MORE ON ACCELERATING TECHNOLOGY

Let’s start with a letter . . .

Hartford, May 24/89
 To Walt Whitman:

You have lived just the seventy years which are greatest in the world’s history & richest in benefit & advancement to its peoples. These seventy years have done much more to widen the interval between man & the other animals than was accomplished by any five centuries which preceded them.

whitman

Walt Whitman

 

What great births you have witnessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfected cotton-gin, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the photograph, photo-gravure, the electrotype, the gaslight, the electric light, the sewing machine, & the amazing, infinitely varied & innumerable products of coal tar, those latest & strangest marvels of a marvelous age. And you have seen even greater births than these; for you have seen the application of anesthesia to surgery-practice, whereby the ancient dominion of pain, which began with the first created life, came to an end in this earth forever; you have seen the slave set free, you have seen the monarchy banished from France, & reduced in England to a machine which makes an imposing show of diligence & attention to business, but isn’t connected with the works. Yes, you have indeed seen much—but tarry yet a while, for the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, & then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to these whose nativity you have witnessed; & conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result—Man at almost his full stature at last!—& still growing, visibly growing while you look. In that day, who that hath a throne, or a gilded privilege not attainable by his neighbor, let him procure his slippers & get ready to dance, for there is going to be music. Abide, & see these things! Thirty of us who honor & love you, offer the opportunity. We have among us 600 years, good & sound, left in the bank of life. Take 30 of them—the richest birth-day gift ever offered to poet in this world—& sit down & wait. Wait till you see that great figure appear, & catch the far glint of the sun upon his banner; then you may depart satisfied, as knowing you have seen him for whom the earth was made, & that he will proclaim that human wheat is worth more than human tares, & proceed to organize human values on that basis.

Mark Twain

The poet Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, so the seventy years Twain is referring to gets us to 1889. Whitman would live another ten years after that, a decade in which “the interval between man & the other animals” was widened even more, though Twain’s wish that he live another thirty would have shown Mr. Whitman even more.

What would either of these men think of 2014?

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Are we yet at our “full stature”? I don’t think so, but though we have a ways to go, it’s clear that we’re gettin’ there. And if you’re frustrated by the pace, wait a minute . . .

If we were to go back in time to the year 1014, grab some unsuspecting peasant off the streets of, say Paris, and bring him a thousand tears forward in time, what about our world would he recognize?

I’d say pretty much none of it. This would be especially true if we didn’t stay in Paris but brought him to, say, Seattle. In 1014 North America was home to a widespread population of Native Americans who had no idea that such a place as Paris existed, and the Parisians had no idea that a couple other continents were sitting over the horizon to the west.

This guy would have been dragged out of a feudal society—we think the gap between rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, is too big now? This guy would beg to differ. He would be utterly flabbergasted by America’s racial, cultural, and religious diversity. I think its fair to say that 11th century Paris had pretty much none of that. Women running around doing stuff like running companies—wait, what’s a “company?” Let alone having jobs like Secretary of State (Foreign Minister), or, say, Chancellor of Germany or Prime Minister of England, well . . . he might have heard of queens and so on, but women don’t get appointed to jobs like that, hired for jobs like that . . . and what’s this “voting”? He wouldn’t know what that word even means.

How to you explain your smart phone to a guy from 1014? You have no common language, no shared set of experiences. You would literally have to go back to well before the Industrial Revolution and then some. How do you explain electronics to someone who’s never heard of atoms and has no reason to believe such things exist?

Now take that same guy off the streets of Paris is 1014 and instead of bringing him all the way to the present, go only a hundred years later to 1114. The city might have changed a smidge. He’d have to get caught up on who the king is, and so on, but I think he’d find day to day life in the city largely unchanged.

So then, what if we took a guy off the streets of Seattle in 1914 and brought him a hundred years into the future to 2014. Would he be in the same boat—a few different buildings but otherwise, not much has changed?

