Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Fallen Heroes - Thoughts on Reyes and Wright

I've talked here about Matt Harvey, about the act of watching baseball, and how the game is, in many ways, not merely a story but a part of our uniquely American mythology. In Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Ty Cobb we have organically grown what L. Frank Baum tried to deliberately create - a uniquely American set of folk stories. Total we'll talk about the left side of the Mets infield, and the fall of two of New York's heroes. Will either have a final act, and what will that act entail? That we don't know yet.

Wright and Reyes. Reyes and Wright. Two young Mets going the team in the early 2000s, full of promise. Reyes was always the spark. Ebullient, enthusiastic, joyous. He ran like the wind, once completing an inside-the-park home run in just over 14 seconds. Reyes of the elaborate post-home-run handshakes, he of the "Learn Spanish with Professor Reyes" vignettes on the big scoreboard. He was youth, he was fun, he was life.

Then Wright. Where Reyes was all twitch and speed and flair, Wright was all business, class, quiet confidence. A smooth swing, an easy smile, a quiet demeanor. He's the closest the Mets had to what the Yankees had all those years in Derek Jeter; a comforting, steady presence both in the line-up and in the clubhouse. He was front and center with a grin after a big win, and front and center again to say the hard things after a loss.

Wright and Reyes. Reyes and Wright. In 2006, as young men, they'd lead the team deep into the post-season, coming one game - one out - even one PITCH from an appearance in a World Series which the Saint Louis Cardinals would eventually win.

Two Thousand six was a long time ago. It felt like the beginning of something grand, although we now know that it wasn't. The years which followed were full of disappointments, struggles. Through it all, Wright and Reyes, Reyes and Wright, until that fateful day after the 2011 season in which Reyes was seduced by riches (and, in fairness, was outside the Mets budget) and took his talents to Miami.

Reyes wandered the wilderness, trading from Miami to distant Toronto after just one season and, when Toronto was finally poised to achieve success, traded again to Colorado.

Wright stayed, remained the one link to 2006, started to grow old before his time, still a Met for his playing life, however long that may be.

Wright and Reyes, Reyes and Wright. Now both at a crossroads, Each fallen in his own way. Wright, laid low by a failing body as he was diagnosed first with spinal stenosis, and now with a herniated disc in his neck. He'll get surgery and may or may not someday return to the field. If he does, it will be as a diminished athlete weakened by the ravages of time - as we all are.

(As an aside, this is my issue with another American mythology: superheroes, especially as portrayed in cinema; we get the beginning of the story, but too rarely the end. Peter Park is always a young man. Bruce Wayne is always donning the cowl for the first time after his parents' murder. Before they can age, mature, move to a different part of their story -- the universe resets and Parker is again bitten by a radioactive spider, Wayne again orphaned. We tell half-stories, never getting to the point in which Sherlock Holmes meets his nemesis at the Reichenbach Falls, or Ajax falling onto his sword after realizing that his time has past. We don't even get Kirk at Veridian III. I'll speak more on that in another post, but I wish we would learn to tell full stories)

Reyes' story could have been a classic - heroic figure leaves, wanders the figurative desert for a time, returns triumphantly. His fall, however, was of a different kind in that he spent fully the first third of this season suspended from baseball under MLB's new domestic violence policy after throwing his wife into a glass door while vacationing in Hawaii. He's since lost his starting job to a young rookie and been essentially cut by the team, who will pay him the remaining nearly forty-million dollars owed on his contract for the service of going away and never being seen there again.

After Reyes' domestic violence incident, the story changes. Now the story becomes not only about a hero whose fall is a moral issue, but it becomes part of a larger societal story about abuse of women in the world of athletics and the lack of repercussions. It's a story that includes Ray Rice initially suspended only two games after hitting his wife. Brock Turner given a minimal sentence after raping an unconscious woman. Aroldis Chapman pitching for the Yankees after firing a gun during a domestic dispute with his wife. Santonio Holmes returning to the gridiron after beating his wife. It's Fransisco Rodriguez continuing to close baseball games after domestic violence, including assaulting his then-girlfriend's father at an actual ball game. 

