Sunday, October 22, 2017

YA Books and the Dogpiling of the Problematic

Mega-successful novelist Stephen King can write a novel about a townful of dimwitted women in a world where there's no such thing as nonbinary, and nobody will give him any trouble over it.  Novelists of lesser stature, however, are prone to the kind of social aggression I've mentioned in the past, which is mentioned in greater detail in this article, which I found in the context of looking up the latest example of YA outrage, American Heart.
 One author and former diversity advocate described why she no longer takes part: “I have never seen social interaction this fucked up,” she wrote in an email. “And I’ve been in prison.”
Sometimes I wonder whether exposure of this stuff is putting an end to it. There's certainly a slippery slope involved, with bigoted depictions at one end and witch hunts based on hair-trigger sensibilities at the other, but that's the same argument Woody Allen had when that Hollywood producer was accused of raping all those women -- there's not gonna be a witch hunt, is there?

Possibly Stephen King is a genius for pulling together a story that pleases (at least superficially) liberals, feminists, misogynists, gun nuts and speculative fiction fans, without leaning too far in any particular direction, a triumphant sticking-it-to-the-man paired with every problematic reference. Maybe that's what will have to happen before the culture cops give it a rest.

Or maybe the culture cops will get even more powerful, which might not be a terrible thing either.  I tend to agree with their pronouncements about presentations involving race and gender and culture most of the time.  Not always, but usually. 

For example, there's currently an outcry about schools not wanting to teach To Kill A Mockingbird because the central issue of the story has to do with a woman falsely accusing a man of rape, and many women feel this is a very rare circumstance that distracts from the overwhelming majority of true accusations, while feeding into anti-feminists' claims about women's lies. I've read more than one outraged blog piece assuming that the outrage is really about conservatives upset about TKAM's assault on racism.

I long for the day when everybody's outrage buttons are so worn out from being constantly pushed that we can settle down, with clear heads, and decide what sorts of interaction are appropriate for the public sphere.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

An Introduction to a Long Excerpt from Sieging Manganela

 I just posted a scene from Sieging Manganela which is a flashback/dream where protagonist Turo and a bunch of his friends sneak into a remote hot spring so they can socialize with some girls that are way out of their league.

There's a lot being written about sexism and gender relations lately in addition to that horrible Stephen King novel that I just panned. In response to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein being called out on his predatorial sex life, there has been a social media campaign called "MeToo" where women post their own stories. I'm not participating, because I don't think the kind of people who discuss such things interact much with the perpetrators, and besides, I'm trying to discuss nuanced themes like this through the veil of my art, rather than in tiresome political rants.

So I've got a future where women (and sometimes men) wear protective devices that lay harassers out flat on their backs.

And then I tried to imagine what a clandestine teen party would be like in that kind of world.

