A Process Interlude: The 100 Word Story

Here’s the first shot at writing a 100 word story for the Dreamscape Press “100 Worlds” anthology. This is a kind of “Flash Fiction” even more restrictive than NPR’s “Three Minute Fiction” (600 words) or “Flash Fiction Online” with its 1000 word limit.

 

That said, let’s give it a go:

 

———-

 

Juno saw it first, the ten kilometer wide spacecraft. No one can say how long it had been orbit of Jupiter, but it remained for a little over thirteen years. Some sort of continent sized net hung from it, dragging through the upper Jovian atmosphere while smaller object — kilometer wide vessels or probes — made regular trips to the moons, especially Europa.

 

All we could do was watch. We fast tracked designs for future Jovian missions but budgets and science and politics and just plain physics being what they are, none made it in time. There is a rumor that we successfully contacted them. Don’t believe it. It was considered, of course, but the ramifications of its existence alone was enough to stifle any political will to reach out. That, and fear.

 

On August 19, 2029, it left. The last of its probes returned to it. It drew in its net and it moved out of Jovian orbit. We lost sight of it within hours.

 

The thing that is most disconcerting — hell, the thing that is most depressing and even a little hurtful — is that not once in the entire time they were here did they ever once try and contact the Earth.

 

———-

 

That comes in at 186 words, nearly double the intended limit. In order to trim it, I have to discern the key elements of the story and distill it to its essence.

 

“An advanced alien spaceship is detected in orbit of Jupiter engaged in acquiring resources and possibly other activities. It remains for years. We are unable to investigate and unwilling to initiate contact. The aliens ignore us completely before eventually leaving for parts unknown. We are left with the knowledge that we are not alone and the feeling that we wish were had remained ignorant.”

 

Even that seems to long to explain what this story is really about and why I want to write it.

 

“Humankind is so insignificant that either we don’t register as an intelligent speacies, or are not worth investigation even if we do.”

 

I think in order to really underline that insignificance and make it certain to the reader that the aliens intentionally ignored us, humans have to attempt contact. It is conceivable that an alien mining probe could fail to recognize life on a planet millions of miles from its work zone; it is less conceivable that it could fail to notice signals directed at it.

Those things said, with an eye toward slimming it down, here is attempt number two:

 

———-

 

On February 9, 2017 the Jovian probe Juno returned images of a ten-kilometer wide spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter. By the eleventh, the images had been leaked onto the internet and the whole world knew we were not alone. We all watched as the strange vessel skimmed the surface of the gas giant’s atmosphere with what looked like a net thousands of square kilometers in size. We saw the smaller half-kilometer probes or ships travel back and forth between the main ship and the Jovian moons, especially Europa.

 

We fast tracked the next generation Jupiter mission and launched it even while we tried to contact the ship on every frequency. It ignored our probes, our signals and our very existence for over a decade.

 

On June 13, 2029 the craft reeled in its massive net, recalled its probes and drifted out of Jupter’s orbit. Within hours it had moved beyond our ability to detect it. We were left with the absolute knowledge that we were not alone as well as the numbing realization that we did not matter.

 

———-

 

That is hardly better at all: 178 words. Now comes the hard part: I have established what the story is about and twice now wrote it how it “felt” like it should be written; now I have to start trimming out lines of text. Already the story is skimpy, eschewing Character entirely (save for the understood “we” that is intended to make the reader the protagonist) and only invoking Setting in the slimmest way possible (relying entirely on the reader’s knowledge and understanding of Jupiter and its environs). The story is all Plot and a bare bones one at that.

 

The first paragraph of the second try is 88 words — almost the whole story length. Let’s trim that down a bunch:

 

“The images hit the net on February 9, 2017. Taken by the Juno probe,they showed a ten massive alien spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter, apparently skimming the atmosphere for fuel and sending smaller vessels to Europa and the other Jovian moons.”

 

As much as I like a good turn of phrase, I just can’t afford the words to obscure what the ship is doing in descriptions of what that looks like. I have to trust that a science fiction reading audience is going to imagine interesting and fun methods by which aliens might skim the atmosphere and jaunt back and forth between the ship and the moons — not to mention a useful definition of the term “massive” as it relates to extraterrestrial orbital craft. That’s 42 words.

 

The remainder of the story above is 90 words, about a third too long. That’s good, since the bulk of the “story” (such that it is) happens here and trimming is going to be harder. The first thing to do is simplify the language and be more direct.

 

“We launched probes. We broadcast greetings. Nothing. No response at all.” Far more efficient that the above and the brevity helps create a sense of exasperation, I think. That brings the current total up to 53 words. The final paragraph — Act 3, as it were — is 54 words as written above, which means I only have to trim it down a little.

 

“It carried on its work, oblivious to us. Then, on June 16, 2029, it recalled its ships, retracted its skimmer and left Jovian orbit. It was beyond detection within days.” At 30 words, that finishes the plot and leaves 17 words to hammer the point of the story home.

 

“We knew with certainty then we were not alone. But knowing it, we never felt more isolated.”

 

That hits 100 precisely, as well as landing squarely on the point. Here is the final version:

 

———-

 

The images hit the net on February 9, 2017. Taken by the Juno probe,they showed a ten massive alien spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter, apparently skimming the atmosphere for fuel and sending smaller vessels to Europa and the other Jovian moons.

 

We launched probes. We broadcast greetings. Nothing. No response at all. It carried on its work, oblivious to us.

