The Shopping Cart Apocalypse

The wait is over! Several months ago I sold a strange little short story called "The Shopping Cart Apocalypse" to PseudoPod, a premier horror podcast. I came up with the title while I was walking through the parking lot of my local Target (yes, really). I've never written a story from the title until this one, and I wrote the story in a frenzy, unsure of why the idea had taken me over so completely. It is not only the first story I wrote from the title forward: It is also my first pro sale and my first podcasted story.

I am extremely happy with Alasdair Stuart's reading. He's amazing, and brings more of the story to life than I could have wished for. Dagny Paul's analysis is also wonderful, deftly tying together character threads I feared I'd left too disparate or obscure (and in the process, easing my fears).

You can listen to the story here: http://pseudopod.org/2016/09/01/pseudopod-506-the-shopping-cart-apocalypse/

OR, just subscribe to PseudoPod and get so many other wonderful stories in addition to mine.

Remain vigilant

Remain vigilant

A Brief History

When I was a child, every shopping cart was made of metal. They were industrial things that were meant to take a beating, not to be replaced no matter how much they rattled over that one broken wheel, no matter how hard they pulled left against the straight line you needed to travel. Supermarkets sold ad space to realtors and lawyers on them. They weren't convenient and they weren't pretty, but they did the job.

Pray for your lives

Pray for your lives

As far as I knew at the time, shopping carts were safe.

There was a thing that we had to do, my siblings and I. To keep from getting separated in the store, the four of us had to keep contact with the cart at all times while my mom steered, four little hands hanging precariously onto the side. It was a game, almost, except that if we broke the rules we’d be in real trouble. The cart was the safe space in this game. Letting go was dangerous.

As far as I knew at the time, shopping carts were fun. Babies got to ride at the front, in the seat. I was not a baby, but if I was good I was allowed to ride beneath the cart bed. It was like a little cockpit, enclosed, propelled. I could pretend I was in a racing car, or a spaceship. I never once thought of it as a mouth.

This was so popular among children my age that the local supermarket actually added seats in the undercarriages to make it more comfortable. It was great.

One day, a friend of mine, riding in this way, holding tight to the sides, got her hand caught between the wheel and the wheel guard. It took a real bite out of her, breaking fingers, tasting blood.

The underseats were gone that week. I wonder if maybe her parents somehow got the number for a lawyer from somewhere... There was suddenly a new policy that children could no longer ride on the bottoms of the carts. We did anyway.

We didn't understand the warning behind that “accident.” We still thought the carts were safe, fun. Oh, how little we knew.

Nothing good can come of this.

Nothing good can come of this.

There are still metal carts today, of course but more and more of them are plastic, and most of those are the same bright red as my friend’s bloodied hand. They don't have to be built to last anymore, you see. We finally managed to push them too far, and i things keep going the way they have been, they won’t be serving us much longer.

I mean, how bad could it get?

T-minus 10 days. I've seen how this story ends and things are going to get ugly.

Stay tuned, citizens.

The Good-Ass Dinosaur

I wanted a GIF of Spot peeing, but this is what we get..

I wanted a GIF of Spot peeing, but this is what we get..

It's been a few weeks since I watched The Good Dinosaur and I've been wanting to write about it ever since. I love this movie, in part because of the extremely satisfying ways in which this movie loves other movies. In some ways, I hold The Good Dinosaur up alongside WALL-E, which was another movie that loved movies. And while WALL-E was a beautifully executed love letter to silent films and early Hollywood, The Good Dinosaur is just as beautifully executed a love letter to the tent-poles of Disney hand-drawn animation.

The emphasis in The Good Dinosaur's case is on the word beautiful. I'll say more about why this is important later, but for the moment I'll just enthuse, because hoooly shit does this movie look incredible. I've seen criticisms of the film that point out the discordance between the realism of the environments and the cartoonish character designs of Arlo and Spot, but for my money this is a feature and not a bug. Not only is there something satisfying about discordance in art - the conflict between the styles creates tension in the viewer - but in this case I also think it's appropriate. There is no real antagonist in the movie, but Arlo struggles throughout with the environment; so it makes sense that the environment would oppose the character stylistically.

But the environments. Oh, man. I wish I had pushed myself to see this when it was in theaters. The environments are virtually photo-realistic - it's even possible they fall into... should we call it the too-canny valley? Real life wishes it looked so photo-realistic. There's an early shot of water lapping against rocks on the shore that is bewilderingly well-rendered.

And the water effects are actually a good jumping off point for the idea of this movie as something of a grand tribute. Anybody who's seen The Lion King and The Good Dinosaur drew the connection between Poppa's death and Mufasa's death, the stampeding river taking the place of the stampeding herd. I won't linger on this moment, because it does announce itself, except to say how horrifically well-executed it is. The impact of the water is visceral, and the timing of the cut leaves no doubt that Poppa could never have survived.

I'd wager, as well, that anybody looking out for Lion King references caught the echoes of the hyenas in both the pterosaur and the raptor groups and, heartbreakingly, the remix of Mufasa's Ghost when Arlo confronts Poppa's ghost. This is a wonderful scene, as Arlo tries and fails to walk in his father's footsteps before moving forward in his own direction. The scene also implies that had Arlo followed the ghost of his father, he would have died. More than that, the vines around Arlo's neck echo the rope trap Spot was caught in earlier - in both cases, it is Arlo's decision not to follow his father that saves a life. Which is frankly a whole level of deep I'm not sure this movie gets enough credit for.

But The Lion King Tributes are the easy ones here, and I want to move forward by talking about a scene that, frankly, I didn't know what to do with when I first saw it. There is an exceedingly strange scene in which Arlo and Spot get high as shit on some hallucinogenic, rotting fruit. A friend on Twitter mentioned how this scene carried some not so subtle shades of Dumbo (who also had a bewildering round of intoxicated hallucinations) and a lot of things started to fall into place.

At this point it's worth coming back to talk about the art of The Good Dinosaur. The artists behind the movie had to literally create a new method for rendering environments to get the level of detail they achieved while at the same time filming open environments. Outside of establishing shots, the vast majority of 3D animated scenes in most movies are shot in enclosed sets, to keep the amount of data that needs to be rendered in the animation reasonable. Not so here. Not even remotely so. The Good Dinosaur achieved a sustained level of both detail and depth that has literally never been seen in computer animation of any actual length.

It took six years for Disney to complete production on Sleeping Beauty. The background art in Sleeping Beauty is famously painstaking and intricate, and the movie marks a level of pure artistic quality that the studio never again attempted without a CG assist. I can't help thinking of the amount of detailed work and artistic innovation that went into the creation of The Good Dinosaur without also thinking of Sleeping Beauty, and with that connection made, I can't watch the scene when Arlo is tangled in a knot of thorned vines (which already calls back so evocatively to The Lion King) without also thinking of Maleficent's thorned vines in Sleeping Beauty. I can hardly imagine that the similarity is coincidental.

All this without yet looking at the film's story. The Good Dinosaur is fairly textbook Bildungsroman, but if Arlo's arc isn't innovative it is earned. His loyalty to Spot is hard won (Spot digs him out from under a rockpile, feeds him, AND saves him from a snake attack before Arlo warms up to the pet, and it still takes a stunning turn of visual storytelling as the characters bond over the deaths of their parents before the loyalty is finally won). And if the Bildungsroman - the character arc - itself is something we're used to seeing, the plot structure is not very common in mainstream movies these days. The "upside down checkmark" and Hero's Journey are much more common at the moment than what we see.

The Good Dinosaur is, for the most part, episodic. Once on his journey, Arlo gets stuck under the rocks, encounters the snake, runs across the Pet Collector, escapes the pterosaurs, meets the tyrannosaurs, and finally returns home. No one episode is necessarily more dramatic or difficult than any other, except perhaps the last, and the only thing linking most of them is the environment itself: the landmarks of the river and the mountain literally guiding Arlo through the otherwise disconnected encounters.

The unsurprising character arc and episodic storytelling are among the most common criticisms of the movie I've seen in its generally lukewarm reviews, but to me, again, these are features rather than bugs. A lot has been made of the well-reported story problems the movie had before Peter Sohn was promoted to director, and of the dramatic changes he made to get the story to work, and I think it doesn't give him much credit for his efforts or his talents, because the story he wrestled the previously troubled project into is tightly plotted and effectively paced. Because Arlo's arc is so thoroughly earned, it doesn't need to be complicated. And if the plot is episodic, that's just as thoroughly in the Disney animated tradition as any of the callbacks to Lion King, Dumbo, and Sleeping Beauty.

