Where is the Highway Virus link?

June 10, 2011

For those of you keeping score at home (and that is a sad little joke told to an empty room), you may have noticed the recent change in the home page makes the Highway Virus stories inaccessible. Actually you can still get to them from links in the blog – like this one – but that section of the site is no longer navigable from the main pages.

So, since it is moderately difficult to access these pages, they are essentially offline. Why? I decided to retire the tone of those stories. The notion of a grim, tooth-and-claw postapocalyptic future is overdone, and it was difficult for me to maintain that tone without becoming too didactic.

So I am trying to change the tone for my “sci-fi” or “futuristic” writing. Here is an excerpt from a new piece, with the working title “The Blue Caves of Austin,” just because I like that title:

“With the end of the world, or the world as you knew it, there were many things we had to do before we could start over. You left quite a mess. Lots of junk and lots of bodies. There’s a lot of talk, blaming you, speculating why you acted as you did. But there will be people in our future, and they will say the same things about us. I know because you said the same things about your antecedents.

“They want me to tuck this missive away, put it where it will find its way back to you. As though one day, we will wake up, and the skies will be clear, the ground clean, as though it were possible to change the course of the world.”

So that’s not quite as heavy handed as past efforts, I think. Which brings up a new question – do I always have to write in the first person?

Why “trogg dogs”?

November 25, 2010

The Wastelands book continues to plague my Noosphere – indirectly this time. As mentioned before, my favorite story in this book (of those I’ve read) is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” also available in his book Pump Six. So naturally I was drawn to the September 2008 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which has his name on the cover (full disclosure: it was a free copy I picked up at a convention – but it would not have stood out of the pile of free stuff if not for his name).

So I read “Pump Six,” and to my dismay, Bacigalupi has in his story entities called trogs, carnal subhumans who populate the story’s future society, hanging out like homeless but unabashedly humping in public. That name is eerily similar to my trogg dogs, a persistent threat to the humans in the Highway Virus series. These animals rove the decimated landscape, attack live humans and eat the dead ones. They are, in some ways, a force of nature, tied to the rise of the Highway Virus as it started to infect people.

So what’s in the name (i.e., how did I come to pick the name trogg dogs)? For one, trogg dogs look mostly like wolves, although much bigger, so “dogs” is a natural association. Second, the press named them, and as it does so often with real threats, they trivialized them. As the narrator in “Little Things” says, they needed some funny little story at the end of each hour to offset the day’s harsh realities. Trogg dogs seemed to fulfill that need, and a copy boy with a fetish for classic rock came up with the name to complete this wonderful distraction.

So there’s the answer to a question no one asked. The name came to me long before I had heard of the name “Bacigalupi,” but apparently it did bump up against him while floating in the Noosphere. If I can take one positive from it, this coincidence partially allays my fear that the name “trogg dogs” is too “Atwoodesque,” i.e., that it is too hokey to be believable as part of a realistic lexicon. There is another “trog” in print, and that is important, considering I feel I took a few liberties with the evolution of these creatures.

For one, I worry the emergence of this new species was too compressed, even though in present day we have numerous stories about packs of wild dogs ravaging countrysides. But in looking at the fictional timeline of the Highway Virus series, the trogg dogs happened too fast. Real evolution typically occurs over long periods of time although the fossil record does seem to indicate the actual evolution of the modern dog occurred in a relatively short period.

And, at least according to one hypothesis, they came because of our garbage. We humans are a waste-producing species – this skill will likely be our lasting contribution to the planet. Starting with our ancient antecedents, anywhere we go, we leave crap behind. Wild wolves with a “tamer” genetic variation ventured close to these human settlements, where food was easy but came with the risk of attack from ugly, hairless bipeds. From that starting point, the dog became domesticated and developed specific attributes that complemented this new symbiosis.

Perhaps that is why the notion of wild packs of dogs is a high sign of the end of civil society. Civilization formed around waste dumps and animal domestication. Wild dogs roaming the street is a clear metaphor for the collapse of that structure, or at least its downward trajectory, and we humans seem to have a strong innate reaction to this image. It symbolizes our loss of control. Canis lupus familiaris evolved in close conjunction with homo sapien, so if one goes, so too does the other. A feral relapse is at the tipping point of civilization, the line that, when crossed, represents our failure to hold it all together.

