When I wandered into Baen’s Bar years ago, one of the first posts I came across was one by this fellow by the name of Jim Snover. Jim shared stories about Rex Mason, his wife Donna and his adventures with Excentrifugal Engineering. If something went fast, Rex wanted to make it go faster. Of course, with Rex, things never quite went the way he intended. It took time, but Jim has finally admitted he’s a writer and had started publishing some of his short stories. And now, here’s Jim talking about Rex and company.
Rex, Donna, and Excentrifugal Engineering
by Jim Snover
“It’s a big universe, out there. We’re going to have to move fast if we want to see the whole thing.”
See the distance. Go the distance. Be the distance.
I’ve been asked a few times, “How did I think up all of this? This whole Rex, Donna and Excentrifugal Engineering thing?” I would always say, “It’s really kind of boring, not that interesting at all.” But they would persist. So, here it is:
Donna and Rex, and E.E. were all inspirations born of Baen’s Bar, circa 2001. Back then, before social media took off, it was bulletin boards and web sites, and Jim Baen was the first figure of any merit in the hurly-burly word of publishing to take any of this internet stuff and run with it. Utilizing first the bulletin boards, then the web site, he created a virtual space, where, wonder of wonders, readers could talk to authors, fans could talk to each other, and folks who expressed any interest in becoming authors were actively encouraged by authors to give it a shot. By 2001, when I discovered it and joined, it was off and running and had dozens of author and topic sub-conferences. Authors were each given their own, but everyone was free to roam about the place to their heart’s content, and the one people migrated to for general fannish zaniness was, appropriately, Baen’s Bar.
Among the threads in Baen’s Bar was a sort of running round-robin called the “skippy chase.” skippy (NEVER capitalize his name, he’s trying to avoid the capital gains tax!) is an agent of chaos. Written yourself into a corner? Have skippy come along, boom, you’re out of the corner. skippy’s agent was one Green Bear, and between the two of them they kept us all laughing our hearts out. Every now and then, skippy’s antics resulted in either him getting chased all over the world, OR, in a massive virtual food fight. Sometimes both. These were true round-robins, in that any and all were welcome to participate, in fact, were encouraged to do so. One line, ten or twenty sentences, or however many paragraphs you wanted to crank out, hit the keys, hit send, watch how it influenced the whole thing. Sometimes individual contributions died, sometimes they propelled it into whole new directions. We would often write ourselves into these using either an avatar name, or our own, if we weren’t creative enough to come up with an avatar identity. For ages, I used my own name. These would run for a few days, then die out or be ended definitively. It was GREAT practice for anyone who wanted to learn to write, to teach yourself in a running environment how to make your meaning clear, and just fun as all get out.
That’s the background of the environment in which Rex, Donna and E.E. was born, and believe me, it’s just the merest scraping of the surface, this little mention I have given it here in no way does it justice. I only mention it because without Baen’s Bar, there would never have been an Excentrifugal Engineering.
“If a guy’s going to go around talking in metaphor, getting himself thrown off a Mayan pyramid is just exactly the sort of thing he can expect to happen to him!” Rex Mason
For my part, in 2001 I had a job fixing copiers. It was heaven for a gear-head like me: gears, chains, electromechanical clutches, endless cam actuated switches, bleeding-edge electronics, gripper-bars … it was awesome. Except for a couple of things: technology made copiers more reliable, but FAR less fun to work on. The new ones, after 1998, were … boring. Eventually, though, by 2001 that wasn’t a problem because the job went away all together. Just as well, because the other drawback to working on copiers is, at the end of the day, it was just … copiers. I got a severance package and hit the want ads looking for a new job at the age of 40. I fell, bass-ackwards, into the world of medical x-ray film processor repair. It was easy, it was just black and white photochemistry, which I had learned backwards and forwards in high school. Easy work, but the job, and the company, left a lot to be desired! I was hemmed in on all sides by regulations from the local, state and federal level that made the simplest things utterly impossible. There was a lot of overtime, and lots of it was, effectively, third-shift work. It paid well, but it was going nowhere, I hated it, and I was even thinking of going back to construction (the family biz, Mom and Dad had their own Masonry company).
