Oct 222017
 

This is both my second Humans Wanted post, AND the position the anthology has reached, so this post’s title does pleasing double-duty.

The “Humans Wanted” anthology that my most recent short story (“Through The Never“) appeared in, has reached #2 in the Amazon Best Seller list for SF Anthologies!

Amazon is pretty famous for awarding “Best Seller” status like candy in sub-sub-sub-niche markets where selling three copies in a day will make you a best seller. Amazon’s algorithm is still pretty wonky, and anthologies are famous for not having a lot of volume. But “SF Anthologies” isn’t that super-niche, the top 15 at the time this screenshot was taken includes “Machine Learning” by Hugh Howey, a Harlan Ellison collection, and “Stories of your Life” by Ted Chiang. So this is a fairly legit accomplishment!

My best guess for why this happened now – A. Merc Rustad’s story “Longing for Stars Once Lost” just went live on Lightspeed a few days ago, and at the bottom of the Author Spotlight section that goes along with it, they say “Oh, and if you like my Principality Suns storyverse, I have a short story in the Humans Wanted anthology (ed. Vivian Caethe), which I hope you’ll check out.” I believe the spike in sales came soon after.

Of course the anthology is the work of many talented people, including the editor Vivian Caethe! So thank you to everyone for helping to make this happen, and extra thanks to Merc for helping to spread the word! I’m super stoked about this sudden good turn. :D

Oct 072017
 

I was recently selected as a winner of the 2017 Writers of the Future contest (2Q, 3rd place)! In addition to a nice cash prize and future publication, this is a fairly well-regarded award for new SF writers, because the organization hires well-known SF authors to act as the final judges. The combination of these two factors leads SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) to count it as a qualifying professional market.

After Asimov’s and Analog, that makes my third sale to a pro market. Which means… I’m now a member of SFWA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America!! :D This has been a dream of mine for ages, I count SFWA membership as my personal mark of “being legit.” Woooo!!!

Sep 182017
 

I.

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series was, from the very beginning, almost a parody of the traditional High Fantasy Epic. Most of the main characters were the distilled essence of very well-worn tropes. Arya was the feisty tomboy. Sansa was the dainty princess. Ned Stark was the Honorable Paladin.

Hell, Ned was such a pure archetype of the Honorable Paladin that I laughed out loud several times while reading Game of Thrones. If this was any other book I would have put it down, because I’m not 14 anymore and I’ve read more than enough Honorable Paladin High Fantasy stories. But Martin was also tired of those stories, so he wasn’t just writing another Honorable Paladin Saves The Kingdom story. He was lampooning them, by taking the old heroic archetype and throwing him into a more realistic world. Martin was asking “What happens to the Honorable Paladin when there is no longer a Heroic Narrative protecting him? When there isn’t all the conveniences and providences of a righteous author and romantic audience that creates a plot designed to showcase how great Honor is? If there was no High Fantasy narrative protecting him, how would he fare?”

And the answer was, he’d get his head lopped off before the book was 2/3rds over.

What would happen if the White Savior narrative was dropped into the real world? They’d find that destabilizing a region to save the downtrodden requires a lot of atrocities both along the way, and to hold on to power afterwards. The trope doesn’t survive contact with the complexities of actual power structures.

Somewhere along the way, it grew into more than just parody of old tropes. When a character made a mistake, they paid a steep price. The worst offenders died, and the survivors adapted. They became more nuanced and grey. Villains were shown to have deeper lives, sometimes making the best of a shitty world. The characters were complex because the world was merciless.

II.

The TV show has lost all sight of that. They’ve degenerated into the story that Martin was lampooning when he started out.

The first time this really became clear was when Jamie charged Daenerys. This was a great scene, probably the most memorable of this season. Two characters we both care for are drawn into combat, and only one of them will survive.

Except both of them survive. Without any consequence. A fade-to-black followed by a week’s delay somehow excused Jamie resurfacing miles away, unharmed, and Daenerys losing interest in him. We, as the audience, got our surge of emotion in the charge, without anyone in the story paying any price for it. The characters are unchanged. The storyline is unchanged. The event might as well simply never have happened, for all the difference it made. It was nothing more than a cheap thrill for us. We were fed narrative candy.