A (Long) Excerpt From Sieging Manganela -- Boys Infiltrating Girls' Party

“—and you can’t prove it’s not true.” 
A fist was poking him in the chest.  He automatically lifted his arms to shove his assailant back.  Then he saw it was Murphy, and Murphy was about fifteen, and Turo meanwhile was wearing an open-front shirt that plainly showed a complete lack of chest scars, and very little chest hair.  He was fifteen too. 
“I can’t prove it’s not not true, either,” Turo said agreeably, stoicly withstanding another fist poke.  When everybody was relaxed, Murphy was hyper and funny.  Cracking jokes.  Suddenly turning cartwheels.  Constructing elaborate practical jokes.  But when the group was feeling something more along the lines of anxiety, Murphy got intense.  Potentially dangerous, too. 
This was the kind of mood he’d been in the time he convinced everyone it was a good idea to go race dirtbikes at the gorge, and Boris broke his arm in a bad spill.  They were out of connectivity range and couldn’t call an ambulance, so they had tied him onto the back of Ernie’s bike, which had snapped an axle due to the excess weight.  Gunther had become fed up at this point and he raced into town for help, and they had all gotten in trouble, and had to spend four consecutive weekends on the road repair crew, and much of their savings had gone toward Ernie’s new bike. 
To be fair, sometimes Murphy’s intense urges led them toward fun and excitement.  The Red Death concert, where they had enjoyed a magnificent evening drunk on cheap beer, pumping their fists to rude songs.  The carnival, where they had linked up with a pack of seventeen and eighteen year old girls on recreation leave from combat.  The clashball pre-season game, where they won a minor skirmish with fans of the opposing team.  Hanging around with Murphy was risky, but payoffs were consistent.  Plus he was very funny, and could be relied on to make you laugh so hard you had to catch your breath at least two or three times a day.
“I’m just saying that if it is true, and if we go there and get caught, it could bring down lots of trouble.”  Turo blocked the incoming fist poke, knocking Murphy’s wrist high and wide.
“Your sister would know,” Tom said as the tiniest wince flashed across his face.  “You’re the only one here who’s got a sister attending Roseheart.”
“It’s not like we sit around talking about it.  It’s not like I can even sit around in the same room with her.” 
Tyra still lived at home, but she stayed in the womens’ section of the house, where she had constant connectivity with her teachers and friends and family.  The connectivity was free.  A government truck had rolled up to install the uplink when it had been determined, shortly after her thirteenth birthday, that was capable of motherhood, and that she had made her own decision this was a path she wanted to take. The government desperately wanted girls to opt for motherhood, and offered them all kinds of benefits to tempt them from opting for the surgery instead. If a girl wanted to serve as a soldier, or work at a profession, or do pretty much anything that involved interacting with the real world, she had the surgery. Mothers needed to isolate themselves to keep their wombs and babies safe from the byproducts of the war.
There weren’t a lot of kids in their neighborhood.  Red Ridge consisted of seventy-five houses, most of them connected to farms that shot off in various compass points and expanded to wedges of rocky pasture where they farmed a few hardy food crops and grazed thousands of tall, shaggy, ill-tempered sheep.  They didn’t even have enough people to support a school, and Turo and the other boys took their lessons on a screen along with several other isolated boys remoting in.  Since they weren’t girls, their connectivity was low priority and sporadic, and sometimes they went weeks without school, or any other contact with the world outside Red Ridge. 
Their families frequently found useful things for them to do during these stretches of aimlessness, but not always.  Murphy therefore took it upon himself to find activities.  The activity he was considering had to do with a rumor that a group of girls from Roseheart Academy were planning an outing over at the hot springs a few kilometers away.  Roseheart was a virtual school attended by girls like Tyra.  People called them maidens.  To distinguish them from regular girls.
Maidens were almost like a different species.  They hardly ever came outside, and if they did, it was under heavy guard.  The only work they had to do involved staying in optimal health.  They spent their time chatting with other maidens and researching prospective husbands.
You didn’t have to be a rich handsome decorated hero with an even temperament and several generations of respectable ancestors, but it helped.  The competition was fierce.  The prebrides journeyed through their fast connections to a virtual city of virtual rooms set up by men hoping to attract prebrides.  Turo was familiar with them because sometimes Tyra sent him samples, with comments like “don’t grow up and be like this or I will have to shoot you!”
The prospective grooms furnished their virtual rooms with music and art, and pictures of things they thought prebrides might like:  puppies, dune buggies, buckets of cash, the applicant’s own naked body.  You could rummage around their virtual rooms to find out anything you wanted to know.  How much money they had. Whether they had a service record and if not, whether their qualifying disability would interfere with their ability to father a child. Turo had always felt a sort of horrified embarassment looking at the applications. He knew he’d be filling one out himself someday, and then he’d face an unknown length of time wondering whether he should check his messages because maybe some girl had gotten bored at three in the morning and paged him to see what his favorite ice cream flavor was. Assuming he gave the correct answer, he would then chat with her and get to know her, and if everything worked out, they’d enter formal negotiations for marriage. 
Turo’s father had done it.  All the fathers in Red Ridge had. Boris’ dad had even had more than one wife, and he used to tell them the hard part was surviving the war. Once you’d fulfilled your service requirement, you obtained a few more government perks that transferred to your new spouse. Girls liked soldiers. Girls looked down on guys who hadn’t served. Girls would forgive a crooked smile or a substandard height if it was accompanied by a few medals and references from fellow soldiers attesting to the applicant’s superhuman feats of bravery and strength. 
Possibly girls would be impressed by young men willing to hide their dirtbikes behind the water tower and proceed on foot for the last mile, past rusty coils of barbed wire and up a cliff, which required them to use climbing gear, as there were a couple of sections where odds were good you’d fall without someone to anchor you, so they roped themselves together and took turns ascending and bracing.  Then they squeezed into a cave and crawled through a narrow tunnel.  Boris scraped his belly during this part of the exhibition, but all the blood washed away when they jumped into a pond and swam through the warm, sulphury darkness to the other side. 
They lit their lantern and walked together in a close pack, trying not to startle the bats above, until they reached a section with strips of blue light tape outlining a path.  Murphy froze and gasped, and they all gathered near him, trying to see what had caught his eye.  As Turo’s eyes adjusted to the dim illumination he made it out.  A footprint.  Made by a tiny sandal.  Murphy planted his boot alongside it to illustrate the contrast in size.
The footprint was pointed toward the sound of rushing water, and they trekked up the smooth and well-maintained path for a ways, noticing there were wheel ruts for girls who didn’t want to walk. Turo assumed it wouldn’t be very far since at least one person had decided to traverse it in sandals, and he was right. The path curved, and on the other side of it they could hear high pitched voices.
The boys gathered in a wide spot where the cart that had made the wheel ruts was parked. It was covered by flower garlands and wreaths, which made it bulk enough to conceal all of them behind it. “There’s gotta be a guard,” Murphy whispered once they were all safely concealed.
“Distract ‘em,” Andre said. “Someone go make a noise up the path, then we can run in and say hi before they throw us back out.”
“Maybe the girls will decide they want us to stay after they get a good look.”  Ernie grinned, his baby-round cheeks puffing up like he was smuggling cookies.
