Saturday, November 24, 2012

Molding the Plastic Self

So, let's get the plug out of the way. My romantic-comedy-science-fiction serial Helping Henry is currently appearing at the Flash Fiction Fest website, along with short fiction by P.T. Dilloway, and Neil Vogler, who started the whole thing.  After November, all the stories from Flash Fiction fest will be compiled with additional material -- three new stories each from Pat and Neil, and two new chapters of Helping Henry along with five thousand words on the science and thought behind Henry from me. Every week two copies of the final collection will be given away to commenters at Flash Fiction Fest. So go read some stories, and leave some comments -- the more comments, the better your odds.


So the last time I talked about my current state, I mentioned my realization that habits are actual structures in the brain with motivations of their own, and that I had never developed any ability to act on behalf of my future self.

Here's how I've been acting on those insights.

First, I've been paying a different kind of attention to my moods. Recognizing that my catastrophic mood swings are due to a specific emotional habit has allowed me to isolate that pattern. Here is where I find techniques of ritual and meditation learned during my study of occult and mystical traditions proves useful.

Let me reiterate. I do not believe in supernatural influences -- but while I went through my slow period of rejecting those concepts in favor of scientific materialism, I still find meditation and ritual very useful.

Personification and anthropomorphization are basic concepts in operating from a magical state of mind. By assuming that whatever you deal with has a personality, and relates to basic human needs, you have a basis for addressing and negotiating with it.

If you apply this kind of thinking to some problems, like driving, the results are disastrous. But when dealing with internal forces, they can serve as a means of relating to oneself in a functional and intuitive fashion.

So I have been addressing the mood swing or whatever you want to call it, that circuit linking rage, fear, and grief that has been the main source of suffering in my life since childhood, and I've been regarding it as something distinct from my essential self. I've been talking to it, listening to it, negotiating with it.

When I incorporated images of brain cell growth and synaptic connection with the metaphor of programming, I understood why my attempts to confront these emotions had only strengthened them. A distant, caring but somewhat scornful attitude has started to take root, and as a result, I've had the easiest fall I can remember. By stepping back from my desire to work things into a huge emotional maelstrom, I've been able to keep cool -- the one real upset I've had with the missus was settles in less than an hour, and both of us felt responsible for it, rather than seeing it as something the other person was doing.

That ball of emotional turmoil, that cauldron of rage I've relied on to power me through life, is cooling.

And as for learning to care for the future self.

This is actually a much more difficult task, but as I mention in the latest Henry story, impossibly complicated tasks are actually the easiest because they offer you lots of options for action -- all you have to do is start taking them.

Slovenliness has always been one of my sins. My workspace has traditionally been not simply messy, but filthy. It has been well over a decade since my studio was entirely ship-shape, and the last time I cleaned seriously I found pine needles under a window that had been there so long they had decayed to humus. The pine tree's been gone for years. This is one of those areas of my life where things get so bad they take on a grandeur at complete odds with their essential nature.

And I know damned well that a properly arranged workspace gets more work out of me. Simple as that. I was talking this over with the hon. Richard Talleywhacker, and he said, "Yeah, it's going to freak you out and you're going to try and clean the whole thing and you're going to blow your back out again."

Ouch. Too true.

This was my opportunity for taking my first step in the development of learning to care for future Sean. Present Sean wants a clean room, is willing to work for it, but is not willing to work unless he personally sees the results.

So I started cleaning for twenty minutes each morning before I begin work. And it's not just that I have to do at least twenty minutes worth of work. It's that I have to stop after those twenty minutes. Future Sean will be able to do his twenty minutes if I take care of Future Sean's back.

And if I do this every day, sooner or later I'll be looking for things to do.

So every day the studio  looks a little nicer, and I remind myself it's something I'm doing for myself. And sooner or later, the twenty minutes will encompass fun tasks like taking care of the musical instruments and arranging my bookshelves. The eventual goal is to turn my studio into a real media machine.

