Feb 212017
 

This post is FULL of spoilers. Go read The Obelisk Gate first if you were planning on it, and come back later.

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..

I. Fantasy v SciFi

For the second half of Fifth Season and first half of Obelisk Gate I really enjoyed the tension that this might technically be Science Fiction rather than Fantasy. That’s always a very contentious issue when Fantasy is set in a future far enough out of that we may have crossed Clarke’s Line of “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I tend to agree with those who say the best way to distinguish Fantasy from SF is via the furniture, and in that case this is certainly Fantasy. But still, the edge-case-exploration part of my mind was very titillated and happy.

So I was a little sad when this finally tipped into full Fantasy for me. That happened when it was revealed that the Earth itself really is a Sentient Being that we’ve enslaved (via coretap) and whose child we’ve taken from it. A member of my book club tried to say “Hey, maybe it still is SF. It could be that a sufficiently advanced AI has taken responsibility for the planet, such as the EarthMinds of various SF series.” I don’t buy it though. It seems implied that the Earth has been sentient since long before humans came around, and that it feels pain and emotions.

On the plus side, holy shit, we are in a war against a freakin’ Elder God that we LIVE ON! And based on the first two books, this really does look like a truly Alien mind. So much so that we and it weren’t even aware of each other’s existence for most of our history, because we’re so different and incomprehensible to each other. It’s still almost impossible to comprehend, and negotiation certainly seems unlikely. Have I mentioned how much I love books with legit Gods in them? I’m always happy to find good Lovecraft unexpectedly in what I’m reading. :)

Also, I love that the tables are somewhat flipped. The Roggas are the exploited minority throughout the first two books, and their enslavement is a major driving force for Essun’s character. Then near the end of Book 2 it turns out that her existence (and the existence of her minority) is dependent upon the enslavement and exploitation of a vast, non-human being. What Now, Punk? :) (and to top it all off, it had it’s child ripped away from it by its enslavers, the same way Essun has had her children ripped away from her. d’oh!)

 

 

II. Grimdark v Noblebright

The “grimdark” scene I mentioned in my review is the one where the community is voting on whether or not to expel their Rogga minority to prevent war with the intolerant much-greater force besieging them. Essun destroys the ballot box without counting it, and says that the Roggas stay because human rights are non-negotiable and she’ll kill anyone that opposes her on this, because she can kill every last motherfucker in this com and she will.

This is absolutely fucking awesome, because first of all, that is some BURNING PASSION IDEALISM that even Rorschach would be happy with. Superior force offers us a choice between betraying our ideals or complete annihilation? Take annihilation. Every single fucking time. And take down as many of those bastards with you as you can. It’s probably not the correct answer, but it’s the one that fills me with joy. Never compromise. Even in the face of Armageddon. Not about something this important.

In a noblebright fantasy, this would have been resolved differently. The hero would convince enough of their fellow villagers to stick with their ideals, and they’d unite voluntarily. Or a Rogga would sacrifice themselves in a noble display, reminding everyone how worthy of respect they are. Or a Rogga/Still Romeo & Juliette situation would unify the community. But it would be achieved via good means, that we approve of. Because in noblebright, there is never a conflict between Means and Ends. The Ends never justify the Means, because as long as you uphold pure Means, you will eventually achieve good Ends.

Grimdark doesn’t take that as a given. And so every now and then a character is presented with an End they feel is so important, they say “fuck it” and resort to violent, even “evil” Means. Like threatening to murder everyone in your community, and being ready to carry it out.

I think I like this in my fiction so much specifically because its such a terrible idea IRL. The whole point of fiction is to live out things that are terrible ideas in real life because they usually get you killed, or destroy civil society, or something. Any real-life Rorschach is a murderous psychopathic hobo. The Watchmen Rorschach is the last shining beacon of decency in a world compromised into complete corruption. Or, in Essun’s case, defending her minority, but then going on to wipe out an entire city-state and taking their stuff, not because it’s right but because it’s convenient.

I’m pretty sure Essun can’t live through this trilogy, her crimes are too great at this point. I predict Redemptive Death.

 

III. Rage v Nihilism

I’ve mentioned before I like Angry Fiction. I loved the absolute simmering rage that underlay every single sentence of The Fifth Season. I would have been OK with more of that, but Obelisk Gate changed up the emotional theme, going with Nihilism instead. Which, for a world in the midst of an apocalypse, works just fine. :) It was well-executed and it drew me in. I mainly note it because I enjoyed it, and  because it leads to my one major bone of contention…

 

IV. Essun v Nassun

IMHO, Jemisin mixed up Essun’s and Nassun’s roles.

