(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on the 21st. Become a patron and see posts early, get FREE ebooks before anyone else can get them, and help me on my quest to feed a family of five with my dreams!)
For a little while now, I’ve been kicking around the idea of going back and editing some of my oldest stories. I generally still like those stories from my earliest days of self-publishing — an immense five years ago, has it really been so little time? It seems like ages.
It’s exactly because it seems like ages that I want to create some revamped editions of those stories. Five years isn’t all that long ago, but it was only seven years ago that I decided it might be fun to take up writing for my own enjoyment again and only six years ago that I decided — okay, my wife persuaded me over my own self-conscious and self-deprecating protests — that I might want to write stories to share with other people, and maybe even sell a few.
I used to write in grade school, imitations of science fiction stories found in libraries and the steady stream of paperbacks my father devoured. But after placing only (!) third in a short story contest in my smallish school, I decided I must not be cut out for writing — I had absorbed, from somewhere, the idea that writing was a talent and not a skill, and I didn’t have it. I wrote a few short stories in my teens and twenties, for my eyes only. Still convinced that, though fun, I just didn’t have the talent to write good ones. The thought of writing disappeared from my horizon until my late thirties, when it finally sank through my thick skull — I think the credit goes to Stephen King’s On Writing, which my wife brought home for me from a thrift store — that writing was a skill, like any art, and takes practice and time for the skill to develop.
And so I started filling notebooks with my own writing and reading the stories I loved with an eye toward what made them fun and interesting to read.
Those early self-published works were published while my skills were still new, and they show it. Are they still good? I hope so — at the least, I think the concepts are sound and the basics of story are there. But after writing a hundred and something short stories and making my way through an English fiction writing MA (I’m in the final course of my program as I write this) I think my writing has evolved significantly in the last few years. And I think any writer who passes through the first five years of writing with the intent to be published does the same — the early years of developing any skill are the years of greatest growth.
Now here’s the bit that’s important to you if you are interested in writing and especially if you have enjoyed some of my stories:
I’m planning on writing a few posts along the way as I revise, and I’m planning on publishing new editions with the old text included after the new text for anyone who would like to compare and contrast.
I think it will be an interesting look into how a writer evolves, for you and certainly for me.
I’d love to have the old and new text side by side for easy comparison, but there are a few factors in the way, so one after another it will have to be. 1: my primary self-publishing outlet, Smashwords, doesn’t like columnar formatting. 2: even if I could finangle side-by-side columns they would look like hell on any device you’d read an ebook on, short of maybe a 40″ monitor. 3: my stories tend to lengthen with editing despite the fat I cut, and the comparison columns would soon be out of sync anyway.
But why, exactly, is any of that important?
Because as my patrons (if you’re not, I’m talking to you in the next paragraph, and this one is short, so I’ll be right with you), I’ll treat new editions of old stories exactly like new stories. You will see them on Patreon a minimum of 30 days before they appear anywhere else, and you will get a free copy in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI regardless of what I charge for the new edition elsewhere. This one I’m tackling first, “In Real Life”, is priced at $1.99.
Even if you’re not one of my Patreon patrons, you may not have read the original, and may find it best to wait and get the new and old editions together — and if by chance you bought the original ebook, once the new edition is released you *should* be able to download the new version from the original vendor you purchased it from. If not, let me know and I’ll hook you up after the patron-exclusive 30 days ends — you’re on the honor system; please be kind to this writer who needs every penny he earns to keep his 20 year old minivan running and the lights on at home.
Also, the story may get longer — at least three readers have told me that they’d love for it to be longer, maybe to reveal what happens next after the ending. Now, “tell us what happens next” is sometimes the bane of the short story writers — I, like many others, like an open-ended ending that invites the reader to imagine the possibilities beyond the end of the story — but sometimes it’s actually a good idea. I’m thinking particularly of “Isolation”, the title story of my Isolation and Other Stories collection, which ended after what became the first third of the story in the original draft. My wife read it and said, as near as I can remember, “hell no, you can’t end it there. It needs more.”
Sometimes the reader is right. “In Real Life” might need more. Or it might not. We’ll see. But like I said before, my drafts tend to grow during editing — just as, in the old saying, stories grow with the telling.
No matter how it goes, it should be fun.
Please don’t remind me that those are famous last words — let’s end on a high note.
They Were So Excited
Civilization ended. Survivalists soon wept.
It was nothing like the movies and books.
