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13 Word Story: After The End Of The World

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(This post appeared on my Patreon page on the 18th of this month — my patrons see posts 3 days early. When I publish a new ebook, they get a FREE copy THIRTY DAYS EARLY even if I charge for it everywhere else! Even a pledge of a single buck per month gets you those benefits — and you also get the pleasure of supporting a financially struggling self-published author whose wife, 3 kids, and self insist on extravagant luxuries like “food” and “electricity” and even — GASP WHAT FRIPPERY — a 20 year old minivan. We’re such softies.)

 

So, I’ve gotten in the habit of posting a substantial companion ramble/rant/essay/callitwhatyouwill with these 13 word stories. I couldn’t sleep last night, so I propped my chest up on my zafu (stiff meditation cushion, usually for butts & not writing in bed, for anyone who hasn’t run into that word before), nudged myself over perilously close to my restlessly sleeping 2 year old boy where the dim light of the nightlight was brightest, and proceeded to write about 700 words longhand. I’m sure that was wonderful for my eyes, probably aged them an extra year and I’m already in progressive-lens trifocals. Sign me up for a writers’ purple heart, I suppose.

 

After a bit of editing, as my edits usually go, the companion post ended up expanding to 805 words. Plus all these words I’m typing here. I’m a glutton for composition.

 

Without further ado, here’s the post:

 

We talk and think a lot about the end of the world. For my and my parents and grandparents’ generation (once that last passed through the Great Depression and World War II) the vision of the end of the world is tied up in Cold War visions of nuclear holocaust. I don’t know about you, but this Gen Xer has a copy of The Day After on DVD – the movie, which I saw in its original airing on television when I was 13 — was a distillation of all of the vague fears of death at the hands of Soviet ICBMs that occasionally haunted my nightmares and daymares. I’m sure I’m not the only one with those experiences.

Today that nuclear war specter is still around, a shade still fearful but overshadowed by younger, more vital terrors, banished to the edge of consciousness. We’ve become comfortable with our eternal wars waged against small nations lacking nuclear arms, and even with current events in the Middle East and the South China Sea and Crimea, few even bother to wonder if a third world war might be in the making, or to fear the potential for a mass detonation of thermonuclear weapons.

Pollution as a human-world-ender, too, has lost some of its former luster. Russia has survived the worst of messy Soviet industrialism and Chernobyl as well – few pay attention to what aftermath there might be. The same for Japan and its Fukushima, China’s current smogs and rare-earth-mine pollutant pits, the Flint, Michigans and flaming fracking faucets of the United States, the landlocked oil spills and leaky pipelines the petroleum multinationals have splotched major portions of several nations in Africa with. Even the once-vivid fears of bioengineered, weaponized anthrax and smallpox have faded.

These confidences that the old dangers no longer threaten hold their own danger – that if a danger does arise from those quarters, we’ll find it easy to overlook until it’s too late.

Today, we sublimate all those fears, along with our fear of civil unrest and mob rule, into zombie fiction, as far as I can tell. A nice, safe end of the world, one unrealistic enough yet barely plausible enough to allow suspension of disbelief and provide a nice, safe thrill, like a rollercoaster with a secure safety caged seat.

But unlike we older folks (though many of us are catching on) the Millennials and – have we decided on a name for those following them yet? The Trans-Millennials being born now, like my littlest sons – have a world-ending specter as vivid and potent as any child of the Cold War ever had: climate change.

It’s easy for some of us olders (and a few youngers too) to downplay or ignore climate change – though I’m given to understand that the United States is among those nations of the world in which the sport of ignoring scientific consensus is most popular. Some even like to chalk up the very concepts of climate change and global warming and rising carbon dioxide levels to a shadowy cabal of academics thirsty to line their pockets with grant money. As if that were actually lucrative – a local district manager for a snack food distributor stands to better that “fortune” by exceeding sales quotas. Some even go farther and more wildly afield into theories about Illuminati – but we’ve pretty much always had those. Before the internet the Illuminati or similar “explained” Cold War threats as the fruits of conspiracy as well. Those theorists and their imaginings come and go like the dew, appearing to explain what’s “really behind” each new dawn.