And it's not going to happen any time soon. What's important is putting in that twenty minutes a day, appreciating what I did the day before, and learning to develop a benevolent relationship with the man who's going to have to live my life tomorrow.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sexy Sexual Sex And Meat Bikes

So these Henry notes seem to be going over well with brainy science types. It's funny. I'm always insecure about this kind of stuff, but there's a hell of a lot of leeway allowed when you use science in fiction. As a scientific thinker I may not have much depth, but sometimes breadth can be fun.

(I am now going to go downstairs, drill a hole in my skull, hold the tip of an unbent coat hanger over the stove until it is red-hot, then sear out the part of my brain which holds the phrase, "that's what she said.")

Anyway, click here to read all the Henry stories so far. If you leave a comment, you might win a copy of the finished version, including two new stories and the compiled and revised notes, along with the full run of stories by P.T. Dilloway and Neil Vogler! The more comments, the better your chances.

The science in this sequence with Morrie, which will play out over a few episodes, is the iffiest. It’s a subject I don’t know much about, and I didn’t have a chance to do much research. But it does play off a real-world analog of an oddball science-fiction motif, that of the modular life form.

I recall an episode of the animated Star Trek, and a Retief novel by Keith Laumer that dealt with the idea, and there was an issue of the terrific adventure comic The World Below by Paul Chadwick and Ron Randall. I may have run across it elsewhere. The notion is that there are animals like Legos, whose body parts are symbiotic organisms that can be assembled and disassembled.

Some sea slugs are able to take the nematocysts – the stingers – from jellyfish and sea anemones they eat, and incorporate them into their bodies. And some jellies, like the Portuguese man o’ war, are actually colonial organisms, made up of semi-independent bodies called zooids

Often, ecologically damaged areas of the ocean will become overpopulated with jellyfish. So the idea of targeting jellyfish was a natural.

For the record, this is the third sex scene I’ve written, and the first two involved monsters. But this time around, I tried a really challenging approach – I treated sex as something nice that grownups do together.

During the brief period of time when I made an effort to keep current with paleontology, there was a persistent rumor of a paper that would discuss the discovery of a feathered Tyrannosaurus rex. The rumor specified a yard-long feather…

That paper never surfaced, so far as I know, but the evidence for feathers in tyrannosaurs has mounted. Let’s put it this way. Right now the evidence for feathered tyrannosaurs is about as good as the evidence for hairy cavemen. Somewhere, at some point, there almost certainly was some fuzz.

And as for Klubok, the Thing That Ate Hercules. Hercules was a quiet little East Bay town where they made explosives, and when I was a kid, you could find lumps of sulfur on the beach at Point Pinole. It’s a nice recreational area, and I think it could only be enhanced by a giant monster skeleton.

See, this is the kind of thing that really points out how sloppy I am in these stories. Does the meat bike have a case full of giblets into which you pour syrup? Does it have a dialysis machine? A colostomy bag?

I’ll tell you what, Morrie’s not going to want to ride that thing to school.

Now, my idyllic solution to the issue of meat is to reduce the human population to the point where the environment is actually capable of sustaining us for an indefinite period of time, and then have people hunt for their food as needed. Hey, reducing the population is easy – all you have to do is give women free access to education and opportunities

But that isn’t everyone’s idea of heaven. The idea of cultured meat is making some very interesting inroads, and I suspect it falls into the ‘when, not if,’ category

Monday, November 19, 2012

Henry Hash

So, Henry's gotten some exposure over the last few days. To begin with...

Win Helping Henry!

If you go to the Flash Fiction Fest website, and leave a comment on any story there, you will be in the running for one of two free copies of We Are Now, which will include stories by Neil Vogler and P.T. Dilloway. These will be in addition to the full text of Helping Henry, including two new chapters and the complete background notes.

Biology In Science Fiction Approves Of Henry!

Peggy Kolm at the Biology in Science Fiction website has said nice things about my work in the past, and she's definitely part of the target audience for the Henry stories. So it was a real pleasure to see that she's enjoying the stories. Here's what she had to say. Between this and the very nice response I got at the reading on Saturday, I'm feeling confident again.

And today's episode of Helping Henry is...

Oh, boy. Every so often I say or do something that confirms the damnation of my eternal soul, and this story is one of 'em. It is just so wrong.

