When the going gets tough . . .
. . . creative types need to take a break and make use of their other outlets. This will become a vanilla porter after I transfer it to the secondary fermenter in a day or two. It’s a partial extract, single infusion mash. Original gravity: 1.052.
Due to a mishap at the hombrew shop (ok it was my fault), I had lots of extra malt extract syrup left over once I made the wort (pre-beer, before the yeast is added). Some of the extra malt got baked into brownies that made use of the spent grain, courtesy of the Ninja-Wife, and my friend who was over to hang out and help out.
The remainder of the spent grain was combined with black beans and corn, and baked into veggie burger patties. Between the spent grain brownies and spent grain burgers, one turned out to be a delicious treat. The other, a noble experiment, never to be repeated. Never.
Guess which was which.
The rest of the malt got sent home with my friend so he could make ice cream out of it. I haven’t tasted the ice cream yet, but his girlfriend texted me the other night to say how insanely good it is, and to practically demand that I hook him up with more malt in the future.
Our apartment also smells like a brewery, but that’s per usual.
I need to force myself to type up the story material I’ve handwritten lately. So of course I said to myself, naah, I think I’ll do a blog post instead.
When I’m asked if I like my job, I answer truthfully. “It has its rewarding days,” I say. I often feel as though the job that pays me is a distraction from what I should be doing; writing down things I made up. Strange isn’t it?
When most people ask that inevitable question “what do you do?” they’re usually asking about the daily activities that you perform to pay the bills and keep yourself fed. When they ask me, I could choose to re-interpret the question and answer “I’m a writer”, or “I brew beer, train in martial arts, go on hikes whenever possible, and try advocate for fairness and justice wherever possible”, or I could even choose to be crass and answer “my wife”. But usually I end up giving them the answer they asked for, even though it’s one people don’t usually expect, and tell them the name of the local government parks and conservation agency I work for.
To be more accurate, I usually tell them the name of the State agency; one of the three parent agencies of the joint powers authority that actually pays me, because that’s the organization that people in the Los Angeles area are more likely to have heard of. I think less than half the new people I meet have actually heard of us in some way, never mind that the names of both agencies are all over the signs at parks and trail heads throughout the Santa Monica Mountains range, and many other places within Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. (For those unfamiliar with So Cal geography, that’s the mountain range that runs from Point Mugu in Ventura County to Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and separates the San Fernando Valley from L.A. City.)
Occasionally I get questions like this: Where are the mountains? You see those big things over there? The most prominent natural feature of the Los Angeles area? You drove through them today on the freeway. You might have noticed them propping up the Hollywood sign at some point. (It’s hard to answer questions like these without being snarky.)
Many people, however, follow up with the sorts of questions that indicate they want to know more about what I do. Essentially I work in land conservation for a parks agency. And so I tell them that, no, I don’t get to work outdoors all that often. That my office is in a scenic location, but one that’s an hour’s drive each way to and from my home, if traffic isn’t unusually terrible. That what I do is, in theory, to try to conserve land to either keep it as permanent open space, or one day turn it into parkland. That what that entails actually changes day to day, sometimes hour to hour. Yet it almost never offers any kind of excitement. I can’t say it’s fulfilling, or even satisfying work. It’s a job.
Unless people really push for the finer points, I tend to leave out the details of what I do, because frankly, much of the time it’s boring, and it takes hours of explaining the minutiae of my atypical day-to-day to make most people understand what my days are really like. The one constant thing that I end up doing is drafting comment letters for my boss, or for the chairperson of one of our boards to sign. So many, many letters, on so many, many projects. This often goes along with photoshopping explanatory diagrams and maps to go with these letters, and sometimes running around to public hearings to be a voice and face for the agency I work for. Sound thrilling?
(For any Libertarians reading this, know that I don’t get paid with taxpayers dollars. Voter-approved purpose-specific dollars cover my staff time and that of my co-workers.)
How’d I land this swanky gig? My degree in Biology and a couple of internships working with threatened and endangered birds were apparently my chief qualifications, but there was no training that prepared me for what I now do five days a week. I’m a bureaucrat and a public servant whose main function often seems to be complaining about what folks in the private sector want to build. The usual reason is because of where they want to build it.
