Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hermit Kingdom

Ha-Jun emerged beaming from the rejuvenation room, his robes immaculate, and wended his way back down the corridor past the long, serpentine queue of his patient countrymen.  And there he was…the Glorious Leader!  Standing patiently in line, waiting his turn, between two women who might have been anyone.  There were no bodyguards, no retainers; there was no hubbub of sycophantic attendants.  Merely a young man waiting his turn.

Ha-Jun went to one knee reflexively, preparing to prostrate himself.  “Eternal Sun of Mankind!” he exclaimed.  Above him he heard a chuckle, and he felt a hand upon his shoulder.  He looked up, and the face that stared from a hundred thousand posters was beaming down beatifically at him.  “Not here, my friend,” he intoned.  “There are no outsiders watching.”

The Leader’s hand descended and grasped Ha-Jun’s, hoisted him to his feet.  The line shuffled forwards a bit.  Ha-Jun’s face flushed with embarrassment; seeing this, the Guiding Sun Ray smiled generously and made a dismissive gesture.  The mere wave of his hand banished all shame from Ha-Jun’s heart.  “It is not uncommon among those who have been with us for a while.  So many years of ostentatious display for the sake of foreigners!  It is hard to set aside old habits.”  He raised an eyebrow.  “And you have been with us for a very long while, I imagine?”

Ha-Jun nodded eagerly, swallowed.  “Since…since the beginning, Fate of the Nation.  Since before then.  Back to the Discovery, in fact.” He cleared his throat and saluted.  “I was at your side, on that day.  One of perhaps a dozen…”

The Leader’s brow furrowed as he stared into Ha-Jun’s eyes, then his own eyes went wide.  “Ha-Jun!” he exclaimed.  “You must forgive me!  I did not recognize you!  The one great disadvantage of the process, of course…”  The line inched forwards again.  From the opposite direction came a fresh-faced woman, no doubt on her way to makeup and prosthetics; the two men bowed and pressed themselves flat against the corridor wall, allowing her to pass.  The Leader turned back to Ha-Jun.  “You are looking well, old friend.  How were the waters?”

“They were…”  Ha-Jun was but a simple soldier.  He lacked the words to describe the sensation.  His metabolism utterly changed, every cell cleansed and refreshed, right down to the telomeres in his DNA.  He was, truly, a new man.  “They were youth itself, Beloved Father.”

He smiled, nodded.  “Just so.  Just exactly so.  Good to see you again, old friend.”  He turned back to the line.

Ha-Jun licked his lips.  “I would never dare to monopolize your time, Great Sun of Life, but…er…is it true, what they say?  That the Pool of Radiance is…is being depleted?”

The Leader turned back to him, stone-faced.  Ha-Jun saw the old eyes within the young face, and imagined possibilities flickering behind them.  At length, the Leader turned to the woman behind him, his glance inquiring.  She gave a slight nod, and turned her back.  As if of a single will, those behind her turned their backs as well.

The Leader leaned in close, his voice low.  “It is…somewhat true, old friend.”  He paused.  “At levels barely perceptible to our scientists.  It recharges very slowly, as you know, and there are so many of us now.”  A frown creased his face.  “Not for many years, but…unless the population is carefully managed, we may one day need to consider rationing.”

A sickness crept into Ha-Jun’s soul.  He knew it for what it was.  Man’s most ancient fear.  That most terrible and eternal companion, held at bay for almost seventy years now through the Guiding Son of Heaven’s miraculous discovery.  The skeleton hand reached down the decades to grasp Ha-Jun’s heart, and his grip was cold.

The Leader somehow recognized Ha-Jun’s pain.  “Nothing to be frightened of, old friend.  One day, our scientists will discover the way to accelerate the recharge rate—and on that blessed day, we may share our gift with all the world.  But until that time…careful management is critical.  By whatever means necessary, we must restrict access.”

Ha-Jun nodded.  Few knew this better than he.  “Many years ago, Great Marshall,” he said, “I picked up a rifle.  I put my own gift at risk to keep the secret.  To prevent the discovery of our miracle, that the people might continue to cherish it.  I will carry that rifle, Dear Father, into the future.  For as long as it takes.”  He paused.  “My compliments, Eternal Secretary, on your new face.  The surgeons did their jobs well.”

The Leader’s hand graced his shoulder.  “You are a patriot, Ha-Jun, and a kind man as well.”  He laughed.   “I am glad to be rid of those accursed glasses, at least.  Best of luck to you.”