Did you not feel empty, afterward? If I wanted narrative candy I’d go back to reading the High Fantasy Epics of my adolescence, full of Honorable Paladins and White Saviors, where the villain is Evil and the protagonist is Good, and in the end Good will win precisely because it IS Good. The narrative demands it.

Further examples of this:

Daenerys, our parody of the White Savior that manages to fuck up everything and become a committer of atrocities, is now just a plain old White Savior again. She left behind her smashed society so we don’t have to see it anymore, and instead she just rides in to save the people of Westeros. Without destroying their society. Without committing atrocities. Without any moral compromise at all, just good ol’ Saving The World. Narrative candy.

Jon Snow has replaced Ned Stark as the Honorable Paladin. Unlike Ned Stark, he doesn’t suffer any repercussions for this. He sticks to his code of honor, is murdered, and is resurrected. He sticks to his code of honor, and continues to draw more and more followers, of ever greater loyalty. He sticks to his code of honor, loses a major battle, but is saved in the end. He runs around north of the wall like an idiot, NOT getting on the damn dragon when they’re trying to evacuate, and is saved in the end. He sticks to his code of honor, doesn’t lie to gain political advantage, and in the end gets EVEN MORE political advantage for doing so! He is rewarded for being the biggest stereotype of Honorable Paladin ever. Narrative candy.

One of my favorite scenes this season was Sansa and Arya uniting. It’s a crowning Moment of Triumph, and it feels fantastic. I almost shouted “You tried to break them up, but you can’t split the Wolf Pack, motherfucker! Aaaaaooooooooooooooo!!!!” And then an hour later I felt empty again. It was more narrative candy. I got my emotion sugar-high. But this is the standard “Family Loyalty Overcomes All Obstacles!” trope. We’ve seen it a million times.

Yes it does feel good, in the moment. That’s why we’ve seen it a million times. It’s the same reason people eat candy. Cheap sugar-highs sell. They’re also boring. Sugar isn’t complex. It’s simple, and tasty, and unmemorable. I still have candy from time to time too! But that’s not why I watch GoT. It’s not why GoT won all those awards. Awards are given for things that are complex, and hard, and different. Not more sugar.

III.

I imagine Martin started writing this series as a reaction against all the High Fantasy narrative candy he was presumably tired of. He’s not Fantasy Jesus or anything, there were problems with his work, and the HBO team did a lot to smooth those out and make a great product. But in the last few seasons, GoT has degenerated into the type of story that Martin had been lampooning.

It’s even happened the same way it had previously been built up. Characters that were too nuanced or complex couldn’t survive in the new, Hollywood-simple world. The ones that could be killed off, were. Bye High Sparrow, bye Queen of Thorns.

The survivors adapted by becoming simpler and reverting to stock tropes. They face no consequences for being stupid fantasy stereotypes, and are often reward for it. A fantasy narrative of honor and loyalty protects them.

The villains are just dumb evil, for the sake of evil. Cersei’s only remaining emotion is spite (and I feel bad for Lena Headey, that must get boring). The Night King has no motivation at all.

We are fed emotional highs without substance or consequence.

The central conflict is no longer jostling among complex characters for advantage and survival. The two sides are now plain old Good vs Evil. That Cersei is on the side of Evil doesn’t change that.

And that’s why Season Seven sucked. It is the culmination of taking something complex and made for adults, and returning it back to the High Fantasy that doesn’t challenge anyone. It just feeds us candy.

That’s why Season Eight will probably suck too. It took a lot of narrative work to create the world and characters we had. Now all that has been destroyed, and there isn’t enough time to rebuild it (nor do I think anyone calling the shots has the desire to). Even if Good doesn’t win at the end of the series, we still will have sat through a standard Good Knights vs Evil Demons story, and a twist like “But the good guys lose!” doesn’t change why it’s boring. It doesn’t return to us what could have been. That destiny has been amputated.

All the characters we cared about are dead already, replaced with Hollywood narrative candy pod-people. Now we just get to watch the shells fight it out. At least the CGI will be pretty.

 

Aug 232017
 

I’ve had another short story published in an anthology! It is “Through The Never” in Humans Wanted.

