I sent this to the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper today, after seeing the AP story about a Trump administration draft memo regarding mobilization of the National Guard to be used to round up undocumented immigrants. Yes, I am aware that we’re talking a draft, but I find it seriously horrifying that this is even being talked about as an option, however off-handedly or unseriously. This is not a thing you fucking joke about.
Anyway, that prompted me to write and send the following message today. I’m sharing it in the hope that others will feel encouraged to send similar messages.
Dear Governor Hickenlooper:
Per the Associated Press today, a draft memo from the Trump Administration showed they’re thinking about using the National Guard to round up undocumented immigrants. Considering the absolutely tragic and shameful history of our own state when it comes to the National Guard being mobilized against our citizens and residents (i.e.: the Ludlow Massacre), this calls on us all to speak firmly against this notion before it can gather steam.
Beyond that, undocumented immigrants are a vital part of Colorado society. It would be far better if they could have a path to legal citizenship or permanent residency, but lack of national will does not change the enormous contributions they make to Colorado daily. We should be respecting and protecting all of our residents, whether they have papers or not.
I urge you to speak out in strong support of undocumented Coloradans, and do everything in your power to keep their families from being torn apart by these unfair and racist policies we keep seeing from Washington DC. Make us a sanctuary state; while I know we can’t stop ICE, we can refuse to aide and abet the destruction of families and the victimization of innocent people who are integral to the fabric of Colorado.
With a lack of national will, it falls to us to step up and show our strength of spirit and compassion. I know Colorado is better than what our national government is currently trying to become.
All right, I’m flinging up my hands on this. I’ve poked at the 50 Shades Darker fundraiser repeatedly, and I think I’m basically shouting into the overwhelming roar of THE WORLD BEING ON FUCKING FIRE, so I don’t feel that bad, really. Also, the few responses I’ve gotten at all to trying to fundraise off the oncoming Valentine’s shitshow were, “No honey, I can’t do that to you.”
I love you too, guys, though I did volunteer for this gig. But I can’t say I’m sad that I’m not going to have to have yet more pop ballads ruined for me forever. (Seriously. Every time one of the songs that got used in 50 Shades of Gray comes on, I attempt to rip my radio out of my car to make it stop because I still remember that fucking awful movie.) I’m also imagining all of the disposable donation money is currently being flung at worthy causes like the ACLU and Standing Rock and the NAACP and CAIR because, again, THE WORLD IS ON FUCKING FIRE, so I can’t begrudge anyone that. We all have limited resources.
I guess my question is to you, people who enjoy listening to me rant about fucking awful movies I watched while drunk, is this moment over? Should I find a different way to humiliate myself in public to get people to fling money at charity? (And wait to do it until the world is no longer ON FUCKING FIRE?) Should I attempt this shindig one more time when the next Transformers movie comes out, because at least it will be less sexually disgusting okay well maybe, I mean we are talking about the franchise in which dudes metaphorically pissing on each other’s legs over the virginity of an underage girl was a major plot point?
What say you?
Today I met another refugee from the oil industry. This happens so often it’s like work is one giant reunion. Probably because construction is an industry where there’s a lot of crossover in skill sets, and it’s booming, so there are actually jobs. If you were a geologist, you can find a second life as a dirt guy. If you were an engineer, you can translate that over pretty easily to pipeline projects and the like.
“Oh yeah,” he told me. “They got me two years ago when the price per barrel hit $50. Day after that happened, me and all the other old timers were gone.” Then he laughed bitterly.
Yeah, I know the feeling, I said. I made it through two rounds of cuts and then they canned me in March 2016 because nothing had improved.
I have conversations like this every. fucking. day.
And you want to know why so many of us lost our jobs? I’ll give you a hint: it has fucking nothing to do with regulations, environmental or otherwise, on the petroleum industry. What got us all was the global price-per-barrel of crude oil. Here, if you want to see how dependent we are on that price, just take a look at measures like rig-count versus oil price in recent days.
At the time I got made redundant, there were a lot of pet theories floating around about why the oil price tanked. I don’t know if it’s now been clearly established, because frankly, I stopped caring as soon as I put the rubber to the road and got the fuck out of Houston. I do know that the favored pet theory of everyone I talked to back then was that OPEC opened the spigots because they were trying to drive all the foreign oil companies out of the Middle East.