But climate change, like nuclear weapons, will not be going away. And nuclear war, except in its most extreme Cold War incarnations, is not a threat on the same enduring and growing levels.

If climate change is the existential threat the Millennials will grow up with – and it is – so will their great-grandchildren and those great-grandchildrens’ great-grandchildrens’ great-grandchildren.

Climate change may or may not develop into a truly existential threat in itself. But if it heads into Venus-greenhouse territory, or even becomes enough to shift the wheat belts to the poles and drive the subtropical and tropical rice bowls into trans-tropical heat and weather pattern, whatever those might be, the worldwide struggle to adapt and survive may well add nuclear war and disregard for pollution in favor of short-term industrial advantage and wars fought with engineered plagues.

And if the end of humanity does come at the hands of a climate-change driven complex of disaster, by simple extinction or reduction to the stone age or pre-intelligence as a species, perhaps in time another species will evolve to occupy the intelligent builder niche we humans failed to hold. Squirrels are as good a candidate as any – I welcome Earth’s new squirrel overlords, assuming we do screw things up badly enough.

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[Preview and Preorder] HEY YOU CAN GET YOUR COPY NOW: “Black Grail”

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A short story, about 3500 words.

Parkhar’s father has a plan to wrest an ancient talisman from the glittering City of the ancients and the godlike, deathless Bots that guard it — but it will be Danwill, Marjay, and their cohort who take the risks. What they find will shape the future of the whole tribe, maybe even of all humanity itself!

 

This is my newest ebook short story single. While my patrons at Patreon have downloaded their free copies as part of their patron privileges, thirty days before release, at this writing it is available elsewhere only by preorder. The release date is April 7th HEY YOU CAN GET YOUR COPY NOW! The cost is a mere 99 cents — all you can get for that price at Starbucks is a funny look from the cashier. Of course you don’t have to buy and read this — you should read what you want, that’s kind of a central idea in this whole freedom of expression thing we like to talk about in authordom — but it would make me really happy if you did. And there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be happy too, because if you’re here reading this far into a science fiction writer’s bloggy stuff you probably enjoy science fiction in general. Right?

 

The preview below is a bit over the 30% you can view where it is available to preorder (or buy directly if you’re reading on April 7th or later). You can find it at AmazonBarnes & Noble, Google Play Books, Kobo, Smashwords, and hopefully soon at iTunes! [Right now iTunes is not listing it, though I haven’t gotten a ticket from Apple about any problem with the ebook file — if/when it finally is listed, I will hopefully remember to come back here and update the link to point at the book instead of my iTunes author page]

 

Enough of that, here’s the preview:

 

Black Grail

Preview

S.A. Barton — Copyright 2016

 

Since the time of my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, the People have sought the Grail. Today, I hold it in my hand. The other two survivors of our band eye me as warily as I eye them. It is easy to talk of sharing before you hold the key to all wealth and power in your hands; after, it is more difficult to practice. Temptation…

Parkhar sits with his back against the office door, twisting a leather tourniquet tighter on his left wrist. He hisses through his teeth at the last twist. His hand and the stumps of his fingers tremble, dotting his pants with more blood, red over red. He’s wondering if we’ll let him live now that we’ve found the prize. Marjay, though – she and I are unwounded but for scrapes and scratches. She’s short, broad, agile almost to the point of acrobatics; she stands across the massive burlwood desk from me, eye on the grail, hand on the haft of the heavy machete at her hip.

“Well, Danwill?” she asks, soft in the silence that falls after Parkhar’s groan. “Can we share, or must we duel?”