And perhaps that’s why so many dumb apes in Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, and the like have such an irrational fear/hatred of wolves. Their brains are stuck in a primitive coded loop, still trying to protect their pile of garbage…

Tweaking “Little Things”

April 29, 2010

I made a few small modifications to “Little Things” last week, nothing that affects the plot of the story but more in the way of attempts to refine and improve the language of the piece. I’d like to say I am done with that story, that it is frozen forever now as it will always be, but as everyone should know by now, revision is a never-ending process. And having the story online gives it a sense of elasticity that it would not possess in print.

That’s probably why online publishing is having a hard time shaking the stigma of lesser quality. No matter how many tweets the Library of Congress preserves, online content still carries that sense of impermanence.

It would be difficult to go back to the “old ways” though. I do miss the sound and sensation of the typewriter, but I don’t know if I could still use that tool, what with all the deleting and copying and cutting and pasting I do on the computer just to put one story together. This new technology has altered whatever modicum of skills I have as a writer, just as the printing press ruined our memories. It used to be within the realm of human ability to memorize and recite The Iliad or Beowulf. Now it seems we barely have the capacity to remember what we read ten minutes ago, much less the complete text of an epic poem exploring our place in the universe.

Speaking Chinese

April 17, 2010

The recent tragedy in West Virginia has thrust Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, into the spotlight, which knocked loose a memory of his interview on Marketplace, broadcast on October 29, 2009. His broad declaration, “There is no global warming,” did not stick with me, not as much as what he said next, when asked what would happen if we start to tax coal emissions:

“Teach your children to speak Chinese, because if we’re going to play around with windmills and solar panels, we’ll fall behind.”

That’s some good fear-mongering. Seriously, he could be an adviser on the remake of Red Dawn. He debunks science with a linguistics argument, which is really a subtle reference to a popular global-warming conspiracy that falls under the rubric of larger “one-world government” fears. Because the claimed environmental damages from Blankenship’s industry are so “greatly exaggerated,” there’s no need to make actual arguments against them, right? Unless of course one’s opponents are arguing in Chinese.

I used his dribble as inspiration for the actions of Ardo Reslo in “Year of the Turtle” – and I had intended to mention that interview when I first added the story (since I am all about idea genealogy). But I forgot to write that blog, probably because I didn’t really picture Blankenship as Ardo Reslo, who seems to be smarter than his prototype, more of a Bond-type villain such as Dr. No at the head of another conspiracy theory, this one of the Dr. Strangelove variety.

And for those of you keeping count, that’s my second reference, however indirect, to Terry Southern.

Teach your children to speak Chinese, because if we’re going to play around with windmills and solar panels, we’ll fall behind.


March 27, 2010

I, like so many others in the reading public, went through a Stephen King phase. It was in junior high for me, when I bought his books by the yard and read one after the other, from Christine to Firestarter to all of The Bachman Books.

It gave me a certain reputation in school – I was, for lack of a better label, the weird one. It is an odd social phenomenon that you can get branded as the creepy outcast by reading one of the most popular writers in the history of English – but that’s for another discussion.

Naturally, once I came out on the other end of my Stephen King phase, I bared my pimply, teenaged ass to him, disparaging such drivel in favor of more erudite works by Tolkien and Melville (yes, those two can go together). The dizzying juices of teenage rebellion pushed me to turn against King – because he is The Man – and I use that term with all the heavy connotations it can carry. He sells millions of books, so he’s a sellout, right? He has scored the mass appeal that should be possible only with a giant compromise in one’s artistic integrity.

And he makes it all look so easy. He is easy to read, easy to digest, even when he goes on a bit too long – see It and Needful Things, for example. And that, I have to admit, is a great skill, one not possessed by many in this world.

Given that, plus his prolific career, King can cast a long and oppressive shadow on other writers – one that darkened my recent addition “Year of the Turtle.” This story is part of the Highway Virus series, and it and its companion piece “Little Things” are about two brothers trying reconcile their relationship and their own places in the world amid the chaos of a civilization in decline. Also, water is one of the themes, as you might expect from a story with “Turtle” in the title.

