September 19, 2020

Slice of PIE: Reflections On Writing From the Viewpoint of the Poor and Powerless

NOT using the Programme Guide of the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention, ConZEALAND (The First Virtual World Science Fiction Convention; to which I be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I WOULD jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. But not today. This explanation is reserved for when I dash “off topic”, sometimes reviewing movies, sometimes reviewing books, and other times taking up the spirit of a blog an old friend of mine used to keep called THE RANTING ROOM…

On July 11, 2020, I wrote the following Slice of Pie essay: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2020/07/slice-of-pie-science-fiction-fantasy.html

On reflection, I was wondering HOW I could possibly write a story in which the main character has a problem to solve, but no way to solve it. They will lack not only physical resources like food, water, and transportation; but the fact of the matter is that they’ll also lack imagination and connections.

Lacking imagination is NOT the same thing as being stupid. What I’m talking about is that they live in a world where not only is it circumscribed by limited opportunities to LEAVE their place, they have (most likely) no idea where they could go.

Absolutely, they watch television – HGTV, ESPN, or even TV shows on broadcast if they can’t (probably) afford cable or dish TV (and it’s unlikely that their cellphone minutes would be wasted on watching TV on a tiny screen.)

I do not, myself live in poverty, but come from a version of it – my parents and the four of us kids know all about food stamps, back when they were actual stamps; and while it isn’t recent, my wife and I received food stamps as well as living in a high lower class block of apartments. When my wife did daycare, it was for a single mother whose child was the product of rape…(who now has her PhD…by the way; Mom is a nurse and got her degree over a very long period of time).

So, I suppose I answered my own question: how can you have a protagonist live in abject poverty and expect anything to happen in the story? I think the answer is that unless a writer imbues their poor character with exceptional gifts or powers, there IS no story.

I recently commented on a novel I read through a review on Amazon.com, “Also, other than the sadness of his life story, the main characters suffers not even the slightest side effects of being a slave for twenty-some years -- except that he doesn't understand human slang. While the story doesn’t need to be a leaflet denouncing slavery, Vogel writes in the 21st Century while Heinlein wrote in the middle of the 20th. I would have liked to see a few peeks into his damaged personality and see more than [his fiancé’s]  comment when she finds out that [his] father sold him with the [starship]: “‘That's disgusting!’ I wanted to condemn [his] father more, then I remembered the approaching fleet...”                         

Robert A Heinlein’s CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY at least attempts to delve into the disastrous effect of slavery on a person. Alan Brown re-reviews the book here: https://www.tor.com/2019/08/29/duty-and-dystopia-citizen-of-the-galaxy-by-robert-a-heinlein/ But again, the changes in the “universe” at large aren’t made by the powerless slave. They’re made by first his owner, then by himself…when he discovers he’s an immensely rich man.

This sends a sad message: the only way out of poverty is to get rich.

Even Barack Obama reinforced this paradigm: yes his mom was poorer than average; but he was smart and ended up using the smarts to attend private schools and colleges. He was by no means a child brought  up in poverty. Oprah Winfrey started life poor and became a billionaire…Abraham Lincoln was NOT wealthy, yet is one of the most fondly remembered and influential presidents in American history. So there’s one story…another might be former slave Josiah Walls was drafted a Confederate, captured by the Union and freed and eventually became a congressman in Florida.

There is, in fact, a huge list of people who began their lives enslaved and ended up having a profound effect on the world. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_enslaved_people)

While I am not familiar with most of them, it might be instructive for me to do some reading and discover what allowed them to become who they LATER grew to be – and then perhaps take a stab at reimagining a story like CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY without the discovery that they’re the long missing child of someone rich, famous, or powerful.

And I’d need to examine what exactly happens to the soul, heart, and spirit of the individuals who come from poverty or slavery and become “someone”…

References: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solomon_Northup

Images: https://tipwink.files.wordpress.com/2019/06/citizen-galaxy-asf.jpg

September 15, 2020

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 463


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them. Regarding horror, I found this insight in line with WIRED FOR STORY: “ We seek out…stories which give us a place to put our fears…Stories that frighten us or unsettle us - not just horror stories, but ones that make us uncomfortable or that strike a chord somewhere deep inside - give us the means to explore the things that scare us…” – Lou Morgan (The Guardian)

H Trope: Horror-Comedy: Comedy Dominant (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HorrorComedy)

Ava Williams yanked the outboard motor starter. It didn’t start.

Up the beach Elijah Turner, heir apparent to his daddy’s Gators & Taters chain of fast-food restaurants, shouted, “You want me to come over there and give you hand?” He laughed his hyena laugh.

Ava shook her head. “No thanks, but you can come with and dangle your arms in the water for me. If you want, you can dangle your head in the water, too, see if a gator might be interested in helping Humanity get rid of one more parasite!”

Eli flipped her off good-naturedly. She flipped him off with heat. She couldn’t stand the twit. As far as she was concerned, he could…she focused her energy on starting the outboard and yanked it. This time it started. Reversing, she headed out onto the marsh. She wanted some peace and quiet from her parents as they argued about getting a divorce. “Can’t even agree on how to get divorced,” she muttered.

