With the Twist Baked In (Zero Sum Game)

Sometimes there’s a bit of a “knowing how the sausage is made” problem when I read stuff. I’ve ruined I can’t tell you how many movies by calling an ending based on meta-narrative information, e.g., “the only reason to have a character give us X piece of information is if it results in Y.” But sometimes, my love of how it all gets put together means I hit a thing and get to have my own little “oh, crap, that is beautiful” moment witnessing Craft Happen.

Why yes, I did just have one of those (see? You ruin surprises, too, so nyah!).

Spoilers for SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game because, look, I’m drooling over a well constructed plot here, which I can’t do without, you know, talking about the plot. You’ve been warned.

Speaking of meta-information, I knew that telepaths were involved in Huang’s Russell’s Attic series based on solicits for later books (I’m a late starter, all right? I’m only just hitting season 2 of Steven Universe, too, so bask in all your awesome early-adopter-ness and then we’ll move on). Given that the main character of the series is a young woman with a preternaturally fast mathematical ability, an ability we find out about pretty much in the first paragraph of the book, more super-humans wasn’t something that I would have been surprised by, anyway. If I buy in to one super-hero, it’s easy to buy into more, so I wasn’t really worried about spoiling myself on that particular score.

Except (aha! Plot twist!).

See, Huang’s take on telepaths is a lot more involved than the usual psychic handwavium. And, it turns out, is intimately tied to the ways in which she sells the reader on the mathematical powers of her main character, Cas Russell. Realizing that gave me a whole new appreciation for everything that lead up to it.

The book spends its early sections not only slowly building its central mystery and character arcs, but showing the reader just how seemingly physics-defying super math can be. This is important on its own, since the notion of hyperspeed mathematical calculation is fairly abstract. Huang makes the applications concrete, and in doing so helps the reader understand how broad the implications are.

Things start small-ish, with calculating angles and velocity to know how to roll just right with a punch, for example, or calculating exact dimensions and speed to zip in and out of traffic in movie-stunt-driver fashion. But as we’re eased into the idea, the effects ramp up, as well. Having witnessed the aforementioned feats of fighting and driving, we buy the relatively more sedate concatenation of environmental adjustments (tipping a garbage can, say) to create the perfect acoustical hotspot for eavesdropping on people half a block away. Having bought that convoluted stacking of pieces, we’re likewise set up to buy into an sequence of acrobatics and property destruction that might be over the top even for Captain America.

All of that’s impressive on its own, of course, and a great use of immersive escalation in worldbuilding. But that base, that build, isn’t just in service of selling Cas’s abilities, but in service to eventually selling our antagonist, as well.

When Cas and her partner finally track down someone who reveals the existence of telepaths, it turns out they’re actually hyper-empathic people. Where Cas recognizes and calculates physical variables at a speed that would make your average computer jealous, telepaths do the same thing with emotional cues. If Cas has a stratospheric math IQ, telepaths have the same thing with emotional intelligence.

If we’d been hit with this out of the gate, I think it would have smacked all kinds of false. If hyper-math is hard to wrap a head around, hyper-body-language is even harder. In context, in sequence, however, it slots into place easy as you please. Huang has been walking us from easy math to mind-blowing math to the point where we believe a young woman can tear bars out of a wall in mid-air in the space of a few seconds.

Having used observable proof to sell the reader on just how many impossible things are possible with the right kind of advanced intellect, she flips the switch and presents advanced emotional intelligence, the kind of thing that’s much harder to prove or see or wrap our heads around, using this huge mountain of Awesome Physical Feats to sell the concept for her. This isn’t Cas is super smart, and Now There Are Psychics. It’s that Cas is super smart, and “psychics” are ALSO super smart in ways which make them seem magical.

The story has made it clear, believable, and above all concrete the ways in which an unerring ability to calculate multiple physical forces allows a single person to perform what seem like miracles. Having done that, it’s only a mild upsell to convince us that a different set of miracles would be possible with a sufficiently advanced ability to calculate the psychological / emotional / social factors in a given interaction.

So this isn’t the turn in the worldbuilding I was expecting. It’s not an escalation of super-powers from super-thinker to brain-beams. It’s a logical, almost inevitable, extension of exactly the notions we’ve been buying into since the get go.