This time, the dismissal was definitive, but Ha-Jun scarcely noticed.  His heart sang with the Leader’s praise as he marched back up the corridor.  Back to the room where he would set aside these gleaming robes, and don a shabby, threadbare uniform.  Where they would streak his hair with gray, and etch his face with lines, and send him back out into the world.

#

Cavendish stared through the binoculars, across the DMZ to the border station, where the guard was changing.  “Well, I’ll be damned,” he muttered.  “Look who’s back.”

Smith stared through his own glasses.  “That’s our old friend, sure as hell.  Been gone, what, a month?  I thought we’d seen the last of him.  ‘Reeducation’, or breaking rocks somewhere.  Or just—POW.  Him, and his whole family with him.”

Cavendish shook his head.  “Why do they put up with it?  A slave state, cut off from the rest of the world.  It’s evil, is what it is.”

Smith nodded.  “Brainwashed.  The whole bunch of ‘em.  Steady diet of propaganda.”
Cavendish set the binoculars down.  “Still,” he grumbled.  “You’d think…I dunno.”  He shook his head again.  “So many years.  So much suffering.  After a while, you’d think it would get old.”

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Problematic

This site was originally composed in order to promote my Young Adult novel "Axis of Eternity" (you can read it, if you wish; the chapter headings are in the sidebar to the right).  The site name, "The Redoubt", came from a specific location in the novel, a cave in which the free-floating souls of the deceased might learn to rebuild their bodies for a second shot at corporeal existence.

The project of writing and attempting to sell that novel taught me a great deal.  Axis died a worthy death after 120+ rejections by agents and publishers.   The story universe lives on in "Monsters in Heaven", a short story which will be released in the January 2018 issue of Broadswords and Blasters. I had great fun with Axis, but it's no longer the centerpiece of my writing, and this site is no longer a "Redoubt" in the sense of the cave in that story.

What IS central to my writing is problematic concepts.  By that I mean:  the deliberate inclusion of material that will discomfort the reader and challenge his/her pre-existing beliefs.

For instance:  I am a cisgender white man who writes stories from the perspectives of other kinds of people--African child soldiers, gay kids, women, what have you.  I make no apology for this.  All identities are intersectional; hence, any attempt to write from any perspective other than the author is going to involve cultural distance.  A world in which nobody is allowed to write as anything other than themselves is a world in which no book can be published in which two characters interact--by definition, one of the two perspectives involved is "appropriated."  I tire of the idea that to research, empathize with, and do honor to another human viewpoint is somehow exploitative.  I choose not to confine myself to the perspectives informed by my direct experience.  If you don't like that, fine; go read something safer.

Moreover:  I write about individual human beings AS individual human beings, not as representatives of groups.  Every character I write is himself or herself, and possessed of particular flaws and foibles.  No one of them is intended as a stand-in or representative of their gender, or sexual orientation, or ideological orientation, or ethnic group.  If the only way you have of dealing with a character is to place them in a category, you have a problem with reading.  That's your issue to deal with.  I won't reshape my characters to make them fit your idea of what's appropriately representative.

This approach to writing is not presently popular in the authorial community.  It makes it difficult for me to sell work.  I can live with that.  What I can't live with is the utterly poisonous environment that crowdsourced policing of modern writing has produced.  The use of social media for "dragging" and gang-swarming of writers and artists who challenge the norms of the moment is indecent and contrary to every principle of creativity and authenticity.  It is an attempt to impose ideological conformity through fear, to replicate the ethic of a high school ruled through peer-shunning by the "cool kids" on a societal level.  History will be brutal, absolutely brutal, in its judgment of those who engage in this practice.

Because I love the world of ideas, my fiction is often based in thought experiments.  I ask questions the implications of which are unpleasant.  What if reading a book could change your sexual orientation?  What if North Korea were secretly the paradise that its government propaganda claims it to be?  What if magic were not only real, but the product of the systematic slavery of an undiscovered set of sentient organisms?  What if the cultural collisions that have driven so many of history's wars were to manifest on an even more massive scale in the afterlife?

There appears to exist a growing school of thought that engaging horrifying ideas through speculative fiction somehow empowers them and creates real-world damage.  This is the mindset of those who react with horror to the idea of a TV show set in a world in which the CSA won the American Civil War.  To folks who believe that, this stuff is going to be unwelcome.  That's their business.  I'm not writing for them.

