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.

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.

Secrets and Meddling and Science Gone Right

I promised something more substantial about Hide Behind, didn’t I? I should get to that. I’ll avoid major spoilers, but if you want to read the story completely cold, I’d suggest clicking the link above first and doing so. You can always come back.

Everyone good going forward? Excellent.

Given this is in part a story about secrets, how about I start with one? It may not be an especially well-hidden one, but here goes: before around August of last year, it had been a decade plus since I’d written much of any new fiction. There were occasional dalliances, mind, but nothing sustained.

Due to my previous fits without much start, going into this latest attempt I decided to try to give myself a slight leg up. Laura had been having success writing several stories which shared a world in her Teachout stories. Success both in that she was pubbing the stories and that I was digging on them.

Worldbuilding is exciting, but it can also be exhausting. Personally, I can get a bit lost in the background research and brainstorming and burn myself out before I get to the actual story. I thought doing something similar to Laura might leave me with energy to write more. I took a look at those few stories I had which I liked, and fiddled about thinking about which ones might have enough worldbuilding lying about that I could further explore.

I found two, one of which was Tall. I’d peppered Elsie’s story with a lot of background material, most of which I hadn’t dug in deep with. So I made a short list of the biggest bits of background and set about noodling them for story.

One of those bits are the Seeders (colloquially known as “tinpots”), a heretofore unseen movement peopled by folks planting fruit trees where they have no earthly right to grow, and who apparently only ask in return that folks who partake of the fruit throw the seeds to the wind to continue the process.

I knew I wanted a scientist to be butting up against the secrets of a Seeder tree. Figuring out how and in what ways science works in a world with literal magic is just too much fun to pass up, after all.

It started with one scientist, frontier doctor Yuna, but Ruthie, a botanist, showed up pretty quickly after, and I might have smiled a bit. Intrepid lady scientists versus mysterious magic! What’s not to love about that?

The pair of them diligently worked to unlock the secrets of Seeder magic, all the while facing off against some very strong resistance by locals who thought science had no place meddling with something like the pseudo-religious work of the tinpots.

And then people started dying, because if there’s one mortal enemy of a doctor, it has to be unexplained deaths, yes? Worse, what if the explanation was that aforementioned meddling?

I promised no spoilers, so that’s all the further I’ll go, but yeah: “Hide Behind” is a story about science and meddling and faith and friendship and what we know and what we think we know.

With magic trees and the autopsy of a giant.

Jumping at Shadows

Friend from college and writer of scary stuff Amanda Hard is celebrating National Short Story Month by reviewing / recommending a short story a day. I’m not nearly so ambitious, but her recent entry on a Ray Bradbury story, particularly her mention of the masterful way Bradbury builds tension and dread, instantly brought to mind my own favorite example of Bradbury’s atmosphere / dread-building abilities: “The Whole Town’s Sleeping.”

The story is, honestly, kind of plotless: young woman and friends find dead body, hear about a serial killer, go to the movies, then young woman walks home alone. In terms of “what actually happens,” that’s really what it boils down to. There aren’t aliens or ghosts or monsters or even an on-screen appearance of this rumored serial killer.

And it scared the living hell out of me.

Part of this is Bradbury playing with my expectations. He put the gun on the table, as it were, when he showed me a body and mentioned a killer. I was waiting for it to go off.

But beyond that, or perhaps intertwined with it, Bradbury slowly indoctrinates me with the creeping paranoia building in his POV character (Lavinia). I’m sure Lavinia is safe at first. After all, this is just the beginning. I laugh off the false threats as she encounters them, because, well, I knew those were coming, surely?

Then, of course, I’ve bought in. Because my responses echo Lavinia’s, I’ve become sympathetic even without realizing it. And so as her paranoia builds, so does mine.

As the story builds, I’m not just waiting for something to happen. I’m actively dreading it. Honestly, the last third or so of this story is me as a reader doing the equivalent of the “turn around he’s right behind you!” flailing that you do watching a thriller movie.

Except I can’t see anyone behind Lavinia any better than she can. Everything is built with atmosphere and dread and expectation, and every damn step that young woman takes on the way home is worse than the last for all that nothing goes wrong and nothing goes wrong and…

I literally flinched and sucked in a frightened breath at the end of the story. I had to put the book down (I read this one in Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales). And turn on all the lights in the apartment. And put a comedy on the television.

Possess the Original

Spoilers for The Originals are likely to follow. Warning done.

In general, I’ve tended to find The Vampire Diaries spin-off show The Originals more interesting than its parent. I think the pull of the latter comes in part with the way the writers seem to play with moral ambiguity in more interesting ways. A fair amount of that is the fact the titular original vampires are often and repeatedly painted as Not Good People. And unlike in TVD, they generally aren’t seeking redemption. The Mikaelson clan are callow and selfish and back-stabby. That last quite literally, though they’re often as happy to stab you in the front if it’s more convenient.

The original vampires are, then, protagonists rather than heroes. The nature of series television, of course, means that casting them in that central position required some level of softening from the soulless lot they first appeared as in TVD. Largely, this takes place in the extended familial interactions: sibling rivalry and the burdens of unplanned parenthood and long lost relatives with which they have … unpleasant pasts.

A significant frustration is that, though set in New Orleans, the show’s first season wasn’t what I’d call especially diverse. The Mikaelsons are all white. Most of the added supporting cast, as well. The first arc’s adversary (Charles Michael Davis’s Marcel) was one of the few POC in the cast. I can’t say he reformed, because I’m not sure anyone does that on The Originals, but he has moved his way onto the protagonist side of the equation, insofar as anyone can really be certain of an allegiance in a show built around betrayal by those you most trust.

Another adversary was a body jumping witch, who was — both in her first life and in the body she inhabited in the 21st century — a woman of color. There’s an argument to be made that it’s also problematic the percentage of POC characters who fall on the antagonist side of the equation. I go back and forth about it, because the show makes it pretty clear that most of the people who want to hurt the Mikaelsons have entirely valid reasons for doing so. The originals are horrible people who’ve earned a fair share of the ire directed toward tehm. Which is likely to happen when you’re centuries-old bloodsucking murderers.

And given how often the Mikaelsons are plotting against each other, it’s often difficult to decide who the hell’s in the right. Usually no one. I mean, the number of times the siblings have imprisoned, tortured, or tried to murder one another, and then justified it with speeches about loyalty and betrayal that don’t really makes sense but obviously feel right to them … yeah.

Still, even if they’re all Not Good People, season one had a woeful dearth of color given the setting.

The second season has made a little progress to fixing that, though the storyline behind that is as murky in how it makes me feel as the title characters themselves. You see, while there are more black actors working on the show, they’re almost all playing white characters.

Bear with me. I’ll explain

This season, Esther Mikaelson, the mother of the original vampires, returns from the dead, and brings back deceased Mikaelson siblings Kol and Finn with her. The returned Esther’s originally played by white Natalie Dreyfuss, Finn by black actor Yusuf Gatewood. After a few episodes, Esther’s spirit slips into that of a different witch, and she’s thereafter played by black actress Sonja Sohn.

Esther, it seems, has a plan to remove the taint of vampirism from her children. She wants them to stop being the murderous animals they have been, to move all of their souls into new, human bodies and thus grant them a chance to live honest, human lives. She even takes steps to try to give them recognizable vessels, preparing human ally Cami (Leah Pipes) to receive the soul of daughter Rebekah.

It’s at this point that the narrative finally pauses long enough to point out what’s been obvious for some time: Esther’s magic hasn’t fashioned new bodily shells for herself and her children; they’re possessing bodies which belong to living souls. Though she doesn’t wind up in Cami, Rebakah does — through the twisting nature of plots and traps and double-crosses the show so enjoys — wind up in a new body. That of black actress Maisie Richardson-Sellers.

Surely by now you’re sensing the pattern.

I find the potential of this pattern incredibly intriguing. I mean, for all that Esther keeps saying she’s trying to save her family, for all that she denounces the evil of her children’s monstrous existence, she’s effectively trying to rescue them from being predators by making them into parasites. She’s giving them a second chance by taking away several others’ first one.

And nearly all the folks whose lives are being stolen by these white Europeans are black.

It’s just downright fraught with prickly, twisty dynamics. Especially when you consider that Marcel explicitly comes from a background as a slave. He lived his early life possessed by a person, though not in the mystical sense. Even after he was ostensibly freed by Klaus (Joseph Morgan), he wound up a recurring pawn, fought over by the vampire family, each of whom has variously wanted him for him or herself, as a sibling or child or lover or whatever, but almost never as an equal. Marcel has been bandied about as “belonging” to one or more Mikaelson for a significant portion of his life and later undeath.

There is, too, the choice to have Yusuf Gatewood continue to play Finn when, in a recent episode, the minds / souls of the Mikaelsons are all gathered in a magical holding area outside of their bodies. That Kol is played in that sequence by Daniel Sharman (the current “host body” for Kol and not the character’s original actor) suggests this is probably only a logistical expedient, but I couldn’t help myself wondering if it might suggest that long-term possession impacts the sense of self, and then wondering in what ways.

The frustration of it all is, however, that other than that brief period wherein white Cami is at risk, no one seems to be commenting on what all this possession means to the possessed. Indeed, in the most recent episode, the only person anyone’s morning as one of the possessing Mikaelsons dies is that of the possessing soul, and not the young man whose life was co-opted by him. Even more noteworthy: though there’s been much hand-wringing about how to get Rebekah back into her original body, the same scenes of a dying brother lead to Rebekah’s promise to stay in her (black) witch body until she can manage the magic to bring Kol back.

As I said in the beginning, this isn’t an especially new turn of events for these characters. They’ve perpetually only cared about their own well being, and marginally the well-being of those mortals with whom they happen to be fond at the moment. That the Mikaelsons don’t think twice about what their choices mean to the humans they force themselves on is a pretty consistent narrative of the show.

But it’s not just them. No one is commenting. Not Davina (Danielle Campbell), who still wants Klaus dead for his callus treatment of her loved ones. Not Marcel, whose previously-mentioned background might suggest he notice this kind of thing. Not even Cami, who is not only known for pointing out just how completely messed up all these supernatural characters’ moral compasses are, but who was actually in danger of being possessed. If anyone might sympathize with the suppressed person in these bodies, it should be her.

I suppose I can take this as indication that the Mikaelsons’ philosophy is seeping into all those with whom they associate. It wouldn’t be the first time. Stay around these people long enough, and you seem to develop a taste for blood whether you’re a vampire or not. I have a hard time believing that’s not the intention, though. And it’s just frustrating to see what feels like such an intriguing subplot languish un-commented on.

A Tale of “Tall”

I did threaten to go on at greater length about my story in the Twice Upon A Time: Fairytale, Folklore, & Myth. Reimagined & Remastered anthology. I do like to carry through on threats:

As is probably obvious from its title, “Tall” sprang from my interest in American tall tales. In the beginning, that’s all I knew I wanted to work with. I thought there was something intriguing about these wildly fantastic stories told in a very colloquial voice. It gave the miraculous an everyday quality, which in turn had me wondering just what it might be like if the hyperbolic reality of tall tales really was everyday.

Since I had no further notions than that, at first I just started collecting. I wanted to see what kinds of patterns emerged. It didn’t take long to start noticing them. There were, for example, a lot of larger than life stories about people who were literally larger than life. Not only Paul Bunyan, but Joe Magarac, Old Stormalong, even John Henry in some versions of that story, were giants: men larger, stronger, and tougher than their fellows.

Speaking of John Henry, though, what I didn’t notice a lot of were women or people of color. And when I did find them, they didn’t tend to fare nearly as well as their Caucasian counterparts. John Henry, after all, dies on the heels of his own success. The only Native American character showing up in these sorts of stories, Sam Hide, was literally only noteworthy to the storytellers for being a drunk and a liar.

I knew at that point I wanted to foreground both women and POC in the story itself. That they were largely invisible in these tales — and poorly treated by them when they did show up — was exactly why I thought I should be telling this story from their point of view.

One of the abuses I found most outrageous was the tale of Pecos Bill’s true love, Slue Foot Sue. A miraculously-talented wrangler in her own right, Sue winds up bouncing non-stop from her overgrown hoop skirts after having the audacity to think she (who managed to wrangle a giant catfish, let’s remember) might ride Bill’s horse. There are vaguely sanitized versions where Sue lives but gives up on all this cowboy stuff after Bill finally rescues her, but the version that lodged in my mind and wouldn’t let go involves Bill having to kill his love for her own good.

We’ll let that one sink in a minute. Seriously, Pecos Bill, to end the suffering of that foolish woman he decided to marry, put her down like a lame horse.

I absolutely had to take that story on directly.

Elsie seemed like the perfect point of view character to face the inherent problems with the source material. She’s a Native American girl who was culturally “overwritten” by these over the top, Caucasian narratives. In a world where giants trample along, and men pretty literally bend the world to their will, hers is the story of the ways in which someone might try to survive such a world and, maybe, re-write that overblown primary narrative. There’s power to be found in those places where the men aren’t looking. Between the trenches dug by sad giants and the deserts born of men’s pride and hubris, were other options, other people, who had powerful stories to tell.

How to Get Away with Murder (and Gay Sex)

Now that Comcast has gotten their recent nonsense resolved and on demand shows are updating in my area again, I had a chance to try out How to Get Away with Murder, the new Viola Davis vehicle.

I could probably say a lot about different aspects of the show, but four episodes in, the thing that’s really struck a chord with me is the way the show has handled homosexuality, on a couple of different levels. Apparently, I’m far from the only person to take notice, though not all of those others have responded positively.

Here’s the thing: I feel like I’ve seen a fair amount of similarly-racy stuff in shows featuring heterosexual couplings, so if all that seemed to be happening was that How to Get Away with Murder added just as much of a gay variant, I’m not sure it would be nearly as worth commenting on.

That’s not what’s happened, however. Four episodes in, three of the four explicit (for network TV) sex scenes have featured series regular Connor Walsh’s (Jack Falahee) homosexual encounters (I’ll get to the fourth later). This is not to say that The Gay Guy is the only one having naughty time. It’s both obvious and explicit that the majority of the regular characters for this show have active libidos that they aren’t shy about satisfying. We just haven’t seen much of that onscreen.

You can see the contrast just from the pilot. Connor hooks up with a guy from a bar, and the show jumps straight to a mostly-naked, pumping-music-underscored, fully-lit sequence where there is no way not to see what’s going on. Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) is similarly in the middle of sexy time later in the episode, but this time we enter the scene in the dark, with barely lit silhouettes and low voices. It takes a second to realize that, yup, that sure is cunnilingus. And just when that’s totally clear, it’s also over.

I don’t think the Annalise scene is any less titillating insofar as these things go, mind you. It is, however, slightly less explicit. Watching the Connor scene goes something like Woah! Okay, that is sex. The Annalise scene is on the order of Wait, is she? Are they? Woah! Okay, that is sex. It gets to the same place; the latter just asks you to connect a few more dots.

Like I said, this level of in-your-face with gay sex isn’t entirely new, but it is one of the first times I can think of where the majority of steamy sex stuff originates in a gay cast member who isn’t (1) the central focus of the show or (2) part of a large ensemble primarily populated by other gay characters.

The show is a solid ensemble piece. But, like I said before, it’s built as a Viola Davis vehicle. The lead character by just about any measure is Davis’s Annalise Keating. Even among the law students she’s chosen to help her at her firm, Wes Gibbins (Alfred Enoch) has been positioned far more solidly as both the audience proxy and the person around whom the multi-episode murder subplot seems to pivot.

The sexually aggressive member of an ensemble drama isn’t really new. It’s a fairly stock element in this kind of story, really. That the writers chose to make that character someone with a sexuality different from the rest of the cast’s, though, is incredibly intriguing to me. Most of the time, when there’s a sole homosexual player in your main lineup, that’s the character whose sexuality happens to the side. Boyfriends and dates get mentioned, and maybe you catch a shaded view of something here or there, but when it comes time for the steamy show to go steamy, one of your straight characters takes up that challenge.

By and large, How to Get Away with Murder has gone the opposite direction. Annalise’s scene is one example. Laurel Castillo’s (Karla Souza) indiscretions have been alluded to but not yet shown. And thus far, the relationship building for Wes Gibbins is relatively chaste (if still slightly troubling).

Of the primary characters, in fact, the only other who has something approaching the kind of out-of-the-shadows sex Connor shows off for the camera is Michaela Pratt (Aja Naomi King). It takes until the third episode for that scene to happen. And even then, I suspect this has less to do with making Michaela competition for the Sexy Character as it does with yet another intriguing angle the show takes on sexuality.

While I’m talking around things with a lot of the stuff above, this next bit pretty definitely constitutes spoilers, so look away if you’ve not seen episode three. It was two weeks ago, but I hate to be That Guy.

All right, so the third episode of the show opens with Michaela having sexy time with her fiancée, Aiden Walker (Elliot Knight). While at first this seems like the show finally having some equal time, I suspect this scene, and others where it’s made clear Aiden and Michaela have an active sexual relationship, are there to help resolve the questions and tensions that arise when Connor reveals that he and Aiden fooled around back in boarding school.

I’m intrigued with what I hope the storyline with Michaela’s fiancée implies, since, like the inversion of sexual depiction I talked about before, I don’t remember seeing much of this: male sexual experimentation. The dominant narrative is that, while women may have lesbian dalliances as part of a sexually adventurous phase, they can still be essentially straight. Men, on the other hand, are told through just about every narrative channel that same-sex of any sort effectively makes them a closet case if they wind up deciding it’s just not for them afterwards.

While there’s a lot of yelling and crying, by the end of the episode, Aiden assures Michaela that he is not, in fact, gay. And unlike most stories of this stripe, I think the show is actually pushing viewers pretty heavily to believe him. In addition to the above-mentioned sex / groping scenes (which seem built to make it clear that Aiden is very much into Michaela), Connor himself tells Michaela that he “basically hooked up with all the hot guys at school.” He doesn’t say “all the hot gay guys,” or “all the hot guys were gay.” The implication is that Connor doesn’t even think Aiden’s gay, but that Connor himself is just especially skilled at convincing people to Give Gay a Try.

That Annalise seems to think an essential lawyer skill is the ability to convince people of what you want them to believe (even if it’s patently false) in order to forward your own agenda, this whole subplot seems like more of an extension of that particular theme than any kind of implication that Aiden is gay, or even a condemnation of Connor as predatory gay.

There’s a lot of stuff at play in the series four episodes in. Some of it certainly works better than others. I definitely have to say, though, that for a show with a straight lead character and a large heterosexual ensemble, I’ve been thus far really enthralled with how it’s positioned Connor1 and his sexual proclivities.

1. 1200 words on explicit sexual depictions. Surely you can forgive me one double entendre?