Every Single One Of My Titles

EAT SCIENCE FICTION

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Could the future be so cruel?

     I love food, and it shows in my fiction. There aren’t many stories I write that go by without the characters having a meal. I’m working on a story now, and my characters just finished a Kazakh-inspired meal of mutton and rice with dried fruit and garlic. In Kitty Itty And The Seawall Broke, mother and son enjoy a lunch of bread with ham-seasoned foraged beans on a North Carolina coast impovershed by the effects of sea level rise. Sudden homelessness does not deter the hero of Isolation from munching down on some hot crispy cuy in an underground kitchen. Even in super-short Labor Of Love, the alcohol-addicted protagonist takes time out from his quest for drink to scarf down a couple of “Kraut and Cheezies” from a fast-food joint.

     It’s not that I always write when I’m hungry — though I can just about always find room for a snack.  It’s that food is often forgotten in fiction.  Food, after all, is not the main part of the story. It’s not the point. It shouldn’t be center stage, except in the rarest of circumstances, as in Pig where the central situation is that the main character’s food begins talking to her, begging her piteously not to consume it — much to her dismay.

     But most of the time, the food is an aside, and it’s a challenge to integrate it into a story and not have it stick out like it doesn’t belong. But, for me, writing is about life, just as eating is about life. In the real world, people socialize around food. They think about food. They worry about whether they have enough money to buy groceries that will last until next paycheck, they worry if the meat department will have the right sized rib roast for Easter dinner, they’re afraid they’ve burnt the toast, they invite colleagues to talk business over tapas, they stop for food on the way to the hospital to visit a sick relative, they ask the kids how the school week went over Saturday morning eggs and bacon.

     They’ll do all of these things in the future, too. Oh, some details may change. Maybe the kids will go to school via internet instead of taking the bus. Maybe the meat will be grown in a nutrient solution rather than on the hoof. Maybe the pasta will be made in a printer instead of rolled out in a factory. Interstellar colonists may eat alien fruit, or aliens might come to nosh on us, as so many stories have suggested.

     But unless something very radical indeed happens, like the whole world up and loading itself into a virtual reality, we’ll always have the social nexus and sensory joy of eating food. And maybe, if we’re all virtual beings, we’ll still choose to do it anyway, even if it’s unnecessary.

     Because food is comforting. Eating is primal and elemental to us. Mealtimes, for time immemorial, have cemented families and friendships. So given how vital it has been and is to human society, I like to carry that vitality into the future as I imagine it.

Six Word Story: The Future Arrives

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The future arrives; as usual, unexpectedly.

Self-Driving Cars And The Century Of Death @ OMNI Reboot

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Yesterday, OMNI Reboot published a short speculative nonfiction piece I wrote entitled… well, look up; the title I used here is the title I used there. You can read it in its entirety with them — they were kind enough not to ask for exclusivity, but given that they’ve gone to the trouble to publish it and find some killer art to go with it, I’d like to give them the click, which will open in a new window so you can finish reading what I’ve written here as well. You know, if you’d like to.

In it, I assume that the self-driving automobile will dominate the roads of the not-so-far future, because I think that’s exactly what will happen. The future will look back and blink in stunned amazement that we put up with the enormous death toll of manual driving — over a MILLION yearly worldwide — and wonder what the hell was wrong with us.

But that’s not all. The self-driving car is part of the roboticization of the manual workforce. As computers have become less costly (remember, too, to adjust for inflation)…

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64K of RAM standard? Who will ever need such power!

…they have become ubiquitous. So, too, with the robotic laborer. The bot will flip your McBurger, replace your bank teller, paint your house, repair the roads, build your house, fix your plumbing, and not only drive your car, but more vitally to the economy, will drive all of the countless trains and trucks full of groceries and furniture and knicknacks and office supplies from one end of the country to another. And not only will self-driving delivery vehicles bring those things and more to the stores, but they will load and unload the trucks, stock the shelves, ring them up at the register, charge your card, bag them, and take them out to the car for you.

Because, unless there’s some sort of mass disruption in the progress of this technology, the systems that guide self-driving cars and work-doing bots are getting better and cheaper constantly and quickly, and will continue to do so for the forseeable future. The ‘bodies’ they will inhabit to do so are little more than a detail of engineering. And there’s every chance, with the advance of design software, that a computer will design the bots that serve you as well, rather than humans doing it.

Six Word Story: Poverty In 3D

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Poverty In 3D

The poor?

Let them print cake!

Thirteen Word Story: Change The Past

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Change The Past

I wish great-great-great-grandfather were less racist.

I’ll sneak in, edit his source code.

Happy Pi Day, Europe Edition

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Thought I’d take a moment to share my Pi Day tweet with WordPress.

Lunacy — A Short Story Readable Only On Patreon, In Thanks For Over $40/month In Total Patronage!