She’d started relaxing when her cellphone blipped. Scowling, she took it out. The message was from Eli – they’d been friends once, in middle school, until she found out that he was more interested in getting some kind of “benefits” she wasn’t interested in passing out. They’d stayed friends for a while, but he eventually found someone in school who wanted what he did. She smirked, though according to gossip…She read the message, “MA SAYS WATCH OUT FOR METHIGATORS”

She rolled her eyes again. Dismal Swamp was on State land, a zillion miles from Nashville which did have a meth problem. But meth wasn’t a big deal in Pocahontas or Bolivar, the nearest “big cities” to the Swamp. Besides, hyperactive alligators couldn’t be any worse than a hyperactive neighbor boy with “benefits” on his mind.

She sighed when she heard the sound of a second motor roar to life. Eli’s boat motor was for trolling – she’d be able to stay ahead of him all day if she wanted to. While she wasn’t looking for ‘gators, she was pretty sure Eli would be on the lookout. She started to grin. Maybe she could kill two ‘gators with one shotgun to the teeny-tiny brain.

She started to aim for shore – which was a dicey proposition at best in Dismal Swamp. Quicksand was common, and the fact was that ‘gators made their way into southern Tennessee almost half a century ago. Eli had ‘gators on the mind – not because his boat, motor, and the rest of the junk in his life came from his daddy’s famous restaurants. Serve him right if he had a face-to-face with an “alligator”. She saw a sandbar and headed for it just as she heard the whine of Eli’s motor clear the point. He’d be able to see her beaching her flat-bottom and figure he could chase her down and maybe get a little handsy.

She gave herself a goose of speed and hit the beach so she wouldn’t have to step into mud. She was lucky – there was already a trail leading from the beach inland. Smirking, she skittered in, pushed the grasses back and squatted down. Her gator “roar” was something she was well-known for in school. Pocahontasa High School had even approached her to be the voice and body of the school mascot, “Pokey Gator”.

She settled, listening carefully to the whine of the motor as Eli looked to land on the sandy beach. Suddenly, the motor stopped…

Names: ♀;♂ Most common names in Tennesee 2020

September 12, 2020

WRITING ADVICE: Short Stories – Advice and Observation #4: NK Jemisin “& Me”


It's been a while since I decided to add something different to my blog rotation. Today I’ll start looking at “advice” for writing short stories – not from me, but from other short story writers. In speculative fiction, “short” has very carefully delineated categories: “The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America specifies word lengths for each category of its Nebula award categories by word count; Novel 40,000 words or over; Novella 17,500 to 39,999 words; Novelette 7,500 to 17,499 words; Short story under 7,500 words.”

I’m going to use advice from people who, in addition to writing novels, have also spent plenty of time “interning” with short stories. The advice will be in the form of one or several quotes off of which I’ll jump and connect it with my own writing experience. While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do most of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

Without further ado, short story advice from NK Jemisin and how I’m working to improve my own short stories:

Oddly enough, Jemisin was, “[A former] counseling psychologist and educator, specializing in career counseling of late adolescents and young adults…[at] a number of universities as an administrator and faculty member…volunteering with community service organizations and some private career coaching… helping real people in real time and working with marginalized kids.” (https://www.orbitbooks.net/interview/n-k-jemisin/)

It so happens that I had a similar job until I retired three months ago – except for the “private career coaching”, though I’ve done that since then for former students who have graduated, I’ve never been paid for it and it wasn’t an “official job”.

At any rate, while I’ve written novels, none of them have been published (two of them were published for a short period of time with a company that did only ebooks and  handled so many that after a brief promotion when it first came out, languished. They also refused to add either book to a new program aimed at putting their ebooks into school libraries…which actually made no sense to me. I figured as a teacher in a school district, I’d be able to personally promote the books. They didn’t see…me. At all. Ever. I withdrew the books and reverted the copyrights back to me.

The vast majority of my published writing has been short stories – the opposite of N K Jemisin’s experience.

But, her publisher recently collected and released a majority of her short stories. I mined several articles to get some insight into how she writes them and then pondered how I can apply her wisdom to my own writing.

She pointed out that, “Back at the beginning of my career, I didn’t think I was capable of writing short fiction, let alone publishing it!”

But apparently, the allure of the short form won her over. “She began writing short stories as a way to tap into her creativity back when publishers didn’t know what to do with books like hers about black characters.”

She’s not a single-genre writer, though she’s found her sweet spot in the fantasy genre. The collection, “How Long ’Til Black Future Month? spans almost the entirety of her career as a published author. It’s a collection of short stories that dazzles in the ease with which it winds across genre and tone.” I confess, I’m not a huge fan of fantasy; I take my recommendations from my daughter, who is far more experienced in choosing what might interest me. Besides the “entry level’ fantasy – LOTR and CON – at her recommendation, I’ve read Jonathan Stroud’s BARTIMEUS series and JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL by Susanna Clarke.

I managed to discover a few others on my own, like Stephen R. Donaldson’s THOMAS COVENANT series; Rebecca Roanhorse’ the first of her Sixth World series, TRAIL OF LIGHTNING; China Miéville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION.

I’ll be able to expand my experience when I read the collection of Jemisin’s short stories above. I’m on the waiting list at the library, where I’m something like #zillion…

At any rate, based on the interviews listed below, I’ve gleaned the following:

She uses “…cities —but not in the meticulous, infrastructure fetishist manner of most speculative fiction writers. Jemisin is an author who conjures place by building a people. What they value, what they believe, what threatens to tear them apart from within.”