 

Then, on June 16, 2029, it recalled its ships, retracted its skimmer and left Jovian orbit. It was beyond detection within days.

 

We knew with certainty then we were not alone. But knowing it, we never felt more isolated.

 

———-

 

I’ll let this sit for a couple days before I submit it to the anthology, just to be sure I still like it.

 

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The Process, Part Three

In a relatively rare occurrence for me, I decided to work up a total outline of the story. It is sparse in places and does not break down word counts (pacing is difficult and the biggest impetus for revisions, in my opinion) but it gets the totality of the story across. Incidental characters, events and locations will no doubt crop up during the actual writing process, as will complete rethinking of some story elements and beats in the outline. But that is what first drafts are for, right?

———-

The story opens with John being introduced to his new position as a full fledged Sandman at the age of 19. His life up to this point has been a squalid existence in the Sleeper Station, living sparsely and uncomfortably while learning all the skills necessary to become a Sandman.

 

His mentor/boss is a figure known as Doctor Somnen who is in charge of all the Sandmen. He explains each of John’s duties — flushing the waste fluids, checking the biofuel cells, keeping an eye on the Sleep system, and, most importantly, watching the Outside Scopes — and tells him that as a Sandman he is entitled to extra protein rations. John spends a very boring first day, then week, then month, manning his station.

 

Once John is up to speed, one of the older Sandmen is “retired” — he is actually allowed to join the Sleepers so that should the world ever recover enough to warrant waking them, he will be allowed to live the rest of his life outside the Station in the “new world.” Doctor Somnen tells John that he, too, can work toward that goal.

 

While watching the Scopes, John sees a figure approach the sealed and hidden front gates of the Station. It is obvious that the figure knows the gates are there, however. The figure is cloaked and hooded and bristling with weapons. This figure is Cyrus, the wasteland wanderer and crusader dedicated to making sure the evils of the World Before do not survive into whatever the next era is. (Note: the Station occupants do not know this; the fact is included here for my own benefit.) John informs Doctor Somnen, who tells him to watch and wait.

 

Cyrus remains at the gates, doing nothing but making himself easily apparent through the Scopes, for a week. At one point, John watches a wild wasteland critter attempt to ambush Cyrus and Cyrus kills it handily and skins it, butchers it and eats it. Doctor Somnen seems impressed. He wants to know more about the outside world and obviously this person (Cyrus) would know. John shows reservations but Somnen reassures him by saying just because they let the stranger in does not mean he ever gets out.

 

Doctor Somnen orders the gates opened to allow Cyrus in, requiring only that Cyrus leave his arsenal in the airlock (which he can “retrieve when he chooses to leave” the Sleeper Station.).Cyrus does so and enters the Station. He can speak the old language fluently, which strikes John as odd. Doctor Somnen assigns John to “show him around” while collecting information from him. He does this because John is young and inexperienced and unlikely able to give up too many secrets to Cyrus.

 

Cyrus has a neural implanted computer that contains massive amounts of pre-Apocalypse and current data which is directly wired to his brain by the god-like Artificial Intelligence Network that was responsible for the Apocalypse and is still around. (Cyrus is opposed to these beings and his access to their information is a hack by his “order.”) Inside the Station, his access is limited because of interference.

 

John  introduces Cyrus to the Station and life within for the Sandmen. Part of the “tour” brings them to the dining hall where they enjoy their sparse meals and the tasty “protein ration” (aka meat). During the meal, Cyrus refrains from eating it and challenges John to explain where it comes from (asking if there are livestock as well as hydroponics). Un-enthused, Doctor Somnen tells Cyrus that the protein rations is produced from cellular growth systems, not husbandry. Cyrus outwardly accepts the answer but doubt has been successfully planted in John.

 

Later, John finds Cyrus sneaking around during the “night cycle” in search of something. During their conversation, Cyrus pushes John toward figuring out the truth for himself, but before that can happen they are interrupted by Doctor Somnen. After Cyrus leaves them, Somnen tells John that Cyrus is dangerous and may be trying to probe weaknesses in the Station for an attack by his wasteland allies. Because John and Cyrus seems to have a rapport, Somnen asks John to lead Cyrus into a trap and promises him the ultimate reward: being put in hibernation with the rest of the Sleepers to await the Utopian future of the post-post-apocalypse. John agrees.

 

Cyrus allows himself to be brought to the cusp of the trap — the recycling center where the Sleeps are turned into protein ration — so that in the midst of their conflict he can reveal the truth to John in order to gain his trust and assistance. Cyrus wants to kill all of the Sleepers (because they are examples of the most decadent of humankind) but John  argues to just wake them all. In the meantime, Doctor Somnen and his cronies descend on the control chamber and all hell breaks loose.

 

During this climactic confrontation, Doctor Somnen admits that he was ordering the eating of Sleepers in order to alleviate the burden on the Sandmen. He had seen it near mutiny when he was a young Sandman and now that he was in charge he refused to allow all the Sleepers to dir and was willing to sacrifice some of them for the greater good. That sort of thing.

 

I am not sure exactly how I want the final act to play out at this point, but in the end Cyrus leaves to allow John to choose whether to kill all the Sleepers, leave them sleeping or wake them all. We don’t see the answer. Satisfied that the real evil of the Station — Doctor Somnen — is defeated, Cyrus goes back out into the wastes and continues on his crusade. John is left to contemplate the choice before him.

 

The Process, Part Two

Last time (scroll down to see it) I introduced you to my process by outlining it in general terms. Now, with an idea in mind, I want to explore it in a more specific way.

