Saturday, April 15, 2017

Poor Korea

I'll begin with several admissions:  I am not Korean.  And I am not in a position to coax either Korea to move in any particular direction.  My father was a veteran of the Japanese-American War, and that experience was so fulfilling that he spent the Korean War cleaning latrines in North Carolina.  Or at least that's the story fed to me as a boy.  But as I say, I have no significant ties to the peninsula, or for that matter, to Japan.  I've read histories and I think Inchon was lucky hubris and the Chinese didn't so much catch us by surprise as they came across the Yalu when we had our eyes firmly closed.

North Korea is facing an onslaught of a super-industrialized nation.  But tough people know that civilization is frail, and nukes are knives ready to be used against weak necks.  An illustration:  One sharp proposal that I read some years ago--I don't recall where--had the North Koreans launching a big rocket.  The payload would be a dirty nuke that would have only one goal.  Make space.  Then it detonates a few hundred miles above the Earth, and the debris and radiation spread, doing their worst.  Low-orbit satellites are rarely hardened against this kind of abuse.  Entire networks of satellites would fail, and humans on the space station would have to come home, and we'd loose GPS and communications.  Sure, yes, North Korea would be struck hard as a consequence.  Our man in charge is a man of action, and he gets particularly pissed when anyone perceives him as weak.  But it's sobering to realize that one bomb can cost trillions of dollars.

But what if I was in charge of Crazed Korea?  Here's my  strategy.  Purely mine, I think.  (Writers are never sure what they've stolen from others.  Or we are sure, and we choose not to mention the crimes.)  Missiles are problematic weapons.  A couple dozen nukes, and possibly only a few are small enough to be carried over the ocean.  No, what North Korea needs to do is dig holes.  Ambitious holes, but not outrageously deep.  They should tunnel into the south slopes of little mountains near the DMZ.  Pick mountains with strong bones.  Give the tunnels angles, like a cannon barrel, and then pack them with nukes and the usual foul wastes that come with reactors working overtime.  And then like every evil character in a Bond movie, they need to monologue.  Explain to the world that if they are attacked, they will detonate.  If the wind is from the north, South Korea will be poisoned for centuries, ceasing to exist.  And if the wind isn't from the south?  Well, what's the worst that can happen?  A few million of my own people killed, and Seoul still left contaminated by the next shift in the weather.

Oh, and if that isn't bad enough.  How about a suicide submarine off the coast of Japan, crewed by patriots, carrying a hydrogen-infused warhead and enough cobalt to sterilize a fat portion of Honshu?

See?  Simple crude and spectacularly destructive tactics are easy, and of course I don't want this to happen.  No, what I want is for every human with a spark of imagination to realize that a few kilos of uranium, used with flair, can define the next twenty years of life on this little world.

Which could be the last twenty years, sure.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Canned Goods

A good day spent writing means surprising myself.  Random shit happens inside the plot line, characters outsmart the author, or best of all, I discover that final scene that makes the entire audience, myself included, declare, "Well of course that's what has to happen."

In contrast, the bad days are canned and routine, full of words, yes, but in the long haul, deservedly forgotten.  But even with those limitations, I might do that kind of work willingly.  If there was a lot of money involved.  If I didn't have to do it for years at a time.  Which wouldn't happen, because after three weeks, I would grow bored.  I'd probably work on my own stuff on weekends and lunch hours.  Except that words are like miles for the runner.  Only so many of each can be managed in any given span.  Four months of extraordinary pay, and I'd still turn disagreeable.  Unwanted twists would be grafted into the plots, characters would reveal bizarre tendencies, and if that rebellion didn't manage to get me fired, then a crippling depression would take hold.  Probably by the seven-month mark.  Which is when I would quit.  I hope.  Otherwise something more grim would happen, followed by a brief eulogy by my former co-workers during at the next morning's production meeting.

I have never met a professional fiction writer who isn't a passionate consumer of media.  Books and stories, sure.  But also television series and movies, and that underrated source of dramatic tension, news stories in their myriad forms.

Fair or not, what I expect from the outside world is much like what I expect from my own work.  I want surprises.  I deserve tensions.  And more than most audiences and even quite a few SF writers, I expect the narrative to make some kind of sense.

I stopped watching The Walking Dead.  I stopped last year, just before the famous bat arrived.  I'm far from the only lost convert, judging by the plunging ratings, but my complaints are rather different from most people.  Yes, I'm tired of the shambling pace and the do-we-fight-or-not tone.  But those aren't the killers for me.  I'm tired of Carl growing tall and masculine inside the very limited time frame.  (A far more believable and compelling story is to make every year cover a year, pacing the story to the boy's maturation inside a new world that he will possess.)  I admit that I have no relationship with the original source material for The Dead.  What I know is the series.  And within that framework, I can see a host of production issues, not limited to budgets and sets and the dictates of a corporation where important meetings have only one point:  "Kill our profits and we'll bash in your brains."

