Machine Gods: A Synchronicity

Machine Gods: A Synchronicity

Getting cold out there. Make sure you stay warm. Share your heat with others. It’s only gonna get colder. Good morning from the non-democracy of North Karolina.

Damien Patrick Williams and Ian Vincent are two humanoid beings I respect to the utmost. So when they recommend a thing, I listen. They recommended “Person Of Interest,” which, at the time of its airing received very little of mine. But as I entered into the long, dark cave of The Winter Hiatus of my stories, I took them up on their recommendation.

Wow. Spoilers follow.

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Half Craggy. Half Twitchy. ALL ACTION.

The show is something of a Trojan horse; you go in expecting one program–a bog-standard procedural with a Super Crime Computer gimmick–and over the course of the series it mutates into a very different show. And then it does it again. The premise: kung fu hobo John Reese (played by an understated, whispery Jim Caviezel) is recruited by rich paranoid Harold Finch (oh thank Christ Michael Emerson’s back) to aid him in a secret crusade. Finch built a sophisticated surveillance system called, ominously, The Machine, yes, capitalized, stay with me, that predicts crime. It spits out a Social Security number, the bearer of which is about to be involved in violence, either as the victim or the perpetrator. Finch uses his 1337 h4xx0r status to support Reese as he beats the living shit out of people and shoots out their kneecaps. PoI was, at this point, Batman if he were split into two dudes. Simple, but fun. The cast is rounded out by the wonderful Taraji P. Henson as the audience stand-in, a homicide detective named Joss Carter who’s alone in a roomful of crooks; Det. Lionel Fusco (Kevin Chapman and his beautiful disco hair), one of the aforementioned crooks that Reese strongarms to the side of the angels; and Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi),  a CIA spook with…let’s not call it an overabundance of The Feels. Fairly standard. Smart Guy, Tough Guy, Tough Lady, Funny Guy, and Tough, Funny Lady. There you go, the formula is complete, go forth and make a less depressing 24.

Towards the end of the first season, though, there’s a rumbling. A stirring. The idea that maybe we’re dealing with something else. In a flashback, Finch’s business partner remarks that he talks about The Machine as if it’s alive. Finch turns to the security camera, which served as The Machine’s POV. Yes, the computer has a POV. Because it’s a character.

Going forward from there, the show goes from karate-kicking crooked cops to a thoughful, nuanced examination of artificial intelligence, the definition of life, and how humans interact with nonhuman beings.

I know, right?

***

Before I talk further on that, let me deliver on the synchronicity I promised in this installment’s title.

Last month I was lucky enough to get to meet Warren Ellis at a talk and book signing. When they say “never meet your heroes,” spit in their face and tell them they’re going to Hell for lying, because he was warm, funny, and super gracious. Having sampled his voice (which is WAY less sepulchral than I thought it would be) I decided to reread his fantastic Cunning Plans, a book of talks he’d given to tech companies over the past few years.

One of the book’s throughlines is the idea that technology isn’t becoming indistinguishable from magic; it’s mimicking its functions. Invisible powers swirl through the air, and we can command their power if we know the right incantation/code. AR apps let us see the invisible world, marked off with waypoints like dolmens. You can catch beings of this world, imprison them in the piece of magic glass in your pocket, and use them to battle other daimones–just hit your local PokeStop. The tools and methods of the shaman and cunning men of ages past are replaced, or maybe supplemented, by those of the code monkeys and hackers.

***

Back to our show. A character called Root (played by Amy Acker, into whose service I am sworn because Christ on a bun she’s incredible) bumrushes Finch and Reese’s little family, demanding to know The Machine’s secrets. She’s later accepted into its service, despite torturing Shaw with a hot steam iron, and that’s the crux, for me, of the entire narrative.

