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Infinite Space, Infinite God

Ken Pick
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Ken Pick


Q: Tell us who you are and what you do for a living, hobbies, etc.


Let’s see… Fifty-one years old, classic nerd, never married, ex-kid genius, natural-talent speedreader, aficionado of the weird.  IQ 160 mind that never stops working on overdrive, not even when I sleep; swiss-cheese memory for weird trivia.  Bottom of the pecking order throughout grade and high school, discovering an escape route around 1966 when I discovered Andre Norton SF juveniles simultaneously with Star Trek going on the air.  Sort of standard for a first-generation SF fan.


One result of this was what some shrinks called “Growing up Martian”; so much an outsider I tended to see what was “normal” to everyone else from an outsider’s POV, like a visiting Martian.  Starting in 1975, found acceptance in SF, high fantasy, sword and sorcery, D&D gaming, and various other fandoms.  And naturally, when you read so much of the stuff, you want to start writing it.


In mundane life, I write and patch software for county government applications; I refer to it as “performing unnatural acts with Windows XP/VB6/SQL”.  It’s my job skill, not my life.  Other than that, I’m active mostly within the various fandoms.


What “Family” I have these days usually means my pharmacist stepbrother and his family.  These days, they’re my only remaining family that counts.


Interests/hobbies?  Just about everything, so many I never have time for them all – SF, Fantasy, FRP gaming, writing, drawing, modeling (cars, trains, ships, and aircraft, not fashion runways), slot cars, military history, naval history, Catholicism, architecture, movies, “recreational thinking”, you name it.  Some call this “being a polymath”; I call it “thrashing in place”.


“Christian Testimony” is just as offbeat.  Allegedly baptized Catholic as an infant, but raised completely non-practicing.  Introduced to Christ by Jack Chick and Hal Lindsay about halfway through high school hell in ‘71; you can guess how that messed up my mind.  Took 15 years to get out of that dead-end, in a long meandering path that included Dungeons & Dragons and Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Chronicles before gravitating back into Catholicism, primarily for the continuous historical trace and long track record supporting the arts (which hopefully includes SF).


Q:  What inspired "Mask of the Ferret"?


That’s a long and intricate story, worthy of novel-length treatment by itself.


It started with a fursuit (anthropomorphic animal costume) in the masquerade and costume dance at a “furry con” (SF/fantasy convention specializing in anthropomorphic animals) in January of 1999.  Said fursuit was a petite retro-Goth ferret-woman in all-black 17th-Century men’s garb.  Very impressive; like a Goth Captain Hook in all-black, even to the long Restoration-style wig.


She struck me as a natural for a “bad girl” character; when I got home from the con, I did a doodle of an as-then-unnamed character based on the suit and about half a page of speculative notes.  For the next couple years, she sat unused, a character in search of a story.


A year or two later, I met Alan at another (East Coast) furry con, through the intermediary of a beheaded unicorn.  (A tale in and of itself.)  We corresponded a bit, and I mentioned I had this character in search of a story.  He expressed some interest, so I shipped him a copy of the doodle-and-notes. 




Turned out he had a story in search of a focusing/catalyst character, and the Goth ferret fit right in.  He suggested a collaboration, with him writing the first draft and me rewriting/polishing/making canonical to the established universe.  Somewhere during the process, the dooker-in-black acquired a name – “Jill” (generic female mustelid, assigned her at decanting) and “Noir” (black, self-named because she always wears black).


Unlike previous attempts at collaboration, this one was a success; for the first time, our writing styles and strengths meshed.  Alan, who’s more a spontaneous writer, did the first draft NaNoWriMo style (what he calls “diarrhea-writing”).  Then he sent it off to me, the Tolkien-style worldbuilder who outlines and pre-plans everything (including doodling and diagramming “sets & costumes”); I added a few scenes, elaborated others, and made everything canonical to the established WebFed universe. 


My greatest strength as a writer has always been the ability to give a feel of “You ARE there.”  (One tip credited to Poul Anderson was to “always describe a scene using at least three senses.”) 


And having Alan write the rough first draft (instead of writing from scratch) got around my greatest weakness – limited ability to create ex nihilo; like random-number-generator software, I need an initial “seed” to build from.