I'm thinking now about Alice in Wonderland (another Disney movie with some interesting references to intoxicants and hallucinogenics, by the way), though there are many worse Disney cartoons with episodic plots. Structurally speaking, the way Arlo bounces from one adventure to the next is not so different from the way Alice bounces from encounter to bewildering encounter, the Pet Collector not so different from the Mad Hatter, the wildly grinning disembodied head of Spot not so different from the Cheshire cat, and so on. I don't think all of these parallels are intentional, but I do feel that when they are familiar they are familiar because they come from the same tradition of animation that The Good Dinosaur so clearly loves so much.

It is also, on a more basic level, just a good-ass movie, with astonishing visuals and consistently difficult, satisfying emotional moments, from the horrifying loss of Poppa to the heartbreaking moment when Momma mistakes Arlo's sillhouette for his father (and how about the visual power that moment: the shadow identified as Poppa until the moment Arlo steps out of it). Beautiful. Yes. That's the word for the whole thing.

Hello website, my old friend

It's high time I came back with a proper post and remembered to do some maintenance here. I'm always very active on Twitter, if you'd like to keep up with me reliably.

Me on Twitter

Me on Twitter

But, it's Independence Day and I'm about to shower in the middle of the day and then eat all the food. So a proper post can wait.

In the meantime, I have a million-mile-an-hour job, two brand new kittens who love belly rubs, and I'm getting married in a few months. In September, I'll have two new stories coming out (one to appear in an anthology, and the other on mfing Pseudopod, and it's going to be amazing), and I'm actively submitting some short stories I hope to be able to show off soon.

In other news, I saw The Good Dinosaur and Finding Dory, and I have MANY THOUGHTS about both. My feelings about The Good Dinosaur are similar to those I have about Brave: it's a really great piece of work that critics and audiences didn't know exactly what to do with. Finding Dory is also great.

I'm hoping to write more extensively about all this soon. Especially the new stories. But ESPECIALLY about how unfairly underrated I think The Good Dinosaur is.

It's Called Pantsing, Apparently

I'm in the middle of a complete short story revision right now. The story, tentatively titled "The Fisher and the Trout" is about the perpetual misery of living up to the ideals of selflessness. It's also about a talking hairy fish. It's about many things.

The process has me thinking about revision, though.

I'm a pantser, I guess. It's a broad term, and in broad terms, it fits. If you're not familiar, the idea is that some writers -- plotters -- carefully plan and outline the structure and details of their stories before writing the text and others -- pantsers -- pursue the structure and details of their stories as they write them. "Plotters" feels self-explanatory. "Pantsers," I guess, is the word because it describes writing "by the seat of your pants." When I visualize it, though, I imagine dressing up my story without really stopping to think about what clothes look good together and then, when I'm finished and have had the chance to step back and see how few of the elements work together, ripping off the pants to replace them with a better fit. This feels accurate.

I almost never outline a story before I write it. Sometimes it works, depending on the story, but more often than not the narratives that pop out of me during the drafting process resist traveling in the directions I've already planned for them. It's frustrating to build a whole outline just to break it, irreparably, two pages in, so mostly I discovery write.

That means my first drafts can be pretty messy, with the beginnings, middles, and endings of those drafts rarely reflecting each other in a way that isn't purely free associative. So from my perspective, that means that imposing structure in my revision is more important than it would be otherwise. This is how I impose that structure:

I write an outline.

Specifically, I go through the finished draft and write a scene-by-scene outline that tracks a particular set of details across the whole thing. In rough terms, the outline looks like this:

  1. Bare-Bones Summary of the Scene's Action
    1. Any characters, character details, or meaningful information that is appearing for the first time.
    2. Any meaningful information that is being repeated.

      The desires of any character appearing in the scene.
      The decision made by any character appearing in the scene w/r/t these desires

Repeat for every scene. Lately, I've been doing this in a doc so I can record comments in the margins as I go.

I pick this information because it makes it easier to see the whole story all at once. The scene summaries show me how the narrative action progresses, which lets me assess global structural flaws, pacing issues, etc. Keeping track of when things appear for the first time allows me to track when I've seeded that information too early or -- much more likely -- too late. Tracking how often those details appear once they've been introduced allows me see how well I'm guiding the reader over the course of the narrative, when I'm pushing something too hard or not enough. It also lets me discover patterns I had not seen before, and use them for the better (for instance, I inadvertently wrote in several scenes that a character in this particular story brushes her hair away from her eyes; in my revision I can make this a meaningful tick and not just a description).

Most important for me is the last bit. As a reader and a viewer I've learned pretty recently that story structure in a mechanical sense doesn't really matter to me -- like, at all -- that I don't really care if scenes move or if scenes and actions fit together as long as everything I'm seeing, however ordered or however chaotic, is motivated. What I find in my drafts is that I almost always have global motivations and character arcs worked out, but in serving the global story I neglect the local ones. In any given scene in a first draft of mine, I'll have a character whose existence in the scene itself is unmotivated, even if they are serving a global purpose. Those scenes inevitably read as flat. And what I've found is that motivating every character in a scene and having them act (or visibly fail to act) on that motivation actually creates and drives a compelling narrative more than anything else.

So, this is what I'm doing.right now with "The Fisher and the Trout." And it's what I'll do with another story, called "Agnos" over the next week or so. And then I'll head back over to My Many Bodies and try to make up my wordcounts a bit (revision counts as work, but I still have new-word quotas to hit).

One Month In: January Productivity Post

It's no secret that I am aiming to make 2016 something of a banner year for me, writing-wise, which I am really just thinking of as "do better than I have before." 2015 was my best writing year, the first year I managed to translate "taking writing seriously" and "being motivated" into actually doing a lot of work. I had my first short story sale, to an amazing semi-pro market, in 2015 and I wrote somewhere in the area of 60,000 words on the year (not counting revisions).

From My Experiments in Longhand: A Super Secret Preview of a WIP titled "Agnos"

From My Experiments in Longhand: A Super Secret Preview of a WIP titled "Agnos"

2016 simply needs to out-do that. That started on January 1, when I officially started logging exact word counts per day in a spreadsheet, which has done wonders for my rigor and work ethic, already.I am also hoping to announce a pro-sale in the near future, which would be my first of that kind. This post is here to report my January productivity. So, how did I do?

Total New Words Written: 16,323
Average Words Per Day: 527
Dead Days (Zero Words): 15
Average Words Per Active Day: 1,020
End of Year Pace (Linear Extrapolation): 193,000
Words Revised: ~900

So, January was a good month. More dead days than I would like, but perfectly respectable in every other way. All this has helped to nail home a lot of things that I knew intellectually, but maybe had never internalized before. Because 500 words a day is not very much. It's a few pages. It's almost a discouragingly small amount. But it adds up to around 200K words for the full year. And 200K words a year IS a lot. That's two to three novel-length manuscripts. In one year. I can live with that.

How's your year going?

Book Review: The Love of Danger (Kensei Book 2), by Jeremy Zimmerman

Image Via: Amazon

Image Via: Amazon

I wrote my review for Jeremy Zimmerman's Kensei while anticipating the sequel, The Love of Danger, which I recommended when it was on Kickstarter. Zimmerman himself edits Mad Scientist Journal and has worked to produce the anthologies That Ain't Right: Historical Accounts of the Miskatonic Valley and Selfies from the End of the World. He's on twitter at @bolthy, where he can always be found being, as far as I can tell, a genuinely good dude.

In my review of Kensei, I was impressed with how comprehensively Zimmerman drew on influences from film, gaming, mythology, religion, and more without having the book ever once feel like it required a member's card to enter. I enjoyed the lived-in worldbuilding (perhaps owing in part to Cobalt City being a shared fictional universe -- from the nonfictional mind of Nathan Crowder), and appreciated that this was a world lived in by lots of different kinds of people. For example: Japanese/African American Lesbian* Superhero Teen Jamie Hattori.