Interestingly, she uses short stories to “test” worlds and settings: “If you read ‘Stone Hunger,’ [from How Long ‘til Black Future Month] and then read the Broken Earth series, you would see where I did not like the way that ‘Stone Hunger’ depicted the magical form orogeny. In that short story, it was very ‘sense specific.’ The character thought of everything in terms of the taste of food, and that wasn't going to work, because I wanted it to be effectively a science that had gone wrong.”

As well, “On the best piece of writing advice she got before becoming a published writer: ‘Persist.’ That is, if you continue to work on your craft and continue to improve and continue to submit, you will eventually break through. I’ve found this to be true.”

This is something I also discovered – when I started writing my own stories at the tender age of 12, after I finished reading the Tripod trilogy by John Christopher. That was 51 years ago. Since then, I’ve had stories published in many magazines and on several online venues. I’d never had come this far if I hadn’t just stuck with it and kept writing! The stories on the sidebar are the end result of some 1100 submissions since 1990…There was a time when I read SF just because I liked it – purely for entertainment. Lately, I’ve started reading for deeper meaning.

Don’t get me wrong, I still like to be entertained, but I also want to be challenged. I read BINTI by Nnedi Okorafor and while it was incredibly entertaining and she introduced me to a fascinating alien people, she also challenged my thinking by subtly and repeatedly saying, “What we think is happening isn’t necessarily what is REALLY happening.” This is what the best science fiction writers lead me to – Ted Chiang’s aliens in “Story of Your Life” which became the movie “Arrival”; even the STAR TREK: TNG episode by Joe Menosky and Phillip LaZebnik, “Darmok”.

While I’m not sure that I’m ready to “change society”, I DO try to write stories that challenge us to think beyond what’s going on today. NK Jemisin said, “I didn't used to think [that speculative fiction has the power to change society], and then I started to realize, first off that I was underestimating it, and then second of all that other people had already done that calculation and were using it for evil. It sounds kind of corny, but I started to realize it when right-wingers tried to take over fandom. When you started trying to take over every bit of media, and you suddenly see Nazis in video games and comic books trying their damnedest to squish out people who are different from young, straight, white boys, and harassing and trying to dox them, there's a reason for that.”

In another couple of posts, I talked about the fact that while I’m limited in my point of view by genetics and culture, with care and effort, I can also expand my perception of the world. The essays I’m talking about are here: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2020/02/possibly-not-irritating-essay-other.html and https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2020/07/possibly-irritating-essay-its-mistake.html

As I write, I continue to work to include marginalized people in my stories. My main POV character is “me” because it’s impossible for me to imagine something so alien to me as being, for example, a black man born before the passage of the Civil Rights Amendment – and becoming aware of race and prejudice as I entered adolescence; or as the interviewer said in one article, “On what a ‘white, cisgender man who is well-off and generally has a good life’ can do to ‘advocate for people who are not like [him]’”

I agree that “…people who are not like you are generally doing a good job of advocating for themselves. Might help to just signal-boost them wherever you see them. Do keep in mind that one of the problems marginalized writers face is visibility, in some cases because they’re drowned out by more privileged writers. So if you’ve got a platform, share it!” and though I have no platform yet, I’d like make a commitment to doing that if I ever DO get a platform that attracts more than a couple dozen people each post.

Last of all, she makes sure that in her short stories “…that all of my main characters have a rich internal life—that is, that they have families, beliefs and motivations of their own outside of the plot, hobbies and habits, weird quirks, and so on. All the things that make a character complex and not just a placeholder. If you do it right, the character basically writes herself.”

I have lots more to learn and I can’t wait to read through “How Long ‘til Black Future Month” – and take copious notes!


September 8, 2020

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 462


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them. Regarding Fantasy, this insight was startling: “I see the fantasy genre as an ever-shifting metaphor for life in this world, an innocuous medium that allows the author to examine difficult, even controversial, subjects with impunity. Honor, religion, politics, nobility, integrity, greed—we’ve an endless list of ideals to be dissected and explored. And maybe learned from.” – Melissa McPhail.

Fantasy Trope: Fantasy that is an “Appeal to a pastoral ideal: Much genre fantasy, of all genres, appeals to the pastoral ideal…There are some fantasies, however, which…deliberately take the opposite stance...”

Wú Méi Hé pursed her lips and shook her head, saying, “This is bad.”

Sūn Wén, her partner and sometime boyfriend, grunted and said, “So you say.”

Wii, as her friends called her, said, “How can incorporating ancient magical rites into what’s supposed to be a computer-controlled irrigation system be a bad thing?”

Sunny, as her friends insisted on calling him, shrugged. “It just makes things twice as hard. First they’re learning how the system works, then they have to learn antiquated rituals that will only slow things down.”

Wii stood up straight, peering through the heavy security glass. “This is the latter part of the Twenty-first Century, the whole point of the Central Party’s Future Program is to catapult us over the pathetic remnants of the American technological and educational edifice and prove once and for all…”

Sunny rolled his eyes and turned away, “I’m a member of the Communist Party just like you are. We’re ahead of the Americans; after being behind the Americans; after being ahead of the Egyptians; after being behind the Egyptians...”

“Stop already! I get your point. We’re finally a 21st Century people. The religious rituals they want to perform have all the significance of Santa Claus does to American post-Christians.”

Sunny hummed, then said, “I’m not sure the rituals are as insignificant as you think they are.”

She turned on him. “That’s absurd! What makes you think…”

He lifted his chin and said, “It may have something to do with that…um…thing growing over the substation.” She spun back to the window in time to see a cloud of brown-laced storm cloud forming the vague shape of a Chinese magic-rabbit...