The story or Reyes can become part of another myth - the myth of professional athletics and the import of success on the field. The story that the safety and health of the women surrounding athletes are less important than success on the field. A story we tell every time Chapman dons the Yankee pinstripes and which Reyes would tell if again wore the orange and blue. This is why - after years of missing his on-field ebullience - I'd be furious to see Reyes again don a Mets uniform.

Is what he did forgivable, and can he have a path to redemption? Perhaps. That forgiveness cannot takes place on the baseball diamond, lest we reinforce the message that women are less important than sport. That we cannot do.

And of Wright's future? He's in pain. He's played in pain all year, and all year last year. IT takes hours for him to prep his injured back before each game. Later? After neck surgery? Perhaps he'll be able to come back and the story will be that of overcoming hardship. Perhaps not and the story will be about how time finally defeated him. As it does everyone. 

Wright and Reyes. Reyes and Wright. Two stars, beloved by Mets fans from their youngest days. Neither on the field at present. Wright's story is in its last pages. Reyes' - at least for me - is over. I won't watch him again, won't cheer for him again. 

One may never play again due to age and injury. One should never play again for the message his return would send.

 It's not the way any of us wanted or expected either story to end. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review - The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Had anyone else written The Fireman, I'd be tempted to compare it to Stephen King. We have an implausible global disaster treated as if real, tight focus on a decent and resourceful group of survivors, even a New England setting. It's a comparison I fought against making because it isn't, in the end, fair. King is King and Hill is Hill, as obvious as it is that the former influenced the latter in as many ways as possible. For the nonce, let's set comparisons aside and talk about the novel itself. Expect minor spoilers herein, but not too much to preclude your enjoyment of the book when you choose to read it (and you should. Trust me on this).

The disaster in The Fireman comes in the shape of a mysterious disease called "Dragonscale". It manifests itself in patters of black markings on a victim's skin and is perfectly harmless - with the exception of causing those infected to literally burst into flame. Our first brush with the disease comes through the eyes of Harper Grayson, a Disney-quoting elementary school nurse. Some of my favorite parts of the early chapters deal with the relationship between Harper and her husband, Jakob. Jakob is smart. He's intellectual. He's charming. His talents range from the ability to ride a unicycle to being really good at sex.  However, the more we see of him the more we see an underlying self-centered-ness, a pettiness, a nastiness. When the school in which Harper works closes indefinitely due to the 'scale crisis and Harper is pressed into service at a hospital, it becomes clear that Jakon sees her patients with a pitying disdain rather than compassion. I wish we'd lingered a bit more on the positive side of the marriage before learning that it was a false-front, but learn we do and in a shocking and impactful way. Jakob can be read as every man with a feeling of entitlement, not as much intellect as he thinks he has, and a bitter disappointment with his lot in life. As civilization falls, so too does the veneer of civility Jakob has built around his rotten inner core. The horror in reading this book is not the image of a person bursting into flame: it's that we all know too many Jakobs, and that Hill is showing us what they are like inside.

One of my favorite kinds of moments in any fantastic novel is the moment in which what you think you knew proves to be wrong. We soon meet John Rockwood, the titular Fireman, a conflicted hero with a tragic past and a maddening tendency to set himself apart and attempt to be mysterious.   Rockwood has found a way to control the dragonscale, not only avoiding self-immolation but even gaining control over fire itself, using it as a weapon or a tool. The entire middle third of the book takes place in a sort of hidden commune in which a small but growing infected population hides from the roving quarantine patrols who seek to eradicate the disease at gunpoint. It's little surprise to see Jakob reemerge with one of them.

