. Linsenmayer, A Review

Steampunk-Alternate History-Magical Fantasy and Talking Crows!

1908-Russia: A scrappy intelligence officer from war torn North America hires herself out as a mercenary in the service of Catherine the Great. Both women are “Queens,” descendants of the Gods possessing certain powers. Eryma communes with crows, and her birds provide reconnaissance and protection. Though bashed, battered and covered in tread marks, she plans to help recover a crash-landed asteroid in exchange for eternal youth. But both Catherine’s court and Eryma’s plans are suffused with intrigue. 

A complex series of events ensues laced with historical distortions, magic, monsters, blood, gore, and a steam punk feel. The plot unfolds gradually, and Eryma’s intentions and history are delivered in bits and pieces, leaving room for reveals and plot twists. And the novel excels in characterization, including Eryma who’s battered but tough and resolute with a goofy sense of humor.

“Other women may have had beauty, class and romance; I had wit, experience, and explosives. The latter, in my experience, solves more problems than romance does.”

Grim, hard-living, violent, and lusty Dame July provides a frenemy-romance, and several acts of savagery. And Eryma’s crow community includes both a corvid genius and a comedian. 

     “So, if I am dead, which religion was correct?” I mused aloud.

“Yog-Slaggoth,” Lois stuck her head through the drapes “The Elder tentacled on is coming to dine on us later. Please be properly shaved, greased, and seasoned by five.”

If you’re after diversity, banter, wordplay, action, and strong female characters, A Queen Among Crows is your book. However, please observe the CLIFF HANGER WARNING sign and don’t tumble off at the end of the novel. Stand alone readers may be disappointed. On the bright side, several additional volumes of this series are already out and available.

  1. Genres: LGBTQ+ Science Fiction, Steampunk Fiction, Alternate History, Fantasy.
  2. Humor: Interlaced
  3. Violence: High
  4. Diversity: High
  5. Sex: Closed Door
  6. Warnings: CLIFF HANGER (but series completed)

The Hammond Conjecture by M. B. Reed, a Review.

Hugh Hammond of The Hammond Conjecture is an everyman, who thinks with every organ other than his brain. And unfortunately, the fate of Europe lies in his hands.

He wakes in an isolation ward with no recollection of his past. Encouraged to dredge up memories by writing, the confused man diligently types away. But the emerging memories recount an impossible history: WWII ended by 1941, Europe stultifies under Nazi rule, and Britain continues to appease.

While he languishes in home for incurables and relives his spy years, the mystery of how Hammond bounced from 1970 to 1980 is slowly revealed…

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Hammond’s decade-old memories of his spy career are beyond embarrassing. He’s an Austin Powers, saddled with an early 1970s attitude toward woman and the raging ego of a young man, but possessing low self-esteem and a talent for making the wrong choice. Every. Single. Time. Not dissimilar to my character, Martin. Fortunately for the reader, many of Hammond’s choices and much of the dialogue are quietly hilarious.

And the alternate Europe in which the spy-action occurs is complex, believable and depicted in detail. The author does an excellent job of describing the ramifications of an early treaty between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, clear even to a reader with no detailed knowledge of WWII.

This novel will interest alternate fiction and time travel readers, as well as those who enjoy thrillers. The ending is left open, suggesting a sequel is on its way. And I appreciated the professional-level editing and formatting.

Wake Up And Dream by Ian R. MacLeod, a Review

 

Bottom line: Wake Up And Dream is a terrific alternate history read. Fascinating, haunting, and beautifully written. Highly recommended.

The career of has-been actor, Clark Gable, didn’t make the jump from the talkies to the “feelies.” Now he’s a two bit private eye specializing in matrimonial cases, sniffing pillow cases and peering under beds. But a fresh case drags Clark back into acting and to the dark side of the technology underlying the feelies, the mysterious Bechmeir Field.

The average citizen craves to escape the Great Depression in the dream of the feelies. But Clark’s skin crawls whenever he’s in the cinema. And the technology may have other uses in politics and advertising capable of drifting the United States closer toward fascism and collusion with Nazis. Can Clark Gable, unlicensed private eye, solve the case, save his own life, and prevent a socio-political disaster?

Ian R. MacLeod’s Wake Up And Dream is alternate history at its finest. The twisting plot combines hard-boiled private eye tropes, an imaginative, speculative technology, Hollywood angst, history, and social commentary. The stellar writing expertly captures the beauty and grit of Depression era Los Angeles.

        Peg Entwistle (Wikipedia)

In my last review, I criticized “celebrity cameos” in alternate history as disruptive and self-indulgent. But while players from Hollywood’s Golden Age appear in Wake Up And Dream, the celebrity characters are integral to the plot or provide plot-relevant information, so the scenes in which they’re featured don’t read as forced. And since the era is so remote, their fame is remote. Sometimes very remote, so a reader might not even recognize a celebrity. For instance, I’d never heard of Peg Entwistle, an actress who committed suicide in 1932 by jumping from the famous Hollywood sign.

People, when they first came here from back east to make movies, they said it was because of the quality of the light. But what they didn’t talk about was the quality of the darkness. I mean, whatever’s lurking underneath…