We do not need Milo Yianoppoulos-style provocateurs who systematically produce outrages in order to monetize them.  But it can't be the case that the only options are that and a constant reaffirmation of the prevailing ethic.  There has to be room in literature for questions that challenge the assumptions of the powerful--and those who define the mores of a community are, by definition, powerful in that context.  There's only one kind of writer I want to be: the kind whom those who set the rules deem "problematic."

So, yeah, I'll own the word "problematic".  "Problem" is just another word for "challenge."  Challenges are good for us.  They keep us sharp.  I hope you find me challenging in the most enjoyable sense of the term.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

What I Learned at the Pulp Revolution



One of the things I’ve learned to love about being published is reading the work of those who are published alongside me.  This is particularly true when the work I'm reading exceeds my own in quality.  One doesn’t need to be the headliner, or to play the lead, to enjoy being part of a terrific collective performance.  The moon is beautiful in itself, but it shines because it’s bathed in the radiance of the sun.

StoryHack Action and Adventure Issue Zero (my God, man, haven’t you read it yet?) contains no weak links, in my opinion.  But every reader will have favorites, and there were three stories in particular that blew me away, and taught me valuable lessons as a writer.

Jay Barnson’s “Dead Last” is wonderfully action-centric; it’s similar stylistically to one of those seven-minute single-camera tracking shots that directors like Scorsese work into their films.  Setting his work in an underworld of magical agencies at cross-purposes, where wizardry and gunfire are equally effective tools, Barnson lights the fuse on page two, and the fireworks don’t end until his final, devilishly brilliant twist.  For a writer like myself who tends to get buried in exposition and world-building, it’s a poignant reminder of the great lesson of the Pulp Revolution:  readers read in order to be entertained.

Julie Frost’s “The Monster Without”, with its morally-centered werewolf private eye, also brings plenty of slam-bang action to the table.  Yet it’s in the quiet moments that Frost truly excels; the story is at least equally effective as a reflection on the importance of family, and as a portrait of an ex-soldier struggling with PTSD.  Pulp fiction at its best is not a comic book, in which the consequences of violence can be brushed off or “retconned” away.  Frost’s hero, like those of Joe Abercrombie, bears scars both physical and psychological, and pays a substantial price for the life that his code compels him to lead.  Frost reminds us:  a story’s not about what it’s about, it’s about who it’s about.

Meanwhile, Shannon Connor Winward, author of the cranium-cracking “Daughter of Heaven”, obliterates utterly the false distinction between the pulp and the literary.  In leading the reader on a chase across the colonies and craters of Mars, Winward conjures up horizon-spanning visions and strings together sentences that would be award-worthy in any publication.  I dare you, reader, I double-dog dare you, to stare with Winward’s protagonist into the skies above Tikhonravov crater and manage to keep your jaw from dropping open.  Winward’s story is a master class in imagery, and crushes any illusion that pulp holds writers to a lower standard where wordsmithery is concerned.

What a treat to read such a collection.  And what an honor to be included!  It’s these achievements that a new writer clings to as the rejection notices pile up in glacial stacks.  If I am thought worthy to share the company of these artists—published novelists, Writers of the Future winners, celebrated generals in the #PulpRevolution—then there must be something in me worth developing.  The sidehustle is still on; the dream is still worth chasing.


If support for the arts is important, then the StoryHack Kickstarter is a worthy means of doing so.  I was delighted to donate, and to offer a new set of pulp writers the same opportunity I was afforded.  Perhaps you’ll choose to do so as well.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Meet the Menagerie

I read to be entertained. 

I read to escape. 

I read pulp.

Catch me at a debate tournament and you’ll likely find me in the school library, where results are being tabulated.  Catch me in that library and you’ll watch me walk right by stacks of quality literature to pick up a graphic novel.  I actively prefer YA to adult fiction.  Given the choice between a new Aliette de Bodard release and a Heinlein I’ve read three times, I’ll likely reach for the Heinlein.  I recognize that my tastes as a reader limit my ability to write for upscale markets, but I can’t apologize for it.  It’s who I am, and who I’ve always been.