Finch and Root take on almost mystical qualities with regard to The Machine, in that if it is God, as they often call it, they are in direct communion with it. Finch is the alchemist, getting to know its will indirectly, like viewing a black hole by the distortion it leaves. Root, on the other hand, has direct contact with the thing. It speaks to her, literally whispering in her ear through little Bluetooth earpiece. And the look on her face when she hears that voice is ecstasy. A Saint Teresa for the Information Age.

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More the “Oh God” variety of ecstasy than the “Oh God” strain, both of which are depicted here

Finch and Root are doing what magi and shaman have been doing for centuries. If you can learn the source code, be it to the universe or a network, you can hack it. And once you’re inside, there’s nothing you can’t do.

I’m not finished with the series yet; I still have the truncated fifth season to go. But what I’ve seen so far has left me with a huge respect for showrunner Jonathan Nolan. He rolled a Trojan horse of a show up to CBS’ gates, and what popped out is a show about communing with the Other. Now there’s a trick that would have impressed old John Dee himself.

***

I have a lot to say about the dreaded 2016. What a goddamn mess. Maybe later on. Maybe after the New Year emerges from its dripping chrysalis. Our national hagiography is starting to look like the cover of Uncanny X-Men #141.

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Except imagine Betty White, adamantium claws snikted, protecting Bob Newhart
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“Write” and “Fight”

So back in the pre-Christian days on Ireland, you had the three divisions of the priestly class: you had the Druids, who ran festivals, did sacrifices, that sort of thing, you had the Brehons, who were judges and arbiters, and then you had the Bards.

Now, these days you think of a bard and you think of a troubadour, a traveling musician; but the bard was considered to be immensely powerful. They were pretty much the walking Internet of the day. They memorized their entire clan’s lineages, had a storehouse of song, and their music and poetry was considered to have magical powers. Like a lot of pre-literate peoples, the Gael believed that art was divinely inspired, and thus was the source of the magic.

This was what made the bards an important social control. The most feared weapon in the bardic arsenal was satire. If the people chose a bad king (and yeah, the kings were chosen by the tribe), the bard could compose a satirical poem that could literally kill him. The words would blast forth into the target’s face, like a spitting cobra’s venom, and like venom, could sicken the target and take away their power.

“For fuck’s sakes, Hickey,” I hear you exclaim, “don’t you read the news?! Are you an asshole, talking this bullshit! And your shirt looks stupid!” Which is just mean.

Yesterday was a bad day. A really bad day for a lot of people. I woke up yesterday, turned on the news and checked my feeds, and I immediately checked my parlor for the exits. It’s bad.

A lot of people are hurting, scared. I don’t blame a one of them in the least. There was a Copernican shift away from the progress of the last few years towards…something. That’s the thing: nobody knows what a Trump presidency means yet.

But we know what it could mean.

I freely admit to going ghost yesterday off of social media. It was just too much–everybody’s fear and grief and rage was just hammering into me. In my hermitage I’m going over my skillset, what I have on me that can help. I’ve got my shillelagh in my car, and I’ll swing that whiskey stick if I need to, but I’m no guerilla fighter. I’m no community outreach expert. I’m fat, I have bad knees, asthma, and the anxiety.

But I have my words.

And I know how to use them.

You swing the fist you have. In bad times, it’s our responsibility to use what we have to effect the change we need. That includes us creatives. People need to see Truth. Truth is immutable, and fact is fucking Play-Doh. Artists show Truth. Write it, sing it, sculpt it, paint it, dance it, whatever you got. People are going to need to see the monsters for what they are, and they’re going to need to see that the monsters can be brought down. Fury and Hope are the bard-gift, the boon that the creative brings to their tribe.

I pledge do do what I can, how I can. How about you?

Let’s do what we can. You see somebody in trouble, help them out. You see somebody being a shitbag, let them know it’s not what we do. Be safe out there, huh?

We are proud to present THE SHADOW BOX

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Aaron Jacobs and I are very excited to announce our new collaboration, a collection of twelve short stories called The Shadow Box. It was a labor of love, as are all things like this, and we’re pleased to be bringing it to you.

