In Which I Review Books Because All Else Is Vagueposting

Well, it’s been forever since I’ve updated the site, which was actually for the best of reasons. Shortly after my last post, I got a temporary gig as a lead writer for an Amazon Alexa project. So for the last three months or so, I worked on a voice-operated game.

It was a blast. The game has yet to be announced, but I can probably say it is a contemporary game with a heavy comedy element. And it came at exactly the right time. May and June at Casa de Hepler was, like in many parts of the country, an exercise in stress tolerance. The kids needed their distance learning, the wife was holding down a job and holding us together, and I had to manage a team of three writers in an entirely new video game format. Had I been working on something Big and Dark and Serious, I might have slipped into depression.

But laughing at work every day was exactly what the doctor ordered. I got to meet three very cool writers and plenty of design, programming, and art staff. And I got to throw myself into a new project. It sucked up a lot of my time, but there were free moments, too.

To while away the hours in lockdown, I managed to finish reading two novels off my to-be-read pile, both full of magic and beautiful language. I highly recommend them both, and I’ll tell you all about them, because the gods know that we can all use more books while we’re sheltering in place.

The first is Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Gods of Jade and Shadow.”

The short pitch for this is “The ancient Mayan gods feud against the backdrop of Mexico in the Jazz Age,” though I wasn’t 100% sure of what that would look like when I picked up the book. The short, spoiler-free version is that it follows Casiopea Tun, a young Mexican woman with indigenous roots who toils miserably at her family’s orders. Through accident and magic, she falls in with Hun-Kame, one of the death gods of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, who had been temporarily killed by his brother Vucub-Kame. With her life bound to Hun-Kame, Casiopea tries to restore his throne to him in a series of magical adventures.

The language is vivid, the characters sparkle, and the whole thing has a feel highly reminiscent of American Gods or The Sandman, but with a refreshing insider’s grasp of Mexico and Mayan mythology. I did a little research into Mayan mythology for my old graphic novel M.I.T.H., and seeing the lords of Xibalba elegantly portrayed here was like letting a NASCAR driver take the wheel on my beat-up old hoopty car. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

Gods of Jade and Shadow can be found here.

The second book I managed to finish off was Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which is a novelization of the hero of the Iliad as told by his companion Patroclus. Miller is well-qualified to write this story, having both taught Greek and, according to her Acknowledgements section, worked on the novel for ten years.

The result is a well-polished story that remains about as faithful as one can be to contradictory myths. Having written an Achilles-based screenplay as well as revisiting the subject matter for the Diomedes-heavy story Mythkillers, I found the book beautiful and engaging, never taking too many liberties with Homer’s work. I really dig it in comparison to something like Dan Simmons’ Ilium and Olympos, or the movie Troy, both of which picked some favorite characters and discarded the rest. Miller’s work is more reminiscent of Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles, in that it retains the presence of gods and mythical creatures, but it paints a richer tapestry by virtue of being a few hundred pages longer and adding a narrative conceit.

This conceit is the narrator, Patroclus. Miller’s major departure from Homer is that Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion, is a sensitive boy who doesn’t like the skills of war, and as such is an embarrassment to his father. Sent to Phthia as an exile, Patroclus falls in love with the prince who will become the greatest warrior of his generation. Miller jumps in with both feet to the relationship between the two boys as they become men. In answer to your next question, the sex scenes are tastefully handled and are more about the emotional life of the characters rather than any romance-novel erotica.

As for the rest of the myths as we know them, Miller cleaves closely. No, Achilles’ skin isn’t iron-hard — a decision that almost all modern writers make, since it’s not in the Homer and it makes his fight with Hector the act of a bully rather than a hero. But pretty much everything else is intact. Achilles isn’t the brute of Troilus and Cressida. His tutelage with Chiron, his dressing as a girl to avoid recruitment, his skill with a lyre, the fathering of Neoptolemos, and the prophecy regarding his own death are all used to illustrate his life in loving detail. Patroclus makes a fine narrator, even after the fateful moment which Iliad fans know is coming, and Miller uses the events to place the final capstone on the story.

You can find the Song of Achilles here.

“Anything Else,” You Ask?

I don’t have any personal writing that’s ready for publication yet. On the bright side, I finally reattacked my attempt at a cli-fi short story, “The Message,” and got to the end of a rough draft. I polished a bit of my superhero IT department story “Needs of the Client” and have submitted it to my writing workshop — it’ll get some feedback two weeks from now. So things are proceeding, even if it’s slower than I would like.

That’s the news from the Hepler household. Stay safe out there.

In Which I Announce Something New For a Change

After about six months of unemployment and about seven months of no new writing-related news, I felt like I was hitting a wall. I fully expected my wife to break into that song from the School of Rock musical, “Give Up Your Dreams,” but of course she stayed super supportive. Then, finally, in the same week, I got two bits of good news.

The first bit of news is that I have another video game gig. It’s slated to take 8-10 weeks, so by the time you read this, I will hopefully be shaved, dressed, and reporting in to a source of gainful employment. I don’t think I’m free to talk about the details yet, but hey, maybe this game will go somewhere, and take us along for the ride.