My principal introduction to the writing of fiction was through “efeds,” which are, roughly speaking, exercises in competitive mosaic fiction.  The game master sets up a scenario, the writers adopt various characters and turn them loose in the scenario, and everyone produces individual story segments featuring their own character existing and changing the story universe, but all while confined by the events and changes created by previous characters.  This format, as you might guess, is better-suited to slam-bang action than carefully constructed plots.  I played in efeds which placed the players in the roles of hired mercenaries, superheroes, and even professional wrestlers.  It was pulp.  I loved creating it.

Pulp hasn’t got the market presence it once had, in part because its core market has been captured by video games and by serial novels set in video game universes.  But there are, as it turns out, readers who long for the literary conventions of yesteryear.  Signalling their affiliation under the hashtag #PulpRevolution, they’ve been gaining ground over the last two years or so, opening up new venues for old-school, action-centric work.  One of those venues, Cirsova, even picked up a Hugo nomination this year.

I dreamed, one night, of Amelia Owen, Countess of Basingstoke.  She appeared in a gown, sitting in an ornate Victorian parlor, spinning an antique globe with a dreamy smile playing about her lips.  I awoke knowing that she was the protagonist of a story—but what story?  Certainly a pulp adventure of the old school—something along the lines of what H. Rider Haggard would have dreamed up.  Certainly she’d be the center of a motley band of ruffians and rogues, all of them outcasts, but each of them admirable in their own way.  Eventually it became clear to me that they were Queen Victoria’s cleanup crew—that Her Majesty was secretly ashamed of the atrocities of empire, and occasionally found it necessary to intervene directly in order to right the worst wrongs of colonialism.  Lady Amelia and her menagerie were to be the Queen’s hand, deployed to work Her Majesty’s secret will, and to bend the arc of empire towards justice.

Was this a novel?  A series of novels?  Alas, after the donnybrook that was Axis of Eternity, I didn’t feel I had another one in me, at least not for a while.  But the story wanted out of my head, and was not to be denied.  So over a couple of weeks, with no realistic prospect of publication, I splattered an eight-thousand word initial adventure into my word processor.  And then I left them there for a couple of years while I strove to write something I could sell.

The literary market is a funny thing.  While I butted my head against numerous brick walls trying to get the rest of my work into print, the #PulpRevolution was steadily brewing in the background.  Enter, at this stage, Mr. Bryce Beattie, proprietor of the widely-read blog StoryHack.  The revolution had called out to him, and like Lady Amelia herself, he was putting together a menagerie—a collection of talented ruffians, proper tools for a black task.

I made the cut.  Given the superior credentials of literally every other writer in StoryHack Action and Adventure Issue Zero, I don’t quite know how.  I’m batting ninth, no question.  But I have a bat in my hands, and I’m appearing for a hell of a team.

I have, therefore, the privilege of introducing Amelia Owen, Lady Basingstoke, a young woman of breeding and refinement with a most improper appetite for adventure.  Meet also John Runciter, disgraced courtier and alleged sodomite, and his ward Jack, an orphan boy from the streets of New Orleans with a talent for elusion.  Meet the giantess Fatima.  Meet Sergeant Declan Curragh, dishonorably discharged hero of Balaclava.  Meet Doctor Lemuel Lepellimer, genius inventor and incorrigible pyromaniac.  A varied menagerie of ghastly beasts, to be sure…but where civilization fails, beasts reign supreme.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Let There Be Pulp!

A brief welcome to fans of StoryHack Action and Adventure, an exciting new publication featuring old-school pulp fiction.  Therein you will find the strong-jawed detectives, the grizzled warriors and eldritch wizards, the steely-eyed spacemen, two-fisted men of the west, cunning adventurers, and intrepid explorers you feared literature had lost track of.

I'm honored to have my tale of Victorian adventure, "Menagerie," among the selections in Issue Zero.  Expect to hear more about this story, the magazine, and about what you can do to ensure that you have subsequent issues to eagerly devour, as release draws near.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Making March Madness Even Madder

The opening weekend of the NCAA tournament remains my favorite weekend of the sports calendar.  However, there’s always controversy to contend with, and nowhere is this controversy more prominent than in the seeding of the teams at the event.

Wichita State is the perennial cause celebre, of course.  In spite of a continual record of success at the tournament, many see them as a team which the selection committee perpetually underseeds.  Last year’s team barely made the tournament as an 11-seed, then won both their play-in game and their second-round game against six seed Arizona.  This year’s edition won as a 10-seed against 7-seed Dayton.  There are other examples, of course, usually amongst teams from so-called “mid-major” conferences.