While we were in our revision phase, going over the stories to try to buff out some of the rawness,  I was trying to think of what the theme for the collection could be. We didn’t have one from the outset, like That Weird City–we were interested this time in bringing our very best to the table. We picked the title because it’s cool and spooky, but then, as I went through, it was more apt than I’d first thought.

Most horror deals with The Shadow, in the Jungian sense of the word–repressed fears and desires that unconsciously drive a person’s motives. As I’m going through, seeing a man obsessed with order, trying to wrench the sticks of his home into the shape he wants. Another guided by loneliness, discarding a good thing in his life for an impossible ideal. A woman’s fight against her very genes and the programming they force upon the person.

No need to change a thing, folks. The theme of the collection is baked right in.

We each learned a lot about the nuts-and-bolts of writing stories in the four years (Christ, was it that long ago?!) since TWC was birthed. We’ve read a lot more broadly, spoken to a lot more people about their experiences, and we hope to God it shows in the stories.

Extra-special thanks to Ms. Corin Webb for the extremely cool cover art, Alex Searle-Jacobs for the edit, and my apologize for fatfingering every word in the English language, and Eric Heisserer for a very kind, very humbling foreword.

Later on this week, I’ll have a post for you in which I go into my part of the book and show some “Behind The Scenes” stuff–kind of like DVD extras for a book.

The Fear

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“You mean people might actually READ these things?!”

Let’s go back in time, to the halcyon days of March, 2012.

Aaron and I had worked our asses off on a collaborative collection of short fiction (That Weird City, still available, buy it now!), and the thing was as ready as it was going to get. We ripped through the writing, bashed our faces against the edits, agonized over the formatting. It was hard work, but it was good work.

The day finally came. Time to load that sumbitch into the warhead and fire it off to Amazon. I had the duty that day. I read over the instructions for uploading a hundred times. I was nervous, but it was good nervous. My finger hovered over the SUBMIT button for a long time.

I clicked it.

And The Fear hit me.

My hands went to my mouth, and I chanted over and over again, oh shit, oh shit, what did I do, oh shit. It was a stress reaction that was waaaayyy the fuck out of proportion with the actual event.

My GI tract did not agree. Suffice it to say that I made it to the men’s room.

The Fear.

I honest-to-Christ have no idea where it came from. It wasn’t that TWC was a bad book. Not in the least–even four years later I think it has heart. It’s rough around the edges, but that was the fun of it. Nobody could tell us we couldn’t do it, so we did it. I’ll always be proud of that.

But the trouser-soiling anxiety that came with sending it out into the wild was real. I wish I could have had a heart rate monitor–it would have had some interesting data. And it happens a lot. Oftentimes whenever there’s something I’m not one hundred percent confident with, like blogging (hi, everybody). My brain just vapor-locks, and my australopithicine hindbrain takes over, screeching and throwing rocks.

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Did somebody say “screeching australopithecine?” WOW, TOPICAL!

Why this trip down Memory Lane?

Me and Jacobs, we’ve done it again. Twelve new stories we cooked up, almost ready to be loaded into another Amazon-bound data capsule. And The Fear is hitting me, full force. I have to say, I kinda feel lousy. But I feel good about the stories! We’re shooting for a Samhain-adjacent launch window, and if I can make one of you feel a fraction of the fear while reading it that I’ve had in its incubation? I’ll count myself a fortunate man.

Stay tuned, Weirdlings!

Regarding Jizz

Regarding Jizz
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Will you let me finish? Will you let me finish.

So picture George Lucas. It’s somewhere between 1977 and 1980, most likely. He pulled off a stunt that most industry experts would have said was impossible: he turned a weirdo Flash Gordon/Samurai/Western movie into a juggernaut. He’s feeling good, he’s feeling strong.

Picture he’s in a meeting, internally with Lucasfilm’s top brass. They’re fleshing out the universe a little. Star Wars was a hit, they’re going to want a sequel, gotta do some worldbuilding. Or maybe some fanzine (Bantha Tracks, maybe. Kids, ask your parents) asks, but the important thing here is that he’s talking about the music in the Mos Eisley cantina.

