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Archive for the ‘Fictions’ Category

Wives, Warlords and Refugees: The People Economy of Mad Max

CONTAINS SPOILERS

I wasn’t going to go and see the latest iteration of Mad Max. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a passionate fan of 80’s apocalypse movies (I wrote a whole series in homage to them!). I love the aesthetics, the desperation, the tough characters, the monstrous masculinity that both men and women must take up in order to survive… But I’ve watched as the heroines of those gritty 80’s epics I loved have been continually debased, ground out, and erased here in the last twenty years. When you’re watching a film from 1979 that has tougher, more complex female characters than a film shot in 2012, something is rotten (I’m looking at you, Riddick, with the director who argued that constant rape attempts, threats, and 2-second “side boob with nipple” shot was actually a vitally important part of his artistic vision instead of just lazy storytelling).  I’ve seen the politics inherent in these types of stories get pushed aside too in favor of mindless, disjointed action sequences and shiny creatures with no bearing on the human plot. These films and their writers and directors had forgotten the truism of the post-apocalyptic world: every resource is valuable. Every person – and hence, every scene – has to pull their weight. Only the toughest or most valued survive. And the stories that we remember, the stories that last – are about people struggling to survive in the midst of overwhelming odds presented both by the landscape and their fellow travelers.

There’s a lot of whining about “message fiction” these days, which is bizarre because every story is a “message” story or it wouldn’t be a story. Asking for “stories without messages” makes me think this is code for a steady diet of inane reality TV shows that do actually have their own “message,” which is selling and reinforcing capitalism, ignorance, and the status quo. The reality is that every story is political, and the stories that stick with me best are incredibly and transparently so. There’s a reason we remember Animal Farm, and A Canticle for Leibowitz and 1984. There’s a reason I can’t stop thinking about Parable of the Sower. Post-apocalyptic stories have always had a lot to say about where we’re headed if we don’t right our wrongs. They warn us about our reliance on fossil fuels, our abuse of the environment and where it will lead us. They tell us about the inevitable future we are building by relying on war, and what our continued reliance on slavery as an economic system means to our humanity. Post-apocalypse stories simply do not exist without politics.

I knew Mad Max was headed in the right direction from the beginning, when Immortan Joe realizes Imperator Furiosa has gone rogue, and he runs to open up a great vault door. I knew immediately what he hoped to find behind that vault door. He is going to check up on his most valuable possessions. His possessions are people with the ability to have babies. When you are living in a post-apocalyptic world of poisoned fertility and scarce resources, controlling the people who can have babies is of the utmost importance. Those who can bear them are the means of that production. Gain control over the means of production, and you can rule the world.

And this is where this film gets all the violence-against-women stuff right, because it boldly and frankly positions it for what it is, stripping it of the male gaze, of sexuality, of uncontrollable male urges. There are no on screen rape threats, rape attempts, or rapes because they would detract from the entire point. You have to strip all that away to see it for what it is:  Sexism is about power. Sexism is about controlling the means of production.

At its core, sexism has very little to do with the act of sex.

It’s why we see a large room full of well-fed women hooked up to milking machines – yes, milking machines – because all anybody drinks in this world is water and milk, and all you ever see them eat is bugs and lizards. The animals are dead. That leaves us with those women. And these women are owned totally and completely by Immortan Joe, who controls all the means of production – he owns the water and the women.

And, once he owns those two things, he owns everyone and everything. He has consolidated absolute power by turning people into chattel.

In this world, those who can bear babies are chattel, used to breed more soldiers and provide life-sustaining milk to the elite. They are fodder used in production of more fodder.

Max (who really is actually crazy in this one. Not angry. Crazy) himself is chattel – captured and kept alive as a “blood bag” to give a much needed blood transfusion to soldiers who are diseased and dying. He is fodder to fuel the soldiers of the war.

The war boys themselves are chattel, bred and raised in a religion that celebrates their sacrifice in battle. They are fodder for the war machine.

“We are just the same,” says Splendid, one of the escaped wives, to Nux, a rogue war boy.  The people in power want them both to believe that they are things, owned and driven to just one purpose.

Women and soldiers are just the same, manipulated by the same terrible elite into sacrificing their bodies for some rich man’s cause.

When I saw the graffiti on the walls of the prison where the wives were kept, the endless recitation of, “We are not things,” I knew we were headed in the right direction.

