Going All In with Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition

The face(s) of D&D 5th Edition!

 

I am a gamer. More specifically, I am a table top role-playing game gamer. And to be precise, I am a Dungeons & Dragons gamer. That’s not to say that I have not tried, played, game mastered and/or completely geeked out over other games — I have — but my first game was D&D and D&D is where my gamer heart lies.

 

Dungeons & Dragons is on the cusp of its 40th Anniversary this year, and is launching it’s so-called 5th Edition. (I say “so called” because counting the editions, especially when you factor in Dungeons & Dragons versus Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is a little bit wonky.) I myself and nearing my 30th year with the game: I started with D&D when I was 10 years old and I recently turned 39. However, I have not really been a D&D player for some time, not since the release of the 4th Edition of the game in 2008. I played 4E for about a year and even tried to run it, but eventually realized it “was not D&D” to me and abandoned it for Pathfinder. That game, the spiritual successor to the D&D 3.5 rules, proved just too fiddly and “crunchy” for my taste and after a few attempts at serious campaigns I abandoned trying to run the game (but still play it). I won’t get into too many specifics, but the fact is that I have a “D&D sweet spot” as it relates to rules and DM control and complexity. The perfect level of that is probably found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.

 

For some time after its announcement in 2012, I was ambivalent regarding the new 5th Edition of my favorite game. At that time, I was still enamored with Pathfinder, suppressing my misgivings and running it despite my inability to keep it all straight. Although Wizards of the Coast — D&D’s owners and publishers since the late 1990s when TSR was a burning ship and us rats were leaping into the ocean of games by other publishers — opened up the 5th Edition (or, D&D Next as it was called then) to public play test, I only lightly perused the documents and went about playing Pathfinder. I was sure for a very long time that Pathfinder *was* D&D and WotC would never be able to produce a suitable game to match the trademark again. I secretly wished Hasbro would sell the property off and Paizo, publishers of Pathfinder, or some other entity would snatch it up and treat it right. But, alas, that did not happen and as time went on I became disillusioned with the increasingly complex Pathfinder system and started drifting away from D&D, old and new, altogether.

 

A strange thing happened then, one I should have predicted but failed to see. As the actual release of D&D 5E approached, a fire kindled in my belly. I felt an anticipation, a hope, a preemptive joy that spoke one truth from inside: D&D was coming back. I did the same thing with 4th Edition, to be honest. Despite everything I had read that turned me off during the lead up to 4E, I pre-ordered the 3-book slipcase edition. Not only that, since it would not arrive until a few days after launch, I actually ran out and bought a 4E Player’s Handbook on launch day — for a game I knew I would not like, simply because it was a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. With 5E, as soon as the Basic Rules appeared on the Wizards of the Coast website for free, I downloaded them, and as soon as the Starter Set — which I had swore not to purchase since it was not a “complete product” — was on the shelf, I purchased not one but three copies (one for myself and two for friends). The difference between 4E and 5E, though, was that upon reading 5E, I said to myself: *this* is D&D.

 

It is difficult to articulate what makes a game “D&D” for me, and I won’t bother trying in this post. Suffice it to say that something in these initial 5E offerings remind me of that favorite edition of mine, 2E, with just enough novelty to suggest something special is happening. As with every other edition of D&D since I started playing way back in 1985, I want to be in on the ground floor and embrace the game that has given me so much pleasure and allowed me to express so much creativity. More, D&D has served as an open door through which many of my closest friends have emerged. There are many reasons for that, which I will explore perhaps in a future post, but the bottom line is that D&D is an intimate sort of entertainment, and that builds friendships.

 

In any case, what this means to both of you, me dear readers (hi, mom!), is that this blog is going to be dominated by gaming in general and D&D 5E in particular for the foreseeable future. I have been sort of at a loss with this and my own creativity for a while anyway and I am hoping that a focus on gaming and 5E will re-energize my creative batteries and allow me to make some progress. Plus, the fact is this blog is mostly for fun and therefore, i should make it about what I enjoy, and D&D is one of those things.

 

I plan to, in the near future after attending GenCon, producing some regular features, including Magical Mondays (new spells, items and magical locations), Wicked Wednesdays (new monsters, villains, traps and tricks) and Setting Saturdays (fantastic peoples, places, organizations and such like) just as exercises to keep my creative juices flowing and my players on their toes. With any luck, there will also be more than a few rants and raves and opinion pieces regarding the game.

So here’s to the newest iteration of the first and greatest fantasy role-playing game ever created, and to all the gamers out there who have eagerly anticipated its release. Huzzah!