I wrote in my spoilery post-Fifth Season post that The Fifth Season guides the reader on a journey to understanding why a person would want to destroy the world. Really desire it, as a moral good. It does that by following Essun. By the end of the novel we are all saying “Yes. Fuck them all. Burn it all down!” (if we’re me). But by the end of Obelisk Gate it’s obvious that Nassun will be the one trying to destroy the world, while Essun will be trying to save it.

To me this feels like it completely negates the point of the first book. Fifth Gate brought us to the realization why the world must be destroyed. Why would the person who took us on that journey now be thrust into the role of its savior? It feels very out of character.

Furthermore, Nassun is set up very nicely for a character arc where she struggles from nihilism into realizing there is something worth saving the world for, and fighting against her mother to preserve some scrap of humanity. That breakthrough of “There is some good in the world, and it is us” would be beautiful, fighting against her mother’s constant (and VERY in-character and relate-able) disgust and hatred of all the evil works wrought by man.

Using Essun as the savior means that a different destroyer has to be built up over the course of Book 2, which is dumb, since we already have Essun! We spent all of Book 1 getting Essun, and we only have maybe half of Book 2 to create a new Destroyer. This leads to Nassun being forced to do randomly evil things without believable motivations. She realizes that the Fulcrum is where her mother learned to break her hand and her response is… to murder everyone inside the Fulcrum? Mass murder feels like an over-reation to a broken hand. Especially since the only people there now are fellow victims.

Also, she just doesn’t have enough life experience to be realistically motivated to destroy the world. Essun had a LIFETIME of abuse, degradation, enslavement, and self-hatred. She’s experienced and/or witnessed horrific atrocities. She killed her own child. She had another child beaten to death by her husband. Nassun is 12 years old. Almost all of it has been with a doting father (who later tries to murder her) and a cold and fearsome mother. This is absolutely believable motivation for adopting Nihilism. It’s not enough for random acts of mass murder. And certainly not enough to become Destroy Of Mankind.

I suspect that Essun will likewise be forced into out-of-character actions in Book 3, to wedge her into the Savior role. Which is a damned shame. I think I’ll still love Book 3, but man, it coulda been so much better if the protagonist and antagonists hadn’t gotten mixed up in Book 2. :(

Jan 222017
 

In mid-November I was laid off from my accounting job, and decided to finish my novel by year’s end. Despite a huge shock to my personal life right about that time (of which there are still all sorts of aftershocks), I managed to do so. :) I wrote the final line on Dec 30th, 2016.

I’m in my revision pass now, which looks like it’ll take a couple months in itself. But a couple things I’ve learned so far:

1. Working for yourself is far more intense than working for The Man.

I thought working for myself would be relaxing. A nice change of pace from the demands of corporate life, since I could work when and where I liked, and no uniform is required. Oh how wrong I was.

I should perhaps put “working” in quotes, because there’s no guarantee I’ll ever see any money for this. But that being said – when I’m working The Man and I’m at the office, I get paid for every hour that I’m there, period. I don’t have to be at the top of my game. If I show up Monday after a big party weekend, and I’m hungover and working at half-efficiency? No big deal. If I surf Facebook or chat with my coworkers for an hour? Still getting paid.

My posts to this blog have dropped off quite a bit over the last few months. I’m behind with most of the blogs I read, as well as not following the news as much, and I’ve abandoned several podcasts I used to listen to religiously. Because I just don’t have the time anymore. Every single minute I’m NOT working is time that I’m not getting paid, so to speak. Every hour of my life is now divided into “productive” (meaning may support my continuing to be alive) or “non-productive” (which feels like it’s wasted entirely). It’s intense. There is no such thing as “time off” or “down time” or even “slack” when you work for yourself. There’s only Doing The Thing, or Not. And getting sick is a double-whammy. It makes me more jealous of my time, and I was already fairly jealous of it.

I used to work on the Methods of Rationality podcast at the office, during my lunch hour. It was a lot like getting paid to work on my podcast. Now I have to chisel out 6-8 hours of my life every two weeks, taking time away from my writing, or my friends/family, or just rest, to do so. I used to always be a full episode ahead, now I rarely get it finished more than 3 days before it goes live. I still love it, but before it was something I used to fill my “free” time, and now it is a more dearly-felt cost.

I can honestly say I have worked far harder during my last few months of unemployment than I ever worked when I was grinding away in the last decade at the 9-5 (with the exception of some very hairy Quarter-End months.)

2. Starbucks is awesome, cuz work environment matters.

I discovered pretty quickly that working at home just wasn’t working for me. It was too easy to get distracted. There was always something to read, or to do. More than anything else, my bed was right there, and the nap times called me.

“How can I write well when I’m this tired? I can’t. I must rest my brain, and I’ll write afterwards. Whoops, it’s two days later.”

