Saturday, November 18, 2017

Allergic to Health Food

Approximately a year and eight months ago, I came down with a nasty bout of food poisoning that gave me an ultra-sensitive stomach. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out exactly what set me off, so I was avoiding things like processed wheat while trying to focus on grains and plants.

Turns out I react to fructans – which are present in some wholegrain foods (but not all), some fruit (but not all) and some veggies (but not all).  That’s right, I’m allergic to whole grains, fruits and vegetables.  No fructose sweeteners, honey and agave.  No asparagus, no apples, no black beans, no yogurt.  Garlic and onions set me off, and avoiding them is difficult given their prevalence in pretty much all the kinds of cuisine that taste good. 

Except there are exceptions, and usually I can tolerate small doses of objectionable food if they are accompanied by something neutral, like potatoes and other glutenless carbs. Herein lies the source of my recent weight gain. 

It’s a very mysterious condition to have. Sourdough bread is just fine but regular French bread makes me puff up like a pufferfish.  Portions and other alchemy count: a little bit of apple cut up in my salad is delicious, a whole apple eaten in one sitting is enough to put my intestinal bacteria into a military coup, a bottle of hard cider or a sprinkle of apple cider vinegar calms everything down.  I might be fine with the spaghetti at restaurant A and paralyzed with bellyache at restaurant B depending on how much garlic the chef likes to toss into the sauce, and whether I encounter ricotta (very bad) or brie (very good). 

Most of my new forbidden foods are things I didn’t really like anyway, like cauliflower and peas and asparagus. Avoiding them will be easy. With regard to the dairy, I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with plenty of lactose-free milk and ice cream and sour cream. We’ve also got some world-renowned sourdough bread, which has become my new sandwich default – keep that fancy cracked wheat junk far away from me. I will miss cashews and mangos very much.  As far as apples, I went through a several-year period where I ate an apple and a granola bar for lunch every day, and I could wax poetic on the subtle changes between apple seasons and varieties, and all the different notes one can find in a fine apple, because apples are far more subtle than grapes. I will still enjoy them from time to time, in their less toxic versions.

None of this stuff is likely to kill me. It’s more about lying around being uncomfortable than shock and seizures. It kills my appetite until my bellyache goes away, unless I re-irritate it by eating more fructans, which is the cycle that’s been messing with me.  It’s hard to focus on anything else when your belly is giving you grief. After looking at my food diary, and after making a concerted effort to avoid fructan, I’m noticing some improvement.

The difficult part is recalibrating my inner mental list of good, clean food. The one that elevates things like humble bowls of organic lentils to elevated levels of healthiness, while hating on perfectly innocent french fries that never did any harm to anyone. That tendency to order fruit desserts instead of chocolately ones, or whole-grain pancakes instead of bacon and eggs. Not a belief grounded in science, rather one that’s been shaped by thousands of conversations and magazines and Facebook posts and restaurants and all those fad diets that are supposed to make you healthy and gorgeous.  Political sensibilities too, the kind that insist on avoiding heavily processed corporate food while focusing on the organic.  All those agendas trying to get between me and my bellyache.

When Theories About Collapsing Civilizations Collapse

 I was reading this article about “collapsing” civilizations right after reading something about a Google employee fired for writing a manifesto about how women are too neurotic to operate computers, which I won’t go into because it leads perilously close to gender relations, a subject guaranteed to grab the attention of thousands of hostile psychos no reasonable person wants to debate/romance. 

It’s sort of a similar pattern, though. Devise a grand theory for failing.  Look around for someone else who failed, try to cram their facts into your narrative. In the case of a whole failing civilization (with citizens who object to this classification of “fail” in the first place), simplify everything about their culture so that it all rests on your pivot issue. 

And then, finally, shriek at high volume about the example you have just constructed.  “Timmy never ate his broccoli and now he’s got a broken arm!  Sarah didn’t wear her raincoat and then she failed her math exam!  Billy’s society cut down trees, and if we do likewise we are dooooooooomed.”

It must be annoying as all get out to have your culture reduced to a cautionary tale, especially a false one.  It reminds me of the insufferable adventures of Merton and Sandford, turning everything and everyone into a moral lesson.

My own civilization seems to be a little wobbly these days, which occasionally inspires me to wonder if people in the future will say things like, “oh yeah, well the Americans had multiple flavors of ice cream, and look what happened to them!”  In light of that, it’s a little patronizing to go around pronouncing cultures as failed or collapsible.

After you get to a certain age, all the cautionary tales from your youth start unraveling. You look around you and see that Keith Richards, as well as several other rock stars, did all kinds of drugs and other naughty things, and went on to do some magnificent thriving.  And the news stories each night are full of girls who were obedient and selfless and never harmed anyone but someone attacked them anyway, blaming it on their clothes or their failure to check for signs of intruders. 

You start wondering if cautions are simply a way we old people rein in our insanity when curious youths ask us for advice. “Well, sonny, I had stopped for a milkshake on the day the gunman went nuts, so I wasn’t in the plaza when the murders were happening, and that’s why I stop for a milkshake every Thursday.”  We need to rationalize why we’re still here when several of the people we encountered along the way suffered ill fortune, seemingly through no fault of their own.

And we need some agency, some poor decision that the failers make that we can avoid. They didn’t pray to the right gods. They built the wrong kind of houses. That’s why I’m okay and they’re not. Rational, reasonable, scientific reasons. Not random chance, oh no, that would be too horrible because it would deprive me of the satisfaction of attributing my random successes to my superior cunning and strategizing.  Either you can listen to me or you can live in an apocalypse, so what’ll it be?