But I can tell you what exactly NO ONE blamed the drop in price on: industry regulation.
The problem with the oil industry, the reason so many of us lost our jobs, is entirely on the supply side. There’s too much fucking supply versus demand, so the price drops. This is macro economics 101. This is not complicated. Deregulating the industry to make it easier for people to drill and produce is not going to solve this problem, because it will add more supply. At the absolute most, maybe it’ll produce a few short-term field jobs while the super cheap leases are getting developed just enough to hold on to them. Maybe it’ll keep a few struggling companies afloat longer and save a few jobs that currently exist by making production a little more economical until there’s so much of a glut that the bottom falls out again.
But it’s not going to bring my job back. It’s not going to bring any of our jobs permanently back. And what it’ll cost in environmental damage, in the loss of our common treasure as Americans, is far too high a price for very little actual benefit.
But this was never about me, or about people like me, or even people like my lovely ex Mike, who is still clinging to his job in Houston by the skin of his teeth. It was never about us and our lost jobs and severely depressed wages as we fled to other industries and our pensions that we will never see.
It. Was. Never. About. Us.
You know who this bullshit will help? Companies big enough that they can hunker down through these bust cycles and snatch up land for pennies on the dollar. Companies so big they can produce just enough to keep their leases going and eat the fact that it’s not profitable. Well, those companies and their major stockholders, I suppose.
People like, I don’t know, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state. Just throwing that out there.
Every time this bullshit comes up, I get so angry I can’t see straight. Because it is literally me and people like my fellow geologists and former roughnecks who are barely scraping by on jobs that pay us less than half of what we used to make–while many of us are still struggling to pay back our student loans we took out under the promise that we were heading into good, lifelong careers–being used as a shield by rich motherfuckers. It’s me and the other oil industry refugees that I see on construction sites every goddamn day getting used as a shield behind which our public lands will get looted and our public waterways will get polluted and we’ll all be left holding the tab for the cleanup because we’ll have even fewer ways to hold these companies accountable. It’s us who they’re trying to shift the blame to when people see black tides rolling into their back yards get really angry–I mean, it was for us to get jobs, right?
This was never and has never and will never be about the regular assholes like me who worked outside boardrooms and collected paychecks instead of massive stock options. And I’m done with it. I’m fucking done with it.
Please feel free to link anyone who actually believes this disingenuous bullshit to this page. Please print out one hundred copies and then roll them up into a paper nightstick you can use to beat people who don’t get this point over the head.
WE ARE NOT YOUR SHIELD.
I’m not that big of an animation person any more, but I’ve been excited to see this movie ever since I heard the Lin-Manuel Miranda was involved in the music. And I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, though not without reservation.
In Moana, the titular character is the daughter of her village’s chieftain, so will follow in his place as chief. There’s a blight that’s spread to their island, thanks to the mischievous demigod Maui having stolen the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. Moana embarks on a journey to find Maui and make him fix his mistake, and in so doing, takes her people back out onto the open ocean.
In all honesty, the main bits of this movie I wasn’t utterly charmed by involved Maui. The character felt very off, going from egotistical trickster to suddenly having a sort of angsty backstory to… justify him being a jerk, I guess. I make no claims to know how accurate or inaccurate he is to his legends (though I get the impression after some googling that he is upsettingly inaccurate), but he came across as a very standard sort of bully boy character who eventually makes good more because the script says so than because his character development makes that much sense.
There were also things I was puzzled about, like the Kakamora–evil little animated coconuts, as far as I could tell–showing up in a rig that looked like a homage to Mad Max: Fury Road. My only guess is it was a sequence created to justify a line of toys, because it really didn’t to anything in the movie. Though I actually did find them less offensive than the random troll things in Frozen, perhaps because they still somehow made more sense.
But aside from Maui (and that’s a big aside considering he’s the main supporting character to Moana), there is so much about the movie that I loved. I loved that Moana’s story doesn’t pivot on romance, but rather a quest to discover who she is, who her people are, and to save their way of life. I loved that Moana is a gorgeous brown girl that my nieces (who are also gorgeous brown girls) got to watch saving the day. Moana is truly their princess. I loved that Moana’s grandmother is a independent and happily odd old lady, who is her granddaughter’s spiritual guide. Grandma was the MVP of the film and tied with Moana for being my favorite character.