#

For a thousand and some years, we the People have lived in the hills and mountains surrounding the City. For the same amount of time, anyone setting foot in the City has been swiftly confronted by its tireless Bot defenders and either killed or captured. They are immortal spirits, avatars of the ancient giants who strode the land before the People were created and who have since passed Beyond. A few Bots fly through the air on circle-blades that whirl faster than even the wings of hummingbirds flap; a few, the size of bison, roll on wheels. Most wear forms like those of human beings, but bulky and shiny-black armored, and they walk in magic boots that never wear out. When Bots take a captive, on nights when the winds are still the captive’s cries can be heard all the way up in the mountains. Some of them live and scream for many weeks.

The City, in stories passed from grandmother to grandmother to grandmother, has always been a pool of jewels in the night, luminous treasure cupped in the great ancient mountains’ palms. As in the tales, even now it is bright there while in our tents and burrows we strain our eyes at guttering tallow candles. It is warm there while we shiver. There are storehouses packed with food while our lean bellies growl. The City is jealous of her bounty.

The holy tales say that once, the People dwelt among the giants in the City. Then, talismans brought them shelter, food, and other luxuries we can no longer imagine. The holiest talisman, the Black Grail, is said to grant the bearer all the heart’s desires, provided by the Bots.

With the Black Grail, the People might be brought back into the City to live in riches – and the one who brings them would be their King.

Or Queen.

#

“Well?” Marjay asks one more time. The cords stand out on her thick forearm with the power of her grip.

If we fight, either might die. Even the victor might die of wounds later, or lingeringly of gangrene. We are too closely matched.

Slowly, I draw my own machete – a little longer than hers, its spine not quite so thick.

She tenses. Half the length of her blade clears its sheath in a blink, with a sound like the chirp of a bird.

Slowly, slowly, eyes locked with hers, I extend my blade, turn it sideways, lay it on her side of the desk.

“There’s only one way that we both walk out of this place,” I say.

“You have to be joking,” Marjay replies. “You know I have no interest in men.”

#

Over many years, many bands of young warriors have challenged the City and its lethal Bots for the Black Grail – or simply, in famine times, for a few armloads of food from the City’s warehouses.

No previous expedition has ever recovered the Black Grail. Few who have gone hunting it have returned. From those handful of survivors, we have some trinkets of the city among us. The Herndez clan has a ball-shaped lamp that has stayed lit for twenty generations. The Denneh clan, Marjay’s, has a box that plays music that no instrument of ours can duplicate. When it stops playing, allowing it to rest in the sun for only an hour will restore it to play for many days. My own clan, the Kirkays, keeps kitchen herbs in metal cans that once held food captured from the City in a famine time a hundred years ago. There are a few other trinkets, but not many.

Few are willing to challenge the Bots. They cannot be harmed by blade, arrow, or spear. There are tales of talismans that might stop them, but those have proven as elusive as the Grail itself.

My father was one who was willing to challenge the Bots, in his own way. By studying the holy tales and the many stories we tell around our campfires, he thought he knew where the Black Grail must lie. But he was also a man of extraordinary patience and cleverness. Instead of going himself, he made a plan for the future. As he executed his patient plan, his hair slowly turned iron-gray and I grew into a man.

I remember, dimly, being four summers old, waddling with the weight of a reed basket of dirt and gravel gripped in both hands. It was a scoop of what my father and his fellows dug out of a long tunnel under the city boundary. Part of his plan was simple: avoid the eyes of the bots for as much of the path to the Grail as possible. The entrance of the stealthy tunnel, squared off with heavy smoke-blackened timbers, was shielded from the inspection of the Bots by the abrupt stony mound of a hill near the city limits. Still, that we were digging must have been obvious. We children, who, grown, formed the company that has brought we three survivors to the residence of the Grail, carried out endless buckets of earth and stone, filling nearby dry washes and building new hills. It’s obvious in hindsight. So many things are obvious in hindsight. Things that might have saved lives if only they’d been obvious to us before. But the desire for the Grail was strong in us all, we young adventurers, our aging parents and grandparents, even our wise toothless Eldest whose food we youngers trade the honor of chewing for her ease. The vision of wealth blinded us all. Perhaps that is the curse that ended the reign of Giants and allowed the humble People to step from their shadows.