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I hope you didn’t expect to read it here! It’s over on Patreon –follow this link– to thank the folks who are kind enough to support me in my quest to support a family by writing. I hear persistence pays off, and it’s beginning to pay off on Patreon — the current level of support I enjoy there is just about enough to pay the household internet bill! And that matters. Without the internet, it would be WAY more difficult to do what I do.

So thanks to all who go over to read Lunacy on Patreon, and extra-special thanks to all those who choose to support me there, or elsewhere by buying my ebooks!

Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, And The Literary DMZ

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Recently, I got hold of a copy of Year’s Best SF 17 from 2012. I’m about halfway through it. Judith Moffett’s The Middle Of Somewhere brought up some old thoughts from the venerable ‘genre wars’ — the eternal debate as to what constitutes a science fiction story, a speculative fiction story, fantasy, mainstream fiction, literary fiction, and… and… and…

Well, writers and readers are always debating about which story counts as what. The ones who aren’t are apt (but not bound) to declare, “ah, screw it. A story is a story, and genre is for marketing types, not writers and readers.”

I have a certain sympathy for the ‘a story is a story’ anti-genre-definition point of view. I’d hate to miss reading a good story because it didn’t fit into the ideas of what genre X should be, and I’d hate to miss writing one for the same reasons.

But why, you ask as you read this, am I telling you all this?

The Middle Of Somewhere is well-written. I enjoyed reading it; my experience of it was an ‘easy read,’ meaning it just sort of pulls you in and you keep reading until the story’s over, at which point you’re startled out of the book by the story’s end wishing there was more. It’s the story of a young technophile connected to social media at the hip growing closer to a mildly technophobic ornithology enthusiast elder whose rural Kentucky home is run over by a tornado.

It’s one of those stories that inhabits the DMZ between genres. I have absolutely no doubt that quite a few readers double-checked the cover to make sure “SF” was on it, because this particular story is not quite science fiction as it is often defined: “a story in which some element of scientific speculation is central to the story.” It’s not that. You can call it speculative fiction, a very broad category in which the qualification is ‘something in the story is different than it is here and now’. The tornado is chalked up to the influence of climate change. The elder character remarks on tornadoes having become more common and more violent. The younger character’s parents are climate change denialists, but she thinks there’s something to climate change, especially after the tornado.

That’s the speculative element, in total. The parts regarding climate change aren’t even central to the story, they’re inconsequential asides without which the story would be as strong and would make as much sense. The story might even be improved by removing those small digressions, without any effect on the plausibility of the story, because Kentucky has had no shortage of tornadoes in the past. The tornado in the story is an F3; Kentucky has had F3s and F4s before.

Obviously, the editors of the anthology didn’t feel that the slenderness of the speculative element was grounds to exclude it — because it was there.

I’m torn, myself. I’m glad it was there because otherwise I might have missed it. But I don’t think it’s a strong example of science fiction and therefore isn’t an example of one of the best science fiction stories of 2012. And I guarantee that there are plenty of science fiction fans who would say that it didn’t belong there, but perhaps belongs in a literary collection, or in a collection of Judith Moffett’s fiction, or in a speculative fiction collection about climate change, which is exactly where this story first appeared.

If I had been among the editors of Year’s Best SF 17, I think I’d have voted against including it. And then I think I’d have started asking, “who can we recommend this story to, so the readers don’t miss it?”

Because regardless of genre, it’s a damn good story.

The Minimalist Character Description: DESCRIBE LESS, PLEASE

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Occasionally, on Twitter or on one online forum or another, I’ll see writers discussing character descriptions. As a reader, I read plenty of them, too.

The discussions are usually about how much to describe characters. Should I tell the reader what color her eyes areWhat color his hair is, how it curls up a bit at the ends, that it’s shoulder length, how it blows in the soft breeze with a curl falling almost but not quite across one eye? Should I tell them how much my badass ex-special-forces mercenary weighs, that it’s pure muscle and hardly any body fat, how tall he is? He’s really tall? Maybe how big around his biceps are… do I use inches, centimeters, or what? Should I tell them how big the female lead’s boobs are? Like, cup size? I’m pretty sure I should.

Oh, no. No, no, no. Please no.

Look, there’s a time and a place for these things. And a lot of descriptions are described for the wrong reasons. As writers, we tend to have an idea of what our characters look like. The more often we use the character, the stronger that idea is. And it’s tempting to want to pass that full vision on to the reader. Hey, did I tell you that Protagonist X has really hairy forearms? I always imagined him with really hairy forearms. But, alas, the reader doesn’t care that much.

Probably because the reader is building his or her own picture of the characters.