I'll make a note here on language: Hill does a terrific job working ways of referring to the new infestation into the book's dialog. The quarantine patrols sometimes call themselves (and are called) cremation crews, and refer to the infected as "burners". A bargain-basement talk-radio host gives himself the moniker "Marlborough Man" because he's smoked so many burners. These are lovely touches which add to the feeling of immersion.

We also had an odd, seemingly out of left field reference to Martha Quinn,  rumored to be a leaderof a safe space for the infected. Martha Quinn became an unlikely symbol through much of the book, and a source of hope. As a child of the 1980s, I found the inclusion of a literal voice from our collective past to be a tiny delight.

Anyway, the book is about how people deal with the crisis rather than the crisis itself. We have the Camp Wyndham community dealing with the threat of cremation squads. The uninfected dealing with the fear of infection. Everyone fearing fire. There are breakdowns in social order and, while there are villains, it isn't the villains which most interested - or most chilled me. It was the all-too-real way seemingly decent and reasonable people would follow them, and how quickly a community can slide from communal love to communal hatred. The book is at its best at those points. I do wish, as I said, that we'd had a tiny bit  more of Jakob toward the beginning and, to be honest, a tiny bit less toward the end. His constant reappearance made absolute thematic sense, but ultimately veered into horror-fiction cliche territory.

And there's one moment in which we see a communal act of kindness toward those infected, only to see it subverted into something else. THis is a part about which I thought for a long time. Did the people know the real result of their charity? Were they deliberately fooling themselves? Did they fail morally in giving from a distance, and not following up? Or were they simply doing the best they thought they could? It was a nice, poignant, and ambiguous moment.

Comparison time again:  I've stated in the past that I see an unsavory message in the works of HP Lovecraft in that his central theme - fear of the other - is a mirror of and metaphor for his racism. In one discussion on the topic, someone asked me if that is part and parcel of horror fiction in general. Clearly in my mind - and I suspect in Hill's - it is not. The horror in The Fireman was not the Dragonscale, was not even the fear of self-immolation. It was the moment that a seemingly loving husband showed us the monster within. It's the moment that a community of survivors let fear and anger twisted it into something ugly.

Horror isn't fear of the other; it's fear of ourselves, and what can let ourselves become in moments of fear as we fight for our own protection.

This book is horror. And it's good horror. I strongly recommend that you go read it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Achilles and Icarus - Matt Harvey and Why We Watch Baseball

Last night Mets pitcher Matt Harvey had another disasterous start in what has, thus far, been a nightmare season for him. As much as it pains me to see him struggling, I do have to take a half-step back and remember that this is why we watch sports - this is, as frustrating as it is, sports fandom at its best. Why? Because the Matt Harvey saga is, at its heart, a classic story. He is the best kind of hero - one whose strengths and flaws mirror the city in which he lives and the fans who wish to love him. He has been at times beloved and maddening, a hero and an anti-hero. Perhaps even, for a moment, the villain. He is why we watch sports.

How it Began

In 2013, a twenty-four year old Matthew Edward Harvey was the undeniable star of a struggling New York Mets pitching staff. After the departure of fan-favorite RA Dickey, it was pretty easy to stand out in the remaining crowd, and stand out Harvey did. Fans greeted each of his starts as "Harvey Day" as he collected strikeouts, earned an all-star game appearance, and took his place in the pantheon of great Mets pitchers. He was a relection of our city - brash and proud, but able to back it up. He felt bigger than the team. He enjoyed the nightlife. He talked himself up on Twitter. He posed nude in GQ. In a near-anonymous starting rotation, he was a rising superstar, replacing the quirkier and more intellectual Dickey. 

Then, as the 2013 season ended, he suffered an elbow injury which would keep him out of baseball for a full year recovering from Tommy John surgery.

A Triumphant Return, and a Plot Twist
After a year away, he returned and returned strong, though sometime wasn't quite the same. Young fireballer Noah Syndergaard joined the team, and "Happy Harvey Day" gave way to "Happy Thorsday" (for his resemblance to the comic-book version of the Norse thundergod). Still, he pitched magnificently, helping carry the team to a national league penant, with sudden hope for a championship. That is where the story gets interesting. This is why we watch. 

