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The Union of Stars: The Thraad

And now it comes time to discuss our own species – the Thraad. If it has taken long for me to reach this topic, it is not without reason. We Thraad understand that to know oneself, you must first understand others. If this seems counter-intuitive, give it time. You are young yet.

Physiology

Thraador

We are an evolutionary descendant of gastropods, though we are a significantly more complex organism than most common snails or slugs. We have a functioning circulatory system, for instance, and a six-chambered heart. Over the aeons, we have lost the ability to grow thick shells (artificial shells are worn instead, as clothing). Our locomotion is still by means of our single, muscular foot and made easier by the secretion of waste slime to reduce friction. We have two eyes on muscular stalks that can rotate and can even look in two directions at once without distress. Beneath our chins are four tentacles we use for the manipulation of objects, both fine and coarse. We are omnivorous and are hatched from eggs.

By the standards of other species in the Union, we are foul-smelling, slow, and ugly. But they know well enough not to underestimate us. Our home planet, Thraador, is very large by the standards of the Union and we evolved in an environment of extreme gravitational forces. Though we usually stand no more than 150 cm from foot to shell, we are the tallest and largest creatures on our world, which is flat, wet, and hot. Bipeds and quadrapeds never evolved on our world, as standing upright requires too much strength and affords too few advantages. When a fall of a few meters is fatal, walking on two or even four feet is risky. We Thraad are steady on our foot – we seldom falter and we never fall (remember this always, as it speaks not just to our physiology, but to our culture and heritage as well). Furthermore, thanks to the intense environment of our home, we are extremely strong by the standards of the other species. Though slow, we are unstoppable. Though ugly, we have wisdom.

Culture

We Thraad are a more unified people than most. Long ago we cast off petty nationalistic rivalries or affiliations of House or Cartel. Introspective by nature, we seek consensus in all things. Perhaps thanks to the harsh environment of our homeworld, we are disinclined to take action unless absolutely needed and not until it has been deeply considered. We are not flighty or given to impulse.

Our government is decentralized and simplistic: a council of elders of no specific size meets to decide things and, should the deliberations be wise, the people follow. This sounds chaotic to other species, but they do not understand our temperament. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter who speaks it. If the elders are wise, and history shows that they are, then they will speak well and we would do well to take their counsel. We are not a species of rebels or petty criminals. In the rare instance that one of our number is committed to folly, they are simply ostracized and cast out of the community. It is that simple.

This, of course, has its disadvantages. Though scientifically curious and always willing to learn, our society changes slowly and our capacity to react to calamity is limited. This makes other species think of us as harmless “armchair academics.” But our anger is no less bright than others. Our weapons, though perhaps not as flashy as those of the Dryth, are no less deadly. History is filled with the plague-ridden corpses of those who underestimated us.

We do not maintain distinct family units, even though we are a sexually reproducing species. Eggs are hatched centrally in any given community. The care of young ones is the equal responsibility of all – hence my speaking to you now. It may be that some of you are my biological children, but we Thraad make no distinctions between such things. If you are young and a Thraad, you are my offspring, to be treated the same as any other. If female, you will one day make periodic visits to the hatchery to lay. If male, you will make periodic visits to fertilize. That is all.

There is a sense among us, I feel, that we are cheated by our nature. Some of us look out from our flat world to gaze with envy upon the doings of the other Great Races – the romance of the Lhassa, the passion of the Dryth, and so on. But, in the end, all Thraad return to Thraador. After some years adventuring in the light gravity of the outside world, we long to return to our swampy homes. We are sensible like that.

History

Thraad civilization began some 16,000 sidereal years in the past. There is too much to know to sum up in this precis, but suffice to say that we took our time developing our cultures, our technologies, and our knowledge. There were wars, yes, but they were primarily waged by proxy: animals and plants and microbes we had trained or engineered to pursue our interests in one way or another. We are, of course, famed for being the masters of what is called “ecological warfare.” It is a slow way to defeat one’s enemies, yes, but quite effective in the long run.

We sought the stars, as all species do in time, but not because of the damage we had done to our environment (like the Lhassa) or because of our desire for conquest (the Dryth). Rather, we left our planet to learn. To explore. The history of our species is one of slow, gradual exploration – the meticulous building of a body of knowledge. We are a curious people.

Of course, our steps into the stars were not without problems. We warred with other species and lost. We discovered that our technologies and our habits were too slow to compete with the likes of the Dryth and Lhassa and Lorca. By luck, we “met” Skennite, and found in it a kindred spirit. The period of our history known as “the Hastening” began – we discovered the secrets of slipdrive, we expanded our influence. When again war came, we were ready. Our biological and chemical weapons were terrifyingly effective, our well-planned strategies invincible. We made the galaxy tremble. Of course, we are not a warrior people in the manner of the Dryth and we are not so numerous or prolific as the Lhassa, and we in time lost again. But we had secured ourselves a place as one of the Great Races, a privilege we continue to enjoy.