And then there was this:
Not ashamed to admit it: this song made me cry. Not because I was sad, but because I was so awed by the sheer ingenuity and beauty of humanity. This song is about the Polynesians traveling vast distances between islands in their voyaging canoes, which is one of those historic wonders that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. And reading more about this wonder lead me to find out about the Hōkūle’a Voyaging Canoe, which is a modern recreation of those ancient voyages.
I’m not too big into animated movies any more, but this was a good one and worth watching. If you want to read a bit further about the history of the Polynesian voyages (among other things), this was a good place to start: How does the story of Moana and Maui holds up against cultural truths?
Assassin’s Creed is utterly, delightfully bonkers as a movie. It’s really damning the movie with faint praise to say it’s probably the best video game film I’ve ever seen, but that’s one statement that it feels very fair to make.
In Assassin’s Creed, Michael Fassbender plays a being of pure manpain named Cal, who after being executed for murder finds that it was all a massive fake-out. He’s now prisoner in a facility run by the Templars, an organization so secretive that they put their logo on everything, including the outside of the giant building they own in Spain. The Templars also really hate the fact that humans have free will. Templar scientist Sofia (Marion Cotillard) uses Cal to search for the free-will McGuffin “the Apple of Eden” by using his “genetic memory” to make him relive the life of his ancestor Aguilar from 500 years ago and sticking him on the end of a giant mechanical arm that shakes him around like a ragdoll.
The concept of the film is quite stupid. I think, honestly, it’s meant to be stupid. You either nope out of the film because your disbelief can’t handle this level of suspension after the first ten minutes, or get over the stupidness threshold of the plot. At which point you are free to enjoy the absolutely batshit ride that involves Michael Fassbender being flung around at the end of a mechanical arem while loudly singing, or very memorably, stripping off his shirt for a protracted sequence for no reason other than he presumably knew I would be watching the movie. (Thank you Mr. Fassbender, by the way.)
And it’s a very pretty batshit ride, by the way. There’s an excellent contrast in the cool pallet of colors used in the “modern” sequences versus the warm in the memories. All of the assassin parkour nonsense is a pleasure to watch. This is a film that’s easy to enjoy on purely aesthetic levels, particularly when those aesthetic levels keep you from screaming every time the nonsensical genetic memory thing gets brought up.
I haven’t played the Assassin’s Creed games myself, though now I’m a bit tempted to try. The friends I saw the movie with reported that they were very pleased that the movie used the mythos but had its own story rather than trying to directly rehash one of the games. They were also happy to report that the modern-time sequences that insisted on punctuating the lengthy sequences of Michael Fassbender and Ariane Labed free running through fake medieval Spain were at least less boring than the ones in the game. So good for that.
Looking back on the movie, I’m pretty sure that it passes the Bechdel-Wallace test handily, thanks to a couple of the villains having a chat about their plans for humanity. I was actually pretty surprised just how many women there were in the movie. The apparent head of the evil organization is an older woman; Sofia is in charge of the project that’s using Cal and the other descendants of assassins. Maria (Labed) is a joy to watch, and I’d like to know when we’re going to get her movie. Michelle H. Lin gets a pretty significant chunk of screen time in the modern-day bits of the movie. The cast also wasn’t entirely Wonderbread white, and I want to call on Michael K. Williams as Moussa as a particular favorite.
It’s not a good movie, but it’s definitely a fun movie, and in its own way felt less soulless than a lot of scifi action movies I’ve watched lately. It is beautifully and unabashedly what it is.
This story was originally published in Lakeside Circus in 2016. As the Lakeside Circus website seems to be down long-term, I’m going to go ahead and repost is here on my blog so it’s still available to be read.
Note that this is the original as-submitted version of the story. I think there were a few edits made to it before it was published, but I seem to have lost that file.
Josh wiggled his fingers in the moonlight, pale and graceful, and imagined them as fingerlings in the river, sliding through the currents. Under his bed, something buzzed like an angry bee.
Silvery fish flowed in through the open window, large as dobermans, blue moonlight glittering from flat eyes and scaled, underslung jaws.
Josh pulled his quilt up over his nose, afraid to breathe, heart thumping in his chest. Fish had no ears, right? They had teeth; he saw them, glittering triangles. Their fins waved slowly like the air had become water, too thick for lungs to hold.