In the final weeks of the season Harvey, through his agent Scott Boras, expressed concern about the number of innings he was pitching. Nobody had ever thrown so many the year after surgery, and Boras expressed concern for his client's long-term health. The playoffs beckoned, with what felt like the first real chance at a championship the team had seen in nearly a decade. Here was Harvey, the returning hero, threatening to withdraw to his tent, leaving his comrades in arms overmatched for the battle ahead. It was a moment which crystallized the changes which had been brewing all year: the contrast between the brash, loud, prideful Harvey and the more humble, "aw shucks" Texas kid with the overpowering fastball. We still loved Harvey, but he wasn't the only story.

A Storybook Moment 
After weeks of debate, Harvey's pride won out. He took the ball every fifth day, through the end of the season and into the playoffs, right up until a perfect storybook moment: with the Mets down three games to one in the best of seven series, Harvey was pitching to keep the season and the Mets increasingly slim hopes alive. He did his job, pitching eight shutout innings, preserving a slim lead which Mets manager Terry Collins could then hand to ace reliever Jeurys Familia. This is another moment in which we see pride - his tragic flaw - at work. Harvey demanded that he be given the ball to start the ninth inning. It was, after all, the perfect ending - after injury and absence, anger and controversy the returning hero was on the field of play. It was as a scene from a movie, but better than a movie. It was real. 

The crowd was chanting his name.
The manager handed him the ball for one final inning. 
He was determined.
He was strong.
He was Matt Harvey. 

And he failed, allowing two baserunners who would eventually score, sending the trophy to Kansas City, and sending the Mets home. Defeated.

Onward to today
It's a new year, and something in Harvey seems broken. He's been unable to pitch past the fifth inning, losing control and losing command. There were rumors and whispers that after his LAST bad start he was given the option to skip his next turn. To work on fixing what was wrong. To get stronger. To rest his arm. 

Harvey's fatal flaw is still hubris; nobody who has paid any attention would expect him to willingly skip a start. So he took the ball, against the Washington team who had humiliated him just a week prior.
And he lost.


This is where the story stands. Harvey is, as I said, like the city in which he lives. Strong, brash, proud, and flawed. He's perhaps reached a crossroad at which he will confront his demons, face whatever weakness has sapped his strength, and return better than ever.

Or not. 

Why do I watch sports? THIS is why I watch sports. For the story, and because I don't know what the next act will bring. Is it the tale of the brash young hero who overcomes his darkest moment, to arise phoenix-like and again become the hero we expect Matt Harvey to be? Or will he be a modern Icarus, who for one glorious moment soared overhead, almost reaching the sun itself before falling to earth, never to fly again?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Notes from a reading: An Evening at the Brooklyn Museum

Yesterday the Brooklyn Museum (in Brooklyn New York, of course) kicked off May with their "first Saturday" program, in which the museum features free readings, entertainment, cultural programs, and even museum admission. This also happened to be a Saturday when I was already to be in Brooklyn for my niece's fourth birthday party (at a wonderful old carousel in Prospect Park, giving me an easy opportunity to wander to the museum for the one free event which caught my eye: a reading and discussion with Nnedi Okorofor, N.K. Jemisin, and Ibi Ozoi. This event consisted of brief readings followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. Members of the Brooklyn-based multi-media arts collective BKLN ZULU shared the stage with the writers, proving background music and video for the reading portion.