We live in a world that has made people into things. In Max’s world, there’s just no finery on top of it. There’s nothing to shield you from it. The only media to convince you otherwise is religion, and religion is used again and again here to illustrate how it can help manipulate and control while giving purpose and hope. For mangled, dying boys in the desert, the hope of Valhalla gives comfort.f81500883574fd6d2a842f352d18e0546e635588.jpg__620x932_q85_crop_upscale

And this brings us to Furiosa, our hero. For as most folks who have seen prior Mad Max movies know, Max just sort of wanders into these weird enclaves, fucks around, and then wanders out. He is the traveler, the witness to their stories. And in just that way, he stumbles into Furiosa’s story, this huge complex thing that’s clearly been planned out for a long time and is already set into furious motion.

Max is not the hero. He’s the witness. Just like the war boys yelling at one another “Witness me!” he is the one who goes on, who drags on. He is that wandering 80’s apocalypse male hero, tied to nothing and no one. He has to be, so he can wander off at the end – as he inevitably does here – and leave the real heroes to deal with the messy business of mopping up and governing a new world.

Casting Charlize Theron as Furiosa was an astonishing choice, and I honestly had no idea she was in this film until a few days before it came out. I remember Ridley Scott giving an interview once where he said he hired the very best actors he could find for Alien so that he could give his full attention to the creature part, because he knew the creature part was going to be the toughest. It felt like Miller did a similar thing here – with so many incredible action sequences to film, he needed great actors in place who could work with very little dialogue. And Theron does that here in such a powerful, heartbreaking way that I found myself in awe of how she was able to communicate so much in a glance. There’s this moment when she re-enters the rig after Max drives it away from an attacking motorcycle gang, and she looks him up and down as he scoots over, and she has this tiny – not smile, but almost approving or knowing glance that lets us know  that she knows she’s won him over, and he’ll be on their side now. There are tons of moments like this throughout, where all we get is Theron’s eyes to tell us everything, and they do, and it’s extraordinary.

There’s another amazing thing that happens in this movie that few people have commented on, and that I want to point out, and that’s the lack of the pervy camera. We know the pervy camera. It’s the camera that zooms in on women’s asses and legs and torsos and sexualizes their bodies, like the camera itself is licking them up for the male viewer. We see these every time Megan Fox is in a movie. We see these in every movie from Transformers to Sucker Punch, to BountyKiller, to Grindhouse. It’s become so ubiquitous that I remember watching the end of Gravity where the camera pans around behind Sandra Bullock’s butt and I was like, “Oh God please no” and I was surprised, actually surprised, that the camera shot her the way it would in an actual serious film that was filming a male character instead of the way it would film a woman in a softcore porn movie. And George Miller – for all that he dresses the rebel wives in white muslin bikinis – does not shoot any softcore porn here. Max stumbles onto them while they’re washing themselves off with a hose, and while it’s a striking scene after all that sand and violence, it’s not porny. These women are washing themselves like practical people, not male sex fantasies, and the camera captures them that way. Even when the film has the opportunity for a full-frontal female nude shot – with the motorcycle matriarchy member sitting up on the broken electric pole as bait – it demurs. This is a rated R movie, but the nudity was not necessary to the story.

Hear that, HBO? The nudity was not necessary to the story.

Here’s this movie saying, “People aren’t things” that actually uses its camera work in a way that backs up its political position that people are not things. Yes! “People are not things” is a political position now. Oh, 2015! Who’d have thought arguing that “Slavery is bad” in fucking 2015 would get people complaining about how that was taking an extreme political stance, eh?

Our rebel wives also get plenty to do in this film. Unlike so many heroines hanging off the side of a male character, it’s clear in this world that not pulling your weight will get you dead very quickly, and these women fight in a way that is realistic to how they were raised (my nitpick here is that they clearly cast models for these roles, and in terms of worldbuilding, they should have cast plump women. These women likely could not even menstruate; that’s a bad condition in women you’re keeping around to have babies. Ahem). No, they aren’t out doing kung-fu, but they are hitting people with tools, using chains to haul Max off Furiosa, counting out bullets, scouting ahead, helping to get the truck unstuck, and all other manner of things that people do in a world where they’re on the run and their very survival is at stake. No one survives and escapes sexual slavery and then gets upset at the idea of breaking a nail while hooking up a winch, for God’s sakes, though so many films would have you think otherwise.

Everyone in this film does something.

What’s shocking is how shocking that is to see in a film in 2015.

And I’m not even going to bother going into the motorcycle matriarchy because what else needs to be said here but my god, motorcycle matriarchy where have you been all my life?