I liked the theme for this one. Basically that humans have a super-power. It’s something we just consider a normal part of being human, but it’s actually really rare and incredibly useful. Pick a trait, write a story about it!

I’d already been thinking about Lovecraft’s views on existential horror for a bit when I ran across this prompt. As much as I love Lovecraft, I find his opinions on what drives mankind insane kinda silly. Subsequent works and role-playing games have sometimes tried to hand-wave this by invoking a supernatural insanity-causing magic, but it’s pretty clear from his writings that Lovecraft just thought people are psychologically fragile things waiting for anything that challenges their understanding of reality to shatter their minds.

The thing is, he SHOULD be right. To realize that nothing we do matters, that time will erase everything we are and everything we care for, and the universe is so vast and uncaring that all our striving and flailing amounts to little more than a wobble in the quantum foam should be shattering. The vast apathy of the unstoppable forces that rule our lives and could snuff out our lives, or all life, in an instant, are so irredeemably unjust and overwhelming that it’s impossible to think why we should go on. Even screaming in defiance is lol-worthy, the only reasonable response is to simply give up. Or, possibly, to go absolutely insane.

That was Lovecraft’s view. That the only sane reaction to such a universe is insanity. That anyone who could put this all together in their minds would lose it. He said

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I think I agree with him. But he’s empirically wrong. Basically all of human society, at least in the developed world, realizes the truth of our existential horror universe. And we just keep going. We ignore it, or we drink too much, or we take lots of antidepressants and go to therapy, or we create epic animated series dedicated to exploring our angst at living in this world with a lot of fart jokes thrown in. But we go on anyway. We are *far* more mentally robust than Lovecraft gave us credit for.

Looking at this from the outside, though, makes us seem insane. In an insane world, the sane die out, and only the insane can survive. How better to explain our ability to shrug at all this and just keep on popping out kids and plowing forward? We’re all nuts.

So–take as our superpower our pre-existing insanity that lets us shrug at daily existential horror. Throw in some Tegmark Level infinite universes and contagious memetic hazard, and you have “Through The Never”. :)

Jul 112017
 

Guys, guess what?? I have made a thing (again)! A small collection of my published stories is available for purchase!

You can get Red Legacy and Other Stories as a printed book at Amazon, or as an ebook at all the major ebook sellers (including Amazon and B&N, of course). You can read most of the stories in it free here, so you can decide up front if my fiction is the kind that you enjoy. If you do, and you think the enjoyment was worth a few dollars, buying a copy would help me. And buying it comes with a bonus — the collection includes “Host,” my latest story which is otherwise only available in the March/April issue of Analog magazine.

If you can’t buy a copy, but you’ve read or listened to most/all of the stories before, leaving a review also helps a ton. :)

Jun 232017
 

I hear tell of bygone days of yore, where a writer could actually make a living and support a family by writing short stories. Apparently short-story markets paid well enough (relative to cost of living) for this to be a viable career up until the 50s or 60s. I was surprised when I first learned this, because it’s never been the case in my life.

No one writes short stories for money. You do it to learn, or to make a name for yourself, or for the love of the form. The pay for short stories is beer money, or maybe fancy new shoes. It’s not “I can pay rent and eat!” money. One must keep a day job.

So many authors, once they get a book deal and start writing professionally, basically stop writing short stories. This is saddening, because I really like short stories by my favorite authors. But I understand the need to pay rent and buy clothes.

There’s been a trend over the last decade of moving to series. More than a trend, really – nowadays every publisher wants to know if your novel could be a series, and a majority of authors (at least in genre) all aim to write a multi-book series from the start. If it’s not the default yet, it will be before the decade’s out. And the reason is the same. Series pay better. Most authors can no longer support a family writing individual novels.

I really hate this trend, because it leads to the Marvelization of everything. The Marvel Universe is one of the most annoying things to have happened to cinema. Within that “universe” of tied-together movies, there are no movies that are worth seeing for their own sake. Every movie has to string the audience along, acting as an advertisement for the next movie in the series. This degrades the quality of the story in the current movie, often by a great amount. Nothing truly interesting can happen, because it would disrupt the universe, and the production schedules of coming movies. Characters can’t grow or change very much, due to the fact that they must be re-used continuously. How many life-changing character-arcs can a human have in one lifetime? Three, maybe four, if they have a very rich life and live for quite a long time? Certainly not 1-2 every year. And yet that’s how often we’ll be seeing them on screen. So most of the time they’ll simply be going through the paces without changing.