And that, my friends, is how solid worldbuilding turns math proofs into psychic powers.

Experimental Structures and Invisible Illnesses

I’ve been remiss, in that I’ve not spammed you all about my most recent publication. “Fragile Insides” just came out as part of the second volume of the Orthogonal anthologies, Orthogonal: Code.

This is another story in my sci-fi, genetic plague, asteroid colony Detritus setting. It’s probably the closest to a linchpin story as I’ve done. Heady’s been the common factor for all the Detritus stories thus far, so it was inevitable that her story would pull from all the others (seriously, one of the alternate titles I was playing with was “Connective Tissue”).

Even given that, I still believe this story stands on its own. If you’ve read the other stories, there are also a lot of easter eggs and pointers to how all the other stories line up and interconnect, but the pieces here all feed Heady’s specific character arc for this particular narrative.

Given the conceit of this world, wherein all residents of The Rim suffer ill effects from the inscrutable Skew epidemic, disability has been an ongoing element. “Detritus” introduced the world through the eyes of a woman who discovers her own late in life, after having convinced herself of a natural immunity. “At Her Fingertips” explored more obvious physical deformity. And “Broken” moves inward, looking at neurodiversity in a setting where every notable difference is labelled a weakness. A Deficiency, in fact, the terminology of the world, and an intentionally loaded one.

“Fragile Insides” is my attempt to tackle something I hadn’t yet in these stories. Several of my friends suffer from so-called “invisible” physical ailments, the sort which routinely meet resistance by the larger world through thoughtless rejoinders of “but you look fine.” Heady is inspired by those friends, her combination of seeming almost super-heroic in size while constantly battling pain, or the threat of same, let me try to explore those themes in what I hope is a compelling and empathetic way using a speculative context.

Oh, and about the format on this one: blame Laura. Initial drafts of this story were very much structured like the other Detritus narratives, because in my head, that’s how you tell a Detritus story.

Heady’s story, possibly because it’s such a linchpin, possibly because I’m a bucket of fail, possibly due to the machinations of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, just didn’t want to play nice, though. Presented like its compatriots, the story was staid and pat and didn’t seem to get us anywhere. I joked with Laura that I was tempted to turn the whole thing into a cross-referenced digital journal, because Heady would be the kind of person to keep (and constantly update references in) something like that.

Then she went and told me to do it, dammit.

So, yes, the cross-references all work. But, as with reading the other Detritus stories, you don’t have to follow them around. You can start at the beginning and move to the end in a linear fashion, and the story still builds in a way I’m more than happy to have you experience.

If at some point you also want to go jumping between sections as they’re cross-referenced, though, you can do that, as well. It won’t be the same experience, but it’s just as much one I built. I have the notepad full of scrawled entries and link codes and more-than-mild headache to prove it.

Not Really That Much Stranger

My better half and I binged our way through new Netflix series Stranger Things last weekend, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. On its face, the show — a sci-fi suspense period piece set in suburban Indiana in the 80’s — is kind of custom-made to hit a metric trailerful of my geek-nostalgia buttons.

Spoiler warning here, since I can’t talk about some of my strongest responses without them. You’ve been warned.

So, on that surface level I referenced above, the show delivers. The Duffer Brothers and their cast and crew do an amazing job of re-creating 80’s sci suspense. Hairstyles and clothes are spot-on 80’s Hollywood without being over-the-top The Wedding Singer riffs, but that’s kind of the least of it. The recreation here is much more immersive, including a synth-y soundtrack reminiscent of a Carpenter film and title credits that call back to basically every 80’s movie based on a Stephen King book ever.

Unfortunately, it’s such a good recreation of an 80’s sci suspense flick that I had a hard time seeing what this brought to the table that all its predecessors hadn’t done already. Movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing remind us that there was a time when what Stranger Things is doing was innovative.

That time isn’t now, though. While my own eternal weakness to jump scares holds true, most of the twists of plot and nearly all of the character arcs feel staid and well-worn. Of course Finn Wolfhard’s Mike and Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven will develop a crush on each other. Of course maternal instinct will drive Winona Rider’s Joyce to face horrors for the sake of her son.

There are a rare few moments that stand out as bucking the trend. When Charlie Heaton’s loner teen Jonathan and Natalia Dyer’s popular Nancy decide to face down a monster, it’s Nancy, with no experience, who turns out to be a natural with a gun. For once, too, the third point of a teen love triangle (Joe Keery’s Steve) manages not to be a total garbage fire of a human being.1 And on the visual front, there’s a really fun inversion of the E.T. flying bicycle moment that I literally applauded.

Sadly most of these happen both very late in the season and are isolated in general. Much more likely, and in several cases frustratingly, the show doesn’t seem to have any real interest in more than pushing the verisimilitude of its 80’s Hollywood-ness. One of the reasons this reads as such an amazing recreation of an 80’s flick, for example, is how very White, Male, and Straight it winds up being.

The women in this show are intriguing, but by and large they aren’t capable of doing anything until the men in their lives empower them.2 Joyce knows her son is alive, and even creates a way to communicate with him across dimensions, but she can’t do anything about it until David Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper decides she isn’t crazy. Similarly, it takes Jonathan to empower Nancy to go out monster hunting. There’s an almost palpable theme here wherein nothing is real until a Dude believes it is.

Hell, Eleven — who has actual kickass super-powers — almost never uses them save at the behest (or imminent danger to) the trio of boys she falls in with early in the series.

There’s an even smaller ethnic minority presence than there is a female one, largely represented by Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas, who at least seems to do as admirable a job as his young peers. There’s probably an argument to be made about why he of all the characters has to be the constant voice of dissent, but Lucas at least has a measure of agency, though mileage on that may vary.

Perhaps I’m simply more forgiving because Lucas (1) exists and (2) isn’t called out by slurs. Which is the exact opposite of the show’s treatment of LGBT and the 80’s. I went on a bit about this on a Twitter thread already, but the long and short of it is: while the show tosses “you’re a queer” around as the ultimate insult (indeed, in two separate cases people come to blows over the insinuation they might be “a queer”), there’s no evidence that anyone is actually queer. The creators get the benefit of claiming they’re accurately recreating attitudes of the time without bothering to actually deal with the people most affected by those attitudes.

Daniel Reynolds over at The Advocate is much more willing to buy into a “coded queer” reading of the show than I am. I just think we’re well past the point where I should have to rely on coding. We aren’t working against an actual 80’s standards committee trying to get this work made.

In general, it all points to a lot of energy being spent on recreation and not much at all on reflection or examination. A lot of these elements would get little more than an eye roll from me in a film produced in the 1980’s. Whatever its setting, though, Stranger Things was produced by people who have a lot more distance with which to recognize that era’s cultural baggage and a lot fewer barriers to inclusivity.

This all comes back to what I think is a central weakness of the show. Stranger Things peppers its background with movie posters for Jaws and Evil Dead and Carpenter’s The Thing. And the influence of these movies (and more) are similarly plastered all over the film-making. I can’t tell you how many times I got a nostalgic thrill recognizing a riff on a sequence from E.T. or Alien or Firestarter or Carrie or several other movies I’m sure I’m missing.

Unfortunately, while the creators show a seemingly exhaustive love of the innovative films which form the series’ inspirational sources, they aren’t bringing much of anything new to the table themselves. That may ultimately be all that most of its fans want, mind you. Surely there’s a piece of me that responds to a lot of it. But, like “The Upside Down” that plays a pivotal role in the show, I can’t help but also see the dangers of the wider, other world the show leaves unacknowledged.

1. This Variety interview suggests Steve’s better qualities may have less to do with purposeful subversion and more to do with directors enjoying an actor, but the end result is nonetheless refreshing.

2. Hat tip to Adam Michael Sass over on the The Geeks OUT blog for hitting this particular nail on the head: “No woman can save the day until a man believes her.”

Mishmash as Worldbuilding

I promised some wonk about “Taste of Birdsong,” didn’t I? We should do that, then, yes?

This story, unlike a lot of my other recent sales, is set in its own world, so there was a lot more whole cloth worldbuilding to do than when I write a Tall or a Detritus story. But that’s what scribbly note files are for, right?

Let’s stop and see if I can’t kill the pretension in that a bit. I don’t pretend to be burdened with so many amazing ideas that I must — simply must, my dear — write them all down as soon as divine provenance sends them to me, lest the world be robbed of my brilliance.

Yeah, no. What I have is a brain that runs scattershot. I have some ideas that are silly and some which seem kind of cool and a lot which are completely random and probably not particularly insightful or intriguing in the least. I tend to tap them into the Drive app on my phone not to record brilliance, but to get them out of my head. When I’m in a place to noodle around with things, I periodically pull the little bits of stuff out and poke at them to see if anything happens.

Which, as this story will attest, sometimes results in something. The world and story here came from a bunch of different little ideas that were floating around unattached.

I had at one point written down something about migrating trees. Not Ents, not sentient anythings. I’d just been wondering what might happen to a hunter / gatherer paradigm when the things from which we gathered were also the things we hunted.

Similarly, I had another scribble about transitional senses. That one came from a weird thought progression that started somewhere with me noodling alternate senses that could be used for telecommunication, of all things.

Neither of those were a story, of course. It wasn’t until I decided I wanted to see if I could write something that mucked about with perception and notions of strength and beauty that I had something to hang things on.

Given that Sovani’s journey is one where he’s trying to assemble a life for himself, the meta hodgepodge that went into the world he lives in is at least thematically appropriate.

Walking Trees and Words Made of Smells (or: NEW STORY!)

Cover art: Smoke in the water… by Cyril Rana
Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0) license
Image edits by Joy Crelin and Leland Spencer

As usual, extended nattering to be had in a day or so, but after a bit of fallow, I’ve a new story out in the wilds.

When I heard Joy Crelin was planning to put Betwixt on an indefinite hiatus, I knew I had to send something in. Joy published one of my first pieces (“At Her Fingertips” in issue #7), and it was a wonderful experience. Joy’s fast, professional, and all around lives up to her name. Luckily, Joy liked what I sent her this time, as well.

“Taste of Birdsong” has migrating trees and senses that turn on and off for the season. It has skinspeak and pherospeak and signing. It might also be a story about self-worth and what it means to be beautiful if I did my job right. Plus monsters with multiple mouths because monsters make everything cooler.

Extra bonus points for this story being a first: evil twin Laura Price and I are finally sharing a table of contents! Our evil crazy weirdness has joined forces for Betwixt #11. Is that why “File 29520: Notes from Immediate Aftermath of Attack by New Villain, ‘The Daemon’” is a super-villain story? I won’t tell because that would ruin the evil! Go! Witness our power!

I’m Only Afraid That Your Offense Is Fabricated (by a 12-year-old)

One of the perennial memes that crosses my screen goes like this:

When I was a kid, we did X, but now kids can’t do X because people are afraid of offending someone.

There follows the usual “share if you…” blah blah nonsense which is the lifeblood of social media, but that’s an entirely separate issue, so I’ll stop the quote there.

X, of course, changes depending on the specific meme, but since the structure and the sentiment are pretty uniform, and seemingly omnipresent, I decided I should just respond in one place so I can link it and stop wasting time fuming. The other reason for “X” is that, honestly, the problem is never whatever the hell X happens to stand for, it’s with the compounded levels of wrongheaded put together in this sorry excuse for an argument.

The live action The Sound of Music may have scarred us all, but we can still agree that Maria was right in asking us to start at the beginning, so let’s:

When I Was a Kid

I still watch cartoons and collect comics. Hell, I still have my Lion Voltron and a box full of He-Man figures. I absolutely understand holding on to treasured things from when we were kids. There’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly on one’s childhood when possible.

That said, when I was a kid, I thought my Flash underoos could make me run at super speed. I thought you could swing high enough to wrap yourself around the swingset. I thought every guy I was in school with was straight.

All of those are as accurate as the likelihood I can once again fit into a child’s large t-shirt (which I also did “when I was a kid”), so you may see why I’m a bit incredulous of when I was a kid as the primary support for your position.

Let’s also acknowledge that when I was a kid is a way of wrapping nostalgia around a this is how it’s always been and how dare things change argument. To which: people used to believe that heat rose because the top layer of the world was made of fire, that the sun circled the earth, that the uterus was the primary source of mental illness in women, that certain people were property, and that only witches floated in water.

I’m kind of hoping no one reading this is on board with pushing for a return to any of that just because it’s the way things were when someone was a kid.

People Are Afraid

People ascribe motives all the time. Is that guy who cut me off in traffic rushing to the hospital to check on a relative whose health has taken a turn for the worse, or is he just being an asshole? It’s exactly what’s happening with this construction which presumes that the only possible reason for a change in X is fear.

Parents aren’t afraid of their children when they put a bandaid on a scraped elbow and hug them until they stop crying. Or when they lift them to the sink to wash their hands. I’m not afraid of a stranger with an armload of packages when I hold the door for her. Or when I invite someone to sit with me at a party when I notice them wandering a bit aimlessly.

We see people who are hurt, or struggling, or encumbered, or just plain unnoticed, and we reach out. I call that empathy. I think it’s sad as fucking hell if you call it fear, and it says more about you than about “them.”

Also, I hope I’m never running from a serial killer with you around, because it kind of sounds like I can expect to be tripped so you’ll have time to escape.

Offending Someone

The only thing better than ascribing motive is doubling down and ascribing it twice. Because, you see, anyone asking for a change in X is clearly offended.

By the time we get to it, offense loads everything down with a whole lot of ire you can’t for one moment assume. Wanting to exist isn’t offense. Wanting to have a seat at the table, a partner on the dance floor, these aren’t indicative of offense. They’re indicative of longing and attempts at community. And I fail to see why asking for them is by its very nature so aggressive as to be characterized as offense.

Even if there is offense, there seems to be a palpable lack of self-reflection here, since the tone of the whole damn meme makes the poster’s offense palpable, and something which needs to be soothed. For reasons I can’t fathom, however, the offense of others gets an immediate thumbs down.

You’re painting some zombie apocalypse scenario where there are “normal” people, and then some horde of Other: religions, ethnicities, sexualities, levels of ableness, gender identities. All of them, growling and reaching to take a bite out of your tender, pristine flesh.

I think you need to watch a little less Walking Dead, dear heart. Or consider that maybe the mindless, tooth-gnashing horde is on your side of the door.

I Think She’d Be Marvelous

So apparently casting for the upcoming Captain Marvel movie is ramping up. I see the usual suspects suggesting the usual suspects for the title role. And I don’t know that anyone I’m hearing named is a bad choice, mind you, but when I sat down to think about what might make a good Captain Marvel, I came up with someone else.

I’m all in on Kerry Washington for the cinematic Captain Marvel.

I’ll stop right here and clarify that no, I’m not talking about making this film about Monica Rambeau. I’d be thrilled to see that character on screen, too, but that would involve a wholesale concept shift. I suspect the MCU gurus chose their Captain Marvel for her kree / alien / cosmic ties as they expand into outer space for their Infinity War mega-event. Trying to change the course of that monster seems so entirely outside the realm of possibility that I’m not sure it would be worth the effort.

So, yeah, I’m doing my back flips and megaphone cheers for Kerry Washington as Carol Danvers.

Since I can already hear the um actuallys starting with their But Carol Danvers is.., I’ll just stop right there and finish that sentence for you.

Carol Danvers is a woman filled with inner strength and determination.

Carol Danvers is a woman willing to fight against overwhelming odds to do what she thinks is right.

Carol Danvers is a woman whose military background suggests she’s used the previous qualities to push her way up the ranks in one of the ultimate Boys’ Clubs around.

Carol Danvers is a woman with a past of mistakes and tragedy, who’s been beaten by fate and circumstance time and again, gaining power, losing power, but who, at the end of the day, has come out triumphant and ready to keep fighting.

Um, yeah, so what I’m seeing here is someone who feels like she has a lot in common with Washington’s Oliva Pope on Scandal. Sure, her fights there aren’t nearly as physically violent as the kind Captain Marvel is likely to entail, but that’s what stunt doubles and special effects are for.

And while Washington herself hasn’t always been the punching character, her recent turn in Django Unchained, and previous roles in the first two Fantastic Four films, certainly suggest she’s not opposed to being part of a film built around things going ‘splody.

Said role in the FF films also happens to mean Washington’s already dealt with anti-diversity nerdrage and came out on top. I’ve no idea if she wants to wade into the morass again, mind you, but if she did, she at least wouldn’t be coming into the whole thing unawares.

So, yeah, if we’re fancasting that MCU flick? I’m on the Kerry Washington for Carol Danvers train. THAT would be some Marvelous casting, if you ask me.