As you might expect, pissing people off comes with this territory, but making developers angry doesn’t bother me much. It’s actually the monotony of my job that gets to me. I go to work most days thinking about the great stories in my head that I will write down soon, just as soon as I have a free moment. By the time I make it home, after a day of staring at a computer screen, and an hour-long return commute (broken up some days by a stop at the gym) I find that my will to write anything more is sapped. Some weeks, the front of my head aches from eyestrain at the end of my day. (Yes, I have seen an ophthalmologist about this. It is not a problem with a long-term fix. At least not until my eyes deteriorate enough that I can actually use corrective lenses.)
People who believe in the work I do have told me that it’s important. That we needs more parks. That we need more open space for wildlife. That we’re saving the world for future generations. Some passionate folks have even told me that I’m doing God’s work.
Intellectually, I know what I do has an important impact. But that doesn’t make it feel like any less of a fucking job. A low-paying job at that.
I know a could command a much higher salary working for a private environmental consulting firm, even without going back to school for a master’s degree. Except private environmental consulting firms work for land developers. I’ve seen how that sausage is made. In fact, I spend a good deal of work time pointing out just how shittily that sausage is made.
I used to think that was the kind of job I wanted. I spent more than a year applying and interviewing for those kinds of jobs before I was offered the paying internship that led to the job I have now. But knowing what I now know, I just couldn’t do it.
I have other options of course. I could get over my miserable academic experiences as an undergraduate and pursue a graduate PhD. (If I want a life in academia and don’t mind acquiring student debt.) I could pursue work outside the realms of either biology or conservation. (If I knew what. No, I don’t care to hear the suggestions that you can pull out of your ass.) I could sell illegal narcotics for a living. (I’m white, so I might never be caught. Though my social worker wife might have a problem with this career choice.) I could do a lot of things, none of which I would find remotely fulfilling.
So for now, I continue to lose two hours of my days driving each each way to work at job that bores me, because I know that what I do is meaningful, even if it rarely feels that way. For now, writing stories is my hope for myself to have a meaningful and fulfilling future.
Yeah, I know; first world problems and all that.
Now back to something fun.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about my favorite combination of distractions, worldbuilding and tabletop RPGs. Specifically I’ve been thinking about how to turn the far future Lovecraftian Mythos-inspired spacefaring setting, where the monsters and aliens are named after creatures from Lewis Carroll’s poetry, found in three amazing stories by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear into a game I can run at the table. Not that I will actually have time to do anything with this in the near future, but hey, I can dream.
These three stories, “Mongoose”, “Boojum”, and “The Wreck of The Charles Dexter Ward” take place in a human-populated solar system haunted by inter-dimensional monsters and mysterious aliens. It’s an original blend of space opera and weird horror, ripe with possibilities for a game (and hopefully ripe with possibilities for more stories from these two authors.)
Just what sort of unknowable beasties are we talking about here? Well, creeping in from outside of our reality there’s the vermin-like toves, dangerous raths, including a mome (mother) rath, and the incredibly lethal bandersnatches (the Hounds of Tindalos by another name). Then there are the phase-shifting, razor-tentacled, human bred and trained cheshires that keep these threats in check.
Those who do a lot of stellar traveling might catch a ride on a boojum, a gargantuan, living, sentient ship that actively looks after its crews needs (unless it goes nuts and eats them). Humanity doesn’t seem to have made it out of the Sol system yet, but that may be because of the implacable Mi-Go dominating the Kuiper Belt. And there’s a mention, but not yet an appearance, of the doppelkinder, which as best as I can tell, enter our reality using human reflections in mirrors to harvest human eyes.
Add to this mix cyborg ‘Christian’ cultists, human political officers who are as feared as they ever were in the Soviet Union, nomadic universities, and the occasional mad scientist trying to revive the dead, and I think I can see a gameable setting starting to take form. (Yes, gameable is totally a word. You understood what I meant by it, didn’t you?)