We, in general as humans, like to imagine how amazingly we’d react to hypothetical situation X. The zombie apocalypse, invasion of hostile aliens or fellow humans, mass plague, being mugged or robbed, war, poverty, fear, pain, and so forth.
Sometimes, yes, we react pretty well. Especially if we’ve been trained in some way to deal with situation X. But we don’t like failing and we don’t like thinking we’d do badly regardless. It’s a type of optimism, and despite my frequent cynicism I’m not immune any more than the next guy.
I think my own culture, that of the United States, is especially prone to “I’d be awesome” thinking. We’d all be blowing off zombie heads like a master marksman in the zombie apocalypse. Of course *we* would never hesitate to blow away our zombie loved ones like that poor sucker in the movie who couldn’t do it in time and got bit. I enjoyed reading a couple of Eric Flint’s 1632 series, but I had to stop because everything was just a bit too easy — well, gee whiz, we’ve been cut off from the modern world and dropped into the past. Time to grab those bootstraps and get the power plant working again, it’ll be simple. And while we’re at it we’ll go sailing all around the world too because modern people stripped of the technology we’re used to are still better than any damn past person. We’d do so much better because… because…
There’s no real reason except an optimistic belief in being better. People with money explain how much better they’d handle poverty than millions of poor people, because millions of poor people must be poor because they’re lazy. People whose kids have grown up and left home explain how easy it is for young people to hold off having kids until they’re making six figures. People who inherit wealth tell us how easy it is to be self-made. People who have never been in danger in their lives talk about how easily they’d overcome PTSD or anxiety or phobia, and how much better a job they’d do at going to war than the people who have actually been in those wars.
A lot of people simply do not consider that things that are difficult or deadly or both are difficult and/or deadly. A lot of people, including as far as I can tell a hell of a lot of our politicians, are pretty sure that life is some kind of movie or television series, and hardship is an exciting adventure to overcome.
Well, I don’t think so. I think the zombie apocalypse or whatever would suck, and I’d probably die despite my best efforts.
But in defense of stories, I have enjoyed reading about zombie apocalypses. I’ve enjoyed movies about them. Writing about one could be fun — and I have written about the start of one. I may actually write one, one day. You never know.
Just, you know… let’s remember the fiction is fiction. Being inspired is fine, forgetting that the battles we all fight, figurative or literal, are real, they can be difficult, people lose and fail and take time to overcome when they overcome at all, and it’s worth having some empathy for others. We easily recognize hardship in our own lives, remember to recognize others’ hardships as well. Don’t dismiss them.
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.
I WILL EAT YOU. YOU ARE A DELICIOUS TRADITION.
The title pretty much says it all: I take the word “Thanksgiving” at face value, and I give thanks. Some folks might — and do — question how an atheistic sort like myself can give thanks without giving thanks TO something, by which they mean to a deity. Well, I answer, it is entirely possible to feel thankful for something without there being an object to hang the thanks on. I’m thankful for my wife. I’m thankful to have three awesome kids. I’m thankful for what my parents did to help me grow and I’m thankful that when they made mistakes, they were mindful and thoughtful enough to own those mistakes and say ‘whooops’ in a good and productive way. I’m thankful that when I make a parenting mistake, my kids are good enough to listen to my saying ‘whoops’ in what I hope is a good and productive way. And I’m thankful for delicious food, and a warm home, and…and…and…
…you don’t want to listen to all this. It’s a big laundry list, and you have your own laundry list of thankfulness to tend to. Suffice it to say, there is much in my life that is good and positive.
It means something, for me to have this day to focus on thankfulness. Its existence helps me remember to work it into the other 364 days of the year (your mileage may vary on leap years), and many of those days it is not easy to remember. Because I can be pretty darn pessimistic sometimes. Just as there is always something to be thankful for, there is always the potential for something to go wrong, or at least not right. And those things loom large in my vision. It has been like that for as long as I can remember. When I sell a few books, my mind wants to focus on how many more I had hoped to sell, not on being happy that the ones who bought them, bought them. When one of my blog posts gets five likes, my first thought is a grumble that it’s not fifty, rather than being thankful for the five who were good enough to pull the trigger on the positive reinforcement button. When the car is running well, I worry that it could break down tomorrow. When the bills are paid, I worry about next month.
As my maternal grandmother put it once, “we are worry warts.” To one degree or other, worry runs in the family. And yet, it’s not entirely a family thing. I read news and tweet on Twitter and look at what people post in various online forums and I see worry warts all over. Maybe it’s a human thing. Well, I’m all too human, and it often makes me grumpy. It’s important for we grumpy worry warts to take some time to focus on what there is to be thankful for.