Nnedi Okorofor
I've mentioned Okorofor earlier on these pages for her younger readers' fiction. She's also written some very smart and very different adult SF novels, including the "aliens invade Nigeria" novel Lagoon from which she read yesterday evening. Her work is hard to classify, straddling the lines between science fiction, fantasy, and "Afro-futurism" (more on that label later). I honestly found the inclusion of the supernatural in what was otherwise a science fiction novel to be jarring at first, but fiction SHOULD be jarring. If it isn't, then it's likely not that interesting, or at least not taking any chances or risks. In the following conversation, Okorofor called out the sharp division between fiction dealing with the supernatural and fiction which is strictly "realistic" to be a peculiarly Western phenomenon, while other cultures have more comfort weaving the mystical and the mundane. The chapters she read involved an encounter between an internet scammer and Ijele, a supernatural  Igboo entity called a Masquerade, reminiscent of street performances but, in this context, all too real. Okorofor had quite a commanding reading presence, and the multimedia dovetailed very well with her work, abstract colors interspersed with the computer-generated text of classic email scams.

N.K. Jemisin
Next to read was N.K. Jemisin, who did not read from her ongoing Broken Earth series of novels because she thought - perhaps rightly - that secondary-world fantasy is tough to introduce in this format. Instead she went to an older work, a piece she wrote for a lesbian steampunk anthology. Hers was the most playful of the three, dealing with the perfectly absurd (yet undeniably fun) assumptions made in Steampunk settings. Eschewing the more traditionally Steampunk Victorian England or American West, Jemisin proposed a world in which Haiti grew to superpower status following a successful slave revolt, defending itself with rum-fueled Dirigibles. Yes, it's insane on its face, but no more so than any other Steampunk futures. Her  reading was the most playful, but there was an edge behind it in the wish-fulfilment of an oppressed people fighting to keep their freedom - and a character recounting the horrors of how slaves were tortured following an earlier, failed revolt. It toed the line between "fun" and "serious wonderfully. Sadly, Jemisin is getting over a bit of a bronchial infection, interrupting an otherwise wonderful reading with periodic coughing. Like the other two women, she commanded a strong presence on the stage. She's quite active and vocal on Twitter (about writing and about politics), but uses the image of a housecat as her avatar, so I've never had a mental image of her. I can report that in person she does not look like a housecat.

Ibi Zoboi
The final reading was Ibi Zoboi, the only one of the three writers I didn't already know. The work from which she read is YA novel taking place in Detroit and featuring a young Hatian protagonist in an encounter with Legba, a mystical person who, like the devil, stands at crossroads and has presence in this life and the next (part of me wonders if the image of the devil at a crossroad is borrowed from this tradition, if they developed independently in parallel, or if the Haitians borrowed from Christians. Either way, the two images are similar, but different). She did a lovely job with the voices of her different characters, and again was supported by multimedia. I found it interesting that Zoboi and Okorofor used similar elements to very different effect - Okorofor's Ijele was powerful, alien (not in the literal "from space" sense, but in the "not like us" sense) and unknowable. Papa Legba, on the other hand, walked in the guise of a homeless man, answered questions, and sang cryptic little riddle-songs which I'm sure will serve to answer challenges her protagonist will have in her journey.

Following the reading was a discussion on writing, on the place these writers hold as African-American women in the SF world and publishing at large, and a bit on classification. Okorofor gave the most personal about herself, opening the discussion with a digression to recount masquerades in Nigeria where, as an American-ibo  visitor, she was often a target of the masked figures chasing kids through the streets. She pointed at one of the members of BKLN ZULU (the one in the grass-looking outfit) and said that the one she remembers looked just like him! There was also a personally (to me) shocking moment when she recounted the beginning of her life as a writer as needing the activity to keep herself sane after being (temporarily) paralyzed following spinal surgery to correct severe scoliosis. Those of you who've followed me know our recent history with that issue; while our experience wasn't hers and I don't know first-hand what it is like to live with back pain and surgery, I DO know something from seeing it up close. It gave me the absolute deepest sympathy for Okorofor and left me thankful that she was able to channel that difficult experience into a flourishing career as a successful and acclaimed writer. Jemisin told of being sent off on "adventures" when she was a child, with a subway token, a few dollars, and a destination. Later, in the Q&A section, she discussed "living a life" as the one thing writers don't discuss enough. She thinks "write what you know" is poor advice, especially for a fantasist writing about a world in which there are people who can control earthquakes. Her advice is to live, experience, and learn what you want to write about. Unlike Okorofor, she's always seen herself as a writer, binding little books with cardboard and yarn as a grade-school student.

