Monthly Archives: January 2013

Notes on “Undercity”

While I don’t remember when, exactly, I first conceived of the idea for the tale that would eventually become Undercity, I do remember the thought process more or less exactly.

I was driving in my car towards my house (I suppose that dates the memory to mid-to-late 2009, actually) sitting at a stoplight. For whatever reason, I was thinking about Twlight, about how vampires and werewolves had saturated the public consciousness and how a few years earlier, Lord of the Rings had legitimized elves and dwarves for mass-consumption. What, then, was left? What would be the perfect type of sci-fi or fantasy character to write about, one that would resonate with audiences of all kinds instead of having just niche appeal?

Robots.

No, not robots. That’s stupid.

Cyborgs.

Yes, there! Much better!

The idea went undeveloped beyond the barest concept: exceptional female protagonist, cyborg male protagonist, conspiracies, love triangle, etc. In fact, it would be almost another year before I touched it again.

In Spring of 2010, I was taking a class on long-form fiction at St. Mary’s College of California when we were challenged to write the first chapter of a novel utilizing the techniques we’d been discussing in class. At this point, I’d never attempted anything longer than a twenty or thirty page short story. I didn’t think that I had the patience for a novel. But hey, an assignment is an assignment, and danged if that didn’t seem like the time to get cracking on my novel about a futuristic love story between a human woman and a cyborg man.

Of course, I hadn’t fleshed it out beyond that basic premise, and it turns out that if you put me in a room full of other writers and tell me to get cracking on a novel, I turn into Frank Miller. The cyborg became an assassin, and the woman became a young prostitute with a heart of gold. I wrote what was required of me for the class, and then once again put the novel on the backburner.

2010 came and went and I didn’t touch the novel. 2011 brought my graduation from St. Mary’s, and with it slavish devotion to my thesis project, so the novel got no attention that year, either. What did happen, however, is that a few things occurred which would heavily influence the novel once I finally sat down to write the damn thing in 2012. The first is the Occupy movement.

In November of 2011, I was painfully unemployed, and had been for several months. Due to my status as a freelance bum, I was able to take BART from my home at the southern end of the route up to Berkeley for a coffee date with a wonderful girl I’d met at a Halloween party. She was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and we weren’t able to spend more than a few hours together before she had to get back to class. With nothing else to do, I hopped back on BART and rode it south. Rather than go all the way to the station nearest my house, however, I decided to stop in Oakland and check out what was going on with the Occupy movement. Through sheer dumb luck, I happened to run into a few friends from the MFA program, and the next thing I know, five hours have passed and I’m part of a mob 7,000 strong (or 20,000 or 30,000, depending on who you ask) that’s swarming the Port of Oakland. Setting aside personal politics, simply being part of that crowd was enough to bring the issue of class in America to the forefront of my mind. I was unemployed, I was young, I was angry, and I wanted to do something about it. But I also wanted a job and a ton of money and a life of comfort. At that moment, either would have been acceptable to me, revolution or becoming part of the system. Funny how that works out, no?

The second thing that happened near the end of 2011 was that I started seriously dating the aforementioned wonderful girl, which set me down the road to finding more work, starting this blog, and being optimistic enough to pull myself out of the gutter I’d opted to lie down in. We talked about anything and everything, including the experience of being a teen, about women in fiction, about good female role models. All of these discussions got filed away in the back of my head to serve as future references. The novel wasn’t in my mind at the time, though.

Flash-forward to August 2012. Two of my friends are I driving to go on a tour at St. George’s Distillery. One of them has been attending graduate school in New York and he mentions that when it comes to penthouses and such in Manhattan, people are required to buy not just the apartment or condo or whatever that they want to live in, but the space in front of and above the windows as well. That way, whoever lives above them can’t just decide they want to extend their home ten feet out and spoil the view of the people below them.

Class warfare? What it’s like to be a disenfranchised teen girl? The wealthy buying the goddamn sky so they’ll have a nice, unbroken view of the world that’s literally beneath them? Suddenly it all clicked. The novel’s still a work in progress, unfortunately, but I’m pleased that it’s finally getting written.

And that it’s no longer about an assassin and a prostitue. Yeesh.


Notes on “Fighting and Winning”

As I’ve already mentioned, I was never really into fantasy growing up. In fact, while I appreciate fantasy much more now, I’m still very much poorly versed in the canon. I’ve never read Lord of the Rings, I’ve yet to read or watch Game of Thrones, I only read the Hobbit because the movie was going to come out, et cetera, et cetera. I read some Conan the Barbarian in December 2010 in preparation for starting the blog, but that’s about the extent of my education on the subject of the pulp fantasy stories. You might ask yourself where, then, does my interest in fantasy come from? I could give you a speech about how the influences of Tolkien are inescapable, and that even though I haven’t read the Lord of the Rings, everyone else is drawing from the same Northern European well as him, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll offer up an answer three words long.