Result:  “Mask of the Ferret”.  When he received my rewrite, Alan said “I sent you an Alan Loewen story; you sent me back a Poul Anderson one.”  I remember that so well because Poul Anderson was one of my three favorite SF authors during my younger days.  The standard I shoot for is “Could my stuff go head-to-head against Poul Anderson or H. Beam Piper in their prime?”


Then came the marketing, which I left to Alan because of his greater experience; all my previous publication credits have been unpaid small-press fanzines and unpaid webzines.  That’s where you came in, with what eventually became ISIG.


Oh, and that Goth-ferret fursuit that started it all?  Only appeared once, at that con in 1999, and was never seen again.


Q:  You and Alan made a very believable universe; even the made-up slang was so natural, I find myself thinking something is "ab-fab".  How did you and Alan come up with it all?  How long did it take to weave together your universe and your story?


The “very believable universe” came from my end of the collaboration.  That universe, a low-key space-opera one called “WebFed”, has been gradually growing and simmering in my head for the past 15-20 years.  Since 1991, I’ve written over half a dozen shorts and novelettes with that setting, publishing entirely in small-press fanzines; it’s nowhere near as detailed as Middle-Earth, but then I’m no Prof. Tolkien.


The universe originated sometime in the 1980s with an unsuccessful collaboration attempt.  The other party (who came up with the proto-WebFed) was a local fanboy who bubbled with creative ideas but lacked the self-discipline to take them anywhere near publishable final form.  One of his myriad “great ideas” of the time was a “furry” (all the aliens resemble upright talking animals) space-opera universe that kept changing names at whim.  I became interested because he’d thought it out a lot more than the usual fanboy universes inflicted on me at various SF cons – for instance, he could answer my trick question:  “What are their gods?”  (The typical fanboy universe – from Star Trek to furries – has two universal characteristics:  Atheism ™ and Total Sexual Freedom ™.  It was a relief to actually find something different.)


Securing written permission to use this universe, I went to work freezing the design, stripping out the inconsistencies, and building from that foundation.  The collaboration attempt immediately fell through, as the other party went ballistic about any changes whatsoever to his “Great Masterpiece”; what he lacked in self-discipline and drive he made up for in sheer ego.


Since then, WebFed has been slowly growing and polishing in my head, accreting everything from local 1980s “fanspeak” jargon to local role-playing game conventions to my technical RPG background tech articles for the web fanzine Freelance Traveller.  (For instance, the internal layout of the Coventry was worked out in a Seventies-era FRP game campaign, later elaborated into a “Shipyard” design for FreeTrav.)


The “furry” angle (aka “The cold wet nose school of nonhuman design”) has always been a constant thread through my fantasy.  In this context, I think of it as following an old space-opera tradition: basing alien races on animals or composites thereof.  Plus, they’re beautiful, which a lot of SF alien design (and contemporary American culture) seriously lacks.  (Of the six main types of space-opera aliens, only the “Parahuman” and “AWAP (As Weird as Possible)” now see use; the Parahumans in movies and TV (with or without funny foreheads), and the AWAPs in “Serious Literature” which since “New Wave SF” in the Sixties has acquired most or all of mainstream Serious Literature’s bad habits; especially taking themselves far too seriously.)


Now for “the made-up slang”.  That grew from 20 years of local “fanspeak”, “gamer’s cant”, “furry speak”, and personal terminology.  Kind of like how Firefly/Serenity mixed and distilled 19th-Century American English and contemporary Chinese into “Verse-speak”.  Since WebFed was intended to not be human-centered (humans are one of the peoples, not the dominant one), I try to avoid using real-world contemporary terms, coming up with alternate synonyms from the above sources.


One trick of terminology I use to show the Web is not human-centered is reversing Star Trek’s method of naming things, i.e. “Saurian Brandy” or “Romulan Ale”.  Under this naming convention, Takfa (WebFed’s equivalent of coffee) would have been called “Skreeln Coffee”; in actuality, coffee is called “Terry Takfa”.


