BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XVI: SCATTER, ADAPT, AND REMEMBER

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

Annalee Newitz of iO9.com has fired the shot heard ’round the post-apocalypse with her readable, funny, insightful, and well-researched book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.

I suppose I should start out by revealing a growing bias on my own part against the flood of apocalypses we’ve been reading, seeing on TV and in the movies, and playing on our computers and gaming consoles recently. There’s really only one that I consistently love, and that’s The Walking Dead. But even then, I cringe at the basic assumptions about how quickly and how thoroughly we’ll all descend into barbarism, and that knee-jerk assurance that we’re hanging on to our civilization by the thinnest of threads. Frankly, I just can’t buy that, post-plague, post-asteroid strike, etc., the biker shall inherit the Earth. All evidence seems to point to the contrary. It’s the smartest people, the most adaptable people, and the best educated people, not the most blindly aggressive and selfish, who survive.

From Anchor Books, April 2014

From Anchor Books, April 2014

As the title states, Newitz posits that there are three ways in which humans, and other animals before us, have survived global catastrophes. But first she puts the whole thing into perspective by running down a frankly disturbing history of global mass extinctions that have already happened. This planet is the best place we know of for humans to live (not coincidently, since we evolved here) but it has all sorts of weapons to use against us on a moment’s notice, and then we also have all of space to contend with. The more you know about how inimical the universe is to human life the more likely you are to adopt a religion and stay there, probably in fetal position, weeping, for as long as you can. I get it, and read the first part of this book and you will too.

Keeping with that theme, the second part is actually titled “We Almost Didn’t Make It.” Kind of a downer, but then not really. After all, we did make it. Or at least, we’ve made it this far. And that’s the most attractive part of this book. It’s actually immensely hopeful even as it drags us through some really depressing territory.

The meat of the book comes in the third part in which we see the title come to life as examples of how we, and other animals “made it,” despite the odds against.

We scatter, planting seeds (literally and figuratively) in as many different places as we can so that if something terrible happens on one continent (or one planet) the people on the other continent (or other planets) will survive to carry on. As a difficult to dismiss example, Newitz details the Jewish Diaspora. Despite Hitler’s best efforts, the Jewish people survived the Holocaust because even with the devastation of their communities in Europe, Jewish populations in North America and elsewhere weathered the storm and carried their traditions into the new century.

If humans are good at anything it’s adapting to new environments. I’ve pointed this out in my worldbuilding classes when we talk about the spread of technology, how quickly we adapt to new paradigms, going from a two-year wagon train to a six-hour flight in a century and a half, and only about fifty years into that ultra-fast travel we (I, anyway) can’t stop bitching about how long it takes to get from Seattle to New York. So if the climate changes dramatically on Earth, maybe the thing to do is to change ourselves to match it.

And that’s not as defeatist an idea as it may seem at first blush. This is what we do—why we come in different colors, tend to be thinner or fatter, shorter or taller, and so on, based on where our ancestors chose (or we forced) to settle.

We also have the best and longest memories of any animals on Earth. I don’t have to reinvent every technology that’s been invented before me from the wheel to the smart phone. I might have no idea how to get the Snoqualmie Falls hydroelectric plant started up again after the zombies have been dealt with in my neighborhood, but surely it’s written down somewhere.

And how about this, which I had to highlight, the concept of storytelling as a survival tool:

Humans’ new facility with symbols allowed us to learn about the world around us from other humans rather than starting from scratch with direct observations each time we went to a new place. Like walking, symbolic thought is an adaptation that leads to more adaptations. Modern humans could venture into new territory, discover its resources and perils, then tell other bands of humans about it. They might even pass along designs for tools that helped us gain access to foods specific to a certain area, like crushers for nuts or scoops for tubers. Aided by our new capacity for imagination, those bands of humans could familiarize themselves with alien regions before ever visiting them. For the first time in history, people could figure out how to adapt to a place before arriving there—just by hearing stories from their comrades. Symbolic thought is what allowed us to thrive in environments far from warm, coastal Africa where we began. It was the perfect evolutionary development for a species whose body propelled us easily into new places. Indeed, one might argue that the farther we wandered, the more we evolved our skills as storytellers.

Newitz worked from interviews with scientists across a wide range of disciplines, and even draws examples from science fiction. She invokes Octavia Butler in this rather inspirational passage:

But, as Butler told a student attending one of her lectures, “There’s no single answer that will solve all our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.” First, however, you must be brave enough to turn away from death, embrace the change, and survive.

This book is a must-read for anyone who’s thinking about diving into the crowded pool of post-apocalyptic fiction. Though it may actually make you think twice and instead tell a hopeful story of a geohacked future in which we all live happily ever after in bioengineered houses under a sky cleaned of carbon, at least if you decide to stick with the End is Near, your End will be a lot more plausible for the lessons learned in Scatter, Adapt, and Remember.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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THE HURRIER I GO, THE BEHINDER I GET

Writing this week’s post at a few minutes to five o’clock in the afternoon, I’m once again reminded of that line from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I’ve written here before about how I continue to struggle with self-scheduling, and continue to try new things, get caught up, then get behind again. I whined about the summer and my kids being home causing too many distractions and yadda yadda yadda. But here I am again, buried under, all but overwhelmed, behind or getting behind on multiple projects, and so what’s a poor writer/editor/consultant to do?