“All right, all right! So we blew up the wrong dam. Look, you’ve got this other one over here, and it’s nearly as good as that one was, what’s the big deal?” Excentrifugal Engineering And The Case Of The Demolition Job At The Three Gorges Dam
One morning at 2:30AM, I’m lamenting my fate when it hit me: what if you had a guy who completely disregarded any and all regulations as he saw fit? He’d probably get thrown in jail. Maybe, perhaps. But what if he was just good enough at solving problems that the authorities always made excuses for him, let him go, that sort of thing? They would have to be some pretty serious problems, then. That thought, at 2:30AM, made me laugh, and it was the first time in months it seemed I had anything to laugh at. I started writing stories and initiating round-robins on Baen’s Bar. They started to spread. At first, I was using my name for the main character, but that started to seem weird. I needed a name for a fictional character. I was explaining this to my wife, the ever lovely and gracious Donna, and she asked,
“What does this guy do?”
“Well, he wants to build cars and airplanes and boats that go fast. But he never considers reliability, safety, efficiency, as being important. Just the speed.”
“Sounds like someone who wrecks a lot.”
BOOM! HIS NAME IS REX!
“He needs a last name. They say you should give a character a name like, where you grew up, or what your first job was.”
“You used to be a brick layer, right? A Mason?”
BOOM! HIS NAME IS REX MASON!!!
Then Donna asked, “Is he married?”
“Why, yes, of course. His wife is the one who largely keeps him from getting into too much trouble.”
“What’s her name?”
“Why, Donna, of course!” What can I say? Sometimes, every now and then, I seem to say the right thing. But from that moment on I now have two Donna’s with which to contend: The Real Donna and The Fictitious Donna. Life. What can you do about it?
“Excentrifugal Engineering: You know that place where angels and demons fear to tread? That’s where you’ll find us, hanging out, drinking beer, pizza on the way!”
The company name came shortly afterwards, from one of my all-time favorite rock artists, Frank Zappa. He’s got a song called “Excentrifugal Forz.” Thus was born “Excentrifugal Engineering.” It was patterned after Baen’s Bar. There are no employees, everyone is a partner. Their pay depends on how well the company does. The place is full of secrets, but very little security. It doesn’t need it, it’s so dangerous, if you can get in and out with information, they might well want to bring you on board.
Somewhere along the way, I don’t remember exactly when, Sarah Hoyt showed up as a Baen author and got her own conference. For reasons still not entirely understood, all of the craziest of the Baen’s Bar crazies gravitated towards her conference. One day I’m typing up an E.E. adventure, and it occurs to me: maybe I should ask her if she minds if I do this? She might not like it. I can be very, very dense about such things. So, I asked her and she let me know in no uncertain terms how much she LOVES Rex! Well, OK, then! What I missed was where she said she loves Rex. I mean, I saw it, it was written in plain English, but I just assumed she meant she liked the stories. It took a while longer for me to realize that people really do love Rex, and that was a stunner, to me.
That realization occurred when I would get emails from fellow Bar Flies and Dinerzens, saying things like, “We were on vacation and we saw an SR-71 Blackbird, and we all thought, “What would Rex do with that?”” Some of them asked for their kids to be put in the stories. Some of them (MANY of them!) asked for themselves to be worked into the stories! All of this was just freaking me out to no end because this was just me unwinding on an average evening, messing around, having a little fun.
The first of Sarah’s workshops I attended in Dallas, Texas, Sarah looks at me and says, “Now I know what Rex looks like.” Well, he’s still got his hair, and his belly and his chest have not swapped places, like mine have … but there is some resemblance, yes.
The second of Sarah’s workshops I attended in Dallas, Texas, Sandra Medlock was there. I didn’t recognize her, but she knew who I was because I had had a custom shirt with “Excentrifugal Engineering” embroidered on it.
This was 2011, about when I discovered Facebook. Quickly most of the Bar Flies wound up there. Many of them became regulars in the ongoing adventures. Eudyptes Diabolicus, aka Evil Penguin, chief test pilot (Rex can fly. But he’s not a pilot, and the FAA and the press always freak out like you would not imagine when he gets in the left seat of an aircraft.) Jose Clavell, Chief Legal Counsel, leader of the Free Range Legal Dept. President of the United States, Chris French (he and Rex were childhood pals. CF always knew, even as kids, he was going to have to throw Rex in prison, eventually). That was like a last-minute thing I thought of, one day. CF and I were arguing, he had won the argument, we both knew it, and I thought, “what’s the worst thing that could happen to him? I’ll make him POTUS!) Many new partners have been brought into the E.E. fold; basically, shoot me a message, and you’re in. Sarah, Amanda, Paul Howard as himself and at least two dragon avatars, Green Bear, Mamma Bear (she let it be known she could solder. NEVER let Rex know you can solder!) and more than I can possibly remember!