The buzz sounded again from under his bed, like a cell phone vibrating over carpet but much lower, an angry growl.
It had to be the box.
The night before he had woken from a dream of running, running down a mountainside like Indiana Jones, a carved wooden box tucked under one arm, stolen from a temple where sylphs danced and men with long beards and longer knives scattered sand in great handfuls.
The box stayed in his arms when he woke, a creaky puzzle of mahogany that read like a story under his fingertips. He smashed it open with a hammer when he couldn’t decipher its knots and whorls, overeager to find within it the content of his dreams. The inside was lined with midnight blue velvet, cradling the silver shard of a mirror that twisted rather than reflected his face, showing his nose eating his cheeks one second and shrunk to a pinpoint the next.
Josh had shoved the mirror back into the gaping hole of the box’s lid, then rolled the mess up in a tattered green army surplus blanket normally reserved for picnics and hidden it under his bed like a shameful secret. He’d hidden other secrets there before, the results of pranks: stolen pencil cases and Lana Douglas’s pigtail, cut off with a pen knife.
From under the bed, the box snarled, insistent and angry.
Startled, the fish whipped in the air, flicking their fins and streaming back out into the night.
snap and crash and slam, doors up an down the block opened. “What the hell are those?” a man shouted. More people screamed in a wordless cacophony, high and discordant and then crunch. One less scream.
He knew that crunch. He’d hit Jeffery’s little sister’s bunny with his go cart, and accident, and it had made that sound. It had made him sick. He never wanted to hear that sound again, but it still echoed in his ears.
The cool night air gnawed his bare legs as he twisted free of his quilt. Josh’s shaking fingers found the rough blanket and he pulled the box from under his bed. Shards of wood scattered across the floor, too complex a puzzle to be solved with the roll of duct tape his father kept next to the hammer.
Josh reached for the warped mirror, and saw the way it twisted his fingers into lithe silver fish in the moonlight. That had to be the answer, then; the mirror turned what it saw into a monster. He grabbed the Louisville slugger next to his bed and drove it into the glass again and again, crack and crash and smash, until the mirror was little more than powder.
The silvery dust smeared across the floor made him a distorted, fuzzy shadow. The back of his throat tasted metallic with fear, like he’d licked up some of that shattered mirror. Dreams can’t be destroyed; they can only be contained. The words of his third grade teacher echoed up from his memory. When she’d said that, it had been a hopeful message. No one can hurt your dreams, they can only try to cage them up. You want to be a baseball player, a race car driver, a brain surgeon? No one can stop you. Smash the locks, open the cages, ignore the doubts, let your dreams be free.
But nightmares, Josh felt with the clarity of a bone needle dragging down his spine, like the teeth of the silver fish, were dreams as well. Nightmares were just a different direction for reality to twist, down into the dark.
At his window something growled, the low rumble of distant thunder, of some ancient beast freed from the shards of a broken prison. Josh’s hands tightened on his slugger as he turned. It was his dream, his nightmare, and he should be able to beat it, right? Dreams – nightmares – couldn’t be bigger, stronger, than the people who dreamed them, right?
Only he’s learned in school about I have a dream, and about I am become Death.
Hot, dank breath rolled through the room as Josh howled into the face of a reflection shattered past all recognition.
The excellent John D asked on a previous writing nuts and bolts post:
On a related note, how soon is too soon to submit another story to a magazine after a rejection. One of them just rejected a story of mine (but included a nice note, which I do appreciate) and I have another story that I think might fit their guidelines. I don’t want to seem overly pushy or idiotic, so how long should I wait before submitting the new story to them?
And I figure that’s an important enough question that it deserves its own post. For more of the nitty-gritty stuff, see the writing advice category/tag.
The first thing here is everyone’s old favorite, read the submission guidelines. Quite a few markets specify in the guidelines if there’s a cooling-off period before you can submit again. For example, F&SF has a 15-day waiting period, which is only in effect if they answer your submission in less than 15 days. Lightspeed wants you to wait 7 days. So does Clarkesworld. And I’m sure there are more, those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. But you don’t have to remember which ones off the top of your head, because the submission guidelines will tell you.
If there isn’t a specified waiting period between submissions, then that’s it. You can submit something again the second after you receive your rejection for the previous story. And I’d encourage you to do so, if you have something you think fits the market.