But the Bots had never shown curiosity about anything beyond the border of their domain. We had never seen any pay attention to anything under the ground. And so we thought we were safe…

###

…and that’s the preview. Want to see what happens next? Head back up to the top and click a retailer link, or click one of the Patreon links there or in the header, become a patron, and download your free copy!

Thirteen Word Story — They Were So Excited

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First appeared on my Patreon page, posted 22 January 2016.

 

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.

 

But.

 

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.

 

Thirteen Word Story: Back To The Trees

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    Wars, famines, politicians casting every disagreement as life-or-death division, the screw-the-future shortsightedness of deregulated banks and businesses, the ever-deepening US suspicion of neighbors as enemies and basic social behavior as the demon-Stalinist-bugaboo of Cold War Soviet communism, the push deeper into religious extremism in the Middle East (copied, in rehtoric if not action — yet — by increasingly mainstream figures in US religion, like Huckabee)… there are a lot of forces working against the survival of the human race in the long term. To return to harping on my favorite harp-able subject, if we don’t get a large number of humans out of this nest we call Earth, we’re going to collapse this civilization and where we go from there is up in the air. Back to the trees is an option, should intelligence fail to secure us a future.

But wait — you came here for a thirteen word story. Here it is.

Back To The Trees

“Cooperate or fail — these once-civilized apes chose regression,” the alien xenoarchaeology professor said.

Thirteen Word Story: Global Warmed

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Global Warmed

No snowflake fallen below Canada since 2104 — desperate hordes press north, all starving.

Reach For The Stars

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(Short-short story short-shorter: birds not leaving the nest die there.)

Reach For The Stars

Skyscrapers, rockets drowned in withering leaves: their masters, in the end, too timid.

In Defense of Pessimistic Science Fiction

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(Thanks for the image, Pixabay artist ‘hucky’)

Look, I like optimistic science fiction. Sometimes. It’s like hard candy to me: I like a little nibble now and again, but it’s just too damn sweet to go eating a whole bunch at once. A bag of hard candy, like a collection of upbeat optimist short stories, can last me a month. Pessimistic or even neutral fiction—I’m focusing on science fiction because that’s most of what I make and read, but it really applies to all fiction; I mean, I read Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline just earlier this year—just feels more balanced to me. Like a meal, like savory, like a candy balanced by notes of salt or sourness or even heat (ever have chocolate with red pepper flakes? Wonderful stuff).

I’m not even saying you shouldn’t like a steady diet of upbeat science fiction. They’re your teeth if you want to rot them out; what do I have to do with that?

But, like the damned health food purveyors who insist that I will be better off if I eat less beef and bacon (they’re right, and there are days I hate them for it, because MMMMMM beef and bacon), I am saying that you’ll be better off if you consume more pessimistic fiction than optimistic. Pessimistic science fiction is fiber and bitter and sour and garlic and meat that’s really sort of tough but once you get chewing you notice all this FLAVOR NOM NOM NOM.

So I am saying that all in all, I think the pessimistic stuff is just plain better than the optimistic stuff, on average. And I am saying that it’s my opinion that the pessimistic stuff is more likely to make you a better reader, a better thinker, a better writer (if that’s your bag) than the upbeat stuff.

But, you ask—and I would be disappointed in you if you didn’t—why is pessimistic science fiction better?