I do want to say a little something about the mass of refugees bowing and scraping in the dirt beneath the towers of Immortan Joe, begging and scraping for water. This may have been the oddest worldbuilding break in the movie for me (I can totally buy the metal war guitar guy, honestly). Because here we have this mass of refugees, but they don’t seem to be serving any real purpose. They are not working  – are they meant to be doing mining of some kind? Or are they literally just the masses camped out hoping for scraps? How to they serve the war machine? Is there a soylent green solution here that we’re missing? And, because its absence was really noticeable – where are all the black people in the future? If this is meant to be far-future Australia, where are all the Asian people, and the Aborigines? I could count the numbers of both in among the secondary and even background characters on one hand, which was another weird worldbuilding break.

Sigh.

It occurs to me I have not touched much on Furiosa here, but what is there to say? She’s the hero of the show, the warrior queen, the one with the grit and fortitude to bust out five women from prison and go riding off into the desert in search of a hazy half-memory of a place. She is the one who must ultimately make the decision whether to ride across the desert or to turn back and fight Immortan Joe. All Max can do is suggest it. The entire agency of this entire film rests entirely in her hands.

And it’s that agency that really makes this such a fine film for me, and one I’d call feminist waaaaay before I’d call something like Jupiter Ascending feminist. Because the entire story isn’t about things that happen to Furiosa. It’s about what Furiosa does with what has happened to her. I have heard all sorts of ideas about Furiosa’s back story, but listen – Furiosa is in this because she, too, needs redemption. She has propped up this guy’s patriarchy her whole life. She was been complicit in letting these other women act as breeders, a fate that for whatever reason she was able to avoid – whether because she could not get pregnant or because she was just too valuable as an imperator, or both. And in taking on the role she did, she was part of the problem. She upheld Immortan Joe’s rule. It was time for her to earn her redemption. She drives this narrative hard and fast, and nothing happens without her having to make a decision about it. She’s in charge of her own story.

Perhaps that’s the truly refreshing thing about this film, for me. It’s that instead of women playing a part in some guy’s story, in propping up some guy’s journey, we have, instead, Max stumbling into Furiosa’s story, and simply going along for the ride. He is, if anything, a Manic Pixie Dreamguy who stumbles in to suggest that she turn around and take the citadel herself. Then, after she has won the day and taken her rightful place as Queen Furiosa, he moves on to go and help justice prevail somewhere else.

Max wins nothing for all his troubles. His only win is seeing a wrong made right.

A hero who does something because it’s right, and reclaims his humanity, instead of doing it for a woman or loot reward! My god!

Oh, World of Warcraft generation, you are failing.

And it occurred to me in that moment, as I watched him figuratively gallop off into the sunset, that we’ve been missing those heroes a lot recently. Those 80’s loner dude heroes I loved were messed up, it’s true – they were terrible at making connections with people. They were monstrous. But they used that monstrousness not for their own ends, but to help make the world just a little bit better. They were usually paired up with some more idealistic sort, a truer hero – a Furiosa. And they were doing actual penance for their inability to love. They expected nothing in return. Their names were not writ large. They didn’t become king. But the world was just a little better because they helped somebody else in a fight against injustice.

I love my gritty fantasy and SF stories. But I admit I’m getting tired of rooting for the bad guys who torture people and destroy buildings without a thought for those within. I’m ready to see conflicted nihilistic heroes who accidently get caught up in hope again, who get caught up in the idea that some sliver of something can be saved, even if they must be dragged kicking and screaming back into accepting their own humanity, out here in the light.

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——–

(now can we please get a God’s War movie pretty please?)

SFF Markets that Consider Patreon Stories for Publication

So last year Andrea Phillips put together a great list of markets that do and do not consider taking stories which were created via Patreon support. Because Patreon is a new-ish crowdfunding too, it’s not generally mentioned in submission guidelines whether or not the venue considers a Patreon story already published or not.

Now that I’m producing my own work via Patreon, I wanted to see what other magazines would take these stories, and if any other had changed their minds. It’s great to produce new work, but I like producing work that I can share with the whole community. Backers will always get the fiction first, but once they have it, I’d like to find some other venues for it besides slapping it up on Amazon for sale.

Here’s an updated list of who takes Patreon-backed stories based on Andrea’s post and me asking some folks on Twitter:

YES, as an original story 

(provided story is locked to patrons only)

Strange Horizons

Interfictions

YES, as a reprint

(provided story is locked to patrons only)

Lightspeed

Apex Magazine

Podcastle

EscapePod

PseudoPod

Forever Magazine

Lamplight Magazine 

Buzzy Mag

I’ll be curious to see how other markets begin to treat Patreon stories as the use of the service increases. Of course, it could go bankrupt and tank tomorrow, or we could all become robots in a few years and it wouldn’t matter anyway. But! You never know.