No jabberwockies, jubjub birds, borogoves, or snarks have make an appearance in these stories, so there’s plenty of room for setting growth.
So where do you find these stories? All three can be found at the Drabblecast, and these special podcasts come with multiple voices, sound effects, music, and the whole shebang. The poor descriptions below are mine, and I have tried not to give too many spoilers.
A yarn about a vermin-hunting cheshire named Mongoose, and her human handler, who protect human space stations and ships from inter-dimensional infestations. Because if the tove infestation gets out of control, they’ll be followed by the raths. And the raths will eventually open the cracks wide enough for the inescapable bandersnatch. (Also published at Clarkesworld if you want the text version.)
A story about one of the gargantuan bio-engineered living ships, a boojum, and its crew of predatory pirates. Unfortunately for these pirates, they overreach themselves trying to sell some unusual contraband, and not even their symbiotic ship may be able to save them.
What could possibly kill one of the nigh-invincible boojums? And what strange secrets can be found on the carcass of the living ship, Charles Dexter Ward? A ship of Arkhamers, space-faring, nomadic scholars, will find out, but may wish they hadn’t. (If you don’t get the reference of Charles Dexter Ward, I suggest listening to the story before you Google it.)
Have you listened to them yet? Why the heck not?
What might I call this setting if I were trying to pitch it to a group of friends for a table top game? Hmmm. Jabberwock 3000 maybe? I’ll have to think on this some more.
Perhaps I could take the ideas from this setting, and graft them onto the transhuman setting of Trey Causey’s forthcoming Strange Stars. Now there’s an idea.
If these stories have you interested, I should point out that’s it’s nearly the end of H.P. Lovecraft Tribute Month over at the Drabblecast. They kicked off this month with Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, but I was particular impressed by “To Whatever” by Shaenon Garrity. Modern Mythos stories definitely benefit from a healthy dose of humor.
Warning: Rant Ahead.
Trying to write about Israel and Gaza right now is frustrating as hell. What chance is there that anything I say will convince anyone of anything? People would rather isolate themselves in their own little bubbles of propaganda and rhetorical nonsense.
Of course I’m biased in favor of Israel. As you should be too if you support democracy. Tell me where else in the Middle East the values of free speech, religious freedom, and the rights of women are championed as strongly as they are in Israel? (Hint: If you gave any answer that contains the name of any other country in the Middle East, you are wrong.)
Do people throw around terms like apartheid and genocide when talking about the actions of the Israeli government and the IDF because they’re genuinely misinformed, or is it because they’re anti-Jewish bigots reaching for the most inflammatory things they can say? (I say anti-Jewish and not anti-Semitic, because Arabs are also a Semitic people.) South Africans who lived under a real apartheid system should be offended that the term is even mentioned in the context of Israel.
Let’s get a few things straight about what genocide means. If Israel was out to commit genocide, there would have ceased to be any Arabs in Gaza years ago. Hell, the West Bank would have been completely emptied of Arabs as well. It would take maybe a couple of months to wipe out the West Bank; Gaza would be ethnically cleansed in a week. There is absolutely no nation on this planet looking out for the welfare of the Palestinians that has the power to oppose Israel if the Israeli’s actually set out to commit genocide. Do you think the U.S. would lift a finger to save them? The surrounding Arab nations? We’ve all seen how much love they have for Palestinians.
If Israel was attempting genocide, would they be treating wounded Palestinians in Israeli hospitals?
Hamas’s stated purpose is genocide. Their charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Do you think that means something other than the murder of every Jewish man, woman, and child? Hamas is actively trying to get as many non-combatants killed as possible on both sides. Some journalists in Gaza have actually been truthful about this.
While the world is focusing it’s attention on Gaza, ISIL is, by their own declaration, actively pursuing real genocide in Iraq. Where is the righteous anger over the plight of the Yazidis? (And why the hell aren’t the U.S. and NATO doing a damn thing?)
To say that one country should recognize a governing body that’s stated purpose is to destroy them is the height of madness. No, wait, I’m sorry. The height of madness is journalists and a high-ranking U.N. official saying that Israel is committing a war crime by not sharing their military technology with a terrorist organization that’s sworn to kill them all.