The Idea is always the starting place, even if the final product does not quite resemble it. In this case, it’s a simple, even silly, supposition about both milieu (post apocalyptic bunker survival) and cliched plot line (It’s people!”). But I often find it helpful to spell it out, mostly because little details will emerge, unbidden, when I write the dust jacket version. For example, even though the Idea came to me during a run (often the case) the details of the names (“Sleeper Stations” and “Sandmen”) only appeared as I wrote the short-form plot.

For those that missed it, here is that passage from the previous post:

In response to the impending Apocalypse, so-called Sleeper Stations are established, where millions are placed into hibernation until it is time to emerge and retake the world. In addition to the Sleeping, a population of Sandmen is assigned to watch over the Sleepers. Four generations later, a weary administrative class is trying to maintain a sparse yet utopian society while watching outside for signs of civilization. Throughout it all, the Sandmen class is forced o suffer hard labor and disgusting working conditions. Despite all the difficulty, the population is well fed. It is the protagonist that asks the question, where does the meat come from?

In many cases, that would be enough for me to start writing. However, I think I want to unpack this idea a little bit and see if I can find the story inside the idea. See, I believe that ideas, great ideas even, are cheap, a dime a dozen. Anyone can have not just one million dollar idea, but a million dollar idea every day. But turning that great idea into something — here, a story — is where the work comes in. Too often, I settle on the flash fiction or slightly longer short-short because it allows me to get to the meat of an idea and the basic structure of the story without the wait or the drudgery. The fundamental problem with this goes back to the ubiquity of ideas: since they are so easy, chances are someone else has already had it, so the difficulty lies in presentation. This is doubly true if you are intentionally choosing or settling on something common and/or cliched.

With all that in mind, where is the story in the idea? For me, the first component past plot I need is character. Specifically, I need to identify in my mind my viewpoint character in order to successfully navigate a nascent story structure. Because this idea is in a new, unfamiliar world for the reader and involves a degree of (morbid) discovery, I want someone new and young and easily presented with the kind of information the reader needs to know. Given what I established above about the setting, it is obvious that the character should be a new Sandman, just assigned to his station watching over the Sleepers and/or watching the outside world for signs of civilization. Since I am terrible at choosing names, I am going to call him John for the time being.

Even as I wrote the above, a question formed in my mind: should John be a Sleeper who was woken for the purpose of becoming a Sandman? In the answer to that question can be found a number of deeper choices about the setting. Is this how Sandmen are chosen? If so, why? Are they sterile? Subject to high rates of birth defects? Maybe only men (or women) are allowed to be Sandmen. It also twists the “Soylent Green” ending to a new level: if John was a Sleeper, then that means he has been eating people *just like him* by the time the truth comes out. If John was not a Sleeper and was instead born and raised among the Sandmen, then this is the only life he knows. What’s more, he would likely not see the Sleepers as fully human. At best, they might be an abstract hope; at worst, they would be a burden, especially if life among the Sandmen is difficult. How, then, would he react when the truth comes out?

 

In addition to John, a secondary “viewpoint” character, or at least one that could transmit some information to the reader, came to mind: a wanderer invited into the Sleeper Station. If the supposition is that the Sleeper Station must watch for the appropriate time to wake its population, then either the Sandmen must go out and explore (perhaps remotely, though that idea does distance the Sandmen from the potential action and immediacy of such an element) or they must allow wanderers to enter (but, perhaps, never leave). I have a “pre-existing” wanderer in mind, should I decide to go this route, because I have a sort of Conan/Jon Carter homage character called Cyrus from some time back when I decided I wanted to write a Howardian episodic body of work in a Post-Apocalyptic setting. Such a character could not only help drive the action, since otherwise John will need a powerful motivation to dig too deep into the origins of his protein sustenance, but serve as a gatekeeper to a potential wider world of this post apocalyptic setting.

 

Of course, an antagonist is also necessary, and the obvious choice is an administrator or head chef or some other character who holds the knowledge that the Sandmen are butchering and eating the Sleepers. Because it is obvious, however, part of me thinks to go a completely different direction. This, too, is a key component of my process. Given decades of comic books, cartoons, television and mass-market sci-fi, I recognize that many of my first blush ideas are cliches, so I often try to identify those tendencies and actively work against them. or, at least, I try to subvert the cliche in such a way that it provides ballast to an otherwise too-heavy story.

 

Aside from the various characters a story needs, a strong setting is a must. Even for a one off short story, the setting needs to make some sort of internal sense as well as feed the plot in a naturalistic fashion. With this idea, that means building a setting in which it makes sense that the Sandmen would be feeding on the Sleepers. In my mind, two possibilities appear. In the first, the Sleeper Station is unsustainable. Perhaps the worst aspects of the Apocalypse lingered too long and the protein vats, hydroponic farms and waste-to-food recyclotrons are giving out and the Sandmen are stretching the life of the Station by reluctantly delving into the last “store” of protein they have: the Sleepers. They keep it a secret because they know it would cause a revolt and the Station would collapse and that would be the end of them all. The other option is that the Sandmen in charge have seen the world of the Post Apocalypse and for whatever reason — perhaps they have become fundamentalists or perhaps they refuse to cede the power they hold over the rest of the Sandmen — and refuse to join it. They are happy to continue to hide beneath the surface, but have tired of the hardships of living on gruel and recycled feces and have somehow convinced themselves it is their right to eat the Sleepers. In the former example, there is a moral ambiguity that might be interesting to explore. In the latter example, there is a stark villainy that can be equally compelling (especially if you have a sword and sorcery/ray-gun style hero on the loose looking to lop off a few heads).