The moral of this blog piece (I think) is to avoid accepting convenient explanations. Especially where there’s strong evidence the explainer has gone to some effort to sculpt and mold the facts. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

This is the second installment in the adventures of Binti, the spacefaring Himba girl whose initial story won a Hugo. I think Ms. Okorafor will be a major force in science fiction in the very near future. She translates steep cultural gulfs into a bright and approachable style that draws you into her stories in gradual steps. She’s got one foot in the future and one foot in the village square, a thousand years ago, as she gathers the kids around to tell them what went down long before her memories began.

In book two, Binti returns home, to Africa and the pink lake and her people, who smear themselves with orange-colored earth and take pride in their distance from the neighboring Desert People. She’s still suffering PTSD from some of the stuff that went down in book one, plus her dreads have been replaced by space alien tentacles with mysterious powers she hasn’t yet fully explored.

She’s accompanied by an alien friend, and later she interacts with the Desert People and learns some of their secrets, and is forced to confront her own peoples’ bigotry – with a potentially heartbreaking cliffhanger at the end related to this, which I won’t spoil any further.

Okorafor is one of my favorite voices in YA fiction today. She’s got a unique take on space opera and she’s a foundational elder in the very new genre of afrofuturism. The otherworldliness of the African characters’ world reminds us how our future visions have, until recently, been channeled through a relatively homogenous lens.

I hope I live long enough to spend a future rainy day sprawled on the couch, sipping hot soup and binge-reading the whole Binti series, or maybe even watching the video versions.  Not many writers can make the future cozy and terrifying at the same time, so when you find one, such as Ms. Okorafor, you need to mark them down for some occasional binge reading.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The History of Sandford and Merton (by Thomas Day) (bestselling kids book for 100+ years ...)

I recently ran across a listicle concerning kids books from bygone days, and since I hope my books will someday fall within that category, I picked up several of them to see how it's done.

I'm only about 6% into The History of Sandford and Merton by Thomas Day, but it's pretty clear I've got my hands on a classic, and I can't resist sharing it with you. Originally written in 1793, The History of Sandford and Merton (I'll just go ahead and call it HS&M if you don't mind) was originally a submission to a compilation of children's stories, but Mr. Day seemed to have a very hard time putting his pencil down, because his short story expanded into a three-volume leviathan.  According to Wikipedia, "The book was wildly successful and was reprinted until the end of the nineteenth century."

Yeah, that's 100+ years of success. By now you're probably thinking, "Wowie kazowie, this must be better than Alice in Wonderland, the Harry Potter series and the Hobbit, combined!"  Even though the latter two haven't even held up for a century yet. And yes, that's a very logical assumption to make. But alas.

HS&M just goes to prove that books have gotten considerably less preachy over the years. Especially kids books. When HS&M was written, the only purpose for kids' books was to teach them how to be productive, obedient grownups. The notion of books as sheer entertainment was tantamount to devil worship.

HS&M's favorite flavor of preachiness has to do with the philosopher Rousseau. I never could stand Rousseau, the father of the "natural is good, manufactured is evil" school of thought which elevates a lumpy organic apple to a degree of purity and holiness unobtainable by something as debased and coated with technological horror as an iPhone X.

Uh oh, I'm writing like that again. Must have been reading too much HS&M.

As the story begins, we are introduced to two children. Tommy Merton is an indolent rich kid from the West Indies who is accustomed to having black slaves carry him around so his little feet won't get tired, currently kicking back in the kind of fancy upper class but rural British house where kids' stories all seem to take place. Henry/Harry Sandford is the spawn of the farmer next door, ruddy and healthy and wise beyond his years due to all his exposure to nature.

The first few pages are breathtaking due to the heavy-handed moralizing, which leans heavily on Christianity as well as Rousseau. I also thought I noticed a few elements of Marx, such as the bit about "The accumulation of riches ... can never increase, but by the increasing poverty and degradation of those whom Heaven has created equal; a thousand cottages are thrown down to afford space for a single palace."  Then when I looked closer at the dates, I realized this tract was written in the 1790s and was already a bestseller by the time little Karl was born in 1818, and wondered if it had been read to him in his cradle, given that it was such a phenomenally successful bestseller.

Yes, kids, there was actually a time when all the different flavors of sanctimoniousness got along like peanut butter and jelly. Organic peanut butter and jelly. No disrespect meant to those with nut allergies or fructose sensitivity.

Our youthful heroes (both are six years old) meet in an exciting episode where a snake crawls on feeble Tommy's leg, and heroic Harry grabs him (the snake) and "threw him to a great distance off."

In my copy, the governess is fluttering behind the two six-year-old heroes like some kind of protective angel. Here she's halfway to the manor house, or perhaps the railway station. No matter; brave Harry is on hand to rescue spoiled and indolent Tommy from the fiendish serpent. Note that Harry is usually much kinder to animals, even bugs, and occasionally bursts into fits of sanctimonious vegetarianism.  This snake is different. This snake is terrifying his soulmate Tommy, and frightening Tommy's faithful governess.

After the lads become fast friends following this snake adventure, Tommy's rich family befriends Harry, inviting him over frequently so he can make pithy statements about the amorality of wealth.