Plus, it’s great for that pastime of writers, inside jokes.  Take the free-trader Coventry and it’s “Ab-fab” crew.  Alan named all the crew after English authors (especially the captain); taking that as a basis, I postulated they came from a “British-writ-large” world, New Anglia.  (I ran all their dialogue past a Brit fan contact to make sure they didn’t use Americanisms.)  Futuristic and British… Do you remember Gerry Anderson’s “Supermarionation” series on Sixties TV ?  Thunderbirds, best known of these puppet TV series, originally coined the expression “F.A.B.” as the equivalent of Sixties NASA “A-OK”.  “Ab-fab” is short for “Absolutely Fabulous” (also the title of a British black comedy dealing with the fashion industry), which sounds like it should be a superlative of “F.A.B”.  Remember the Cov’s New Anglian registry number:  G-TBRFAB?  “G” = British aircraft registration prefix;  “TBRFAB” = “Thunderbirds are F.A.B.”.


There was another way I tried to show a British-style accent in print, but didn’t have much chance to use it.  Several words in English have alternate European/Commonwealth and American spellings:  “colour” and “color”, “realise” and “realize”, “cheque” and “check”, “plough” and “plow”, etc.  To subtly show a British/Commonwealth accent, use the “European” spelling.


Q:  Can we hope to see more stories about Jill Noir and the Order of St Dismas?


You will; we're currently in the process of expanding "Mask of the Ferret" into the full-length novel Adventures of Jill Noir.  Our Goth-ferret bad girl has quite a life and career ahead of her; I expect six to eight "episodes" like "Mask of the Ferret" divided by short interludes (excerpted from Fr Heidler's memoirs), all building into an extended story arc of interstellar adventure, futuristic spy thriller, offbeat romance, and travelogue among the worlds and outposts of WebFed’s Tiara Cluster.


The Catholic element in the arc is basically “The Hound of Heaven”; as Jill lives her life as thief and industrial spy, she keeps encountering Fr Heidler – much as Flambeau kept running into Father Brown.  (Or how that Tex Avery wolf fugitive kept running into Droopy the Mountie.)  Eventually this leads to a climax where Jill gets crushed by her greatest fear (death/ceasing to exist), then redeemed and “resurrected” by the intercession of Fr Heidler.


According to Alan (who’s doing the climax), this will NOT be your “Conventional Christian Altar Call” scene; if it is (as he jokingly threatens), I’m hopping a flight across North America specifically to track him down and punch his lights out.  I do NOT want “Conventional Christian Fiction”, just as I do NOT want “Conventional Furry Fiction”.  Let’s give the Christian SF audience another future than the no-future of Left Behind.


Q:  Anything else?


Yes, to some of the other unpublished writers I’ve come across who I would like to see make it:


My writing partner Alan Loewen in rural Pennsylvania, who has written everything from My Little Pony fanfic to Lovecraftian horror (and even crossovers between the two).


Eric Hinkle, in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, self-educated son of a steelworker who does classic sword-and-sorcery, with some asides into Pennsylvania Dutch folk-magic horror.  If this were the Thirties, he’d be giving Bob Howard and Manly Wade Wellman a run for their money through the pages of Weird Tales, with his “Ardashir the Fox-Wolf” and “Balam of the Fifth Sun” right up there with Howard’s “Conan the Barbarian” and “Solomon Kane” and his “John Siegfried” joining Wellman’s John Thunstone, Lee Cobbett, Silver John, and Judge Pursuviant. 

  • Ardashir is classic epic sword-and-sorcery, in an original universe based loosely on ancient Iran and the Central Asian steppes – no Tolkien knockoffs here. 
  • Balam is a bit more offbeat, anthropomorphic Mesoamerican macahuitl & nahualli. 
  • John Siegfried draws on Eric’s extensive knowledge of Pennsylvania Dutch “powwow”, “hexerai”, and local history, in the American folk-magic milieu of Wellman’s heroes, David Drake’s Old Nathan, and Orson Scott Card’s Prentice Alvin.


And Steven Parker Crane of Louisville, Kentucky.  He’s never been able to find a pro publisher for his local award-winning “Goodnight, Ari” (described as “GATTACA meets The Lion King”), and that’s not the only thing he’s working on.

Faith and Fiction for the Thoughtful Reader.