Names: ♀ China (woman martial arts); ♂ Guangdong, China  

September 5, 2020

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: The Civil War, Touring Battlefields, and Submarines...


NOT using the Programme Guide of the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention, ConZEALAND (The First Virtual World Science Fiction Convention; to which I be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I WOULD jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. But not today. This explanation is reserved for when I dash “off topic”, sometimes reviewing movies, sometimes reviewing books, and other times taking up the spirit of a blog an old friend of mine used to keep called THE RANTING ROOM…

I hated history until I was 26.

In high school, US History bored me to tears. After graduation, I avoided standard history classes like the plague, fulfilling my Social Science requirements with Sociology and Psychology. Let me slightly rephrase that: I hated school social studies excepting a single class.

Ms. Flora Rogge taught an elective social studies class called Alienation and Dissent. I was introduced for the very first time to the idea that there were people who didn’t like how the country was being run. Understand that I lived near Minneapolis. It was not particularly notable as a source of social reform. In fact, Duluth, was a hotbed of socialism and Communism!

The thing I remembered from her class was lettuce and California. She showed us a sketchy 16mm film, a montage of events that happened during the Salad Bowl Strike that lasted from August 1970 through March 1971. “…the UFW [the actual field workers] …the Teamsters [truck drivers and packers both went on strike against the lettuce growers] effectively preventing most of the nation's summer lettuce crop from reaching consumers. The price of iceberg lettuce tripled overnight, and thousands of acres of lettuce were plowed under as crops spoiled on the ground. The strike ended…but the contract included a special agreement by the growers to give the Teamsters, not the UFW, access to farms and the right to organize workers into unions. An agreement to return jurisdiction over the field workers to the farm union was reached on August 12…[but the]…agreement collapsed, and…[led by César Chávez] UFW workers [went on strike] in what was the largest farm worker strike in U.S. history…shipments of fresh lettuce nationwide ceased, and the price of lettuce doubled overnight…César Chávez was put in jail…he was visited [by]Rafer Johnson and Ethel Kennedy, widow of slain Senator Robert F. Kennedy…were attacked by an anti-union mob on the steps of the jail, and only intervention by city police, Monterey county sheriff's deputies, and the Brown Berets prevented a riot and injury to the visitors. Chávez was released by the Supreme Court of California…the Teamsters and UFW signed a new jurisdictional agreement reaffirming the UFW's right to organize field workers.”

I liked THAT drama.

So when my son and his family moved from South Korea back to a base in the old Confederacy, he (who is a history buff) loves visiting battlefields: Bentonville, Gettysburg, and Petersburg as well as the hidden cemetery I wrote about here: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2019/07/writing-advice-startling-experience.html

So, the battlefields we went to made a circular and complete story that started (for us) in Bentonville in later summer 2019. It was the largest and last major battle of the Civil War battle, the largest to take place in North Carolina (which was barely a Confederate state). Four Oaks was a farm taken over by the CSS as a hospital where Confederate soldiers were treated for their wounds during the battle in March of 1865. The defeat of the Confederacy loomed, but the war would grind on You can visit the operating room where a huge blood stain (tested positive for Human DNA) remains on the living room floor. It’s a tiny memorial; once again a medical facility, and again, once we walked outside, evoked a sense that there was brief moment in Human history where I could have looked out and seen the bodies of soldiers killed with weapons not designed to inflict the maximum amount of suffering, but doing it anyway.

Next, we went to Gettysburg, which was NOT the last battle, nor the conclusion of the Epic Struggle Between Good and Evil! This was 1862, already the SECOND time the Union engaged the Confederacy in order to turn back the invasion of the North. It was the first time the Union stopped the Confederate march to Washington DC, though Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson reached Antietam in MARYLAND…to fight the bloodiest battle of the war and eventually withdraw.

It was Petersburg, North Carolina where the Civil War actually ended, though with the Siege of Petersburg rather than the battlefield we walked.

At any rate, as you can see, I became interested in history – world history if you must know, fascinated by British history, West African history of kings, queens, and the rise and fall of empires.

At any rate, the number of alternate history American Civil War books is huge – if you’re interested, here’s the list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Civil_War_alternate_histories. With the story noted above, I used the CSA cemetery to spark a science fiction story.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the thing that inspired this post, but I found the USS Monitor vs the CSS Virginia conflict fascinating. Not because of the battle, but because Americans (Union and Confederate) took a concept from the Greeks, the courts of Alexander the Great, the Greeks, the 17th Century English and French. The 18th Century found the Russians and Americans joining in the research and construction of submersibles.

When America split, the Union and Confederate States created and launched submarines, but the Confederacy executed the very first successful attack using a submarine. It took two tries, but the third submarine, the CSS Hunley rammed the USS Housatonic and while it sank with all hands lost, it was a harbinger of things to come.

The USS Monitor. The CSS Virginia. The CSS Hunley. What if?

What if certain problems had been solved earlier than they had been? Self-propelled, steam engine driven submarines made their appearance a few years after the American Civil War. Submarines were even used for the purpose of EXPLORATION (go figure!) and this was their usual purpose prior to 1640, until Bishop John Wilkins of Chester in Mathematical Magick in 1648 suggested its use as a weapon when he wrote, “It may be of great advantages against a Navy of enemies, who by this may be undermined in the water and blown up.”