First: Prioritize.

What has to be done today? Do that first.

Second: Who’s complaining loudest?

The squeaky wheel gets the grease!

Third: What pays the most?

After all, I am trying to make a living out here.

Fourth: Every damn thing else.

So far today I have finished only what had to be done today, and will be staying up late to get at least to the second group, and take a stab at the third.

Tomorrow is all about the second and third groups.

By Thursday, I hope to be well under way on Group Three, but then there’s an appointment in the middle of the morning that will screw me up at least a little.

And other excuses.

Anyway, that’s the best I can do for Fantasy Author’s Handbook this Tuesday. I owe you some extra special awesomeness next week.

 

—Philip Athans

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PHIL VS. CTHULHU’S LAWYER

First, read last week’s post.

You can’t critique yourself any more than you can edit yourself, so what the hell am I even doing here?

I first mentioned this short story in a post about why starting with just a gimmick is a bad way to approach a short story, and that this one went out there with a hollow thud because I never really did think about the characters enough, just set them out into a gimmicky idea. It’s now been a long time since I’ve read this story again, so maybe I’m far enough away from it that I can start to see both its weaknesses and its strengths in at least a slightly objective way?

I’m willing to try, anyway.

So let’s start off with this:

I have, over and over again, advised that you start any story or novel in media res (in the middle of things). Start with action then come back and “set the scene” only as little as absolutely necessary. So in “The Strange Geometry of a Well-Placed Attorney” did I follow my own advice?

He’d been awake for at least an hour before the alarm clock started beeping. Still, he paused before reaching over to turn it off. With a sigh he rolled onto his back and glanced over to his left. He made eye contact with his wife, but only briefly, and knew it would be the only time their eyes would meet that day.

Well . . . nope. That’s a pretty passive opening and I would have pointed that out if this was someone else’s story I was editing. But here’s what I probably told myself: The whole idea of this story (and by “idea” I mean “gimmick”) is that we meet this seemingly normal guy, get an increasing sense that something weird and scary is going on with him and his family, and then we get the Big Surprise. I am the reincarnation of Ray Bradbury!

Easy, there.

Okay, but still. I think I started this story off with a sigh rather than a bang. Could this guy be dreaming of monsters and horrible scary horror stuff, then wake up and we see that he’s just an ordinary guy who then seems to be scary and weird and at least that story says “You’re reading a horror story” and . . . hm. Not a bad idea, actually, though that “it was all a dream” is almost as bad a way to start a story as its to end one.

Damn. Writing is hard.

In case you were wondering if it was dark in their bedroom, the second paragraph ought to clear that up for you.

Gee, here’s what I did: I started a story with the main character’s morning ritual.

That can’t have been me. I must have been possessed by a demon or something. When I was in college, sometime in the late Paleolithic Era, I had a screenwriting professor who warned us never to start a movie with the main character’s morning ritual. Even back then when screenplays were drawn on cave walls with charcoal that was clichéd, lazy writing.

Sorry!

This idea that he’s committing suicide by letting himself get fat and out of shape is where I got to sort through some of my own baggage. This is actually a positive, honestly. If you aren’t working through some of your own baggage in your writing, you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s a question for you: Does all the stuff about his wife clearly being in it for the money and prone to obsessive shopping and so on read as sexist?

She isn’t supposed to be a sympathetic character. She is married to not just a terrible demon god thing but worse, the evil demon god thing’s lawyer. This is not a condemnation of all women, just her.

In all the description of the house I was channeling (which is a weenie way of saying “copying”) the movie Dark City in which we see the difference between rich and poor as the relative sizes of their living spaces and the physical distance between people. Rich people live in huge places and don’t go near each other, and poor people are more physically intimate because they have to be. I loved that image and that concept, and hereby promise to one day pull it off better.

Okay, so now we get to the Asian prostitute in the limo, which I suffered over a bit, worried about more sexism and racism creeping in from the culture, but in this case I’m going to give myself a break on it, even if no one else does. The idea is that this woman is a cliché, that he’s being provided with all the stuff that someone with no particular imagination would default to based entirely on stereotypes, and what they might have picked up in Hollywood movies. This is what his house should look like. This is how his wife should behave. This is the woman he should find attractive. And so on.

And then my “hero” at least has the decency to kinda feel guilty about it.

And she (the Asian prostitute) definitely feels bad.

Another positive, I think, is the sense that everyone is desperately trying to please some unseen observer who seems to want them to do certain blandly petty things. This was me struggling with the idea of what would really happen if the threat of every horror and fantasy story actually came true. What would it be like to live in the millennium of darkness, etc.?

In historically dark and oppressive times in real places, to some degree or another life still goes on. There were shops open in Nazi Germany, albeit not run by Jewish people. People suffering under the yoke of the oppressive Soviet regimes still went to the movies, though the movies had to pass strict censorship requirements. There were cars, so there must have been gas stations, mechanics, etc. There was electricity so you had to go buy light bulbs and call an electrician. There were artists and galleries and museums and pubs and so on. So, okay, Cthulhu has risen from the depths, but we still need to run out and buy batteries, or whatever. Right?