Marvel audiences no longer go see a movie because the movie itself tells an interesting story, but rather because they fear falling behind on events, or missing an important development (ha!). They’ve become hostages to the universe, continuing to sacrifice attention and money on the alter of an emotional obligation.

This emotional obligation was probably very useful back when everyone you knew actually existed, and learning about what had happened to them recently was valuable on it’s own, and strengthened your bonds. Emotional obligations to the intellectual property of Disney simply gives them a way to get your money without having to put in the effort of telling a good story. They can reneg on their creative responsibilities and still profit.

When it was movies, I just stopped going to extended-universe-style movies. But the fact that it’s taking over genre writing as well is depressing. Yes, some stories need to be told over multiple books. And the art of “series writing” is an actual thing, which is different from novel writing. But mostly what I see is writers abandoning the art of writing a good, strong novel, in favor of stretching a story out over 3+ books in order to make it a series.

This invariably degrades the quality of the novel. And it wastes the readers time (I’m very jealous of my time nowadays). And it exploits the same emotional obligations of readers, holding them hostage to characters that have stopped developing.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to say to someone “you should write in a way that removes this as a career option for you.” Writing is time consuming, and it’s hard to write while holding a full time job. Writing a series can make the act of writing a viable career for many. If someone is willing to dilute their art in order to be able to do it for a living, I feel like an elitist asshole to speak against that. Who am I to say “You should either be independently wealthy, or condemn your children to living in squalor?”

But dammit, who are they to say “Because this is the work I would rather be doing, I will use psychological tricks to get you to support my career, instead of actually producing an amazing product?” I hate this trend. I want to shake people and say “Stop devaluing your product! You’re just writing soap operas at this point!” :(

Apr 112017
 

A few years ago a wrote a flash fic piece called “Communion” for the NPR 3-minute fiction contest. The story had to take place in the form of a voicemail message or messages, which I thought was fun. It didn’t win, and I tried a couple other venues, before forgetting about it.

Then not too long ago I discovered Sub-Q, a market for Interactive Fiction. And I thought “Oh, this could be neat! Since I wrote the story entirely as voice-mails, and I have a lot of experience doing audio fiction/podcast stuff, I bet I could make the entire thing audio!”

My first attempt didn’t pass, because it was a linear story, and Interactive Fiction has to be interactive. (doh!) So I expanded on it, doubling in word-count to give it multiple endings and a couple branches. Then I resubmitted.

It still didn’t pass muster. So now I’ve got this bizarre little story that is basically unpublishable in any other market, since half of it is audio and there’s clicking and stuff that needs to be done. What does one do with such a thing?

Well shit, why not self-publish?

If you’d like to read/hear a short Interactive Fiction piece by me (15 minutes-ish), here you go:

Communion, by Eneasz Brodski (Twine version. This is the official version, and looks best)

Communion in HTML, by Eneasz Brodski (HTML version. Not as pretty, but it works as a back-up for people that can’t get the Twine version to work for whatever reason. The choice options are links at the bottom.)

Apr 062017
 

Here’s two replies from a recent post, where my responses became long enough to make into their own post.

Daniel:

>But quite often the intended interpretaions will prove more important. On your Star Wars prequels example, imagine if that fan theory became widely supported before the release of episode III. Then, the creators of the films say “no, that’s not what we mean”.

I think Star Wars is a fascinating example, because the creator of the film (Lucas) did at one point say “No, that’s not what I mean” and changed one of the most iconic scenes of the movies, the one where Han shoots Greedo in the Cantina. And en masse everyone said “Screw you,” to him, and the world continues to accept that Greedo never fired, despite Lucas’s assertions (and film-doctoring) to the contrary. So, while Word of God is considered very influential, it doesn’t have the power to alter the actual work, and is often just considered a very well-reasoned opinion on the piece to be taken into consideration. The piece itself still stands on its own though.