Dungeons and Dragons.

I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons in one form or another since before I entered high school. For those in the know, that would have been right on the verge of 3rd Edition. I played 3.5 more than anything, dabbling a bit in forth and alternative systems like Pathfinder. Through Dungeons and Dragons, I became familiar with the tropes of fantasy and fantasy storytelling, the menagerie of beasts that could be called upon, the spells and systems of magic commonly encountered. I played high fantasy settings, where characters were riding dragons and wielding ancient weapons of unfathomable power. I played low fantasy settings, where my friends and I were little more than a roving band of vigilantes with a little bit of magic to back us up. I’ve played settings inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos, the Greek Gods, the pantheon of Asgard, and even some deities of my friends’ or my own creation. I’ve played in the settings created by others as well as my own. I’ve played other games, other rule systems, but d20 Dungeons and Dragons will always be what I think of when I think of tabletop RPGs.

Dungeons and Dragons is, of course, heavily inspired by the works of Tolkien, but it’s been around for long enough to have developed some of its own idiosyncrasies and to have influenced games and artists in its own right. The world that Tusk the Ork inhabits owes a great deal to a youth spent worshipping at the polyhedral altar of Arneson and Gygax. The character of Tusk, however, owes everything to Warhammer 40,000 (40k, henceforth.)

I was driving in a car with a group of my friends back in April of 2012 (the same group that I’ve been gaming with since no later than my sophomore year of high school, in fact,) when the subject of 40k came up. I hadn’t played a game since high school, but I’d been getting back into it and my roommate and I convinced a few of our friends to give a it a shot. One of them got into Orkz, and Orkz in 40k aren’t too much like Tolkien’s orcs. One of the common, colorful ways of describing them that sums up what they’re all about is this: when Orkz go to war, it’s equal parts crusade and pub crawl. Orkz are the comic relief of the 40k universe, and Orkz in 40k are genetically engineered killing machines designed to be impossible to eradicate and to attack in overwhelming numbers. They go to war for laughs, they fight each other when they’re bored, and their entire culture is predicated on using violence to determine who’s the toughest and the strongest and therefore the most fit to lead. Yeah. Comic relief.

So my friends and I were discussing the Orkz of 40k when out of nowhere I made a big claim that I’d be forced to act on (as is my way.) I wanted to take one of the horrible, brutish creatures of 40k and make it (Orkz are gender neutral in 40k. In fact, they reproduce by dispersing spores) the protagonist of a story. Not comic relief. Not watered down and made to be more accessible. Take a big green monster with sharp fangs and a short temper, a creature driven by vanity and anger, that’s first reaction to the world around it is to solve things with violence, and make it the relatable protagonist of a fantasy story. It couldn’t be sci-fi, obviously. Then I’d just be writing fan-fiction, and I’ve never been one for fan-fiction. But the introduction of character elements from 40k into a world of my own creation that’s giving a wink and a nod to Dungeons and Dragons? Why not?


Notes on “Where There’s More of Reaping and Less of Sowing”

As a child, I had no interest in Westerns. Or in traditional fantasy, for that matter. I was a sci-fi devotee through and through. In retrospect, I’ve always had a few interests and hobbies that would have helped lead me down that particular path: exposure to firearms and their practical uses at an early age, a love for the beauty of nature, a tendency towards being a loner. I remember thinking as far back as high school that I was born in the wrong century, that I would have been happier in the 18th century with a six-shooter in my hand, a horse underneath me, and the open road ahead of me. Given a time machine and one trip (sci-fi devotee, recall,) I didn’t want to see dinosaurs or meet famous folks or use winning lotto numbers to make myself; I wanted to venture back to California before it was settled by Europeans other than the Spaniards.

I suppose that there were two things that happened in college that would help to develop and cement my affection for the genre. First, I was exposed to Western films. Starting with the Man With No Name trilogy, and then branching out into classics like The Searchers, and finally into the modern deconstructions like The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven. Stephen King has said that one of the biggest initial inspirations for the Dark Tower series was seeing Clint Eastwood’s face on a movie screen. In an era where writers were producing Tolkien-inspired fantasy, King saw stubble and grit and cheroots and in them he saw a world as rich and magical as any populated by elves and dwarves. I can’t say I disagree with him.

The second thing was reading Blood Meridian. Holy crap, Blood Meridian.

As a junior in college, I wrote a story called “The Hellequin.” I’m the kind of person that can get lost reading Wikipedia pages, and somehow I came to learn of the hellequin, this bizarre blend of commedia dell’arte stock characters and the Wild Hunt myth, a demon that appeared during thunderstorms to take evil men to Hell. The story I wrote cribbed pretty heavily from Blood Meridian, a fact of which I’m not proud, but I inserted the hellequin into the story as a lone gunslinger kind of character. If you’re familiar with the plot of Blood Merdian, then you know that there’s no shortage of evil actions and evil men fit to be dragged away to Hell.