“Or if they see this.” Murphy wriggled out of his backpack and produced several offerings: a bottle of Tropicacious pineapple cider, a bag of slightly melted chocolates, a box of sour apple licorice and a music pod. “Nine hours of dance music, in case they want to dance around.”
“I don’t know how to dance,” Boris objected. 
“Girls love dance music,” Turo said. His sisters and mom did, anyway, and they represented the majority of his experience with females. Some guys, like Murphy for example, didn’t even have female relatives around. Murphy’s mother had left his dad for some guy up in Chester Creek who had half his face melted off by a scorpion tank. She had seen him on the news and was so impressed by his heroism that she started writing him fanmail, and when Murphy was about six she got a divorce and left, leaving Murphy to be raised by his dad and his older brother and a houseful of bangbots with secondary programming for household chores that his dad had purchased after the split. 
Turo was a little leery of bangbots himself. On his third experience with one, something had gone wrong with her power supply. She had gone from moaning and cooing to staccato screeches as her inhumanly strong metal-core limbs seized around him and her face contorted into a gruesome mask due to the way her mouth wasn’t exactly shaped like a real person’s mouth. Turo still had nightmares about this occasionally, and had switched to satisfying himself with his hand. 
“This should get their attention.” Andre pulled out a firecracker the size of his pinky. Tom nodded in approval. Ernie had an extra twist of fuse on his pocket and he deftly knotted the extension in place, and Turo ran it down the path a good distance, lit the end, then hightailed it back to their hiding place, sliding in beside Gunther just as the firecracker went off. 
They were nudging each other and giggling and listening to the girls’ startled screams when there was a secondary explosion.  It had a thunderous reverb behind it, and the air turned dusty. 
Two uniformed guards headed down the path, swinging big flashlights.  They had military issue automatic rifles strapped on their backs, but their hands were on the sidearms strapped to their thighs.  A variety of other weapons and crowd control devices hung from their belts.  They were female, about thirtyish, with stress lines permanently engraved on their faces. 
“Go go go,” Murphy hissed as the guards headed down the trail. The boys scurried toward the girls’ voices, emerging into a big cave containing a hot spring.  The girls had filled it with candles, and incense to offset the sharp tang of sulphur.  They were lounging near a small and steaming waterfall. They were mostly naked, not counting the abundance of ankle bracelets and hair ornaments and earrings and necklaces and bracelets.
There were five of them, and one was Tyra.  She immediately noticed Turo, and he turned bright red, keeping his eyes above her neckline.  She opened her mouth to yell at him when Boris splashed right into the water, which made the girls laugh. Then Turo made a goofy face and went into a mock panic over Boris’ supposed drowning, which made them laugh even more. Tom took advantage of their good spirits to drop down on one knee beside them, presenting his array of temptations with a flourish. 
“You guys are so not supposed to be here -- ” Tyra started up when the laughter subsided. 
“What are you little ratshit bastards doing sneaking in here?” The guards reappeared, looking dusty and distressed.  The yelling guard had her name on her chest: J.A. Bowyer.  She also had her sidearm drawn and was waving it in the boys direction, and they raised their hands and smiled their best innocent smiles.
“Calm down, Bowyer.” There was a note of disapproval in Tyra’s voice.  Turo knew she hated bad language.  “Just my brother bringing me something I asked for.”
“Sour apple, yum.”  The girl beside Tyra reached for the box and took out a strip, biting into it. 
“Did you boys set off that dynamite?”
“What dynamite?”  Murphy looked offended. “We had a teensy little firecracker to distract you while we made our delivery.  Surely they taught you better in the Army.”
“Shut up, smartmouth.” The other guard stepped forward.  Her nameplate said she was M.J. Luiz. “Whatever you blew up caused some structural destabilizing and the exit is now blocked.”
“Dumbass,” Bowyer added.
“Language,” Tyra snapped.  She lowered herself into the water, and Turo was relieved he didn’t have to not look at her anymore. 
Bowyer looked at Tyra with an expression that made it clear she despised her job. “I’ll go radio for someone to come dig us out.”
“May I offer you ladies a drink while we wait?” Andre whipped out a small knife and began hacking away at the stopper of the pineapple cider.
Gunther burst into a brief syncopated rap about how fine it was to be in a luxurious underground cavern with the loveliest girls in the universe, his voice echoing off the canyon walls. Not to be outdone, Murphy cannonballed into the water.
“You boys don’t get too wild, now,” Luiz sat down on a boulder and began scribbling on a little notepad. “Already got lots to write down in my report.”
Turo accepted a small cup of pineapple cider.  All the girls declined it except Tyra and a round, dimpled one whose name was Batilda, or Tilly to her friends, and since they hadn’t done anything to cast doubt on their friendly intentions, they could proceed directly to Tilly.
“She is about to leave our ranks,” Tyra said. “This time next year she’ll be changing diapers and posting pictures of them to the other mommies.”
“That’s right,” Tilly agreed. “I intend to start with a little girl, followed by three or four boys.  Then another girl.” 
“I want a boy first,” said the girl Turo thought was probably the loveliest of them all. She had a big cloud of fluffy blonde hair and puffy pink lips, and a whispery little voice. “A little man. Carlos, after my uncle, and he’s going to learn to draw pictures and play drums.”
“You say that now, Edith. Wait until you’ve got a three year old waking you up with drum solos at nine in the morning.” An irritable-looking girl with brown hair dyed in red streaks poured herself a cup of tea from a platter of refreshments the girls had brought for themselves – tea, iced cakes, little turnovers containing spiced lamb and vegetables, drizzled with yogurt sauce. Edith was adding the boys’ offerings to the feast, arranging everything symmetrically, and the red-streaked girl did not seem to approve.
Gunther, meanwhile, had taken the artistic direction to heart. He started rapping in a little kid’s voice.  “Mama, I want some backbeat, mama, I want some horns coming in on the three.” Boris and Andre encouraged him by making percussion noises with their mouths and armpits.
“Mama, I’d like my pension now,” Luiz muttered under her breath.
It was bold, it was risky. It was in definite contravention to the usual channels. Boys did not marry prebrides; men did. Boys could dream about it as they worked out with their bangbots, and they could write epic songs and poems about it to post when they started seriously advertising. After they had proved to the government that they had money and a place to live and were medically worthy of contributing their genes to the country and survived a minimum of four years of military service.  After they had done all of those things, they were qualified to talk to girls in the hopes of entering into a romantic relationship which would result in as many children as possible. The idea of a mere boy who had not yet jumped through the hoops and hurdles just talking to a marriageable girl was gauche, it was strange, it was just not done, and it was borderline illegal.
But Turo decided to do it anyway. He unlaced his boots and focused on the least noticeable girl. That seemed to be intentional on her part. She had long hair secured in a lace snood, and a naturally frowning mouth that made her seem smart and serious. He peeled off his socks, shrugged out of his overshirt, kept his pants on and splashed into the water beside her. “Hello. My name is Arturo Alfonso Berengar. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Her frown disappeared for a second – her version of a smile. “It’s nice to meet you, Arturo. My name is Livia Elaine Garrison.”
“We have a total of six names between us,” he observed.
“And a total of forty letters,” she replied. “In octal, that would be fifty.”
“I never octal with a girl unless I’ve known her a long time.”
The frown reversed itself as she decided he was all right. “I’ll look you up in seven or eight years, then.”
“Please do. With any lucky I’ll have accomplished something by then.”
“Everybody accomplishes something. What are your goals?”