 

 

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New Article in Locus Mag: Silence in Publishing

Hey! Guess what!? I’m part of the establishment now!

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Or, rather, I have an article in  Locus Magazine this month. Check out the teaser below, and then go grab (or view) a copy of the October issue to read the rest:

“Everybody Already Knows”: How Silence About the Realities of Publishing Hurts Authors

Families are full of secrets. Publishing is no different.

There are the ho-hum secrets – the affairs, the folks who stole money from now dead relatives, the folks who aren’t paying their taxes. There are also bigger secrets.  These are the secrets that matter, the ones that could help others in the family if they were shared. These are things like mental illness – hiding an uncle’s illness means his niece may suffer for years in silence, thinking she’s the only one with that issue. And there are darker things, like abusive spouses and family members who abuse children. We hush these things up because we fear they’re too personal to share. Too personal right up until keeping that secret means your abusive spouse goes on to abuse someone else, or the children abused by a family member go on to repeat the cycle of abuse.

Secrets are knowledge not widely shared. Knowledge shared is power, and leverage, especially in the publishing industry.  Sharing knowledge is how we change things.

Continue reading…

 

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God Bless America: Living our Dystopia

No, that post title is not a directive, that’s the name of a movie I finally ponied up to watch my last night at Wellspring before I passed out.

I’d been putting off this movie for a good long while, primarily because I heard about it not long after some nut job shot up a movie theater IRL, and there’s nothing like IRL violence to put you off lazily violent movies (when I lived in South Africa, I started walking out of movies with gratuitous violence. Unless violence has a good purpose or is trying to make a non-lazy point, I have a very low tolerance for it these days). The idea of watching a movie that could very well be seen to promote shooting people as a way to cure our vapid, self-indulgent culture of its problems turned my stomach.

But I am, if nothing else, a big proponent of protecting our ability to tell stories that we need to tell in the way they need to be told. It’s not as if this film is the first to show folks upset with the current system shooting their way to infamy.

And taking a look at the news these days, I have to say that I think this was the only way to tell this story.

This is, then, a deeply problematic movie, in which our divorced, disaffected, cubicle-living, protagonist finds himself picking up a gun and a manic pixie dream girl and setting off across the country to murder all those vapid reality TV stars and people who text their friends in movies, and people who cut you off on the freeway and – yes, basically, everyone who acts like an entitled asshole in this weirdly adolescent culture we’ve made for ourselves in America.

What precipitates this killing spree is a very strange scene at his workplace in which he’s canned for looking up the personal address of the company secretary and sending flowers to her home. I say it’s strange because I wasn’t entirely sure how I was supposed to feel about it. On the one hand, sure, the woman seems friendly toward him, but, uh, dude, she’s a  secretary – she has to be nice to everyone, and I’m sorry, but any guy who looks up your personal address in your personnel file and sends you something without you expressly asking is, indeed, a little creepy.  My assumption here is that it’s the “zero tolerance policy” response that I’m supposed to think is really ridiculous. He gets canned for looking up the secretary’s personal information. Of course, if I was a guy watching this, I might find what he did rather innocuous and not worth firing somebody for and would rail against the PC’ing of the workplace, but as a woman, well… dude. Unless I give you my address, sending something there is kinda… creepy.

So, that was weird.

The rest of the film follows our protagonist on his journey to murder a teen reality TV star and her vapid parents and ends up as a takeover of the American Idol stage. This is about when he hooks up with manic pixie dream girl, who was very nearly her own person and not a pixie, but then wasn’t, which made me sigh into my cornflakes because her writing was so punchy and the actress was so great. Folks, when you create secondary characters for your protagonists, you need to spend at least as much time figuring out them and their arc and their story as you do your protagonist, or they’ll just come off as lackluster shadowy appendages of said protagonist. And this is, of course, much more prevalent with the manic pixie dream girl, who consistently manages to have no real life, goals, or motivations outside of whatever it is she is waking up the white male protagonist to do. It’s woman-as-muse-as-thing, and it annoys.