Years later, the hellequin from my story would become John Quinn. I didn’t want to just rewrite that story, though. I wanted a pulp hero, someone with a background. A well I could draw water from more than once. For a one-off story a mystical avenger is fine, but a recurring character for whom “shoots the bad guys” was the sum total of his personality would run the risk of becoming stale. And besides, I didn’t want a superhero. I wanted a flesh-and-blood man, who would accumulate physical and mental scars as a result of the life he chose to live. So I conceived of a trilogy of stories about the character, an arc spanning the course of three decades. So far, we’ve seen John Quinn as a young man, driven by anger and prone to absolutism and questionable decisions. We’ve seen John Quinn older, jaded by years of hunting the lawless and bringing them to justice (be it his or society’s.) The next story, then, will answer the question of “What is John Quinn like as a middle-aged man?” Heartless? Broken? Driven by mortido? Guess you’ll just have to wait and see.

Finally, a few words on the world that John Quinn inhabits. Attentive readers may have noticed a few hints that these stories aren’t set in the 19th century. There’s references to paved roads, non-functioning technology, and items left behind by an older time. When it came time to pick a setting for the stories about John Quinn, the world of Channa was still fresh in my mind. I imagined that the cataclysm that brought California to ruin in “A Place of Honor” might have had different effects in other parts of the country. In areas where people lived in luxury and were suddenly forced to fend for themselves, things probably fell apart much more quickly than in those places where people had lived more self-sufficient lives, where an ethos of strength and independence was more pronounced. John Quinn, then, inhabits the same America as Channa and her associates. He simply lives in a different time, a different place.


Notes on “A Place of Honor”

The story “A Place of Honor” and its world has two distinct inspirations that I can recall, both dating to my college years.

The first when I learned that the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository existed. For those who don’t know, the YMNWR (as I will be calling it from here on out) is exactly what it sounds like: a big chamber hollowed out beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada, about a hundred miles from Las Vegas and about fifty miles from Area 51, intended to store nuclear waste for a very, very long time. So long, in fact, that it was deemed necessary to leave warnings for future generations about the dangerous material at the site. But the nuclear material would be radioactive for thousands of years to come. How do you leave a message for someone that may not even speak your language or understand your culture?

Different methods were proposed, ranging from the practical to the fantastic. Bury everything in concrete so that it’d be too costly to ever both to excavate. Leave the site completely unmarked so no future explorers would ever have a reason to believe the location had been used for anything. Build giant, eerie monoliths to create a sense of foreboding and unease in any who would wander by (for added effect, construct them of a dark material so they absorb heat and the area is unpleasant even to be in.) Create a non-governmental organization to function like a religion and pass down tales of the dangers of the site through the years. Genetically engineer cats to change color in the presence of massive amounts of radiation (no, I’m serious.)

With just a little bit of research it’s possible to find a treasure trove of information on the subject of YMNWR and similar sites around the country. But the bit that stood out to me was the message that was intended to be conveyed. An actual message was never settled upon, but the committee responsible for figuring out just what the hell to do with YMNWR came up with a general tone they wanted to convey. A few excerpts, for your reading pleasure.

This place is not a place of honor… no

highly esteemed deed is commemorated here

…nothing valued is here.

The danger is still present, in your time, as

it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

The danger is unleashed only if you

substantially disturb this place physically.

This place is best shunned and left uninhabited

I love it. It sends chills down my spine every time. Imagine some future civilization learning that we created some great uncontrollable evil and could do nothing but hope to contain it deep beneath a mountain. That’s a story all in itself. How could I not use that?

The second inspiration for the story came from a challenge a friend of mine in college gave me. I’ve gotten it time and again since then, but college is the first place I remember hearing it. After reading a few of the stories I’d produced at that point, I was asked why I never had female protagonists.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know how to write women and I don’t want to do a bad job of it.”

“Well, why don’t you try?”

Why indeed. Recalling the story formed in my mind: the young chieftess of a village in a post-apocalyptic world is struggling with defending her people against neighboring tribes. They feared her father, but they do not fear her. The tribe has some technology from before the apocalypse, but it will not save them. One night, a village elder has a dream of a voice whispering to him from a vault deep beneath the desert sands. She gathers her best warriors and the elder and they venture many days into the desert, convinced that they will find some great power to defeat their foes. The elder’s trepidation grows until at last they come to the site, a twisted wreck of a tomb. Iconography of skulls and skeletons, of pain and agony adorn every wall. Inside the tomb are nothing but barrels full of debris, and the warriors become convinced that the tomb is cursed. But not the chieftess. All she can think about are the rivers and lakes back at home that her enemies draw water from and what might happen to them if this cursed material were dumped into them.

Obviously that’s not quite how the story turned out, but I’m sure you can see the seeds of its present form in that little anecdote.


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