It just felt like such a hollow pursuit. I was floating in a strange limbo and nothing I did mattered. So I went to Starbucks.

At Starbucks, there are other humans. Those humans are always looking at me and judging me. If I am typing away, being productive, they smile, and judge me worthy. If I am surfing the internet or chatting on Facebook, they see how I am wasting my life, and scowl.

I know this isn’t actually true. No one gives a shit what I’m doing, they don’t look at me or my screen. But now I’m no longer in some weird dreamtime, I’m among humans. I’m grounded in the real world. And I’m reminded why I write. It’s for these people around me. To some day be seen and validated and maybe maybe even admired. So I sit, and I write, and I feel good about it. I know this isn’t psychologically healthy, but fuck it – do what works. Cuz in the end that’s all that matters.

Also, no bed nearby, so naps are not an option. :)

 

Anyway, I still need to do a full revision pass, and find an agent, and find a publisher, so I’m only like halfway through the process. And I’ll have to get a day job pretty soon to pay the bills too. But I’m happy to have discovered that if I ever get the chance to do this sort of thing for a living for real, I have the self-discipline to actually sit down and write a novel, rather than sliding into sloth and hedonism. :)

Dec 312016
 

I recently posted a negative review of a book that is, IMHO, bad. The author is well-known, especially for an earlier work that is very well regarded, and a commenter was wondering if they should bump it further back on their “to read” list based on the weakness of this latest work.

My short answer is No.

The longer answer is that for artistic (I) and business (II) reasons, (as well as some fears of my own (III)) it’s very hard to estimate how good one piece of art will be simply based on the fact that it was made by the same creator as a different piece of art.

I.

The artistic reason is because no one really knows what makes something resonate with people at the object level. There are a lot of hints and guidelines (“bleed onto the page”), but there is no way to evaluate a work and say “This will be known as a work of genius” short of releasing it into the wild and watching the results.

This is infuriating to artists (especially to those of us who equate love of our work with self-worth. It sucks to have your value as a human fluctuate based on criteria that are unknowable and spooky and seemingly random!) There is a famous story about Harlan Ellison that really demonstrates this. (I don’t have a cite, so consider it apocryphal until confirmed) He poured his soul into a story. It drew on everything that made him tick, so it’s hard to say how long he spent “writing” it, but in terms of working with ink and paper he spent weeks creating, revising, and polishing it, until it was perfect. It would be his masterwork, and he sent it to his publisher in the knowledge that soon his name would be cemented in SF history. That same night, he jotted off a quick story on a lark, to take a break from the serious writing, and sent that off the next day to a different market. The first story never gained any acclaim, no one remembers it, I don’t even know what it was called. The second story is “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” which is one of the best-known and most-reprinted SF short stories in the genre’s history.

And this sort of thing happens all the time. Every single writer in my Top 5 post has put out work that I considered sub-par, and in some cases just plain shitty. Even Vellum, which I can say probably makes up a portion of my soul, was followed-up by a sequel that was…. well, I basically just ignore that it exists. The same director that gave us Blade Runner (one of the best films to grace the screen) also gave us Prometheus (which I can’t bring myself to link).

Artists have an extremely difficult time seeing what works and what doesn’t when it comes to their own work. The fear is that this can result in great things being lost. My current go-to example is “The Fifth Season“, which is fucking amazing, and one of the best things I’ve read in at least two years. OMG it’s so good. The author, NK Jemisin, said in an interview (which I read myself, so True Fact) that she nearly threw out the entire manuscript because it was such a foaming pile of shit in her eyes that she couldn’t face putting her name on it. Her friends convinced her otherwise, and it made my year, and (perhaps more importantly) won the 2016 Best Novel Hugo. For this reason artists are told not to “self-reject.” The tragedy of a Fifth Season being lost is much worse than if a CrossTalk makes it into publication. Artists to encouraged to simply keep putting things out and let the public judge.

 

II.

The business reason is pretty straightforward. Once an artist does produce something truly amazing, they gain a fan base. Before this time, an artist is a financial risk. Editors and publishers look critically at all work from unknowns, and in theory only things of a certain minimum quality get through. There is a check on the worst stuff. Upcoming artists know this as well, and they often put a ton of effort and angst into making their work as good as it can possibly be. The Jinni And The Golem took the author seven years to write, which is a ridiculously long time. But it paid off.

Once a writer is an award-winning, best-selling author, these checks basically disappear. A publisher knows that the author’s next work will sell, period. An editor may still try their best to force improvements and changes, but the editor is employed by the publisher, and the publisher wants the next book without too much hassle, so they can make a profit. They certainly won’t accept a flat rejection from the editor. And the editor is under psychological pressure as well… they’re altering the work of an award-winning, best-selling artist. That likely causes them to overlook things simply because “maybe this is the new zeitgeist the author is tapping into,” or similar. Of course everyone involved wants the book to be GOOD! They have brands and reputations to maintain, and a good work sells better than a poor one. But the knowledge that this isn’t a major financial risk anymore, combined with the fact that no one really knows what’s good or not (as per Section I), means more mediocre stuff will get through.