We joined the Union gladly, happy to escape the endless wars that ravaged the stars. Now our role is as diplomats, scientists, and merchants, not warriors. We are happier this way. Let the Lhassa and the Dryth and the others struggle in violence and pain for their pieces of the universe. We Thraad shall stand by, patiently, for the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into somewhere essential, just as we always have.

The Politics in Writing

Trouble in the Galactic Senate...

Trouble in the Galactic Senate…

Okay, okay – everybody is talking about politics lately. Kinda hard not to, right? The world is freaking out, opinions are being expressed, people are upset, and so on and so forth. So what’s a writer (or any artist in general) supposed to do, here?

On the one hand, I have the advice of Kevin J Anderson, who told me and the other guests at the Writers of the Future workshop a few years back that political discussions by an author were unwise. “There is no sense,” he said, “to alienate half your audience.” He suggested we stay out of it. Do our talking through our writing, essentially.

On the other hand, we have a cadre of very politically vocal authors such as John Scalzi, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, and others besides. Notably, I recall a tweet from Ann Leckie who said, essentially, that politics is present in our lives and in our writing, no matter what we think of it. To ask that an author alienate politics from their public discourse is to ask that the author alienate a significant part of themselves. What are the odds that if you don’t like my politics, you are going to like my writing, anyway?

In balancing these points of view, one has to admit that Anderson has a point: why alienate potential readers if you don’t have to? Of course, it is notable that Scalzi, Wendig, and the like are hardly suffering as a result of their political opinions. One might argue that for every person who puts a book down thanks to politics, another picks it up for the same reason.

Because this was *just* about robots and humans fighting in space, right?

Because this was *just* about robots and humans fighting in space, right?

It’s Leckie’s view that sticks with me, though. How do you even avoid politics in writing or in social media? The avoidance thereof is, itself, a political statement. Your writing is going to espouse political viewpoints, no matter how apolitical you seek to be. Politics is important. You ought to have opinions about it. Lack of opinions about it signifies privilege, which is a side-effect (or even a goal) of particular political views. So, okay, sure – you can tiptoe around this stuff for years on end and act like you have no opinions, but you do. We know you do, you know you do, and we can even find your opinions in your writing no matter what you think. So why not just be honest? Speak your mind. Will it piss people off? Sure. But they probably weren’t going to like you anyway.

Now, for my own part, I have tried to keep overt political statements off this blog. I haven’t always been successful (I’ve had one or two people ragequit over some idle quip here or there), but I think I’ve made this a fairly “safe” environment for fans of my work to read what I have to say on the subject of scifi, fantasy, writing, and other geeky endeavors. But on Twitter, I just speak my mind. Because if you’re following me on Twitter, that implies you want to know me, not just read my feed for book ads. Now, back before the political world went batshit insane, my Twitter feed was a pretty dull, sedate place. These days not so much. You don’t want to know my political opinions? Don’t follow me.

Of course, if you wind up reading my books or stories, you’re going to get my political opinions anyway. You just might not realize it, I guess. In thinking about this post, I debated whether or not to discuss or reveal what I feel the true, underlying meaning of some of my work is in a political context, but I eventually decided against it – Foucault’s author function and all that. I will point out, though, that everything in scifi and fantasy has contemporary political meaning, whether you like it or not. There’s the obvious ones, sure – Star TrekStar Wars, and the like. But then there’s others, too. Game of Thrones is about us and our political systems, not the middle ages. The Walking Dead, likewise, is a story about our own political terrors. The Martian? Political, though indirectly so – a love letter to government workers and federal systems, to international cooperation and technological advance through capitalist means. The Expanse? Obviously. Colony? Hell yes. Even American Horror Story is rooted in political discourse. You can disagree, but it’s all there. Even the MCU can’t escape. Books, comics, movies, video games – they are caught up in it.

This is because politics is the stuff of life, like it or not. We authors (and artists) are engaged in the study and exploration of life and, therefore, we are inevitably drawn to discuss politics. So, yeah, I guess I could be all coy about it and resolve never to speak a political word in public, but then I’d be wearing a mask over my true self. I’ve never been much good at that; neither have a lot of good authors. Will it hurt my career to be so open on Twitter? That remains to be seen, I suppose. I just can’t fully imagine being any other way, though.

This, ironically, would probably make me a poor politician.

Time Travel Tales: Now Available from Chappy Fiction!

It’s release day! My friend Zach Chapman has just put together a ripping collection of Time Travel Tales, just in time for the holidays, and it is now available in both paperback and e-book.

But don’t just take my word for it! Consult with your FUTURE SELF who is, right at this moment, emerging from my time machine. Here we go…

(opens door)

Hmmm...you've looked better...

Hmmm…you’ve looked better…

(closes door)

Just some…well…technical difficulties. I’m sure you’ll be fine. That you probably wasn’t even from this timeline. Right.

316892976Anyway, this anthology has tons of treats beyond simply my own humble tale (oh, did I not mention that? I HAVE A STORY HERE! Yes! MEEE! MEEEEEEE!)