Somebody asks George what he calls that kind of music Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes were playing. I can only imagine how his vocalized thought process went.

“Well, I asked John Williams to do an upbeat swing-type piece. It’s jazz, but more…spacey.” He folds his arms, strokes his luxurious Wookiee pelt of a beard.

“Jizz. It’s called jizz.”

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I shit you not, these poor bastards are jizz-wailers.

Again, I was not there at the time, and can only speculate, but I think whichever of George’s Moffs was the closest to the throne said, “Uh, George…we, ah…that’s not…” before giving up and whispering into his ear, while making descriptive hand gestures.

Lucas was not swayed, and jizz became canon, God help us all.

He knew what he was doing. He had to have known. He went to school with Martin Scorsese, fachrissakes, you think there was a single curse word or sexual epithet in English or any of the dialects of Italian that he hadn’t heard at film school? He knew, and he stayed the course.

The Jizz Issue (oh christ I’m making myself uncomfortable, I am so sorry to you all) is only one of the elements of the Star Wars saga, both in film and in his larger body of work, that he would not budge on. And I’m not trying to rake George Lucas over the coals here, or wail and gnash my teeth about him ruining my childhood. The fact is, he faced a problem that I think all creatives deal with at one time or another, and that’s when to course-correct. When faced with the idea that a facet of his creation–in this case, a tiny sliver of a facet, because who gives a shit what kind of space music is in the movie–doesn’t work, he doubled down. The same with the idea that Luke and Leia are twins. The same with Darth Vader starting out as a boy that said “YIPPEE” and “SPINNING! THAT’S A GOOD TRICK!” It falls flat, and things like these can be nipped in the bud by exercising a little bit of self-reflection, and deviating from the course.

 

I’m in the midst of it right now–one of my settings, a setting that I’ve done a whole lot of work on, needs to be razed. A demo and rebuild that, were it a building, would have Norm Abram and Tommy Silva from This Old House panting like dogs.

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“Nah, nah, see, this whole narrative framework is gonna haveta come out.”

I published a lot of pieces in this setting on the late, lamented Weaponizer, and people really seemed to respond to it. Which is awesome! But as time went on, I started to notice things, like little termite holes, or mortise-and-tenon joints that didn’t quite align. So, rather than ignore the leaky roof and sparking electric work, it’s all gotta come out.

The trick to writing with confidence seems to be to do your own thing, but to stay agile at the same time. You write the story you need to tell, but you need to check yourself, often and honestly, about whether or not it works.

This is different from wanting to say FUCK IT, delete every file and burn every hard copy, and move to Maine’s scenic Casco Bay to become a lobsterman. Though that’s a daily occurence. You test it, down to the smallest moving part. You see what rubs against what, and what moves freely. That’s the hard part. Sometimes the pieces don’t sit flush, and you need to recut your lumber. But it’s what separates good, lean storytelling from a grown man having to type the word “jizz” over and over again who isn’t Hugo Nominated Author Chuck Tingle.

I apologize to all four of you who read this blog.

***

And while I’m on the Star Wars tip: Rebels Season 3 just had its trailer premier at the big Star Wars Celebration last week, and man, it’s gonna be a CORKER. No spoilers, but Season 2 ended very poorly for our heroes, and a lot of aftermath is going to hit immediately.

Also: I picked up a Playstation 4 this past holiday, which came bundled with Star Wars: Battlefront and a bunch of other Star Wars games from previous console generations. Let me say that Battlefront is, in a word, beautiful. The maps, including the lush forests of The Sanctuary Moon of Endor, the volcanic shitworld of Sullust, Hoth’s snowy glare, and parched Tattooine are all rendered in near-photographic detail. The Hero units (characters from the movies, with special abilities) are true to the actors’ appearances, and are inspiring to fight beside. The lightsabers go VRNNN VRRNN, the X-Wings’ blasters go BLAPPBLAPBLAP. It’s the perfect Star Wars video game environment.