 

III.

I also have a couple personal fears about causes behind this.

The first fear is that no one has more than one truly genius work inside of them. This is the terror that keeps me up at night. That everything that makes someone who they are can be best expressed in one ground-shaking work. Most people will never make their ground-shaking work. But some of them are lucky enough to make their Neuromancer or their Catcher In The Rye. And everything after that is simply chasing the dragon. It is riding on the glory of that first success. For some people this artistic climax doesn’t come until midway through their career, or maybe at the very end of it. For others it comes right at the start. I don’t know which is worse. If it comes near the start, then you can live off your art for the rest of your life, as your fans continue to buy the rest of your works. On the other hand, you will forever be striving to match that first incredible piece, and you will always fall short, for as long as you live. Oh god. :(

This is basically a “regression to the mean” effect, and one shouldn’t miss out on an artist’s fantastic outlier at their peak simply because later/earlier works have regressed to the mean.

The other fear is that art comes from pain. Once an artist puts out that big hit, they get acceptance, and love, and money, all of which make life suck less. Also they can often use that money to get therapy and become more complete and less-broken humans. Which also means they can’t put out work as good as they did when they were in pain. So, horrifyingly, the choice is between a good life or good art. :( Naturally, most people choose a good life.

 

IV.

So in summary, no, don’t bump something down a list just because other works by the same artist are kinda crappy. There isn’t much relation. You can certainly judge some things based on author… I’ve read a few things by Mira Grant, and despite her popularity, I really hate all of them. I will never read something she’s written again, unless I get a LOT of assurance from sources I really trust that this work is a break from the past, and actually is in-freaking-credible. And likewise, I’ll probably read everything Yudkowsky and Chiang ever put out.

But if you’ve heard a work is genuinely great, like The Doomsday Book is said to be, and it’s well-regarded by the community and/or people you trust, and it’s won awards… well, then it is very likely good, and don’t let future works affect your ordering.

 

Oct 262016
 

palace-of-solitudeFirst of all – thank you to everyone who replied to my last post. It helps. :)

 

Recently I received an email about my flash fiction piece, wherein a reader expressed appreciation for it. In addition to making me feel happy, it reminded me of something Seth Dickinson said the first time I wrote him, years ago now, about his piece “A Plant (Whose Name is Destroyed)“. He thanked me for writing, because no one ever engages with short fiction. I didn’t know what he meant by that at the time. But now I do.

It’s very hard to gauge reader reactions to stories that are published in more “traditional” venues. There normally aren’t comments/likes to give feedback, and even in venues that DO provide a comment section, the vast majority of people never post any comments at all.

The artists I know feed on validation. It could be a general artistic thing, or a general human thing, or maybe I’m just stuck in a very weird social bubble. /shrug. I almost wish I’d gone into one of the performance arts… When you act, or play music, or do stand-up comedy, you have immediate feedback from the audience. That doesn’t happen with the written word. Which means that those of us that feed on validation but don’t perform are starving.

There is some recourse. I go to WorldCon regularly now, and as Robin Hanson noted, it’s a long party to celebrate the authors we admire. But even there, interaction is a bit limited. If I had to guess, I would say this is exactly why serialized fiction has become so popular again. People actually leave feedback on serial fiction. Scott Alexander could publish Unsong as a single completed novel. But he’d never see more than the smallest fraction of the community interaction that comes from telling a story to a collective audience over time.

Fanfiction is the same, I previously quoted a friend who observed “I wrote one short little fic after I saw Thor: The Dark World and in the time since I put it online I have literally received more feedback on it than I have in total for every piece of original work I’ve ever published. It’s like pure black tar heroin for the sad little twitching addict that is a writer’s ego.”

I am also guilty of this. I’ve read stories that really moved me, and then never said a thing. Like, almost moved me to tears, and the author has no clue.

This is unfortunate, and I want to do my part to help change it. From now on, if a work takes my breath away, I will leave a comment on it, even if to say nothing more than that. If commenting isn’t an option, I’ll spend five minutes trying to find an email, website, or twitter of the author instead, and send them thanks. Reading something like that is rare, and it’s not fair for someone to not know they’re appreciated. In fact, I’m going to go back and do that right now, for several works I’ve read in the past year that I left uncommented. They deserve no less.