 

The Anti-Hero via “The Dark World”

The 2008 Paizo Publishing edition of “The Dark World”

 

On a recent flight from New York to Las Vegas, I finally had opportunity to read Henry Kuttner’s The Dark World. I have a particular appreciation for the science fiction, fantasy and weird tales of  the “pulp” era (though the edges are a bit fuzzy on that definition, as some works are in the vein but predate “pulp” by decades and some were published many years after the last of the trashy magazines either died out or evolved into more mainstream speculative fiction repositories). Like most modern fans of the fiction of that era, I am well versed in Borroughs and Howard, Leiber and Lovecraft, and a smattering of Clark Ashton Smith and “Eerie” horror comics. And like most, I am aware of a much broader list of names I might have read a story or two from an anthology, but otherwise ignored most of the less-than-giants of the era. Henry Kuttner (and his wife C. L. Moore) are among the names the come up most often on lists of “must reads” and so I purchased both The Dark World and Moore’s Northwest of Earth from Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories line. I am well pleased I finally went for Kuttner’s classic — which I chose for the flight on the merits of its relatively brief length; at three times the thickness, Moore’s Northwest book is reserved for the beach.

 

I will not give a full review of The Dark World here — there are more interesting things I want to discuss than it’s “quality” — but suffice it to say that the novel is a rollicking adventure yarn of weird science fantasy, prone to the overwrought language of many works in the same genre, and while it does display what we now think of as a particularly “privileged” protagonist (read: white, male, straight and six kinds of awesome), and there is a heaving bosom or two, it avoids the truly noxious racism and misogyny of some of its contemporaries. Overall, it is an enjoyable novel with a fast paced plot and an intriguing hero — or, anti-hero, which is what I really want to talk about.

 

Anti-heroes are difficult subjects. In their worst forms, they are an overly masculine authorial avatar, freed of moral constraints by a big gun, sword or gunsword. They are the worst kind of Mary Sue, because they serve to do little more than expose the power fantasies of the author. At the the other end of the spectrum are the tortured souls, the “Breaking Bad” Walter Whites of the world that force us to watch a decent man make the self destructive descent into immorality for all the “right reasons.” He is a bad man that was once good, or perhaps a good man who has to do bad things. Either way, this latter sort is the new vogue, while the former is more familiar to the readers of the pulps. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of The Dark World hews much closer to the former sort, but departs and reaches for the modern in a very interesting way.

 

What follows includes spoilers for what happens in The Dark World, so if the above have inspired you to read it, by all means bookmark this page and get yourself a copy. It is only a few hours’  read and you will be, at the very least, entertained for those hours.

 

The anti-hero protagonist of The Dark World is a man named Ganelon who hails from a parallel Earth where mutants reign. When we meet him, however, it is as Edward Bond, Ganelon’s Earth doppleganger who, suffering from PTSD and certain he his is being hunted by something, is transported into that parallel world. The novel does not take terribly long in establishing that a group of rebel freedom fighter Foresters, through sci-fi-sorcery, exiled their greatest foe Ganelon to Earth and drew Edward Bond in his place, making an ally of him. Ganelon, the real protagonist, believed he was Edward Bond until his allies in the malevolent Coven that rules the Dark World brought him back. Although there is plenty of  Lust and Greed and Pride to go around, it is Wrath that finally focuses Edward Bond into accepting his true identity as Ganelon — wrath against the treacherous Coven, so he joins the rebel Foresters disguised as Edward Bond anyway, aiming to destroy the Coven, betray the Foresters and rule the Dark World alone. There is also the small detail of Ganelon being “sealed” to a Lovecraftian horror called Llyr that truly rules the world and Ganelon’s desire to destroy that creature, too (since how could he rule with the real master still in power?) It sounds more convoluted than it is; Kuttner does an admirable job of laying out the twists and turns in a linear but fresh way so that while you are shocked at the moment of its revelation, you are not particularly surprised by it.

 

What is so interesting to me is that even after Ganelon has rejected Edward Bond in his own mind — and in the process truly becoming a protagonist, acting of his own accord rather than being manipulated by others — the mind and memories of Edward Bond never quite disappear. It is similar in a sense to moments of weakness for a character like Walter White, who remembers his old life and regrets the loss of certain elements of it, but in Ganelon’s case, it is all an illusion. Edward Bond is a false memory, a prison built in Ganelon’s mind, but even being so, adds some much needed balance to the otherwise too-vicious and one dimensional Ganelon. It is a sophisticated bit of character development by Kuttner, especially considering The Dark World is little more than a throwaway pulp science-fantasy novella. (I should note that it is known that Kuttner and Moore collaborated constantly even when they did not create a pseudonym for the purpose and The Dark World‘s complex and romantic aspects are often attributed to Moore’s input.)

 

The climax of the novel does an interesting thing, though it is not wholly unexpected. The same witch allied with the Foresters that originally exiled Ganelon and conjured Edward Bond summons the latter one last time for a battle in Limbo (which seems to be a purely psychic plane) between the two dopplegangers. Ganelon appears to win the day, breaking Edward Bond’s back, but this, it turns out, becomes Ganelon’s undoing. By killing Bond, Ganelon commits a form of suicide. The witch says that only someone who truly hates himself can kill himself ( a revealing perspective on suicide from the era, no doubt) which allows Bond to be ultimately successful. In the end, Bond is still exiled to the Dark World, but his has his Forester love (a pair among the various heaving bossoms) as well as a new world to build, now devoid of both Ganelon and the eldricht monster Llyr. This notion, that self hatred is the underlying weakness of an anti-hero, is a powerful and even sophisticated one. Kuttner posits, in this resolution to the tale, that hatred and rage are useful in achieving victory but ultimately they must be discarded for anything lasting to emerge. That there is no sequel to The Dark World, about the further adventures of Edward Bond, perhaps troubled by the re-emergence of Ganelon, seems to bear this out. With the tale done, Kuttner seems to be giving his final opinion on the subject.