For instance, there was that time Tommy's mom tried to ply Harry with alcohol and get him drunk.  "After dinner, Mrs. Merton filled a large glass of wine, and giving it to Harry, bade him to drink it up, but he thanked her, and said he was not dry."

When Mrs. Merton persists, Harry explains that he was taught to eat/drink only that which is "easily met with", in the quantity needed, "otherwise we shall grow peevish and vexed when we can't get them.  And this was the way that the Apostles did, who were all very good men."

She keeps trying though, plying him with more wine after he delivers a few pages of sermonizing about Christianity, and when she asks him if he'd like to be a king, he declares "I don't know what that is, but I hope I shall soon be big enough to go to plough, and get my own living; and then I shall want nobody to wait upon me."

So Mrs. Merton runs off to her husband to discuss these newfound notions about the amorality of wealth, and they talk about a neighbor, Squire Chase, who "rides among people's corn, and breaks down their hedges, and shoots their poultry, and kills their dogs, and lames their cattle, and abuses the poor; and they say he does all this because he's rich, but everybody hates him, though they dare not tell him so to his face ..."  Meanwhile, little Harry goes home to tell his pop about the nasty rich neighbors who want him to love fine clothes and be rich and kingly, "that I may be hated like Squire Chase."

The moralizing continues, with some extrapolating on Christianity, and some despising of rich people, and some discussion about how healthy it is to be vigorous and rural. This truly is a book for moralizers of all kinds; something that organic hippies and born again Christians and commies and imperialists and vegans can all enjoy together. There's a little self-congratulatory back-patting about how educating children is the "most important duty in society, and is severally answerable for every voluntary omission."  That is, everything is teachers' fault. It would be half a century before Freud -- did he experience Sandford and Merton as a bedtime story too? -- got around to blaming everything on parents.

Fortunately for Sandford and Merton, an excellent educator is available -- the clergyman Barlow, who offers to throw in a few extra homilies for Tommy, and we head directly into inspirational storytime.

First there is the story of the flies and the ants, which is similar to that of the grasshopper and the ants, where the ants' highly moralistic productivity keeps them alive throughout the winter while the more hard-partying insects expire on windowsills.

Second is the story of

The Gentleman and the Basket-Maker

 [summarized in highly abridged form as follows:]

Once there was a rich entitled jerk and a poor basket maker who made baskets out of reeds that grew near his house. He was obliged to work morning to night to earn enough food to stay alive, and even then it was mostly dry bread or beans.

And yet he was always "happy, cheerful and contented; for his labor gave him so good an appetite, that the coursest fare appeared to him delicious ..."

Let's try that again. The weaver was always satisfied with his insufficient diet because he was famished from all the labor he had to do to afford it.

And right here, people and gentlepersons, is why all this sanctimoniousness is occasionally a necessary thing. In these days before Freud and before Marx, you could work day and night and still have barely enough to eat, while sanctimonious condescending philosophers insisted you should keep a grin slapped on your face while doing it. For all this book's naive flaws, which are so much fun to snark about, it's worth pointing out that once we started telling kids stories about imagining what could be possible, they responded by making more and more things possible -- health care, and workers' compensation, and 40-hour work weeks just to name a few. Not in quite the same way Mr. Rousseau and his organic disciples envisioned, but an interesting thing to ponder in these days of politicians who'd like to roll us all back.

Still, making fun of Sandford and Merton is way fun, so I'll get back to it.

The rich guy was miserable, due to his laziness and amorality and ill health and friendlessness. He would lie awake at night hating the basket weaver for daring to be happy. One night he decided the solution was arson, and he torched the basket weaver's house and inventory.

The destitute weaver hoofed it to town and told his story to a "chief magistrate," demonstrating that this primitive society is well on its way toward rule by law, an important step in someday cancelling out the detrimental effects of Rousseau's sillier descendants, such as antivaxxers. The judge, appalled by the rich jerk, decides to make an example of him.

"The magistrate then ordered them both to be put on board a ship, and carried to a distant country, which was inhabited by a rude and savage kind of men, who lived in huts, were strangers to riches, and got their living by fishing."

I wonder if he's talking about the Sandwich Islands (aka Hawai'i)? Captain Cook passed away only four years before HS&M appeared and there was much speculating about the moral superiority of Polynesians in a Rousseau-ian sense at the time, something that haunted imperial impressions of the South Pacific all the way through Gaugin and Margaret Mead.  It's also interesting to see the blatant racism rear its ugly head after much sanctimony regarding economic justice and animal rights and healthy exercise.

Finding themselves surrounded by "barbarous people", the rich jerk "began to cry and wring his hands in the most abject manner; but the poor basket-maker, who had always been accustomed to hardships and dangers from his infancy, made signs to the people that he was their friend ..."

The basket-maker toils selflessly for the barbarous ones, and is rewarded with seafood and "choicest roots" while the rich dude is now starving because he won't work -- but it is noted he appreciates what little food he gets now that he knows what starvation is like.

Next, we head off into delightful lunacy. The basket-weaver starts making hats and wreaths, which make his barbarous friends dance and caper with joy.  Due to the demand he started working overtime as a fashion designer (in lieu of his previous selflessly performing chores for free) and "the grateful savages brought him every kind of food their country afforded, built him a hut, and showed him every demonstration of gratitude and kindness."

And then the rich dude had to work as the basket-weaver's helper, cutting reeds.