 

(That being said, this is not the thread to say good things about anything of mine that you’ve liked. If you agree with any of this, please find something you’ve loved by someone else, and comment/tell them instead! Spread it outward. :) Thanks!)

Aug 262016
 

lightningA very spoiler-heavy discussion of the bits I liked most about Too Like The Lightning follows.

If you have any interest in reading the book, I would suggest doing so first, as having spoilers may significantly reduce your enjoyment of the novel – more so than most novels IMHO. But OTOH it seems like a fair bit of the reading public was not as heavily affected by the mid-book Reveal as I was. Still, please consider. This post will still be here in a week, or month, or year.

 

Ahem.

 

I – Mycroft

So, obviously I have to start with the Big Reveal that made me have to put down the book for X days. Since at least one commenter said he’s not sure which one I mean (there’s lots of twists and reveals), it’s obvious not everyone is as affected. I call it the Mycroft Reveal, wherein we get actual visceral details on the horrific crimes he committed.

I am, by nature, not a very forgiving person. This is tempered by the fact that it takes a lot to actually get me to the point of hating someone. But I have an ingrained sense that while people can change, very almost never actually do. And that no matter how much you change, your crime still hurt your victim, and your changes won’t fix that.

Palmer spends much of the first half of the book making me love Mycroft. He is humble, he’s smart, he does his best to help others. He’s charming, engaging the reader in conversation directly. Once he goes off on a tangent lamenting how visor should be spelled with a ‘z’ because it’s a futuristic-sounding word, and it’s not fair that it isn’t, and then the next time you see the word “visor” in narration its spelled “vizor” and you laugh out loud at his little rebellion (or you do if you’re me). He is shown to be a good person, and I like him.

And then you see that he’s a torturer, a rapist, and a murderer. Killing his foster family, people who loved and trusted him, in the most horrific ways he can, recording parts of it for media titillation. This is a person who deserves to die. A person who deserves to die by the most painful execution method we have available. Yet he’s still alive, and mostly happy, and I do not give a single fuck that he has changed, you made me like him!!

I was so pissed. I am still pissed, actually. Because current-day Mycroft seems to be a good person, and he has unique abilities that the world needs to keep running, and sure sure, he’s not a danger to anyone anymore. I still don’t care. I want him dead, and I’m not apologizing. If current-day Mycroft has to be snuffed out for past-Mycrofts sins, I’m OK with that.

Honestly, I feel like Palmer cheated. Because in real life, no one who does that sort of thing could ever be a good person. But since she can create the entire world, and the people within it, she can create this Literally Impossible situation where the person who could do those acts can somehow also be a good person. Because he was disturbed, and emotionally shattered. Because he was driven to it by a violent sociopath. Because he literally had to do these things in order to prevent world war that would result in basically a planet-wide Rwanda-style genocide/massacre. Isn’t it worth torturing your loved ones, in order to prevent that level of planetary horror? The utilitarian answer is yes. But this would never happen, this is equivalent to the 24-style torture-apologetics. It smacks of Ender’s Game-style genocide-apologetics.  I can read about these people. But I will not sympathize with them. I reject any bid that I consider them equal human beings, and that I should forgive them. I leave that to the priests.

I was super-conflicted about this, because less than one week prior to that, I sat on the “Creating the Anti-Hero” panel at MALcon.  I put forth the proposition that a good anti-hero is someone who pursues  goals that we admire, but is forced to do so using methods we find repellant by their circumstances, and their emotional struggle with this. Firefly is the go-to example, as that show can legitimately be said to be about the villains of that universe. I always go with Watchmen, because I find both Rorschach and Ozymandias fit this perfectly, altho in opposing ways. In the end, Ozy prevents world-wide nuclear war. He saved the human race. And he only had to murder everyone in New York City to do it. I’ll be honest – I admire him. I think he is both a villain and a hero. Preserving the human race is a hell of a goal, and (to paraphrase Too Like The Lightning) you should be happy to sacrifice any subset of the world if you are literally saving the world, because you would have lost that subset anyway if the world ended PLUS everything else.

But that Mycroft seems to delight in it! Maybe I can thank him for saving the world. But I still want him dead. Call me human.

I did keep reading anyway.

Of course there’s three more books to come. Much is still to be revealed. My reactions are to this book alone. I hope they do not change though. I will have to wonder what it says about me if they do. This is what I meant when I said “this book is about your reaction to it,” altho again, it seems not everyone felt it hit home as deeply as I did.