No, the worst sins in this show is the clumsy stupidity exhibited by characters who are far more simple than genuine people of very average means.  Really, at this point in the apocalypse, why would any two people stand on a hilltop, in the open, debating important principles of life?  The audience knows that enemies and their rifles are lurking.  And any soldier from any war has learned the same lesson, or she's dead.  To my mind, the only way to carry on a conversation is to find cover and sit down back-to-back.  Whispers and watchfulness.  That's how you keep the walkers and the humans from getting the jump on you.

Here's another big failure.  Farming.  Late in a previous season, a lady who's written to be smart draws a fanciful map of her lands being turned to wheat and other crops.  By "written to be smart," I mean that she knows exactly as much about farming as the writers who made her waste her final moments of life.  The kind of farming that can feed hundreds and makes life easy is going to require thousands of acres.  Fertilizers need to be applied or lived without.  The same for pesticides.   And this farmstead needs impossible walls that can't be breached by walkers or by humans.  No, if I was in charge of rebuilding agriculture, we'd do it like the Native Americans on the high plains.  Plant tough crops and move on.  Then come back again at harvest time.  A large sloppy technique, and your wheat would get raided.  But potatoes are hard to find, and on a substantial scale, those white gems would help feed hundreds.

The list of complaints continues, and plainly I watched too many seasons before quitting.

For instance, where can I buy a car that can sit for years and start with a turn of the key?  And how can any abandoned car still have air in its tires?  And for that matter, why hasn't the gasoline evaporated down to varnish inside the unused fuel lines?

Why in hell are the cities still standing?  Abandoned buildings practically want to burn; Atlanta and Washington DC should have turned to pillars of smoke and heavy falls of ash.  And the countryside wouldn't be spared.  Living and dead mouths have eaten every deer and presumably most of the mice.  That's why the underbrush would grow up thick, waiting for the next lightning strike and the resulting wildfire.

And now back to the daily business about avoiding starvation:  Insects should be on the regular diet.  Cicadas are a time of wealth.  And think of every funeral from this series.  Having life experience when it comes to digging holes, I know there's treasure in the ground, and the mourners aren't going to hesitate grabbing up the night crawlers, then sucking them down like pasta.

Finally, why doesn't anyone ask the obvious questions about this impossible disease?  Not that there's any virus or bacterium that can turns corpses into slow forces of nature.  I'm not saying that an origin should be found, or that the ultimate cure needs to be perfected.  I'm just proposing that smart people who dream about three acres of wheat might be more likely to spend time and risk death trying to make sense of a world-ending plague.

For some of these problems, there is an answer.  It's my writer's answer, assuming that I was hired to help find a suitable end for the shuffling the Dead.  We know everybody is infected.  We know because Rick learned that from a CDC doctor and then didn't mention it to anybody for a very long time.  Because he's a sensitive leader, I suppose, and he didn't want his people getting depressed.  Or for whatever other reason there is.  But what if it isn't just that Rick is infected, and Carol is infected, and one-eyed Carl too?  What if everybody who appears alive is not.  Our characters are already a little bit of a zombie, stupid and primal and at a loss to find answers.  Which has a historical precedent, as if happens.  A 19th century British venture, the Franklin expedition to the map the Northwest Passage, was lost.  And by lost, I mean that everyone died, and some died doing very curious nonsense.  For instance, after their ships were locked into ice, when they had no choice but to walk, they dragged a piano with them.  And why?  One factor was that this state-of-the-art mission that carried canned food, and the cans were improperly soldered.  As a result, everyone was suffering from lead poisoning.  Which is rather like a universe of full of walkers and foolish people who haven't quite turned yet.

Now that would be a very tragic turn inside a story that otherwise makes zero sense.

And sure, I'm fired.  But with my last paycheck, I hope.

Friday, April 7, 2017

I Have Stopped Reading Dilbert

I stopped reading Dilbert just after New Years.

My reasons lack a political angle.  I was aware that Scott Adams wrote and spoke in ways that offended large portions of the civilized world.  His particular crimes didn't stick with me.  Call me uninformed or lazy, or maybe I'm subconsciously part of his camp.  A comic strip read while eating cereal was not a rousing celebration of one man's beliefs, and it certainly didn't help Mr. Adam's bank account.  I got to laugh.  Sometimes.  I rather liked Wally.  And Dilbert himself was a good illustration of the "engineer's mind" applied in the setting where the engineer does his best work.  You know, inside simple systems, with four panels and minimal drawings and the circumstances under the tight control of one man making tidy lines.