But there’s nothing to do. There’s no campaign, where you can choose your side and fight through your own version of Galactic events. There’s precious little offline content–four Deathmatch maps were augmented with starfighter missions and an Imperial Walker mode, but overall? Not a lot to do if you don’t like online gaming. I did try multiplayer, and WOW did I die a lot.

Just a tip from your Uncle Chris, trying to help you caveat your emptor, know what I mean?

***

BOOKS. Let me tell you: Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence is one hell of a series. I guess you could call it a work of Modern Fantasy..? It’s set in a Fantasy world, where human magicians went to war with the gods, gargoyles patrol the streets, the currency is based on slivers of human soul, and intelligent horses are both the source of energy and the cabbie at once. So it’s very much descended from your Westeros, your Melnibone, your fully-realized Fantasy world. But it’s also very modern–cities are sprawling metropoli, you have lights, you go to work in an office. So it’s a weird hybrid of Epic Fantasy and Urban Fantasy, and it works so goddamn well I could just spit. The newest book in the five-part series came out this week, but it’s set up where each book is its own self-contained story in the setting, so you could jump around if you wanted to. Highly recommended.

Cultural Petri Dishes And You

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NO, FOOL–NOT THAT KIND OF CULTURE!! YOU’LL DESTROY US ALL!!!
I am an old man. Going into the back nine of my life, barring any breakthroughs in phylactery design. I’ve got about as much salt as pepper in my beard, and I’m occasionally tempted to grow my hair and see what the gray situation is like up top.

I open with this not to curry sympathy (though God knows it wouldn’t hurt) but to illustrate the fact that at one point in my life there was no Internet. I wasn’t an early adopter by any stretch–not Usenet, no BBS, nothing until I got AOL in…shit, 1998 or ’99.

I was also a very timid kid. I didn’t make friends easily. Or rather, I didn’t seek out friendships. My late teens and post-adolescence were marked with anxiety, depression, and, despite those, a wild need to tell my stories.

The stories weren’t very good. Nobody’s stories at that stage are.

But here’s the thing–I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that, to quote the malleable cartoon dog, “sucking is the first step to sorta becoming good at something.” Were I born ten years later, I’d have been able to go and read the stories of established writers, and maybe even ask them about it.

Here’s the thing. Creativity without people just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t work. You can’t have beer without little microorganisms eating sugar and pissing alcohol. You can no more write without social networks (in the pre-Zuckerburg sense) than you can without reading lots. You need feedback, you need to hear how people got their start. Without a tribe, it’s like trying to do the moonshot with balsa wood and papier-mache. A lot of work, but you ain’t going nowhere, pal.

The DSL Revolution would bring me my first such network. It was like discovering metallurgy.

***

In 2002, I joined the forum attached to the webcomic PVP. It was my first big step into Internet Community, and I’ve made some of the great friends of my life there.

Those of us that wrote would do so. I was fast as shit back then, too. Five hundred word short story? BrrrrrrrrrrDONE. There weren’t many of us, but we’d cheer each other on, challenge each other. Do stuff. It was as organic as the inside of a petri dish.

One such Doer, a feller by the name of Eric Heisserer, was a regular in the Writing Challenges we’d do on the forum, and he would crush them, every damn time. He taught me a lot about the craft of writing–not in the artsy-fartsy sense, but in a very Norm Abram-esque “this is how you construct a story so it doesn’t fall apart and kill you” way. About the sweetest guy you’d ever want to meet, too.

So one day, he posts this weird-ass little story he’d done called The Dionaea House. It’s set up in a epistolary-via-text message format, which dialed the suspense factor to 11. I’d never seen the like of it.

And neither had Hollywood. They took notice. He’s written several movies, and directed the late Paul Walker in Hours.  An adaptation of The Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang is ahead on the horizon, too.