The second bit of news has been cleared by the publisher as good to go for social media announcement. I’ve got a short story accepted by the comedy science fiction and fantasy anthology series “Unidentified Funny Objects.”

UFO is an anthology with a nice pedigree. Apparently it has had stories from George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and (to my complete lack of surprise) the Hamster Queen herself, Esther Friesner. I don’t know if any of those three are in this year’s volume (the submissions are still being edited), but I’m stoked about it nonetheless.

The story that got accepted was “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Department of Superhero Registration,” which is a brief look into one story at the hero equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles, because frankly there’s so many of them nowadays that they can take a number. It makes a strong argument why regeneration is the worst superpower to have… and also, the best.

Unidentified Funny Objects #8 has a theoretical launch date of sometime in October. When I know more, I’ll tell you.

Until then… up, up, and away.

In Which I Give You Something Free to Read

When I posted this on the 19th, it was day #3 of my county sheltering in place. By the time I promote this post and you see it, it’s probably #8. We’ve got a little routine down: I take the kids in the morning so my wife can do her work from home, and in the afternoon I search for a day job. The kids are in contact with their schools online, and we’ve got a bunch of educational workbooks picked up from Office Depot. We’ve made sure to take them out in the sun once a day for a little running around, and Sunday we packaged up some meals to give to a food bank.

I was going to write some stuff about how you should glove up, wash your hands often, and stay informed, but if I’ve learned anything from the quarantine, it’s that there are times when your brain wants to take a break. Through this all, movies, video games, and books have been a lifeline for my family. And it’s made me think about how little and how much I can do for others without leaving the house.

So here’s the deal: I’m making the Kindle version of my vampire novel Civil Blood free, all this week, Monday March 23rd to Friday March 28th. (It’s also free on Kindle Unlimited.) I’d do it for the paperback version, too, but Amazon doesn’t make that anywhere near as easy. Besides, right now, who wants to touch a book that might have been handled by a stranger?

I’m not pretending my writing is what the world needs. But it doesn’t hurt anyone, and it could help a little, so I might as well.

In case you somehow navigated here without hearing Civil Blood‘s pitch, I usually sum up the story as “the class-action vampire rights trial to determine who gets to be called human, as told by the people assigned to kill its plaintiff.” There’s a bat virus in it, but it’s a lyssavirus rather than a coronavirus, so my application to be the next prescient prophet is firmly rejected. The book is a 400-pager, so it’s a decent time sink. Here’s the link.

Stay safe out there. Or if you can, in there.

In Which I Succumb to Capitalism but Not Despair

I’ve been holding off on this announcement for a while, but it’s really past time. My employer, Seasun Inc., had a bad quarter with one of its flagship products not doing as well as expected. That meant that upper management had to cut costs to show they were doing something, and that meant layoffs. I am now out on the street and looking for a day job.

It hasn’t been too rough a ride so far. I managed to score a contract gig for about a week with Otherside Entertainment, which took the edge off. I’ve also had lots of interviews and writing tests. This has led me to revise my Writing Tour page to include samples, since I’ve applied to everything from RPGs to interactive romance novels to trivia quiz games.

I’ve got a little routine going — during the day I search for a main job, and at night I write and submit short stories. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve got a few I’m sending out, with the intention being that the proceeds get put in a separate pot dedicated to financing the self-publishing of Civil Blood‘s sequel. Great plan, right?

Well, as with all plans, this one hasn’t really survived first contact with the enemy.

Selling short stories, to misquote Han Solo, ain’t like dusting crops. Many markets are closed to submissions except for certain times of the year. Then there’s the matter of taste, and the fact that I’m not bringing a bajillion readers to the table like some of my competition is. The long and short of it is, the stories haven’t sold yet.

So, what’s a writer to do? Well, the first step is to keep writing. I’ve got that down. Besides the three pieces I wrote about last time, I’m working on a story called “The Needs of the Client” which is meant to be more lighthearted superhero fare in the vein of “The 10:40 Appointment.” I could use some positivity about now, and I bet you could, too.

For the second step, I’m finally joining all the other pro freelancers who have set up a Ko-Fi button on their webpage. Ko-Fi is a service where a reader can effectively buy a writer a coffee via PayPal. It takes small donations of about $3.00 each. And since the website offers a spot to create goals, I hit upon the idea of trying to use Ko-Fi to finance my short story habit.

If I can raise enough money — not much, say, $50, a token payment of about $0.01 a word — through Ko-Fi, I’ll publish one of the short stories here on my website rather than continuing to submit it in the longer, slower process of traditional publishing. You get a story, I get closer to my goal, my website gets more content — everyone wins.