I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’ll bet that a lot of the time ‘good kisser’ is actually a cover for ‘smells chemically compatible.’

And yes, the dog is a filthy animal, but that isn’t a mark against dogs. It’s a mark in their favor. Exposure to filth from dogs, yes, including germs they get in their mouths by licking their butts, helps children build a healthy, appropriately reactive immune system. I’m not making this stuff up, you know.

And read about the thoughts behind the stories in:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mean Fish And Designer Dog-Breath

Not only did the crows find a spot in the tree where they can see me when I'm working, they pulled twigs off of a bunch of branches to make perches. They'll sit out there and holler at me until I come out and play Paper Moon and Sloop John B on the baritone ukulele. There's one big old bird with a wound or growth on one side, and a pair of younger ones (pictured above), who act as though they're totally in love. But sometimes other crows will show up, and the hummingbird who owns the lemon tree seems to be taking an interest as well.

On Friday night, I read two Henry stories at Diesel Books in Oakland. I'd been getting the fraudulent paranoias, so it was very nice to have a group of ambitious, informed readers respond positively to the work. I was even approached by an editor... As I wrote to my publisher afterward, usually genre people think I write literature and literary people think I write genre, but people on both sides of the divide are willing to accept the Henry stories for their home team; here are all the Henry stories currently available.

So I am briefly, tentatively, encouraged. Now, on to the psuedoscience!

This story is my salute to Henry Kuttner’s Gallagher stories, which concern a guy who’s a mad scientist when he’s drunk. Fun stuff, and it falls into that segment of science fiction that I mentally characterize as… Well, I imagine someone giving me a hard time about reading that crap, and I imagine myself saying, “You read stories by O. Henry and Damon Runyon, and this operates on exactly that level. Exactly.”

In order to explain the origin of this story, I have to make an ugly confession. I do not love both of our dogs to the same degree, or in the same way. And when I realized that I was letting one dog lick my face a lot more than the other dog, I knew it was because one had a tongue that smelled like red meat and the other had a tongue that smelled like seafood.

And once I made that connection, I remembered all those promises of bacteriophage mouthwash, where a quick swish with a culture of bacteria-eating viruses would end all need for brushing and flossing. 

(For the record, that shit is about massaging your gums as much as anything else, so if that stuff hits the market and people stop flossing, there will be a buttload of oral surgeons buying boats.)

Here in the Bay Area, we got good bread. I will not defend our pizza or our barbecue (although I do like Bo McSwine’s way with a brisket), but goddamnit, we have good bread. And a lot of it is credited to the local mix of microorganisms that grow in the sourdough starter. Different bacterial cultures give different cultured milk, yogurts, and cheeses their different flavors.

If you scrape your tongue with your nail and sniff the residue, it has a distinctly foul odor as a result of bacterial activity. Unless you’re excreting something from your lungs, that’s where bad breath comes from. Henry just chose to deal with the problem directly. And you should be glad that I didn’t have another two pages for this story, because I would have included a catalog of heritage dog-breath cultures.

For about twenty years now, my father and I have made a habit of hiking once a week. Quite some time ago, we were hiking out around Briones reservoir. We go there rarely because it’s a challenging trail (the first time we went out, we got sassed by a granny for not bringing water, and we were too weak from dehydration to beat her up and take hers), but when we do, we usually see something spectacular in the way of wildlife. The great horned owl, the six-foot catfish, and the three-foot turtle were all spotted on the same trip. And I didn’t throw this detail into the story, but the catfish looked to be an albino. This is an example of how life can get away with things that look cheesy as shit if you make them up. I mean, really. It’s a giant catfish, and it’s an albino. Who sucks blood and knows kung-fu!

We never found out what the story was with the turtle and the catfish. The idea that they might have been released by Buddhists is drawn from one of the most depressing sights you find along the Berkeley waterfront. From time to time someone seeking to enhance their spiritual merit will purchase a turtle from one of the seafood stores that carries a variety of live animals, and then release it into the bay.

The problem? The turtles are freshwater animals. You can see the released animals in certain inlets, and they are rotting alive, divots taken out of their shells and flippers fringed by decay, because the bay is saltwater,.