Engineers can be brilliant, no doubt about that.  But it's a genius that thrives in the narrowest of circumstances.  Some big brains are very good at assembling tidy stacks of principles.  If-this-is-true, then-this-follows, and that-means-such-and-such.  That's why bridges rarely collapse.  There are rules, and every engineer can apply those rules, and the great ones can do it with creativity.  And sometimes, yes, there's real beauty in the structures.  Though I suspect most of that is the result of the mathematics buried inside the arches, plus the lovely red that comes when the iron rusts.

My wife sent me the above link this morning.  I finally read the blog a few minutes ago.  Am I surprised that the author is alt-right?  Not much.  And on a different topic:  Do I believe there's any truth in what he's claiming?  No.  Using nerve gas in a battlefield is complicated.  Using it on civilians leaves evidence beyond the useful bodies.  This is a small neighborhood littered with warring, deeply paranoid powers.  Russians and Turks, Israel and the US.  If I'm in charge of this elaborate operation, my first second and fourth concern is that everybody believes the false story, not the real one.  (My third concern is that I don't kill myself by mistake.  Sarin is famously amoral.)  But if I'm Assad, one gas bomb gives me distinct benefits.  First of all, I'm not killing my own people.  These are vulnerable sacks of meat that my sworn enemies cannot protect.  On this war's scale, the attack is little more than a well-placed barrel bomb.  It is a message of intent.  I killed more than a thousand people back in 2013, and the last President didn't attack me.  I want to scare two million refugees into Turkey and points north.  Meanwhile, the new President has been making sweet noise about me and my fight against terrorists.  Who look a lot like the people who are foaming at the mouth, I might add.

So no, I don't buy any self-serving notion that pretends to be theory.

Is Scott Adams stupid?

Probably not.

But the engineer's mind has limits.  To him and his species, there is a knowable logic to the universe.  There are rules to learn, and the engineer doesn't just master these rules, but he also learns that he's very good at this specific kind of thought.  Belief will eventually become just as strong as any good bridge.  To the engineer, only idiots and the weak-willed let themselves break under the weight of too much information.

Trump is not an engineer.  Not even close.

But Steve Bannon might be.  Since he doesn't draw a comic strip, I don't know much about him.  But I wouldn't doubt that he's a very bright fellow who holds a few key faiths, and each of those faiths felt so true when he acquired them.

And what about me and Dilbert?

I stopped reading the comic when 2017 began.  I quit reading the last five strips that I remotely cared about, and for no reason except that nothing seemed to change in any of their stories, and the laughs were getting scarce and stale, and it is amazing to realize that your day is made better when you stop doing one little thing that isn't paying dividends.

I'm not an engineer.

My mind, for better or worse, wants to change.

Friday, March 10, 2017

I'll tell you what good writing is

Good writing is unusual.  Even among professionals, there are very few complex stories populated with three-dimensional characters.  Of course a lot of fine careers depend on cliches.  Mansions and motion picture studios have been built because the authors had simplistic notions about human behavior and moral consequences.  Yes, that is a snob's attitude.  But my particular attitude is a little more nuanced than that.  You see, I don't believe that our species will ever be truly good writers.  And that includes me.  We also aren't gifted when it comes to thinking about imaginary numbers or making plans for future generations.  But we like to congratulate ourselves for being natural story tellers.  That's because each of us inhabits a personal and rather epic life.  This is a trick of the mind, and maybe it isn't just a human trick.  Maybe hawks and fence lizards think the same way.  But the life-as-story narrative does allow each of us to walk through random crap and odd know, everything that happened in life today...and it gives all of us a sense of structure.  Maybe we even find purpose, if that's what we need.  It's the skill that gives us the confidence to imagine our enemies cowering and taste our certain victories.  Even though most battles don't go as predicted, and few of our triumphs play out in ways we would never envision.

Humans are not stellar writers.  But we have a dangerous gift for strong first paragraphs, and sometimes a powerful chapter or two.  Which gets us into so much trouble.

"Our government is corrupt.  We need an outsider who's going to break the wheel.  Mathematics and kindness can be ignored, and the world will turn back to a better age when men were noble and women pure."

This is the story that got us where we are today.

Emotional claws.  They will trap every person.  Particularly those who believe they are too smart or too skeptical to be fooled.

The trouble with story, real story, is that it has no end.  That's what we can't appreciate.  And include me in that ignorance, please.  Real life has too many plots and billions of characters, and each of us is frantic and sloppy and tiny, trying to steer this world where we can only wish it would go.