To recap, the stories I have kicking around are:

  • “Stopping the Bleeding,” an election-year story in the Civil Blood universe with a new protagonist.
  • “Infection in Everything,” a Civil Blood universe story about Infinity and the woman who taught her jiujutsu.
  • “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Department of Superhero Registration,” a lighthearted story about a would-be superhero fighting bureaucracy and enduring one heck of a road test.
  • “The Needs of the Client,” a story about what it’s like to work in an IT department when your client is a superhero group similar to the Justice League.

I should emphasize that I’m not on the brink of starvation over here, as many artists are. My immediate family are in decent health so far (knock on wood here until my hand breaks off). Honestly, if anything, I might survive the Coronapocalypse longer than some of the publications I’m submitting stories to, since some of their staff may have day jobs that can’t be done remotely. That’s no slam on them — it’s just part of the scary world we live in now.

But since the plan is to hunker down and never go outside, this seems like an opportune moment to get more writing done. And in case you’re a fan and want to see more of my work, I’ve now made it a bit easier to do so.

That’s all. I’m sure I’ll post more about the Black Plague of the 2000s in detail soon enough. Stay safe out there.

In Which I Talk About Violence a Lot

“Behind the judge’s bench stands an American flag, a Virginian flag and, on the wall, the state seal. A woman with a spear, a helmet, and an unbound breast is trampling a man beneath her, with Latin words meaning ‘thus ever to tyrants.’ John Wilkes Booth said that phrase when he pulled the trigger. Aidan Lawrence echoed those words when he detonated a vest filled with fishing weights and Semtex in the Supreme Court. And yet here the words stay, suggesting bloodshed is not only part of legal proceedings but somehow can give them a blessing.”

Civil Blood: The Vampire Rights Case That Changed a Nation

Note: This post contains spoilers for Civil Blood‘s ending.

When you have a novel with only a handful of reviews, you have the luxury of reading and thinking about each one. Civil Blood is still in that magical period where nobody who really hates it has given it a review on Amazon, so the people who really love it give it five stars and the people who have reservations go for four stars. Naturally, I’ve mulled over the points of the criticism, because I think it’s good and healthy for a book when its discussion goes beyond “I liked it” vs. “this is trash” and readers spend some time on the ideas presented in the story.

Recently, I read a review that didn’t care for the ending, which made the reader disturbed that all the good guys appear to be bad guys, and the bad guys appear to be good guys. So let’s talk about that!

Civil Blood has a lot of ideas in it, and hopefully they are comprehensible to an audience without me explicating the intention of the text. But since this website allows me to be as self-indulgent as humanly possible, and since no literary critics are beating down my door for an interview, I thought it might be interesting to the reader to illuminate the theme of the novel, which, really, is the road to political violence in the United States.

“Whoa,” you may be saying. “It’s just a novel about vampires.”

Yes, and no. It’s even a little farther afield than that. It’s a novel about a future America with magic and vampires in it. Whenever one creates a vision of the future, it tends to invite comparisons and analysis with the present. I gave it the nonspecific time period of “a generation from now” because I didn’t want the story to be obsolete too quickly. I did use a calendar for a specific date far in the future to get the days of the week straight, but that is not explicitly called out in the text. (First person to name the year gets a gold star.) The idea is, the future is slightly darker than it is now, but the U.S. is, as the back cover copy states, “still recognizable as our own.”

The political system has changed, to be sure. At some point in this future history, the Democratic and Republican parties imploded at the same time. At that point, the first-past-the-post system of counting electoral votes was chucked, allowing for more proportionate representation in Presidential elections. I think this is the only way you’d get new, viable parties, because currently the hyper-partisanship means if either party has a substantial defection to a third party, the opposing party gets rewarded with electoral victory. And the reason they both imploded is because they started using violence to get what they want. In my imaginary world, this was a bridge too far, and both the red and blue parties paid at the ballot box, spawning the Solar Citizens party (liberals with an emphasis on environmentalism) and the Great Nation party (conservatives who embraced big government).

But the world-building bits aren’t quite as important as the theme expressed through the characters, that “civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Violence, or the threat of violence, underpins our system of laws. If you violate the law, you have reason to fear that the state will punish you. If you resist sufficiently, the state will use violence to ensure the punishment is enacted. We’re supposed to elect our politicians with the consent of the governed, but unsurprisingly, we don’t trust them much any more. Conditioned by movies, games, and books as well as our preferred brand of political propaganda, we want a leader who is not just a civil servant, but a hero.

The book offers up many point-of-view characters who are the hero of their own story. But to others, they aren’t. And this is where the reviewer didn’t really like the way I executed the climax and resolution. Most of the characters are morally gray — there is, in fact, something to dislike in all of them. There’s plenty of bloody hands to go around.

Morgan expects the justice system to save him: it does not. It is flawed, and the vipes resort to criminal means in their attempt to rescue him. In the process, Infinity and the gang are, to varying degrees, willing to use violence. While the average reader may think Infinity is justified in striking back against a corrupt system, and is heroic for standing up to the forces that murder vipes, she is a protagonist, not a paragon. And I don’t mean this in a 2016-era “you shouldn’t punch Nazis or you’re as bad as them” way. Infinity’s tools include heist-like tricks to get her inside the BRHI facility, but they also include Cass, who covers the vipes by gunning down private security and committing suicide by cop.