 

Finally, I need a resolution in mind. I know, I skipped an outline and a rough draft and all those bits that they teach you in your creative writing classes. Those I either embrace, or don’t. In fact, I find that the more hard preparation I do, like outlines and treatments and very rough drafts, the less likely that I will actually get to the process of writing the story for real. I have a sneaking suspicion that the act of completing a story gives me a kind of endorphin rush analogous to the “runners high or “post coital bliss” and so if I “finish” the story in the pre-writing phase, my need to actually write it diminishes. In this case, though, I want to actively avoid that but at least have a basic idea of how this story ends. Of course, the specifics of the ending must rely on the answers to the many questions I have just posed, but ultimately there are only two choices for an end to this story: either John accepts, however grudgingly, the cannibalistic practice of the Sandmen, or he rejects it. That choice will inform many of the very small but ever-so-important details of the text itself.

 

All the above shows the kind of questions I present to myself as I tackle a story idea. This is the most conscious part of the process for me. As soon as I finally sit down to write, all that questioning has magically coalesced into a story and I am less writing it as I am uncovering it, like a sculptor chipping away at the marble to find the statue that has always been hidden within.

 

For next time, I will begin writing and present it with some “color commentary,” as it were — which choices I made and why, for example.

 

Thanks for your eyeballs!

The Process, Part One

Over the next few posts, I want to talk about my writing process. The system by which an idea becomes a story is often obscure even to myself, and I think going through that process here might be illuminating (to me and perhaps even to both of you). If nothing else, it should be worthwhile as an exercise in ordering my thoughts on the subject.

Generally speaking, I write in sudden fits. That is, an idea strikes — whether new, old or suggested by others — and I delve immediately into the process of creating prose. I often ruminate on a story idea while out on a run, though not always, but in either case what meets paper is usually immediate, unpracticed and visceral. For very short works, I start and finish in one sitting. The result is sometimes sublime, sometimes terrible, and most often mediocre.

Long and/or more complex works are usually the result of extended brainstorming sessions. I might think about a story idea for a week or a year before it finally coalesces or I feel ready to write it. In these cases I am much more likely to have written outlines an notes, have fiddled with very rough early drafts, and/or explored the idea in different media. However, it still happens that the writing is done in a marathon of frantic typing, even if stretched over a few days or even a month. It seems that measured, precise writing is not my strong suit.

That’s the usual way I do it, from a hind sight perspective. The mere fact that I am looking at it now, in the midst of the process, is likely only to bias the experiment. Since I am not a physicist and there is no cat in the box, that’s an acceptable outcome. I am not trying to prove my process so much as explore it, perhaps ultimately better understand it and thereby better it.

The first thing I need to begin is an idea. One came to me while I was running earlier today, and while it is a little obvious and potentially cliched, I like it well enough that in absence of a better idea, it will do to get the ball rolling. In the next segment, I will unpack the idea and explain how I would go about breaking it down into an actual story. In the meantime, allow me to leave you with the story idea as it sits fully formed in my mind:

In response to the impending Apocalypse, so-called Sleeper Stations are established, where millions are placed into hibernation until it is time to emerge and retake the world. In addition to the Sleeping, a population of Sandmen is assigned to watch over the Sleepers. Four generations later, a weary administrative class is trying to maintain a sparse yet utopian society while watching outside for signs of civilization. Throughout it all, the Sandmen class is forced o suffer hard labor and disgusting working conditions. Despite all the difficulty, the population is well fed. It is the protagonist that asks the question, where does the meat come from?

See you next time where I discuss the importance of picking the right plot, choosing the right point of view character, and determining the stakes. Thanks again for reading and don’t be shy about sharing.

The Making of Clark Kent

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR MAN OF STEEL

The following is not a review of Man of Steel. That would be far too short (“I loved it!”) and hardly interesting. I am going to keep these kinds of posts rare — I think you would rather read my fiction than my pop culture ravings — but I was so intrigued by a certain aspect of Man of Steel that I just had to write about it. Feel free to comment and start a discussion.

———-

A great flurry of nerdly debate has raged for the last few days, ever since Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel film debuted. This debate centers around one of the film’s controversial decisions: Superman is forced to kill General Zod to end his reign of terror. The two sides of the debate can be summed up as those that believe Superman Does Not Kill, versus those that believe a “grittier” and more “grounded” Superman would make the right choice in committing the act. Here is what I believe: it is not an interesting debate and is far from the most interesting, controversial choice made in the film. Throughout Superman’s long history, and especially in the modern era of the last 40 years or so, Superman has grappled with this question time and again. it is a go-to moment for Superman writers, simultaneously generating the aforementioned controversy, as well as milking the hero for all the pathos he is worth. Sometimes, as with a previous comic book iteration of General Zod as well as with the rampaging behemoth Doomsday, Superman chooses to take the life to save thousands or millions. Other times, such as against the darker, grittier anti-heroes of both Kingdom Come and The Elite, he goes to the edge, only to pull back and show everyone killing is not necessary. By having Superman kill, or not, the creator in question is able to make a statement about heroism, violence and Superman himself. In Snyder’s version of this classic trope, Superman must kill but is anguished by it, establishing a very good potential reason for Superman’s future self-imposed prohibition on killing (which would be served well for a movie or three, leading up to the inevitable encounter with Doomsday in a Death of Superman film).