 

II – The author as God

This novel reminded me of The Etched City in that both are about nominally mundane worlds wherein miracles suddenly occur, and people struggle to understand what the hell that means. But The Etched City takes place in a fictional world, in a pre-WW1 era. There are some simple firearms, but it’s enough in the past that it doesn’t feel contemporary. The furniture is Fantasy, not Sci-Fi. So having a miracle(s) produced by (one assumes) a god, didn’t throw me out of the story. In an Sci Fi setting, it kinda did. I finally got over this during one of the novel’s many dialogs, wherein J.E.D.D. says “the protagonist of every work of fiction is Humanity, and the antagonist is God.” (I was primed with an earlier reference to Greek Heroes being “beloved of the gods”)

I’m currently in the process of attempting to write a novel that grapples with a similar theme. So when I read this, what I saw is “the inhabitants of fictional worlds are put in awful situations by the author, for entertainment. The author has created them, and is responsible for everything in existence, and they have no say in the matter and exist in a separate reality that can never affect the author directly. The author is literally their God.” This is a massive Fourth-Wall Break, and it is done within the novel. Beautifully so. The inhabitants of this novel don’t know they are in a fictional world. The reader probably doesn’t realize they are creating that world in their mind, and that its framework was constructed by that world’s God, Ada Palmer.

The book keeps bringing us back to this theme with Jehovah, who I think has created a world of his own as well. At first I thought he was running a Reality Simulation on a supercomputer hidden somewhere. Later I thought maybe that supercomputer is his own mind, and the beings that exist in it are literally “thoughts in the mind of God”. By the end of the book I’m not sure anymore, as it is said that his powers mirror those of Bridger, and that Bridger is the God of the novel’s world.

This brings up interesting questions about Bridger. Is Bridger the author-insert in this story? Every other name in the book has major significance, and this would be the most significant naming of all – Bridger is literally the bridge that brings Ada-Palmer-The-Author from our real world, into the world she’s writing, as a character within it.

That’s why I became OK with Bridger having god-powers. Because if he is Palmer, then of course he can do anything. He is literally the author. There is no magic. There is only a reminder that these are words on a page, put there to stimulate my mind in ways the author thinks I will find enjoyable. If that means writing that plastic turns into flesh at a touch, then so be it. I accept that. It works for me.

 

III – Jehovah

Holy crap, Jehovah is awesome. Not just because he is a stone-cold  badass. Not just because he strongly reminds me of one of my favorite anime characters, L/Lawliet. But because he is the me-insert in this novel. Other characters speaking of him – “Oh yes, [Jehovah really does hate this universe that much], He just doesn’t realize yet that what He feels is named hate.” And “if He met the callous Bastard who designed this universe of suffering, He’d… criticize, protest, scream […] if He did scream, if He wore His sacred throat to blisters screaming, this universe’s Maker wouldn’t care.”  Oh. My. God. So good. All the sympathy, all the admiration. I hope to see so much more of him.

 

IV – Set-Sets

I love how Palmer whip-lashed my opinions of them. I loved them at first! They are what I aspired to be in my younger years. Renounce the flesh, live the mental life, upload if possible. I cheered at “you’ve never seen a six-dimensional homoscedastic crest up from the data sea, and you never will because you’re wasting those nerves on telling you your knee itches.” They have great personality and wit, they are people!

And then late in the book I discovered they never change. Never grow. And I was horrified. I was reminded of Diaspora, which finally truly drove home to me that Life Is Change. A person that is not changing can just as easily be replaced by a hard drive containing an archive of their thoughts. A species that doesn’t change can be replaced by a galaxy-sized statue made of memory crystal containing a saved state of all their simulated interactions. It was one of the most influential books on my personal view of what it means to be human. And these Set-Sets… they are things that were forced into mental stasis by their “parents”. They are not humans, they aren’t even people. They’re p-zombies. I shuddered.

 

OK, I think I got all of that off my chest. Whew! I’m looking forward to the next book!

Aug 012016
 

IMG_20160731_152605860I have been published again, this time in an anthology! My story “Of All Possible Worlds” appears in the Swords v Cthulhu anthology which is available now. You can get it from Amazon, or the publishers website (which has it in electronic version as well as paperback), and likely many other book sellers. I am very proud of this story, so I will talk about it a bit below. But first – what other people have said (both about the anthology, and about my contribution)


Aksel Dadswell said: “One of the best Lovecraftian anthologies out there, and one of the best anthologies this year in general” & “The truth is, there are a lot of Lovecraft-inspired anthologies oozing out of the woodwork every year, and it’s just a matter of statistics that not all of them are going to be as original or scary or fun as they could be. Some of them, though, exceed all expectations, and Swords v Cthulhu is one of them.”

He does mention my story specifically at one point, noting “Just as the protagonist walks through the world as if in a dream, so the story feels like a waking haze. Dreams ooze into reality and back again with sickening ease. At one point the narrator proclaims that “every nerve had been frayed down to its raw, bleeding quick,” and I certainly felt that way, vicariously experiencing the horror myself. There’s a pleasing kind of bloody circularity to the story that gives it that little bit of extra weight, too.”