Except:

  • Jet airplanes.
  • Electronics, again.
  • Women in professional careers and holding public office.
  • Black people, Hispanic people, Native Americans, “Orientals,” and even Jews freely intermingling with white people.
  • This guy has probably seen “moving pictures” in 1914 but I think he’d be pretty freaked out by Netflix streaming on your smart phone.
  • You could show him a picture of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon and if he was particularly well read he might even believe it.
  • This is a guy who will have skipped right over the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the disintegration of the British and French Empires, the polio vaccine and all sorts of medical miracles . . .
  • “Survivable form of cancer” wasn’t something this guy heard said very often if at all in 1914.

There’s more, but it’s clear that though it’s obvious that a hundred years isn’t quite as impenetrable as a thousand years, the sort of acceleration of technology that Mark Twain tried to describe has been happening, and continues to happen—it continues to accelerate. So if the difference between the worlds of 1914 and 2014 far outweigh the differences between 1014 and 1114, what does that mean for the world of 2114? What would surprise us? What might be commonplace that we can’t even begin to understand?

Then go another century from 2114 to 2214 and we’re still accelerating, so where do we get to the point that the difference between 1014 and 2014 happens in a century instead of a millennium? If the growth truly is exponential, that means somewhere between 2314 and 2414.

f a baby alive today will live until 2134 then that baby’s kids, born in, say, 2044 will live until at least 2164, but then wouldn’t life expectancy grow at the same rate, so he’d live until 2284? And if technology in 2134 might just be able to add another hundred years or so to today’s baby’s life span, and then during that hundred years they add another two hundred and so on until that baby born, this year, is immortal.

This is why I found the ending of Interstellar at least reasonably plausible, but not the beginning.

 

—Philip Athans

Posted in Books, how to write fiction, intellectual property development, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, science fiction movies, science fiction technology, SF and Fantasy Authors, technology, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CATCHING UP WITH PHIL (AGAIN)

It’s late already for our regular Tuesday get-together, and all sorts of ideas for posts have been stacking up, but it’s been a while since I’ve done a sort of round-up of all the things that are going on with lil ol me, so let’s see what’s happening in Phil’s World . . .

I’m currently finishing up two ghostwriting projects, one running very late. Neither of these books will ever bear my name and you will never have any idea I had anything to do with them, but I’m rather proud of being involved with both of them, so that (and the money) will have to be good enough for me.

Why do we do this? Ghostwriting? For me it’s really not about the money (though, prospective publishers, you will need some of that). If I approached any part of my life from that standpoint I wouldn’t be writing this right now. Instead I’d be busy moving other people’s money around for somebody like Goldman Sachs. So yes, I get paid, and use that money for wild flights of fancy like shelter, electricity, and food. But what those ghostwriting projects (and another that I’ll be starting in on before the end of the year) provide is an opportunity to do something completely different from what I normally do. I can’t tell you what these books are but one is fiction, the other non-fiction and neither of them have anything whatsoever to do with science fiction or fantasy, or writing, or anything else you’ve previously seen my name attached to. Both are completely different from the other and I adore them both and sincerely am delighted to have a hand in them. These two books are two of the Three Really Pressing Overdue Projects I’m currently busting my butt to finish.

The third of those three is a comprehensive edit of a fantasy novel, the author of which may or may not ever acknowledge my part in and I will leave that to said author to decide. It’s a terrific book and the author has a very tight, very readable style with a few issues I hope to help out with.

There’s an anthology I’m working on just as a copy editor that’s also great fun and lots more directly in my established wheelhouse. That’ll get finished in the next month.

Hook up with me via Writer’s Digest

Hook up with me via Writer’s Digest

I’ve also been doing these individual story coaching sessions with authors via Writer’s Digest, with another one on deck for the coming week. I approach those less as an editor and more as an educator—a role I’ve really been drawn to in the past few years.

To that end, I’m most of the way through my eight-week Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction class at Bellevue College, with another round of Worldbuilding coming up in the next term (starting January). At the same time I have a four-week online Worldbuilding class via Writer’s Digest University, which is open to all. I hope they invite me back for a third go-around of that in the next few months. It’s another unique new experience, teaching online classes like that.

And there’s a new online tutorial from me, this one called Writing Scary that anyone who wants to establish a sense of suspense or terror in their writing could benefit from. This is another Writer’s Digest production—always delighted to work with them.

Buy It Now!

Buy It Now!

Writing Monsters is out there and selling and if you haven’t bought that yet, shame on you! Monsters are awesome and should be in everything everyone writes always.