I’ve often fantasized about underwater exploration lagging far behind space exploration – https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2018/03/slice-of-pie-exploring-solar-system.html. So, what would our present look like if we’d followed the lines of inquiry. If you read the wiki article on submarines below, you’ll find FAR too many times that the Human push for the bottom of the oceans was undermined: “…further improvement in design stagnated for over a century” and  “…Nikonov lost his principal patron and the Admiralty withdrew support for the project” and “The French eventually gave up on the experiment in 1804, as did the British, when Fulton later offered them the submarine design…” and “it was abandoned because of lack of funding and interest from the government” and “Waddington was unable to attract further contracts and went bankrupt”.

A search of this article for the word “exploration” found no uses of it…Hmmm…


September 1, 2020

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 461


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.

And A Prompt From My Niece-In-Law: wool, celery, parallel universe, dynamite, fireman’s ball, fishing tackle.

Jose Taylor-Perez shrugged his shoulders, settling his wool sweater more comfortably. “You eat that and it’ll be like someone lit a stick a dynamite and shoved it up your…”

Emily Patel-Kelly tossed the celery stick at him then punched Jose in the shoulder, “If you weren’t my best friend, that would have been hard enough to knock the humerus out of the ball park.” She snickered, “Not that anything short of a wrecking ball would be able to knock any of your face bones free of that fishing tackle in your mouth.”

“Hey! No fair! I can’t do anything about braces!” he said, shaking his head, “Besides, your premed jokes are only funny to you…added to that, you won’t even be able to BE premed until at the earliest your junior year.”

Ignoring the frustrating fact that she couldn’t start college until she could do College In The Schools, she said, “Like I can do anything about a celery allergy?” She lifted her chin, “Besides, I don’t exactly have a standard reaction to it.”

“You can say that again,” he said as he fiddled with his transparent computer tablet where it hovered over his lap. “You’re the only person I know that can use a V8 Harvest and Strawberry Smoothie as a gateway to a parallel universe.”

She shook her head, “I wish I could see into the universe where I passed this history final with flying colors.”

“That’s for sure,” said Jose. “I’ll never remember who came after President McCain.”

“Don’t be such a sexist – President Palin took over after McCain had his coronary two years after he got elected.”
“Right, the first lady...”

“No, it was the First Husband Todd…” she said, adding a smirk.

“I was gonna say, ‘President’.”

Shaking her head, Emily hunched over her own transparent tablet, setting it to project a holographic screen in front of her. Walking her fingers through a manipulation panel, she absentmindedly picked up a celery stick and shoved it into her mouth. After her eyes grew wide, she muttered, “Oh, crap...”

“What’s wrong?” Jose asked. Her tablet began to glow then flames flickered around the edges as she tried to shove the instrument away from her. “You ate the celery!” He exclaimed. “Why did you do that?”

“I wasn’t thinking! I was playing around with tensor calculus…”

“And you opened a door into a parallel universe!” Jose shouted as the fire alarms went off and a robot fireman’s ball floated out from its nook and began to sprout nozzles. “Now we’re gonna…”

An explosion cut him off…

Names: ♀US(California); US(New York)         
Image:

August 29, 2020

WRITING ADVICE: What Went RIGHT #48…With “Road Veterinarian” (Submitted 5 times with 0 revision, sold to ANALOG Science Fiction & Fact, September/October 2019)


In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Since then, I figured I’ve got enough publications now that I can share some of the things I did “right” and I’m busy sharing that with you.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales. Faulkner once wrote, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.” And Tea Obreht thought that “The best fiction stays with you and changes you.” These are my goals…

This story has a very long genesis, but I’m going to start with fragmentary notes to let you see how I got there:

1) A Friday Challenge contest issued on March 5, 2010 called, “Strange Bot in a Strange Land” (http://thefridaychallenge.blogspot.com/2010/03/friday-challenge-3510.html)

2) A different Friday Challenge issued on March 4, 2011: “Seriously: About The Post-Petroleum Future”; The Friday Challenge (https://thefridaychallenge.blogspot.com/search?q=post-petroleum)

The first one led to a short story called “Oath” (if you want to read it, go to the sidebar and click on the link. It’s still there!)

The second one led to the invention of CHEAPALIN, which is “a living, post-petroleum genetic amalgam called CHEAPALIN, a patchwork of the DNA of nine organisms. “…the road organism – a bioengineered DNA patchwork of Cellulose producing, Heme, Eel, Ameba, Peat moss, Alfalfa, Leukocytes, Iron incorporated in a molecule and a mix of Notothenioidei and Noctilucan cells...acronym CHEAPALIN...[m]odified electric eel cells created current passing through hair-fine iron filaments deposited in the road. A thick black peat pad of iron-rich heme attached to the underside of any car...charged a set of batteries. A magnetic field generated as cars moved over the filaments got read by a microchip implanted in the car’s pad, matching the road’s magnetic field creating a maglev effect. A variety of chlorophyll and alfalfa genes allowed roots growing under the road organism to return nitrogen to the soil, pull up micronutrients and conduct photosynthesis. A semi-transparent, thick cellulose skin protected the whole thing while remaining flexible. A few Notothenioidei genes kept cellular fluids from freezing during Minnesota winters. Noctilucan genes made it glow at night when disturbed. Leukocytes digested roadkill, leaves, branches and old pizza boxes.”