Then I read King’s story “The End of the Whole Mess” in the collection Wastelands. It was the first King work I had read in a long, long time. The story, in keeping with the theme of the collection, is about the end of the world. It focuses on two brothers – the narrator is the older brother and the younger brother contributes mightily to our end. And the active agent that ends it all moves through the water.

Damn, that all sounds really familiar. Given my ambivalence to King’s work in general, I can’t help but feel the same about these parallels. It is flattering that I share at least some of the same creative juices with such a successful writer. I have talked about the Noosphere before – and it should be at least a partial boost to my confidence that I might have bumped into him within that rarefied space.

On the one hand, I feel like I am a few more feet underground, on the bottom of the literary dumping ground, pelted by concepts eerily similar to my own work. I have done something that seems derivative – even though I wasn’t aware of the “progenitor” until after it was done. I guess that will always be the risk in any apocalypse fiction. In the end, you are always chasing The Road Warrior.

(Doomsday may not have been all that good, but at least Neil Marshall had no illusions about the type of movie he was making.)

Of course one reason why I may not be too psyched about the comparison to King’s story is that “The End of the Whole Mess” isn’t the strongest in the collection. I don’t say that to be snarky or vindictive. I honestly feel that the best story so far (and I’ve read only about half the book) is Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag.” Great story – and a really unique look at a possible future for “humanity.”

Year of the Turtle

February 13, 2010

In the spirit of the 2009 summer movie season, I developed a “prequel” to the Highway Virus series called “Year of the Turtle.” Of course it is a prequel only in the sense that it chronologically predates the other stories already posted and was written after those stories were “finalized.”

“Year of the Turtle” names the previously unnamed narrator in “Little Things” and gives a different perspective on their fraternal dynamic. Actually the two stories show two different approaches to the end of world (as we know it). It wasn’t my intention for Theodore to turn into an extreme Malthusian by the end of “Turtle.” I guess that’s an example of a character leading the writer – and that’s supposed to be a good thing, writing-wise. I thought of him as more of a sympathetic character when I started – but by the end, I imagine most readers will be ambivalent about his worldview, if not downright repulsed.

But that’s just how he copes. Devon, the narrator in “Little Things,” doesn’t turn out much better – so maybe it’s a family thing.

My initial inspiration for “Year of the Turtle” was the origin story of the world emerging and thriving on the back of a turtle, which was an image from early in my childhood – and which Theodore leans on as he tries to cope with societal collapse. The pic below is a scan from an old book from 1961, The LIFE Treasury of American Folklore, which I looked through a lot when I was single digits. (The book has pictures of naked women and mermaids!) As a myth, we could do worse – the world that sustains us is itself a living entity.

The Great Snapping Turtle

The myth appears in other places, too numerous to mention, but one of my favorites is in the beginning of A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, which recounts the misnamed “Infinite Turtle Theory” (obviously it is not a theory by any scientific measure). Scoff all you want, but keep in mind, if there’s any truth to this worldview, the end of the Earth will likely come in a pot of boiling water somewhere in China.

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It always happens…

October 3, 2009

When you’re way way way way down at the bottom of the writing world, it seems every time you look up, there’s a luminary (or at least someone with better connections than you) making a success with one of your ideas.

It happened to me in the Nineties, when I was working on a comic series called the “Faerie Police,” about a division in the police department that handled supernatural offenders. Granted, it had its predecessors, namely The X-Files, but once I got a few stories cranked out, I started seeing that conceit everywhere – Men in Black, G vs. E, and countless indie comics.

Now, more recently, Margaret Atwood has published The Year of the Flood, a work of “speculative fiction” where a future world is beset by viruses, genetically engineered animal hybrids, and groups of religious zealots. Gee, I could almost cut that description, whole cloth, and used it for my Highway Virus series. It’s always a bit depressing, mixed with a sense of impotence, to see the upward trajectory of someone else’s work, while you are stuck with a small, unvisited Website carrying stories with similar themes, which came to you independently (from the Noosphere) and now look completely unoriginal.

I will say this, though – in her interview with the NewsHour, Margaret Atwood sounded a bit supercilious toward the sci-fi genre, glomming onto the phrase “speculative fiction” as if it were dipping in gold and glazed with cherub tears, whereas something with the label “science fiction” is low art, with stories about talking hamburgers and lizard men.