 

Teodor Reljic reviewed every single story in the anthology here!  I think that means he liked it. In the review of “Of All Possible Worlds” he says “A story with grit and teeth, told by a surrealist street performer who would just as soon slit your throat for all your cash rather than simply accepting your busking tips.” :) I take that as praise! To dispel any doubt he mentioned on twitter “Loved this Ancient Roman mindfuck”, so there’s that.

 

This is the teaser from my story that the editors posted on Facebook:

“Darkness flickered at the edge of my vision. A shadow swooped through the air, movement where there should be none. I strained to look at it but there was nothing to focus on. An inexplicable presence descended to the savage’s side, and as it touched the sand, it finally resolved into a discrete thing with surfaces and heft.

Its body was that of an ox-sized crow, but bare of any feathers. Black skin stuck tightly to jutting bones. A jagged beak took up the entire face, its upper mandible curving down from the top of the skull. The wings consisted of long arms webbed to the body in the manner of bats. Cricket-like legs folded beneath it.

The Colosseum grew still. Even the gladiators gaped at this intruder. With a shout of glee, the barbarian wizard hopped on the monster’s back, throwing his arms around its neck. It leapt upward with a beating of its wings, a deafening squawk piercing the sky.”


Alright, so about writing the story itself. I’ll make this brief and spoiler-free.

The primary plot driver is my fear and loathing of dreams. Not just nightmares—all dreams. Every dream is an epistemic nightmare to me, because they implant events into my memories that NEVER ACTUALLY HAPPENED. This is extremely disturbing to me. My memories are me. They are the most personal record I have of what I am, and I’m already well aware that they are a shitty, corruptible record. I’ve always had a poor episodic memory. I can’t recall names well. I often embarrass myself in conversation by re-asking things that people have already told me which were fairly important events to them. I’m pretty sure I will lose everything I am via Alzheimer’s some day. So the absolute last thing I want is to start generating random, non-real events on the fly and sneakily implanting them into my self-archive. You know that fear transhumanists have of an outside entity hacking into your brain and rewriting your memories to alter you? It was nicely portrayed in the opening scenes of Ghost In The Shell, to use a well-known example. I have that, all the time, and the outside entity is my own fucking brain!

Sometimes the dreams are so unrealistic I’m able to brush them off as obvious forgeries (one of them is retold almost exactly as it happened within the story). But many are realistic, and I only discover them out of luck. I don’t know how many of my memories are like this. I assume/hope only a very small percentage. But that fear is always there. How much of my life is a lie?

I tried to demonstrate that fear in the story, and maybe make the reader feel a little bit of it as well.

Influencing this fear is also the common transhumanist “What if this is all a simulation?” fear,  which I consider very related. “Wake up, Neo.”

Finally, if this is all a simulation, why is it such an awful one? Why is violence the final arbiter of all things? God could have made a world where humans were physically unable to harm each other, and he didn’t. That was just one more thing in a long litany of things that led me to doubt the God hypothesis in the first place. But if there was a God… the fact that the world is as it is says a lot about Him/Her/It.

 

My copies just arrived, so I haven’t read any of the other stories within yet, but a lot of them sound awesome, and I plan to over the next month or two! That being said, I’m kinda side-eyeing our publisher. The book seems to have had two different release dates (July 12 for Amazon, Aug 1 for all other wholesalers? Was that intentional?), and there still aren’t electronic versions available at Amazon or B&N. /shrug. Hopefully an oversight that will be resolved soon.

Jul 112016
 

sidewise logohome2007Hey, you know the short story I wrote last year, “Red Legacy”? It’s a finalist for the 2015 Sidewise Award for Alternative History!!!

It’s interesting… I didn’t originally intend for this to be an alternative history story. I was just going for supervillain origin story. But I’d long been enraptured with Lamarckian evolution. It is the perfect evolutionary theory for communism, because it’s so damn optimistic! Darwinian evolution is a horror, as I expound on in the story. You get born with random genes, and then you find out if they’re good enough by being killed by nature (or, if you’re lucky, avoiding that). The selection process is needlessly cruel, and the determination of your worth (fitness of genes) is capricious and beyond your control. It’s a lot like Calvinism. You’re already saved or damned before you’re born, which one is the case is entirely beyond your control, and you have to go through this entire painful BS “life” thing just to find out which one you were fated to. :(

Lamarckian evolution, OTOH, is quasi-fair! If you work hard, you are rewarded. It closes its eyes to the cruel nature of reality, and embraces a comforting fantasy, because that fantasy is the way the world SHOULD work. Which, IMHO, is exactly the same thing communism does. And both failed for the same reason. Reality doesn’t care about what you think is fair.