“So,” one might ask… “are you portraying that as permissible, or not?” A lot of the language in the climax shows that Infinity is growing into her role as a hero. However, the picture is much more complex than “evil megacorporation = bad, heroes who break the law and shoot them = good.” I was not interested in making a vampiric superhero with an upstanding moral code, as there are plenty of those already available at the local bookstore or theater.

Infinity performs at least one heroic action. When she’s getting Morgan out of the facility and has a clear path to freedom, she chooses to run back into danger, armed only with a disguise, to save Ranath’s life. She sees this as necessary to redeem herself from her habit of running from trouble. Even so, she and her friends don’t succeed in their rescue mission the way they intend. Three out of five of the vipes pay the ultimate price, leaving Morgan and Ferrero grief-stricken. Infinity is numbed by the human cost as well, but her heroism has left her with a direct, tangible accomplishment: Ranath is present to console her, and he gives her a little hope. So despite her early protestations that she is not a hero, she has some reasons to call herself that at the end. Ranath would probably call her that too.

But one of the reasons I went with multiple first-person points of view is to show that when it comes to the events of the climax — the incarceration and murder of vipes and the bloody shootout that exposes it to the world — you can’t just look at just one character. Pretty much everyone tries to do what they perceive as right and it leads to an unholy mess.

  • Cass thinks that because he’s just shooting hardasses with guns, he’s more like a soldier and less like a maniac with a high-capacity magazine.
  • Jessica and Ferrero try to avoid violence personally, but they are in on the plan.
  • Kern thinks because he can “cure more diseases than penicillin” with VIHPS, incarcerating and murdering vipes is worth it in the final analysis.
  • Morgan abhors violence, but realizes he can’t escape without it and raises a hand in an attempt to save Jessica.
  • Deborah takes it one step further, using a pistol only in a gambit to become a martyr rather than face capture.

This last was important to me because it’s easy for an action writer to get caught up in the bloodshed and portray noncombatants as timid, or ineffective, or dependent upon the violent types to effect meaningful change for the people they care about. The most important blow against BRHI is Deborah’s, bringing out the truth and harming its public status as a savior. In this way, I wanted to return the reader’s perception of the future not as one that is unremittingly dark, but one that ranges back and forth with victories and losses as does our political system in the real world.

As for the idea that Kern is a hero because he wants to cure VIHPS and get stinking rich by alleviating untold suffering — no. Kern is directly responsible for the F-prot program, which is kidnapping, killing, and experimenting on vipes. He set up a system to glean as much biological data as he can out of the vipes because “they’re going to die anyway,” which is only true because he’s laid the groundwork to make it true.

Besides violating the Hippocratic Oath, Kern’s excuses were based on the justifications Nazi doctors used for their experiments in concentration camps — data that was then largely thrown out by the Americans because it was always done with a political agenda in mind, making for bad science. He’s literally got a plasma furnace to cremate rooms full of bodies en masse, echoing the extermination camps. Also, he ordered a hit on Ranath when he was afraid Ranath might talk to the law, so he’s not particularly loyal to his friends, either. He shows no mercy to anyone who is perceived to be an enemy, and the simple act of getting infected makes you an instant enemy. (This “othering” occurs in our political process, albeit more slowly, as we come to think of our political opponents as villains, a process that will lead to violence if left unchecked.)

So yes, he’s an antagonist with a compelling motivation and a set of ideals — but everybody has ideals. What he’s done, rather than what he’s said, sets him in the villain camp, despite all the good that a vaccine or modified VIHPS strain could do. Illustrating this, Ranath takes his work and literally gives it to someone else less compromised, the Centers for Disease Control.

I could probably go on about this theme for a long time — it’s something I intend to explore in future stories, and America’s relationship with violence can fill quite a few shelves. But I think for the moment, I will stop here. There’s only so much illumination you can give before the light starts to get annoying.

Click.

In Which I Come Back from Faraway Lands

Those of you just joining me may look at my last blog post and say, “Egads! It’s been three months since the last update! Where has Chris been?” And the answer, of course, lies in the text of the last update — I’ve been doing my day job, which has, like most hazardous gases, expanded to fill the size of its container.

The good news is, the job is pretty cool. When we last left our intrepid hero, I was Kickstarting Mythkillers. In short, Mythkillers is an urban fantasy that is sort of like if you took the ancient bloody-minded gods from Sandman and gave them to the goofy motherf***ers writing Guardians of the Galaxy.

We were successfully funded on Kickstarter, hit two stretch goals, and have been busily making the comics ever since. Since my last post on this blog, I added somewhere around 37 articles on the Seasun Comics news page, which explains a part of my conspicuous absence. If you’re looking to check out Mythkillers, we’re currently using Indiegogo’s InDemand as our online store. I posted a general FAQ for people new to the comic here.