So then, once my hero gets to work, this is where I could feel the story really getting away from me. I’m dutifully dialing up the weird. The contrast of petty corporate workplace evil with supernatural demon evil is another too obvious choice that I didn’t seem to be terribly committed to even as I was writing it.

I stole the line “blood atonement” from the HBO series Big Love. Thanks, Big Love.

I then got myself into the corner we all back ourselves into eventually: Now it has to get even more dangerous. What is the maximum horrorness that Cthulhu might unleash on a day to day basis? I stole the being skinned alive thing from Haruki Murakami who did it so much better than me on every level I owe him a written apology.

And then I had to figure out how to say, “Surprise everybody, he’s Cthulhu’s Lawyer!”

Ugh.

But here’s the good news. I wrote it out of my system, reminded myself that I’m perfectly capable of terrible writing, and like anyone who puts pen to paper I need to continue to learn, practice, think, read, and get better at it.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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THE STRANGE GEOMETRY OF A WELL-PLACED ATTORNEY

A Short Story by Philip Athans

He’d been awake for at least an hour before the alarm clock started beeping. Still, he paused before reaching over to turn it off. With a sigh he rolled onto his back and glanced over to his left. He made eye contact with his wife, but only briefly, and knew it would be the only time their eyes would meet that day.

She rose first, sliding from the sheets without a sound, and tiptoeing out of the bedroom on stiff legs. He sat up a few seconds after she’d left the room and spent a few more seconds staring at the dark, empty doorway after her. It was still dark in the bedroom, the sky behind the blinds revealed the first glow of the approaching sunrise filtering through the tall and shabby fir trees that lined the edges of the back yard. He looked at the clock, 6:03 am, and stretched. Little pains traced the tired muscles of his back, neck, and shoulders, then moved to his thighs, knees, and ankles as he stood. He ignored them—signs of age, he guessed. It didn’t matter.

He went to the bathroom and closed his eyes then flipped the lights on. He hated the hot color of the halogen lamps, and every morning thought he should have someone come in and install a softer light fixture—and every day he forgot all about it. He blinked a couple times to let his eyes adjust to the light, and passed the mirror to the toilet without looking at himself.

He urinated, the sound of it mixing with the grumbling roar of the coffee grinder from downstairs. When he was done he flushed the toilet and stepped to the sink, letting it run a minute before washing his hands. Shaving was best done as quickly as possible, and he’d perfected the process without having to make eye contact with himself in the mirror. He looked at his chin, at his neck, at his upper lip, but not his own eyes or the dark circles under them. He spent as little time as possible in front of mirrors.

While he drained the sink he watched the little whiskers swirl down the drain and thought about exercising. He knew he should—he wasn’t getting any younger or thinner—but he didn’t want to. He didn’t like working out, though it did make him feel a little better, a little more energetic, a little less prone to bouts of suicidal depression. Still, he knew he could be as suicidally depressed as he wanted, but could never kill himself, he didn’t really want to be any more energetic than he absolutely had to be, and all that left was being a little bit healthier, living a little bit longer.

Wondering if deciding to let himself go counted as suicide, after all, he turned on the shower without exercising.

Not having to worry about how much water he used, he stayed in the shower as long as he could, mostly just standing there, letting the hot water pour over himself as he traced the veins in the expensive Italian marble with a lazy eye. He touched the handle for the steam a few times, but never turned it on. He wasn’t sure he liked the steam, he’d just bought it because it was more expensive, and maybe his wife had mentioned liking it, but he couldn’t remember.

The rest of his morning routine passed they way it did most days, without him thinking about it. His favorite part of the morning, which tended to be his favorite part of the day, was the fact that he didn’t have to think. He stepped into the closet, and had a passing recognition, again, that it was too big. But his wife had asked for big closets, and big closets were provided.

His clothes took up less than a tenth of the space. Hers, most never worn, filled the rest in a dizzying array of colors. He had a few casual shirts, but mostly suits, alternating black and gray, the only two colors that had been deemed acceptable. He chose a gray one and put it on quickly, having noticed that he’d spent just a little too much time in the shower.

When he left the bedroom—leaving the bed unmade, his dirty clothes on the floor of the closet, and wet towels on the floor of the bedroom—his daughter’s door, across the wide upstairs hall, opened a crack but quickly shut. She must have just gotten out of bed, but before she could make it to the bathroom had seen or heard him. He didn’t let himself look at the closed door as he passed, but walked to his son’s room instead. His door was slightly ajar and when he pushed it open the hinges squeaked, startling him.

“Time to get up, buddy,” he said. His son turned in his bed and looked up at him. He didn’t say anything, but by the look in his eyes, it was apparent he’d been awake for hours.

“Okay, Dad,” he said, his voice flat, not tired, empty.

He nodded and turned away, closing his son’s door behind him. He closed his eyes and rubbed his face with both hands, trying to shake the image of his son‘s eyes, and the sound of his son’s voice, from his mind.

“Don’t,” he whispered to himself, but only thought, think.

He went downstairs, forcing himself not to hurry though he wanted coffee and wanted it badly, especially when the smell wafted up from the kitchen. The lights in there were a little softer, a little more inviting. His wife had already poured herself a cup. She sat on a stool at the granite-topped island, sipping coffee from a dainty little china cup she had bought from some antique dealer at Pike Place Market. Without wanting to suffer over the memory, he realized it was the last time they’d been there, just after he started practicing law, when his daughter was still a baby. Before everything changed. She only ever drank coffee out of that cup and though he wondered why, he never asked her.