Livia Elaine Garrison, in their extremely brief relationship, had zeroed in on the one thing that bothered Turo in an extremely deep and unsettling way. “I don’t really have any.”
And it was true. Other than making a home that was sort of like the one where he grew up, he had no particular plans.
“Maybe you don’t know what they are yet. Or maybe they don’t exist yet. Like, imagine some guy living way back in the dark ages, who is an absolute wizard at microbiology. He could stop the black plague in his tracks, if only he had equipment and knowledge from a thousand years into the future.”
Turo gave her a brief flash of funny reaction face and her eyes sparkled, indicating she was amused. “So you’re saying that my goal is already out there but it’s something I don’t know about yet.”
“And it is your duty to educate yourself!” This time her smile actually exposed teeth. “Of course, then you would wind up being a penniless scholar.”
“Penniless scholars don’t attract many girls.”
“It’s okay to be a penniless scholar if you’re a girl. I’m trying to arrange something with a family that can get me a break on tuition, though. I’ve got four degrees already. Earned them all by remote.”
Turo felt an invisible bar slam down between them, with “no losers allowed” painted on it in shiny red enamel. His brain rummaged desperately for a reply, and he was grateful for the interruption when Bowyer came storming back. She had a furious whispered conversation with Luiz, who seemed upset by the news. Turo and Livia were closest to them, and they leaned closer in an attempt to overhear, and gradually the rest stopped talking and drifted over near them, standing in a little cluster in the warm and bubbling water.
Luiz turned toward them.  “We can’t get a connection to call for help.”
“How did you boys get in here?” Bowyer crossed her arms.
“There’s a lot more to these caves than just the hot springs,” Andre said. “It’s a rough climb though. Maybe a couple of us could go for help.”
“I’ll go with you,” Bowyer said, cheering up at the idea of a dangerous task. “If I can get outside, maybe I can get a connection.”
Boris gnawed the ends off of two licorice strips and presented them in his fist together with three fresh ones, and they each chose. Turo wound up with one of the short strips, together with Andre. They headed to the break in the path and through the big chamber full of bats. A couple of bats dived down to investigate, and Andre couldn’t avoid letting out a yelp when one brushed his shoulder. Bowyer laughed at him and hit a switch on her lantern, turning the light a deep greenish color.
“Not sure if this will help. It works on some kinds of electronics.”
They splashed along in silence for a moment. Then Andre had a question. “Like drones?”
“Mhm.” She aimed her light down and low. “Some of them detect you by your body heat, others look for motion, some head for geographical coordinates and if they really hate you, sometimes they send one specifically looking for your face.”
“That’s harsh,” Turo said. Bowyer let out a bitter chuckle.
“We swam through this part,” Andre said as they reached the pool. “Are you waterproof?”
“Thanks for checking.” She fumbled with some of her gear, and then they splashed into the water and swam to the tunnel. Bowyer’s gun got wedged a few times but they made it through without any accidental shootings. They stood on the ledge that would have given them a great view of the farmland below if it had been daylight. But it was dark and cloudy and once they left the aura of Bowyer’s lantern they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces.
“This is the bad part,” Turo said. “We came up when it was still daylight and we still needed to use harnesses to anchor each other.”
“You boys seem determined.” Bowyer shone her light down the cliff. “Think you can get back down in the dark?”
“I can brace Andre,” Turo said. “Do you think you can brace me?”
“Shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” she said.  Turo estimated he outweighed her by a considerable margin but figured she had to be in good condition considering her job. He hadn’t really paid attention to her shape, even though it wasn’t all that different from the way the maidens were shaped.  She was lean and tall, with developed neck muscles and a curvy butt, and a face that was pretty in a bitchy sort of way. 
He had heard plenty of stories about older women taking teenage boys as lovers. In fact, there was a ranch nearby where half a dozen of them lived, all veterans, raising sheep and several orphans, one of whom required an exoskeleton to get around. He had heard rumors, in fact, that both Boris and Andre were regular visitors, but he’d never asked them directly. It was their business.
He and Andre rigged up the climbing harness, and tossed a coin. Andre lost. He looked up at Bowyer, his face all serious. “I did set off a firework. It wasn’t a very big one. If I go get help, will it cancel out the trouble I’m in?”
She laughed, looking almost pretty in the greenish light. “There was a distinct pattern and smell in the wreckage which indicated your explosion went off within range of a dormant drone with a concussion payload. I’ll bet you a root beer that when they recover the chip they’re going to find it’s over six months old. This place was a retreat for the brass at one time and somebody must have laid a trap and forgot all about it. I didn’t think it was wise to bring a bunch of maidens out here but one of them specifically asked.”
“Maidens get what they want,” Turo said.
“Within reason,” she corrected. “Let me radio in and tell them to expect you.”
She uncovered a heavy-duty ruggedized deld built into her glove and shook it to wake it up.  Turo peered over her shoulder at the image, which was grainy and monocolor.  An animated soldier with impossibly large forearms was telling them the system was taxed, and advising them to try again later.  Bowyer called him a brainless dingleberry as she cancelled out of the screen, and both boys snickered. 
“Soldier talk,” Andre said.
“You’re damn right.  I guess you boys had better head on down.  I can’t promise you’ll entirely avoid punishment, but I will speak for your heroism.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” they chorused, and Andre slipped over the side.  Bowyer switched her light to a stark white that added definition to the shadows, and Turo had to consciously avoid looking at it because it was so bright it made him see spots.  He braced himself, listening to the scraping sounds of Andre’s descent. 
The rope went slack as Andre reached the ledge.  The rope jerked three times, signalling Turo it was his turn, and he waved at Bowyer.  She gave him a brief wave back while fussing with her deld. 
Turo was halfway to the ledge on his side when they heard the explosion.  Off toward the base, where Bowyer was stationed.  The official entrance to the hot springs.  It was accompanied by a flash that lit up the night and made Turo see more spots.  He was blinking when the rope suddenly cut into his chest.  He was holding all of Andre’s weight.  He clung desperately with his fingers and toes, feeling Andre’s weight swing like a pendulum before slamming into the face below him.  Andre let out an anguished yell when that happened.
“Bowyer!” Turo yelled.  Her face appeared over the edge.  Shortly afterward, the extra climbing harness they’d brought whacked Turo in the face.  He made a grab for it and his hold on the cliff face wavered. 
“Don’t you slip too!”  Bowyer scolded.  “I can’t dead lift both of you asswipes at the same time.”
“My arm’s broken,” Andre yelled.  He must have found some footing since some of the weight released from Turo’s harness. That combined with Bowyer’s assistance was enough to get him back to the ledge beside her, and together they hauled Andre up.  His diagnosis was correct; the broken end of bone was sticking out of his right forearm. Looking at it made Turo’s knees feel like jelly. 
“Awwww, shit, that’s a compound fracture,” Bowyer said.  “If I was in combat I’d try to set it and then splint it, but you’re a civilian kid.”
“Hurts a lot,” Andre said.  He had stopped yelling but his forehead was glistening with sweat from his stoic efforts. 
“Base, this is base, you have a connection, come through.”  Bowyer’s palm started yelling at them and she sat back on her haunches to look at it. 
“We have a situation here, I’ve got a wounded minor civilian.”
“Sergeant, we’re under lockdown.  We’ve just shot down a drone.”
“The general’s daughter is trapped in the caves,” Bowyer said, returning the ominous news in kind.  “Another drone.”