Several months later, the magistrate brought them both back to England. He gave the rich jerk a dirty look and told him to give half his money to the basket weaver. The basket weaver, however, objects "I, having been bred up in poverty, and accustomed to labour, have no desire to acquire riches, which I should not know how to use; all, therefore, that I require of this man is, to put me into the same situation I was in before, and to learn more humanity."

And then the rich jerk was astonished at the basket-weaver's "generosity" -- plus he was wiser now, so they could be friends, and then he turned into a philanthropist. The end.

Of the story-within-a-story, anyway. Not of HS&M, I'm barely at 6%.  I'll probably keep reading it. I'll let you know if anything else interesting happens.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Review: Rick and Morty

As promised, here is my love letter to Rick and Morty, my new favorite TV show. It’s actually sort of a meditation on being a nerd. Grandpa Rick Sanchez is a mad scientist and legendary figure throughout the multiverse, which he accesses via a portal gun that shoots green undulating portals. He neglected his daughter Beth while having all these adventures and now he’s trying to make up for it by getting involved with her kids, Summer and Morty. The hapless Morty is usually his adventuring teammate, but recent episodes have tried to involve the whole family, even doofus son-in-law Jerry.

The thorn is that Rick, wonderful as his adventurous inventions might be, is a drunk caustic asshole. He’s got a very high IQ and all the abrasiveness that comes along with it. An outing with him is as likely to be traumatic, terrifying, disgusting and disillusioning, as he portals his way through worlds inspired by the best of science fiction over the years.

Rick and Morty started out as a Back to the Future parody featuring Doc and Marty, with both characters voiced by the immensely talented Justin Roiland. These two sections of Roiland’s psyche (plus an additional belch track for flask-nipping Rick) had such good chemistry they got their own spin-off show.

The last season of R&M has been a meditation on intelligence as Jerry, constantly belittled by the arrogant and elitist Rick (who manages to be arrogant even when transformed into a pickle), runs off to be a yoga bending single dad, while Beth confronts the scary existential terrors of her own brain. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of a flood of references to all the requisite science fiction that smart kids are supposed to like, whirling along at Simpson-exceeding speeds. The latest season ends (look out, spoiler, albeit a vague one) with yet another curveball as we wonder whether Rick has altered the metaverse to a Rick-eliminating degree. 

Rick and Morty has a similar dynamic to my own work in progress, where my protagonist plays an uncomfortably close role to Morty, leaving the evil capricious genius torturing him as … me. Yikes.

I love this show, and I hope my reality is one of the ones that experiences a season 4.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

On Smartness

 I was about to write a love letter about my current favorite TV show, Rick and Morty, but I kept spinning off on the second-to-last episoide, where Rick is opining on the subject of intelligence. So I thought I’d grab a bite of that topic and savor it for a while, since we’re on the heels of my article about how feminine competence inspires hostility in incompetent males (which I couldn’t resist posting here and all over my various Facebook groups, because it has the ring of truth).

When I was five, I took an IQ test and scored 163. This didn’t mean much to me, but it apparently shocked my parents, who mainly noticed it in my ability to perform amazing parlor tricks like reading books and memorizing long poems like Night Before Christmas.  I took a different IQ test at age seventeen and got the same score, which is up there in the 99th percentile.

In between those two tests were a lot of addresses and a lot of schools, because they kept switching me  -- I can’t remember a single teacher or classmate from before fifth grade, but I did learn that concepts like “popular” and “cool” and “smart” and “bully” were ephemeral and varied according to jurisdiction. I learned that a lot of conservatives don’t believe in women having high IQs, and that many conservative women feel it’s appropriate to play dumb in order to support this myth. I also learned that a lot of liberals don’t have a lot of use for IQ and think it’s a racist construct full of culturally biased questions used mainly for establishing white supremacy. So I grew up to be a smart loner who reads a lot of books and distrusts many current concepts such as conservative-style human biodiversity and liberal-style critical theory.

Despite several attempts, I never finished college, which apparently is common with the smart and feral. My chaotic upbringing left me ignorant as far as the prerequisites and my restlessness made it difficult to sit through the boring catch-up work.  The smart and nurtured typically have other smart relatives who make sure they persevere but I left home at seventeen, after realizing my family’s choices were having a negative impact on my potential ability to support myself in the future. In retrospect, not being formally educated actually helped me in a variety of ways – I’d rather have computer skills based on loads of practical experience (with looming deadline pressure) than a BS in Fortran, wouldn’t you?  And since everything being taught in my last attempt at formal education (audio engineering) is now encompassed within a toolbar in ProTools, thus obviating the need for most audio engineers, I’m okay with not having finished that one either. I grew up during a time when skills were proceeding much faster than schools, at least in the area where my talents lay, which has to do with integrating squishy concepts like art and law and music with precise concepts like computers. 

Even though I’ve got a computer skill or two, and I lived in San Jose in the 1980s, and I’ve always known a bunch of people in the computer industry along with its appurtenant Bay Area subcultures such as sci fi fandom and high IQ societies and tabletop gaming, I gravitated toward the legal profession. Mainly because the computer industry is full of guys like the ones referenced in my last post (the kind that get angry when there are competent women around), making it a stupid career choice for a competent woman. In sharp contrast, the legal profession is full of people who know who Rena Weeks is.