“Good morning,” she said. “Are the kids up?”

He nodded, even though she never looked up at him, and he poured himself a cup of coffee. He sat at the kitchen table, in a chair facing away from his wife, and took a sip of the coffee. It was too hot and burned his lower lip, but he didn’t care.

“I’m thinking about taking the early ferry,” he said.

She didn’t respond, but he didn’t expect her to.

“I’ll be home at normal time, though,” he said.

“I’ll make the chicken you like,” she said, and though he couldn’t see her, he could tell by the sound of her voice that she wasn’t looking at him.

Though he wondered what chicken she was talking about, he didn’t ask. He finished his coffee too fast, ignoring the pain in favor of the caffeine, then hurried to leave. He knew his daughter didn’t like to come downstairs in the morning if he was still there, and he didn’t want to make her late for school, regardless of the fact that the school would never complain, would let her come and go as she pleased.

He picked up his briefcase, still sitting just inside the front door, untouched, unopened, since the night before. He never worked at home, but felt like he should keep up appearances so he carried it back and forth every day. The papers inside were old, irrelevant, just there to give the thing some heft.

He opened the too-wide front door and stepped out onto the porch. The early autumn air was cool, and a light fog permeated the trees that lined the driveway. The driver turned on the headlights when he crossed the porch, and he winced at the sudden light. The driver must have seen him. The headlights went off. The car ground to a halt, a long black limousine polished to a mirrorlike shine.

He hated the car. He loathed the sight, the very thought of it. But it was his—it was provided for him, anyway. He wasn’t sure he owned anything, but all the best things were made available to him, provided for him, lent for his comfort and convenience. He wasn’t meant to think about such mundane matters as cars and houses, wasn’t expected to do for himself.

It had taken him more than two months to train the driver not to step out of the car and open the door for him. The terror in the man’s eyes at the thought of the break in protocol almost made him give up, but ultimately he won out, and the driver stayed at the wheel while he opened the door and climbed in all on his own.

The woman waiting for him that morning was Asian, maybe Thai or Vietnamese. He’d never seen her before, or at least didn’t remember her. She wasn’t tall but looked like she was—thin, her face long and her lips full. She wore a black knit sweater, too light for the cool morning air, with a white tank top under it, and black slacks. Not an overtly alluring outfit, but he had made it known over time that he didn’t like them the way some of his colleagues did, so they started to come more understated.

He only really glanced at her face, just long enough to register the fear in her eyes, fear mixed with anticipation. He looked out the window, ignoring her as the car pulled away from his house.

The structure always looked different to him somehow, every time he looked at it, as though it changed every night so that he pulled away from a different house every morning. That wasn’t in fact true, of course, but still he couldn’t register the house as his, as “home.”

Technically speaking, of course, the house wasn’t his, any more than the car was, his suit was, his watch was, or the woman was.

“Good morning,” the girl said, and he liked the sound of her voice. It didn’t shake much, like most of the girls’ did. “Can I . . .?”

He wondered whether she didn’t finish the sentence because she didn’t want to, or on purpose. She might have thought he’d want to finish the sentence himself. Anyway, they both knew why she was there.

He shook his head and he could hear her settle back into the leather seat. He stared out the window hoping she wouldn’t try to talk to him, but as the ride progressed, and she remained silent, he snuck a few wary glances her way.

She was beautiful. Any man would have . . .

He wouldn’t think about it. He wouldn’t remember the other girls, the mornings or afternoons when he’d let himself . . .

For the rest of the ride to the ferry he tried not to think about all the things he’d taken, all the while telling himself he shouldn’t be taking it, didn’t want it, didn’t deserve it when so many . . .

Once they got on I-90 west toward Seattle it was only about twenty minutes in the restricted lane to the ferry terminal. A policeman with a red flashlight beckoned them into another restricted lane. No one in any of the cars they passed, people waiting for other ferries, looked up as they passed, even when he tried to make eye contact with them. They wouldn’t be able to see him through the tinted windows, anyway, but some mornings he felt he had to try.

The Asian girl started to fidget the moment they’d entered the ferry terminal. Why wouldn’t she?

“You’re sure you . . . ?” she tried again. He could easily detect the hopeful note in her voice—the hope that he would say no again.

A small part of him, a part of him that made his jaws tense, wanted to spend the second half of his commute fucking her—her skin he could tell even from a yard away was soft as silk, her lips even softer. He knew how good she would feel, knew as well that she would do whatever he asked of her—give what he took from her without question or hesitation. And all the while she would be choking back bile, desperate not to throw up until she was free of him.

He shook his head without looking at her. When the car paused while the special ferry eased its way against the dock, he said, “You can get out here.”

“Did I do something wrong?” she asked, panic coloring her voice in shades of red.

“No,” he said, looking at her—at her breasts, small and perfectly round, not her eyes. “I just . . .”

She reached for the door handle, a fast jerk forward that embarrassed, or scared, her. She stopped before opening the door. “You’re sure, I—”

“You’re fine,” he said, looking away.