What other nation on Earth has to put up with this bullshit?
Then there’s my favorite flavor of stupidity; the people who like to say that Israel is an “illegal country”. Would it convince these brilliant scholars of international law otherwise if it were pointed out to them that Iraq, the oldest nation in the Middle East, was created by the League of Nations in 1920? The League of Nations, a body that officially ceased to exist in 1943. So by that logic, all the nations in the Middle East are outlaws. (And so would be the U.S.A., and along with every nation formed from either revolution or mandate by another nation.)
I am not saying that Israel is without fault in dealing with the Palestinians. Not by any means. You want to see some actual journalism? (I know, it’s a rare thing these days.)
This 2009 article gives a detailed and nuanced description of the IDF’s last military action in Gaza, the Gilad Shalit situation (finally resolved with his release in 2011) and the events leading up to it. It’s long (about 11,000 words; novelette length) but absolutely worth the read for those who desire actual information beyond rhetoric and propaganda.
This more recent Vice article takes a disturbing look at the recent rise of right-wing racism and militant hate among Israeli youth. One thing to keep in mind that’s not addressed in this article, is that today’s Israeli teenagers and IDF soldiers were children growing up during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. Somewhere along the way, they’ve just about all been touched by an act of terrorism in the name of Palestine. Unfortunately, that means that many of them aren’t exactly clear-headed and rational when it comes to the idea of making sacrifices for peace.
The IDF’s incursions into Gaza are short-term measures that will ultimately only serve to continue the cycle of violence, unless they are followed with policing and rebuilding. What Gaza needs is a real government, rather than the organized crime family of terrorists (Hamas) that are running it now. Gaza needs a real police force, and economic hope for the future. Keeping Gaza isolated from the world like it has been since 2006 helps no one but the terrorists.
Racism, militant nationalism, and authoritarianism are the real enemies of peace. Propaganda news networks, whether blathering about imagined genocide, or making claims of oppression by the “liberal media” are all either enablers or supporters of these enemies. If you’re cheering for the deaths of anyone in this conflict, whether soldier or terrorist, you’re fighting against peace and democracy. Hate and fear are the targets that every rational-minded person should be taking aim at.
This rant has been a public service message. You’re welcome. /rant]
And now for something related to speculative fiction. Over at Lightspeed you can find the excellent short story “Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology” by Theodora Goss. (Both text and audio.) It’s a tale about nations, the idea of nations and nationhood, and our human capacity for self-delusion. Very timely.
Last week’s writing prompt from over at Writing Excuses was:
You have, with actual paint, painted yourself into an actual corner. But the paint and the corner are in a world in which there is magic, and “you painted yourself into a corner” may very well be some sort of a spell.
Now, let’s see what we can do with that . . .
Roger diligently applied the second coat of the foul-smelling black paint to the walls of the walk-in closet to the tune of the single humming incandescent light bulb overhead. His previous attempts to draw the doorway to Carcosa had proven fruitless, but he felt certain it would work this time. The mixture of bodily humors in the paint would provide a superior thaumaturgical conductor. One last thing to do though. Before he could paint the magical portal itself, he had to seal the room. He used the last of his enchanted paint to paint over the wood door as he recited the brief sealing incantation. He grinned with satisfaction as the door disappeared, becoming flush with the walls, sealing the closet off from the outside. Not even the cracks were visible.
“Excellent”, he said aloud to himself. “Now all that’s left to do is . . .” He trailed off as a sobering realization dawned on him. He had nothing to draw the inter-dimensional portal with, except for the dregs of the same black paint that was already covering the walls.
Then, the single incandescent light bulb in the closet’s ceiling chose that moment to burn out.
I had an interesting discussion a couple of days ago with a fellow Walking Dead fan and some people who don’t watch it. The chief question: are stories about flesh-eating zombies and the people trying to survive them fun? The answer- absolutely a yes! Here’s why.