At the same time, I felt the novel played it too safe in some key ways: language, sex, and even violence all felt oddly conservative for a book that was otherwise pushing boundaries where it could find them, and I wasn't personally satisfied accepting those as YA limitations.

So how does all of this carry over into the sequel? If that's where we were, where have we come? To start, here's the jacket blurb for The Love of Danger just to get us all up to speed:

Jamie Hattori can't get a break. As the superhero Kensei, she defeated the goddess Eris and figured her life could just get back to normal. Or, at least, as normal as things can be when you fight crime and can talk to the spirit world. But now her girlfriend is flaking out on her, her parents have separated, and a World War Two supervillain has come back from the dead with plots to kill Jamie. 

As if that wasn't bad enough, she has to deal with two of her least favorite people: her grandparents.

I'm happy to say that so much of what I liked about Kensei continue to be highlights of the sequel, and I'm even happier to say that in my opinion The Love of Danger takes more confident and satisfying risks than its predecessor.

If Kensei drew its conflict from the fact of exclusion between social groups and the desire to be included despite social boundaries, which are framed in terms of the teenage versions of these problems, The Love of Danger pulls back from the social tensions of adolescent life and focuses in on the personal ones. Each major character is struggling not with their position in the group but with their own developing senses of identity. Jaime's grandparents impose themselves on her life, drawing into question what she's come from and how that determines or fails to determine who she is. Her relationship with Parker skids across some very well-drawn rocks, reminding her that her present isn't stable, and making her question her future. Does she want to be a hero? Does she want to have a girlfriend? Without giving too much away, there's a moment when we learn that an aspect of her spirit manifests as a masculine figure, and she honestly doesn't know what that means about her own gender identity.

This struggle is just as present in the others. Local "Cordelia" Sabrina, who you may remember from the last book as the Catholic cheerleader whose parents sent her to re-education camp to cure her homosexuality. That very personal struggle continues in this book, and is probably my favorite thing about it. Early on, Sabrina is imbued with the powers of Joan of Arc and takes on her own mask. The gift of these powers, though, is in some ways dependent on her suffering for her faith. Her sexuality represents a temptation that she must deny herself to prove her spiritual strength, even to herself (this isn't a purely Catholic idea, I would note. I've heard of Gandhi's... unusual... methods for testing his ability to overcome temptation; American culture in many ways promotes a way of thinking about life that requires self-denial as an excuse for excess -- it's A Thing). To Jamie, and indeed to me, this denial is insane. Sabrina's refusal to accept her sexuality can not be mentally healthy; the role her parents played in enforcing that self-denial downright cruel and abusive. And yet the narrative plays a more complicated, more compassionate game. The book does not share Jamie's point of view; the book suggests that Sabrina needs to self-determine, and if she determines that she is happier with herself when parts of her that I feel should be indulged are in fact denied, then that is her call. It's one of these very tight, fine, wonderful lines being drawn between the reader, the character, the narrator and, for all I know -- and I don't -- the author.

I am also pleased to see this book push its sex, language, and violence all a little further, the former two feeling true to the ages of the characters in a way that felt missing before and the latter feeling true to the fact that these are people who are literally fighting for their lives. It's occasionally very bloody, and that's honest to Jamie's life.

I could go on about more. The world feels bigger. The stakes feel higher. The mysteries that are isolated to this book build and resolve in satisfying ways. The mysteries that belong to the series also grow enough to keep you hooked into the next book without revealing so much as to draw attention away from the more pressing narrative. I could go on about these things, and they are all positives, but I don't have an unlimited amount of time to write this review. And there's one more thing I want to spend some time with before I close.

I want to briefly discuss a flaw that is probably my own and not the book's, and it has to do with the way social justice issues pop up in the text. While I loved the way Sabrina's struggle for identity was handled, because it's not enough for me to think that accepting Jamie's self-identification is important if my attitude toward Sabrina is that she self-identifies wrong. But there are places throughout The Love of Danger that do feel are editorializing, or that do read a bit like sections from a social justice textbook. The moments are interesting, and they are, I think, quite often correct, but they also disrupt immersion. And I hate that I feel compelled to criticize this because it's not the book's problem. Let me explain. I am perfectly on record as saying that I don't believe a book can possibly be apolitical and, secondarily, I think writers do have a responsibility to confront the politics of their own writing. Secondarily to that, I've long-since decided that I support any narrative choice to just not give a fuck about supporting social justice. I think that to some extent the push against authorial editorializing is a deeply coded way of enforcing the silence of voices that would otherwise use fiction to speak out. So my instinct to recoil from anything that feels like a message -- even when I support the message on principle -- feels wrong to me. It's an instinct that was developed in a culture that wants fiction to be apolitical. But I don't believe that's possible. So it's the instinct that is wrong, not the book. And if editorialized writing is a bit more of a hammer than a chisel, so what? Sometimes we need hammers.

I suppose your mileage may vary?

Overall, though, I think The Love of Danger is a rousing success. The things that Kensei did well continue to be done well, and most of the things that left me feeling more reserved about the original no longer apply. It feels like Zimmerman is pushing himself and his characters and his world all a little bit more this time around, and I'm looking forward to seeing how much more he can push in the next one.

You can get your own copy of The Love of Danger from Amazon.

*I described Jamie as bisexual in my first review; I'm not sure if this was my own mistake -- totally possible! -- or whether her own sense of identity has shifted between books, as it does with teens, but she very clearly identifies as lesbian here.

Experiments in Longhand

The writing is going pretty well this year, I think. By actively tracking my wordcounts for the new year in a spreadsheet, which I can use to do all sorts of fun statistical shenanigans, I've built in some more accountability to my writing than I had in the past. Already in January, I've written about 10,000 new words which roundly beats my output for quite a few of the full years I've had in the past (and puts me on pace to beat last year's amazing 60,000-ish number by July).

Being accountable like this has had some interesting consequences. In the effort to find more time to get writing done, so that days which used to be zero word days can now be 50 or 100 or 600 word days, I've started using my commute time, riding on BART trains, to write longhand.

In the past, I've been uncomfortable writing prose in longhand, and saved it for my poetry (which I rarely wrote, so it was obviously a perfect plan). The form feels more strongly poetic to me, though I don't have an explanation about why that doesn't make me sound like a proseform asshole. Because it's such a shift, and because the writing will necessarily be in small chunks while I travel, I decided not to use my longhand writing to work on projects like My Many Bodies, or some of my ongoing short stories, but to do something new, to experiment, to let my longform stories be their own things.

So I fell back to one of my favorite writing exercises, which takes the idea of copying another writer's style to discover new elements in your own and pushes it into somewhat more obscure territory. The idea is to take whatever it is that you're currently reading, whether you enjoy it or not, whether it's in your genre or not, and to write a new story that replicates not the style but the feel. Creating a story in your own style that need only be evocative of another, rather than being similar (and evocative to you, as the writer, more than to anyone else).

This is a challenge.

This is a challenge for me right now because I'm reading Everything That Rises Must Converge, which sort of set the bar really high really early. "Dear self: try to evoke Flanner O'Connor. It's okay. She's only a consensus grand master of the short story form."

So I had to decide, what elements most signify a Flannery O'Connor story to me? There is the moment of grace, and though I can't replicate that moment with the religious significance it had for O'Connor -- in fact, wouldn't want to -- I can bring my character to a moment of intense, even violent, possibility. There's an inflexibility in the worldview of her characters that I don't typically have in mine, so I'm trying that out. There's a generational divide in her stories between an often kind but despicable traditionalism and a cruel and deeply flawed sort of progressivism. I needed to change the frame that divides the generations to work in my style, but I could keep the impasse. There are smaller things, too, but I won't drag them out.

Also as important are the decisions about where I have to diverge. The religious crisis is out because I don't share O'Connor's preoccupation, but I still have the crisis. The setting, often the American south, is out for the same reason, and some of the associated baggage there, as well. I'm also a fantasy writer, so I'm writing a fantasy story.

The result right now is a story that feels as foreign as it does familiar. There are things I am doing that I never would have done otherwise, and things that O'Connor does that I can't do while remaining honest to my own style. I hope you get to see it one day.

Words

I don't have a big blog post today because I'm hoping to have a big words day. Last week I finished the draft of a story that is at least temporarily called "The Fisher and the Trout." That gets to sit for another few days before I run revisions.