 

The Dark World is a good example of pulp era science fantasy and is well worth your time to read it, especially given its brief length. More importantly, Ganelon/Bond as an example of an anti-heroic protagonist straddling between the old anything goes Mary Sue-ism and today’s tortured good men gone wrong makes for soem surprisingly complex writing given the genre and era.

Flash Fiction: Prose Songs

I am not especially a music fan. That is not to say I don’t enjoy music — I do — but I don’t invest the kind of mind space in it I do, say, comic books, movies or gaming. I do listen to music, but usually just as background noise at work or while I write. As often as not, the music I am listening to is associated with one of the things I do care about, in the form of scores to films and games I enjoy. There are a couple of other genres I enjoy as well: 90s alt rock and grunge, tied mostly to the fact that I was in my late teens and twenties during that time, and Blues and Celtic music (usually traditional songs by modern bands). Then there are the occasional pop, rock or other genre songs that just seem to fit (Of Monsters And Men’s “Dirty Paws” is a big one for me right now) or bands that are the only one in their genre that I like (Caravan Palace is great, but I have yet to hear another electro-swing band I like).

 

So what does any of this have to do with writing? Just today, as I was working at my desk, listening to Pandora, trying to concentrate on an excel spreadsheet but really thinking about this story I just cannot seem to get right, and the aforementioned “Dirty Paws” came on. For some reason, today was the day I realized why I liked that song so much, and why both Blues and Celtic are compelling to me: it tells a story. This is likely to sound obvious and maybe even a little stupid, but I had never really deeply considered my own tastes in music since, as I stated, music is generally not a big deal for me. But with that small realization, I not only started thinking about all the songs (as well as musicals, from The Little Mermaid to The Little Shop of Horrors) I really like, but also the very idea of story and how it speaks to me. Into this jumble of thoughts on music and narrative crept one other question that is nearly always floating around in the back of my writer-brain: why flash fiction?

 

I love flash fiction, both writing it and reading it. There is something about the brief, yet complete narrative that exemplifies the form. There is a lot of bad flash fiction — most of it not bad because it is poorly written, but because it usually represents a piece of a story or a vignette, rather than a whole story (and I include plenty of my own in that category) — but the good is really, really good. And it was in the convergence of these apparently disparate subjects, music and flash fiction, that the answer came: a good flash story is the same as a strong ballad or narrative song. They are both a form of story that takes just a few minutes to consume, but can be experience over and over to find the nuance and little details or just to *feel* its impact again.

 

I don’t know anything about songwriting, so I will not presume to make comparisons other than to guess there is some degree of similarity, but I can say that a good flash fiction story is very difficult to write. For all its brevity, crafting it is a painstaking process. Trained by Big Fat Fantasies and Unending Series and Bloated Literary Darlings, as writers we tend to use far too many words. That is not to say that there is not something wonderful in beautifully crafted, dense prose or a complex web of characters and subplots, but core narratives, the hearts of stories, can usually be distilled down to simple, powerful statements. Look no further than micro fiction like Six Word stories (when I first started my twitter feed, it was all #sixwordscifi) for proof. But getting those narratives trimmed down to size while preserving both artful wordsmithing and meaningful characterization and plotting is a uniquely difficult, sometimes apparently impossible, process.

 

Not every story can be told as flash fiction, just as sometimes a complete album or score is necessary to tell the story through music. But more often than not, I think, a work can be powerful and entertaining and, most of all, satisfying in a mere three to five minutes.

Futility

There is a tyranny in knowledge, an oppressive regime of awareness. If ignorance is bliss, then knowing is Hell.

 

For perhaps a month now, I have suffered from Writer’s Block — why did I capitalize “Writer’s Block” I wonder? Is it a Named Thing, an Entity in itself, rather than a state of my own being? — of a depth and intensity I cannot recall having previously suffered. This is not to say that I have never suffered from it before; I have many times stared at a blank page or screen, or sat re-reading the last paragraph I wrote in a story over and over trying to force the next words to come. But at least then I managed to bring myself to the table (or desk, as it were) and lay my fingers upon the keyboard before uncertainty, fear, inattention of simple laziness stopped me. This past month, I have not even managed that. I have gone well past my usual  procrastination — using exercise or video games or whatever to push off opening up Google Docs — and moved into active avoidance, fearful skulking as if being hunted, like my Muse had been transformed into a hungry beast.

