Every Single One Of My Titles

Vacation: Representative Image

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Here’s my 4 year old son communing with a penguin.

We’ve been very busy, visiting with family we haven’t seen in person since before he was born. Good times being had by all.

July’s Flash Fiction For Patrons: PUT IT IN YOUR MOUTH

Every month on Patreon, I post a piece of microfiction or flash just for Patrons — even contributing one thin dollar. Because every buck is precious to a writer in the early stages of his career. And often later, as well.

The post is here, and I’ll put a teaser paragraph or two below, because I’m nice like that.

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Put It In Your Mouth

S.A. Barton

“Go on, do it.” We were in her basement, dark under a single dim reading lamp, on a slouchy swaybacked couch her dad’s frat probably all puked on thirty years ago. Musty.

“It’s not even cooked, Pagan.” The little morsel sat on a matte black saucer, cheap plastic square everyone printed stacks of to avoid loading the dishwasher. The meat was dull pink, a pink that said I’m not alive anymore, I never was really alive if you think about it, I’ll be all gray tomorrow wait and see. Hardly like meat at all: a cut piece of breast from an actual breathing chicken looks real, real as it ought to for a hundred and thirty five bucks a kilo. A cut piece of chicken breast is perky, it stands up, rich pink pinker than cotton candy, got verve—I lived.

I shot a look at the basement stairs. Dark, shadows, black; door still closed at the top, razor of dim kitchen illum at ten percent nightlight mode. Quiet house, asleep.

I prodded Pagan’s little half-pink lump. It fell over, too small to make a sound.

“Put it in your mouth,” she said…

…and the rest is over on Patreon. You should read it, it’s fun.

Lab-Grown Meat: The Next Great Culinary Playground

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Oh, look. A tray of raw beef garnished with… a sprig of juniper for some reason? Who eats raw beef with juniper? What the hell is going on here?

Less than two years ago, laboratory-grown beef made a big splash in the news. The scientists who grew the first hamburger not carved from the flank of a steer munched on quarter-pound burgers that were also quarter-million-dollar burgers, and pronounced them, if not the most delicious ever, acceptably beefy.

The burgers, at that cost, were a curiosity at best. But the price of growing meat by the cell has been dropping steadily and sharply since then. The same quarter-pound patty now costs about ten bucks to grow. At this rate, we may see commercially viable laboratory-gown meat very soon (one expert says twenty years, this writer hopes for much sooner)—and that means you’ll be seeing it in your grocery store by-and-by.

It will be up to the consumers to decide whether or not they want to eat something grown in a lab as opposed to carved out of an animal. Many meat-eaters are skeptical of the idea, but on the other hand, there are a lot of current vegetarians and even carnivores who are skeptical about the level of cruelty involved in factory farms. Personally (I’m a meat-eater), I’ll take the laboratory. Look at it from the cow’s point of view: would you rather have a muscle biopsy so a bunch of people can eat food grown from a few of your cells, or be carved apart with knives and saws and consumed directly? I know which I’d prefer. Also, producing animal flesh in a lab involves a whole lot less water consumption than raising an animal the traditional way, it certainly means less grain going to animal feed rather than feeding hungry humans, and, of course, there’s WAY less animal poop to dispose of. That sounds like a joke, but it’s really not. Have you ever heard of a ‘livestock waste lagoon’? Yes, lagoon. As in, enormous pool of rotting poop that covers several acres, causes various contamination problems, and nobody really knows how to deal with. Yuck.

Those are all important concerns, and all good reasons to look forward to getting our meat out of the laboratory rather than off the hoof.

But, as usual, there’s more here than meets the eye. There’s the potential to do a whole lot of things with meat that are impractical, impossible, or even illegal to do with meat as we know it now.

At present, most people in the USA eat beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, and a few basic fish like tuna and salmon and whiting. Even less-popular meats like lamb can be hard to come by and pricey, because a grocery store has to buy large ‘primal cuts,’ whole portions of an animal, for sale—and that means waste for an unpopular meat: low demand and a requirement to take on a large supply if they want to offer it.

But if it’s grown in the lab, grocery stores have the opportunity to order only what they need, and to order small batches of less common meats to see if consumers are interested in trying them out. The supplier to the store isn’t slaughtering a large animal, they’re growing to order as well. And that means variety becomes easier to offer. Have you ever thought of trying game meats, like caribou or wild boar? You won’t find either in the supermarket. You can order them online—if you don’t mind paying fifty bucks or more per pound.