And in the meantime, today I will make my official re-entry into My Many Bodies, which continues to be both the hardest and the most prolific thing I've ever worked on.

Excuse me while I word.

Because Fuck Peter Parker, That's Why

I like superhero stories. I couldn't really think of another way to start this post. I grew up on Batman The Animated Series. I'm one of those people who couldn't be more thrilled by the bounty of superhero stories we've been getting in popular culture lately, and the (sometimes much too slow) growth of those stories to reflect a greater and greater variety of human experiences back on the popular audience. I like superhero stories as actiony fluff. I like them as big, bold action pieces. I like them as small, human stories. I like them as a kind of modern mythological structure.

I've complained about Daredevil here, and I've complained about murdersuperman and revengebatman and the eminent likelihood of torturewonderwoman (though the latest trailers for BvS cast Bruce Wayne as revengeandtorturebatman, so maybe Wonder Woman will require a different moral failing), and if I had been able to watch more than two episodes of Gotham, I would probably complain about that, too.

But I have, at the minimum, enjoyed every installment in the MCU, unabashedly loved Days of Future Past, watch Arrow and Flash (and, when it premieres, Legends of Tomorrow) religiously. I am one of the weirdos who owns a physical copy of Superman Returns. Supergirl managed to get me to do a thing I had promised myself I wouldn't do: watch CBS. I can sing no higher praises than those I sing for Agent Carter and Jessica Jones. Though I'm not historically a comic book reader, I've been buying and reading volumes of Captain Marvel and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and just downed Sandman: Overture in a matter of hours.

And if we expand the purview away from DC and Marvel, the riches get richer. Animation has been flush with astonishingly good superhero stories, and shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, and Steven Universe make me unaccountably giddy. I thought Sense8 was one of the most narratively compelling stories I've seen in a long time.

So, I love superhero stories. Now, I'm going to complain about them again.

For all that I love Arrow and Flash and Supergirl, they are all - and much of the genre in general - simultaneously poisoned by the secret identity storyline (which for my money has become as destructive to the genre as the origin story). I feel so strongly about this, I hardly even know where to start.

Okay. Peter Parker.

Because, you know what? FUCK Peter Parker.

Fuck This Guy Image Via: ComicZombie

Fuck This Guy
Image Via: ComicZombie

Let's say that it's safe to assume I'm talking about the cinematic versions of the character, since I'm not super familiar with his comics run. It's bad enough that we've had to sit through FIVE movies the plots of which are "Peter Parker tries to hide his identity, especially from the woman he loves because if he tells her she will literally die," but now he's bringing that taint in the MCU?

One of the most underrated positives of the MCU has been its absolute refusal to pander to the secret identity tedium. I did not realize it at the time, but Tony Stark was speaking for the entire brand when he defied this trope openly at the end of the first Iron Man. Since then, the MCU has given us Thor, Steve Rogers/Captain America, Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, Nick Fury, Hawkeye/Clint Barton, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Sam Wilson/Falcon, James Rhodes/War Machine, and Peter Quill/Star Lord (and co.) -- with nary a secret identity in the group. I have, admittedly, yet to see Ant-Man.

But what this has done is that it has allowed the MCU to stay interesting and to tell character stories, for the most part, over obligatory ones. This has, secondarily, helped to bandage over the one big flaw in the MCU's formula: antagonists. It is, of course, tedious that in Iron Man, Tony Stark fights a guy in a suit, and in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark fights a guy in a suit, and in Captain America, Steve Rogers fights a super soldier, and that in both Avengers movies, the team fights a numberless army of faceless drones, and that in Ant-Man, Scott Lang fights a guy in a suit that shrinks.

But despite this dull formula, what have we been able to see? Over the course of five movies now, Tony Stark has transformed from an unaccountable playboy to a damaged but unashamed celebrity to a man traumatized by his own reckless journey to what is now a hero on the mend with an unerring moralistic faith in accountability. That's a fucking character arc, man. We've watched Steve Rogers go from an unwavering patriot at the height of American jingoism whose faith in the American government and military are absolute, to a man out of time whose role as a hero is the only thing he has left, to a man whose faith in the system is irrevocably broken by the cracks he helps to expose within it, to a man on the run from the government to protect the one human connection that remains from his past life. Now that is a fucking character arc.

Let me tell you what is not a compelling character arc: "Guy tries to hide his identity from a woman, but then can't, and then maybe she dies, and then he feels bad." There's just nothing there.

The first real reason is that it's not character driven. Peter Parker's desire to hide his identity from Mary Jane is the exact same as Barry Allen's desire to hide his identity from Iris, or Oliver Queen's desire to hide his identity from the women in his life (and, curious, how they are so frequently women... more on this soon). Tony Stark's path to favoring oversight begins with a growing self-awareness of his failures as a human being when he worked without oversight. Every part of that is internally motivated. Steve Rogers's broken faith and flight to the safety of his past begins with the displacement he suffered in pursuit of his original, unblinking ideals. Every part of that is internally motivated. You can't tell Tony Stark's story with Steve Rogers, and vice versa.

You can tell Peter Parker's story with absolutely anybody. So the first reason that "FUCK Peter Parker" applies is because he's not actually a character. His dead guardian origin is every damned hero's origin story. His secret identity conflict the same. Whatever makes him a compelling character in the comics has been erased in every single film because of a slathering devotion to his secret.

(Narratively, the secret identity is also just plain tedious. Since I mentioned Barry Allen, I would be remiss not to mention how one of the biggest failings of Flash's first season was the incredible amount of screen time Iris spent explaining plot to characters - and audience members - who already knew it (or having it explained to her by the same), who had discovered it organically through the story - all because she was outside the inner circle; the fewer characters who share knowledge in the first place, the more screen time you have to waste, absolutely waste, explaining things to each individual one.)

The other thing that Marvel has been able to do in its cinematic universe by ignoring the secret identity problem is to depict a broad range of interesting relationships, which are enabled by the fact that these people know each other. One of the universally acknowledged highlights of Winter Soldier was the development of the relationship between Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanov, a relationship that could only exist because they knew each other's circumstances so intimately. When characters are hiding things from each other (unnecessarily, at that), they are necessarily at a distance and that damages the ability of their relationships to grow. There's a moment in the Civil War trailer when Tony Stark laments the loss of his friend.

This Killed Me And Now I Am Dead Image Via: Muviblast

This Killed Me And Now I Am Dead
Image Via: Muviblast

I know people who cried watching that trailer - the TRAILER - because the close relationship that has been developed between those two characters makes it powerful when they lose each other.

Peter Parker walking away from Mary Jane can never, never ever ever, carry that weight, because he's only adding distance to a relationship that he never allowed to be close in the first place.

It's also, and it's hard to emphasize this enough, deeply sexist. I already mentioned that secret identities, at least on film, are disproportionately hidden by men from women, and always, loudly and repeatedly, in order to protect them. There is a whole load of nonsense logic at play here -- for instance, what hypothetical danger would Mary Jane be in if Peter Parker told her and some of the other people closest to him who he was, and nobody else? How does Mary Jane knowing something mean that a villain also knows? And, assuming a villain does find out how Peter Parker is, and assuming (this being an assumption I find far from reliable) the villain then decides NOT to target Peter Parker in favor of Mary Jane (a totally different person from Peter Parker, it turns out!), in exactly what way is Mary Jane safer for not being able to prepare herself in any way? It's insane.

More importantly, it's deeply condescending. It starts with the following premises: 1) the woman can't be trusted to keep her mouth shut, 2) the woman absolutely requires the man's protection, and 3) the woman has absolutely no choice about this. I mean, that's so sexist I can't even.

So, FUCK Peter Parker.

I mean, on that note: FUCK Barry Allen. That guy is kind of a dick, and he's just lucky his show has so much else going for it because he can't seem to stop making this infuriating mistake.

This is all not to say that the secret identity can't be meaningful to a story. one of the things that Batman The Animated Series does so well is to illustrate (ba-dump) the crisis of identity that character suffers. It's almost trite at this point to mention that Bruce Wayne is the secret identity - and in a lot of ways Bruce Wayne is an identity that Batman is ashamed of. What makes that work is that it's an internal narrative. Batman maintaining distance between his two identities has nothing to do with protecting anyone -- in fact, all of the people Batman would have reason to protect are or end up in the know. Rather, he maintains that separation because he is actually broken on the inside in that exact way.