I know it does feel a bit pushy to be like, “Hey I know you just rejected my last story, but how do you like me now?” But this isn’t personal. You’re trying to sell a story to an editor, not date them. Especially if an editor takes the time to tell you that they liked what you sent and want to see more, send them more. Don’t wait.
Personal anecdote time: when I was querying my agent, the inimitable DongWon Song, he sent me an extremely nice “no thanks” on the first novel I sent him. I took about thirty seconds to run in circles and think oh god I’m going to sound like a pushy, desperate jerk and then I screwed my courage to the sticking point and asked him: “okay, but would you maybe be interested in this other novel I have stashed in my back pocket?” And I’m glad every day that past me had the guts to do that, because now that’s the thrilling conclusion to my “how I got an agent” story.
Editors, while I think they try as a matter of course to not destroy anyone’s soul, are not there to blow sunshine up your ass. If they say they want to see more, they’re not just saying that to make you feel better. Every personal note I sent with a rejection to tell someone that I wanted to see more from them if I did another anthology was from the heart.
And honestly? Even if you didn’t get a personal note or a “please send more” rejection, send more if what you have is polished and appropriate. The story that got rejected didn’t work out, but the next one might. You don’t know until you send it, and each story is a new chance. There’s no need to wait, and it’s definitely not being pushy.
Another transatlantic flight, another round of movies watched because I can’t sleep and find it utterly impossible to work on my laptop in the extremely limited space available in economy.
The Girl With All the Gifts: This movie shows the British still reign supreme in zombie cinema. And this one with a twist, where the main character isn’t a survivor, but a second generation infected girl who may be the key to the development of a vaccine for the infection—if the involved survivors can be reconciled to treating her as an object rather than a person. Weird, gorgeous, creepy, and utterly heartbreaking. Do yourself a favor and see this movie. It’s already out in the UK, and should be released in the US in February. If there’s any justice in the world, this film will get nominated for a Hugo, but I fear the confusion over release dates (2016 in the UK, 2017 in the US) and the fact that it’s not a major franchise will probably scuttle its chances.
The Secret Life of Pets: I mostly liked this for how all of the cats acted, not going to lie–particularly Max’s friend with that immortal and fundamentally cat like, “As your friend you should know I don’t care about you or your problems.” The plot, such as it was, didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense and just had the characters careening around between random bits. Glad I didn’t bother seeing it in the theater, but I’d still take this one over Frozen any day of the week. Plus, thank you for a dog movie that doesn’t involve a protracted fart joke scene.
Far From the Madding Crowd (2015): I wanted to like this, because I’m honestly a bit trash for romance stories of this sort. The problem was, I didn’t really get an impression of chemistry between any of the characters. (And I really, really didn’t get why everyone was so about Bathsheba, other than Frank wanting her money.) So it was a decent enough movie, but I just felt disappointed because I wanted more.
Edge of Winter: A thriller that could be subtitled “the dangers of toxic masculinity.” A divorced, emotionally volatile dad takes his kids out to teach them how to be men (eg: shooting a gun, making fun of each other for crying) and then escalates to outright kidnapping when he finds out that their mom and stepdad are planning to move. There’s some good acting, it’s got a deliberate and creepy buildup, and the realism of the situation really adds to it. But goddamn the score was aggravating. For example, we hear the dad tell his son, “listen to that, you can hear every little sound” in the woods as the soundtrack goes BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Stop trying to help.
Writing This Year
Novels: 0 completed, though I did several full edits on both Hunger Makes the Wolf and The Novel Formerly Known as King’s Hand. Oh, and I sold Hunger Makes the Wolf to Angry Robot (holy shit!!!!) which is why it’s got that as a title now rather than Fire in the Belly. Wrote 12K words on a novel project for someone else that has unfortunately been put on hold now. Also wrote a 10.8K-word outline for the sequel to Hunger Makes the Wolf because no I don’t have a problem you have a problem. I’m about 20K words into that novel now.
Short Stories: 3
Feature Length Scripts: 2
Paid Reviews/Nonfiction: 5 (plus 10 Book Riot posts)
Editing: I edited a short story anthology, No Shit There I Was and we’re in the final stages of getting it ready to go. I also briefly did some very low-paying freelance editing (of romance stories, of all things) while I was unemployed, during which I learned quite a bit.