In fact, a lot of high IQ subcultures are loaded with guys who get angry when faced with evidence of female competence. That’s because a lot of them base their own self-worth on competence, making them eerily similar to women who base their self-worth on their looks, when it comes to dramatic tendencies and histrionic rage.  People like that have a tendency toward narcissism, and they like to purge dissimilar people from their social ranks (check out the demographic similarity in a profession that’s explicitly narcissistic, such as pro modeling, for contrast). I’ll just note that when the American armed forces were trying to diminish racism within the ranks, their most successful strategy was to arrange people by IQ, because they discovered animosity for people on the other side of an IQ gap of 10+/- points was even stronger than animosity for people of other races.

And yes, fellow liberals, IQ tests frequently contain cultural bias in the verbal portion, and IQ can most definitely be manipulated by external forces. Substandard food, psychological stress from extreme unpredictable arbitrary punishment, environmental toxins, physical trauma – those will all drop it. Decent health care, motivated teachers, parents with enough resources to be invested in their children, an environment with more libraries than crimes – those will all raise it. Rectifying scientific bias is always better than denialism, whether you’re dealing with climate change or math skills. 

Geniuses, sports, mavericks and great persons – that can happen in any race or gender. I’d rather stratify society based on peoples’ ability and willingness to alleviate human suffering, personally.  Some of the people pulling oars in this longboat have high IQs, but not all of them. That’s just fine. Human beings are social animals and work best in teams with diversified skills and talents.

I don’t believe all suffering can be eliminated. There will always be tragic love triangles and people dying when you don’t want them to, as well as crime and accidents and bad weather. We can, however, use our human intelligence to work together and alleviate many things that cause our fellow humans suffering and misery, and because we can, we therefore should.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Unbearable Feminine Competence

I'm not going to say a whole lot about this article about

how the presence of competent women generates hostile behavior in incompetent men

other than to say that I now understand that Stephen and Owen King were trying to provide their more sensitive readers with a trigger-free safe space while writing Sleeping Beauty.

Also, since I didn't realize this concept was triggering, I'm going to issue a blanket warning over everything I write. Warning: contains competent women, read at your own risk, may cause side effects such as dizziness or hostile behavior.

Just in case anybody's heart is beating a little bit faster due to all this triggering, here's a nice soothing video featuring golden retriever puppies.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Why I Generally Don't Chase Reviews: Exhibit A

There's a right kind of reviewer, dahling, and then there's the not-our-kind-of-reviewer. 

I'm just looking for my niche. They'll kinda like my stuff, we'll get together and drink coffee. I'm way too weird for the mainstream and my books will only confuse them.

Oh, and the snobs won't work either; we're probably kryptonite for each other.

Review: Trolls by J.J.M. Czep

I believe I found this one at San Francisco Comic Con, although I've been wrong before. It's a cozy British fantasy tale with an inquisitive child narrator, a weakling mother and a mean old auntie dwelling in a pastoral place near a doorway to a secret world filled with trolls and witches and piskies.  The author has an imaginative style and the surroundings reminded me a little of the movie Labyrinth. There's a cool and colorful cover showing the protagonist falling down her rabbit hole towards her mystic land. The big bad is female, and the inevitable showdown is dramatic. While nothing here is super original, the story ties a lot of comforting elements together in a unique way, like accidentally tuning to an old movie you didn't set out to watch and finding yourself unable to tear your eyeballs away. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Joy of Books I'm Not Terribly Interested In

Back when I used to frequent libraries, I read a lot more books that I wasn't terribly interested in.

There are only so many books that interest me, after all. Sometimes I'm already pretty sure I'll be interested -- it's my favorite author's latest, or it's a bio of someone that already has my attention. 

Sometimes, of course, I'm misled by a new book by a favorite author which turns out to be a huge stinking pile of crap. That happens too.

Libraries, however, are where I used to find books I wasn't even slightly interested in, and sometimes they would change my mind.

For example -- "Oh, look at this big fat romance novel, looks like a hundred readers have pawed through it plus it's got dogears and a cracked spine. I don't normally do romance but let's check this out."  (That's how I found the Outlander series.)

Or how about -- "An epic adventure starring rabbits ... ooookay, well, what the hell, it's free." (That's how I found my favorite novel of all time, Watership Down.)

Travel guides about places I'm never going to visit. Bios of actors whose movies I've never seen, and musicians I don't listen to. Boring nonfiction tomes about history and science. Religious books, from all kinds of religions. Manuals instructing one how to engage in some silly hobby for uncool people. I would never actually pay for copies of these books, but occasionally it's entertaining to read them, and there is a chance you might stumble upon a life-changing experience. 

Now that I focus on e-books I have to deliberately seek out books. I'm not likely to gamble the twelve bucks corporations think people are going to spend on e-books checking out some noob on the strength of some corrupt reviewer who probably 5-stars in exchange for valuable consideration.  Or grabbing some random book outside my usual scope.  No, I head through the YA spec fic door into a dedicated showroom that only shows me what I came to purchase. If I want to look at bestselling nonfiction or something, I have to head into a separate corral. Once I get there, a huge mob of popular kids are blocking the door, and the quirky interesting kids are nowhere in sight. 

I suppose the solution would involve getting busy with the local library's e-book program, which is nice and extensive. It might also involve getting through the gigantic backlog of to-be-read circling my Kindle in a holding pattern, because my brain has adapted quite well to the modern age of reading matter, and I can finally (and ecstatically) report that I have more interesting stuff to read than I can read, and I carry all of it with me, all of the time. When I was a child I could only fantasize about reaching this state of being, and now that I have stumbled cluelessly into it, I can imagine no other way to live. 