Still: la-la-la-la ignoring the pixie for a minute, and the relentlessly, darkly brutal/comic subject matter, this film certainly did well at one thing – holding up a mirror to our own Harrison Burgeron society. You wonder why we don’t write SF stories like this one anymore? Because we already live this dystopia. We already live in the world of vapid reality TV stars and people shooting up theaters and rich kids trying desperately to pretend they’re interesting and middle aged folks with no purpose or motivation beyond making it to the cubicle every morning. It’s a darkly comic movie because it’s a darkly comic time to live in, and I couldn’t help but write in “bread and circuses” especially there at the end where we get the massive TV shooting that reminded me a ton of old Harrison from the movie version; tho of course Harrison was naïve enough to believe that you’d listen to him simply because he spoke to you. Our protagonist today knows we’re going to tune him out unless he’s got a gun or a bomb strapped to him. Our attention spans are even shorter than that in most dystopias.

I guess the depressing part about this movie is that it really wasn’t fiction for me. It felt a lot more like a perfect picture of a snapshot in time; the arrogant, egotistical, uneducated, asshole-validating culture that is American pop culture at the turn of the 21st century.

Twenty years ago, this would have been a science fiction movie. Now it was like watching a documentary.

Sad face.

Secondary world fantasy vs. future fiction

I was only stumped by one question at WorldCon, and that was posed by Elizabeth Bear at the “Looking Forward to the Post-Apocalyptic World” panel. She asked why someone would choose to write future fiction vs. secondary world fantasy and what the primary differences were, or something to that end.

The best I could come up with was, “Well, if I choose to write future fiction I don’t have to make up as many words.”

Seriously. That’s all I could come up with.

Pass.

I realize I’m a bit weird when it comes to drawing a line between science fiction and fantasy. People kept asking at the con if God’s War was science fiction or fantasy and I kept pulling out my old Thundercats analogy. “Is Thundercats science fiction or fantasy? I mean, hey, they’re space-faring cats with swords!”

Perhaps I was simply scarred by too many Hanna-Barbera cartoons in my youth, but I’ve never seen a huge difference in science fiction vs. fantasy if the book’s done well. I was always a big fan of Gene Wolfe’s work because so much of it blurred the edge between fantasy and science fiction. The thing is, with my science fiction, I want it to be fantastic enough to give me that massive sense of awe and wonder, but I also want my fantasy to be believable in that I’ve been expertly sold on the rules, politics, economics, and machinations of the world. I don’t read a lot of out-and-out absurdist fantasy or parody fantasy (No Piers Anthony for me, or Terry Pratchett, and I’ve read exactly one Douglas Adams novel). I want worlds that feel real.

Like Mulder, I want to believe.

That’s why so much New Weird fiction really appealed to me – here are these fantastic gritty worlds with nasty politics and gruesomeness that have actually been more or less thought through. As for magic, as long as you can sell me on how your magic works, and convince me it has rules, I’m all in.

I write all kinds of worlds, and basically, the rule for me is that if I want to do something that has a very clear line from this world to the next one, then I’m writing sort-of future fiction. That does, indeed, allow me to make up fewer words, and to actually explore and extrapolate on existing, known stuff.  When I choose to write a secondary world fantasy, I think, I’m more likely to be extrapolating on unknown stuff.

So while God’s War may have spaceships and nanotech/bugtech with a shapeshifter thrown in, the secondary world fantasy I’m working on right now has weird portals between realities and particle magic with some nods to nanotech thrown in.  If I’m working with mostly-known stuff, it’s SF. When it’s mostly unknown stuff, I choose to write a secondary world fantasy.

But honestly, there’s not too much terrible difference between SF/Fantasy (cue the unsheathing of swords). I don’t see too much difference in imagining a future colonized world or a terraformed Mercury and, say, Arrakis (another good example for the “is it SF or fantasy?” debate).  Different sorts of SF writers do different sorts of hand-wavey stuff to make their worlds plausible.

I remember the big push toward “Mundane SF” and just about tore my hair out because holy crap, if all we ever did was extrapolate from what we knew, we’d never try to teleport and never try to build a faster-than-light technology because obviously, those things are impossible. It delights me to no end that people continue to try teleportation because, hey, it’s a common SF thing, and, lo, we are teleporting photons and even transmitting information from one atom to another now. Step one!

But if we, as fantasists, just didn’t even talk about teleportation because obviously, that’s impossible, would it have taken longer for folks to figure out? Would they even have tried? I’m reminded of the invention of the steam engine during the Greek period, and the probably apocryphal but still telling story of the ruler who took the inventor of the steam engine aside and said, “Yes, this machine is great. But if we start powering all of our industry this way, what will we do with all the slaves?”  And the guy who invented a very early glider/plane in China who had it destroyed by the emperor, because he just didn’t think humans should be airborne (or believed it could somehow threaten his rule).