With those pieces, I started playing around with a future dominated by governments encouraging the drift of Humans from rural areas into the cities – called urbanization. Over the last half millennium, people moving from the country into urban centers has accelerated dramatically: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization#/media/File:Urbanization_over_the_past_500_years_(Historical_sources_and_UN_(1500_to_2016)),_OWID.svg

There is no indication that this will slow down as the UN projects that “…half of the world's population will live in urban areas at the end of 2008. It is predicted that by 2050 about 64% of the developing world and 86% of the developed world will be urbanized. That is equivalent to approximately 3 billion urbanites by 2050, much of which will occur in Africa and Asia. Notably, the United Nations has also recently projected that nearly all global population growth from 2017 to 2030 will be by cities, with about 1.1 billion new urbanites over the next 10 years.”

In my future, the UN, backed by the US, China, Brazil, Mexico, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Japan legislates the Back To the Wild Initiatives that would redirect resources from rural areas to urban areas and the eventual creation of 20,000 Vertical Villages, each one with a population of approximately 4,6oo,ooo. The remaining 40,000 Humans work in and around the VVs, farming and doing animal husbandry.

Also, artificial intelligent robots serve as both public safety and service providers, they serve in the armed forces, which had been reduced to the Combined Forces comprised of both military and police Humans, deeply trained, requiring a four year training degree that includes social work, counseling, as well as self-defense, weapons choice, weapons training and development (as test subjects), physical fitness, and world religions, etc.

This story takes place on the cusp of the total application of the BTWI. There are still cities and towns. Javier Quinn Xiong Zaman, a veterinarian and genetic engineer, works near the Minneapolis St Paul Vertical Village. Kidnapped one night, he ends up in the Northwest Angle, the guest of one Sergeant Thatcher, created by the Canadian government and rejected by the Canadian government and declared illegal. She fled to the US where she was covertly inducted into the Marines, then transferred to the US contingent of the Combined Forces.

She and Dr. Scrabble (because of his initials: J, Qu, X, and Z) have to figure out what happened to a piece of CHEAPALIN test road. It seems to have made a break for the Canadian border. If it crosses into Canada, it will be in violation of several anti-genetic modification treaties (the same ones that would have terminated Sergeant Thatcher) and might spark an armed conflict (the last time the US tangled with Canada, Washington, DC was pretty much burned to the ground).

Thatcher and Scrabble somehow turned out to be humorous, and while several reviewers thought CHEAPALIN was absurd, they mostly enjoyed the interaction between Thatcher and Scrabble.

Actually, I enjoyed the interaction. Somehow, the two of them had become “star-crossed lovers” (without the “lover” part). Of course, the pair of them sprang from my own reading and favorite characters. After they came to life on the page, I realized that they had character traits I’d read in Lois McMaster Bujold’s novella, “Labyrinth” (look it up if you’re interested – you won’t be disappointed!) of the main character, Miles Vorkosigan, and a genetic construct he unintentionally rescues, whose name is Nine…which he changes to Taura when he recruits her for his little band of mercenaries…

Anyway, it turns out I liked Thatcher and Dr. Scrabble a lot…so they came alive on the page, and despite the weirdness of the problem they faced, they overcame that and ended up published.

I tried a second story, but when Thatcher left the stage and stayed away (it WAS in fact, because she had no idea where a relationship with Scrabble would go; but I failed to communicate that), the story failed to carry through and was rejected. I’ve started a third, which will be in between “Road Veterinarian” and “Dinosaur Veterinarian”; the working title is “Deer Veterinarium”, so we’ll see where that ends up!

The main thing that went right? While working to make characters seem like real people…I succeded.


August 25, 2020

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 460


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them. Regarding horror, I found this insight in line with WIRED FOR STORY: “ We seek out…stories which give us a place to put our fears…Stories that frighten us or unsettle us - not just horror stories, but ones that make us uncomfortable or that strike a chord somewhere deep inside - give us the means to explore the things that scare us…” – Lou Morgan (The Guardian)

H Trope: Ghosts
Current Event: “To be a ghost in space, I expect you would have to die in space. There is a rumor that just before the Americans landed on the moon, the Soviets had a manned mission crash on the dark side. The cosmonauts died, and no one collected them or their rocket...”

Uiloq Chokim pursed her lips then said, “You know the advertising slogan for the old pre-D movie about some space mining ship that picks up an alien infestation?”

Lachlan Maposa squatted as much as he could in the surface suit to gather up the aluminized shroud. Flotsam and jetsam from the thirty-something annual Jules Verne Medallion Races dribbled down from the “race course” between the International Space Station Museum & Bed & Breakfast and the luxury orbital resort, Kubrick. He grunted as he stood back up and said, “Of course, ‘In space, no one can hear you freak out’.” He moved off in pursuit of another  piece of shroud, following a silvery fiber wending its way across the surface.

“No, stupid! It goes ‘In space, no one can hear you scream’. It was for the movie ALIEN. Late last century it was all the rage. Grandpa talks about it all the time.” She looked up to see him disappear around a lunar stone. “Are you listening to me?”

There was a long pause. She frowned. Then Lachlan said, “Good. Scream. Grandpa.”

She sighed. She was definitely thinking about breaking up with him. He wasn’t the worst boyfriend she’d ever had, but he sure wasn’t the brightest bulb in the Dome. Besides, she’d started to think that she was never going to make her fortune up here. Mineral rights were tied up by two dozen conglomerates and a handful of nations – the Moon looked like Antarctica had in Early Twen – so there was no way to get a job if you didn’t work for them. Service jobs were plentiful – clerks, programmers, stockers, teachers, and suitjockeys – but you needed licenses for that, too. It was the license that cost as much as a year’s apartment rent. She heard a gag on her headphones and said, “Lachlan?”