At its core, every good flesh-eating zombie story, whether film, TV show, book, comic, or game is this: an implausible horrific situation that is both disaster and predator, which brings out both the best and worst aspects of human nature in the survivors. There are endless variations on this premise, as we keep seeing in every medium there is, and we, the audience, get a front row seat to the drama.
You know that inevitably someone is going to put everyone else in danger by panicking like an idiot, or that some military-type person is going to try to take control of the living humans by force, thereby proving that humans are our own worst enemy. The mindless flesh-eating dead are a force of nature, and the living have to learn how to adapt to a world where the rules have suddenly changed on them. But there’s a lot of room for different ‘how’s’, and I think that’s what keeps us coming back to watch, read, and play when zombies are involved yet again.
Add to that, the cathartic thrill of watching human-like monsters get their skulls shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned repeatedly. Who doesn’t enjoy that?
Just watch the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead to see what I mean. (It’s in the public domain due to a 1960’s copyright screw up. A quick search will tell you where to legally download it from.)
* * *
On the writing front, I am actually making some forward progress on my Wasteland novel. Slowly, but new material written down is new material. No zombies in that novel though. It’s just not the direction I want to go with it. I know that may lose me like fifty percent of my target audience right there, but that’ll just have to be the way it is.
Who has time to keep track of the short fiction market out here on the web? Not I. At least not with any consistency. The best I can do is skim through the current issues of the various online speculative fiction magazines for stories that I think I’ll enjoy, or authors I know I already like, for samples of what’s getting published and what’s been done to death. Thankfully podcasts make that a whole lot easier. I’ve found that the Drabblecast is one audio fiction magazine that consistently delivers the kind of inspiring, genre-bending weirdness I love.
The tagline is, “strange stories, by strange authors, for strange listeners”. They’re good at delivering what’s promised.
As good as the stories are, the highlight of the episodes are often the intros and ‘outros’ performed by host and editor-in-chief Norm Sherman. Norm’s unique style of voice and sense of humor are a huge part of what makes each ‘cast a magazine, and not just someone reading a story. Even though the voice actors they get are usually pretty damned talented as well. But some of the best narration I’ve heard is actually performed by Norm himself.
It’s named the Drabblecast for the flash fiction. Since they started running longer feature stories on a regular basis, most episodes open with a ‘drabble’, a 100-word story that usually comes from the fans on the forum. Each episode also closes with a ‘twabble’, a 100-character story also submitted on the forums. If you’re not sure how a story can be told in 100 characters,and I wasn’t before I began listening, it’s worth checking out.
Here are few of my favorite recent episodes. (But if you don’t trust my taste, they have their own list for new listeners.)
Drabblecast 325 – Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon
A western fantasy faerie tale of sorts.
It’s a ghost story by weird fantasy/horror author China Miéville. What more could you want?
This is a long one, but great one. Two old friends run a barbershop in part of town that’s seen better days, and end up having to take responsibility for the deadly supernatural mystery that’s been parked on their doorstep. I don’t see how anyone could not like this story.
Vikings having a mid-life crisis and looking for a career change. Hilariously violent and violently hilarious.
Let’s see, then there’s the great stories by the late Jay Lake they’ve recently re-cast as Drabbleclassics. If you’ve ever wanted a single story to show someone that you could say “this is weird fiction — stories like this!” then you need look no farther than Clown Eggs by Jay Lake. The biologist in me wants to giggle incessantly at the title alone.
Oh hell, you could just dive in with the most recent episodes too. It’s hard to go wrong.
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The Drabblecast doesn’t have a monopoly on great weird fiction of course. To honor author Jay Lake, who recently passed away after a long battle with cancer (chronicled on his blog), Podcastle ran a full cast recording of the story “Stranger vs. the Malevolent Malignancy” by Jim C. Hines. This story has it all: superheroes, talking tumors, fecal jokes, and jokes about cancer. It’s a phenomenal story, if you’re in the right place for it. They give fair warning in the intro that, depending on what’s going on in your life, it just might not be what you need to hear.
If you are in the right place for this story, be sure to listen all the way through the outro after the story. Trust me, it’s worth it. Especially for Drabblecast fans.