Ahem. Also included are such luminary authors as Sean Williams, Robert Silverberg, Martin Shoemaker, Stuart C Baker, SL Huang, David Steffen, and many, many more!

So go and get it! Go! Time is wasting!

Well, unless you have a time machine, in which case you can get it now whenever you like.

How Weird is Too Weird?

Something about this book is just a little...off. Can't put my finger on it...

Something about this book is just a little…off. Can’t put my finger on it…

I just re-read Dune over the past few weeks, prepping to teach it in my scifi elective class come spring semester. This is probably my fourth time reading the book and, at this point, it all seems very clear and straightforward. Herbert’s world-building is marvelous as ever and I’m excited to teach it. However, as with any time I read a book with a mind to teach classes on it, I tried to keep in mind just how accessible the work is to a casual reader. If you’ve ever read Herbert’s work, “accessible” is perhaps not the first word that comes to mind. The world of Arrakis is densely layered and context clues to how everything works are relatively rare; there is a glossary and appendices included at the back of the novel for a reason.

So, okay, my students are going to struggle with it a bit. The question becomes “is that a bad thing?”

Part of the purpose of scifi and fantasy is to challenge the reader’s preconceived notions. The author seeks to create a new and alien place for you to inhabit for a while to get you thinking about the real, actual world (even if only subconsciously). Some do this with worlds that are just a touch off of our own (much of the cyberpunk sub-genre, for instance, or near-future hard scifi like The Martian). Some do it with wildly different worlds so far removed from our own, the comparison is more abstract and less direct – works like Herbert’s Dune series or even Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.

Personally, while I don’t dislike the more realistic tales, I really dig a good wild ride in a totally alien universe. The price for entry into these wild settings is high, though. It takes a while to get settled in Iain M. Banks’ Culture setting, for instance, though the pay off when you do is proportionally greater (for me). Novelty, of course, is a special thing in literature of any stripe, and any world as wild and strange (and yet fully realized) as Leckie’s Imperial Radch or anything in a China Mieville novel is something to be treasured and a challenge to be met.

TOO WEIRD

TOO WEIRD

In rattling off these names of books and authors, though, you might have noticed that some of them are easier reads than others. This leads me to my last rumination for the day: where, exactly, should the line be drawn between the alien and the familiar? Let’s be honest: there is a real, actual limit to how strange your world can be before it becomes essentially unreadable. A book no one reads is not the goal of any author, no matter how avant-garde they want to be, so where do you hold back? How weird is too weird?

I haven’t much of an answer to give you, I’m afraid. I don’t know that this is something easily solved by a set of hard and fast rules. I can say, however, that you need something at the heart of your tale to ground the audience in the familiar, otherwise you’ll lose their interest. Paul’s relationship with his parents in Dune is sufficiently understandable to carry you through all the bizarre chat about the Kwisatz Haderach and folding space/time with psychedelic spice. Likewise, no matter how strange the Culture seems, Banks (usually) populates it with main characters who are, in broad strokes, not too different from us in attitude and behavior, even if their cultural background is very strange and their appearance off-kilter. Both of these authors, though, cross the lines in some places. Herbert’s later Dune books are very, very weird to the point where they’re hard to connect to. Banks, likewise, has certain seventh dimensional plotlines circling around the doings of super-intelligent AIs that keeps the reader at a distance. As interesting as those books are, readers tend to love with their hearts, not their minds.

Though my current series of novels isn’t that off the beaten path, I grow restless anyway. One of my earlier novels was a multiple-reality/quantum causality thriller which was, frankly, too weird to work so I toned it down into a stock adventure novel and then it also didn’t work. If I go back to it (and other) ideas I have kicking around that are not the standard fare, I’m going to have to think long and hard about how to balance the strange with the familiar, the bracing with the comfortable, if I plan on selling the idea to anyone. Maybe then I’ll have better luck.

Read “When It Comes Around” on Perihelion SF!

Hi, folks!

Got another story published and released for public consumption. It’s free, too! Shuffle your internet consciousness over to this month’s Perihelion SF and read “When It Comes Around” – my dark and gritty tale of the hard life of a space pirate. Let me tease you with the first line, if I may:

You ain’t been there ’til you’ve clocked a knife-fight in zero-g.

This voice partially owes this old Battletech: Mercenaries image for inspiration.

This voice partially owes this old Battletech: Mercenaries image for inspiration.

Eh? Ehhhh? Pretty cool, yes?

I’m pretty proud of this one. It *just* missed some of the bigger markets (the narrator’s patois just didn’t do it for some editors), so I’m very glad it found a home. I have been in love with this voice I came up with for some years now (my first publication, “The Spacer and the Cabbages,” used it, as well, and that was about seven years ago now). With any luck, I’ll be able to do more with it in the future. Anyway, I hope you like it.

Go! Read! If nothing else, it ought to discourage you from a life of space piracy.