We are hobbled all along the way by people telling us we can’t. By failure of imagination. I find that I’m just not as passionate about writing when I’m constrained by “What’s possible now?” because to be dead honest, half the stuff I use every day doesn’t seem like stuff that could be possible. The stuff I can do with my smart phone is, to put it mildly, astonishing. I don’t want to tell people they can’t do things because it’s not probable. I don’t want to limit my own vision.  Some of the most fantastic stories I’ve ever read were the ones that challenged me to think beyond what I believed was possible. And it can be done in any genre, as long as the people writing it are willing to really push beyond their own preconceptions.

So, maybe sometimes you choose to write future fiction with unicorns, or fantasy fiction with spaceships.

Or, like me, sometimes you write Thundercats.

It’s all good.

 

Swords and Sociology, Redux

I was reading a well-known science fiction author last night and found myself repeatedly bumped out of the story by all the techno-babble. I’m not averse to techno-babble, mind, it’s just that I didn’t buy that this POV character viewed the world through techno-babble glasses. If you’re staring at a sunset, it’s highly unlikely that you’re thinking all about the technology that allows you to see it, or the different gases and substances in the atmosphere around you, unless that’s your job or your passion or stepping out into said environment is anything other than routine for you.

This is the trouble I have with a lot of science fiction novels in particular, but fantasy does it sometimes too. It’s this obsession with details that the POV characters really wouldn’t 1) know or 2) care about.  When I access the Internet, I’m not thinking about how the Internet was created, or where the information is stored, or even the millions of people who create it. I’m just looking for information. Or checking my email. When I use my phone’s navigation system, I’m not thinking about satellites or Google vans mapping streets, I just want to get where I’m going. There is nothing that pulls me out of a book faster than people interacting with everyday technology who don’t do it like real people. Granted, if you’ve got a molecular biologist or geologist as your protagonist, fine – they will see the world a little differently. But your backcountry merchant doesn’t give a crap about how her suit keeps her from getting frozen or roasted – she just cares that it works.

Back when I first got started writing, people told me I wrote “sword and sociology” stories. To some extent, I think that’s true. I’m far more interested in what these technologies and places will do to people, and how society and social mores will change because of them, than I am interested in how said technologies work. I don’t read fiction to figure out how to construct a light bulb. That’s what nonfiction books and the Internet are for. And let’s be honest, here – a lot of SF is just handwavey stuff anyway. They don’t really tell you how a thing works that isn’t a real thing – they tell you how it might or could work. And you know? I just don’t see it as my job to tell a reader how something works. If they want to build one that works that way, great! But again, if I knew how to make a teleportation device, I’d make it myself, patent it, and travel around the world throwing money at things.

What’s worse is when you’re not only getting jerked out of a story by all the – “As you know, Bob, the gamma ray Xbox malfunction causes abrasive discharge to the calibrated death ray at inopportune times. This is because of the way magna gas pods are hooked up to the elevated pitch level.” – but you’re also served up some wholly boring, 20th-century type people who have so clearly not been shaped by their environment. It’s like the author doesn’t even question how social relationships and social mores might change in these extreme environments. Everyone just goes on expositing. I could pick up far too many of these characters and set them into a skyscraper in New York and they would fit in and function just fine.

And that’s just… wrong.

It’s wrong for me, at any rate, and the type of fiction I’m interested in. I want to know what all this stuff does to the actually people using it, living with it, living in it. Stories, for me, are still about people. Not just the science they do or plots they unravel, but the people they’re fucking, the phobias they have, the passions they act on or subvert, and how those things are regarded by the wider society.

I realize this type of people-centric fiction isn’t for everybody. Sometimes people just want long, rambling extrapolations of how current nanotube construction can be applied to hypothetical future uses. But I don’t need the windy guts of that explanation in order to get the “gosh wow cool” factor from my fiction. Simply knowing that there’s something that does a useful, strange, and extraordinary thing is enough. I often don’t want to know *how* it works. Honestly, that takes some of the fun out of it. I want to think about why and how it works on my own. And most importantly – I don’t want some random tangent about how Future Binoculars work to get in the way of the actual story. You know, the story that’s about the people who *use* these things.

I realize this is a very personal aversion to specific types of fiction and approaches to science fiction in particular, and it’s not everybody’s cup of tea either. But it’s what the world does to the people, and how the technologies that they employ shape and change them – rather than the technologies themselves – that really interest me.

(It appears I’ve ranted about this before. This is why I don’t read much straight-up SF!)