With a simple muscle biopsy, a meat-growing lab could produce caribou and boar just as cheaply as it produces beef. Or other meats. Have you ever thought you might like to try an elephant steak, or panda or eagle or Galapagos tortoise, if only you could do it without, you know, killing an endangered animal and breaking the law? Well, it’s probably not against the law to buy a small cell sample from the local zoo and grow elephant steaks to sell. Have you seen how many people have been protesting the slaughter of dolphins and whales in Japan lately? Would there be a need for protest if they could take cell samples, let the animals go, and eat as much cruelty-free dolphin and whale as they’d like? And speaking of aquatic creatures, how about fish without overfishing disrupting the oceans’ ecosystems? Who knows what this technology might yield as producers begin to try new things? The possibilities are endless. Here are some pie-in-the-sky imaginings that seem possible, even likely:

You’ve noticed, of course, that bigger shrimp cost more—but if you’re just growing shrimp tissue, there’s no reason you couldn’t just grow it in any size you wanted, for the same price per pound. Imagine picking up a 3-lb chub of solid shrimp, and slicing it into easy-to-sear shrimp patties for the grill. Or quarter-pound chunks in the familiar comma shape.

Family size scallops—one to a pie plate.

A ten-foot roll of bacon. Cut to the strip size you like with your kitchen shears. “The doctor said to hold it down to one strip of bacon with breakfast… mine is three feet long.”

Any meat you’d like, grown in sheets like pie dough, so you can enclose other food with it. Great for Thanksgiving—individual turkey and stuffing pockets! Make a turducken as easily as folding a pillowcase. Or think of delicious shepherd’s pie made in a ‘pie crust’ composed entirely of tender, succulent beef.

Eat quail and trout without having to pick out a million little bones.

3-D dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets for the kids. Like, one that could stand up on the plate like a regular action figure.

3-D dinosaur-shaped dinosaur nuggets for the kids—just need to find a few cells in amber, Jurassic Park style. This one might be a bit of a long shot, but it’s fun to dream, isn’t it?

And wouldn’t it be nice if the few people struck by the creepy desire to eat other humans could go ahead and do so—without murdering anyone? (I’ve already played with this concept a little in a flash story entitled All Flesh Is Grass.)

Lab-grown meat is coming. It has the potential to eliminate the enormous loads that raising animals for consumption places on the environment in terms of demands for water, land, feed, and disposal of waste. And it also has the potential to allow people to indulge in a wider range of culinary exploration than ever before—and no dead animals (or people, for the cannibals in the audience) to show for it.

Preview Empty Plastic Father

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NOTE: THERE’S A 30% PREVIEW AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST. YOU SHOULD READ IT. YES.

A short story, about 3900 words.
Danny is a young man who doesn’t see eye to eye with his father. When dad won’t help Danny realize his college dreams, he does what any reasonable person would do: he cuts his dad out of his life and buys a new one.

Yes, that’s a picture of me on the cover, heavily digitally manipulated. It wasn’t my first choice for a cover, but my budget for cover art is zero and I was the only salt-and-pepper bearded guy I knew who was willing to pose for free.

This is a story about a son and a father and dreams that turn into precarious independence and an anxiety-filled job. Plus there’s alienation and social anxiety and plenty more things in that vein that tie Danny’s near future world to our present one. There’s a bit of Danny in everyone; a bit more for some, less for others, but still, he’s there in your late-night-alone thoughts.

You can find it on Smashwords for now; in a few days it will be distributed elsewhere and I will update this entry.

THE PREVIEW:

I’m six years old and already I understand how inadequate my father is. I do not actually know the word ‘inadequacy,’ nor do I understand all of the ramifications of the concept; I’m too young for that—but at some elemental level I know: I’m not so much a son to him, but more of an unwelcome object he’s burdened with. He takes care of me like he takes care of his job, which he also resents: half-assed.

I remember the dream that woke me that morning: my father opens the front door. He’s wearing his red and yellow McUniform, and the big winter boots he was wearing the day (many years later) I turned my back on him, but no coat. Cold air blasts in from the white snarling blizzard outside before he shuts the door; I can feel the chill redden my cheeks. Dad stomps crooked worms of snow out of the deep tread of his boots and, silent, holds his arms out wide to me.