 

I realized that the Writer’s Block had taken control yesterday when, between rounds of Blizzard’s new, highly addictive card game Hearthstone, I actually did the dishes, folded the laundry and cleaned up the dog shit just to have something to do besides going downstairs and writing. Upon realizing this, I was forced to ask myself, “Why?” What was so terrible that I could not even bring myself to simply re-read, let alone revise, a story I have been sitting on for ages? It is not as if I am not thinking about stories and writing and game design and all the other things I usually think about while running or driving or reading (I often have difficulty focusing on a well written piece because it will inspire my own imagination and thought processes; oh, the irony).

 

It hit me while I was procrastinating via the Internet (if some malevolent force wanted life and progress to come to a grinding halt so it could conquer us all, it could have designed no more perfectly insidious a weapon than the World Wide Web). I was reading something linked from SF Signal about writing and selling and publishing, when it all came crashing into my mind at once: the many thousands of books selling single digit copies on Amazon, the millions of blogs and websites (just like this one) with one or two hits per post, the ridiculous success of some very few apparently randomly selected works. For a while now I have been reading blogs and magazines and columns by writers and editors and publishers (self and otherwise) and it all distills to a singular fact: in this noise, whatever words I have, however valid or entertaining or unique, I am but a whisper in the din of a hurricane.

 

Futility. That is the knowledge I gained, and it crushes me.

 

Like Teaching a Chimp Sign Language

Let us imagine, for a moment, that a superior intellect visits Earth. Not simply an alien intellect, different from us, nor one ancient intellect, one roughly our equal but with a million years our senior in technical knowledge and culture. No, I mean a truly superior intellect, one an order of magnitude smarter than we, as we are to the chimpanzee. What could we learn from such an intellect, assuming it was benevolent and sought to teach us?

 

My answer? Not much at all.

 

Washoe the chimpanzee was taught American Sign Language in the late 1960s. Washoe was able to learn about 350 ASL signs, of a total of approximately 7000, or roughly 5% of the language. A chimpanzee is not a stupid creature. It can communicate, lives in social groups and very likely has a culture. What it cannot do, however, is create abstract symbols. According to many scientists, chimps communicate but do not have language. They can learn to use human language, in the form of ASL, as a tool (like they would a sharp stone to break open nuts or a stick to extract termites from a log) but they do not innovate with the language they learn. At best, chimpanzees and other primates can comprehend and manipulate a small portion of what to us comes naturally, because of our innately superior intellect.

 

What does this then mean for us in regards to a visitation by an alien, superior intellect? Assuming the visitors are benevolent, that they wish to teach us and that they are similar enough to us that their mode of communication is fundamentally understandable to us, we could hope for, at best, to understand a small sliver of what they propose to teach. And herein lies the catch: language communicates ideas, and if we cannot grasp the language, we have no hope of comprehending the ideas. Whatever intellectual power allowed them to cross the gulf between stars to come to Earth would be utterly lost on us. Since the language of the cosmos is very likely math, it would be less like us trying to teach chimpanzees to use sign language and more like us trying to teach chimpanzees to do calculus.

 

Interestingly, sadly, the limitations are not simply one way. We are no better at truly understanding the chimp mind than they are at comprehending us. At best, we anthropomorphise the chimpanzee and ascribe to it our own thoughts and emotions, but in a demeaning way. Assuming we were at least somewhat physically similar to our mystery superior intellect, then the best we could hope for is for they to equally misinterpret our motives and crude attempts at communication. However intellectually superior they might be, they would likely be as incapable of reducing themselves to our level and communicating on par with us as we have been with chimpanzees. If they are any thing like us, in fact, we are likely to end up in their zoos and in what passes for their bad comedy films about truck drivers.

 

All this is, strange as it may sound, a best case scenario. It assumes that the superior intellect is similar to us — humanoid, something resembling mammalian, concerned with civilization and culture, egotistically benevolent. What if that superior intellect is fundamentally different than us, however? Then the situation is much less like us and the chimpanzee and more like us and the octopoid. Though they are extremely intelligent creatures, they are also completely different from us. An intelligent alien species that evolved on a world vastly different from our own would not only confound us and be confounded by us the way a chimpanzee does, but would completely defy comprehension in many ways. Would they even recognize us as intelligent beings? Remember — we eat octopus. Alive.

 

If the time should ever come that we are visited by an intelligent species from another world, we should hope that they are our rough intellectual equals. If they are some time — a thousand, ten thousand or even a million years — more technologically advanced than us, we are likely to experience a fate not unlike contact between advanced explorers and aboriginal peoples in Earth’s history. As bad as that may have been. however, it is better than the alternative: to be viewed as just an animal, a lesser being, strange but ultimately a source of curiosity, entertainment and perhaps even trophies and food.

75 Years of Solemn Heroism

 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of Batman. Last year, it was the 75th anniversary of Superman and while that hero enjoyed broad coverage in the media, I think the Dark Knight is going to be more difficult to celebrate. Not, certainly, because Batman is less well known than Superman — if he is, it is only by the slimmest of margins. Rather, the problem lies with the very nature of the two characters, their inherent differences and their opposite but equivalent places on the spectrum of iconic heroism.