There. I said it.

What else?

Oh, I should be writing a Traveller novel, and should be editing two finished Traveller novels and need to get to those immediately after finally clearing the Log Jam That Would Not Be Cleared (a lesser known Lovecraftian horror). I love Traveller and I don’t care who knows it.

I should also be writing five more jungle pulp stories for Tommy Hancock at Pro Se Productions so he can, y’know, publish them and stuff.

And then there’s the fantasy novel work-in-progress that I’ve been using as an example of my fantasy novel work-in-progress so long it’s become that instead of, y’know, a fantasy novel, full stop.

Hm. What else?

I’m judging a contest but I won’t tell you which one. That’s actually really fun. Don’t tell anyone I said that.

I’ve started reading A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge along with a group on GoodReads and have already mined it for examples for what I hope might be a follow-up to Writing Monsters that concentrates on sentient species. I might be ready to put that proposal together by the end of the year.

I’ve made the unilateral decision to take some time off by the end of this year, so for the record, Athans & Associates Creative Consulting will be closed, for the first time ever, for Thanksgiving and the Friday after and all of December 24th through to the first Monday in January. In all honesty there’s very little chance that more than one of those days will actually be completely free of work, but one can hope and plan. If I end up with a day off that will be quite a change for the better there, having not actually taken a proper day off, let alone anything resembling a vacation, in about four years.

They say that if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life except it’s a bit more like if you love what you do you’ll never take a day off in your life and that’s kind of a double-edged sword.

I went to the doctor today and she was steadfastly against writing me a prescription for crystal meth or some other drug that could prevent me sleeping at all for the next three weeks. That’s more or less what will need to happen to get me to that “time off” with any hope of taking time off, and even then, with some projects (like that Traveller book or that fantasy novel) not actually having been started, well, frankly, if I’m writing my own work that counts as “time off.” Also, this doctor also maintains that the constant sleeping I’ve been doing (upwards of eight hours at a go) is actually “healthy,” which is kind of a laugh expecting someone to be unconscious for a third of a very limited time in which to accomplish everything . . . we’ll see what I can do on my own to get back to a more productive four to five hours. Willing to try exercise at this point, or maybe those horrible energy drinks. Anyone know if Five Hour Energy comes in pill form so I don’t have to choke down that syrupy fake cherry crap? I guess that’s how it works—it’s difficult to fall asleep while vomiting.

Have I gone off topic?

Oh, yeah, and galley review of the new R.A. Salvatore Forgotten Realms book for Wizards of the Coast.

And my doctor also gave me a referral for another doctor who will be able to tell me whether or not I have Adult ADD, which may finally be a chance for me to get those drugs that will keep me awake and working. So, wish me luck on that.

So now you’re all caught up with Phil. Stay tuned. If these posts suddenly stop in the next couple of months it won’t be because I forgot it will mean that I have literally exploded in a shower of sparks, leaving, like one former Spinal Tap drummer, a little green globule as the only evidence that I once existed.

I am!

I was!

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Books, creative team, Dungeons & Dragons, horror novels, how to write fiction, indie publishing, intellectual property development, monsters, NaNoWriMo, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Traveller, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

IMMEDIATELY, SUDDENLY, AND ABRUPTLY STOP USING THE WORDS IMMEDIATELY, SUDDENLY, AND ABRUPTLY

In the never-ending battle between showing and telling, here are three steadfast foot soldiers for the latter cause. These pesky words plague some of the best writers and all of the worst ones.

Of course these are perfectly legitimate words, each with its own set of entirely acceptable uses, but unfortunately, they’re way too often put to improper use.

This whole “show vs. tell” thing tends to come down to a question of what I refer to as “emotional distance.” Stories (in any genre) are about people. True, in fantasy and science fiction, those “people” might be rabbits or elves or Martians, but nonetheless they’re people. Journalism, when done properly, reports on facts, and does so from an emotional distance: TEN DEAD IN MIDWEST TORNADO. Fiction, when done properly, is a shared experience of an imagined event—however impossible or improbable that event may be, and whether or not it’s based in the real world or some fantasy world or distant future. What separates good authors from bad is that good authors bring us into the story, keep us there for as long as they wish, then return us to our own world feeling (not knowing—and there is a difference) as if we’ve actually travelled to some remote place and become some other person.