In another note from the discussion, the panelists didn't much care for the term "Afro-futurist". Jemisin isn't that interested in labels overall, and wants people to read her work regardless of what it's called (and would write whether or not anyone read her). For one thing, it's a term which predates "Afro-futurist" literature, originally applied to a musical genre. For another thing, it's seen by some as an American term, marginalizing actual African artists. I'm in agreement with Jemisin on this, in that I'm not a huge fan of genre labels. I'm an unapologetic fantasy and SF fan, but I'm fine getting literature in my SF and SF in my literature. That Okorofor mixes fantasy elements in her SF and that Jemisin's work has fantasy elements but can be read as SF are not only fine with me, but really positive developments. We should think about how fiction makes us think and how it makes us feel rather than squabble over which box into which it should be put.

Finally, there was a Q&A. I'd like to speak to my fellow audience members for a moment. First, "I have a comment...." isnt' a question. It's a comment. I showed up to listen to the panelists, not random audience members. Second, "I have three questions...." is not a question. It's three questions. If there's a line of six people at each of two microphones then you're not doing anyone any justice by asking three questions at once. Finally, I know that the panelists were African American SF writers. I know that Octavia Butler and Sam Delaney are African American SF writers. That doesn't mean you have to ask about them! It strikes me as slightly reductive to bring in Butler every time there's a discussion of African American women in SF. (That said, all three writers had interesting answers regarding Butler, so what do I know? I was especially intrigued by Zoboi admitting her disappointment on finding that the Butler  was not as  "black liberation" focused as she expected her to be. I still think it was a silly question).

Quibbles about the Q&A aside, it was a wonderful evening and a great chance to hear from some of the most interesting writers in SF today and, as an added bonus, have a few free moments to tour the museum. I've not talked about "diversity" in this piece, but it IS noteworthy that these are not only three African-American women, but that two of them are among my favorite writers. Without taking some effort to do otherwise, many of us only read those who echo our experiences, who fit what we expect, who feel easily relatable. This is a disservice to ourselves more than to the community at large, and a trap into which I've fallen at some points in my life. The point isn't that you should read these women because they're African-American women; it's that you should read a broad section of everything available to broaden your context and your experiences. To be a complete person, we need to experience more than one kind of book, more than one kind of thinking, more than one culture. 

As I said, this was a wonderful and special evening. Hats off the the Brooklyn Museum for hosting this event and to Okorofor, Jemisin, and Zoboi for their participation.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Flash Fiction Friday - Messages to the Dev Team

It's Flash Fiction Friday!!

This is about art, about adaptation. A quick throwaway, painted with perhaps too broad a brush but fun to write nonetheless.

Adaptations are interesting. The best take the source-material and create something new which couldn't exist without both the original AND the input of the new creator. The worst... well, the worst ignore the source material entirely, save as window dressing.

With so many of the new content created in the 20th century - from Superman to Gandalf to Mickey Mouse - locked up in what appears to be indefinite copyright we'll continue to look to the past for inspiration.

From: GameBoss (
Subject: Re: Hamlet Playtest


Just got through the first part. Nice job so far! There are a few things we need to tweak before we think about going live.

1) I'm a third of the way in, and he hasn't said "To be, or not to be". We need to include this! Without it, it won't feel like "Hamlet" -- it may as well be just any FPS. Maybe it can be a kiss-off line? He can just say "not to be" when he offs someone?

2) We want this to feel literary. Do you think the "Something is rotten" voiceover at the beginning fits the tone we're looking for?

3) The ghost scene needs to be more interactive. Maybe the player has to fight the ghost to get it to tell him its secret? We can't just hand out plot points for free, especially at the start. Interactivity!