But like any good act of magic, the reasons for my disappearing act here comes in threes.

The second reason I’ve been absent is more related to an old, long-held vice. From 2005 to 2012 or so, I played a massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game called City of Heroes. The game shut down in 2012… officially. In May or so, it was revealed that a secret cabal of reverse engineers had actually managed to illegally keep the game’s source code and played it on a private server for the last six or seven years. And then they reopened it for public play, free of charge, with the game company tacitly agreeing not to prosecute anyone for literally saving Paragon City.

It is difficult for me to express how much I loved City of Heroes… okay, it’s not difficult, but most of you wouldn’t understand me if I said “I got the Isolator badge the hard way in Recluse’s Victory and Disruptor on my empathy defender.” I’ve toned my fanaticism down a bit this time around, but I can now play it with my son, who enjoys creating characters just as much or more than he actually likes playing the game. So the game is a factor as well — it sucks up time I would have spent writing.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t stuck with my plan to write short stories and sell them to try and finance a Civil Blood sequel. Far from it, in fact. The third thing I’ve been doing in the evenings rather than post updates to the blog is the actual writing of short stories. I finished two recently and sent them off to a writer’s workshop.

The first, “The 10:40 Appointment at the NYC Office of Superhero Registration,” humorously imagines what the superhero equivalent of the DMV is like. It highlights the down side of being a regenerating hero, which is that to register your superheroic abilities, you have to demonstrate them, i.e. get the mess beaten out of you by a big dude in power armor who doesn’t know what a safe word is.

The second story is from the Civil Blood universe and is, of course, much darker and more serious. It deals with Infinity returning to Los Angeles after the events of the novel and meeting up with Katie, the martial arts instructor who was like a mother to her. Infinity chooses to “come out” to Katie as a vampire, but she can’t go home again the way she’d like to. The story’s title, “Infection in Everything,” refers to the vampire virus VIHPS as well as a passage in Musashi’s famous martial arts manual The Book of Five Rings.

So hopefully, both these stories will see the light of day sometime. I suspect “The 10:40” will be an easier sell, since SF magazines perpetually say they’re starved for humorous content. I think it hits a good mix of slapstick and poignancy, and it’s high time someone wrote a story about the super-saturation point of comic book crime-fighters.

They do say, “write what you know,” right?

In Which I Give You My Book for Free

Who needs to pirate books? Not you!

“Civil Blood: The Vampire Rights Case that Changed a Nation” is free to download on Kindles from March 18th to March 22nd, 2019. You don’t get a free 400-page novel every day, so check it out and tell a friend. The link’s right here.

Because of the way Kindle Direct Publishing works, the novel will also be exclusive to Kindles at that time. I will re-list it for other e-reader platforms once this offer has completed.

Dig in!

In Which I Shut Up and Wrote

As the little date indicates, it’s been about three months since the last post. New Year’s Day seems like an apropos time to let you all know what I’ve been doing instead of blogging.

In late September, I flew to Shenzhen for business reasons associated with my day job (i.e. the Pirates of the Caribbean project). Shenzhen is a lovely tropical metropolis on the Chinese coast. Basically, if you go to the island of Hong Kong and then take a bridge to the mainland, you’re in Shenzhen. It’s full of Times-Square-style glitz, but with lots of trees and green spaces.

I came away from the trip with squid-flavored potato chips and red tea, brought my daughter a silk scarf embroidered with skulls (she’s writing horror interactive fiction these days) and swore I would never again be on a plane trying to outrun a typhoon.

Around that time, I finished my burst of reading and reviewing urban fantasy books. Since publishing Civil Blood, I’ve joined a bunch of UF readers’ groups, and posted my reviews to Amazon, Goodreads and Booklikes (the links here are to my rec lists). If you are looking for some new reads, or some old ones, feel free to check out my short list of long reviews. When I wasn’t doing that, I was chugging away in the Critters Writer’s Workshop, critiquing short stories and the first chapters of a lot of novels. The break that let me read instead of write gave me some necessary perspective and a few new online friends.

Then I did a numbers game with Civil Blood: it got a few kind reviews and a few mediocre ones, but neither seemed to drive any sales (literally, zero — I have metrics). Then I hit the extreme down-side of self-publishing: I had cordoned off a specific budget for the novel and, by extension, any sequels. No profit, no sequel, that’s the rule. As an additional stab to the liver, no traditional publisher will touch a self-published series unless it is raking in the readers by the cathedral-full. So any chance of writing a sequel and submitting it would be a nearly-impossible needle to thread.

So I took a break from sequel planning and told myself I should do some short stories — one in the Civil Blood universe and one in the climate fiction genre, something I’ve been meaning to try. I composed the first CB-universe short story, “Stopping the Bleeding,” and got it reviewed in a workshop, because I needed a lot of fresh eyes that hadn’t lived in the novel’s world for the past year. The critiques came in throughout November, interrupting my cli-fi attempt. National Novel Writing Month for me was more like National Kinda Write Um Some Short Story Drafts This Year.