There are other reasons characters are over-described, other than the eagerness of the writer to transmit an imaginary photograph from his head to yours. Some of us, especially in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, have played role-playing games before, where you describe your character on a sheet of paper — height, weight, typical clothing, distinguishing marks such as scars and tattoos, hair and eye color, and so forth. The ‘character sheet’ is also a writing exercise that crops up from time to time in workshops and classrooms. Character sheets are not a bad thing. But most of what’s on that sheet, in my minimalist-friendly opinion, is for the writer, not the reader. Some of those details might crop up in the progress of the story. It suddenly becomes relevant that Protagonist Y is a tiny woman, not even five feet tall and elfin-thin, because that’s what allows her to shimmy under a low-slung sportscar where the baddies pursuing her would never think a person could hide. Maybe her cup size does matter — if you’re writing erotica. Ditto for the dimensions of Protagonist Z’s schlong. Erotica, goes with the territory. Much of any genre else, you just look like a big fat sexist. Maybe a couple of characters meet via blind date or similar, and a couple of details are the recognition key — “Look for a tall guy with a big afro wearing Western boots with Cuban heels and a vintage white Megadeth concert tee from the late 1980s. I’m pretty distinctive.”

There’s a time and a place for physical description, and in my opinion it’s mostly in the head of the author, outside of some pretty unusual circumstances.

So why do I write characters this way? Thinking of stories I’ve recently worked on, for example, the physically describing details I attached to one character were that his jeans were worn and soft and old, torn, revealing a single thin and bony knee. That’s it for him. He’s a he, his jeans are old, and one of his knees is knobby. And this was a significant character, not a one-scene background throwaway.

My theory goes like this: most of the picture a reader forms of a character is based on what happens in the story. Worn jeans, thin bony knee, some moderately whiny dialogue, a southwestern desert setting, the fact that he and she (the other primary character, the protagonist) drive out of the city where they work writing ad copy… all these circumstances attach to things in the mind of the reader. They attach to templates — southwestern. City folks visiting a rural setting. Might be a bit awkward, a bit sightsee-y. Writers — maybe a bit casual, maybe a little unconventional. Ad copy isn’t the most exciting job ever, doesn’t sound too highly paid — now we have the reader’s vision of class influence on appearance. She cuts a few Spanish words in with her dialogue, he doesn’t. The reader who notices this has a new bit to add as to their appearances. I don’t tell them how — everyone adds their own impression. Maybe for some it influences their ideas about how these two look, maybe for some it influences how they act, how they move, stand, speak, go about their regular lives; in real life, this tells you far more about a person than just physical description, and it’s far more nebulous. Unless you’re Sherlock Holmes, you’re influenced in your impression of a person far more by cues other than things like height, weight, hairstyle, and so on, and you don’t know what specific things produced those impressions.  I do use the odd physical characteristic, but I tend not to be precise. I think precision burdens the reader. When I read, I don’t care that some guy is six-foot-five, two hundred and fifty pounds, and has seven percent body fat. When I write, that guy is “Protagonist A stood up; he had shoulders like a bull. The pickpocket cowered, dwarfed.” And that’s how I like to read, too. I tend to skim over long descriptions and move on to what the characters do, how they speak to each other, what their interior monologues are like. That tells me way more about the character.

What I find when I read books with characters that stay with me, is that they tend to be described similarly. Bare sketches of physical detail that are more about the characters themselves than their physical appearances. The action and dialogue tell you about the character. Take Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example.Paul Atreides is described on the first page by his age, fifteen, and by his mother and Reverend Mother Mohiam discussing the fact that he’s small for his age. That’s all we get. The Reverend Mother is “a bulky female shape” with eyes that are “bird-bright ovals” and “glittering jewels”. Her hair is “like matted spiderwebs”.

Which brings in another aspect of describing a character: your characters are part of the setting, and your setting delivers the feel of the story to the reader. Reverent Mother is spooky. That spiderweb hair — is it white, gray, straight, curled, really long, slightly long? We don’t know. We don’t care. She’s creepy and Paul is creeped out by her and her presence. What color are “bird-bright ovals?” What kind of “glittering jewels?” So many times we’re tempted to make the glittering jewels tell what color those eyes are. Well, do we care? Eye color doesn’t matter much until later in Dune, and then everyone’s eyes are spiced-out blue. So we don’t care, Herbert doesn’t care, what color the eyes are until it matters. Right now, at the open of the story, Paul is unsettled by those piercing eyes, and so we get two descriptions of them that tell us nothing about how they look and everything about how they make Paul feel.

And feelings are way, WAY, WAY more important to your story than how much so-and-so weighs or what color what’s-her-name’s hair is.

When I Think “Faster Food,” I Think Robot Cooks, Not SHRIMP DUMPLING CANNON

Yes, this is an advertisement. Usually, I’m no fan of advertisements.

However, this one is hilarious and creative… and it made me laugh.

Laughter is precious.

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