Darius:

> How much of the text has to support an interpretation before it can be considered valid?

For you? However much you want. For others – however much is needed to convince them. This depends a lot on how convincing one is, and how friendly the audience is. :)

> If the author isn’t, in fact, dead and makes a statement that a given interpretation is incorrect, could that statement be considered a part of the work’s canon and therefore invalidate the interpretation?

Canon is a weird thing, because it is determined by a central authority. In the USA, this is generally whoever owns the copyright. The day that Disney said “The Star Wars Extended Universe is no longer canon. Now what we licence and produce is canon instead,” that became true. When the Catholic church declares which books (and which translations) are canon and which aren’t, that’s true for them as well.

But on the other hand, that’s only true insomuch as people accept it. When a protestant sect says the Book of Judith isn’t canon, that’s true for their followers. And when the entire Star Wars fan base says “We don’t care what Disney or Lucas declare, we don’t accept that Greedo shot first,” then Han Shot First is the story that lives in everyone’s mind regardless of what “official” canon may be.

My big run in with this was in Redshirts. At the end of the novella Scazli ends a chapter with:Several months later, an asteroid hit the ship and everyone died. The End. (paraphrased, I didn’t look up the exact wording). I was reading on an e-reader, and so I couldn’t see the next page. And that ending really shook me. I sat and thought about it for quite a while. And finally I said, “No. The author is wrong. That didn’t happen. The story in my head does not end that way, because fuck that ending.” And that was that. Then I turned the page and saw the next chapter started with “Just kidding.” My friends who read the physical version said that the end of the previous chapter and the start of the next chapter are both visible when the book is laid open, so they never had any such moment, they could see the “Just Kidding” right there. I am sad that they did not have as profound of an experience as I did.

Of course I can do that because Redshirts doesn’t have an entire community built around it. The Star War Extended Universe erasure was far more contentious, because it creates a bit rift between those who had their universe “taken away” by Disney, and those who don’t care because they’re too young or weren’t interested in the previous EU. Even if the traditionalists refuse to accept the erasure and continue to call the old EU canon, they will eventually be supplanted by a new generation, and their tradition will die out. It is a sad thing. :(

So yeah, canon, bleh. What is it good for?

Mar 072017
 

My short story “Host” is in the March/April issue of Analog Magazine, available right now. I’m ridiculously happy this got published, I was worried that due to its structure it would be unpublishable. My attempt at portraying Very Alien minds probably could have been much more explicit.

This story is more autobiographical than any of the others I’ve written. That’s not necessarily saying a lot, as I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible for a writer to NOT write everything at least partially autobiographical. At least if it’s any good. Some part of you will always suffuse what your write. Your fears, your passions, your formative experiences. All fiction is a window into the writer’s mind.

But in this particular case, chunks of the story were lifted directly from my teenage years. The isolation, the dissociation, the loss of The One Friend. Obviously not the Space Zombies. :) It was a shitty period, despite the fact that by almost any objective measurement my life was peachy. Mental issues don’t give a fuck. In that time of my life I welcomed human annihilation, if it would have made things un-broken. Especially because this is what the religion I had been raised in promised as the desirable end-state for humanity anyway. The apocalypse was already ingrained as a good thing in my mind.

Which is where the real autobiographical stuff comes in. This pro-apocalypse position was one of the many things that drove me away from my religion. NOT the death-worship, mind you. Rather, the fact that no one seemed to take it as seriously as it should be taken. I’ve said this a few times before, and I still stick with it – The Spanish Inquisition was doing The Right Thing in a world where their beliefs are objectively true. It is everyone’s moral obligation to act as they did, and anyone who doesn’t is a monster. The paltry sufferings of human life are so utterly irrelevant in the face of eternal suffering/joy that absolutely any price is not only justified, but required. They were Doing The Most Good, by far. The only problem is that in the world they operate in (ie: the real world) there is no God, and they were torturing and murdering people for no reason. Objective facts fucking matter. And since we’re fallible, we should also temper our actions with some degree of uncertainty.