On top of that, a colleague and friend, Chris L’Etoile and his wife Jamie, were hit with what’s politely called a “life event.” Jamie got seriously ill. Complications from the illness led to a stroke that paralyzed her right side. At the time, Chris was on the other side of the continent. My wife and I (and a *ton* of other friends) jumped in to help. So November and December had a lot of online searches for resources, phone calls, and late-night discussions of WTF Will They Do To Get Through The Week. (My explanatory Facebook post that got retweeted all over the place is here and the GoFundMe is here. We raised a lot, but their expenditures are *insane*, so rest assured that any contributions will not be wasted.

So you better believe I wasn’t paying attention to blogging, right?

In late December, things calmed down a little. I did some short story revisions, so I’m going into the new year with the following goals:

  • Extend Civil Blood’s readership (I have additional plans not specified here).
  • Get “Stopping the Bleeding” and possibly additional CB-universe material out to readers.
  • Finish and submit a cli-fi story to a magazine or anthology.
  • Announce and launch a new intellectual property that is currently secret.
  • Attend conventions to meet new people — announcements will be posted here and on Twitter.
  • Do 30 minutes of cardio a day, 6 days a week — I’m on Week 3 at the moment!
  • Stick it to The Man.

Thanks for sticking with this ginormous update to the end. May you smooch a replicant in 2019, and may the old gods bless your new beginnings.

In Which I Try Not to Give Your Children Neuroses

It’s summer, and one of my kiddos just returned from sleepaway camp. From the title of this post and the content of the last one, you might be thinking that I’m going to be writing about Friday the 13th or Cabin in the Woods or that sort of thing, but no. This post is a lot less about simulated bloodshed and a lot more about training a generation of young people to stick it to the Man.

Well, not really.

Sort of sticking it to our consumerist society. In a nice way they probably won’t even notice.

I’ll explain.

I once went to a summer camp in West Virginia called the Burgundy Center for Wildlife Studies. It had some typical camp experiences like hiking and swimming and archery, but the thing that always set it apart in my mind was mealtime. Because they took an entirely different approach to food than anywhere else I’ve ever heard of.

They might have recycled. They might have composted. It would totally be in-character for them to do so, but I don’t really remember what happened to the food containers. What I remember is the Weighing of the Waste.

This camp did what video game experts call “gameification,” in which you take an ordinary activity and turn it into a game. Need to burn calories? Put on a FitBit or a pedometer and track your number of steps that day. Want to explore your town? Find a Pokemon in the virtual overlay. You get the idea.

Burgundy quite literally gameified garbage.

After each meal, each table would scrape their uneaten food from their plates into a bucket, cleaning their plates entirely right down to the spaghetti sauce. Then, the bucket would be publicly weighed. At the beginning of camp, the contents of the bucket always weighed several pounds. But as each table started to work as a team to try to get the weight down, each kid took only the food they needed, and they ate all the food on their plate. Entire tables would hold up their empty plates, taunting the other kids by saying “NO WASTE!” And by the end of the session, every table was able to say it. In the last few days, the bucket was completely empty.

I have fond memories of that camp. There was something great about feeling like we could solve the world’s garbage problem by getting people to change their behavior.

Reality, is of course, not so kind. We returned to our homes, and of the seven or so campers that went to my high school, I don’t recall any of them implementing a food waste policy like that at home.

And now, years later, the world’s garbage problem could use a lot of help. Google “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” sometime (oh, who am I kidding, just click here. If you don’t know, it’s three times the size of France). By 2025, there will be one ton of plastic in the oceans for every three tons of fish: by 2050, at current rates, it’s possible there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. (The figure was disputed by a BBC reporter, but considering plastic basically never goes away, the point stands. If it won’t be 2050, there’s always 2051.)

Do you eat shellfish? Fish? Sea salt? I have bad news about microplastics and our food chain. I tried to link an article that wasn’t too hysterical about it, but it’s pretty firm on the side of eating plastic as a Bad Thing. It cites shellfish and anchovies, which we consume whole, as carrying more of a toxic load. If you don’t consume your prey’s digestive tract, you consume less plastic. Personally, I’d rather junk the “less” and go for “zero” and not have to worry about the issue at all.

So that brings us to what the frick we can do about it.

I don’t pretend to have answers. I don’t pretend that I’m not a hypocrite when it comes to being Supa Green. Maybe, like me, you can’t look the earth gods in the eye and say “Yes, Americans waste everything, but I’m different!” Though that’s undoubtedly true, progress starts by saying “I’m different now.”

My own first step down this road was getting some reusable stainless steel straws. I did this slightly before San Francisco banned single-use plastic straws. They swung the ban-hammer because:

a) there was a video with a sea turtle
b) straws are wasteful as hell
c) they didn’t think too hard about the boba shops they love so much
d) California sees problems and wades into them like an MMO with a nerf bat

The boba shops are buying up as many paper straws as they can, which has (of course) caused a shortage. My solution is to suggest people start carrying their own boba straws. Oh, you think milk pearl tea isn’t masculine? Pick up a steel boba straw sometime. Sure, you could do reusable silicone, but these suckas double as fist-loads and emergency tracheotomy gear.