Consigned to the trunk of awfulness, never to return: None this year, surprisingly. Maybe I’ve winnowed it down enough.
Best/Favorite story of the year: I think I’m obligated to say it’s Hunger Makes the Wolf, which will be my first published novel as of next year. And I’m very pleased with it! Sons of Anarchy meets Dune and all, thank you Mike Underwood for coming up with that awesome description. Second place goes to the short story I wrote recently that involves a Latina retiree in a punk band. I hope I’ll get to share that one with you at some point.
Magic Spreadsheet wordcount: I have been tracking on the spreadsheet since June 24, 2013.
- Total words written: 465,741
- Average words per day: 1,276 (better than last year’s 1,110/day)
- Days in a row written: 1, 286 (3 years without stopping, still going strong)
Queries sent: 36
Rejections received: 27
Most rejections received: This year, it’s Excerpts from the Personal Journal of Dr. V. Frankenstein, MD, Department of Pathology, Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, with seven rejections, but I love that story and am going to keep trying.
Total earned: $7,791.47 which is the most I’ve earned from writing in any year, by a lot. I even turned a profit, technically, which is very exciting. I did my best to hustle freelance work while I was unemployed in the hopes that I could make a go at supporting myself, but basically many people seem to think that writers/editors don’t deserve to make even minimum wage for the amount of time they spend on things. (For example, paying $20 for a novellette that it took me five hours to edit well because it was such a hot mess.)
Published this year:
- Spirit Tasting List for Ridley House, April 2016 from Shimmer
- The Long Game from Kaleidotrope
- .subroutine:all///end in Shimmer #31
- Silver Fish from Lakeside Circus
- Fire in the Belly from Mothership Zeta
- Game Review: Have You Met My New Birdie? He’s a Lawyer
- There Is No “I” in Lazer Team
- I Wish I’d Read Xenogenesis Twenty Years Ago
- A New Hope
- Lavie Tidhar’s novel Central Station is a mosaic of posthuman problems (Ars Technica)
- I Want the Longest Audiobook You have (Book Riot)
- Seven First Contact Novels (Book Riot)
- Buy, Borrow, Bypass: “Great Literature” I Hated in High School (Book Riot)
- Talking to Writers at Parties (Book Riot)
- What’s Being Done to Fix the Hugos (Book Riot)
- No Judgment Zone: Tie-in Edition (Book Riot)
- Unicorns and Swords: Nostalgia Reading (Book Riot)
- Books to Read at the Poké Stop (Book Riot)
- An Open Letter to a Novel I Was Certain I’d Love (and Didn’t) (Book Riot)
- Why Field Geologist Should Always Carry a Paperback (Book Riot)
Slated for 2017:
- Hunger Makes the Wolf from Angry Robot Books (available for pre-order!)
- Comfort Food in Haunted Futures
- Past the Black Where Call the Horns in Kzine
- Vaca Muerta and the Hounds of Heck in GigaNotoSaurus
Goals for 2017
- Shut up and write.
- Get Angry Robot the next book, well-written and on time.
- Get Wrath written.
- Write at least one more feature-length screenplay, if not two.
- Keep submitting to festivals.
- Six short stories, including the birthday short. After five years, I think I’m going to keep on with that as a tradition, mostly because it feels nice to write a story with the aim of giving the money to charity. I have no idea what I’m going to do for this year, but we’ll see.
- Another anthology? Get it in development at least.
- Finally convince Bungie to let me write that Twilight Gap novel in the style of Killer Angels. I’ve got to have an impossible dream on this list every year, right?
- This was the year I finally got an agent, the inimitable DongWon Song. Holy shit.
- This was the year I sold a novel. Holy shit.
- I submitted one of my screenplays to a film festival and was a finalist. That was… unexpected, and confidence-boosting.
- Officially received my Feature Film Screenwriting Certificate from UCLA. For what that’s worth.
- Lost my job. Moved back to Colorado. Got a new job in a completely different industry. That was… a major change.
- I spent more days than I care to remember ripping cat pee soaked carpet out of my house and even more days in the bowels of home improvement hell as the flooring was replaced. Not the most fun I’ve had in my life.
- This is the year I came out. I’m still finding places where I need to change my name and I suspect I will be for a while.
- Still a Sunbreaker for life, yo.