Similarly, I have long since developed an appreciation for Oliver Queen's handling of his secret identity in Arrow, because the show has repeatedly demonstrated Oliver's belief that he needs to keep the secret from his loved ones is a consequence of how completely fucked up his experiences since he disappeared have left him. And the show repeatedly punishes him for doing this, and has shown over and over that the key to his healing, and to his succeeding as a hero, is learning to be honest and to develop meaningful relationships with people who know him.

But these stories are all too rare within the genre, and the vast majority of interesting superhero stories we're seeing today (see: my list above) are interesting because they defiantly avoid the pitfalls of the secret identity.

Also, we just plain deserve to see a better Spider-Man on screen.

Also, The Hero We Need Image Via: Blastr

Also, The Hero We Need
Image Via: Blastr

My Epic Near Future Fantasy Saga

This post is a speculative autobiography. Which is really just to say, I want to talk about 2016. I don't have resolutions, exactly, in the usual sense. But I have plans, and I want to be organized about those plans at the outset. So, here is a speculative account of what will happen in 2016 if everything goes the way I want:

1. I will be organized about my writing.

I may not hew to a strict schedule, but I want to find ways to encourage myself to avoid the bursts and burnouts that have been characteristic of my process in the past. I know that I can sustain a prolonged period of disciplined writing -- I did that for about half of 2015, and came out 60,000 to 70,000 words richer than in a typical year for it. What I need to add to that discipline is organization.

So, for the first time ever, I'm tracking my daily word counts, which will allow me to record when my bursts and my burnouts happen and better diagnose and manage my writing troubles. What are my most productive months, and why? How can I replicate those conditions the rest of the time?

And, as much as anything else, I will be able to see exactly how much I produce. I won't need to guess at "60,000 to 70,000 words." I'll know. And that knowledge will be a motivator.

(This kind of tracking has already increased the amount that I read, so I'm excited to see what it does for my writing; since starting to track my reading on Goodreads, I've read more books each successive year, in part because I feel an intense sense of competition with my past self.)

2. I will finish the first draft of My Many Bodies

My more than half-finished new novel about the life of a woman who taps into the chaotic potential of butterfly wings to travel through time and prevent the country's most devastating natural disasters WILL make it into the revision phase. This can, realistically, happen in the first half of the year.

3. I will finish or near completion of my current draft of The Wall

My loooong gestating portal fantasy (now more than 12 years since conception), the first in what I am currently thinking of as the Child of Two Worlds Saga, will stop gestating. I've found countless reasons to put this project off over the years, but have never lost my interest or passion for it. It's high time I put it back on the production line.

4. I will finish and enter into the sub-cycle 5-6 new short stories

The first of these, tentatively titled The Fisherman and the Trout (not a title I'm wild about) is already in process and should be out to my beta readers by the middle of January. For the rest, I have options: a Dracula story I've put off writing for years out of fear that I couldn't do it justice, a complete re-write on an expatriate haunting I wrote when I was a less experienced artist, a werewolf project called Dog Years I've been sitting on while I finish other things, a story called The Night of Swords which was conceived and outlined based entirely on tarot readings, a surrealist crime story about an absurd parallel California, a story about art, mythology, and obsession titled The Minotaur... So, yeah. I have options.

5. I will be attentive to the website

You may have noticed the redesign that went live a couple of days ago. Along with that, I took all the pages that were "under construction" and I constructed them. These pages are, to some extent, organized archives of the blog, but I see that as a useful and low-maintanance use of my money. I will blog at least once weekly. I will announce my hiatuses. And, since I'm tracking my writing, I will be able to post monthly updates on my work.

6. I will take over the universe

I will do this with the assistance of a very important -- nay, irreplaceable -- accomplice. I won't say anything else about it yet. You'll just have to wait and see.

My 2015 Reading Year in Review

In 2015, I set a new personal record and read 50 books -- many of them very good! (I suspect that had they been less good on the whole, I would have read fewer of them.) I've also been able to read so many thanks to my discovery that Audible is wonderful.

I want to do a roundup of my favorite ones. So here, as the year ends, are my four and five star picks from the year-in-reading gone by. Some of these came out in 2015. Many of them did not. All of them are wonderful, and I do not hesitate to recommend each one.

If I were to sum up the list before getting into it, I would say that for me this was the year of Napoleonic/Regency Fantasy. This is a subgenre I never would have suspected that I needed. And yet...

FOUR STARS

  • Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
  • Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Red Seas Under Red Skies & The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch
  • A Local Habitation (October Daye #2), by Seanan McGuire
  • Indexing, by Seanan McGuire
  • Blackout (Newsflesh #3), by Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire)
  • Tongue of Serpents, Crucible of Gold, & Blood of Tyrants (Temeraire Series), by Naomi Novik
  • Glamour in Glass & Without a Summer (Glamourist Histories), by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Captain Marvel Vol. 2, by Kelly Sue DeConnick
  • The Girl with All the Gifts, by MR Carey
  • I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai
  • The Galaxy Game, by Karen Lord
  • Lock In, by John Scalzi
  • The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear
  • Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
  • Kensei, by Jeremy Zimmerman
  • The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, by Ryan North & Erica Henderson

FIVE STARS

  • Black Powder War, Throne of Jade, Empire of Ivory, & Victory of Eagles (Temeraire Series), by Naomi Novik
  • Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
  • Outcasts United, by Warren St. John
  • Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Broken Kingdoms & The Kingdom of Gods, by NK Jemisin
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed
  • Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson
  • The Noble Hustle, by Colson Whitehead
  • The Just City, by Jo Walton
  • Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie
  • Rooms for Ghosts, by Terra Brigando
  • Selfies from the End of the World, Edited by Jeremy Zimmerman and Dawn Vogel
  • Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho

NOTES:

For those counting, that means I read and loved eight books by Naomi Novik, three by Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant), and two each by Mary Robinette Kowal, Scott Lynch, and NK Jemisin, making each of them my gold standard recommendations for 2016.

Coincidentally, Novik's League of Dragons, the final book in the astonishingly good Temeraire series, is due out in 2016. Scott Lynch's Thorn of Emberlain (next in the Gentleman Bastards series); Seanan McGuire's (aka Mira Grant's) Once Broken Faith (next in her October Daye books), Chaos Choreography (next in her InCryptid books), Rewind (next in her Newsflesh series), and Every Heart a Doorway; Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers; and NK Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate (follow-up to The Fifth Season) all also come out in 2016. Get your pre-orders.

I like to track it, and so out of the 38 books listed above, 26 were written by women and 9 were written by people of color.

Incidentally, I do seek out books by women and people of color, so while I'm heartened that well over half of my reads are by women, I'm a bit dismayed by that 8 count. I should be able to do better than that when I'm actually, actively trying to.

Most of what I read is science fiction or fantasy, so it's worth taking special note of those books that fell outside that umbra: Outcasts United, I Am Malala, Rooms for Ghosts, The Noble Hustle, and Speak are all fantastic books you won't find on the usual shelf -- and all quite good enough to pull me away from my comfort zone.

And, lastly, I want to link out to this 5-star review for Terra Brigando's Rooms for Ghosts, from the San Francisco Book Review. You may remember how much I loved this book, and if you're just finding it here you may enjoy my interview with the author!

I'm Back

I went on hiatus. I should have announced it, but it was purely unintended. I got really busy, and a little bit anxious, and every time I thought about tending to the blog it seemed something else very important also required tending. And, well, you know.

Since the last time I was here, I wrote and revised an entire story which is now in the sub-cycle, started writing a new story, finished teaching four classes, and started a new job.

And here I am, back. This place has some cobwebs. I'd better clean it up.

Laura Davy Reviews "The Adventures of Zombiegirl"

I've been saving this as the capstone to my promotional blog tour for Selfies from the End of the World, and I am super excited to finally hit post on it. Laura Davy is one of my favorite writers in the world, and she's working on becoming one of yours, too. And she will be. Just trust me. I reached out to her to help with a guest post, and she graciously agreed. Her part is below.

I’m Laura Davy, your blogger for the day. Don’t worry, this isn’t a hostile take-over (yet), I was invited to write a review on Garrett’s short story “The Adventures of Zombiegirl,” which was published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse.
 