Sometimes I miss those books I wasn't particularly into, though. Some of them were really good.

The Goodreads Awards!

Time for the Goodreads Awards!
Quick, go vote against Sleeping Beauties! 
I'm a total slacker for only reading and reviewing one of the YA specfic entries (Pullman). I'll try to read more. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

A link to a cool Aotearoa Futurism article

I'm linking to the blogger instead of the source because I'm glad she brought it to our attention. (And glad linked her.)

Lionel Shriver Weighs In On Dogpiling

Ms. Lionel Shriver wrote one of my favorite explorations of nature and nurture, We Need To Talk About Kevin (Kevin is a teen who perpetrates a mass killing at his high school, and the story is about his uncomfortable relationship with his mother).  Here she is weighing in on the American Heart controversy, noting that the “sensitivity reader” gave the story a pass.

I wrote about sensitivity readers previously, holding that I wasn’t really comfortable with the notion of books being written by committee. Plus I occupy a weird niche in the discussion: while I’m throughly in favor of anticolonialism and empowering the marginalized, I’m not entirely aligned with the notion of fighting bigotry through recalibrated economic theories which failed dismally in the past. That’s why I’m off in my isolated vacuum far away from the other YA writers, occupying a fictional future with a whole different subset of social problems.

As I’ve also mentioned before, even books as well-established as overflowing with positive liberal social values like To Kill A Mockingbird can be attacked as insensitive, for a slew of sins like using the N-word and featuring a false rape accusation. 

Is a book a few hours worth of some artist’s trapped and preserved thoughts, wound around the foundation of a story?  Or is it a carefully crafted product, polished for the marketplace by many pairs of skilled unseen hands? 

I dabbled with music and games before focusing on writing fiction. Both of those are art forms requiring a group – sort of like making movies/TV, and multidisciplinary forms of public entertainment like circuses and ballets. Things always seemed to fizzle because the moment creativity or synergy started to spark, some dude would seize on it and try to aim it toward their own personal empowerment.

It was extremely patent and obvious when I was a multiplayer gamer. The moment we’d start moving forward in progression, some dude would pop up and insist we push ourselves to become a world class gaming group, thus getting rich and famous, and in fact, the only obstacle standing between this dude and his justly deserved glory was us, his worthless teammates who just weren’t dedicated enough. 

There was one guy … played a mage … went without sleep to grind his character following an expansion, subsisting only on Pop Tarts … when he finally got there he had a big explosive meltdown because none of us were committed enough to be right there with him, and quit the group.  That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. When they’re doing it right, those types of guys can indeed motivate others toward success, but only a small percentage is doing it right; the rest are just being irritants.

So I became a writer, where the only competitor, the only teammate, the only obstacle to success is me. I don’t have to deal with any dudes standing around screaming, “OMG, write better so we can have groupies and limosines!” I don’t have any battalions of editors and sensitivity readers and beta readers and make up appliers and personal trainers and aromatherapists and blurb artists and full-time five-star-review-writers teaming up to help me birth a successful bookproduct. 

 My favorite art does not come from people sweating competitively in unison and forcing their faces into very serious expressions in the name of market domination. It comes from people noodling around aiming for entertainment, or competing with their own prior art.  It comes from hungry nobodies with nothing to lose. Not pampered sophisticates with artist DNA and expensive coaching trying to crank out product.

When I was a teenager, pop music was dominated by corporate interests, and records were full of skill and technology, orchestras and finely calibrated recording studios and guitars made of rare hardwoods. Then there was a backlash, led by uneducated guys with cheap guitars and holes in their jeans. In retrospect, they both made music you would want to go back and listen to again, for different reasons. 

Bookproduct has room for both unpolished craziness hammered out by greasy basement-dwelling weirdos and shiny corporate Thomas Kinkaide paintings that offend nobody. If people are actually going to consider themselves political activists in furtherance of the latter, all I can do is shake my head in amused disbelief.

Yeah, I know, I said I was going to quit ranting about politics, but this American Heart episode not only involves YA fiction (which I write), all my favorite authors are weighing in on the subject. Which has a lot to do with my reasons for spending a very long period of my life singing Hakuna Matata instead of being the writer I was born to be.  

Night Owl

The doctor figured out I was vitamin D deficient and gave me a supplement, which is helping get rid of the fatigue that was kicking my butt during Hawaiicon and contributing to my recent outbreak of fatness. I can tell it's working because I'm awake late on a Friday. A couple of weeks ago I would have been asleep by ten, but I'm in weekend night owl mode.

I've always been a night owl. I like to stay up late reading, or chatting, or gaming, or writing, or playing with the cat, or looking at videos. Everything seems three hundred percent more fascinating after midnight. "Oh no, can't go to bed now, not when I've found this listicle of the forty scariest ghost photos taken on phones!"

It has nothing to do with partying or night life -- quite the opposite, in fact. Night is when people settle down and stop making so much noise, and I can hear myself think. People are cozy, inside their houses, wearing comfortable clothes, especially me.

I once knew an old wife who told me people tend to wake up around the time they were born. And I was born around sunset on Maui, which translates to California evening and there was indeed a period of my life when that was my wake up time, and bedtime was late in the morning, after a good breakfast. I never had a problem adapting to strange hours, but late at night is when I'm the most creative and smart. In the daytime my mind is very mundane and concrete and nonartistic, late at night I start thinking of things like "what names do pets use to think of their humans, and what do they mean?"