She hesitated just long enough to let him know she wanted more, wanted some reassurance that she had not displeased him, that she would not be punished, but he couldn’t help her with that. He only vaguely remembered a world in which anyone could make assurances. She opened the door and got out of the car. The door slammed shut and they pulled onto the ferry. He turned to watch her go, admiring her again—she was beautiful—and taking no offense at the way she tried to walk as fast as she could without running.

Another half an hour on the ferry, and he sat in the car, like he always did—or almost always. There were days he would leave the car and stand at the rail, breathing the clean salty air of the Sound. But those days had grown increasingly infrequent. The smell had gotten worse, so that on the best day it was barely better than intolerable.

He looked at his briefcase and had a fleeting thought that he should have brought something to read, something to occupy his mind. He remembered reading—he used to like reading—but couldn’t quite pin down the last time he’d read a book. The sound of his cell phone startled him, and he took a deep breath before answering it.

“You’re almost here,” his assistant said. It wasn’t a question.

He nodded before realizing she couldn’t see him, but before he could say anything she said, “A meeting has been called.”

He paused.

“Jason Wendly has called a meeting,” she said.

His breath caught but he managed to respond, “When?”

“They’ll be waiting for you.”

“So early? Did Kathy say anything?” he asked, the blood running cold in his veins. He actually shivered.

“No.”

“Her assistant?” he asked. “Anyone?”

“No, sir,” his assistant said.

He stopped to think, but his mind was blank. He had to remember to breathe, and force a breath past a tight chest, down a dry throat.

“You’re on your way,” she said, and he winced at the cold desperation in her voice.

He nodded then slid the phone closed, cutting off the connection just as the ferry jerked gently in the water, shedding speed as it approached the entrance. The morning had proved to be gray, but not too dark. A thin, high marine layer made the water around them battleship gray.

The diffuse sunlight faded as the ferry was enveloped in the darkness of the tunnel. His hands shook as the light, the heat, the very life seemed drawn out of the air around him. He closed his hands into sweaty, stiff-fingered fists and they stopped shaking. It took five minutes for the ferry to crawl from the tunnel entrance to the dock, and the car started a second before the gentle forward lurch of the ferry touching the dock then drove off onto the main lot.

He breathed a few times in through his nose, out his mouth, and steadied himself so that when the car pulled up to the main entrance and he was reasonably sure he would appear calm. He waited for the driver to get out and open the door for him. At home, that was one thing, but at work—the driver didn’t deserve what would have happened to him if he hadn’t.

Four people he only vaguely recognized stood in a little cluster around the door, talking in excited, jittery tones, their black and gray suits perfectly pressed. They stepped out of his way when he approached and didn’t look him in the eye when he passed. A woman he thought was called Linda, or Lisa, held the elevator door open and looked at him with a smile that seemed so forced it must have been painful for her. He stepped in past her and she flinched away, mumbling something that might have been a version of “Good morning.”

Then she started to decide if she should step out of the elevator or ride up with him. She stepped out, back in, then out again then back in, her hand always on the door, holding it open. Others in their gray or black suits approached, saw him, saw her, and decided to take the stairs or a different elevator.

A meeting was waiting for him, and though he wanted more than anything for that meeting not to start, he sighed. The woman jumped out of the elevator as though he’d roared at her. She whimpered an apology while the doors rolled closed in front of her face. She had already pressed the button for his floor for him, so he just stood here, looking down at the richly carpeted floor, avoiding the mirrored surface of the doors, as the elevator lifted him up into the heart of the Edifice—the section that had been renovated to 21st Century standards, the outer ring that made accommodations like electricity, running water, windows, light, air.

The elevator came to stop and the doors opened to reveal his assistant, waiting for him, clutching a leather folder to her chest. He was aware of how beautiful she was. In another time, she would have been a model, a movie star, but in their time, she was his assistant. She looked more scared than usual, and he wondered if it was a good idea his having told her what it meant if Kim Larter called a meeting. Her knowing wouldn’t change it, but at least they could have gone from the elevator to the conference room without her being one breath away from a nervous breakdown.

He shook his head just a little, getting himself into character as they walked.

The entire legal staff was waiting for him in the big conference room—so many that there weren’t chairs for everyone. They had left a chair open for him on one end of the long table. At the other end sat Kim Larter. Four of the five chairs on one long side of the table were vacant. Jason Wendly sat in the middle chair, eyes wide, flickering from face to face. No one made eye contact with him. No one stood within eight feet of him. And it was plain he had no idea why.

With a glance at Jason, he sat, and said, “Kim . . .” Everyone tried hard to seem to be looking each other in the eye without actually having to do it. “The pronouncement?”

Kim Larter nodded, a little faster than she should have. Sweat dotted her upper lip and she was shaking—not just her hands, but her whole body, trembling in her seat. Her suit was black, so wouldn’t show the sweat, but even under layers of deodorant, everyone in the room could smell it on her—smell the terror.

“Why, uh . . .” Jason started. “Am I . . . ?”

There has been a pronouncement,” Kim said, her voice a little too loud. Everyone subtly moved farther away from Jason, like trees pushed by a sudden gust of wind. Jason’s glazed eyes watered, his body shaking so hard he seemed to be having a seizure. The pleading in his stare was plain and painful. “One of us has failed to procreate and it has been found to be due to a lack of—“ she paused to swallow, maybe to gag— “sperm motility. It calls for blood atonement.”