I rush forward. He’s inadequate, he resents me; I love him and despite his other feelings I see a dull ember of love in him for me, not entirely smothered. His hugs, when the ember shines bright for a moment, are rare, precious, and I want to capture this one before the opportunity vanishes. He drops to one knee so I can reach him and I fling my arms around his neck, press my cheek to his cheek, and I gasp as I stumble forward, into him.

He deflates like the skin of a burst balloon and drapes over and around me, tangling my legs, and I continue to stumble, balance taunting me from just beyond my clumsy child feet, into the door. It pops open effortlessly and I am in the snow waist deep, holding up the limp plastic-bag skin of my father, turning it around and around in my hands, looking for the way to unzip it, for the way to put my father on and fill him like feety pajamas. The door is closed behind me, vanished; I know the apartment is gone, there is only the empty wide plain of cold white, and me, and the urgent need to put my father on before I freeze to death, and I can’t figure out how.

And I gasp awake, shivering. Wearing my blanket around my shoulders like a cape I open my bedroom door silently and walk down the short hall that links the bedrooms and bath with the generic square box of the living room. I’m walking up on my toes, quiet, I don’t know why; I am compelled to creep, secretive. I can hear the soft scuff of his mouse on the plastic computer desk. Something else says hmmm-skrit-skrit-hmmm-skrit over and over and over: the 3D printer.

Dad is awake, back to the hall, shirtless and cutoff pajama pants, the glow of the monitor outlining him around the small frayed black paddle back of the aging office chair, the fine dark hairs on his shoulders lit up gold as the images on the screen shift, shift, shift with plastic mouse clicks.

It’s late Christmas Eve, and he’s on the internet printing off free bootleg knockoffs of popular toys for my presents. He won’t even bother to paint them. I know.

I go back to my room, back to bed. I don’t bother to sneak, don’t care if my empty plastic father hears me. As I fall asleep I imagine throwing his emptiness into the snow, stomping over him, escaping into the trackless white snow.

#

“I’m not paying for this shit. I don’t make enough to pay for it even if I wanted to lay out that much scratch to make you a bigger smartass than you already are,” my father says, and he shoves the forms I’ve printed onto the yolk-smeared remains of his breakfast with the back of his hand. I’ve just turned nineteen, ink still wet on my high school diploma, headed for college.

First, I need financial aid. Grants, loans, scholarships; I need every penny I can scrounge. There’s no way I can pay for it myself; buying an education is like buying a house and you can’t do it on what the minimum wage no-degree jobs I can get pay. My fists clench. All I need from him is a couple of pages of paperwork. He won’t even look at them.

“It won’t cost you anything,” I say, keeping myself from screaming at him by sheer force of will. I’m still loud; the neighbors are probably hearing it whether they want to or not. Cheap apartment walls are thin. “All you do is copy down some tax figures so they can see that you don’t make enough money to send me to college. Then they loan me money that I have to pay back. I pay, not you.”

“I don’t trust no feds. They always find a way to make you pay. You’ll screw around for four years, get yourself a useless piece of paper, and end up making fries right next to me. And then the feds will find a way to stick me with the big fat debt you can’t repay. By the way, you know who’s working grill on my shift today? Guy with a history degree. Talks big. Lots of fancy fifty-dollar words, always wants to show off how smart he is, but I make a buck and a half more an hour than he does and I’m a tenth grade dropout. He’s just like you. A smartass who doesn’t have the sense to see how things really are. A book-smart dipshit. A degree means jack if you don’t have family connections. College is for politicians’ and bankers’ kids, not for working guys like me. Like you. Want me to sign off on financial aid? Go find a vocational school. Be a mechanic. Be a plumber. An electrician. HVAC. Good money for working class kids. Maybe your kids can go to a fancy university, if you do that.” He picks up the plate with my forms on it, walks into the kitchen with its two-burner stovetop and three-quarter size fridge, opens the trash can with a stomp on its plastic pedal and flicks my paperwork into the trash can with the side of his fork. He scrapes the greasy remains of his eggs and toast crusts on top.