I'm convinced it's metabolic, because I turn into a morning person when I'm under stress. If I've had surgery, or faced travel and crowds, or some similar kind of shock, I'll turn into the kind of person who wakes up instantly alert at dawn and can't get back to sleep, or the kind of person who lies in bed at night waiting for sleep to sneak up on them. In normal mode, I'm the kind of person who can hit the snooze alarm until noon, and I'm usually sound asleep ten minutes after my head hits the pillow.

I don't dream very often. Dreaming happens when I'm running a fever, or when I sleep extra late in the morning sometimes I'll head into some goofy light pleasant dreams before I wake up. I have about one nightmare every fifteen years or so, and I treasure them.  Aside from that, I'm not much of a dreamer -- that's why I write speculative fiction, to manually extract all that surrealness from my brain.

My mind is more likely to throw me stunning visuals than symbolic theater. There was a gorgeous sunset photo posted by SFGate tonight and I thought it resembled some of the scenery in my dreams. Except this is where I actually live, and it really does look that dramatic and interesting at times. It's entirely possible my mind is reflecting mundane reality back at me, except my mundane reality is colorful.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Mixed-Up Brothers of Bogota

I'm too busy to be entertaining at the moment, but I was talking about this story in a Facebook group and thought you guys might like it. 

Once upon a time, in Bogota, there were two sets of twins. One set was a pair of city slickers, the others came from a poor rural background. When they were babies, all four of them went to the same hospital, and somebody accidentally mismatched them, so that the two families both unknowingly went home with one twin from each set. What happened next, and is nurture more powerful than nature?  I'll let you read the article and decide.

This is the kind of material I've got in mind when I write about my fictional nation of clones.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Dogpiling Discussion Continues

Now Francine Prose at the NY Review of Books is leaping into the discussion regarding that much-hated book, American Heart. Since Prose is the first one to actually come up with a synopsis, I think that yeah, the idea of a book about all the Muslims getting put in concentration camps but a white character befriends one and thus overcomes racism -- that's definitely a white savior narrative. Kinda like The Help. 

The other day I was thinking about the Bechdel Test.  It started out as the punch line in a comic strip; a woman is asked if she wants to check out a movie and cleverly replies she only likes movies where there are multiple women characters who talk about something other than men.  It resonates because so many extremely popular movies fail the test. 

As we're now seeing in different headlines, Hollywood is sort of like a feudal kingdom run by narcissistic sex offenders who tend to see women (and boys) as objects, which is something many people have realized for quite some time, yet you couldn't really talk about it. The Bechdel Test was something you could talk about, and quantify, and measure. Feminists picked up on it, and (as can happen), some of them took it extremely seriously. As some sort of litmus test, or something to enforce upon creatives ("pass the Bechdel Test or no grant/review/distribution for you!"). 

With American Heart, it looks like a bunch of reviewers on Goodreads basically said "ugh, this is a racist trope, I find it offensive." Other people took this as marching orders, and now we're hearing about it from all corners of the press. 

I'm cynical. I think the author planned this all along. I also think Francine Prose has one of the most measured reactions; I've liked her ever since her first novel, Hunters and Gatherers.

And I also think that wallowing in poorly written stories stuffed full of terrible ideas is an important part of adolescence. We all have treasured memories of cheesy transgressive pulp media enlivening our teen years ... well, maybe you don't, but that's cool, I can be obsessive enough for both of us.

And on that note, I will get back to writing my beach blanket sci fi dystopia featuring swimsuit hotties, cool boats and vicious dinosaurs.

OMG! It's already NaNoWriMo month! Less blogging, more noveling!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Open Clickbot Style

Every now and then this place gets a surge of visitors.  Typically I'll sit there basking in it for a moment, pretending my brilliant writing is attracting crowds of fans. Then when I go investigate my stats I'll learn the surge is entirely from one country, typically Russia, but today it's South Korea.

Haven't heard that song in a few years!

So yeah, I tend to assume it's probably hostile activity from people looking for stuff to pirate or infect with viruses or replicate back as those weird Facebook memes that are clearly not 100% familiar with the culture.  Perhaps it has to do with students of pop culture checking out everyday citizens so they can increase their cultural familiarity, and maybe it has to do with either increasing or decreasing the odds of an international war.

While the headlines are still patiently explaining that North Korea wants to nuke us and will probably attempt it any day now, I've tried to stop worrying about it. If they successfully get their missiles in the air and no interception happens, I'll hear the nuclear attack alert sirens (in San Francisco we test them every Tuesday at noon) before impact and rush home to die with my cat in my arms, the end.  If interception happens, well, that'll be the end of North Korea, and hopefully there won't be a lot of civilian casualties.

And hopefully South Korea will be okay, because they are cheeky and I like them.  I worked in the same building as their embassy for a while, and I enjoy their cultural exports such as Psy and meat jun and bi bim bap and kim chee. 

Strange times we live in.  If any of you foreign bots need any weird idioms translated, just drop me a comment.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Review: The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

The universe has handed me my favorite book of 2017 right after my least favorite – a new installment in the His Dark Materials saga. HDM is a trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), and a bitter gnostic tale of a love too pure to be anything but tragic, agonizing in the grasp of a wicked god. Normally I’d rant about a work like this, what with its philosophical ambitions and trendy postmodern multiverse-hopping and dark gothy emo-ness. But not this time, I happen to adore this series. Especially the first book, where we are introduced to Lyra Belacqua, her dysfunctional family, some armor clad polar bears and a magnificent Victorian-ish world full of anbaric light and gyrocopters, where everyone has a magical animal (or daemon) following them around representing their soul (mine would be a big scruffy-looking rabbit). 