They started barking rapidly to each other in military slang. Turo understood very little of it at that point in his life. He understood things were bad, and he bent over Andre trying to be comforting, and trying not to think of the intricate little machines Andre sometimes cobbled together for the sheer joy of building them. He had extremely fine dexterity, and he knew how to machine things down to a fine tolerance with the lathe function on his fab printer. Turo’s mom had a cuckoo clock that Andre had made for her after her vision started to go, so she could tell what time it was. She couldn’t see all the amazing carved figures that popped out on the hour – frogs and dancing girls and teddy bears and rabbits in addition to cuckoos, and neither could Turo for that matter, since it was in the womens’ and childrens’ section of the house and he hadn’t been allowed in there since he was twelve.  The parlor and dining room and kitchen were neutral, and that was mainly where he saw his mother and sisters. 
Sister. It was just Tyra now. Herminia was married, and expecting her first baby. She seemed to really love her husband, who was a twenty-eight year old lieutenant commander stationed out near Pastor, where the most dangerous action involved drunk tourists from Braganza.  No more coming home to school to discover the kitchen full of girls and platters of food, which they’d usually share with pesky baby brothers that were willing to put up with some teasing. Tyra wasn’t as social as Herminia and her parties were infrequent and usually conducted through the wallscreen in her room.
Bowyer finished talking to her hand and leaned forward.  “Kid, we’re in combat, and that means you can’t complain if I screw it up.  Open your mouth and point your tongue up.”
She dug a sealed packet from a first aid kit in one of her pockets and tore it open, and took out a little spray ampule, which she sprayed underneath Andre’s tongue, and then she passed him a canteen of water to chase the bitterness.  By the time he handed it back, his head was lolling.
Bowyer instructed Turo where to hold him.  She waited until his eyes were closed before cutting his shirt and jacket sleeves off with her utility knife, and pulling on his hand and setting his fracture.  Andre let out a brief yell before passing out.  Bowyer sprayed his arm with a little cannister from the first aid kit, making a shell long enough to cover the wound and immobilize his elbow, and then she made a sling out of the discarded sleeves and tied it to his chest. 
“You’re pretty good at this,” Turo said.
“Don’t know if I’m that good, but I’m experienced.”  She passed Turo the water and sat down.  “I suppose what we do now is head back to the others and wait for the bulldozer to arrive.  Unless you think you can make it down alone.  Of course, then you’re counting on me to carry his wounded ass, and I’m not sure my lumbar region will stand up to that particular form of torture.”
“I can carry him.”  Turo realized she was giving him a graceful alternative to climbing down alone in the dark and he was grateful for it.  “Might need some help dragging him through that one part, just to make sure his arm doesn’t snag.” 
“You got it, strong man.  And since I’m a far better swimmer than you, I’ll get him through that part.”  
“I don’t swim a lot, ma’am,” Turo confessed.  
Andre was moaning and muttering by the time they got to the path.  Turo was looking forward to setting him down.  They heard Gunther singing as they entered the cavern, and found a dismal little party going on.  The girls had put on more clothes and were clustered together. The air was still hot and sulphurous, but the mood immediately chilled once everyone noticed Andre’s condition.  Bowyer went over to brief Luiz and Turo gently laid Andre to the side.  A couple of girls darted over with pillows for his head. 
“Bowyer first-aided him. He broke his arm going down the cliff.”
“Dumbass,” Murphy said, which provoked outraged exclamations from the girls.
“Bite me,” Andre said weakly, and that got a laugh from the boys.
“There’s a drone out there,” Turo said in a quieter voice.  “It might be an attack.”
“My dad’s out there,” Tilly said, her voice quivering.  “That’s probably why.”
“Your dad is an awesome soldier,” Livia reassured her.  “He’s surrounded by people who are experts in destroying drones.”
“That’s because Dysz is a bunch of cowards,” Murphy declared.  “They won’t put on uniforms and face us on the battlefield.  They just send us drones, and viruses.  And try to mess with our maidens.”
“Bunch of noxes,” Ernie added, and everyone murmured in agreement. 
“Well, they won’t face us on the battlefield because they’d lose.”  The girl with red streaks spoke up.  “We’re twice as big as them.  We can run farther and faster, carry more, our reflexes are faster.  They’re the ones who made us that way.”
“They could have done it to themselves, if they weren’t noxes,” Murphy said. 
“They were afraid of the side effects.  With good reason.  Birth defects.  Fertility trouble.  Damaged kids.”
“Vreela, stop being negative,” Tyra ordered. 
“Nobody’s forcing you to have any damaged kids,” Murphy said.  “There’s guys out there jumping through all kinds of hoops to even talk to you, and they have no idea what they’re getting into.”
“I’m going to have a lot of kids,” she said sullenly.  “Hopefully one will survive long enough to give me grandkids.  Wouldn’t that be nice.”
“You have nothing to complain about!” Luiz suddenly spoke up, her voice echoing across the cavern.  “You maidens are spoiled, you’re pampered, valuable resources are wasted so you can sit on your asses all day eating gourmet food and playing your stupid games with each other.” 
“Shut up, do your job, and get us out of here,” Tyra snapped.  Turo’s eyebrows shot up. 
“If you civilians are trying to start a rebellion I’m going to have to bring out the zip ties,” Bowyer said, putting her hand on Luiz’s shoulder.  “If anyone’s got reason to complain it’s that kid over there with the broken arm.  How you doing, Andre?  Could you use another hit of pain medication?”
“Yes please,” he said feebly, and Bowyer provided.
“The base knows we’re here,” Turo said.  “They’ll rescue us eventually.”
“That’s right.”  Pretty blonde Edith nodded her head emphatically.  She was sitting very close to Gunther.  “And also, ma’am, I wanted to say thank you for your service, ma’am.  I have two sisters that served, one’s still alive.”
“Thank you,” Bowyer said. 
“I’m sorry I blew up,” Tyra said, sounding guilty. She deserved some guilt, Turo thought. Bitching at a soldier who was risking her life to protect them was very bad manners.
“Drones make you panic,” Luiz said. “I’m sorry, too. It’s just you never know. Rolling up on wheels? Climbing over the wall?  They can fly for short distances.  Disguise them as rocks, as stray bits of junk, as children’s toys, as animals. They gotta be from five centimeters to five meters, according to the rules of engagement, but that gives a lot of room for creativity.”
“The worst part’s waiting for them,” Bowyer contributed. “You start seeing every creeping shadow and imagining it’s some kind of mechanical device that’s headed over to spew acid on your face or explode in pointed shrapnel or try to set you on fire.”
“Or worse,” Luiz agreed.  “You gotta memorize a whole manual of different kinds, and what the countermeasures are.” 
“Big ass manual,” Bowyer said.  “Have you kids got any of that pineapple cider left?”
Murphy and Gunther exchanged guilty glances, shaking their heads no.  Murphy stood up, wobbling a little.  “How do we know there aren’t any drones in here?  You said there was one in the tunnel.”
“An old one,” Bowyer agreed.  “I think they planted it long ago and meant to activate it someday.”  She showed them her palm, which was displaying photos that were hard to make out.  “From what I gather, there was one drone at the compound, a spycam with a shrapnel dispersion self-destruct.  It was slaving off our communications to shoot pictures over to Manganela or wherever their controller is.”
“Cameras?”  Tilly wrapped her robe tight around her chest. 
“If I were setting up cameras, this room would be high priority,” Murphy declared.  “I’d have beautiful images of beautiful women, to last me the rest of my life.”
“No drones in here,” Luiz said.  “We scanned it.  Top to bottom.  Dogs, fab detectors, you name it.”
“If we got in, it’s not secure,” Turo pointed out.
“Do you have detectors with you?”  Tilly was staring up at the ceiling, a worried look on her face.
“They brought in the big ones, with battery packs,” Luiz said.  “We can’t even get our delds to work in here.”
“It’s shielded, hardcore,” Tilly said mournfully.  “For security.”