I know of no way to eliminate seeding controversies entirely, nor to alleviate the difficulties associated with choosing which teams to admit to the field.  But I do have an idea for making the process more interesting and entertaining.  Let’s adopt the “challenge format” that certain competitive debate tournaments have chosen.  Let’s allow the top seeds to select their first round opponents.

The system would work as follows.

1.  Narrow the field to 64 teams (or, if we must, hold the appalling “play in games” and set the challenge bracket immediately following).

2.  The selection committee should seed their top 32 teams as per standard procedure—1 through 8 seeds in four regionals, with a specific designation as to which is the “top” through “bottom” among the 1s, 2s, and so on.  Result is an ordinal list of the top 32.  Remaining 32 “low seeds” in an at-large pool.

3.  All coaches of the top 32 teams are gathered together at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, MO for a Pay-Per-View spectacular:  the Coaches vs. Cancer Selection Show, with all revenue (minus the NCAA’s 15% commission, of course) going to the aforementioned charity.

4.  Beginning with the coach of the top one-seed, the coaches are marched to a podium and forced to SELECT their first round opponent, NCAA draft style.  The moment a selection is made, the next coach goes on a five-minute clock.

5.  Failure to choose an opponent within the time allotted results in a random draw of the opponent—and the opponent then gets to disqualify one player of their choice from the higher seed’s roster for the game in question.

Can it happen?  No way in hell.  The coaching fraternity would never let it happen, for reasons of “respect”.  But IMAGINE THE CARNAGE, my friends.  Imagine Bill Self sweating out the choice of which small-conference tournament champion he’s going to call out, providing them a massive incentive to become the first 16-seed to topple a one.  Imagine Mike Kryzewski going back to Raleigh-Durham to explain to his trustees how his perpetually overseeded blue bloods just managed to blow a round one game to an opponent he was allowed to choose.  Imagine Rick Pitino standing at the podium and calling out his own son’s team.

And imagine Wichita State sitting there every year, waiting for their name to be called…and waiting…and waiting…until the final eight seed stands at the podium and says, “well, Wichita State, I guess.  I hate this goddamn format.”

Tell me you wouldn't pony up $19.95 to watch this live.

No, it’ll never happen.

But by God, it SHOULD.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

In which I exploit a tragedy in order to make people read a chapter of my failed novel


Celebrity deaths became something of a national fetish last year.  I remember taking to social media to mock the phenomenon, accusing the mourners of concern trolling, only to be stopped short the next day by the death of Richard Adams, who wrote Watership Down, a book I greatly valued as an adolescent.

I do think that some celebrity deaths, however, are objectively more tragic than others.  Those who die young, even as a result of bad decisions, never have the opportunity to develop their talents to the fullest extent, or to outgrow the traits that bring them pain.  Yordano Ventura, who died today at the age of 25, was one such individual.  In his short life, he demonstrated loyalty, compassion, and tremendous talent.  Having been brought together by the Kansas City Royals’ two recent pennant drives--both of which are owed in no small part to Ventura's contributions—the community mourns him today.

Kansas City has lost our share of athletic celebrities over the years; maybe a bit more than our share.  Joe Delaney was the one that impacted me most profoundly—I was 11 at the time—but there have been others.  Derrick Thomas.  Mack Lee Hill.  Dick Howser.

We all mourn in different ways.  I mourn, in part, by writing.  My failed YA novel, Axis of Eternity—yes, I’m aware that sounds like an off-brand cologne—involves a world in which humans both famous and obscure are reborn on a new world shorn of their earthly memories.  One of the more enjoyable aspects of writing the book was the opportunity to load it up with some of my favorite minor historical figures.  Buck O’Neill, a Kansas City baseball legend, plays a prominent supporting role.  Harriet Tubman’s there, too.  Angus McCaskill.  Others.

In one of my favorite chapters, a supporting character introduces the protagonist to the game of soccer.  His memory of the game’s rules isn’t quite perfect, but this in no way diminishes his enthusiasm.  I took the opportunity to load up the match with several of my favorite deceased Kansas City sports figures, along with some other personages of minor import.  Read it here, if you wish.  Kansas City sports fans of a certain age might recognize a few old friends. 

Should I ever get around to redrafting the thing, I’m sure the scene’ll involve a cameo appearance by a firey young man known to the citizens of Haven as “Angry Yordano.”

.