Garrett isn’t just my friend, he’s my writing friend. We exchange stories and critiques, and we get into nitty-gritty literary debates that only writers care about. (I don’t care what anyone says, I will defend the Oxford comma to the death or until I get bored.) [Garrett here in the bracket just to say: Hey, I'm on good terms with the ol' Oxford comma, but in my house we call it the serial comma.] Since we exchange stories I actually had the pleasure to read “The Adventures of Zombiegirl” in its previous drafts and I even provided some notes on the story. So what do I think about the final and official version of this scifi zombie tale? In short, it’s awesome.
 
Jump the cut for the full review. Spoilers ahead.

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Selfies Reviews, Part 4

It's been two weeks and I've reached the end now of my comprehensive review of the stories found in Selfies from the End of the World -- all except for my own story. Check out these descriptions, and if you see something you want to read be sure to pick up the collection at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Today's first story, Apocalypse in an Armoire, by Herb N. Legend, peddles in some of the Last Night on Earth tropes I like less -- not unlike those I mentioned in my review of Happy at the End earlier in the collection. If the story of Charles trying to find the courage to make a connection with Janice at his party on the night the angels come starts as a tough sell for me, though, two things elevate it in my eyes. First is the resolution which, if you'll ignore the pun, arrives with restraint and not with a bang. Second is some of the genuinely lovely writing throughout.

I'll admit that I struggled more with Soul Jam, by Nick Nafpliotis, than some of the others. The narrator, Jim Davis, remembers the days before the Old Ones came when he was just a shop-owner who found a regular customer in young, oddball musician he calls BZ. As the two connect more and more over their shared interest in music, Jim can only wonder more and more about the masterpiece BZ is supposedly writing but won't let anyone listen to. When the Old Ones come and BZ disappears, their relationship -- not to mention BZ's work -- takes on more importance than Jim could have ever guessed. As a matter strictly of taste, I found myself put off by the voice in this one, an affected New Orleans twang that doesn't ring quite true to my know-nothing California ears. If your ears know more than mine, there's a lot here about the power of community and the humanizing power of music to like.

Last Stop: Hanover, by J. C. Stearns, taps back into the classic sci-fi energy I liked so much in Dog Years, though this time much more Twilight Zone than Star Trek. With most of the human race dead and food and other resources scarce for the survivors, Kristen Cartwright is on her way back to her small community in Hanover when she runs across a pudgy, abrasive, entitled man on the road. How did Scott manage to keep himself so well fed, and why does he seem so ill-informed about the state of the world around him? My only wish with this one was that the twist in the story had come with stronger misleads, as I guessed it too early and felt a little robbed of the true Twilight Zone "Ah-ha!" moment I think this story deserved.

I love In Transit, by Kate Elizabeth. Much like The Story of After, I finished reading this wishing I had thought of it. The World has ended, and I mean really ended. Nobody is left alive. Meredith Jones works in the space between life and afterlife, directing souls from their earthly lives to the eternities that best suit their own beliefs. Normally, her department serves a couple hundred thousand people a day, but things are an absolute mess on the day the world ends. Fun, light-hearted, and unending clever (what DO you do when there is no human race left, but your clients afterlife involves reincarnation? how in the world do you manage the atheists?), this story alone is worth the price of admission.

In Limbo, by Mary Mascari, Andrea McCready wakes up in her lover's arms, only he's dead. Just like everyone else is dead, infected and brought down by an amazingly virulent contagion all in a matter of hours. As far as Andrea can tell, it's just her and the dogs she takes in. Despite her solitude, Andrea makes a go of it, keeping herself going by breeding and raising her dogs as she ages. A story about things changing, but also about constancy, and about time passing, but also about how we carry time with us, this contemplative yarn is another strong entry in the collection.

Our Blessed Commute, by Rhoads Brazos, is a strange little story about an unnamed driver on a highway that seems to grow and change shape, reaching for the moon while maintaining a possessive watch on its drivers. As the highway grows, those drivers grow further and further apart, which is why it's important to the unnamed driver narrating this story to maintain the connection he has with his own passenger. Where are they going and when will they get there, and will the journey have been worth it when they do?

We move from the dreamlike uncertainty of the last story into the concrete horror of Smoke Scream, by Samantha Bryant. Yosa is an afterlife researcher who has actually found a way to travel there without dying. When she returns from her longest excursion, her assistant and partner, Millie, is not there to help her recover. That's because Millie is in the next room, pieces of her head splattered on the walls. Devastated by her loss, unsure of her own role in bringing it about, and desperate to atone for a mistake she did not know she was making, what sacrifices will Yosa yet make on account of her life's research? If Yosa's voice seems occasionally out of sync with the emotions she describes having, the mystery, the action, and the horror will carry you happily to the end of this one.

Not unlike Limbo in its slow, contemplative examination of time and the attachments we make that keep us both stuck in it and that move us forward through it, Bridge to Nowhere, Train for the Forgotten, by Matthew Allan Garcia, is a lovely capstone to this collection. Almeda Inez has raised her granddaughter since the day their parents dropped the child off on her doorstep, marking the years since by the passing of the train that arrives annually. If the promise of a bigger, more useful role in the aftermath of World War V pulls young Xandria away from her home, the shared history Inez has in the house she once kept with her late husband keeps the older woman there.

Nick Nafpliotis writes reviews for adventuresinpoortaste.com and can be found on Twitter at @NickNafster79. You can follow Mary Mascari on Twitter at @geekyMary, and Samantha Bryant at @mirimom1.

Selfies Reviews, Part 3 (of 4)

I'm back again, this time with my penultimate set of story review/blurb/things for Selfies from the End of the World. They don't stop being good today, and I hope you like what you see. As always, you can pick up a copy of Selfies from the End of the World at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

First up today is Down There by MJ Wesolowski, a strange little story about an unnamed narrator and their semi-sentient sex bot, surviving the brutal cold and killer storms of the outside world by hopping from underground bunker to underground bunker. But, haunted by the death of a father and hunted by a worldwide cult and their spider-like gods, survival for this story's hero is never as simple as staying warm. What feels like a mish-mash of odd parts at first all works together thanks to the strength of the narrator's relationship with the bot, and the mounting horror found in the bunker they open together.

One of my favorite art pieces in this collection, by Amanda Jones, is also one of the simplest visually. The page is filled with the dead-eyed face, naked neck, and bare shoulders of what appears to be a person, or an excellent facsimile of one. The clarity of the image and minimal details adorning it bring attention to the odd collection of details that do: the barcode inscribed on this person's forehead, the wires protruding from the holes in their temples, and the odd liquid that coats the top half of their face which brings to mind blood, or maybe oil, but has no obvious source. Are we looking at a person? Is it looking back at us?

Dog Years by Kristopher Triana is a story that grew on me the more I thought about it. The setting, a world in which the human race is afflicted by a condition that kills everyone of old age by the time they reach their late teens or early twenties, puts me in mind of the Star Trek episode "Miri," which has a similar premise. It's actually not a Star Trek episode I'm overly fond of, and yet I could not help loving the classic sci-fi feel of this story, and the simple tale it tells of a small family growing up too fast together in a broken, dog-eat-dog world.

Next up is Streetcleaner by Natalie Satakovski, a story that shows what happens when ignorance and innocence are broken down. Sara lives an easy life among the privileged class, unaware of the brutal sacrifices that are made by her community to protect that very ease until she meets a dissident and finds herself face to face with the horror her own father helps to enforce. From there, her natural rebellious streak kicks in, but when her curiosity is noticed by those in power it turns out that it is not her own safety that she needs to concerned with.

I feel at this point I've written a lot about the stories in this collection that grew on me in the weeks since I read them first, so it's nice to be able to write about a story that I loved immediately. The Story of After by Alexis J. Reed takes the premise of the collection and twists it just so, in that way that makes you think, "Man, I wish I had thought of that." If the premise of this collection is that these are tales of the apocalypse as reported by those who saw them firsthand, this story gives us an actual reporter whose job is to cover the galaxy's planetary catastrophes. From tectonic devastation to asteroid collisions to nuclear annihilation, Co has seen it all. What we see, though, is not simply another news report, but rather a personal report of the impact these tragedies might have on a person living under an obligation not to intervene, told in the epistolary form as Co writes updates to her wife while on location. Man, I wish I had thought of that.