“Case closed,” he says, and lets the trash can top shut with a plastic snap. “Want to waste your time getting your little egghead piece of paper, do it on your own dime.” He grabs his work hat out of the closet and leaves for the bus stop. I watch him walk out to it through the kitchen window.

While he waits, I make a call…

AND THAT’S THE END OF THE PREVIEW. As usual with previews, the most interesting bits are still ahead, farther into the story. You should definitely read the whole thing.

Pluto, 1930 Yearbook Photo — Plus Space Program Grumbles

Pluto 1930 Tombaugh

This is how Pluto looked when Clyde Tombaugh discovered it in 1930. A bright mote, an apparent star that moved in a way that betrayed its planetary nature — for someone who was looking carefully enough.

Things have gotten a bit better with New Horizons; you can see the latest images on NASA’s NH page. Here’s one that’s new as of this post date:

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Edit: new image below, 14 JUL:

Pluto Icecap

Quite the improvement, no?

Well, yes. But it has been a long wait, hasn’t it? 85 years. Granted, we could hardly have dispatched an airplane to take a closer look in 1930. Modern rocketry as in its infancy, as was broadcasting. Even if a 1930s era rocket could have been launched at Pluto, we’d hardly have gotten word back of success reaching it, much less a picture.

I do worry that these are the best images I’ll see in my lifetime, and I’m only 45. But NASA’s funding has been either waning or just holding on against inflation these last three decades, not growing, and the bulk of the current crop of Presidential candidates seem to be mostly unenthused by NASA. ‘What’s the point of spending a whole penny on the federal budget dollar on all this sciency stuff? We’ve got people to feed, bomb, feed bombs to, bomb with food, and so forth, right here on Earth.’

Hostility to and/or disinterest in space, NASA, science, and scholarly investigation in general is nothing new. In the 1970s and 80s, Senator William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin is a ‘fine’ recent example, with his ‘Golden Fleece’ awards that, as often as not, lambasted space and science funding as wasted effort and wasted money. Plenty of commentators, regular folks, and politicians jump on that anti-intellectual, short-view bandwagon from time to time.

Frankly, it’s a nasty and dangerous habit, this idea that exploring the cosmos around us, exploring our own planet further, and learning in general is a waste of money and effort. There’s a lot to be gained by exploration, here and up there. Aren’t you reading this on a computer? Possibly a computer that also telephones people and locates itself by GPS? Thank scientists, scholars, inquisitive types, the space program, all those ‘wastes of money’ that pay off in knowledge and in the things that knowledge makes possible, if you spend the money learning now and have the patience to wait a decade or two for the payoff.

I know, we’re not that great at long-term thinking, most of us. But seriously. Yes, we’re just looking at Pluto, which is hardly going to be useful real estate or mining grounds next week, year, or decade. But every time we do something like this, we don’t just learn more about how our planetary neighbors work. We learn more about communications, propulsion, efficient generation and use of power sources, miniaturization, navigation, and so on, and so forth, and likely things that you and I haven’t thought of yet that will pay off come 2045.

Not to mention, as big as this earth is, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the solar system. Planets and asteroids and comets, oh my, swimming in a constant rain of free-to-gather energy that is sunlight (or maybe magnetic if you want to venture to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and do some tinkering). Sometimes people talk about this ‘high frontier’ as if it could be a relief valve for overpopulation, but no, it’s not that. No more than opening California to colonization relieved crowding in New York City. But a wide frontier is a relief valve for people who are gravely dissatisfied with current affairs at home, and we as a planetary society haven’t really had one of those in quite a few decades now. Yes, there’s a certain lack of open air and flowing water up there among the various possible destinations. So what?

The big ‘so what’ is that we’re doing little practicing of how to keep people alive in places like that. There’s a space station, and 40+ years after people walked on the moon it’s still an itty-bitty one with a few people, entirely supplied from earth. It’s useful, and we learn from it, and we’ve no apparent interest in pushing the boundaries meaningfully as a species. Well, China has done a little talking in that direction, Maybe in response to US talk about sending people to Mars, maybe, one day, well maybe not, or maybe we’ll just push back the ‘maybe’ date… you get the idea. We like talking about it a bit, but few are serious about it, especially among those who would have to speak the loudest to fund such a nutty idea as putting a bunch of people on the moon or Mars to live long term, the politicians. They’re not that interested, and the public isn’t that interested. And that’s a shame. We won’t spread off this rock unless there’s an interest in doing so. Maybe the interest will come too late, after climate change gets nasty enough to cause even middle-class folks serious problems at home. Such a wait-till-the-crisis scenario would be a shame, too. Because, like in the ‘reduce population pressure’ scenario, colonizing the moon or Mars of anything else out there would not be a way to evacuate millions or billions of people in troubles.