I’m Going to Kansas City, Kansas City Here I Come…

kansas city…which is the song I’m going to be humming in my head the whole time I’m at WorldCon later on this week (I’ll be getting in about midday on Thursday). As I have never been there, I cannot vouch for the sanity of their women nor am I going for the express purpose of acquiring one. I am going because I plan to meet with a bunch of friends, possibly run into my editor (or agent), and basically take it all in. As I didn’t get my act together this year to put in for a panel (mostly because I didn’t think I’d rate one), I am not there in any official capacity. You’ll be able to find me sitting by myself in the back of various rooms, standing alone in corners, and maybe even awkwardly trying to insert myself into conversations with writers I admire and then completely and utterly embarrassing myself so that I will never look at nor speak to that person again.

So, you know, my typical convention experience.

I have high hopes this time around, anyway, that this will be more fun than I typically have at these things. You see, now I know people (well, virtually) who I will be able to link up with and whom, possibly, might not object to my presence or company. That’s the goal, anyway.

In the meantime, I am editing a novel (which is currently a torturous, miserable train wreck of a book), getting ready for the arrival of the fall semester (sigh – why does summer have to end?), and planning for my Book Signing and Reading at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA.

I’ll be there between 7pm and 9pm on Thursday, September 8th. If you’re in the area, come on down, hang out, get a book signed, and check out the Boston area’s best scifi/fantasy book and game store.

Anyway, gotta run–I’ve got to bash my head against this intractable manuscript a bit more. I’ll be back next week with a full recap of the magic of WorldCon!

Excerpt: THE GUILD CONSPIRACY by Brooke Johnson

Special treat today! Brooke Johnson is a steampunk author whose first book, THE BRASS GIANT, is a wonderful tale of clockwork, young love, and a hard-nosed female protagonist up to her neck in trouble. The second book in her series, THE GUILD CONSPIRACY just came out yesterday, and Brooke has been so kind as to allow me to post an excerpt of it for you all to read. Check it out!


EXCERPT from Chapter 2 of THE GUILD CONSPIRACY:

THE GUILD CONSPIRACY coverPetra reached the University square and crept toward the student entrance, hiding in the shadow of a nearby steam duct. Tucking her hair into the brim of her hat, she glanced down at her pocket watch, grazing her fingertips over the intricate C that decorated the case—just a few minutes before ten. She peeked out from her hiding place and searched the empty square, but no sign of Rupert.

With a sigh, she pressed her back against the warm metal of the exposed ductwork and waited, listening to the rush of steam hissing through the pipes. The machines of the subcity rattled and whirred beneath the stone street, synchronized gears and linkages ticking a rhythm of mechanical perfection beneath her feet. She inhaled a deep breath, catching the scent of coal and gasoline amidst the humid air billowing through the grates. It smelled of home.

A few minutes later, the lock above the student entrance unlatched, the gears knocking and grating as ratchets shifted the deadbolts. The door creaked inward, and Rupert’s blond head peered out, his face lit by the flickering gas lamps at the bottom of the stairs.

“Petra?” he called, his voice barely above a whisper. “You out here?”

She slipped out from behind the steam duct and met him atop the stairs. Rupert closed the door behind her. He removed his student key from the lock, and heavy gears ratcheted the deadbolts back into place, locking the door with a resounding clunk.

Petra leaned against the smooth brass-plated wall and breathed in the familiar air of the University, the lingering scents of grease and metal polish putting her at ease. The usual bustle of engineers, students, and professors was absent from the dark, empty lobby, the echo of distant machinery lurking in the shadows like haunting ghosts. It had been months since she’d been here after dark—when Emmerich was still here and her only worry was keeping their automaton project secret. It seemed an eternity ago now.

Rupert touched her shoulder. “Come on,” he whispered. “Or we’ll miss it.”

He took her to the lift and used his student key to propel them up to the eighth floor, the whirring belts and pulleys singing as they ascended. The lift slowed to an abrupt stop, and the lights above the gates spilled across the hall, startlingly bright in the quiet darkness of the University.

“So what’s this meeting about?” she asked Rupert.

“You’ll see.”

Their brisk footsteps echoed off the hard floor as Rupert led her down the hall toward the student lounges and recreation room.

As they approached, a muffled cacophony met Petra’s ears—shouts and curses, cheers, a clash of metal on metal, the clear sound of a combustion engine igniting. Petra’s heartbeat quickened, and she pressed her ear to the door, feeling the vibrating hum of a purring engine in the room beyond, the sigh of exhaust, the smell of burnt fuel reaching her nose.

Rupert nudged her aside and keyed into the room, the clash of metal rising to a deafening thunder as he opened the door.

Inside, the billiard table, chess tables, chairs, and sofas had been pushed to the walls, the usual carpets and rugs thrown over the furniture. A spotlight illuminated a few dozen students near the center of the room, surrounding a hulk of moving brass, its shiny surface flashing in the glow of the electric light. The crunch of crumpling metal and subsequent jeers echoed off the walls, and the metal beast reeled out of Petra’s sight.