In a Manner of Speaking by Charity Tahmaseb is another real favorite of mine. As far as Soshi Patel knows, she is the last person on Earth, surviving by candlelight in a shelter she can never leave. Then, one day, she begins to receive a transmission on a makeshift radio. Jatar, the voice on the other ends, knows things he should not be able to know. The connection the two grow to have builds slowly and is truly lovely in its execution, and the ultimate explanation for how Jatar knows the things he does is guaranteed to break your heart. This is a story I could go back to again and again, and again and again.

Shannon Legler's art, the last in the collection, wins by default for having feathered dinosaurs; no: feathered dinosaurs being ridden like horses. Wait. I apologize: feathered dinosaurs being ridden like horses by people who obviously need to stop for directions. That is to day, all of those things in the modern day. What in the world, I ask you, is not to like about any of that?

And, really, I kind of have to go out on domesticated feathered dinosaurs and the poor, literally lost souls who ride them. I kind of have to. Part 4, upcoming, will complete my review set of Selfies from the End of the World, at which point I am thrilled to have a guest post by Laura Davy.

You can find MJ Wesolowski at his website and on Twitter at @ConcreteKraken. More of Amanda Jones's art can be found on Tumblr under "thehauntedboy," and more of Shannon Legler's art can be found at her website.

Selfies Reviews, Part 2

Today, my recap/review/blurbstravaganza of the many amazing stories and pieces of art in Selfies from the End of the World continues. There's a good batch to show off today, and I hope you like them as much as I do.

First up for Part 2 is Matthew R. Davis's Happy at the End, a story about Happy, her best friend Stephen, and their last night together on a doomed Earth. While this story shows a deft hand with tone, recognizing the mundane in the devastating, the need for normalcy in the face of the unthinkable, and while it shines with the natural, clever dialogue between the easy friends at the center of its narrative, I'm not a big fan of some of the End of the World tropes it peddles in. Ultimately, I was much happier inhabiting the platonic space between the two friends than shuffling through Stephen's unrequited crush or any of the other baggage that follows young virgins around when the world ends.

An Impromptu Guide to Finding Your Soulmate at a Party on the Last Night of the World, by Caroline M. Yoachim, is another of this collection's bite-sized gems. Ostensibly a numbered list meant as the titular guide written by lonely Logan Lewis in the midst of a devastating alien invasion, the story plays irreverently with its form to characterize the strange and quirky Logan while the reader comes to understand his journey and his fate through his increasingly odd list entries.

The second piece of art in the collection, by Luke Spooner, like the first, draws the viewer in with what seems like a familiar premise before a more careful examination exposes the twist. My first look at this piece puts me in mind of sci-fi horror classics like Alien, showcasing a kick-ass woman opposite a couple of frightening sci-fi ghouls. But on closer inspection, one of the ghouls is armored and piloted by a humanoid form, bringing additional mysteries and intrigue to the apparent interstellar conflict.

The Last Real Man, by Nathan Crowder, a snapshot of one man's quest to survive the Hipster Apocalypse, was a story I did not want to like at first. While I harbor no special love for the hipster set, I knew that a single amusing conceit wasn't going to be enough to hold a story together. There are only so many jokes about organic food I can take, after all. Luckily for me, and for anyone else who reads this, the story is not even close to a one-trick pony. I don't want to spoil the rather delicious surprise that transforms this tale so I'll say no more, except that you might just want to read this one, too.

Next up is the creepy tale of a world where a deadly force known as the Silence takes people's voices and free will from them while offering language, sentience, and the capacity for revenge to the animals around them. When Joshua shows up in a new town with his pet worm Betty in tow in The Silence and the Worm, by Samuel Marzioli, it's no mystery where the story is headed. After all, a man would need to be foolish to keep a pet in this new world, however harmless they seem. How that story unfolds, what questions about the Silence are answered, and how Joshua deals with the predicament he's rather thoroughly gotten himself into, though, is what makes this a story that will burrow itself deep in the back your brain.

The Men on Eldama Ravine, by B. T. Joy, lets us into the head of Jaclyn Maise, an obstetrician at a missionary hospital in Kenya when a devastating pathogen wipes out nearly everyone in the world. Alone with the handful of babies who survived with her in the hospital's neonatal unit, Jaclyn must confront the difficult decisions one must necessarily face when the mouths outstrip the food, while slowly unraveling the mysteries of who on Earth could have engineered the pathogen that destroyed the human race and who on Earth those men who just began to show up outside the hospital are.

Last up today is Dusty Wallace's Not Even a Whimper, which gives us a world that ends not with a bang, but, well, as you might imagine, not with a whimper either. Another wonderful story that manages to reduce the end of the world to the troubles of a single family, a generous couple living alone on their North Carolina farm who take in a man who claims to be a scientist and who claims that Irvin and Janice Murphy's farm will be the last place to ever exist. It's the Irvins' humanity, which prevails at every turn, that drives this story, rather than the inevitable loss of everything around them, and that focus on the people, their kindness, their relationship, and their faith as opposed to, say, on their fear, makes this story another real winner in the collection.

If you want to find out more about some of these writers or their work, you can check out Matthew R. Davis at his website, Caroline Yoachim at hers, and Luke Spooner at his. Nathan Crowder exists online at http://www.nathancrowder.com, where you can get some insight into how he came up with and wrote "The Last Real Man," and on Twitter at @NateCrowder. You can also find Samuel Marzioli at his website, and B. T. Joy at his website or his Tumblr. Follow Dusty Wallace at @CosmicDustMite on Twitter.

As ever, you can pick up a copy of Selfies from the End of the World at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and check in over the next week or so for more reviews from the collection.

Enough.

Santana High School, 2001 -- This was the first school shooting in the United States that happened on a campus where my family were active students. Since then:

  • Bishop Neumann High School, 2001
  • Granite Hills High School, 2001
  • Lee Wallace High School, 2001
  • Martin Luther King Jr. High School, 2002
  • Benjamin Tasker Middle School, 2002
  • University of Arizona, 2002
  • Red Lion Area Junior High School, 2003
  • Case Western Reserve University, 2003
  • Rocori High School, 2003
  • Southeast Washington High, 2004
  • Columbia High School, 2004
  • Randallstown High School, 2004
  • Hamilton High School, 2004
  • Red Lake Senior High School, 2005
  • Harlan Community Academy High School, 2005
  • Campbell County High School, 2005
  • Roseburg High School, 2006
  • Pine Middle School, 2006
  • Essex Elementary School, 2006
  • Orange High School, 2006
  • Platte Canyon High School, 2006
  • Weston High School, 2006
  • West Nickel Mines School, 2006
  • Springfield Township High School, 2006
  • Henry Foss High School, 2007
  • Virginia Tech, 2007
  • SuccessTech Academy, 2007
  • Hamilton High School, 2008
  • Louisiana Technical College, 2008
  • Mitchell High School, 2008
  • E. O. Green Jr. High School, 2008
  • North Illinois University, 2008
  • Lakota Middle School, 2008
  • Central High School, 2008
  • Henry Ford High School, 2008
  • University of Central Arkansas, 2008
  • Dillard High School, 2008
  • Dunbar High School, 2009
  • Hampton University, 2009
  • Harvard, 2009
  • Larose-Cut Off Middle School, 2009
  • International Studies Academy, 2009
  • Skyline College, 2009 (special note: I was interviewed to work here three years ago)
  • Discovery Middle School, 2010
  • University of Alabama, 2010
  • Deer Creek Middle School, 2010
  • Mumford High School, 2010
  • University of Texas at Austin, 2010
  • Alisal High School, 2010
  • Kelly Elementary School, 2010
  • Marinette High School, 2010
  • Aurora Central High School, 2010
  • Millard South High School, 2011
  • Schnell Elementary School, 2011
  • Martinsville West Middle School, 2011
  • Worthing High School, 2011
  • Highlands Intermediate School, 2011
  • Cape Fear High School, 2011
  • Radford University, 2011
  • Harwell Middle School, 2011
  • North Forest High School, 2012
  • Bremerton Elementary School, 2012
  • Chardon High School, 2012
  • Episcopal School of Jacksonville, 2012
  • Oikos University, 2012
  • Mary Scroggs Elementary School, 2012
  • Hamilton High School, 2012
  • Perry Hall High School, 2012
  • Normal Community High School, 2012
  • University of South Alabama, 2012
  • USC, 2012
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2012
  • Sandy Hook Elementary School, 2012
  • Apostolic Revival Center Christian School, 2013
  • Taft Union High School, 2013
  • Stevens Institute of Business and Arts, 2013
  • Hazard Community and Technical College, 2013
  • Chicago State University, 2013
  • Lone Star College-North Harris, 2013
  • Cesar Chavez High School, 2013
  • Price Middle School, 2013
  • University of Central Florida, 2013
  • New River Community College, 2013
  • Grambling State University, 2013
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2013
  • Ossie Ware Mitchell Middle School, 2013
  • Santa Monica College, 2013
  • Alexander W. Dreyfoos School, 2013
  • Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy, 2013
  • North Panola High School, 2013
  • Carver High School, 2013
  • Agape Christian Academy, 2013
  • Sparks Middle School, 2013
  • North Carolina A&T State University, 2013
  • Stephenson High School, 2013
  • Brashear High School, 2013
  • West Orange High School, 2013
  • Araphoe High School, 2013
  • Edison High School, 2013
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks, April 2014
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks, December 2014
  • Liberty Technology Magnet High School, 2014
  • Hillhouse High School, 2014
  • Berrendo Middle School, 2014
  • Delaware Valley Charter School, 2014
  • Widener University, 2014
  • Purdue University, 2014
  • South Carolina State University, 2014
  • Los Angeles Valley College, 2014
  • Rebound High School, 2014
  • President Theodore Roosevelt High School, 2014
  • Tennessee State University, 2014
  • Eastern Florida State College, 2014
  • North High School, 2014
  • Salisbury High School, 2014
  • Charles F. Brush High School, 2014
  • USC, 2014
  • San Jose State University, 2014
  • Georgia Regents University, 2014
  • The Academy of Knowledge PRESCHOOL, 2014
  • Benjamin Banneker High School, 2014
  • D. H. Conley High School, 2014
  • East English Village Preparatory Academy, 2014
  • Saint Mary School, 2014
  • Paine College, 2014
  • Georgia Gwinnett College, 2014
  • John F. Kennedy High School, 2014
  • UC Santa Barbara, 2014 (fun fact: my sister is a UCSB graduate)
  • Seattle Pacific University, 2014
  • Reynolds High School, 2014
  • Miami Carol City High School, 2014
  • Indiana State University, 2014
  • Albemarle High School, 2014
  • Fern Creek Traditional High School, 2014
  • Langston Hughes High School, 2014
  • Marysville Pilchuck High School, 2014
  • Florida State University, 2014
  • Rogers State University, 2014
  • Rosemary Anderson High Scool, 2014
  • Wisconsin Lutheran High School, 2015
  • Vanguard High School, 2015
  • Frederick High School, 2015
  • Bethune-Cookman University, 2015
  • Pershing Elementary School, 2015 (fun fact: this happened the day I turned 30)
  • Wayne Community College, 2015
  • J. B. Martin Middle School, 2015
  • Deskin Elementary School, 2015
  • North Thurston High School, 2015
  • Conyers Middle School, 2015
  • Corona del Sol High School, 2015
  • Jacksonville School Bus, 2015
  • Southwestern Classical Academy, 2015
  • South Macon Elementary School, 2015
  • Savannah State University, 2015
  • Sacramento City College, 2015
  • Delta State University, 2015
  • Harrisburg High School, 2015
  • Umpqua Community College, 2015

212 people dead.

Selfies Reviews: Part 1

So I took about a week off of the website there to catch up some grading that was breathing down my neck. I'm pleased to report that it's been mostly wrangled for now, which is doing wonders for my stress levels. In the interim, I also started putting together a few extra site changes. This means that at the moment, most of the pages on the site are "under construction" again. That's okay. I like what the new pages are going to bring to the table, but completing those updates is below teaching, writing, editing, submitting, and blogging on the career-related priority list.

Meanwhile, as you know, I've been really excited about having a book in my hot little hands that has my hot little story in it. What really makes it exciting, though, is that the collection is good. I'm sharing space here with some really excellent writers and some really excellent stories, and over my next few blog posts I want to take some time to recognize their stories and the work they're doing with some quick, easy, (mostly) spoiler-free reviews.

"Selfies from the End of the World" is a collection of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic tales as told by the people who lived them. The conceit of stories written by their characters and provided by their writers is one that comes from Mad Scientist Journal itself, and is one of the many things that keeps this collection fresh for me. It's not treated as a gimmick, either, as the characters get serious bios alongside their writers at the ends of the stories, and are even given top billing. These bios are a treat to read, and provide a few of the most interesting narrative tricks in the collection.

I was skeptical at first of the untitled poem by Shivangi Narain that opens the collection, mostly because I was an idiot and didn't read through the enjambment of the first line before I rolled my eyes: "Your generation would probably livetweet the apocalypse," it says. "Oh, boy," I said. "One of these." You know the ones, with that air of condescension toward innovation, the non-critical dismissal of the social lives of so-called millennials. I'm glad I read through, though. The poem thoroughly subverts the condescension of its opening line while establishing a tone of both irreverence and tragedy, infused with deep empathy, that pays off again and again through the stories that follow.

"Elegy for a Mountain" by Brandon Nolta follows, a story set on what we can take to be a far-future Earth dealing with the death of the sun. My early skepticism for the initial premise, that in the face of this destruction, an apocalypse cult or religion known as The Order of the Mountain (I'm predisposed to hating apocalypse cults, mind you) has come to prominence in the efforts to ensure the survival of the species and to salvage something -- anything -- of the Earth that was, was again proved to be unfounded. The Order could have been schmaltzy, it's members distant and un-relatable, its religious vocabulary uninviting, and yet the story moves -- the action driven always by the ticking clock -- the characters remain familiar and sympathetic, and the emotional resonance of the conclusion, at once terrified, elegaic, and joyous, is satisfyingly complex.

Before even reading "Sounds of Silence" by Nicole Tanquary, the story's presence, as well as that of the art by Errow Collins that follows, reveals something important about this collection: if you'll allow me the arbitrary endpoint, three of the first four works in the collection were created by women. A quick look at the contents suggests that the gender split among contributors is near 50/50, which is just awesome. The story itself uses the end of the world to stand in for the apocalyptic feelings that accompany the end of a young relationship. Dylan and Katherine are ending, though neither is willing to acknowledge that the rot in their relationship settled in a long time ago. They could persist -- hell, like any young people who think they're in love, they want to persist -- but Dylan can't help fleeing, and Katherine can't bring herself to chase after him. This would all work on its own, but the world-building around this breakdown shows the way individual problems are always set against the larger social backdrop. As the rich leave a rotting planet to the doomed poor, we see that escape itself is a privilege, and understand our two protagonists better for the decisions they make not only in response to their personal breakdown, but also to the global one.

The collection's first piece of art, by Errow Collins, focuses on a young woman in a gas mask emerging from the hatch of an underground bunker or silo to the backdrop of a an otherwise lush world of flowing fields that is burning. In the background, more hatches are open to more billowing smoke. My first thought was, naturally, to Hugh Howey's Dust, but a closer inspection of the image does not show people trapped by the horrors above, trying only to escape their captivity underground. No, these people are setting the fires. But why? Why destroy the world you're trapped beneath? That mystery is this piece's allure.

Last up for today is "Winter in My Bones" by Sylvia Heike. In this short, sweet tale, Winter has come (I shouldn't have done that, and I apologize). Earth is entering a deep freeze, maybe an Ice Age, which future historians call the Great Winter, and Frank Hope, an older gentleman living only with his dog Sammy, sees no reason to fight it. If anybody needs to survive, he reasons, it should be somebody younger. And, maybe, it should be Sammy, too. Frank's acceptance of death is refreshing, and his relationship with Sammy heartwarming, but the mystery of the Great Winter itself is only deepened by the unexpected image of the story's final line, as well as the narrative Easter Egg hidden in the character bio that follows.

Sylvia Heike can also be found on twitter at @sylviaheike.

Interested? Want to read more? You can pick up a copy of Selfies from the End of the World at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and check in over the next week or so for more reviews from the collection, including a very special guest blog by the amazing and inimitable Laura Davy herself!