In the meantime, things at work had gotten a lot better. I had moved on from film processors (analog film is all but dead in medical imaging, having been replaced almost overnight by digital imaging, and thank God! (And I mean that sincerely, because digital imaging is the best thing for the patient that has ever happened in the world of medical imaging!) to x-ray machines. Then added ultrasound, bone densitometry, CT, MRI, and cath labs to my resume as well. This all started in 2004, and since then things have gotten better and better for me at work, now I’m at a point I thought I might never reach, my dream job, working for one of the big manufacturers. It’s been a crazy 13 years of wonderful preceded by that very dark period in 2001. It all seemed to break when I thought up Rex and E.E., though. Maybe, probably, because I had found an outlet not just for the frustrations at work, but also within the larger context of life, the universe and everything, as well.
“Mr. Mason! Would you please tell the court whatever possessed you to turn the sun inside out?”
“So everyone could see how it works, your honor. We published the plans on the internet, anyone can do it, it’s not even difficult, really-“
“Mr. Clavell! Did you just shoot your own client with a stun gun?”
“Yes, your honor. As his attorney, I felt it was in his best interests.”
“Approved. And keep that thing charged up and ready for use!”
“Yes, your honor!”
So: it’s been around for years, Donna and Rex and E.E. even have their own fan base. Recently, thanks to Facebook and my tendency to post the snippets there and the fact that I have Facebook friends from work, it has even become widely known at work. “Look! That was Rex! When we told him the machine was shooting sparks, did you see how his eyes lit up? That’s Rex, that’s how you can tell!” WHY, in all this time, has there been no book?
That’s a tough one. When I sit down to write the book, I have all these expectations: it has to be good, interesting, funny, exciting, there are folks I’ve known for years who are letting me use their names … and I sit and stare at the screen. And anything I do get written is mostly junk I delete in disgust. How many times I have thought of just giving up on it, I can’t count. And yet, when I sit down and write something up, just fooling around, to toss up on Facebook, here comes all this pretty good, pretty funny, stuff. Sometimes thousands of words of it. Sometimes I have to stop and make notes because the ideas come so fast I can’t keep it all in my head. What in the Hell? Seriously, what in the HELL?
I’ve written a couple of other things, short stories, that turned out as well as I had hoped they would (Blackie, The Copier Guy, and a super short piece, Valentine’s Day). I worked up another series, a mystery series, that I can write all night long and be happy with it. But I want to write Rex, Donna and E.E.! A short while ago, Donna had me work up a story of our niece and nephew getting lost in the E.E. building. That turned out pretty good, too. So … how about a new character? How about trying to come into it from a different angle, through the eyes and experiences of a new character? Somebody not real, that I don’t know, and that way, if it isn’t any good I won’t be letting them down? And it was off to the races! I had Polly’s Summer Vacation at Excentrifugal Engineering written up in three evenings, edited twice, and sent off to Amanda for editing in a week.
Of my previous two stories, Polly has not just done better, she has blown the doors off the other two by a considerable margin, and that was with it being first published with all kinds of errors, and a cover so bad (what WAS I thinking?) that Sarah Hoyt made me a new one! Polly’s 2nd-4th years with E.E. are in the works and moving along nicely, too. The only problem is not letting Rex take over, which he tends to do.
Which is odd, because Rex is just this guy. The most boring man on Earth.
“… and also in the news today: mad-man inventor Rex Mason and his company Excentrifugal Engineering have done it again. They claim they have prevented Earth from being invaded by elder evil gods from the lost millennia, which Mason calls, simply, the “Tentacles.” Mount Everest was cut in half in the process.
“I don’t know what all the fuss is about. That could have happened to anyone, and anyway, the other half is still here, it’s just in orbit. Soon we’ll be calling it a new moon and laughing about all this,” said company president Rex Mason.
The Green Party and the Gaia Club are calling for Mason to be prosecuted in the World Court for environmental destruction and persecution of a newly discovered endangered species, the Tentacles. When asked what he had to say to this, Mason announced a new E.E. summer intern program, saying, “It would be the biggest thing ever …”
You can find out more about Rex, Donna and especially Polly in Jim’s short story, Polly’s Summer Vacation at Excentrifugal Engineering.
When a slight problem of some missing mountain range threatens to have Rex Mason thrown in jail, what does he do? He creates the Excentrifugal Engineering Youth Internship Program! The first participant: 13-year-old Polly Madison! But it won’t be easy, and confined to a wheel chair, it may be too much for her. Join her as her intelligence, creativity, perseverance and courage are all tested as never before in her life!