Leaving Rupert behind, she elbowed her way through the crowd of students and stumbled headlong into the center of the ring. A quick hand caught her by the collar and yanked her back into the crowd just as a metal arm swiped through the air, inches from her nose.

Petra stumbled into the student next to her, gaping in delighted disbelief at the scene before her. Two imposing metal figures stood in the center of the ring—a squat trapezoidal machine and a grotesque humanoid—dripping oil and smelling of exhaust. Jagged trenches cut through the outer shell of the larger machine, exposing a mesh of combustion enginery and electrical wiring inside, while the smaller, wheeled contraption had a stump of shredded linkages and twisted gears where its second arm should have been, its stout body half-crushed and front wheels bent.

The bipedal machine lunged, much to the crowd’s delight, and there was a terrible, teeth-grinding crunch as the metal shells crumpled and warped on impact. The biped hammered its fist into the smaller trapezoid, the squat machine’s outer shell buckling under the assault. Yet the contraption held its ground, wheels spinning forward as it pressed against the hulking mass of metal, its remaining arm buried halfway into the biped’s central system, pulling wires and tubes from its body like rubber intestines, oil and hydraulic fluid spilling onto the floor.

With a sputtering whine, the combustion engine rumbled to a halt, the spin of gears slowing to a groan as the mechanical biped powered down. The heavily damaged trapezoid pushed the biped away, and the mutation of combustion enginery and electricity toppled over with a resounding crash.

Silence followed.

And then the room erupted in cheers.

From the far side of the ring, a young man stepped forward and waved the crowd into silence. Petra recognized him by his long, narrow face and shrewd eyes—Vice-Chancellor Lyndon’s son, Yancy. He spread his hands wide.

“Gentlemen! I believe we have our winner!”

The winning engineer stepped forward and swept into a low bow, tucking a metal control box behind his back. Petra noted the thick cord trailing from the brass case, snaking across the oil-slicked floor to the back of the trapezoidal machine. So that was how he controlled it.

She suppressed a smirk. Rudimentary technology.

Rupert squeezed in beside her. “What do you think?”

“It’s brilliant,” she said, her voice nearly lost amidst the cheers and shouts around them. “How long has this been going on?”

“Started about midterm, last semester. You know about the failed automaton project, right? Some of the boys who work in the armory found the remains of it and got the idea to start a mechanical fight ring.”

Petra pressed her mouth shut and nodded. So they had kept it then, the ruined prototype that Emmerich had so expertly smashed through the floor of his workshop—now collecting dust in the armory. The failed automaton project. That was what the rest of them called it, not knowing she had helped design and build it, not knowing what her involvement had cost her.

“Where do they get the parts?” she asked.

“Discards and surplus from the workshops,” said Rupert. “Some of the richer blokes buy parts offshore and have them shipped in. Most of it is scrap, though.”

In the center of the ring, Yancy quieted the crowd with a wave. “That concludes the inaugural competition of our mech fights.” Another boy brought forward a table and handed Yancy a pad of paper and a pencil. “If you wish to participate in the next tournament,” he said, waving the paper over his head, “sign up by the first bell tomorrow and have your mech ready for the first round sometime next month, date to be decided. Entry fee is a pound note—or equivalent—the sum of all entries to be rewarded to our next winner.”

He dropped the paper and pencil onto the table, and a handful of students stepped forward to enter. Petra watched as they scribbled their names, one after the other, knowing she could outmaneuver every single one of them with a machine of her own.

For six long months, she’d been stuck in boring classrooms, listening to dry lectures and permitted to do nothing more than pointless busywork. She missed the feel of a screwdriver in her hand, the smell of grease under her fingernails, the late nights of working with her hands deep inside a machine.

She yearned for it.

Rupert nudged her with his elbow. “Go on then. Sign up.”

Petra considered it, absently twisting the stem of her pocket watch between her thumb and forefinger. She could enter, write her name down and fight in the next tournament, finally have the chance to build something again. Yet . . . she knew they wouldn’t let her. They’d only laugh at her, mock her for thinking she could compete with them, for thinking she was their equal.

She stared at the sign-up sheet, the determination to prove herself burning in her chest.

To hell with them.

She released the breath she’d been holding and stepped forward, heart beating faster. Leaning over the table, she took the pencil into her hand and pressed the point of graphite to the paper, quickly scribbling her name at the bottom of the list of entrants before she second-guessed herself. She belonged here, building machines alongside the best of them.

She’d win the damn tournament, and then they’d see.


THE GUILD CONSPIRACY:

In the face of impossible odds, can one girl stem the tides of war?

It has been six months since clockwork engineer Petra Wade destroyed an automaton designed for battle, narrowly escaping with her life. But her troubles are far from over. Her partner on the project, Emmerich Goss, has been sent away to France, and his father, Julian, is still determined that a war machine will be built. Forced to create a new device, Petra subtly sabotages the design in the hopes of delaying the war, but sabotage like this isn’t just risky: it’s treason. And with a soldier, Braith, assigned to watch her every move, it may not be long before Julian finds out what she’s done.