“I am going to head back out there to get a signal,” Bowyer announced.  “If you children can refrain from holding an orgy for now, Luiz should probably go with me.  Nothing’s going to hurt you in here besides stupidity.”
“Behave yourselves,” Luiz growled as she followed Bowyer.
“Ladies, don’t all start the orgy at once,” Gary teased, giving them his most charming smile.  It returned only sour expressions. 
“What if another meteor landed,” Murphy said.  “Everyone on the planet burned up in its wake except for us, safe in this cave.  It would be our duty to repopulate the planet.”
“That’s ludicrous,” Vreela said.  “People would see it coming on the telescopes and there would be an emergency Ambit meeting and they’d pulverize it with the satellites once it got within range.”
“Hypothetically,” Murphy qualified.  “Who would you pick?  Don’t all pick me.”
“Voluntary extinction,” Vreela snarled. 
“Can we all pick the same one?” Tyra smiled. “You could fight to the death. We only need one boy.”
“Then all our grandchildren would be cousins,” Edith objected. “We need to keep at least two.”
“I don’t know how you can joke around at a time like this,” Tilly said, tears glistening on her round cheeks. Gunther awkwardly patted her on the shoulder.  She squeezed his hand. 
“This could be your last chance ever to share wild, impulsive passion with a healthy young man instead of some creaky old guy covered in scar tissue,” Murphy said, not catching the shift in mood. He was swaying, as though most of the pineapple cider had ended up in his belly. 
“Ewww,” Edith said, under her breath. 
“What?  Do I detect disgust?”  Murphy peeled off his shirt and looked down at his sunburnt muscles. 
“I have a girlfriend,” Edith explained.
“Does your husband-to-be know that?”
“Doesn’t matter.  He’ll have to put up with it if he wants children.”  She tossed her blonde hair at them.  “She’ll be living with me.  Not him.” 
“Will he get to watch you kiss?”  Murph scratched at his belly. 
“Stop being a creep,” Tyra ordered.  Turo looked at his sister, and at Murph, loyalties torn. 
“Back in the good old days, if you wanted a woman, you’d just catch one.” Murphy struck a heroic pose, then caught himself against the wall as he teetered.  “Keep her in a castle or something.”
“In the present days, if the quarter of the population that can carry babies is fertile is subjected to undue stress or environmental poisons during gestation, they’ll throw mutants, or miscarry.” Vreela slicked her hair back so that her face looked bare and stern. “Reproductive strategy is key, and you’re failing at it right now.”
“Hey. Let’s tone it down.” Turo held up his hands in a gesture of ineffective leadership.
Tilly rose up in red-faced wrath. “I come from seventeen generations of officers, and if you tried to keep me in a castle I’d rip your balls off and feed them to you. Because that’s what we do! We. Win. Fights. That’s exactly what my dad is doing out there. Winning a fight.”
“We all come from generations of soldiers,” Boris commented. “That won fights.”
They nodded in agreement so silent that they could hear Andre, snoring.  Vreela finally broke it. “You’re twice as big as us but you eventually have to sleep.”
Murphy was giving her an intense stare. He moved close to her suddenly, and caught her in an embrace. And then he kissed her, on the mouth. Vreela froze.  The kiss continued for about half a minute. She opened her mouth a little wider. 
And then Murphy fell down. His heels bounced against the stone floor and his arms flew out to the sides, and his head landed on Andre’s leg, which made Andre yell out in pain. Urine darkened the crotch of his pants and drool ran from the side of his mouth as he babbled nonsense, his eyes unfocused, blood running from his nose.
“That was not necessary!” Gunther yelled, and Vreela began screeching back.
Turo glanced helplessly at Tyra but she was yelling too, as were most of them, aside from Boris, who had Murphy’s thrashing head immobilized against his pillowy thigh. 
He remembered when Tyra had gotten her stinger installed. It was free, from the government, and a medical truck came out to do the surgery right at the same time she started bleeding, which was close to the time when Turo had been moved to the other side of the house. She had read him all the literature while she was recuperating, dwelling on the gruesome details.
A stinger was an implant in your abdominal cavity, and there was a direct interface terminal connected  to your spinal cord. It monitored the girl’s body for various things, primarily other people. If it found any other people connected to the girl by saliva, or other body fluids, it dispersed a payload of nanobots and then began manufacturing more. The microscopic bots would then rush to the point of contact, obtaining access to the invader’s body and hopping on board to give him a seizure lasting approximately three to seven minutes. 
Tyra had also told her brother that stingers were invented in Dysz. With the implication that they were invented to protect Dysz women from Vanramian men.  Then the soldiers had found out about them, and Vanramian women started using them. Then a female premier had made them free and mandatory for all female Vanramians, and any men who wanted them. Turo hadn’t looked into it because he didn’t see the point in having surgery unless you were about to die. 
“You have to override it.  They made us test it by kissing a bangbot made up to look like Naughty Rod Majors, from the movies.”
“Ha ha, you got to kiss Naughty Rod.”
“Shut up!  If you want to keep kissing, anyway, you have to squeeze your butt muscles.  Three times.  So if you’re ever kissing a girl and her butt twitches three times, it means she’s calling off the stinger.”
“How can I tell if her butt’s twitching her if I’m kissing her?”  Turo had wanted to know.  Tyra hadn’t really been able to provide a satisfactory answer. 
Nobody timed Murphy’s seizure but it seemed to take forever, amidst the yelling.  In the meantime, more cacophony arrived as the soldiers did something in the outer chambers that aggravated the bats, resulting in squeaking and flapping, accompanied by cursing and splashing.  As the soldiers’ feet pounded up the hallway, heated arguments broke out over whether Vreela was playing fair.  Turo watched his sister yell at Gary, her features contorted with rage.
“What hit him?  What hit him?”  Bowyer was holding her rifle, her eyes wide and her forehead dripping sweat.  Luiz shoved past her and ran toward Murphy as his seizure subsided.
Something flapped in the entrance way.  A bat.  Bowyer ducked, dodging back. 
Luiz pivoted.  Her pistol was in her hand and she fired at the small burst of motion, and the bat ceased to exist.  Her round detonated in a reddish puff.  Turo would later learn that was a pulse round.  Good for destroying the mobility of a nearby drone, and highly unlikely to ricochet, since its charge was mostly energy. 
A pulse round could also set off a mine that had been embedded in the wall for years, waiting for someone with a matching remote control to push a button somewhere.  Turo saw it happen.  He saw a puff of smoke and heard a deafening explosion as part of the wall came down. 
Bowyer hadn’t dodged far enough.  A cascade of rock fell right on top of her, right at the entrance to the chamber.  Turo couldn’t tell if she made any noise since he was temporarily deafened, but he saw her leg twitch, and he saw her face once the dust settled, far away, looking very surprised.
More explosions tore up the passageway and Bowyer disappeared in a dust cloud.  Turo froze.  He was aware of a hand next to his, clutching for him, and he had no idea whose hand it was but he clutched back, staring at the cloud of settling dust.  There was nothing left of Bowyer but a bloodstain.
People in uniforms and tactical gear flooded in and it was a little while before Turo could recognize the fact they were talking to him. They escorted everyone out rapidly through the tunnel they had just excavated. 
Tyra made good on her word, and explained that Turo and his friends were innocently delivering party supplies when they had bravely discovered the hallway trap. They ended up being interviewed on the news, and being presented with some kind of teenage civilian home defense award. Turo had heard from his sister that Corporal Luiz was in line for a crybaby discharge on due to stress, and everyone was making fun of her. And Turo didn’t think that was quite right, but he still had sadness flare up in his heart when he thought about Bowyer. He never mentioned it because it might lead someone to think he was a crybaby too. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Stephen King’s Latest is Probably the Worst Novel I’ve Ever Read (Review: Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King)