If I was in charge of education?  I would give up trying to teach calculus to the masses.  Statistics is the better use of neurons.  People who understand odds don't waste their nights in Vegas or deny global warming.  And we must must must be kind to those in need, if only so we don't trigger the kinds of wildfires that make history so bloody and wicked and sorry.  And finally, I would mandate the writing of fiction, but only to the point where people would discover their utter weakness in this critical subject.

Hammer out a good sentence, and another, and ten more.

Finish your first chapter, if you can, building a handful of authentic humans out of old words and ancient hope.

But no author lives long enough, much less can find the necessary wisdom to give those new people the capacity to cast their own shadows.

This is what I'm saying.

Every person is a mystery, and every mystery is painted thin across the endless universe.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


I wrote a giant novel.  The work consumed spare time and far more thought than I anticipated, and there were moments when I thought like a professional writer.  Meaning:  How do I keep readers interested?  But there were also long stretches where I experienced the writer's ultimate rush.  I wasn't the author.  I was standing at a window, watching the lives that were filling another, far more dangerous Earth.

THE TRIALS OF QUENTIN MAURUS takes place in the late 1970s.  An intricate, deeply drawn alternate history, INEVITABLE is the first slice.  All four volumes are available on Amazon, Kindle-only.  And if your head works just a little like mine, the final book, EVERLASTING, will make you glad that your mother met your father.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Raven Dream

I'm working on a knot of old stories.  And by "working," I mean that all of last week and today and maybe for a little while longer, my professional life revolves around untangling 50,000 plus words and the characters wrapped inside.

"Raven Dream" was published quite a few years ago.  I had found this pleasant mind-game:  A near-future world and a secret tribe of Native Americans living on a remote ranch.  The first novelette was surprisingly successful.  Four more followed in fairly quick succession.  My daughter was young and in daycare, which is never cheap, and I was under some self-imposed pressure to produce words and get paid for those words.  Which might be one of the reasons why going back through these five stories has been such an eye-prying experience.

I'm polishing the old stuff, preparing them to be published.  Probably on Kindle, and I don't know when.  But I'm finding that the language needs an embarrassing amount of work.  I don't change the stories themselves, but I rework dialogue and do a little more with standardizing names and my logic.  The original "Dream" was the best written of the bunch.  This might be because I wasn't convinced anyone would want it, so I went over it and over it.  And then out of caution, I set the manuscript aside.  That would have been a physical manuscript, and it was brought out of the drawer months later and reworked again.  A good slow way to write.  But success is a hazard to writers and to human beings.  Success means that you think you understand something well enough.  Instead of running as hard as you can, you trot.  Instead of sweating the phrases and the logic, you let your fat mind drift.

I'm also polishing these five stories in preparation to writing a sixth, and a seventh.  Maybe an eighth.  Because if I don't do this today, this minute, it might never get done.  And there's a small tribe of people scattered across the world who want to have this story done.

The fine people at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for instance.

Anyway, today's focus is a Lakota teaching rich people to build fire, and meanwhile, the entire world is about to turn to flame.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

What I Do

I know I should blog.  It's good for my business, which is professional writing.  A popular blog will generate new fans and build interest.  Maybe I won't ever meet any of you.  Two strangers or ten million readers.  Either way, I need you to read these griddle-hot words and then say to yourselves, "I wonder what else this quirky voice has written."

But suppose nobody reads what I post:  There's still the benefit that comes from practicing your craft.  If the author doesn't screw things up too badly, he might  improve.  But I haven't done any posting in quite a long while.  My blog muscles have turned to mush.  Maybe that's a story onto itself.  Why can't a disciplined fellow like me hold to a simple task?  And maybe I should tell you about it some day.  But not today.  To make myself post and post frequently, I need to pick up some tiny subject and write about it quickly.  I'll show you something, and you can say, "Oh my, isn't that interesting?"  Or, "Tedious is too soft a word for this self-absorbed bullshit."

I have been a money-making author for more than thirty years.  I accept that both of those responses are guaranteed, as well as polite shrugs and total indifference.

But here's your glimpse at my mind:

To Do

Weed aquarium
Water window
Dismantle brush pile
Order rubber
Comb compost
Rejuvenate pump
Steal hoses
Butt cradle
Patch vandalism
Start talking
Unveil tubs

It's Sunday, and we're having lovely April weather in early March.  I started a to-do list in Google Keep, and the first item came out with an interesting tone.  So I just kept inventing unexpected ways of defining very ordinary tasks.

I won't explain any of them, but the "Start talking" offering.

That's blogging.

I'm talking.

And no, it's late afternoon, and I haven't done more than a few of these chores.