But it would be a great way to spread the human race out a bit so that it’s not in danger of croaking en masse if a massive disaster of some sort were to loom. And it would, if no disaster comes to call, be a great way to expand the knowledge, both practical and abstract, of the human race as a whole — and that expansion would all be fuel for the next round of life-improving gadgets just as food preservation, improved transportation, construction and maintenance of internets, and so forth have been for us.

Don’t be selfish. Help the people of 2100 surpass us as much as we’ve surpassed the people of 1930.

Don’t Trump Your Cat — Your Cat Begs You

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Even if you don’t actually “Trump” your poor, long-suffering kitty who implores you not to do this, please, pleasepleaseplease, you should look at what’s coming out of the #TrumpYourCat hashtag online because it’s freakin’ hilarious.

Also, I think your cat would be a better President than the person that’s being made fun of here. I will vote for your cat. Just let me know.

Thirteen Word Story: Talking About Origins, 1,000,000 CE

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“All evidence says humans were created throughout the Milky Way at once, see?”

Old School Reading: Joe Haldeman

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This is a linked collection of short stories — the adventures of a government assassin in a smallish interplanetary empire. The links are interludes in which the assassin is interviewed and prepared for the next mission through hypnotic suggestion — Haldeman is known for war stories that have more to say about what lies beneath the war than the actions of war, and this is no exception. The training & hypnosis plus the actions the protagonist performs in service weigh heavily on his mind, even through the hypnosis (Brainwashing? You decide.) until… well, I’d hate to spoil it for anyone.

The copy I’m reading, you may have noticed by the grease-penciled price on the cover, is from a thrift store. It’s a book club edition from 1977 — maybe it’s still in print? If not, Amazon’s not bad for finding used out of print stuff. That’s how I got my edition of Spinrad’s The Iron Dream — but that’s another story.

“Half Sour, Half Sweet” Is About Finding Hope In The Depths Of Regret

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This is a story that comes, in part, out of my own life and experiences. Unlike David Brown, I am not yet seventy years old and I did not miss out on the love of my life. But I do know what regret is, and I do know what it is to wonder if my chance to have a good life got left behind in the past. David did leave his good life behind, and he’s wondering where it got to, and how he got so old. David’s redemption is in a little bit of magic that he mistakenly left behind at his boyhood home, if only he can find it and figure out how to use it. And maybe a bit in his grandson’s unknowing help.

My hope and redemption, you might (not) be startled to discover, is in writing stories like this. There’s a bit more of my past in it than usual, not that you’d notice if I didn’t tell you. David’s boyhood home is basically one I lived in when I was around five years old, though I didn’t get to finish growing up there like David did. The staircase and the vertigo one gets looking down it are there, if the house still stands. David’s grandson’s room is right where mine was, though of course in the mid-1970s there was no computer in it. I took some liberties — I had to move the creek across the field to a different position, and the creek needed to have a road next to it that never existed. I think the fishing is better in David’s creek than it was in mine, too.

But that’s fiction for you. We have to move some things around to make room for the fantasy. We have to include enough of the real for the fantastic to be grounded in our thoughts and feelings.

And we have to read it, of course. I hope you’ll read this one. David and I will thank you for it.

You can find it at Amazon, iTunes Bookstore, Google Play Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and at Smashwords.

It is also included among the twenty-one stories in the Not Gruntled collection, which is available in trade paperback as well as ebook formats.

New Monthly Microfiction At Patreon: “The Mangrove At The End Of The World”

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I’ve been posting a piece of microfiction each month for Patreon patrons (a whole buck a month is the minimum pledge to see them) since March. This month’s offering is a vignette about a young man fishing in a place that makes the familiar Earth seem very alien indeed. It’s about hope and death and life and duty, and maybe a few other things, too. While a vignette isn’t quite a story of its own, this one sketches the edges of at least three big stories for your — and maybe my, in future works — imagination to work on.

You should read it. I think it’s worth seeing.

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