As many critics point out, straw bans are kind of a Band-Aid on the problem. So screw it, let’s face the real problem — we have too much output of stuff — carbon emissions, garbage, plastic — because humans aren’t normally efficient at what they do. In America, where “a free country” often means “being free to make dumbass decisions” we pile up waste faster than any other nation on Earth. We can pass laws about this kind of thing, but I’ll talk about that in some other post.

Here are some links to people who know more about this stuff than me: zero waste bloggers.

Going Zero Waste

Trash is for Tossers

Zero Waste Guy

I’m going to stop there, because overload is a real thing. Pick one. Start reading. There’s lots of weird little choices you can make, far too many for me to list. Pick one improvement you could do this week. Then do it.

I promise the table next to you won’t taunt you.

My Spoiler-Filled “Black Panther” Take

My kiddo Shane and I haven’t always had the greatest relationship, but when I  introduced him to LEGO Marvel Superheroes for the Xbox, suddenly I was the Fun Parent. I’m not the biggest Marvel fan in the world, but out of some 200 playable characters, I could explain the superpowers of the first 50 or so, and I could Google the rest of them. Shane loves superheroes now. All of his obsessive collecting urges that used to be for Thomas the Tank Engine trains suddenly found a new outlet. And unlike the Thomas trains, playing Marvel heroes let him fly or shoot fire, and they all have stories that I can explain.

Well, up to a point, anyway.  I had to sum up the tail end of the Dark Phoenix saga as “then there are clones and breeding super-mutants and it gets kinda dumb.”

But we like movies. And we like superheroes, including Black Panther. In the game, Black Panther gives out side quests, and you can unlock him as a playable character. So Saturday of opening weekend, you better believe our family had our butts in the seats.

I warned the kiddo it was PG-13, like Revenge of the Sith, so it might be scary. And it might be long, like The Last Jedi, which he walked out of for ten minutes or so. And there were a lot of movies that happened before it, so it might be a little confusing. But I’d be right there to explain anything.

I didn’t have to worry.

I have never seen him so actively involved in a movie. He asked a million questions, and none of them to Mama, because Daddy was Designated Explainer of All Things Marvel. I think the two most difficult things to communicate quickly were that the vibranium suit could absorb energy and release it again, and why Killmonger shot a guy to finish him off even though the guy was going to die anyway. (For the record, my wife’s explanation of “because the writer wanted to show him as a bad guy” is a lot more of a teachable moment than my suggestion, “because he was extra mad at what the other guy said.”)

So I was heavily biased in favor of this movie. Shane liked the movie, so I liked the movie. When the lights came up, I wasn’t about to get into trouble because my idea for a family outing was too grimdark for a six-year-old to handle. This is not always a given. Recently we watched Jeopardy and a question about Dr. Manhattan came up, so he asked me “who are the Watchmen?” That wasn’t hard to field, but it was immediately followed by “Are they good guys or bad guys?”

Yeah, we’re going to have to wait a little while before explaining that one.

Anyway, to use my formal Reviewer Voice, I thought Black Panther rocked. Beverly (my daughter) was not as thrilled; she thought it was inappropriately violent. And my wife, who’s a much bigger fan of books than action movies, made what seemed like a rather true observation: the characters in Black Panther serve the needs of the action. The Wakandans are a highly advanced pretty-much-utopia, but they’re also a monarchy where leadership is determined by single combat. Does that tradition make sense? Mmm… in a superhero action movie, yes, but probably not outside of that. Why are the Dora Milaje running around with vibranium spears rather than guns? Because they make for cooler choreography, that’s why. (To be fair, I don’t want to see Wakandans firing guns at each other and leaving bodies everywhere like it’s 1990s Rwanda, so bring on the spears, I say.) And, as often happens with action movies, we examined T’Challa’s character arc.

A caveat: nobody in my immediate family saw Captain America: Civil War. From what I’ve read, T’Challa gets an extensive introduction there. But in BP, T’Challa’s conflict is largely external. His father’s spirit says he’s a good man, which makes it hard to be a good king… and yet, we don’t see him grapple with kingly decisions very much. Once he’s crowned, he chases down Klaue on a mission of personal vengeance, and then his time is pretty much taken up defending his throne. He gets beat up by Killmonger, who’s a better hand-to-hand fighter without the Panther powers, and then in his rematch, triumphs because…

….because he pulls off “a hell of a move.”

So, we thought… that’s it?

Maybe he’s more used to the powers than Killmonger. Maybe he just got lucky. But his victory wasn’t because he’s exemplifying some great revelation about the mantle of kingship or because he’s right and Killmonger’s wrong about the nature of the world. (The battle for Wakanda was, however, swayed because of his recruitment of allies, so I’ll give him a nod there… but siding with the enemy of your enemy is something both Killmonger and T’Challa share and is basically Warrior Stuff 101.)