Recently, my buddy Paul mentioned the science fiction short story I love to hate, The Cold Equations.
The Cold Equations, and your reaction to it are a keystone to how and what you think about science fiction. Read it, and see into yourself.
— Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) December 15, 2016
To be honest, if you want a description of why I find the story morally reprehensible, just go read what Cory Doctorow wrote about it over two years ago and imagine me pointing to every word and screaming, “YES, THIS.” But one thing I do want to talk about is that I think it’s also, frankly, shitty writing craft.
Let me take a moment to raise the drawbridge, I can sense the mob lighting its torches. There we go.
I don’t know if I’ve ever made my disdain of Chosen One/Prophecy/Do X Or The World Blows Up stories clear on this blog, but there it is. I really don’t like stories that are predicated upon removing one of the major choices of its protagonist. Particularly the last – no one short of a sociopath would realistically, upon being told that the world will literally end if they don’t carry the Magic Arglebargle to the Forbidden Closet of Trumblebutt, would say nah, I think I’m good. The understandable period of denial on that one is really just playing coy with the inevitable.
Stories like The Cold Equations are that kind of agency removal on steroids, except at the end you feel like no matter how many showers you take, you will never be clean again. The entire point of the story is the removing all character agency so they are left with one shitty, reprehensible choice. They make the choice, story ends, everyone feels so bad for the poor character and the way they were railroaded by fate in the form of very particular authorial (or in the case of TCE, editorial) choices. Stories that spend a significant amount of words building baroque and frankly unbelievable systems just to force a perfectly good character into a corner aren’t so much stories as torture devices.
They’re also damn boring in my opinion, but that’s because I’m a big fan of character-driven stories. I don’t really want to see someone get moved to and fro by the winds of fate while they feel bad about the situation and do absolutely nothing.
That these stories are often hailed as being somehow realistic is even more problematic. In real life, the number of times someone is backed into a corner where they literally have only one possible choice are vanishingly small. Often times, all of the choices are varying shades of bad, but they are still there. You may feel like you have no choice, but that is not the same as objectively having no choices like occurs in The Cold Equations.
This is not to be confused with a character making a reprehensible choice and then justifying it to themselves with the mantra of “I had no other choice.” That is an intensely realistic reaction. People build their own internal narratives so that they are the hero, or they go mad.
Rather, stories like The Cold Equations are an intrusion of the author into the moral universe of the audience, an attempt to force the character’s internal narrative of “I had no other choice” onto us. They quite literally had no choice, don’t you see? You must remain on their side, dear reader. It’s a cheap way to allow a character to do something utterly terrible and still keep the audience on board. To sympathize with them. Because really, if we were put in the same ridiculous, artificial situation, we’d have to do the same, right?
Recently at a writing workshop, a friend of mine was taking critique on a chapter of his novel. (This story is being told with his permission, by the way.) He had a situation where his main character needed to pretend to have done something terrible to an innocent woman. All right. But then he asked if we, as readers, would still like the character if he roughed the woman up a little to give his charade verisimilitude. Okay, but what if he really, really felt bad about it? What if he had no other choice?
That was the point where I interjected with this question: “Why are you trying to make it okay for your character to beat up a woman?”
Later when we talked a bit more about it, he mentioned that he wanted to be unflinching in his writing. Which strikes me as something a lot of people strive toward. I have opinions about “gritty” fiction that don’t need to be expounded upon here. But my question is why, if you want to be unflinching about the badness of the situation your character is in, do you then flinch away from the negative reaction your audience may have to their choice?
When I was a baby writer, I found writing plots that forced the characters into corners so they had to make the choices I wanted, often in the pursuit of being “gritty” and “edgy.” I have since course corrected, and all of those stories have been mercifully exiled into the Trunk of Awfulness, never to see the light of day. But as I look over those early efforts, I can’t help but feel more than a little creeped out. Because in real life, I can tell you who most often uses the “I had no choice,” narrative to justify the unjustifiable.
I didn’t want to, but you made me hit you. Why would I want to build worlds in which there is no choice but the most immoral? Why would I want to convince readers that it’s a something to sympathize with? It’s something that just couldn’t be helped, because that’s the way the world is?
These are not absolutes, of course. Nothing in art is. Nothing in life is. But the next time you find yourself engineering a situation where your character has no choice, ask yourself why. Ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. And be unflinching in your answer.