And as for the portion of the title pertaining to “weird national fables”: what? They’re weird. They were built in a time when our nation was trying to pretend that genocide of First Nations people wasn’t part of this nation’s history (not that plenty of people — too many — aren’t trying to pretend so even today). Giving thanks is good, a ‘first Thanksgiving’ fable that glosses over the wrongs in our history isn’t so great, to say the least. So, I’m glad to cut those fables loose from my household. On other days, I tell my kids about history, and I tell my kids that people or nations that do not acknowledge their past wrongs are hurting themselves and inviting more wrongs. Honesty with self, human or nation, is vital to doing right today and in the future. Period.
But we don’t talk about that much on Thanksgiving. We’re too busy being thankful for each other.
Is this my future? A big stinky onion future?
There has been a lot of talk about the pervasive pessimism in science fiction recently. Notably in the last couple of years, but there have been grumblings on the subject all the way back to the dawn of Cyberpunk with its dreary skies the color of television tuned to a dead channel. You know, before a dead channel was an eye-searingly vivid blue.
The dawn of science fiction tended to be pretty upbeat. Yes, there was rampant sexism, pretty much every important character was an heterosexual, able-bodied, highly intelligent, male Caucasian, imperialism was the savior of space civilizing exotic alien noble savages, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was a nice automated house with a yard and a white picket fence in the suburbs, or at least within flying-car range of the suburbs. But it was upbeat. Medical science was constantly solving inconveniences like infectious disease, cancer, and aging. Easy travel to friendly worlds around other stars relieved the problems of population pressure and resource wars–or at least moved the wars to desolate asteroid belts and the deeps of interstellar space where the collateral damage was lighter. The average schlub on the street, if we saw him, was educated and clean and on his way from his nice safe 9-to-5 where his wife would cook dinner by pressing a button and afterward tossing the dishes into a receptacle to be disintigrated and reconstituted sparkling clean in the automatic dispenser for the next meal. There were no worries about the electric bill or rising gasoline prices or the wholesomeness of food and water being compromised by deregulation.
Everything in the life of the USA, which is and was the author of the bulk of science fiction collectively, seemed to be on an inevitable upward trajectory that would easily carry the future into a better and more expansive place.
And then things stopped peaking. They started heading downward in many regards, and the longer this reversal continued, the more people–including writers of science fiction–noticed it. The point of view of the US science fiction writer wasn’t naturally upward anymore. It was downward. Imagine the view from a car on a rollercoaster. Heading upward, you’re looking to the sky. Once you roll over the top, pause, and then plunge downward, you’re looking down the hill. And you’re screaming; even if you can see you’re not likely to plunge straight into the ground and die, it feels like you will.
The US middle class has been shrinking for a while. The space program has contracted; we don’t talk about when we will build a colony on the moon anymore, not seriously. We talk about the next automated probe we’re going to land on Mars for a look around the dust. When Kennedy said we’d go to the moon, people mostly believed him. When Obama said we’d go to Mars, even enthusiasts said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” We don’t feel secure in our jobs anymore, if we have them. Our incomes have gotten smaller after inflation adjustment over the years, not bigger as we once, in the halcyon years of optimistic science fiction, assumed they would continue to grow forever.
Maybe when we find the bottom of this decline we’re in, in terms of the collective prosperity of ALL US citizens, US writers will cheer up a bit and science fiction will grow an upbeat consensus again–hopefully with the racism, sexism, and imperialism absent. Or perhaps the heart of science fiction will shift.
Science fiction, after all, has been a world literature from the beginning. US writers may have and may still comprise the majority, but if SF is to teach us anything, it is that the future always brings change. And SF has been growing, I understand, not just in other English-speaking nations, but also worldwide and outside the traditional Western bastions.
Literature belongs to the world and all its people. I welcome all the cheer the other writers of the world can lend us US writers in climbing out of our funk.
For centuries, they sent missionary after missionary to help the rising young intelligence see past the biological heritage of survival as battle, to pursue empathy, cooperation.
After enough missionaries were pierced with arrows, burnt, nailed to trees, poisoned at dinner, beaten with clubs, enslaved, drugged, mocked, impersonated for material gain, and made figureheads for war, they stopped sending more.
A twist of space-time delivered the young intelligence and its world to a lonely universe with no other intelligence to harm but itself.
Perhaps one day they will relent and send missionaries again.
But not yet. It is still too dangerous.