WorldBuilding 301: The Difference is in the Details

Last night I was watching a show about emotions – how people overcome grief and trauma, how depression and happiness shape our lives. The parent of one of the VA Tech students who was killed a few years back said he talked to a nurse who said that the most unnerving part of her experience in responding to the shooting was not triaging the bodies, or processing the dead. It was walking the line of thirty-four dead college students and hearing their cell phones going off; constantly, incessantly, and being unable to answer.

And that image – emergency responders walking a line of thirty-four dead college kids as their cells phones went off – just hit me right in the chest. It was one of those details that you wouldn’t even think about, when writing about a catastrophic event. You’d concentrate on how people felt. On the blood on the stones. Maybe the wailing. Or the sound of the sirens. But how many people would think of the ringing cell phones on the bodies of the victims? The tireless, frantic calls from parents who had just lost their children?

I’ve written before about worldbuilding, and questioning your own assumptions in order to help build more interesting worlds. But it’s also vitally important to pay attention to the little details that take your world from  sounding like a watercolor wash. It is these details that make people, events, and entire worlds more real. And they tend to be the types of things we never hear about, unless we’re victims of trauma ourselves or have experienced places like these first hand.

Those who have experienced war, childbirth, the death of a loved one, and lived in places where they can tell you what the air tastes like, and know how much you should pay a car guard, are more likely to have these sorts of telling details on hand. But what if you don’t know what the air tastes like in Mumbai? What if you’ve never survived a disaster? How do you find these kinds of details that capture a moment and its emotional truth?

Some of the best advice I ever got was to read outside the SF/F genre and travel. Traveling around the world was the best thing I ever did. But travel doesn’t always give you real details. You see things with a tourist’s eyes. You very often eat tourist food. You talk to people as a tourist. For me, getting the details of places and events is best found by speaking to or reading books written by people who actually lived and experienced these things.

I was recently reading an account of several people living in Iran just after the revolution, and how one Iranian woman watched the mannequins in the windows change. The skirts got longer. The shirts got longer.  And women on the streets in their short skirts just laughed, because how was anyone going to convince them to dress that way? And then the mannequins’ heads were covered. And the government began to openly crack down on women going about with their heads uncovered. Then the mannequin’s heads were removed all together, because they had rosy lips and cheeks. Then their hands were removed. Because as the government became more uncomfortable with what women were and weren’t allowed to show in public, the mannequins began to reflect that, and in fact, were a precursor to increased regulation of women’s bodies (I feel it necessary to note that mannequins generally look more typical now – this was immediately post-revolution, and may have been particularly extreme in the writer’s area).

It was something I hadn’t even thought of – the simple act of looking into a store window to see the social changes a country is undergoing. This shouldn’t be a surprising revelation, of course. Remember all the hoopla when JC Penny put two gay dads on a photo spread? The way we represent ourselves says a good deal about the thoughts going on behind those representations. It’s yet another reason that I harp on the importance of representations of women and people of color in media. A white-washed world sends a statement about what your country is thinking, too.

When I’m doing research from my fat history books, I always keep paper and pen handy. I scrawl down little details, those telling things that tug at me – physically or emotionally – and really bring the place or time I’m writing about to life.

I read one account of the invasion of Babylon, in which the invaders cut open the dead from throat to groin looking for money or jewels that had been swallowed. I read another account of a young soldier growing up in the Sudan who watched a man forced to dig a grave with his hands. His hands were then cut off and he was buried alive in that same grave.  In another, this same kid rigged grenades to a dead body and waited for hyenas to come over and try and eat it. The idea was the hyenas would trigger the grenade and be killed, and he could eat the hyena. It wasn’t a terribly successful way to hunt, it turned out, but it was a really good idea.  And it went on the list.

There is a morbidity to being a writer that sometimes makes me uncomfortable. When I heard that detail about the VA Tech murders and got over the initial gut punch, my immediate thought was, “I have to remember that detail for something.”  As a writer, I share, remember, and remix these details. It’s harrowing stuff, yes, but it means that what I’m writing is also more likely to ring true to a reader than something I just pulled from my own head so it ends up like some remix of bad 80’s movies (though I admit I’ve pulled some scenes from those, too).

If you want to build a place that’s alive, you should be reading about people who lived lives like the ones you’re writing about.  But my world is totally made up! You might say. Well, here’s the deal. If you’re writing about a world at perpetual war, try reading about the people and places who have experienced that kind of conflict. Find out what it does to people. If you don’t, you’re going to end up with some kind of sanitized version of living, where war is gloriously black-and-white and every woman is happily serving as the footnote is somebody else’s story.

It’s an overdone saying, but it’s true: when it comes to building great worlds, and inviting  readers to experience visceral events, the difference really is in the details.