 

All that said, the really interesting choice that Snyder and Company make in Man of Steel is how Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent comes to be the Clark Kent we know. I submit that, in Man of Steel, Clark begins as Kal El and becomes Superman, but in the end emerges from this trial by fire as Clark Kent. Most interestingly, the one who guides him to that identity is Lois Lane in an almost perfect reversal of her usual role as uncoverer of Clark Kent’s secret identity. In this case, she is instrumental in forging it.

 

Allow me to unpack this to some degree. First off, I should define the terms Kal El, Superman and Clark Kent. Kal El is the son of Jor El, the Alien Among Us, the one that Lex Luthor of the comics fears so desperately. It is Kal El, the outsider and the “nerd” that gets bullied in school and rages against his adopted father and, however impressively, lashes out at the mean old truck driver. Kal El takes on assumed names and works menial jobs and wears a beard and a ball cap to hide himself in plain sight. This is the character we first meet, whose birth is so natural that it is unnatural, even on his alien homeworld, and whose very existence is a heresy. Superman, by contrast, is the Hero, the Messiah, the Divine Being whose power is unmatched (except hy his opposite number, of course). Superman already exists in Kal El, of course: part of the latter’s alienness is the former’s great power, and the skulking Kal El does so in order to give room to Superman to save lives and right wrongs. Kal El might have destroyed the truck, but Superman kept him from destroying the trucker.

 

Clark Kent is another thing entirely, especially in Snyder’s mythology. In the traditional Superman story, Kal El becomes Clark Kent the moment he is found on the side of the road by the the humble and pure yet strong and convicted Jonathan and Martha Kent. Clark Kent becomes Superman at some later date — it varies depending on the telling, sometimes still as an adolescent and sometimes well into adulthood — and then only much later becomes aware of and embraces his identity as Kal El. In these narratives, Clark Kent is the real person, the core of the character, and Superman is not a masquerade but a vehicle with which he can do the most good, while Kal El is a legacy identity. Snyder’s Clark Kent, however, is different. Though he owned the name, the identity meant nothing to him. He had thrown it away for the even more generic “Joe” when we first met him, in fact. We see, in flashback, him reject this identity when he rejects his adopted father.

 

The thing allowed me to make sense of Snyder’s strange take on the old Superman identity triangle was this: as adults, a key component of our identities are our professions. “Hello, my name is Ian. I’m a land surveyor.” (Or, “Hi, my name is Ian. I’m a writer,” if I am feeling especially optimistic.) Clark Kent is a reporter. As the nature of news media has changed, so has the kind of reporter Clark kent has been, but integral to the Superman mythology has been his place at the Daily Planet. In many origin retellings over the years, Clark chooses a career as a journalist because he loves it and he is good at it and it allows him to help people in a non-superheroic way, but the core reason, ever since the beginning, has always been that it allows him to be in places where trouble is brewing. This offers the dual benefit of keeping Superman close to the action, and allowing regular crises during which Clark Kent can easily disappear. Narrative specifics aside, part of the very definition of Clark Kent is “reporter.”

 

Lois Lane is a reporter, by definition, as well. Her character has oscillated between frozen harpy and smitten kitten over the years (the latter especially during the quiet era between the golden and the silver ages) but she was most often a resourceful, tough, beautiful female reporter, doing it better and faster than any of the men around her. In most traditional tellings, she is Clark Kent’s professional rival long before she is his romantic pursuer (usually because Clark makes an early splash with Superman exclusives), so it is of particular interest that Snyder chooses to depict her relationship to the Clark Kent reporter identity the way he does. Here, Lois not only unmasks Kal El, she introduces the world to Superman and helps create Clark Kent. It is a notable reversal of the usual direction of their story, where Lois disdains Clark and loves Superman and only later discovers they are one and the same. Most importantly, Lois creates Clark Kent. She not only gives him a human connection that matters in their budding romantic relationship, she helps him forge his way into the offices of the Daily Planet so that he may enjoy all those previously mentioned benefits for a super-hero in having a secret identity as a reporter.

 

Now, I know there was no textual evidence in the film for Lois’ direct involvement in his hiring. To that, I can only say, Come on! Given the complete lack of any evidence Clark Kent went to college, let alone studied journalism, the only reasonable explanation for Clark becoming a daily planet reporter is Lois going to bat for him, probably secretly given that she pretends not to know him when he is introduced. While it is certainly possible to drive a truck through the plot holes presented by this turn of events, the fact remains that this is what happened. Lois Lane, rather than eventually peeling away the costume of Clark Kent to reveal Superman, created it for him.

 

What this says of the relationship between Lois and Clark, relative to previous iterations of the mythology, is profound: they are partners in Superman’s never ending battle. It is not unexplored territory. It almost always becomes that after many years and the dramatic possibilities inherent in the secret identity and romantic entanglements subplots were thin. To have it occur at the inception of Superman’s career, however, and to make Lois not just important but responsible for it put the two characters on equal footing in a way that I believe is unexplored. Surely Lois will still need saving from supervillains and very long falls (both of which we saw in Man of Steel) but what she does not need saving from here is the incongruent, oftentimes insulting girlish stupidity foisted upon her. Who has not wondered how it could be that Lois, who had kissed those super lips and been held by those super arms, could be fooled by a pair of glasses? Who has not questioned her chops as a Pulitzer winning journalist when she could not make the simple connection that every time there was a crisis, Clark Kent ran away and Superman appeared? Who could not vehemently dislike the woman who spurned her good natured, intelligent and talented colleague for the flying man she hardly knew? These aspects of the character, all established during the decidedly non-progressive era of Superman’s creation, have, in the modern era, served to undermine the character as believable or likable or both.