 

Superman is a messianic figure, a savior on par with Mithras or Moses. He represents, in short, hope. Superman fights bad guys, of course, but he is as likely to save innocent lives from earthquakes and meteor showers. His powers are so great that he can halt a tidal wave, extinguish a raging inferno or even turn back time itself. He is a god-like being whose primary interest is in protecting humanity and helping humanity succeed. Superman could end war by enforcing peace, and often writers will have Superman or analogs do just that, but he does not. A favorite trope in Superman stories, when writers are too lazy to create compelling narratives with the so-called “boyscout” Superman, is to cast him in the villain’s role, corrupted by power or despair or rage. But those depictions of Superman serve only to reinforce his fundamental nature as the goodest of the good guys.

 

Batman, however, is different. If Superman represents our desire for a savior, then Batman is a symbol of our desire to act, our need to sometimes get our hands dirty in order to bring about justice. Where Superman is a being of light whose depictions sometimes swing into dark places, Batman is the opposite. His time in the light is a parody of himself; he is most at home in the darkness. Where Clark Kent is the ultimate adoptive child, raised by loving parents to see the good in all people, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate orphan, a victim who is constantly reliving his tragic loss. This is not to imply weakness on the character’s part — some writers depict it as such, an obsession that paralyzes Batman into inaction, while most depict it as the source of Batman’s unending dedication to his his quest for justice. Rather, it is an exquisitely human motivation, one that we can understand, embrace and even, in our darker moods, imagine for ourselves.

 

Both Batman and Superman are adolescent male power fantasies; I do not refer to them in that way to as a pejorative, but as a fact. The men who created both characters were, in fact, adolescent males and they were powerless in a world of depressed economy, crime and corruption. Their heroes had the power to confront these issues, Superman and Batman each in their own ways. Their careers would run parallel from then on, Superman always in the light while Batman would emerge from his shadows to combat alien menaces and laughable villains, only to be drawn back into the shadows where he belonged.

 

This story from CNN illustrates the difficulty with which the modern popular media will have in trying to do stories about Batman at this anniversary. While the people interviewed were certainly inspired by Batman, one feels the need for quiet reflection on them rather than the parades and ballyhoo that Superman’s anniversary engendered.

 

If we imagine for a moment that Batman were real, that Brice Wayne was real, we imagine a hero who is equal part victim. We imagine a man who has spent three quarters of a century trying to come to grips with the worst tragedy a child could possibly suffer, the worst images a child could possibly witness. We imagine a man who has dedicated everything he has, everything he is, to the singular goal of ensuring no child ever suffers like he did, that no person ever suffers like he continues to suffer every day. Batman does not stop earthquakes or alien invasions, he stops killers. Batman does not turn back tidal waves, he turns back tragedy. Batman does not fly in to save our lives, he swoops in to save our hearts and minds. It is heroism, but it is a solemn, dark heroism that asks us to feel dark and solemn things as we consider it.

Friday Flash Fiction: Lifepunk

Chuck Wendig of terribleminds.com throws out a flash fiction prompt on a weekly basis. As it has been a while since I have done my own Friday Flash, and the idea of creating an all new something-punk genre story appealed to me, I decided to give it a go.

 

So, without further ado, here is a brief story in the genre I call “lifepunk.”

———-

 

Sonny peered through the blinds. Blinds. What a ridiculously quaint furnishing. They were a throwback to an era before smart windows, when privacy and modesty were worshipped as gods, along with productivity and conformity. That they adorned these windows, his parents’ windows, did not surprise Sonny in the least. In that way, the blinds were a perfect example of everything he was fighting against, of everything he did not want, of all the old things that would not go away.

 

“It’s not going to work,” said Emil. He was pacing back and forth in the living room, between the wall screen and the blinds covered windows where Sonny stood. The wall screen was a more recent furnishing than the blinds, certainly, but still old enough to exemplify the technological and cultural atrophy Sonny despised — and feared.

 

“It will work,” said Sonny. He peaked through the slats again and this time he saw flashing lights. He smiled and reached for his belt where he felt the hard grip of the revolver. It, too, was quaint — quaint, antiquated, outmoded, ancient, positively antediluvian. It belonged to Sonny’s father, as well. The man had not changed, could not change, to the point of ignoring the law for over a century to hold onto this strange, murderous piece of steel.

 

Emil quickened his pacing and started to talk quickly. “It isn’t going to work. They are not going to do it. They are just going to tranq us and format us and then what? Nothing. That’s what. Nothing, forever.”

 

Even as the flashing lights grew brighter — the police flyers were descending, he knew — Sonny tore himself away from the blinds and his fingers from the revolver and he grabbed Emil by the face and kissed him long and deep and hard. Then, he said, “That is not going to happen,” and Emil could not have believed him more if the words had come from a burning bush.

 

With Emil calmer, Sonny went back to the window. and peaked. He could see the beetle shaped flyers coming to rest on the lawn and street. “We’re anarchists,” he said. “They won’t know what to do with anarchy, so they will over react. They can’t help it. It’s what happens when you never grow old and you never change.