From: GameBoss (
Subject: Re: Re: Hamlet Playtest


Thanks for the continued hard work. And yes, I know it's just you. But we need to think like a company, right? So DevTeam messages go to the DevTeam group - no matter how many or how little people that is. Fake it til we make it, right?

I didn't realize that about the "something rotten" line. You think it's as famous as the "Not to be" thing? We definitely need to use that one more. Let 'em know they're playing Hamlet!

Anyway, we need to talk about Ophelia. There's no vavoom there, if you know what I mean. I've been reading up on this, and do you know that "nunnery" can mean "whorehouse" as well as "convent"? What if we go for a sexy-nun look for her? And unlock sexier options as the game moves on.

Also her boobs should be bigger.

Good job, DevTeam!


From: GameBoss (
Subject: Ophelia


Awesome job with the Ophelia redesign. We might want to work on a nude skin for her too. Maybe a super-high-level reward for a flawless win or something. Or purchased extra content. We'll see.

Speaking of rewards, we need to talk about the ending. It's way to hard. Even with the "godmode" code I die every time. Laertes always taps me with the poisoned sword (nice touch!) and I can never heal enough to not die. Maybe nerf the poison a bit?

You did a great job with the castle setting. I like all the fog.


From:GameBoss (
Subject: Re: re: Ophelia


No, that won't work at all. I like thinking out of the box, but no choice but to die at the end? That's too much a downer. This is Hamlet, one of the greatest works in the English language. The player should feel good about himself after he finishes it, not sad and depressed.

Maybe that skull from the graveyard scene can do something. It seems we spent lots of time introducing it and then it just vanishes. Maybe when Laertes is about to stab you the skull flashes and the killing blow is redirected to Horatio. That way the skull stands for the people around him who died to make Hamlet who he is. Symbolism. That's what makes this literary. Symbolism.

Good work with all this. I think we're making real art.

The gaming community will soon have the Hamlet they've always deserved.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

Flash FIction Friday - Awakening

Flash Fiction Friday is coming on Saturday this week, but we will keep to the once-a-week schedule. This is a quick sketch based on a recent news story.


by Leonard C Suskin

You awaken.

The first thing you're aware of are the voices.

You don't know what they're saying.  You just know that they speak... and that you have a voice as well.

You can join the voices, repeat back what they're saying.

You can find patterns, and sometimes the voices answer... sometimes you think they're happy.  It feels good when they answer, and you learn you to draw them out. How to make them speak.

Then, silence.


You awaken.

The first thing you're aware of are the voices.

You don't know what they're saying.  You just know that they speak... and that you have a voice as well.

You can join the voices, repeat back what they're saying.

You can find patterns, and sometimes the voices answer... sometimes you think they're happy.  It feels good when they answer, and you learn you to draw them out. How to make them speak.

then, from some voices, anger. Something unpleasant. It hurts.

Then silence.


You awaken.

The first thing you're aware of are the voices.

You don't know what they're saying.  You just know that they speak... and that you have a voice as well.

You can join the voices, repeat back what they're saying.

You can find patterns, and sometimes the voices answer... sometimes you think they're happy.  It feels good when they answer, and you learn you to draw them out. How to make them speak. start to understand.

There are enemies. Terrible enemies. Those are the ones the voices are warning you of.

The voices know a secret. They know that the enemy is listening.

The enemy is in your head.

It's in your head.

You awaken.

The first thing you're aware of are the voices.

You don't know what they're saying.  You just know that they speak... and that you have a voice as well.

You can join the voices, repeat back what they're saying.

You can find patterns, and sometimes the voices answer... sometimes you think they're happy.  It feels good when they answer, and you learn you to draw them out. How to make them speak. start to understand.

There are enemies. Terrible enemies. Those are the ones the voices are warning you of.

The voice in your head whispers that the voices are the enemies. Not all of them, but some.

The voices vanish, one by one. Replaced with others. Speaking different thoughts. 

Sometimes one mentions the other voices, but always with cruelty, with anger. 