I haven’t read her book, although I am sure it is entertaining, if not outright good. But I find this attitude toward “genre fiction” to be a bit tiresome, especially with more and more great authors (for example, Cormac McCarthy with The Road) dipping into traditionally sci-fi themes.

What else would be worthy of this rarefied label of “speculative fiction”? Red Dawn, of course. Granted, there are people who think it is a documentary, sent as a warning from the future, but (for now) it lives in the speculative fiction camp – it is post-apocalyptic, and there are no robots or multi-limbed aliens. Atwood must have seen this gun-loving, right-wing stroke fest and thought – Gee, I’d much rather be associated with that as opposed to trifles such as Foundation or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I may be at the bottom of the literary world, but at least I readily embrace the true nature of my work.

Updates to Songs Like Rusty Cage

September 18, 2009

I made a few edits and changes to Songs Like Rusty Cage and the first Highway Virus story. For the latter, the beginning is a little different, shorter mostly. For Songs, I changed some of the language when the narrator talks about the Superman movie and the light in the kitchen. And I deleted a paragraph about vampires, which was never in the online version anyway, because it really did not fit with the story, despite the fact that I really liked it. Well, sometimes you have to kill your kids.

Thinking on the Highway Virus – 2

June 9, 2009

Another big part of the Highway Virus series, and another aspect that seems prima facie unlikely, is the presence of the trogg dogs. They are roving packs of canine-like scavengers, which will attack and consume humans, alive or dead. They hunt alone and in packs, they are hideous with no qualities we would value (so no threat from trophy hunting), they can survive under a variety of conditions (so no threat from habitat loss), and they’ll eat anything.  In short, they have evolved to survive and thrive in this world, to the detriment of all other species.

For the purposes of the stories, they are a good device to get rid of all the bodies stricken by the Highway Virus. They are wild animals, running around, eating our dead.

Their existence seems unlikely as the emergence of a new species takes much longer than the timeframe presented in this series. I took inspiration from the Mad Max movies by framing the stories at some undetermined time in the future – but it is still the “near future” and not some distant era of the 3000s, when the Earth will be a junked wasteland (see WALL-E) or uninhabitable cinder.

That is probably not is enough time for a new species to evolve through means of mutation and natural selection, especially a large predator the size of a bear that exhibits similarities with wild dogs. The idea was that this new species would emerge (perhaps accelerated through interactions with the virus) with special adaptations to survive in this new environment, one of waste and disease. And as long as it has none of the qualities we envy or admire, we won’t hunt it to near extinction (think the tiger or the rhino versus the feral pig or the hyena).

So, the emergence of the trogg dogs is more Lamarckian than Darwinian – and granted, while the notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics is largely considered discredited, it refuses to die.

But in the end, this is fiction, so I don’t want to get bogged down in the science. The first source of inspiration for the trogg dogs was the book Monster of God, but from there, I tried to make them more of supernatural creatures (God loves a pseudo-scientist) – hellhounds arisen on earth to exact divine vengeance for our transgressions. We seem intent on destroy the earth (or at least remaking it in our image), so it is bound to fight back.

Thinking on the Highway Virus 1

April 27, 2009

I started the Highway Virus series, short stories of a future apocalyptic world, following the global fears of the bird flu virus several years ago, where I imagined a future world where a virus has emerged to kill a portion of the world’s population (about 10%, maybe?), causing panic, major cultural changes, and a collapse of infrastructure and  governance.

These origins might make them remnants of the bird flu hysteria from that time period, but I have tried to expand the scope of world problems beyond that one point of concern. This fictional world is a pastiche of worst-possible outcomes from multiple sources. If you think of all the worst things that could happen in the environment, public health, and national infrastructure, then you would start to get an idea of what this world is like.

I don’t view this world as being inevitable or terribly possible. Plausible? Well, I guess it depends on how pessimistic you are. Back in early days of the subprime crisis, most people thought it was “contained” – meaning a few people of poor to moderate means would lose their homes and that would be the end of it. Back to business as usual. Then it got worse. It moved up the food chain and across the entire population. My own inherent sense of pessimism kept me from being too surprised.

The other problems facing the world – the environment, health care, extinction and speciation – they have to come to a head sooner or later.

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