“Jason,” one of the other lawyers whispered, and Jason screamed.

The sound came up from him like a geyser, blasting out his throat to fill the room with an ear-rattling shriek. The sound drained the blood out of everyone in the room and a few of the weaker ones staggered back, brushing up against the plain gray walls of the conference room.

Then Jason’s skin started to come off. He screamed over and over again, almost barking, squealing as his skin came away from muscles, blood oozing and running every which way as though it was trying to make up its mind which way it should flow. He lived, screaming, for an obscenely long time while he was peeled like an apple by some unseen agency, leaving a quivering, ragged, bloody mess slumped in the chair. Jason lived for almost two minutes more with no skin at all then he rolled to the floor, dead but still quivering, on a hideous bed of his own skin.

The smell of blood mingled with vomit. Someone had vomited—more than one of them—but he had not. He kept his wits about him, barely, and even kept his eyes open. He had watched and registered the demonstration. He had watched a man he’d worked with for nine years skinned alive and he hadn’t screamed or thrown up, or done anything at all to stop it—as if there was anything in this or any world he could have done to stop it. Jason Wendly had been given everything he had been given: a wife, a house, the responsibility to breed. Jason proved unable to live up to that, so he was unable to live.

“That’ll be all, then,” he said, marveling at the sound of his own voice, calm and confident in the electrified air.

He stood and the other lawyers winced away as he passed them. They allowed him to be the first out of the room, letting him get a few steps away before they flooded out after him, a few of them wiping away tears, a few wiping away vomit, and one or two—the younger ones—wiping away smiles. Kim Larter bumped her elbow and turned an ankle trying to get past some of the others. She stumbled and no one moved to help her. Panting like a dog, she made a beeline for her office.

Pretty, petite little April Graham, the youngest of the associates said, “Yeah, man, welcome to R’lyeh.”

The rest of them pretended not to have heard her.

He made for his office, his assistant quivering at his side, and closed the door in her face. He sat down behind his desk and held his breath until black spots danced in front of his eyes. Breathing again, he turned his chair to face the floor-to-ceiling windows and their view of the Seattle skyline, across the Sound, covered in clouds through which dark shapes writhed. The buildings of downtown were slowly but surely being replaced by structures of impossible geometry that made his head hurt and his soul quake just looking at them. So he turned back to his desk and went to work.

It had been twelve years since the lost city of R’lyeh rose from the black depths of the cold Pacific. Twelve years since the beginning of the reign of the Great Cthulhu. Nine years since he had been tasked as one of the Master’s lawyers. And there was still much to be done.

 

And now I’ll direct you to a post from almost two years ago.

Discuss

—Philip Athans

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WHERE DID THIS DUMB IDEA COME FROM?

I don’t know, I’m asking you!

I always have a legal pad next to me at my desk when I’m working so I can take notes, etc. and from time to time these pads (and any other bits and scraps of paper) become repositories for story ideas. I honestly don’t know where these come from or what inspires them. I’m not sure anyone does. And though you’ll always find me firmly on the side of science, knowledge, and reason, sometimes I think we shouldn’t know where ideas come from.

It’ll be like Asimov’s psychohistory, or Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Once the man behind the curtain is revealed we start telling him what we think he wants to hear. If we somehow discovered the Creative Wellspring some corporation would cordon it off, sell access to it, and destroy everything about what it means to be human. And they’re already doing a good enough job of that with health care, education, and shelter, so let’s not give them another weapon.

That leaves me with no clue where this “gem” came from, but back to that legal pad. What was I doing? I was talking to someone on the phone—it may have been my mother—and started doodling. I don’t normally doodle a lot but anyway I ended up with a masterpiece of fantasy illustration, my awesome zombie.

Jim Zombroni, Undead Contractor

Jim Zombroni, Undead Contractor

The phone call must not have been terrible engaging (sorry, Mom) and I started thinking about this zombie and decided he needed a name. Zombroni was funny to me because it was the most obvious, and his first name had to be Jim because no one named Jim has ever been scary. Even Captain Kirk, when he wanted to seem intimidating, called himself “Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise,” but to his pals and to the ladies he was Jim.

So now I have Jim Zombroni, but a man ain’t no kinda man unless he gots a job (where did I hear that?) so hmm . . . He’s wearing cut-off jean shorts and work shirt. He looks like a contractor. And being a zombie, that makes him an undead contractor.

I was so pleased with myself then, but expected it would stop there but then the story appeared in my head fully formed.

It was just all of a sudden there.

Jim Zombroni had a plan., Jim Zombroni’s plan put him into conflict with another character, and Jim Zombroni came to a happy conclusion. All three acts done, done, and done. I couldn’t write it down fast enough for fear of forgetting any part of it, so if you can’t make out my handwriting, it’s:

People hire him via Angie’s List

He shows up, eats the people, doesn’t do work

Gets on their computer and leaves an A+ rating on Angie’s List

This is how he finds victims

BUT

One day he shows up to a job and the “person” who hired him is a zombie who uses fake home improvement projects to lure victims to her house to eat them

They fall in love.

I’ll admit, it’s not much of a story. The world will not one day see human history as “Before Zombroni” and “After Zombroni.” The resolution may be predictable. The whole thing isn’t terribly original, but what’s interesting to me isn’t the goofy little drawing or the even more goofy name and the goofier-still story outline, it’s how do these things actually manifest?