Pessimistic science fiction is the pointing finger that says there—right there—is a problem that we must solve before it comes to this. A story about a dystopia inspires us to start thinking of ways to prevent that dystopia from coming to pass. It’s no guarantee, mind. Orwell’s 1984 did not prevent the rise of the current regime of surveillance; it did not prevent the widespread use of propaganda techniques. But it did, and still, keeps many of us questioning what we are told and why we should or should not be surveilled. And whatever the failings of today, they’re certainly not so bad as in 1984, and part of the credit for that goes to Orwell and 1984. The decidedly downbeat Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as well as older tales of golems, inspired Isaac Asimov to construct his three (later four) laws of robotics, a bit of problem solving that is still hotly debated today among roboticists and programmers and futurists (plug inspired by Asimov’s laws of robotics into your favorite search engine for a sampling). Paolo Bacigalupi’s works of dystopian climate-change-focused science fiction invite readers to think more deeply about the complications of climate change and what we might do about it—and how they might help. At the least, they contribute to raising awareness of the problems. You can sneer at that if you’d like to be cynical, but the bottom line is THE FIRST STEP TO SOLVING A PROBLEM IS RECOGNIZING THAT THERE IS A PROBLEM.

The ‘pointing hand’ of pessimistic fiction invites you, the reader, to recognize problems and consider taking a hand in the solution, however small or large your hand might be.

Secondly, optimistic science fiction, in being upbeat, tends to gloss over the negatives. And, let’s face it, there are always negatives. The introduction of agriculture in human history led to the growth of cities and the eventual industrial revolution, which led to people being able to sit in air-conditioned rooms and write blog entries on computers to ultimately be distributed to potentially millions of other human beings worldwide via a global telecommunications net composed of ground-based and orbital transmitters and relays.

But the introduction of agriculture also led to fun things like economically viable mass slavery and serfdom, reduced lifespans (at the time; they’ve since rebounded and more, thanks medical science), favorable environments for the spread of epidemic disease, and mass warfare. Many of those ills are still with us today in one form or another.

I’m not saying that this means that humanity should never have taken up agriculture. That debate is long since settled, and here we are in our air conditioned rooms in front of our internet-connected computers.

But what I am saying is that pessimistic science fiction doesn’t gloss over the negatives. It’s fuller, richer; as I said above, it’s not just sweetness but sweetness and sour and other flavors. It’s more true to life, and more relevant to our own lives, and more relevant to our own problems. Our own lives are not optimistic realism. Your life just might be way upbeat; I don’t know you like that, so I can’t say that it’s not. But most of us have our struggles. They may not be dramatic, they may not be earth-shaking, but our pain is ours. Maybe one struggle is marked by abuse and addiction and poverty, and another is marked by social struggles in academia and the upper socioeconomic classes. Fiction that sets out to be optimistic and deliver a happy ending mutes both experiences. It has to, or else it becomes pessimistic. What else would you call fiction with a happy ending that talks about the pain and unhappiness of the characters and their environment along the way? So, to be optimistic, it has to stay shiny-happy. The poor guy is a can-do fellow who washes dishes until, in the end, the office of President of the Universe falls in his lap by dint of hard work, that’s all you need everyone, and it’s just a great spiffy job, thanks much, none of that pressure that makes the hair on the head of a mere President of the United States start to turn gray in just a few years, nosiree.

The message of optimistic fiction, finally, is just not an honest one. It’s one-sided, it’s the happily-ever-after that, at best, excuses and dismisses the struggle that it takes to get there, the uncertainty in achieving a happily, and the certainty that eternal change will lop off the “ever after” shortly after the book is set down by the reader.

I’m not saying that there can’t or shouldn’t be positive or hopeful elements in fiction. Those, as much as anything, are part of the most pessimistic story. What makes pessimistic fiction pessimistic is the possibility of what might have been. Frankenstein’s monster might have been accepted for the human being he truly was, instead of being hated. Reading the story, you wonder how things might have been different. And maybe, when you meet someone strange and alien and a bit scary, you try to look past the monster you see to find the human, and make a friend instead of hounding an enemy with torch aflame.

That’s the value of pessimistic science fiction.

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.

Thirteen Word Story: Misanthrope’s Paw

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After his robot armies finished their bloody work, the last human discovered loneliness.

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!