Now she just has to survive long enough to find another way to stop the war before her sabotage is discovered and she’s sentenced to hang for crimes against the empire. But Julian’s plans go far deeper than she ever realized … war is on the horizon, and it will take everything Petra has to stop it in this fast-paced, thrilling sequel to The Brass Giant.

Release Date: August 9, 2016.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | iTunes | Google Play | HarperCollins


press kit author photoAbout the Author:

 

BROOKE JOHNSON is a stay-at-home mom and tea-loving writer. As the jack-of-all-trades bard of the family, she journeys through life with her husband, daughter, and dog. She currently resides in Northwest Arkansas but hopes to one day live somewhere more mountainous. You can find her on Twitter @brookenomicon.

 

brooke-johnson.com

Stranger Things: A Tale of Two Moms

MV5BMjEzMDAxOTUyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzAxMzYzOTE@._V1_I just finished Stranger Things last night. Loved it – it’s magnificent television, some of the best I’ve seen in years, and you need to get your ass on Netflix and watch it yesterday. It’s Goonies meets the X-Files if written by Stephen King and no, that is not even remotely an exaggeration. It’s glorious. Not perfect, granted (there were a couple places it might have been *better,* but really I’d be quibbling), but crazy good.

Spoilers Below, by the way…

There are probably dozens of things I could write about this series and about the reaction to this series. Like, why the obsession with Barb? Why doesn’t anybody ever use the buddy system ever? Even when they do use the buddy system, why does nobody ever say “hey, look at this thing!” before wandering off, thereby defeating the purpose of the buddy system? Also: Does Matthew Modine live at the lab? Does everyone? If so, where the hell were they all when Hop broke in? If not, where do they all live, if not in the exact same small town as everyone else? Where do they commute from? I could also go on and on about Dungeons and Dragons, about that special kid-friendship that we have when we’re twelve but that melts away as we get older. I could even talk about the Acrobat and the Flea for a bit. About bullying (again), and on and on and on. But no – the topic I choose today is the tale of two moms, Joyce Byers and Karen Wheeler.

This show deliberately and consciously poses for us a pair of mothers who are, for all intents and purposes, opposites of one another. On the one hand, we have Joyce – a harried single mother, barely able to manage her life and her finances. She’s a terrible cook, has a bad relationship with her ex-husband, works a crappy retail job, and looks like she hasn’t seen a hairbrush in years, let alone used one. On the other hand, we’ve got Karen Wheeler – sensibly dressed, classy, well-to-do. She makes beautiful turkeys, sits her family down to dinner on time, maintains a beautiful home, and seems to have this mom game all sewn up. On the surface of things (and, indeed, in the eyes of Hawkins, Indiana), Karen is the “good” mother, and Joyce is the failure. I mean, hell, Joyce has her kid kidnapped right from under her nose, right?

But that isn’t the case. In fact, I’d like to argue that Joyce is the very best kind of mother and that Karen is, frankly, a pretty slack performer. Here’s why: Joyce trusts and believes and is engaged in her children and their lives. Karen just has small people that live in her house.

Let’s start with Karen Wheeler, shall we? First of all, Karen seems to have absolutely know idea where her children are at any time. Granted, neither does Joyce, but she’s busy fighting nether-demons and one of her kids is on an alternate plane of existence, so she should be given a pass on that one. Meanwhile, Nancy sneaks not one but two boys into her room while her mother is home. At the same time, Mike is hiding a psychic wunderkind with a shaved head in the basement and Karen has no goddamned idea at all.

Weak sauce, Karen. Weak.

Weak sauce, Karen. Weak.

But, okay, kids at a certain age acquire a life of their own, sure – Karen isn’t going to keep them in the Panopticon, right? Consider this, though: Karen doesn’t knock on Nancy’s door, she just comes in. Because she doesn’t trust her or because she is unwilling to grant Nancy the right to privacy, in either case it doesn’t speak well of her. Jonathan, who’s got a whole different kind of mother, is surprised at this.

And further: When Nancy learns that Barb has disappeared and suspects that something terrible has happened to her best friend, what is the thing Karen wants to talk about when they get home? That’s right – did you sleep with that boy. Not “how are you doing with all this scary stuff going down,” no, instead it’s “you LIED to me!” Classy move, Karen. Now, should she discuss the fact that Nancy has embarked upon an active sex life? Yeah, sure – obviously a serious discussion has to be had – but maybe approaching the topic right then and in that way isn’t the wisest plan, lady. Look, we’re all upset that she decided to sleep with that douchebag, but maybe the disappearance and possible death of her best friend takes precedence. Maybe you shouldn’t make her feel like a villain in her own home if you want her to talk to you?

And here, here’s the final straw: When her son runs out the door in a panic saying “if anybody looks for me, I’ve left the country” and then creepy government agents start rifling through her house and start taking her kid’s stuff, she gets upset, sure. But when Creepy Scientist Guy sits down and says “trust me – tell me where your son is,” what does she do? She gives him up. Just like that. It’s only fortunate that she is so disconnected from her kids lives that she is unable to give him up effectively. She has no idea where Mike might be.