That said, Black Panther does something that’s pretty rare in comic book movies: the hero learns a lesson from the villain’s example. My wife, who headed for the bathroom as the credits rolled, didn’t see this, because it only comes up in the mid-credits scene, when T’Challa declares to the United Nations that Wakanda will no longer be isolationist. And that’s where the real ending to the movie lies. T’Challa has been changed, and while he expressed a bit of that when he funded a few outreach centers in Oakland, T’Challa’s character arc is only capped once he is determined to change Wakanda from the path it’s been set on for centuries. He doesn’t become complete and then triumph over Killmonger: he learned from Killmonger and then he becomes complete. It’s like culminating an on-screen romance with a kiss in the final frames of the film. Now he’s a real king.

This is where Black Panther’s social commentary and world-building got really interesting for me, and why I’d want to see a sequel. The premise of the movie is that Wakanda has thrived because it’s a special fantasy kingdom. In a departure from every real-world African country I can think of, colonialism never took root there. At some point, they decided to hide their technological prowess and created a satellite-fooling illusion and what is probably the most incredibly well-kept secret ever shared by a million-plus people. When they say “we do not speak of this” early in the movie, they freaking mean it. No foreign spies have ever discovered the vibranium that their society has run on for what must be a century or so. Now that’s some sharp self-policing.

I’m forgiving that questionable world-building, because that’s how comics roll, and it was basically all the backstory of the movie, a.k.a. the setup or the “gimme.” ‘S cool. I’m on board.

The mythmaking of the hero is also worth discussion. He’s from an ancient bloodline of kings, he’s got money and a semi-magical flower and incredibly advanced technology on demand, plus supreme executive power… and to top it all off, he’s got a loving family that has his back. T’Challa is a hero, but he’s one who has been given everything in life. He’s a good person, sure, and has many great qualities, but I think someone should point out that he’s privilege personified.

Then we get Killmonger, who’s had none of it. His family’s broken up. He grew up in a section of Oakland where they didn’t even have basketball nets, they had to use a crate. He went into the military, he trained and he learned, all so he could fight when it matters and gain the power necessary to distribute Wakanda’s hoarded resources to the oppressed peoples of the world.

Wait… are we 100% sure he’s the bad guy?

This is where the movie broke some new ground. Because here we have an American movie where an African-American is the villain and a straight-up African is the hero. The movie is not American-centric, as opposed to most Marvel movies, and this conflict contrasts America with the rest of the world. Killmonger’s visible acts of villainy include stealing artifacts from Wakanda, killing tons of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, meddling in a foreign  country’s leadership (okay, he’s got a claim to it, but still), and planning to use spies to sell weapons all around the world.

The only thing he doesn’t do is transform into a bald eagle eating apple pies, ’cause all of those dick moves are about that American. When he is defeated (in a fight on a literal underground railroad, no less), it’s hard for an American audience not to feel a bit for the guy. He’s the scrappy underdog we’ve been programmed to root for… but just because he’s self-made doesn’t mean you want him in charge.

So that brings me to the next question: is T’Challa, Mr. Wakandan Privilege, really that heroic by American standards? Wakanda values a royal bloodline, a might-makes-right combat ceremony to choose a leader, and has a high-tech wall to keep outsiders out. And let’s not mince words: “outsiders” means everybody who’s not Wakandan. White people. Asian people. Probably most black people, too, ’cause they referred to Killmonger as an outsider because of where he grew up, despite the fact he’s related to the royal freaking family. And for a nation we assume is a benevolent actor on the world stage, the Wakandans sure have a lot of weapons to defend themselves against neighboring countries. You know… this sounds kind of like an ethno-state, and I’m pretty sure most Black Panther fans would agree that that’s a Bad Thing.

“Whoa,” you may say. “That’s a pretty dark reading of this superhero movie.” It is, but Black Panther deserves some examination, at least as much as those Web articles that point out that the Ewoks probably ate some Stormtroopers. But I’m not going to bash the movie, because Black Panther doesn’t fall into that trap a hundred percent. Rather amazingly, the film has its never-seen-on-the-big-screen-before cake and manages to eat it, too. At the end of the movie, the black fantasy hero of the black fantasy world can no longer rely on the world of the past. His connection to his legacy has been forever severed: the heart-shaped herbs have been destroyed, so he can no longer speak with his ancestors. Finally on his own with the mantle of kingship, T’Challa does the heroic thing in the mid-credits sequence and rejects Wakandan tradition. “The wise build bridges and the foolish build barriers,” he says, and ends centuries of secrecy and isolationism. He’s a patriot, as are his allies, but he is one who sees the need for change.

Because of that mid-credits sequence, the fantasy we’ve been buying into for the whole of the movie is over, for both the characters and the audience. Maybe we looked into the mirror and saw how appealing the idea of “Wakanda First” might be, but now T’Challa, and we, must face the real world.

And I don’t know about you, but I want to see what happens next.

So does my kiddo.