But my religion didn’t preach uncertainty. They knew, as did I, that God existed, and what fate awaited non-believers. And all they did was… knock on doors and try to pass out cheap pamphlets? Guys, that level of failure to actually save people is disgusting. It’s as if Singer’s Well-Dressed Man stood at the edge of the pond and shouted encouragement to The Drowning Child, rather than wading in and doing something. It’s unacceptable. And while I could understand that the Laws of the Corrupt, Fallen Government may be against us, hampering us in being really effective… we nonetheless were NOT talking about how to subvert them, or how to really SAVE people. No one gave any of this the urgency it required. It was like a casual hobby.

I’m a big fan of Ted Chiang, and his ability to take a premise and assume it’s true, and then write the world that would exist under that assumption. I tried to do the same here with my religion’s false premise (and, frankly, the premise of many fundamentalist evangelical religions). I don’t think I really worked out any of my issues, but I stand by Julian’s parting words to his father.

 

Unrelated but fun note — When I submitted “Host” for critique to my Writer’s Workshop (who made it a lot better, thanks guys!!!) they said that starting with the “In The Beginning” snippet was a mistake, and I should move it to later. So instead the first scene is Julian exiting his high school and describing the space station. Literally the week after I made those changes I came upon a satirical SF story that started out with the protagonist describing a giant piece of impressive human engineering in his daily life. The second paragraph began with (paraphrased) “Of course John Doe saw this every day on his way to work, so there was no particular reason for him to really ponder upon it today. But he knew that if he didn’t ponder right at the top, this would never get published in Analog Magazine.” I thought “Haha, maybe this’ll help me sell to Analog, lolz.” Lo and behold, I ended up getting published in Analog Magazine. :P

Feb 232017
 

This is just me collecting a few thoughts about the Grimdark genre for myself in one spot, taken from recent posts and a comment. Like any other genre Grimdark is as much about the flavor as anything else, and flavor is something that’s difficult to put into words, but these are some of my current opinions.

 

I. Bad Choices

In response to “Alasdair Stuart said: you find yourself in a position when you can do the right thing or the thing that means you will survive for another day and they are most definitely not the same thing.”

For me the important part is “being forced into terrible choices” more than “lack of power.” The lack of power often leads to the being forced part, of course.

Really good grimdark will confront a protagonist with a choice between two very important but conflicting goals. This is most apparent when it’s something like “Don’t betray your lover” vs “Continue to live.” But it doesn’t have to be. It can be between something like “Protect your hated ethnic minority” vs “Don’t become a murderous monster.” The key is that both are integral to the character, so in picking one and sacrificing the other, the character is carving out and destroying a piece of their own soul. Willfully. It’s the psychological self-mutilation that I find endlessly fascinating.

In a non-grimdark story, there are ways around this. If you pursue the righteous path, you will be rewarded in the end. In grimdark you will fail, and sometimes that failure is lethal.

It’s also fascinating to watch characters reach the breaking point where they refuse to sink any lower, and observe the consequences of that as well.

 

II. Means Can Be Justified By Ends

In heroic fantasy, there are some things you simply don’t do. In the end, this will be for the best. Even if it costs you your life, the greater good has been served. Grimdark never assumes that things will end well, and so the characters within it are often willing to employ ugly means, if they think the ends are important enough.

It should be noted that sometimes they will fail anyway. Doing bad is not a way to achieve your goals. The real question is about what ends up being effective, not what is good or bad. Sometimes bad works, sometimes it doesn’t, and the uncertainty just makes the whole world even worse. But every now and then, every one of us has a certain thing we’d be willing to mutilate ourselves to achieve, because it’s simply that important.

 

III. Power Precedes Morality

When characters come into conflict, they don’t win due to their virtue. They succeed or fail purely on their ability to impose their will on others. We want our heroes to win because they are better people. But the REASON they win is because they are better at violence then their opposition. It can be tricky to demonstrate the difference between the two, because in both cases the heroes are better people than the antagonists, and in both cases they win by prevailing in a violent conflict. But in one case the moral goodness of the goal/person is the narrative reason for their victory, and in the other it is entirely orthogonal.

 

Of course there’s plenty of bad grimdark out there, just as there’s plenty of bad everything. And this is certainly not to everyone’s taste. But I like it, and these are some of the reasons why.