I have religious friends who might say that God put it there. But assuming there is an all-powerful creator of the universe, I have to believe He’s got better things to do with His time than implant ideas for stupid comedy zombie short stories in my head.

Come to think of it, this feels a bit more like the Devil’s handiwork!

Or is it just the way my mind works after a lifetime of storytelling? I draw a picture, then am compelled to add to that . . . I honestly don’t know.

But advice for writers out there: Make sure you have paper and a pen or pencil with you at all times. If you feel like doodling, doodle. If you get an idea for a story, scribble that idea down.

I might not ever write this story . . . though I really want to. I have hundreds of these, believe it or not. I’m pretty old, so you may not have that many yourself, but if you don’t have hundreds of them by age 50, I can’t imagine all the stories you should have remembered, should have thought about more, and should have written but didn’t, just because you didn’t jot it down, even if it’s in your worst handwriting.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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THOUGHTS ON THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY

In the introduction to an episode of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling said: “It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction—the improbable made possible. Fantasy—the impossible made probable.”

Science tells us that thing he’s holding in his hand is most likely why he died of a heart attack at age 50.

Science tells us that thing he’s holding in his hand is most likely why he died of a heart attack at age 50.

I wrote that down a couple weeks ago and have been puzzling over it ever since. “Probable,” “possible,” I’m not sure what he was getting at or who said it before him.

In the end I’m happy with whatever definition of SF and/or fantasy you’re willing to provide and am delighted by both genres both in the ways they’re different and the ways they’re the same—and the third thing: the way they interact and comingle with each other. Still, it’s an interesting question and one that is certainly germane to this blog.

You may have noticed that the interviews you occasionally see here always start with the same two questions:

Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.

and

Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.

I’ve gotten some terrific answers to those questions and at risk of abandoning the basic question in the title of this post I’m happy to agree with each and every definition. But surely I have an opinion on this subject after a lifetime in the SF and fantasy business?

To me, fantasy is fiction that presents elements that are not found in the real world (technology, monsters, superhuman abilities, etc.) and the explanation for those unreal elements is some form of magic. In fantasy, things just happen because in that strange other world or alternate reality things like that (people flying around on brooms, turning into monsters, and conjuring information or energies out of thin air) just work.

Science fiction might do all those same unreal/impossible things but the explanation given is based on some kind of imagined science or technology. How did I turn into a monster? It was a virus that did it, or radiation. How am I able to fly around? It’s a jet pack cobbled together by a genius inventor. That’s science fiction.

Obviously, fantasy authors aren’t requited to show how a particular magic spell, ritual, or item actually works. If the explanation is “it’s magical,” I’m perfectly willing to buy into that, knowing full well it’s entirely invented and no matter how hard I study the text or how many live spiders I swallow I will not actually ever be able to cast a spider climb spell. I know what fantasy is and am not only able to suspend my disbelief and buy into the fiction of wizards and orcs, but excited by the prospect of doing so for however long the book, movie, or game lasts.

Want one. Bad.

Want one. Bad.

Science fiction, related to last week’s post, puts a slightly greater onus on the author to “get it right,” but then, only slightly. How, exactly, do the flying cars in Blade Runner work? I have no idea. And I’m perfectly willing to just think, Wow, those are cool . . . wish I had one, for the duration of the movie. I’ve said many times before that if you actually know how to get a spacecraft to travel faster than the speed of light, please at least delay your science fiction writing career and go be the Bill Gates of the FTL Revolution. For the rest of us, as long as we’re consistently applying a set of invented rules for how people interact with that FTL drive, we’re good to go.

So that being the case, what is the difference between science fiction and fantasy?

They do more or less the same thing: provide a stage for commentary on, as Douglas Adams said, “life, the universe, and everything,” by filtering sometimes very difficult subjects through myth and fable to make a point. In many ways science fiction ends with, “and this could actually come to pass,” whether “this” is a nuclear holocaust (a cautionary tale) or “this” is a galaxy-spanning Federation dedicated to the peaceful exploration of space (an aspirational tale). We didn’t quite get to the moon city and commercial space shuttles of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, but aside from the alien monolith what we saw in that movie was, and remains, possible. People have been building amazing gizmos since the Neolithic Period, and like we talked about last week, we’re only getting better and better—or, at least, faster and faster—at doing that so, sure, the future may very well include a moon city, FTL starships, ringworlds, and light sabers. If we could figure out how to fly, communicate over long distances, arrange so that at the age of 50 I still have a full set of teeth, and turn the moon into a place people have been to—all of which would be impossible-to-imagine miracles to someone from the year 1014—what unimaginable miracles does the year 3014 have in store for us?

Fantasy, on the other hand, never pretends that someday you’ll be able to make a pact with demons to become an immortal vampire; that you’ll ever be able to swallow a live spider, wave your hands around, and climb on walls like Spiderman; or teleport from here to there by summoning the mana that surrounds us in all living things.

Now, having said that, someone reading this in the year 3014 will probably say, “Yeah, what? We can do all those things. My sister’s a vampire.” And watching it happen would seem, to me at any rate, like magic. The same way that I know the computer I’m using to write and publish this isn’t at all magical but a device cobbled together by my fellow non-magic-using humans, but I still don’t have a detailed understanding of how it actually works.