For the record, actually doing this is extremely difficult, and accounts for the huge difference between the number of people who want to write fiction and the much, much, much smaller number of people who actually can.

That’s kind of a big point to make to introduce a post on why you shouldn’t use three specific words, but there it is.

Consider this sentence:

Galen abruptly stepped out of the hovercar, suddenly realized he was still a thousand feet in the air, and immediately fell to his death.

That’s a variation of a sentence I see all the time, and it’s a fine sentence, all grammatically correct and everything. But this is reporting facts. This isn’t immersive storytelling. Fact: Galen stepped out of the hovercar without looking. Fact: The hovercar is a thousand feet in the air. Fact: Galen fell to his death.

Now consider:

Galen expected his boot to touch the cold plasteel of the landing platform, but a few centimeters and nothing, then his center of gravity was too far out the door and maybe he was only a few more centimeters up. He looked behind him and down and his breath stuck in his throat and every muscle in his body tensed. The landing platform wasn’t there and he was falling, grasping for the hovercar, for anything, but beneath him was just cold, clear air for a thousand feet then the paveways of the city below.

More words in the second version, yes, but notice that things do happen immediately: Galen realizes the landing platform isn’t there. Suddenly: he has a physical panic reaction. Abruptly: he grabs for the hovercar.

But all those things are made clear in context. When you say that someone immediately tries any desperate act conceivable in order to save his own life mid-accident . . . who eventually tries any desperate act conceivable in order to save his own life mid-accident? When you say that someone suddenly falls to his death . . . who gradually falls to his death? When you say that someone abruptly slams the door in someone else’s face . . . who leisurely slams the door in someone else’s face?

I advise actually opening up your work-in-progress or that short story that keeps getting rejected, or whatever you’re writing or have written and doing a search for these three words. Don’t just blindly delete them, of course. We never want to blindly delete anything, even semi-colons. Any or all three of these words are perfectly fine in dialog, for instance. In dialog, all rules go out the window in favor of the way real people actually talk, and different real people from different places and in different states of mind all talk very differently from each other. If a character is telling a story or anecdote to other characters, he might very well say, “And suddenly the cat jumps out!” That’s a character saying that within the story, but your story itself should aspire to more than the recitation of a personal anecdote. It needs to feel natural, even conversational, but in fact has been assembled with utmost care and thought to the emotional weight of each and every sentence, each and every word. It needs to be immersive, not factual, emotional, not intellectual. So when you find immediately, suddenly, or abruptly in description, don’t just delete it, start writing around it. Convey the psychological and emotional effects of a bomb going off, regardless of how many more words it might take. And indeed it might take fewer words:

Galen turned the key in the hovercar’s ignition and suddenly the bomb in the engine went off, abruptly ending the worst day of Galen’s life by immediately blowing him to smithereens.

Might end up as:

Galen turned the key in the hovercar’s ignition and there was a click and a flash of light then nothing.

Now cut to the aftermath of the explosion in which a tearful Bronwyn vows revenge. Remember, if Galen is the POV character, all we (the readers) should get is what he knows and no more. Does he know it was a bomb? Is he at all aware of being blown to smithereens? Does he have even a split second to realize the hovercar is blowing up? Leave your readers, like Galen, wondering what the heck just happened—it was bad, it looks like the hovercar was rigged to explode when he turned the engine on, but then what? Is he dead? I have questions! I’m in the story! I care what happens next!

 

—Philip Athans

 

Posted in Books, horror novels, how to write fiction, intellectual property development, NaNoWriMo, Publishing Business, Romance Novels, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, Science Fiction Story, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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

 

 

 

Posted in Books, creative team, horror movies, horror novels, how to write fiction, intellectual property development, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, science fiction movies, science fiction technology, SF and Fantasy Authors, technology, transmedia, Video Games, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Books, creative team, how to write fiction, intellectual property development, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

 

Posted in Books, creative team, horror movies, horror novels, how to write fiction, intellectual property development, monsters, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, Science Fiction Story, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

Posted in Books, how to write fiction, intellectual property development, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, Science Fiction Story, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment