Friday, June 21, 2019


(This is a modest rewrite of the Afterword to a new, quickly written novel. Some spoilers ahead.)

THE OPPOSITE OF BREATHING has a relatively simple beginning.

I'm a fiction writer before I am a blogger, and appreciating the taste of Adrenalin, I often focus on timely political issues or long-term conundrums. You know, those topical subjects that jerk up the blood pressure, letting me write angry, semi-rational letters to the editor.

Unfortunately I don’t wake up angry, and I don’t relish pushing myself into that state.

Playing with stories. That’s what I enjoy.

I’ve been actively stockpiling unwritten blogs about my usual obsessions. Greenland is melting. Our leadership and economics are corrupt. Pakistan is a nuclear warehouse that will eventually misplace its keys. The human brain is not large enough or wise enough to conquer this century’s enormous challenges. Of course Trump plays a role in my musings, but he hasn’t been as generous with the gloom as you might assume. 9/11 and Iraq and the meltdown of ‘07 and the endless rush to burn oil and coal. Those troubles predate one inept salesman’s sudden rise to a status of relatively modest power.

One of my recent stories tapped into this nightmarish fun. Published by Gordon van Gelder in WELCOME TO DYSTOPIA, “Suffocation” offered a pathway to a much larger work. Maybe a new novel. But I didn’t know how much effort that would entail, or when it would happen, or if I'd prove strong enough to march through to the end.

THE OPPOSITE OF BREATHING began in a single day. I found myself writing a scene or two, one sexless voice talking to an undefined prisoner about the grim past as well as the unknowable future. And with that, all of my plans for future columns were forgotten.

An episodic mode seemed right. Another little chapter written every day, with the goal of a short novel to be published as a purely Kindle work.

Needing a title, I considered reusing “Suffocation.” But that single word felt too scant and too obvious. And too easily lost in a word search on Amazon. No, I decided to give the reader a bit of a puzzle. “The opposite of breathing is … oh, yeah! I understand now.”

With a suitable name and opening chapters on file, I let J give a fantastic grim and occasionally dark-funny account about rough justice and intricate schemes.

“Suffocation” and THE OPPOSITE OF BREATHING share one SF notion: Our CO2-enriched atmosphere impacts our cognitive skills, and not for the better.

Other chapters were already vivid inside me. J buying a stranger’s shirt, and J lecturing to the well-educated, unabashedly racist uncle, and the image of nuclear winter and cooking human limbs in a well-built fireplace. Those are three blogs that I’ll never write, all devised while enduring uncomfortable family functions. And the mules in the mountains? Born from an article read years ago -- a deliciously researched essay on the nature of uranium and its vibrant daughters. (“How to Get a Nuclear Bomb” from THE ATLANTIC, Dec 1 2006.)

But much of what happens in BREATHING, particularly in the later chapters, stood apart from my first intentions and various plans. The clever narrator was in charge. I was just another reader, and this transgender predator was manipulating the world and me, striving for a solution that I didn’t appreciate until the final couple weeks.

The transgender nature … I’m uneasy about this element.

I don’t doubt that J is a legitimate invention. Indeed, J, the purely fictional character, seems well-suited for our time. And I’m not going to worry about my protagonist reflecting badly on the LGBTQ community. There is no reflection if very few people purchase this book, which is one of the powers of obscurity. And frankly, even if millions were to read THE OPPOSITE OF BREATHING, I can think of no group or cause more plainly deserving of an effective Angel of Death.

No, my discomfort centers on two areas.

First, there’s the urge to clearly define categories here, and I don’t want that to happen. If you read it, you will notice that I never describe my narrator, not in strict terms. What I assume is that J was born male, with the skeleton and muscles of a football linebacker. And likewise, I can envision some kind of mixed-race parentage leaving her blessed with beauty and shoulder-length black hair. But is there a J who actually exists anywhere in our world? Someone with this peculiar set of skills and fearlessness? I doubt it. And while she might occupy one point in the continuum of the single human gender, it’s important to remember that this character, this invention, is someone who can and will gladly take whatever form is necessary to serve the mission.

In other words, don’t get carried away about J’s dress or sexual capacities. Since both can be changed at will.

And my second discomfort?

The unavoidable problem that I am the author. An old white heterosexual. And what the fuck does R know about this subject?

I confess. I’m not an expert in these intriguing matters and never will be.

But lacking expertise isn’t the same as lacking experience. For example, I have a niece who used to be a nephew -- an event that has caused ugly wounds inside the extended family. And my daughter has several friends who aren’t happy with their legal gender -- a situation that seems perfectly natural to her.

At this point, let me offer a passing notion:

In dire times like these, with all the hatred and fear, one way to help the world would be to compel every adult to sit down at a desk, Chromebook at the ready, and write stories about someone like J. Someone who has no great investment in any specific gender. Put yourself in the other person’s skin for 40,000 words, and I guarantee, your perspective will change.

This has been an enlightening exercise for me.

In the end, this book was written quickly, several chapters to the day, and there wasn’t much pain to the process. The plot fell together for me. There weren’t any stumbling blocks over twists or characters, and each draft got to build directly on every version that came before.

Forty years of writing, and I trusted my instincts to find elegant routes to a satisfactory conclusion.

Though others, being others, might decide otherwise.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Pace Quickens

Last year, for a host of reasons, I began chucking my old stories up on Kindle.

Among my goals:

To make old/impossible-to-find stories available again
The obsessive need to massage sentences and clarify ideas
To stand on the brink of a thirty-year career, assessing accomplishments and failures
And the potential influx of cash (the eternal optimism of the writer)

What was supposed to be a steady, deeply responsible pace soon turned into a life-consuming industrial operation involve a fat percentage of my neurons and an increasingly stiff pointing finger. Sixty-nine stories were offered for sale. Which would be a perfectly fine life's output for many authors. But that's only a little more than one-fifth of my total output, and there's several million words still waiting to know the universe as a mobi file.

With the beginning of 2019, I fell into a once-every-Saturday routine. My priorities included better known titles and items that I felt needed a second or third chance. Also, there was advice given by those old gods, Whim and Caprice. But 52 stories every year leads to intriguing troubles. If I wrote and sold just 10 stories every year -- an average output for me -- then 2019 would put me only 42 ahead in this undertaking. And undertaking is a useful world. I'm more than sixty years-old. Fine and fit, but two people who I know well have been in significant accidents in the last year. My wife, who got smacked by a Red Cross Bloodmobile. (And survived, yes.) And an old running buddy who got smacked by a tree limb during a snow storm. (And survived, with a new hip.) Anyway, I got panicky and decided to move faster with my publishing. Once a day and for several weeks, and that's why there was a big surge on Reed's Author Page.

And now, another pause has taken hold.

I have a new plan. My original priority was to put up my Great Ship stories along with a few classics/favorites. I did them as individuals because:

It was easier to handle single titles
I was borrowing the iTunes model of monetizing individual songs
My prices weren't excessively high. .99 cents for a short, 1.99 for a novelette, and 2.99 for each of my novellas -- which are often my strongest works

But now I've reached the point where many of the best standalone titles are already available. With a few exceptions, we're getting deep in the long grass. Some of what remains are adequate professional efforts, and many are very brief. There are also some strong beasts that passed unnoticed when first published, often because they were in obscure markets or focused on difficult themes.

Now what I've decided -- but not accomplished yet -- is to put out volumes with a dozen stories each. For a bit more money, maybe 3.99 US dollars. And then we'll see if that kind of offering leads to increased sales from the individual titles.

At least this is my general thinking in mid-April 2019.

I have some streets to cross before I make up my mind.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Who to blame? Facebook!

We live in the Age of Facebook, and might well die together because that platform's strengths as well as its numerous weaknesses leave us vulnerable to every sort of blunder.

For years now, most of the older souls around me have been posting and checking posts daily. I have read and read again that 70 percent of us get the bulk of our news from that rapacious, easily manipulated social media platform. Is that an accurate figure? I doubt it, if only because not every American belongs to Mark Z's empire of code and compulsion. (I've never signed up, though I understand that my data has been harvested from every member's postings, and such.) Yet I have seen enough nonsense from both sides of the political terrain to shiver in terror. Today's ignorance about issues and reality? That always existed, yes, but it was dampened down during the Age of Cronkite. During the Age of Lucid Republicans. During the Age of the Clear Soviet Threat.

Over the weekend, I rewatched THE SOCIAL NETWORK. And I have two takeaways.

One: As so often happens in film, children are played by actors who are a few years older than their namesakes. Jesse Eisenberg was 26 or 27 when he pretended to be Mark Zuckerberg. Who was just a sophomore in college. I'm not going to argue that 26 year-old men are sages dripping wisdom, but there is maturity there that you just don't expect to find in a 19 year-old kid. And the 19 year-old is a kid, regardless of his IQ or the Harvard backdrop. This is not to say that the fictional Mark doesn't act like an impulsive boy. But imagine every scene with a different actor. A younger, less graceful child who might one day grow up to be Jesse Eisenberg. But isn't there yet.

And Two: I do like the movie, reservations aside. And this second watching gave me a small revelation. Suppose Mark Zuckerberg doesn't care that much about money. It's his cleverness that matters, and the reach of his cleverness.

Let's take that as the truth.

A businessman who doesn't recognize the value of his billions presents his own kind of danger. Because he will be surrounded by powers that do love money, who see it in the world and will find a multitude of ways to catch it in their nets, and very few of those powers are going to give a rat's ass about any company's moral bearings.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Observations from a Star Trek sometimes-fan

There was a day when the Reed household paid extortion fees to Time-Warner cable. But our new Samsung television -- a 40 inch monster -- supplied hi-def video only while watching blu-rays. Save for one or two local channels, which came in bright and strong. Yet still not quite hi-def, since you could see the algorithms making the grass simple, and every fast motion became a blur.

Now this was a perfectly normal situation, the cable guys claimed. Hi-def everywhere needed the best equipment, and we had to pay for the best. And oh, that included a new cable line strung underneath the backyard. So I said, "Gosh, we'll sure talk this over," and then my wife cancelled the service completely. (We have DSL, not cable, for the Internet.) After that, I put up the first of a series of antennae that now, after a ridiculously long learning curve, feeds 29 crisp channels into the same machine. But that TV clings to the wall in the basement bedroom, since that's the shorter run from the antenna inside the garage. Questions about signal strength and splitters means that the newer 55 inch behemoth doesn't get a reliable signal. It did for a long while, but something has degraded since then. Raccoons. That's what I'm blaming. Raccoons in our crawlspaces, causing raccoon troubles.

My point is that our entertainment center is Internet/digital-file/DVD only. Which is quite spectacular most evenings. But there was some talk about watching the Superbowl from the couch, not from the bed. So because I was going to do this eventually, I punched a few numbers into the new Chromebox, and 10 seconds later, we were able to watch our local CBS feed. As well as THE GOOD FIGHT. And because I was professionally curious, I immersed myself in STAR TREK DISCOVERY. From the first episode, one after the next.

Writing this, I'm two or three episodes behind the latest. Plus I need to see all those tiny episodes that I have been told are quite interesting.

In general, I'm happy with the product. I'm not NEXT GENERATION minus-Wesley happy. And I certainly can imagine strategies for improvement. The blunt obvious can't-leave-my-brain-alone trouble is the "science" of the show. It feels like the outgrowth ... no, I won't say hallucinogenic mushrooms. Too easy, too wrong. Trippy fungus would make for a dreamier, avant-garde work, and that might prove fascinating in its own right. No, DISCOVERY feels as if it sprouts from a couple semesters of college biology and a few Nova specials about space. I just don't believe that anyone connected to the show is in control of this universe. Meetings are held, writers spitball, suits from CBS give their opinions, and the next thing you know, you can neutralize the Klingon Empire with a gizmo. With a card trick. And that is sloppy and dumb, wounding me clear to my rational core.

And yet. DISCOVERY has this talent for ending episodes with plot flourishes that make me wish that I had written them.

Argue about the merits of a certain villain, but that one revelation late in the first season ... well, I found myself giggling with murderous delight.

Of course I know almost nothing about the show itself. Except that its gestation sounds as troubled as a Klingon and human mating on Vega. Or in Vegas. People were hired, were fired. Two producers died in transporter failures, or so I hear.

I have a nephew who tells me that much of the first season was stolen from a "flash game" from more than a decade ago. And stolen means scene for scene, in some cases. He claims that a lawsuit is underway, and while I'm usually on the side of poor little fan boys, I have to wonder about the legal underpinnings. (I just watched the second season of THE GOOD FIGHT, after all. The Law is good.) These little twerps used someone else's universe, and that universe took back what always belonged to it. In the same manner, if fans of mine stole the Great Ship and did something intriguing, and if I decided to employ their work in my own efforts, who would be injured? I don't just give away my property. They took it and did interesting work. Oh, and here's a gift card for Blockbuster. In thanks.

I'll have more to offer later. Particularly about the acting, which is the strongest feature of this series. I'll do that after this season ends, perhaps. But at this point, I'll argue that this STAR TREK is nine-and-a-half times better than the shabby J.J. Abrams movie-reboot efforts. Each of which had a talent for taking one inspired notion, then hitting it with an ax and burying the corpse in a shallow grave beside someone's old cable line.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Bran is coming

Two quick notes on the subject of death.

I've seen the new tease for Game of Thrones. Three Stark children go into the tombs together and confront their own mortality. But I seem to recall a fourth kid who is still alive. Bran. He's a Stark and he should be with him. And he is. That's Bran marching down the hallway behind them. As the Night King, judging by the telltale signs.

Also, I just republished one of my favorite stories. "Murder Born," on Kindle. The novella is about a near-future world where executing murderers brings their victims back to life. And the tragedies that come when you can't be certain who killed who, and why.

"The background is bright unfocused green. Sunshine pours from overhead, from God. The subject wears a nun’s habit, the white coif clean and bright against the pretty African face. Her sober, downcast expression conveys what might be deep spirituality, or it might be shyness brought on by the camera, but it could well be one of those innocent looks that mean nothing. Whatever the truth, the watchful eye is obliged to follow her gaze. The nun is shoeless. Bare black feet stand on red dirt. Several machetes and one stubby ax are scattered across the jungle floor -- tired old tools with nicked edges and rope-covered handles. But the blades have been cleaned until they glow, not a fleck of rust or dust or blood anywhere on their murderous bodies. And the left foot is up on its toes, trying not to be cut for what would be the first time."

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Abandoning the Doctor

For me, Doctor Who began as a chance occurrence. Working out on an elliptical machine, at the YMCA, I'd search the cable channels for something to watch. Since I normally avoided television in the day, this was a minor adventure, and luck had it that BBC America was available. The reboot of Doctor Who was showing, and this wasn't the guy with the scarf. No, I was watching David Tennant and Freema Agyeman, their odd adventures punctuated with moments of genuine SF wonder.

Jump forward a little bit in time. I found the show streaming on Netflix. At least I think it was Netflix. And I decided to show my favorite episode to my daughter, who was still a single-digit age. We streamed it on my computer, a gigantic Dell Inspiron with what might be the worst screen ever designed by human beings. We sat together on the sofa, the machine in my lap, and if both of us could make out the picture, then neither of us saw it clearly. But that's how we enjoyed "Blink" together, and for years after that, we were hooked.

My daughter lost the faith first. David Tennant and the early Matt Smith were fine, but she was becoming impatient. Parts of some episodes were enjoyable, but everything else was too silly, or dull. Or worst of all, predictable. I never got a clear explanation. But I kept investing in the new seasons, including Peter Capaldi. Including "Heaven Sent," which is one of my favorite SF film dramas. Ever. Just a wonder of a thought problem carried to its logical, massive end.

At this point, I want to say that I have zero troubles with Jody Whittaker. I loved her work in Broadchurch, particularly in the first season. And the actor more than meets my ideas of the Doctor when it comes to energy and inhabiting the center of the screen. But the storytelling has been a letdown. I've seen exactly four episodes, and they feel like promising second drafts produced by young writers. "Rosa" was fine. Was the best. But I would have felt like tweaking events or remaking the story ... I don't know, make it smaller maybe. For instance, a couple of the Companions could have been separated from the Doctor, and finding themselves lost in the Deep South, they would have witnessed and perhaps helped a woman essential to everything else that has happened and has not happened in these Disunited States.

One big problem with the new season: For me, the science isn't clumsy, clunky fun anymore. It's just lousy. The series requires millions of dollars, but nobody seems to be looking at the minimal standards of logic. For instance, in "The Ghost Machine," we have acetylene gas used as a gimmick. Lighter than air. That's what some writer must have learned from Wikipedia. And so it floats above our heroes, and they set it afire with a cigar that has been carried throughout the hour for no other purpose. Boom. Enemies dead. Though I suspect that anyone with experience in welding or explosives would find that scene ridiculous. Our cigar-wielding heroes should have been incinerated in the flash.

Speaking of convenient plot ploys: The New Year's story has an oven carried about in a clumsy cardboard box. Why? I convinced my daughter to watch the story with me, and turning to her, I predicted, "That oven is going to save the world." Sure enough, that's what the clumsy box did.

Certain people would say, "Oh, but it's just a story and you have to suspend your disbelief."

And I would scream at them, "That's why we have the president that we have today. Everybody from the top to the bottom keeps suspending their disbelief, ignoring the obvious, and if we survive this next week and the next two years ... "

Well, that's another bunch of posts.

My point is that I'm pretty much done buying Doctor Who. If the next season shows up free somewhere, I'll try it. Maybe. But if I want to ride the Tardis, I'll watch "Blink" again.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Oumuamua and "Decency"

Light sails.

My first Hugo nominated story was focused on light sails. (Pun halfway intended.)

And now, a quarter of a century later, genuine science has supplied a smaller scale, protagonist free, and far more believable scenario than the grand, world-shaking events that I dreamed up.

If I was setting the odds, I'd give Oumuamua a one-in-five chance of being artificial. But that number, clinical as it pretends to be, has been twisted by my own biases towards alien contact, as well as a fondness for one-in-five guesses. (A 20 percent chance? Well, you're not predicting that it can actually come true. And if it doesn't happen, nobody should chide you for being wrong either.)

But imagine that Oumuamua is alien.

A 60 meter light sail, disk shaped and tumbling, and ancient, and dead.

Its very presence is amazing. That's because we shouldn't be able to see it. Because space is huge. Hollywood and most everyone else envisions space as being a big, big ocean. That's why space battles in movies look like ships at sea, with fighters thrown in for speed. But the reality is that every distance is enormous, and light is stubbornly slow. Make estimates about life in the cosmos and the rise of alien intelligence, and you don't expect to look at the sky and see this kind of object so quickly. But that's what happened. A new telescope opened its eye and almost immediately spotted an object of these dimensions -- a question mark that passed within 15 million miles of the earth, that approached the sun closer than Mercury does. That implies that if we keep watching, bringing newer telescopes into play, we will soon be seeing a host of objects like Oumuamua.

So is that what will happen?

Ten years from now, will we have named dozens or hundreds of oddities, each of which is silently passing inside the orbit of Neptune?

That sort of alien detritus implies that many ancient objects will have hit the earth, and I would think that even at these fantastic velocities, there would be physical remnants of odd materials, high-technology fossils waiting in ocean sediments and in the limestone blocks inside your garden wall.

And of course if that's proven true, then the next great question is:

Where did all of these aliens go?

The central question for humanity. Now, and always.