One of the toughest questions I faced as a noob on an author panel last month had to do with my sliding scale of hatchet jobbery. Dumping a horrible review on some small and humble book just might impact a noob writer’s livelihood, and I hate seeing kids go barefoot due to their parents’ poor economic decisions. I noted my bitchy side was likely to come out when I’m reviewing a writer who is very successful, or one that’s conservative. And later on I felt bad about using “conservative” in a very general fashion.  No, I’m not about to, for example, disparage the Little House books because Rose Wilder was a hardcore libertarian, or complain about all that Christianity in Narnia, or remind everyone that Lovecraft was a racist bigot. 

Stephen King, meanwhile is liberal AF, in a loveable, compassionate, pro-labor kind of way. His values are aligned closely with mine. And his latest book sucks so hard that it made me nostalgic for John C. Wright. Let me elucidate.

Sleeping Beauties is a feminist novel about how all the women in the world vanish except for the ones in a rural town who are transported to feminist Narnia (where they burn lots of candles, because the only one smart and/or butch enough to hook up the power dies a tragic lesbian death at the hands of her lover) which ends in a big war at a prison involving rednecks and a bazooka.  Are you intrigued yet?  A little nauseous, perhaps?  Go and get yourself a ginger beer, I’ll wait. 

Welcome back! I was just about to discuss Stephen King’s latest, which is a mainsplainy condescending fantasy novel about how sexism is bad, which ends in a barrage of gunfire and explosions. 

His partner in crime for this er, epic tale is his son Owen. I can’t really put my finger on Owen’s style, or how it differs from his dad, or his brother Joe Hill. I hope future generations aren’t faced with a bleak future where the only entertainment available is made by people like Miley Cyrus XIV. Cheekbones and personality quirks are heritable, but talent is a rare form of magic.

SK’s major talent is characters: Randall Flagg, John Coffey, Annie Wilkes, Jack Torrance, Larry Underwood. People who leap right off the page at you. This novel has a Michener-scale cast in a Crichton-sized story, the vast majority of whom are completely forgettable. I’m guessing that the handful of memorable ones sprang from daddy’s brain.

As for the rest … I found myself going “oh, wow, did that character die?” a couple times, paging back a few pages to check, discovering that they had in fact met with a tragic end that was so boring I had cruised right past it.  I can only assume it’s the normal-writer offspring contrasted with master-craftsman-with-decades-of-experience father situation.

I’ll allow that I felt similarly about Joe Hill until The Fireman, and even then I can’t recall a single character from it. There were no Roland Deschains, or Tom Cullens, or Greg Stilsons. I don’t fault King’s sons for writing books that don’t rock my world, and I’m glad he’s spreading the co-authorship love among them rather than playing favorites. The presence of a King offspring is not the reason this abyssmal chunk of fail is my new least favorite SK novel, a spot previously held by The Cell (didn’t even finish) (before that it was Tommyknockers). 

No, it’s the gender thing. The plot gimmick: because magic, all the women retire into cocoons, leaving the men to their own devices and fleeing into a deserted chunk of the multiverse. The men's world is full of all the senseless violence and vandalism you would expect.  And the women’s world is “no utopia,” the Kings hasten to inform us, because a murder happened!

Unfortunately the murder victim happened to be the only woman with sufficient cognitive capacity to get the electricity going. She was a lesbian (of course), slain by her significant other. After her tragic death, no other woman dared touch the scary electricity until a contractor’s wife – who paid attention to her husband’s explanations of his work – tackles the job.  That was the point where my track shifted from “gee, you’re kind of a muddled-up book, aren’t you?” to “eat a zeppelin full of farts, you craptastic pile of nepotistic pigshit of a book.”