Pullman’s world has a deep streak of anti-authoritarianism, something that makes my chest cavity feel all glowy on the inside. Wild child Lyra runs amok at Oxford, crashes with gypsies gyptians, consorts with witches, rescues other kids, rides bears and generally makes her own way, with occasional threats from her dangerous and predatory parents.

I can’t really explain why I love Pullman’s world so much, and yet despise similar attempts by more recent authors at combining cozy Britishness with edgy philosophical fantasy.  Perhaps it’s the daemons, and the idea of living in a world where everyone wears their soul on their sleeve (or their shoulder, or walking along beside them).  The idea of a new chapter in a saga that had been put to rest several years ago inspired me to acquire it immediately and dive in, where I was riveted, ignoring all other books until I finished. 

This book is a prequel that takes place when Lyra is still a baby, as is Pantalaimon (her daemon). The church against which she will someday rebel has an iron grip on the citizenry, and the wicked Marisa Coulter appears early on to spin a tale of St. Alexander, a “brave” boy who snitched on his friends/relatives and got them massacred, all in the name of Jesus. 

The hero here is Malcolm, the son of innkeepers, a stocky and sensible ginger who explores the river in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, when he’s not fetching beers and clearing plates at his parents’ place, or attending school. As his story begins, he encounters Lord Asriel, and baby Lyra herself, who is living with the nuns in a nearby convent. Not long after, he has an encounter with a gyptian who warns him of a hundred-year flood, which arrives in due course, turning England into a surreal fantasyland as Malcolm, his stalwart friend Alice and little baby Lyra make their way through the swollen rivers in La Belle Sauvage, pursued by a truly foul villain named Bonneville.

A bad novelist can make the imminent destruction of the planet boring. Phillip Pullman, who is the opposite of a bad novelist, can get my heart racing over whether just one bad guy is on our heroes’ trail. His badness, furthermore, is described with exquisite subtlety, nothing particularly graphic or explicit. There’s also a betrayer – the despicable Andrew – who ran a very close second. 

I’ve heard a few objections about F bombs appearing in this “children’s” book, but I must say I didn’t even notice them.  I’ve also heard people flat out objecting to the His Dark Materials saga as being not really a children’s book in the first place, even though the heroes are kids, due to the grim philosophy. I must say, as someone that isn’t really down with grim philosophy in the first place, this is one of my favorites and one of my main literary influences in the genre of ostensible kids’ book with enough symbology and subtext to attract the attention of broad-minded grownups. It’s an intelligent, compassionate, exciting, fair-minded story that pulls at your heart.

I love this book. It should win all the awards. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

I Hate That Last Stephen King Novel So Much I'm Writing a 2nd Post About It

Worst book ever!  Pro-feminist on its face, more sexist than John C. Wright in the execution! Characters that are forgettable and dimwitted! Stupid plot that culminates in a gunpowder orgy!

But you know what? I'm not going to write to anyone demanding they stop liking Stephen King.

I'm not going to write long impassioned rants about how King has personally caused HARM to CHILDREN -- rants which use "okay" as an adjective and wallow in non-reproducible psychiatric theories. I'm not going to burn my other Stephen King books (all of which are better) to make a point, especially since most of them are e-books that live in my Kindle app and what kind of moron wrecks their phone to get revenge on app content? Not this moron.

I don't care if you purchase this book, or read it, or enjoy it, although I will judge you if you start nattering about favorable opinions. Buy it for everyone you know, and spend your days finding new platforms to 5-star it on, see if I care. You are the one who has to live with your bad taste, not me.

I'm not going to leap to assumptions Stephen King is hiding a secret reserve of inner sexism despite his constant "virtue signalling" (as some call it) by writing things critical of sexism and guns and Trump and other politically charged topics. He's a good guy, he was just being clueless. I'll probably read his next one, and odds are really good it's not going to suck nearly as much.

I'm not going to organize a boycott so that his publisher forgets all about the zillions of dollars Mr. King has generated over the years and opts instead for a more tractable and predictable writer that won't go out on a limb with bizarre magical tales dressed up as science fiction. I'm not going to stroke the outrage machine, even if other people get it started.

Nope, none of that. Dude wrote a shitty book. It can happen to any of us. It would probably be happening to me right now if I weren't taking the time to write this post.

Is Dogpiling Silencing the People It's Theoretically Protecting?

That's what this HuffPost article claims. Yeah, yeah, I know I said I was going to focus on books rather than news, but this is an intelligent follow-up to yesterday's post.

To me, in my humble opinion, it sometimes seems white middle-class people use identity politics primarily as a way to fight with each other rather than to help minorities. Instead of, for example, calling for more books about US-Muslim relationships (the subject of the book referenced in my last post), there's a sense that absolutely nobody should go near the subject unless their execution is flawless. The price for poor execution: a lifelong sentence on the "do not publish" list.

The author of this piece, who describes himself as black and gay, concludes with an opinion that callout culture is mainly about two tribes of white people, fighting. He is gracious enough to grant them good intentions. I'm not that gracious; I think at least some of these people fanning the flames of controversy consider silencing less-frequently-heard voices to be an intended result.

EDIT: And now the New Yorker is jumping into the fray.

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.