“What? Quit bugging me! I’ve got a good lead on a big strike, but I think I see another light over the horizon. It’s reflecting off the Dome Base.” He was panting. She should make them exercise more often. Especially since she was semi-planning to head back to Earth sometime soon. He suddenly spoke up, “Besides, it was a stupid movie. I zipped it once,” she heard the swish of the snoopy cap against the helmet rim. He continued, “Aliens! There aren’t any aliens in the universe, let alone on a backwater like the Moon.”

“How can you know something like that?” she asked, irritated despite the fact that she agreed with him. “No one can know that!”

“Just like I’m supposed to believe in Lunar ghosts?”

Stung by the mocking tone of his voice, she snapped, “Two cosmonauts died in 1968 – almost a year before Aldrin and Armstrong. Their spirits inhabit the Moon! It’s a well-known fact!” One more nasty word from him, and she would break up with him here and now!

She opened her mouth to tell him just that when he shouted, “What...”

Names: Greenland, Kazakhstan ; Tasmania, Botswana

August 22, 2020

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: The Sad Message of the Movie, “Ad Astra”


NOT using the Programme Guide of the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention, ConZEALAND (The First Virtual World Science Fiction Convention; to which I be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I WOULD jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. But not today. This explanation is reserved for when I dash “off topic”, sometimes reviewing movies, sometimes reviewing books, and other times taking up the spirit of a blog an old friend of mine used to keep called THE RANTING ROOM…

The movie was made to be a movie. It wasn’t written like normal science fiction by regular science fiction authors. In fact, as far as I can tell, James Gray and Ethan Gross have never written – nor since then written – a single word of science fiction. On the IMDb site, both gas on about films and the importance of film and (in Gray’s case, the unfairness of it all). According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, someone named James Gray wrote two short stories in the 1980s, one in a horror anthology, the other in something called Potboiler #10. Ethan Gross is not recorded as writing any speculative fiction under that name.

So, here we have two writers using the science fiction tropes of solar expansion, antimatter fuel, travel in microgravity, and the SETI making a bold and negative statement that “there’s no one out there”.

According to the review below, the writers “refuted the rules of sci-fi”.

I would suggest that rather being sci-fi, it’s another attempt to excuse Humanity from ever becoming more that what it is. Rather than seeking to connect with what is “more” than ourselves, it’s an encouragement to remain selfish and self-centered. It’s this navel-gazing focus that has given us our current existential polarity – not just in the US during the Election Year – but from pole to pole and Prime Meridian back to Prime Meridian.

We’ve become a people whose deepest cry is, “Me! Me! Me!” The Greatest Generation is gone; sacrifice is a filthy word and banished from film the same way four-letter words once were – and are now celebrated as personal expression and cries of “censorship!” should anyone suggest they be removed or curtailed in the slightest.

In fact, sacrifice is a word most people wouldn’t recognize except when it’s in the context of “how much we’ve sacrificed for…” or “I gave up EVERYTHING for…” Sacrifice is no longer for any kind of greater good, but rather centered on how much “you” owe “me”.

“Ad Astra” iterates that to a point of a sledgehammer pounding reinforced concrete.

Reviewer Richard Newly neatly summarizes our descent into self-centeredness rather than self-sacrifice when he opines, “Ad Astra deserves a place within our science fiction canon not because it dares us to head into the unknown. Rather, it dares us to look at the truth inside of ourselves, to recognize the destructive nature of our own alienation, and to take the time to heal. These are things we as humans know, but have so often put off in our search for finding what comes next, and what comes after that.”

“Me! Me! Me!” should be the title of the movie. The motivation of every character has devolved from the pioneer spirit that led African, Chinese, Maori, and European civilizations to give everything not only in the pursuit of things to sell; but also to see what was over the horizon. Curiosity was once permitted and even encouraged – not so much now. With “all of our horizons” conquered, it’s my experience as a science teacher for the past 40 years, that we’re less interested in “what’s over there?” than “what do I want to buy?”.

For example, the entire reason Roy McBride leaves Earth is to reconcile with his dad; to fix the pain in his own soul. The reason H. Clifford McBride left he family behind was to prove that he was RIGHT – that there is “life out there”; that there was something “more”. The Martian base commander, Helen Lantos is solely interested in revenge because Roy’s dad murdered her parents and helps Roy get aboard the ship to Neptune.

NASA is solely interested in stopping the “pulses” because “Astronaut Roy McBride undertakes a mission across an unforgiving solar system to uncover the truth about his missing father and his doomed expedition that now, 30 years later, threatens the universe.

I’m just wondering…oops! I guess it fits. I don’t have to wonder: threatening communication on Earth is “threatening the universe”. There’s no difference between threatening Humans and threatening THE ENTIRE FREAKING UNIVERSE!!!!

*sigh*

I was reflecting yesterday that the great people of faith like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr, Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and few others – are mostly gone. There are few who encourage us to self-sacrifice.

This movie, written by people outside of science fiction, really does refute the rules of science fiction. While SF is replete with tales warning us from certain conceivable technological futures like “The Matrix” or “I Am Legend” or even “The Expanse”, it also offers futures like Rodenberry’s STAR TREK, “The Martian”, Nnedi Okorafor’s BINTI, Niven’s RINGWORLD, and Julie Czerneda’s WEB SHIFTERS, CLAN CHRONICLES, and my favorite series, SPECIES IMPERATIVE universes.