I’m thinking about all the bright and capable women I run into at these science fiction cons I attend, and in the news that I read, and standing around me in my daily life. Operating complex machinery. Practicing medicine. Traveling around the world. Winning trials. Writing better novels than this one.  Okay, that last one was a trick, pretty much all novels are better than this one. 

Aside from the aforementioned lesbian crime of passion, the women of Ladynarnia fear travel and exploration, and in a brief ill-advised expedition, several manage to get themselves killed trying to rescue an inflatable sex doll which they mistake for a human at a distance. They fear plumbing, and lack fresh water until the wise contractor’s wife who deals with the scary electricity gets it working (she's kind of a joke character with a son whose death is played for humor). In the most egregious violation of common sense, one lady dies giving birth in Ladynarnia because apparently not a single freaking one of them has medical ability sufficient to save a woman from dying (in a dramatic rapid hemorrhage) due to a retained placenta.

I’m positive King has good intentions. I’ve never seen him express even a whisper of misogyny, although he has occasional characters who are terrifyingly anti-woman. He has written some amazing female characters and some of his works (like Rose Madder, for instance) have strong feminist themes. King himself was raised by a single mom who was abandoned by her husband and had to take menial jobs to survive. He has been married to the same woman since college, apparently happily. He’s probably the most pro-woman mainstream celebrity creative type that I can imagine. 

I have a strong feeling this book was writen deliberately to sell to the media – maybe Joe was lording his writer awards over Owen, and Owen started going “Dad, he’s poking me with his awards again,” and Stephen was like, “do I have to take you out behind the woodshed for some collaboration?” and Owen was like, "sucks to your awards, I'm gonna be a miniseries." Therefore, in a patently HBO-pleasing spirit, there’s a sexy naked witch who likes to kiss girls, and lots of bazooka action in the climactic end where peasants with torches and pitchforks are assaulting the women’s prison, trying to get ahold of the witch behind all of this.  Plenty of car wrecks and gunfights and murdering, and a badass woman prison guard with freaky-big biceps.  Liberally basted in sideways social justice warrior values, which visual media will doubtless scrape off like excess mayo, leaving Ladynarnia an enclave of bumbling Stepford Wives who come back, not because they miss their husbands, but because they love their sons.  Awwww. Even the childless ones, and the ones with only daughters. Awwww. Yeah, I know, I felt the same way, have another sip of that ginger beer and take a few deep breaths.

I’ve never had a novelist I like this much, and agree with to such a large extent, disappoint me so hard before, with intentions as good as this.  On a happier note, now I can go read the new Phillip Pullman, which I already know is way better than King & Sons, Inc.

Monday, October 16, 2017

I'm Astounded By All These Russian Visitors

Hundreds of hits from Russia, where they apparently really like Internet Explorer. Whatever could they be looking for? A port for weary robot pirates? A daycare for dancing bears? A piddle pad for Putin's puppies? I've heard rumors that some of these Russian folks have wheels instead of feet.

A Graphic Novel About the North Bay Fires

Brian Fies lost his house and immediately began a graphic novel, which is gripping and heart-rending.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

North Bay Inferno

Last Sunday night, right around midnight, I was headed toward bed when I suddenly smelled smoke. As a person who dwells in a wooden Victorian building in San Francisco, I’m paranoid about smoke.

I checked the house carefully, and in so doing I encountered a bunch of my neighbors, out on the sidewalk at midnight, doing the same thing. We all smelled it. A horrible campfire smell, thick with particles. We all live in wooden Victorian buildings, and we are all paranoid about smoke.

We poked at our phones and talked to passersby, learning there was a fire up the street, or maybe in the Presidio. As a matter of orientation, I live on the extreme northern tip of the city. I’m active on a thing called, where you can chat with your digitally-inclined neighbors. I also have a emergency services scanner app on my phone that lets me know when mass shootings are occurring so I can take a different route; I just got that one recently. 

According to the scanner and the neighbors and Facebook, even though at least thirty neighbors had called the fire department, no San Francisco fires were burning, and the firemen were obliged to check each report, so the neighborly consensus was not to burden them unless you saw actual flames and smoke.  Facebook finally reported it was a fire in Napa. Two hundred acres. A junkyard caught fire, hence the harsh and toxic smoke.

I shared the news on Facebook, since my forums were starting to light up with people noticing the harsh blanket of smoke. It was a lot like what I experienced that time at the Spokane Worldcon, where we were surrounded by burning forests. Stiff winds were pushing it south, directly into my bedroom window, blowing my curtains horizontal.

On the one hand, sleep was difficult that night, since I kept waking up every twenty or forty minutes with my brain screaming, “Smoke! Wake up! Panic!” On the other hand, I’m really glad my brain came equipped with that feature, even though I didn’t realize it was there until now.  After several hours of this I finally just got up and got dressed. My front porch was coated with ash and big chunks of wood or whatever. I was slightly terrified one of them might be a live cinder, but apparently not, they did have to cross a fair amount of ocean to get to my place.

I headed to work, and that day I started hearing the news. The 200-acre fire had expanded, consuming large chunks of Sonoma and Napa counties. Santa Rosa! Calistoga! Places I’m familiar with. Even worse, connections started to pop up. The neighbor who knows over a handful of people who lost everything. The friend whose in-laws and pets had to suddenly move in. The one whose daughter got evacuated from a campground and drove down a tunnel of flame, fire on both sides of the highway, in a car containing three toddlers. 

More horror stories trickled in as the sky grew harsh and thick. People around me started suffering headaches and sore throats, and we were all barking out coughs and blowing our noses and feeling a little woozy. Sales of breathing filters soared. The air quality was worse than Beijing, according to the news, which dutifully supplied us with pictures of flames and discolored sunsets and rescued pets. They’re calling it the worst fire in California history.

I’m hearing very sad stories. Like the one about the couple in their 70s who spent six hours in a swimming pool, hiding from the surrounding flames, only to have the wife die of smoke inhalation in her husband’s arms at sunrise. Or the teenager fleeing on foot with his family because the road was blocked, who died because he got lost in the smoke and the dark and headed in the wrong direction. Entire blocks have been leveled. Wineries are gone, the Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts was destroyed. All those people, woken from a sound sleep and told they had ten minutes to gather their goods and get out. Yikes.