Anyway, I wrote before about how much I love that Ted Chiang takes apart the world, changes one thing, and then puts it back together to see how it would run with that one thing changed. I don’t think I did quite that, I cannot aspire to Chiang-levels of writing. But I tried. If Lamarckian evolution is true, that’s a big change. It affects a lot more than just my one scientist in her laboratory, it alters how everything on earth works. I can’t get into all of them in a short story, but how does the world look different in ways that are relevant to the plot? If societal structures stayed similar to what we’re familiar with, what effect would that have? If the world looks like how the Soviets of the 50s envisioned it, how could that be explained in Lamarckian terms?

And so you get things like Europe’s aristocratic killer-elite. :)

Anyway, I am thrilled and honored to have been selected as a finalist for this award, and I look forward to meeting my fellow nominees at WorldCon next month!

May 092016
 

philosoraptorSo um… being immersed in non-stop Hugo Controversy and Tinglers over the last two weeks does weird things to one’s brain.

Last year I wrote Amazing Man as a satirical take on the 2015 Sad Puppies fiasco, with the titular character acting as a mash-up of Larry Correia and Brad Torgerson. I never expected to re-enter that universe. But two days after reading this Tingle interview, a story of how REAL LOVE would redeem Amazing Man invaded my brain, and wouldn’t leave.

I pounded out the following story – Amazing Man 2: Love Conquers All – over the weekend. I tried to start with the violence-porn of Amazing Man, and move it into the dinosaur-porn of Tingle. I think it’s OK! I wish I could have gone with First-Person Present-Tense, as that seems soooooo ideal for erotica! Ah well.

This world isn’t very deep in the Tingleverse, so it’s not as absurd as a lot of Tingle’s stuff. I still wanted a redemption for Emilio, after all. It also assumes familiarity with Amazing Man 1. It’s 4400 words, but 1500 of it is gay erotica, so the non-erotica part comes out to right about the same length as Amazing Man 1.

Of course it does not even compare to the Tinglers of The Master. But it was a damn fun use of my weekend. :) And it makes me feel better about getting back to my novel. I’ve been hung up on it for a while lately, barely sputtering out a few hundred words a week, and this feels like it rammed clear much of the junk clogging up my brain-pipes. Sometimes you just need to have crazy, consequence-free fun with your writing!

Amazing Man 2: Love Conquers All

Jan 202016
 

star-wars-force-awakens-rey-bb8-daisy-ridley1(minor spoiler for The Force Awakens below)

I broke down and saw the new Star Wars movie, in large part so that I could participate in conversations with my friends. I was hoping I’d be surprised, but I didn’t expect to be bored. I left confused, because there’s all sorts of really great things to like about the movie, but when you put them all together, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Why was it so damn boring?

After days of pondering, I’m pretty sure the movie lost me very early on, in one fatal scene. That being the scene where Rey steals BB8 from a fellow scavenger.

Not because I have a problem with the action itself, but rather because the scavenger doesn’t react. Ray runs up, yells a few mean words at the scavenger, then rips BB8 from the scavenger’s mount to claim him. She scoots away a few steps and starts inspecting her new-found loot. The scavenger scowls and goes about his business.

This is utterly unbelievable. No way is someone going to run up to me while I’m driving, take valuables out of my car, and then wander away a few steps before settling down, without SOME SORT of reaction from me. Especially if I’m a desperate scavenger barely eking out a living. The scavenger presented in that scene is there soley to deliver BB8 to Rey. He didn’t exist before that moment and he won’t exist after it, and he knows this and accepts it.

To make matters worse, Rey is also aware of this. She doesn’t bother to flee or take a defensive position or even keep an eye on the scavenger. She accepts that his role is complete, and he can now pass gracefully from this mortal coil.

In those few seconds, the movie told me everything I needed to know to completely destroy my enjoyment. The director (or writer?) has no respect for his audience. He doesn’t care to speak with them. This is not a story. This is merely a number of set-pieces, loosely strung together. All action loses meaning, because there are no people in this movie. There are only philosophical zombies, progressing through a chronology of events without intention or awareness.

This is not a narrative, it is a 2-hour toy commercial. Made by people who have forgotten how to play with toys.

I realize that all stories are predetermined narratives, all “freely chosen actions” are contrived by the author to suit his goals. But those goals are supposed to include causing his audience to generate a model of a person in their head, and empathizing with that person. When it is clear that the author’s model of the characters aren’t living people, but rather of empty dolls that fill in the people-shaped holes in a spectacle, it becomes impossible to empathize with them. And so, watching hollow plastic pieces being continuously re-arranged in dramatic poses for the camera, I was bored.

It could have been a good story, had anyone cared to tell one.