Now, I don’t think Karen is a bad person and yes, she obviously cares about her kids, but she also has no idea what caring ought to entail. She is focused on keeping her kids clothed and clean and well fed (all admirable) while totally failing to appreciate or even like the fact that they have independent lives and are actual people worthy of her respect.

Which brings us to Joyce.

Yeah, Joyce can’t be home all the time (she’s a single mom in 1983 – cut her some slack, guys!) and she had some pretty terrible taste in men, but think of all the interactions we see between Joyce and her kids. She encourages Will’s creativity. She is engaged in the emotional well-being of Jonathan. She does more than love her kids – she admires them, she is proud of them, and she has their back no matter what.

When her kid talks to her from another dimension and everybody else thinks she’s completely nuts, you know who she trusts? Her. Kid.

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Hell yes, lady.

When they show her a solid mock-up of her son’s body through a double glass pane from ten feet away, does she fall for it? Not for a second.

When an otherworldly monster rips a hole in fucking space-time right in front of her eyes and chases her from her house, you know what she does? Do you know what Joyce Byers does? SHE GOES BACK IN THAT FUCKING HOUSE AND SITS THERE WITH A GODDAMNED AXE ACROSS HER KNEES.

Why? Because her kid’s in trouble, she knows it, and even if the rest of the universe thinks she’s nuts, she is going to find him. Come Hell or High Water, she will be there for him. That – that – is true, pure, powerful motherhood. Not the birthday parties or the pretty house or the nice clothes. Not the quality of her mashed potatoes, but because of who she is to her kids: not a jailer or a disciplinary officer, but a lioness. Proud bearer of her children’s standard. Guardian of their potential.

All parents (God, don’t even get me started on the fathers in this show – a whole other post) should learn from her example. Believe in your kids, trust them, admire them, be there for them when they need you most, and they will return the favor.


Publicity Notes

The paperback version of No Good Deed comes out next week! On August 9th, be certain to pick up your copy in cold, hard paper! It’s a limited release, so don’t expect to see tons of them in bookstores – order online, from Amazon, B&N, and anybody else selling real, actual books.

Related to this, I will be doing a reading and book signing at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA, on the evening September 8th, so mark your calendars if you want to meet me/get a book signed!

The Great Races: Skennite

It can be difficult to discuss Skennite. When we speak of it, we speak of it as a material, not a being or even a series of beings. The Dryth Basic tongue does not give us the flexibility to encompass the paradox that is this, the first among the Great Races. Even our own Thraadi languages seem to have difficultly parsing an intelligence that both lacks and possesses individuality and that both is and is not alive by many standards. Even now, after many many centuries of living with Skennite, depending on it/them, and learning from the paths it/they have already tread, there is so much we do not understand.

A small mass of Skennite communicates some simple information.

A small mass of Skennite communicates some simple information.

To begin, then: Skennite is a crystalline structure/entity native, so far as we (or they) are aware, to the voids of space. It demonstrates, after a fashion, all the hallmarks of life – it reproduces, it grows, it reacts to stimuli, it has internal organization of enormous complexity – but it does none of these things in the fashion of other species. Shards of Skennite, by themselves, are inert crystals that drift through space. They are fed by the ambient radiation of the cosmos, and so tend to grow fastest near very bright stars or pulsars. As they grow, they gain more and more complexity and grow more and more intelligent until, at some point, they achieve sentience. What is interesting, however, is that this sentience is not precisely unique in form – all Skennite represents more-or-less the same identity, or perhaps shards of that identity. Indeed, when two large masses of Skennite encounter one another, they typically join and, curiously enough, those who knew either mass of Skennite before can ascertain no change in personality or behavior, but only come to learn that the entity they had conversed with before now has access to a much vaster array of knowledge and memory than it had before.

Because of this apparent lack of individuality, Skennite does not “die” so much as splinter. Gradually, any given crystalline mass of Skennite breaks down thanks to environmental factors and fractures apart. These shards later grow into new masses of Skennite, though this process can take centuries or even millennia depending on the availability of the kind of radiation the creatures need to grow. Shards of Skennite drift through space, through the deep voids between the stars, for uncountable aeons. Everywhere the Great Races of the Union have gone, there have we found Skennite.

Thanks to their essential immortality, Skennites possess an incredible depth of knowledge. Communicating with them, however, is difficult. They produce visible light in complex frequencies and wavelengths to communicate with most creatures and the technology to translate these patterns into words is ancient by our standards, but there must have been a vast period of history where ancient sentient creatures encountered the hyper-intelligent Skennite without realizing it and, indeed, there was likely just as vast a period of time where the Skennite were unaware that sentient, carbon-based life was at all interesting or could be communicated with. Indeed, packs of “wild” Skennite found in unexplored space often are unwilling to communicate with others unless the others have their own core of Skennite with which to make introductions.