 

Whether any of the potential consequences of this choice are explored in future films is an open question. Big budget action movies, especially sequels, are not well known for their nuanced depictions of relationships. Even if the status quo asserts itself, however, the choice was made and will influence the way future iterations of the Superman myth is told.

 

A Story as a Word Search

UPDATE 2: On a whim, I had sent this story off to Strange Horizons and on June 26 received a rejection letter. The editor commended the effort that went into the story but did not find it compelling. I guess that is a successful proof of concept (even if rejection letters are the worst).

UPDATE: Here’s a new link, with a correctly formatted version.

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_CRdSzvlmQjdklkOERTdkVCcEk/edit?usp=sharing

The following is a link to an experimental piece I wrote. It is both a story and a “word search” — the intent being that the words and/or phrases one finds in the search enhance the overall story. It’s crude yet, but it is a proof of concept rather than a finalized thing.

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_CRdSzvlmQjel9kZU1TMFBkRHM/edit?usp=sharing

30 Days, 10K

As you can probably guess by the title, things are progressing far more slowly than I expected. There are some real life logistical issues, but the real problem is that I have not been able to find a strong rhythm for daily writing. I generally do write every day, but sometimes it is only a hundred words or two.

Part of the problem may be that I am not working on a specific project like I did during NaNoWriMo. Because that exercise was built specifically around trying to finish a novel of a minimum length, it was easier to set daily goals. Writing short stories and flash fiction, it is harder to make myself try and achieve a set goal. It may be necessary to restructure my approach in order to have clearer writing milestones in place. I don’t know exactly what that will look like but I will see what I can do.

As always, thanks for sticking with me an if you have suggestions, I am all ears.

How Centaurs Came To Be

I like myths. Norse myths were among the first “fantasy” I ever experienced as a child, followed quickly by Greek mythology. Origin stories and fables and  cautionary tales all, myths have a power unlike any other form of literature. The only time I have ever been able to indulge in myth making, though, has been while writing for the adventure game (aka Role Playing Game) industry, where the work you do is not so much about writing stories as it is about building foundations upon which others can build their own stories.  The following sort of fits into that vein. It’s a story in that it has a beginning, middle and end, but also serves more to build a world and imply something with which to interact.

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How the Centaurs Came to Be

from the annals of Rovarik Balt, Imperial Historian Exult

 

A Word on Sources: The following history was distilled from a great many sources, not least of which the stories of the centaur people themselves. Their version — or “versions” I should say since no two tribes tell precisely the same tale — does not include the Empire, of course, as the nature of politics and war make it unseemly to tie oneself to one’s enemies so intimately. Also, given the race’s descent into barbarism, it is in fact possible that the links to their Imperial Origin were lost. Our own histories do not mention the centaur people at all, of course, at least not until only a few centuries ago with the disastrous “first” contact between us. With the end of the Low Campaign and the Start of the Duskward Expansion period, the entire eastern region was abandoned and fell into legend for centuries. It is no wonder that the then nascent centaur tribe did not figure in Imperial report. Rumors can be found in various travellers writings and the infamous explorer-merchant Argipol claims to have met them in his “Travels Beyond the Blue Mountains.” So little of that volume is based in truth, however, that the best one can say is that it is possible he heard an accurate report of the centaur people third hand and, as was his style, embellished it. Despite the questionable veracity of all of these sources, and many minor others, something like the true origins of the centaurs can be carefully reassembled like a shattered vase under the steady, skilled hand of a master historian. What follows is my most humble attempt.

 

In the thirty-third year of the fourth century after Luminov blessed the Sky Throne and established our beloved Empire, His Most Adored and Beloved Emperor Niko II ordered the Low Campaign to expand the Reach of Luminov into the river lands east of the Blue Mountains. To this end, over the course of some nineteen years, Imperial outposts were established in that wilderness and garrisoned with Knights of the Empire. As it was Nikos’ most wise desire to seed these new lands with the children of the Empire, the knights were called Unchaste and the maids and wives of the knights lived too at the outposts.One outpost well beyond the mountain wall was called Epo and it would be the last outpost before the demise of Niko II and the Ascension of Niko III that altered the course of the Empire and pushed it westward.

 

Epo was governed by Lord Kavil eth-Gard and housed only twenty-two thousand knights. With the wives, concubines, servants and daughters  of the knights, the population of Epo was last recorded as eighty-seven thousand and three hundred twelve. The fertile river lands let Epo remain self sustaining except for iron from the Blue Mountains, and luxuries from across the Empire. In the five years of records that survive for Epo, only two hundred nine boys were returned to the Empire and replaced with squires. In addition, in the final year of record, Epo sent ten thousand bushels of wheat and three thousand twenty one local slaves to the capital as treasure. A notation was made by the Lord Collector of his surprise that Epo could become profitable in a mere four years. One wonders what could have been, had eth-Gard not failed so spectacularly.

 

The river lands were people by barbarians of no special merit. They were neither savage nor enlightened, warlike nor docile, dark nor light. They lived in mud huts and raised mean livestock and tended meager fields. What these lands did have in great abundance, however, were horses. The horses of the river lands were of the purest, strongest stock, for their Divine Mother, Eki, ran still among their herds. As great as an oliphant and as swift as a shooting star, Eki the Horse Goddess blessed her brood with such speed and endurance and courage as unseen in all the Empire. The people of those lands, being barbarians and hence taken to worshipping walking gods like Eki, would not tame any horse. Their stories, it was recorded by eth-Gard, did speak of tribal chiefs so brave and strong they could harness Eki herself and be rewarded for this deed with a great stallion for a steed.