I can respect animal sacrifice if it is done with the same degree of care as butchering or hunting and the body is used as food. Being a guest at a Voodoo wedding convinced me that if the chicken is delicious, who cares what they were chanting when the throat was cut? And a lively, active bird fit for sacrifice is an animal that’s had a decent life. But this ignorant irresponsibility, while reflecting well on the good intentions of the individuals responsible, really gets to me. The idea that people think they’re being kind to those poor fucking turtles.

Get Nasty
(Get Nasty will be published in the collected edition of We Are Here.)

The real Nasty was owned by my dad’s (and my) friend Dan Moody, who’s a subject in his own right. The last time I saw the man, he was driving a gasoline-powered tricycle with a beer keg for a tank, and that’s probably the least interesting thing I could say about him…

Anyway, when I started this story, I had a whole little back-bit in mind about Nasty’s background. The cichlids of Africa’s Lake Victoria were one of those lovely evolutionary just-so stories, like Darwin’s finches, a diverse array of highly specialized species that, incidentally, were gorgeous. Then, after the usual encroachment had done its damage, some lunatics introduced Nile perch into Lake Victoria, and that pretty much ended that little paradise

But it turned out red devil cichlids aren’t from Lake Victoria in Africa, they’re from Lake Nicaragua in Central America. I’ve been fascinated with Lake Nicaragua since childhood. It’s probably the best lake in the world if you like shark attacks. Bull sharks, sawfish, and cichlids. I’m a swimmer, but I’d be a little nervous in that water.

So in Henry’s future, Nasty’s wild relatives weren't wiped out by Nile perch. It will be tilapia farming that does them in. 

A while ago, a colleague who will be nameless until he wishes to be names sent me a book called Debt, by David Graeber. I’ve been taking it a section here and there. It’s very well-written, very persuasive, and very, very rich material for thought. Among other things, it’s led me to recognize that while I think Marxism is silly, my politics are organized on communist principles.

While I’m only about a quarter of the way through the book – I can go for a couple of weeks without touching it – it had a sort of pervasive effect on the Henry stories. What makes a person valuable to society? What makes an artist worth supporting? What do we owe, what does it even mean to owe? How does one gracefully embrace an artist’s life, one whose social flexibility provides intimate contact with a world filled with social and economic inequities? Is it possible to live well without taking advantage of others?

Is it possible to even try?

I was very distressed to find that Margaret Atwood beat me to the punch on this one. I’ve read Lady Oracle, a well-written book ruined by a daffy ending where the heroine loses a lot of weight as the result of revulsion at the sight of her thighs. (For the record? If that kind of epiphany had that kind of effect, people wouldn’t be fat unless they enjoyed it.) So I’ve been looking at her futurist novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake with nervous interest. Well, when I started looking for some information for these notes, I found a passage from Oryx and Crake featuring her version of the chicken nugget animals

I like mine better because they make more biological sense (I could do you up an anatomical diagram), but I’d guess we were both inspired by the old rumor that KFC couldn’t call itself Kentucky Fried Chicken because the animals they used were no longer legally chickens… 

Initially, this piece was going to be a lot nastier. The Colonel was going to kill someone. One of the enormities I’ve read about in conjunction with poultry plants is a jolly game where a worker will pick up a chicken and squeeze it hard enough to shoot its droppings at a fellow worker.

Have you ever held a live bird?

That kind of behavior is going to happen when you treat animals like units in an industrial meat-production process. We must respect living creatures if we are to keep some real claim to humanity.

What goes on in animal husbandry is too nasty for this particular work of fiction, so I made up something science fictional to act as an emotional lightning rod – reality is worse.

And yet I eat meat. I’ve killed and cleaned fish and, once, rabbits, and would participate in a hunt. I’ve also been functionally vegetarian for extended periods of time, and the results were disastrous in terms of my mental and emotional stability. There was a point early in my relationship with my wife when I’d been trying to eat her macrobiotic diet, and she said, “You know, you’re a lot easier to get along with the day after you’ve eaten beef.”

And since then, Cain has sat down to dine with me at least once a day. I still haven’t fully come to terms with this one.