“Ad Astra” is little more than an adolescent mind…oh, never mind. While I enjoyed it on some level, mostly for the scenery and the concept of easy interplanetary travel; I continue to puzzle over why Norwegians had baboons on a space station. Anyone who knows anything about the beasts – aka anyone who lives in sub-Saharan Africa and seen or dealt with them – would likely have cautioned the Norwegians from breeding baboons? Experimenting on baboons? Whatever…no explanation is given and the incident serves only to get the CEPHEUS (The king of Ethiopia with his queen, Cassiopeia) captain killed so Roy can prove that the mission pilot is a coward and he can take over the ship and land on Mars easy-peasy.

Having worked with teenagers my entire professional life, I find myself wondering what kinds of issue the writers were trying to work out. While I’ll certainly grab this one for our DVD collection eventually, it’s self-centered message of the self-serving exploration of the Solar System is pretty grim and holds out little hope that Humans will ever be more than a species of self-centered brats. It is for me, ultimately, a downer but absolutely in line with YA speculative fiction we’ve been devouring lately in MAZE RUNNER and THE HUNGER GAMES…


August 18, 2020

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 459


Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them. Regarding Fantasy, this insight was startling: “I see the fantasy genre as an ever-shifting metaphor for life in this world, an innocuous medium that allows the author to examine difficult, even controversial, subjects with impunity. Honor, religion, politics, nobility, integrity, greed—we’ve an endless list of ideals to be dissected and explored. And maybe learned from.” – Melissa McPhail.
F Trope: “When wizards are immortal, they don’t need to train successors, and may not be able to…”

Sidaji the Immortal pursed his lips, glaring down at the bucket of swamp water, tapping the edge. His fingers strayed to the runic marks inscribed on the sides. He stared for some time before looking up and saying, “You are Luca Růžička.”

Luca sighed and tugged on his soaking wet jeans. His black Converses squelched on his feet and he scratched at a mosquito bite on his forehead.

Ranghild Peeters, the beautiful and incredibly annoying second apprentice said, “You’re not supposed to pick at pimples. I’ve got a skin cleanser...” She stepped a bit away from him as the smell of Okefenokee swamp drifted up from the water leaking from Luca’s tennis shoes and dribbling on the Persian rug.

Luca snapped, “It’s a mosquito bite.”

“Yeah, right,” said Ranghild.

“You try sloshing around in a swamp to get a bucket of ‘water clear of duckweed, water clear of waste’ and see how long you can keep the mosquitoes from eating you alive!”

Sidaji looked at her and said, “You are Ranghild Peeters.”

She blew her startlingly raven black bangs up her forehead and said, “Yes, Immortal One. Now, can we get on with the transformation. I’ve got things I have to do today.”

Luca muttered, “Like flirt with every guy in Minneapolis?”

Ranghild shook her head, “We’re broken up. Get over it.”

“I didn’t break anything up. You dumped me.”

“Only because you’re being such a...”

Sidaji the Immortal straightened up, lifted his arms and thundered, “Silence!” The thunder was literal as the windows of the mansion they were living in on Mt. Curve Avenue overlooking Lowry Park shook in their frames. Only Luca and Ranghild’s unity spells kept them from shattering. Across the street in the park, an autumn flock of common egrets took wing, rising up in a cloud of white stark against the golds, reds, oranges, and browns of the pond.

The wizard looked down on them, having swelled to twice his usual height. The floor beneath him creaked as he stepped toward them, saying, “þearf sy  forþsetennes héafodcwide manian gescaep lifiendee!”*

They looked at each other, shrugged, and Ranghild said, “Your Immortal Greatness, we are currently in the early part of the 21st Century. I’m not sure shouting in Old English will accomplish anything. Especially as neither one of us can understand it. You enchanted us with this century’s English vocabulary.”

Sidaji stared at her, blinked, then said, “I seem to be having some trouble remembering things today.” The wizard’s apprentices both stepped back in unison, finding that the grand piano behind them blocked their retreat. Sidaji laughed, rattling the chandelier in the entryway.

“You’re immortal!” Luca exclaimed.

“What do you mean you’re having trouble remembering?” Ranghild exclaimed.

Sidaji pushed his sleeves up to his elbows, exposing heavily tattooed forearms. His hands were blunt – the hands of a farmhand rather than a dandified city boy – and his nails, while clean and trimmed, the nails of a man who had worked for his livelihood. He looked at his hands, studying them for a moment. Then he looked at his apprentices. He smiled and said, “My body is immortal, child. There was never any guarantee that my memories would be immortal as well.”

They looked at each other and Sidaji laughed again. “What are you laughing at?” Luca said.

“The two of you are acting like you’re in a movie. Are you really that much in love that you can’t think independently?”

Both of them, temporarily frozen in age as teenagers and prone to forget that they had actually been born in 11th Century Denmark and the Kingdom of Bohemia, were neither teenagers nor Americans and effectively his slaves – blushed furiously. Sidaji waved them away, remembering at the last moment to disempower the gesture, said, “That doesn’t seem to help me remember how to turn this swamp water into botulism infected water.” He looked at them and added, “Why are we going to poison the water supply of Minneapolis?”

Names: Denmark, Belgium ; Austria, Czechoslovakian
Translation: (From Old English – http://www.oldenglishtranslator.co.uk/) “There is far more of import here than your mortal sex lives!”