 

Eth-Gard decided he would tame the Horse Goddess and gain this reward. He wrote he did so for the glory of the Empire, for no cavalry mounted atop the Steeds of Eki could be withstood, but I believe it was his own hubris that drove him to this act. Eth-Gard had nine wives and fourteen concubines and yet he wanted to conquer more.

 

Here, the story becomes muddled. In eth-Gard’s surviving writings, he spent nine days tracking then breaking Eki, finally so great in his efforts than Eki bent to knee to let him place the bridle upon her. In the ancient tales of the centaur skalds, Eki teased eth-Gard, running circles about him for ninety days, letting him neither sleep nor eat. It was only when he was going to expire for his love for her that she rewarded him by allowing him to ride her, unbridled, back to Epo. The storytellers of the barbarians of the river lands, who still live in their mud huts and raise their mean stock, have yet another version, where eth-Gard tricked Eki, offering her a Sidereal Apple with one hand but slipping The Iron Bridle (both objects from their body of myth) on her with the other. Some stories even cast theirs as a romance, with the prize not his choice of stallion, but consummation.

 

Whatever the truth, all sources agree that eth-Gard did indeed win his contest with Eki and was rewarded with a great stallion. Being a shrewd commander, eth-Gard chose not the stallion with the mightiest thews or fastest stride, but the one who held sway with the most mares and young stallions, for eth-Gard wanted a great cavalry for the glory of the Empire. His choice was a good one and he gained his wish, for within a few years he had built a herd where not only did every knight have a stallion of Eki, but so too did every lady have a mare of Eki.

 

At that time, among the many tribes of the river people only one remains known by name. They called themselves the Ghurst and they painted themselves white and raided the farms of the other folk. For a time, eth-Gard not only ignored the Ghurst but actively, though secretly, aided them in their trepidations until, as he desired, the other tribes of the river folk begged for Imperial protection. With his great cavalry of Steeds of Eki, eth-Gard came to their aid. But by then the Ghurst were a mighty horde and they number ten savages for every Imperial knight. War was upon the river lands and the fate of the Empire in that region rested upon Lord Kavil eth-Gard.

 

It is here where Imperial records end. According to reports buried deep in the archives, eth-Gard’s cavalry was destroyed and the Ghurst attacked Epo, murdering, raping and pillaging. No revenge was offered, for Nikos II died and his ambitious son’s eyes turned to the west to the Dusk Isles. In order to learn what became of eth-Gard and how his fate led to the creation of the centaur race, we must turn to the centaurs themselves. Though additional research has provided some validation for what follows, and my own expertise has abolished much hearsay and myth, uncertainty remains.

 

In the centaur version of the war, Kavil eth-Gard and his cavalry mounted upon the Steeds of Eki pushed back the Ghurst in every battle. These victories were hard won, so go the tales, and the horses were the greatest casualties. Eth-Gard held no regard for the mounts. In his mind they were simply tools. He ordered his men to ride them all day into a lather and then fight until dawn. The lame were slaughtered for meat to feed the eth-Gard’s knights and the wounded were executed rather than healed. Eki, say the centaurs, raged at the treatment of her children and appeared three times to eth-Gard. At each appearance, a knight died, his soul simply whisked away from his body which then withered and turned to ash on the wind, for every mount that had died that day. Eth-Gard ignored these warnings and pushed on, driving the horses to death in pursuit of the Ghurst.

 

Eki, say the centaur priests, anguished over her choice for the turning of the moon. With her divine might, she could have eradicated the knights and freed her brood, but perhaps that would only bring more knights. More importantly, they say, by then the tribes of the river people had realized the horses could be tamed and had begun to do so themselves, driving and beating the animals like lowly cows or dogs. Eki desired only that the men of the Empire value her children as their status warranted. So, she cast upon them the only curse she could imagine that would bind the men to their horses: she magically, physically, permanently hound eth-Gard and his knights to their stallions, making man and horse one, creating the centaur race.

 

Waking at the day and finding themselves now half man and half horse, the Imperial knight-centaurs wailed and gnashed their teeth. The Ghurst saw an opportunity and attacked, but the newly forged centaurs were greater than man and horse had been separately. Donning their breastplates and helms and wielding their lances and swords, they slaughtered the Ghurst to a man.

 

When the battle was done, eth-Gard lay mortally wounded among his company. The man-horses around him wept openly and Eki appeared. As she stood over eth-Gard, she saw the sorrow around her and said, “Even tied to this cruel fate, your men love you.”

 

Eth-Gard is said to have laughed at the goddess. “That is not why the men weep,” he said. “Another among them will rise to lead.”

 

“Then they must love your country very much,” Eki said. “For your men cannot return to that place as man-horses.”

 

“You are wrong again,” answered eth-Gard. “If my men chose, in these new forms they could crush the cavalries of the Empire and not just return home, but take it as their own.”

 

“What then?” asked Eki. “Why do they weep if not for love of their captain or love of their country?”

 

“They weep for love of their lines,” answered eth-Gard as he neared death. “In these forms, none shall ever father a son again. Our wives will run from us as the monsters we are, and even those that might not would be broken beneath us.”