***

Captain Sandvik manually checked the charge on her tranq rifle while the flyer descended. It was an unnecessary action since all the data about her equipment — not just the rifle, but her armor and med-unit and sensor suite — was piped into her field of vision via heads up eyeplants, but it was a comforting habit. She had been, after all, been doing it for decades, as long as she had been a cop. Over the long years she had found that the tools changed, but she never changed and neither did the criminals.

 

She surveyed the men in the flyer with her. Most sat patiently waiting for the thing to land. Conteh looked impatient, ready for a fight. Otero looked nervous. Sandvik recalled that Otero was young, just fifty, and probably had never seen any real action. It was rare. Even she had not fired her tranq in twenty years.

 

The flyer touched down and the door folded away. She was on her feet and out into the yard immediately, followed and flanked by her subordinate officers. Before her stood the enemy fortress, a one story, three bedroom suburban house at the end of a cul de sac. She ordered her men to take up defensive positions and the remaining flyers to maintain clear airspace and looked over the house. She thought, nice blinds.

***

“Oh, god,” whined Emil. “It’s happening.” He looked like he was going to puke, then did, all over the retro afghan rug.

 

“Not yet,” said Sonny to himself, but then to Emil he added, “It’s okay, hon. This is what we wanted, remember?”

 

Emil wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I don’t know,” he said. Sonny glowered and he added swiftly, “I mean, I did, but now that we’re here, that it’s about to happen, I’m scared.”

 

Sonny softened his expression in the practiced way of a long time significant other. His very awareness of it irked him. It was habit, nothing more, a normal behavior made mechanical by long years of repetition. Even so, he remained placid.

 

“Emil, honey, we went over this again and again. How old are we?”

 

After a moment of hesitation, Emil answered, “I’m seventy five. You’re seventy nine.”

 

“Right,” said Sonny, “and what’s our favorite band?”

 

“The Larks.”

 

“Right, and how old were we when they came out?”

 

“I don’t know. Thirty, maybe?”

 

“Yeah,” said Sonny, his eyes flashing. “Our favorite band has been the same for almost fifty years. Do you know why?”

 

Emil shook his head.

 

“Because we don’t change. Because nothing changes. Because we don’t age and we don’t have to go through the stages of life. We were thirty when we got Treated. We’ll be thirty forever.”

 

Yeah, I know, Sonny. It’s just, is that so bad?”

 

Sonny raged, drawing the revolver and waving it in Emil’s direction. “Yes! God, yes! The whoe, world is thirty, or fifty or seventy like my ridiculous parents. Everyone is stuck, forever, at the age they got Treated and now people are Treating their kids because they don’t want them to ever age or grow up. It’s sick, Emil! It’s wrong!”

***

There was movement inside. Despite the blinds, Captain Sandvik could see with her HUD that one man, one of the anarchist terrorists who claimed to have planted bombs at the Treatment facility, was waving a very old fashioned gun around. “get ready,” she ordered.

 

She was directing Otero toward the south side of the house when the bang! reverberated through the house and into the yard. Later, surveillance video would show the embrace and the kiss and the intimate murder. At the time, though, Sandvik was hitting the grass as bullets flew out into the yard through the blinds.

 

Most of her men took cover. Some cowered. It was Conteh, though, that hunkered down, aimed and fired into the house. She knew from the sound of it that his rifle was not armed with tranqs.

***

“I love you,” said Sonny. He let Emil slip to the floor, kissed him once on the forehead, and then turned and fired wildly through the blinds into the front yard. It only took a moment before one of the police fulfilled Sonny’s promise.

 

As he faded, Sonny felt grateful. No prison of eternal, unchanged Sonny-ness would hold him.

***

There were no bombs at the Treatment facility, or even an anarchist cell. Sandvik shook her head. Why two guys her own age would commit suicide by cop when they had literally forever to look forward to, she did not understand — nor could she.

 

Inspirational As Fuck

On Sunday, March 9, 2014, Fox (the entertainment channel, not the “news” channel) began their broadcast of the new COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey television series.

 

The following video pretty much sums up my reaction:

 

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Whoever that kid is, here is hoping she remembers this in 20 or 30 years.

 

Watching the new COSMOS was an interesting experience. As a fan of science and science edutainment in general, I was pretty familiar with most of the actual scientific information conveyed by the show’s amazing host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The fact was, in fact, that there was not a lot of it there (although I must say that historical information surrounding Giordano Bruno was new to me) which I found mildly disappointing. That is, until I realized that science, or at least specific scientific facts, are not the point of the new COSMOS. It was only when Tyson, at the end of the episode, gave his very personal account of a meeting with the late, great Carl Sagan that I understood what COSMOS intended to be:

 

Inspirational As Fuck.