Work in Progress

Because not everything I write is bug and blood and deserts.

Well, not all deserts, anyway.

From the latest WIP, a short story titled, “Sense of Dark.”

————-

Everything that mattered happened in the dark.

It was eighteen in the morning, the deepest part of the black, with the promise of dawn another eight hours distant. This was when they brought in the suicides, the lunatics, the infanticides, the condemned; all the twisted and brutalized bodies that the day shift refused to process and management wanted processed quickly… but after dark.

In their long, stark-white rooms, the butchers worked nimbly, silently during the long twenty-hour cycle of night.

The body was just another bruised husk, some mangled thing the techs hauled in under the ruinous glare of the organic overlights. The worms were dying in the casings up there, so the light along the far edge of the operating room was pale lavender instead of white.

“Where did you find her?” Sohaila asked, ripping open the green slick that protected the corpse. She never did like the quiet. Every new body was another excuse for chatter, for warmth – anything to prove she was alive.

“Docks.”

“Water? Port? Elevator? It matters.”

The tech sighed. He was a new kid, a couple months on the job. His partner was already finishing up the check-in on her slide. Sohaila saw it in his face already that he wouldn’t make it on the dark shift. Living your life in the dark was one thing, but living your life in the dark with corpses was another.

“Elevator dock.”

“There are three in this sector. Which one?”

Beneath the slick, the body was dry and desiccated. If they were anywhere near a desert, some forensic might have guessed she was a mummy right off, but with all the elevators opening up into vacuum now and the Nothing that had torn apart the world on the other side of the water bay a decade before, the desert was the least likely guess on how this one had met its end. The body was curled up on its side, elbows tucked, mouth yawning, feet crossed. It was naked, which wasn’t so unusual. Bodies that came in this way were the sort that got stripped of all valuables – either right before they died or soon after. Especially if they died near an elevator where the throwoffs and castaways congregated.

“All right,” Sohaila said. She reached behind her for the bone saw.

The boy tech turned away quickly. “Done, Paya?”

“We’re checked in. Verified she’s not in the system. Some stray.” Paya, the girl tech, tapped her forehead at Sohaila. “See you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” Sohaila said. There were always plenty of bodies. What they all lacked was the time to process them.

She cracked open the chest and studied the state of the organs. More or less salvageable, with some creative treatment. She began preparing her solution. During the day shift, they sometimes bothered with an autopsy, but at night management expressly forbid it. It cut into profits, and at no gain. If they accidently processed someone with legal funeral rights, it would cost them less to pay out than it cost the butchers to perform an autopsy on every wayward body that crossed the slab. A fruitful, virus-like populace out here made life cheap, and litigation cheaper.

She turned the body over for better access to the kidneys. They were easier to rehydrate from behind. As she did, she noted an indentation just above the left hip. Someone had been peeling at the skin. She rubbed at it, and saw the traces of some kind of inked tattoo. A little chill ran up her spine. She pulled her hands away, let the body fall back. Took a breath. They tattooed company girls on the left hip, the ones management imported for the C-level executives from other worlds on the Inner Rim. Too many bodies meant the new ones that got in had to be signed in and accounted for at all times. And anybody they imported from beyond the vacuum… came in at great and terrible expense.

Sohaila grabbed a specimen slide and scraped quickly at the grit beneath the body’s nails and stored it in the transparent slide. She turned and slipped it into the particle analyzer behind her, switched it on.

“Sohaila?”

She started, and knocked the analyzer off. Turned.

Giati, one of the butchers who worked near reception, smiled at her from the door. There was a familiar man behind her, dressed in a formal gray doctor’s coat.

“Sorry, Dr. Dirish is taking this one tonight,” Giati said.

Sohaila opened her mouth to ask what managmeent’s top day doctor was doing working in the dark.

“Have you started?” Dr. Dirish said before she could speak. He pushed past Giati and went straight for the body.

“No, not yet. Just opened the chest. The organs are good.”

“Perfect, that’s fine.” He pulled the slick back closed over the body. It hissed and melted and sealed itself back up. He smiled thinly. “Did you remove anything from the body?”

“No, nothing,” Sohaila said.

“Wonderful. Perfect. Giati, excuse me.” He released the body’s carriage, and the carriage floated free of the examining table. “Good night. I’ll be sure to have them send you the next one.”

Sohaila forced a smile. Watched the doctor and Giati leave, pushing the body out ahead of them.

Then she was alone again. No people. No bodies. The room was very still.

“Well,” she said aloud. “That’s that, isn’t it?”