Maybe the difference between fantasy and science fiction is that in science fiction we blame other humans for the bad ideas they have and take credit for the good ideas, and in fantasy, good or bad, it’s the gods that did it.

I don’t know.

You tell me.

In 25 words or less.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

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ARE YOU KEEPING UP?

In my classes on writing fantasy and science fiction I spend some time, for the benefit of the science fiction authors, talking about technology. I’m certainly not the first person to point out that good science fiction isn’t really about predicting the future, either in terms of available or emerging technology, or social or political trends. Good science fiction addresses issues (political or personal) that are of concern now.

Still, some science fiction authors were able to manage a couple of bold predictions that at least kinda came true, like Jules Verne sort of anticipating the nuclear submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or H.G. Wells more or less predicting the development of nuclear weapons in Things to Come.

But way more often . . . and I mean way more often, even the smartest, most well-read and well-intentioned SF scribes get it wrong. This tends only to be a problem when, like George Orwell or Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, you make the mistake of fixing a specific date to your story. But what most SF authors miss is less the technology than the concurrent social advance. Not only did 2001: A Space Odyssey miss the mark on Pan Am shuttle flights to the space station on your way to the moon city that of course would be fully functional in the year 2001 (but no one had a cell phone or laptop), they also presented a high level meeting attended exclusively by white men in suits. There was still a Soviet Union/Cold War going on, etc.

As we continue to experience an exponential acceleration of technological advance as we barrel willy nilly to the singularity (whatever that is), we do what humans do. We adapt.

Unfortunately, for a lot us that means adapting by pretending it isn’t happening. The media, for instance, doesn’t quite know how to report scientific advances, especially with the conservative movement actively fighting against it. It’s all just happening too fast, and most of us need a minute (or, more accurately, a generation or so) to really understand that everything we thought we knew about X has been temporarily replaced with Y for a week or so until someone posits Z.

What all this means is that not only are you going to be as unable to guess correctly at the technological (much less social) landscape of the world thirty-three years from now as Kubrick & Clarke were when attempting to look that far into the future from 1968, it’s actually going to be even harder now than it was then.

Advances are happening so fast now it’s almost impossible to keep up. Here are a few examples I’ve cited in classes and seminars, to which most of the assembled authors react first with skepticism.

Have you seen the ultra-ultra-ultra-slow motion video of light moving through a Coke bottle? Is this the future of medical scanning technology? Will it allow soldiers and police officers to spot bad guys hiding around corners? Keep those two questions in mind while you stare in slack-jawed awe at this TED Talk:

We all know that the sun is moving through space, orbiting the center of the galaxy, right? So what does that mean to what we perceive as the orderly circular orbits of the planets, including Earth?

Did you know that it’s possible to get an old inkjet printer to make replacement organs from stem cells? How many lives will this save in, say, twenty years?

In my classes and seminars, no one believes the spider goat is real. It can’t be real, right? Well, it is! And it lives in Utah, where most of the people are positive that evolution (and therefore genetics) is a lie told by the devil.

The one job you can never replace with a computer is construction worker, right? Well…

Nanotechnology couldn’t possibly work because no way can you even see an atom, much less move it around. Except that . . .

And everyone knows that one thing can’t be in two different places at the same time, and that’s true for things like us that exist in the macro-scale, but how about in the quantum world? Well, our friends at MIT have now got a single photon to sit in four different places at the same time. So . . . yeah.

Which of these technologies will be up and running, even commonplace in, say, 2047—that same thirty-three year time span from Apollo to what Kubrick & Clarke (and their NASA consultants) thought would become of the space program?

Once femtophotography says, “I can see around corners,” I imagine the military-industrial complex saying, “Yeah, we’ll pay for that.” Likewise the medical-industrial complex and the new non-invasive scanner, too. And that same for profit medical system will surely fund organs-on-demand technology. The military would like the spider-goat milk/silk for body armor. I’m not 100% sure what a new way of looking at orbital dynamics will do for any industrial complex, but what the hell . . . the video is cool and makes us all a little smarter. Moving atoms around to spell words that can only be read by the same device used to move the atoms around? Not much of a commercial application there, but the point is to use similar technology to create, say, an airplane fuselage made out of a single vat-grown sapphire that’s lighter and stronger than any material yet available. Or make little robots that swim through your body disassembling viruses and cancer cells. There’s a market for those two things.

And ultimately, that’s where Kubrick & Clarke went off the rails. They asked NASA engineers, “All things being equal, what will you guys have cooked up by 2001?”

But all things weren’t equal. Ultimately the successful Apollo missions revealed the moon to be a dead place full of a whole lot of stuff we already have on Earth. It’s a horrible place to live, lacking basic amenities like, y’know, air. Budget slashed . . . next project.

Why have personal computers spread so rapidly? I can do something with them. I’m doing something with one right now, in fact. And so are you. There’s a market for computers, cell phones/smartphones, more energy efficient airplanes, medical technologies that help us live longer and feel better, and the military spends a lot of money trying to get better and better at blowing people up from a position of relative safety, since wounded soldiers cost money.

Is that what it comes down to, then? Money?

Yup.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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