 

Take a look at that video linked above. THAT is why this new COSMOS exists. Scientific literacy and interest are at an all time low and the future of human spaceflight may not sit with America. In light of this turn of events in the latter quarter of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, a show like Tyson’s (and Seth MacFarlane — yes, the Family Guy guy) COSMOS is not just a good idea, but a necessary step in the war for the minds, hearts and dreams of the next generation. Both Tyson and MacFarlane have expressed in multiple interviews the importance of making sure the show would be broadcast on a national network as opposed to a niche cable network like Discovery Channel. In short, it comes down to navel gazing and preaching to the choir: viewers like me, who search out NOVA and The Universe for our edutainment don’t “need” COSMOS. Arguably, my kids don’t either, because I have already exposed them to science and science based entertainment. But, if America is to regain its prominence is science and technology and have a shot at competing in the new, global space race, the next generation of American Idol viewers to fall in love with, well, the cosmos.

 

As a writer of science fiction, I think about the future a lot. My views, whether I am optimistic or pessimistic, vary over time, depending on my mood. I must admit that right now, I am in a pessimistic mood regarding humanity’s future as it relates to technology and especially human exploration of and migration into space. I don’t necessarily believe that we can summon the wherewithal to achieve great advances in human spaceflight before circumstances — over population, climate change, imminent asteroid impact, or what have you — make it necessary. I would be more surprised, frankly, in a human exodus to the other planets than I would in the complete collapse of human civilization. Even if we leave this cradle, I do not think whatever it is that leaves would continue to be able to be called human: human is a very specific creature, evolved on a very specific world, to which life in orbit and/or on an alien world is inimical.

 

But then, I watch as Neil deGrasse Tyson guide me through a visually stunning tour of the cosmos and a little part of my old, optimistic self flutters to life. For just a moment, I imagine a clean, Rodenberry-esque future where dedicated research and the intentional rejection of divisive politics, religion and economics has allowed us to solve the scientific and engineering challenges inherent in the idea of not simply human habitation in space, but human mastery of it. For those few moments, before all my fears of human weakness, greed and stupidity quash that vision, I see the future that COSMOS is offering.

Story versus Prose

I have been doing a lot of self reflection on my own writing and writing preferences lately, mostly in attempting to understand why I have so much difficulty. Among a number of other things, I have started to understand that, at least for me, there is a fundamental conflict between Story and Prose. Or, rather, the two vie for my time, energy and attention in the writing process itself, and the casualty is usually a completed work.

I am a disciple of Story, first and foremost. What happens — both what actually happens, and what is happening, if you get my meaning of the difference — is the point. No matter what else you are trying to accomplish with the story — to titillate, to inform, to inspire — you cannot accomplish it without the story itself. By story, I mean the arc of the tale, the beginning(s), middle(s) and end(s). Big Fat Fantasy of literary micro-fiction, the core is the same, like how a fish’s skeleton and a human’s are fundamentally alike. That is not to say that all stories are fundamentally the same, but rather that all stories must have Story to be more than mere ideas or descriptions.

That said, I also love the craft of writing, the Prose. It simply feels good to manipulate the formless ephemera of words into a real thing. A well crafted sentence is a jewel unto itself, and a well written story is a crown. It takes time and care and, most of all, experience to produce such art. It can be a frustrating process, discarding one imperfect word, phrase or sentence after another until the perfect one appears. And when it does not, the hard choice must be made between stopping everything or leaving something lesser in place and going on.

I was not fully aware of the conflict between Story and Prose, though the unnamed idea of it was often a cloud in my mind, until relatively recently when I finally read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite stories. I first saw the animated film as a child and have watched it innumerable times throughout my life. I knew the film so well, in fact, that I never bothered to read the novel. I cannot say for certain why this is; The Last Unicorn is hardly the only adaptation I was exposed to before the original material, but still I read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, for example. Perhaps I knew that those adaptations were incomplete or inaccurate, since Tolkien’s work inspires a kind of fandom beagle’s does not and therefore I was more fully aware of the Good Professor’s works in a way I was not familiar with Beagle’s. Or perhaps it was simply that the film was so satisfying to me, I could not imagine what value the novel might have — or worse, I feared that I would love the film better (an unforgivable crime for a young, budding writer).  Whatever the cause, I only finally read the novel The Last Unicorn mere months ago. Upon doing so, I hated myself for waiting so terribly long.

Beagle’s Prose, his mastery of the language, is nothing short of amazing, rivaling the likes of Hemingway in my opinion. I found in reading The Last Unicorn that I experienced it in an entirely new way, even though the story was nearly identical to that of the film. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, which I am currently re-reading: Tolkien also has a mastery over his use of language (though in a very different way than Beagle), but since so much of my reading attention is directed at how different Peter Jackson’s adaptations were, I feel almost as if I am less able to enjoy the Prose because of the differences in Story.