Today, Skennite is an essential part of the Union of Stars. Most interstellar vessels, Bodani excepted, have Skennite cores that serve as databases, navigational and computational resources, and can also operate most of the ship’s systems. The Skennite itself then also consumes/absorbs a significant portion of the waste radiation given off by the ship’s power plant, making the arrangement mutually beneficial. When the Skennite grows too large, it will splinter parts of itself off and eject them into space, thus seeding the starts with its future descendants, if indeed “heredity” is relevant here.

In terms of culture, Skennite lacks anything truly resembling it on a level we can understand. It is known that they are curious and intelligent, endlessly patient, and entirely neutral on topics we would consider moral imperatives – life, death, love, religion, morality, the lot of it. While you can certainly discuss Kophis and Jaegai with it, such weighty philosophies seem like frivolous diversions from the Skennite perspective. It was here long before we were and it will likely be here long afterwards – our lives, and all our struggles, are merely passing through. One wonders, then, about the ancient legends that state that it was Skennite that taught the Dryth how to achieve slipdrive – for what purpose was this information transmitted? Was it, to the Skennite core in question, merely an idle conversation? It is hard to tell and we may never know, unless the shard containing that memory is, by some random chance, ever found and incorporated into a ship.

Skennite is utterly peaceful in nature – it is unclear how it would commit intentional violence in any rate, or why it should wish to – but it cannot be said to be faultless in the wars that ravage the Union each cycle. For every missile or piece of ordnance launched by a Lhassa cruiser and for every slipdrive jump calculated by a Lorca raiding vessel, there is a Skennite core running the numbers to make that feat possible. When the Lesser Races howl beneath the bootheel of a Dryth Solon, they must understand that Skennite put it there. Among the Great Races of the Union of Stars, there are no innocents.

 

Plot Armor and Villain Lethality

This is going to start with a gaming story and then will wrap up somewhere in the neighborhood of me talking about Star Wars, so set your Geek Shields to maximum, folks.

I ran an RPG once that was set in Medieval Japan. As the setting was ostensibly historical, I used the most realistic ruleset I could find, which was (and is) namely The Riddle of Steel. TRoS has a brutally realistic combat system, which I loved. I loved the idea of extremely high-stakes samurai fights. It was going to be so cool.

And then the samurai player took a samurai sword to the groin in his first fight (he engaged an armored opponent while wearing only a loin cloth, which was seriously cool and also really stupid), nearly died, and was laid up healing for the next few months of in-game time. He was also literally emasculated. Unsurprisingly, for the rest of the campaign all the heroes tried very hard to avoid combat with anybody. There were precious few samurai duels and way, way more “stab him from behind in the dark” kinds of things. Which was fine, but not exactly what I had imagined in my mind.

Because of its realism, TRoS basically robbed all main characters of their plot armor – that mystical force that makes main characters invulnerable to everyone but the really scary bad guys. This is fine if what you’re going for is gritty realism, but very much not fine if you’re trying to tell tales of high adventure. The more realistic you get, the fewer superheroes prove to exist. Batman gets taken down by a Saturday Night Special in the waistband of a punk he thought he put down. Inigo Montoya is out of action after that first knife in the guts. Han and Luke never make it off the Death Star.

Cut these guys a break, huh?

Cut these guys a break, huh?

I see a lot of people constantly ragging on Imperial/First Order stormtroopers for “not being able to hit anything.” It’s a constant meme at this point, and it kinda annoys me. For one thing, with the singular exception of the Battle of Endor (which, yes, was totally stupid), stormtroopers are pretty damned good at shooting things. They kill pretty much every other unnamed force they are faced with, from Geonosis all the way to Maz Kanata’s Tavern. It’s just they can’t seem to get many hits in on anybody who’s got a name. Why? Plot armor, obviously – you know it, I know it, everybody knows it. So why complain? Do you actually want Stormtroopers to be able to gun down main characters regularly? Do you want them to constitute a real existential threat to our protagonists?

If the answer is “yes,” then you’re asking for Star Wars to tell a different type of story – one less about pulp novel heroics and more about grim, gritty “cost of war” kinds of stuff. Less John Wayne and more Oliver Stone, right?

If the answer is “no,” then consider what stormtroopers, for all their inability to hit anybody with a name, add to the story. They make it bright and loud and exciting. Even though we know the stormtroopers won’t kill our heroes, they might get injured (Leia!), might have their ride destroyed (Poe!), might have to be rescued at the last moment by a friend (Finn!), and so on and so forth. They are an important plot device, one that forces the heroes to run, to fight, to undertake heroics, and so on – it’s what we want out of the movie. Stop being so dismissive of their point and pretending they’re inept when they aren’t actually portrayed that way at all.

Now, I guess you could just use them more sparingly and set things up so the heroes are harder to hit or something. Or maybe we can watch our heroes be more stealthy. But, in the immortal words of the late Han Solo: “Bring em on! I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around!”

Which pretty much sums up exactly what the audience thinks, too.