Twelve years later. A week from now, as a matter of fact. Eric has a new movie out called Lights Out. Go see it.

***

I wound up, for whatever reason, joining The Engine, a forum put up by writer/cunning man of the Internet grove Warren Ellis. I don’t know why. This was a place where giants strode. A lot of heavy hitters in the comics industry. It was 2006, but it was also 1993, for me. I dummied up. I didn’t contribute. Intimidation had locked me in.

So when he announced he’d be shutting down The Engine and opening a forum attached to his online comic FreakAngels, I was more enthused. No pressure, I could start over.

Little did I know that Whitechapel was going to be the incubator that it was.

It wasn’t a who’s-who, necessarily. It was just the precise mix of factors that led to an absolute fucking explosion of creativity. You had writers. You had artists. You had musicians. Magicians. Poets. Everybody worked. It was a challenge. Not that anybody was busting your balls, but you saw the output people were cranking on, and it made you want to step up. Everybody got better. I saw my first pieces in virtual print. The virus mutated.

***

My point–and I do have one!–is that you absolutely cannot create in a vacuum. Beer is the goal. Your wirtschatz is the grain, your reading, that’s the hops.

But other people are the yeast. Bring those together and mmmmmmmmm-MM. That’s a tasty fucking brew.

That metaphor fell apart on me.

EDIT: I fucked up. “Lights Out” opens next week, July 22, not today.

r9huz

It Takes a 21 Day Streak To Make A Habit

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The Ape…he JUDGES me

Which didn’t happen for me with regard to maintaining this blog. My apologies. No excuse, other than the fact that I’ve been doing my best to get shit writ for the aforementioned Seekrit Projekt.

It’s not always easy, particularly when you’ve got an actual job (yes, yes, I am well aware of how much this sounds like an excuse, Judgment Gorilla, thank you, you’re a star). Exhaustion is one of the bugbears of modern life, and creative effort is the first thing to go when the brain is trying to figure out what to toss out. That and exercise. Holy shit, I’ve gotten none of that.

I fuck up, I try to forgive myself, and I move on.

***

This isn’t a review blog, sensu stricto, but I like to pass things along that I find beautiful and/or interesting. And boy, have I got a pisser for you today.

The Fisherman, a newly-released novel by John Langan, kicked the living shit out of me. I say this as the highest praise. It’s intense.

Okay–you know the first few minutes of the movie Up, where the animators line up and take turns punching you in the stomach?

It’s a lot like that, but without the whimsy of a flying balloon-house to look forward to.

It’s actually one story, that of two widowers who find fishing as a refuge from their pain, wrapped around another story told about a haunted area called Dutchman’s Creek. There are skeins of Norse myth, Herman Melville, and the good ol’ fashioned Fish Story shot through the nested narratives, and some of the most arresting scenes a book has ever made my brain see, but at the core of the story is Capital G Grief. Big grief, as big around as a sequoia, that nobody could ever get their arms around.

Langan paints the grief of the two characters, Abe, the narrator, and Dan, as being related subspecies, but whether you’re being attacked by a lion (Panthera leo) or a tiger (Panthera tigris), you’ve still got to deal with the fact that you’ve got fangs and claws in you. But the sadness doesn’t overwhelm the horror–that’s much bigger, and made all the more effective for the protagonists’ state of mind.

I give this book five Weirdo Fish out of five. Go get it.

***

Also on the media consumption cavalcade this long weekend was The Witch (I’m spelling it regular because the way the posters spelled it, The VVitch, made me prounounce it Vivitch, and it got on my nerves). Fantastic little movie, and one in which (no spoilers) everybody got what they deserved. The clothing, sets, and even the English accent were heavily researched, as was the witch-lore that comes down from Puritan New England. Five pots of baby fat out of five.

***

And, just because the world has gone absolutely fucking Fury Road since the last time we spoke, please enjoy a baby gorilla looking tough. THIS ONE’S FOR YOU, JUDGMENT GORILLA.

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ALL SHALL FEAR KONG