 

“Such is the fate they chose in ignoring my warnings,” chided Eki. When eth-Gard laughed, the goddess asked, “What brings you mirth now, cursed one, upon your deathbed?”

 

“In your rage,” said eth-Gard, “you have lost count. Here, bound to mere men, are all your stallions, no more able to sire a foal than father a child. And your mares, they are all in the hands of our wives. As surely as you have cursed us, you have cursed your own brood.”

 

Furious, Eki rose above eth-Gard and threatened to come down and dash his skull with her hooves. But she knew he was right. In her wrath she had sealed her ken’s own doom and in so, her own, for what is a goddess without a people? So, letting eth-Gard expire of his wounds, Eki raced from the field of battle to Epo. Thereupon, she used her divine might to bind every knight’s wife to the mare he had gifted her. Thus born were the centaur women.

 

For a time, the centaur people tried to emulate Imperial society but their spirits were as bound with horses and their bodies. With the Empire thinking Epo razed by barbarians and turned westward and the centaur slaves to their animal whims, the inevitable occurred in short order. In time, the centaur tribe split and split again, and spread to the corners of the world. All remain in service to Eki, however, and bitter enemies to the Empire.

 

Elger and the Moon, Part 1

This is a story I have tried to write at least 4 times now. Or, rather, I have written the beginning of at least four times now. For some reason, it has never quite come together. So, I have decided to approach it from a different perspective. Since it is both a science fiction story and something of a fairy tale, I decided to write it more like a children’s story — not in a Suessian sense (I’m saving that for Stinky McPhearson and the Zombie Apocalypse) but more in an aimed-at-precocious-4th-graders sense. I am not sure whether I will succeed, but here goes Part One of Elger and the Moon.

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1.

 

Elger Bedford lived a long time ago, before sky lifts and aerocars or even magnemotives. No one had learned how to make these things again, or a lot of other things we all take for granted, so Elger lived in a tiny village and never went very far from it at all. The village in which he lived sat at the foot of a great, big hill. Like a normal hill, it was covered in grass and a few trees, but  instead of being filled with dirt and rocks like most hills, this hill was filled with garbage. The people who lived in Elger’s village dug into the hill, mining it for that garbage, and so the village was called Trash Town.

 

You see, Elger lived so long ago that people were just beginning to find and learn how to use all of the Leftovers from the Time Before. The Masters of Trash Town, who were altogether unkind and greedy task masters, took everything that the people found while mining the hill that was useful or valuable and gave the people food and water and a dirty and uncomfortable but safe place to sleep. As long as the villagers mined the hill and did not keep anything secretly for themselves, the Masters protected them from the bandits and beasts that lived in the wilderness outside the village. The Masters would use the things the people found, or trade them to other villages nearby.

 

You might be wondering about now why anyone would want to dig for garbage, and even how garbage could still be valuable after so many, many years buried in a hill. Well, the people who lived in the Time Before had so many wonderful things that when they got a new wonderful thing, they just threw the old one away. And there were so many new and wonderful things, and so many people, that they had mountains and mountains of trash. All that trash was quite ugly to look at, so the Time Before people decided to bury it all under a great mound of dirt, plant grass on top, and call it a park. Imagine that! For years and years people played ball and had picnic lunches on top of giant piles of trash. Something that happens when you pile all that trash together and cover it with all that dirt is that no air or water can get to it, so not even time can destroy it. Besides, the Time Before people made most of their wonderful things out of plastic or even stranger stuff that never breaks down or gets ruined, ever.

 

As you may have guessed, Elger was one of the miners who lived in Trash Town. He was very young, not much older than you, but he lived alone because he was an orphan. Elger hated being a miner. The work was very hard and it was hot and dirty and uncomfortable in the tunnels they dug into the hill. He hated the Masters, too, because they were especially mean to children, since it is easy to cheat children or take things from them since they were small and could not easily fight back. Elger lived on very little food and water in a very small hut because he was small and could not dig well enough to find as much as the grown up miners, and even when he did find something wonderful the other miners or the Masters would steal it from him.

 

He would have run away, except there was nowhere for him to go. The forest outside Trash Town was very dangerous. When wagons came to Trash Town to trade with the Masters, there were always lots of guards, and never as many as had set out at the beginning of their journey. When the Masters would send out wagons from Trash Town to other places, the same thing would happen: lots of men with weapons would go with the wagons, and not all of them would come back. At night, around their campfires, the traders and the guards would tell stories about the dangers they faced on the road: bandits who would just as soon cook you as steal from you, monstrous bugs the size of horses made of metal, witches with skin like tree bark that could cast spells upon you, and living, noxious clouds. As he was just a boy, Elger was terrified by these stories but could not stop himself from listening.

 

The one thing Elger loved most was the Moon. When it was full and white, he loved to  try to count the craters and the domes. When it was new and black, he tried to count the glowing lines and blinking lights that moved back and forth across the surface. He wondered who lived there and what their lives were like. Were there giant trash mines on the Moon? Elger did not think so, nor did he think there were Masters or bandits or witches or orphans.

 

Every night the moon would rise and Elger would feel better. How his muscles and bones ached from the hard work of the day would fade and he would not feel the grumbling of his hungry stomach so much. If he was lucky, he would fall asleep before the moon set or became hidden behind clouds, because when he could not see it, all the terrible feelings of the day would come upon him. On those nights, rather than gently drifting off to sleep and dreaming of domes on the moon, he would cry until darkness took him.

Then, one day, while digging in the garbage mine, Elger found something that would change his life forever.