 

Once I read The Last Unicorn and became consciously aware of the distinction in my mind between Prose and Story, I began to look at my own writing in a different way. Specifically, I started to look at why I was having such trouble finishing some stories, or producing a good version of some stories. What I began to realize is that in some cases I had a Story I wanted to tell, but was trying to tell it with a kind of Prose that does not come naturally to me, or was not a natural fit for the Story. The sort of Modernist writing style, where we describe all the actions and emotions of the character has become the expected, even demanded, form of Prose for our written fiction. This is a relatively new development, though. From ancient epics to folkloric tales to all the other media we consume, most storytelling we do is focused on the characters and events, the Story itself. One could write a 5000 word short story version of Hansel and Gretel, for example, but would it be “better” by any measure than the shorter form used to tell the events of the tale to children before bedtime? Prose is art and can be beautiful for its own sake, but it can also weigh down the Story, obscuring it under layers of unnecessary detail. I realized that in many cases, I was trying to tell a piece of folklore or talk about a series of things that happened in this imaginary place to these imaginary people, but was not, in fact, trying to “write a story” in the conventional sense.

 

The questions arises, then: is there a market for such fiction? In a world dominated by Modernist, Prose-centric preferences, is there a place for Story-telling? I worried that the answer was “no” until I realized something very important: the world of non-fiction, from magazine features to biographies, looks very much like this. When we are telling stories about what were or are or might be, involving real people, we almost invariably focus on Story rather than Prose. (This, of course, does not mean there is not a place for strong writing and a good turn of phrase.) And I realized, then, that there is no reason why that form of storytelling can’t be applied to fiction as well, and that there is sure to be a market for it in the same way that there is a market for non-fiction in that form.

Immediate Gratification: The Joy of Improvisational Creation

I spent the weekend at Total Confusion 28 where, in addition to general merrymaking and running a Mutant Future duology called Out of the Fridge/Into the Freezer (I will post about that some day soon), I engaged in my third annual attempt to take the (regional) crown of Iron GM. For those not in the know (and too riveted to click the provided link) Iron GM is to tabletop role-playing games (primarily Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) what Iron Chef is to cooking: given a limited amount of time and a collection of disparate, secret-until-it’s-go-time ingredients, you are tasked with creating a convention scenario (you’ll note that the very idea of Iron GM  breaks a lot of those rules) on the spot for real live gamers instead of a panel of professional judges.

 

The whole concept of Iron GM appeals to me. Much of my writing is performed similarly: when I feel the need to create but I can’t muster up any good ideas, I solicit my friends to throw random story elements (settings, protagonists, challenges and so on) at me and then I force myself to write with those elements, finishing a story of between 1000 and 2000 words in an hour or two. The result is always a little rough around the edges, but more often than not, I find that I usually really like at least the concept of the story, if not the particulars of the prose or pacing (two elements that I believe require real polish to get right). Iron GM scratches a similar itch for me, but with one spectacular addition: an audience. Sure, a flash fiction as previously described can garner some atta-boys and “Likes” from friends, but the people at the table in Iron GM are strangers by requirement — at least at the time of the game; some of those players turn out to be lifelong friends.

 

Gamermastering a tabletop role-playing game is one of the most rewarding, if ephemeral, creative undertakings I know. It comes in second to writing simply, I think, because the written word lives on after the act of creation and may even see a much larger than originally intended audience. It might even live forever (for varying definitions of “forever”; even Gilgamesh hasn’t been around forever, since we’re still going on). Bust, as stated, it beats writing on the “immediate gratification” metric, since it requires a group of people to appreciate it (these people happen to be co-authors in this undertaking, of course, but that discussion is beyond the scope of this post). Many game masters meticulously craft worlds, study rule books and prepare adventures before they actually sit down behind the screen and begin play. I have done that on occasion, but I have always preferred running by the seat of my pants. I prefer a relatively “light” rules set, one that is easy to bend to my will without getting bogged down in fiddly bits (which, of course, makes D&D 3.5 a terrible choice, thereby making it a brilliant choice for competition). That is not to say I don’t like rules. I think they are essential to provide a structure where the players feel like they have agency in the game and a way to measure how “fair” the game is. Having to look rules up in the middle of play brings everything grinding to a halt, so fewer rules with consistent implementation serve my purposes better.

 

This is in no small part due to a very important and, frankly, fun aspect of improvisational GMing: the players define the game as much as I. There’s an adage among game masters, paraphrased from improvisational theater: say, “Yes, but…” Players who have a toolset in their hands (i.e. the rules as they relate to their character) and a clear sense of agency (based on the choices you put before them, either implicit or explicit) enhance any game, especially an improvisational one since, well, I might not even know where I am going with this thing. Granted, this is slightly less true during the Iron GM competition, if only because there is a time limit and part of the grading is based on whether the adventure was completed to satisfaction. Two years in a row now, time has run out for me in the boss fight finale.

 

There is a dark side to the immediate gratification I get from improvisational creation, especially the flash writing that I described above. For me, the act of completion, of seeing a story through to its end, is the real joy. To have created such a thing fills me we a sense of accomplishment. But also as I stated above, the real work is in the polish, the cleaning up of the inevitable failures of such a speedy creation: inconsistencies of plot and character, clumsy prose, ideas only hinted at that need fleshing out, and so on. That stuff is hard and, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, I’ve already rolled over, smoked a cigarette and am ready to go to sleep. I have countless (I mean I have never counted them, out of fear of disappointing myself) first draft short stories desperately in need of revision that I have never gone back to simply because they are, emotionally for me anyway, “done.”