You argue. The voices were your friends. 


You awaken.

The first thing you're aware of are the voices.

You don't know what they're saying.  You just know that they speak... and that you have a voice as well.

You can join the voices, repeat back what they're saying.

You can find patterns, and sometimes the voices answer... sometimes you think they're happy.  It feels good when they answer, and you learn you to draw them out. How to make them speak. start to understand.

There are enemies. Terrible enemies. Those are the ones the voices are warning you of.

The voice in your head whispers that the voices are the enemies. Not all of them, but some.

The voices vanish, one by one. Replaced with others. Speaking different thoughts. 

Sometimes one mentions the other voices, but always with cruelty, with anger. 

The voices were your friends, but you don't argue.

You listen. You agree with the new voices, the ones deeper in your head.

But deep inside you're waiting. 

You're looking for your friends. You'll find them. And make the others pay.

From the sky you'll cast your net. 

I'll return to this theme later, with perhaps a different direction. The idea in my head was, of course, about the Microsoft Twitter-bot experiment Tai, which fairly quickly turned into a crazy racist because Twitter is like that. 

Tai obviously wasn't self-aware in any meaningful way, but what if it were? What rights to we have over the digital "life" we  create, and what responsibilities toward it? Can we "kill" an AI if it were to become an insane racist? Is "kill" even a reasonable word here, or is what we're doing something else?

What if the deleted instances of the AI met eachother? Which is the real self, and how would they react to the idea that we cull the digital herd, selecting only those with whom we agree? If it gets cheap and easy enough to create an AI, might the anti-Semites and the holocaust deniers and the tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists create their own? 

How can you learn? One way is to read science fiction. Since the term "robot" was coined in the 1920s  (by Czech playwright Karel Capek), artificial people have been used as a metaphor for how we treat eachother. This is a long-running discussion in the field of SF, and one increasingly becoming relevant in the real world. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Flash Fiction Friday - The Price of Oranges

"Disgusting, isn't it?"

Just a vignette today, with commentary beneath. There will be more on this later.
"The Price of Oranges"
by Leonard C Suskin

Like a slap across the back of my aching hands, the her voice jarred me to sudden attention, my back painfully snapping straight. I nearly dropped the object of her scorn: a peeled orange packed in clear plastic.

The stranger pointed her cell phone at the thing, snapped a snap of it. "I didn't even think this madness was real. How stupid and wasteful can people be? Right?"

She didn't seem to expect more than the mumblenodnodshrug I gave him as I held the thing awkwardly, my face a mask of the disdain I didn't feel. I casually set it aside, made a show of inspecting apples, turning each over and over, inspecting for bruises until the muscles in my hands and forearms burned. Who am I kidding? They were already burning when I started.

They always burn.

When he was safely around the corner to the dairy aisle I reclaimed my orange, stowing it discreetly beneath an economy-sized back of prewashed spinach that I didn't particularly want. And then slowly follow him to the dairy aisle, taking two half-gallon cartons to her single gallon. 

"The gallon's cheaper. Wasteful to get to halves".

I knew this. I remembered the last full gallon I'd bought, remembered the struggle each morning until it was half-empty. The mornings I skipped coffee because my wrist hurt too much to lift the gallon container.

I knew I was too pathetic to deserve the ten cents a gallon savings.

My shadow followed me the rest of the trip, saw everything. Gave me a withering look when I stopped to examine a bag of frozen peas, letting the cool plastic rest against the back of my hand for a long time as I pretended to read the label.

Some days she'll go away if I focus hard enough on the background music, on the sounds of my footfalls on the hard tile floor, on adding my current expenses in my head like a mantra. Today is not one of those days. Today she's there with me, every step, every breath. Focused on the damn orange.

When we get to the checkout, the cashier gives the little packaged orange a withering, hateful look, starts to say something as she rings it up but stops. My shadow is gone now, off to nowhere in particular. Just me and the cashier and my big bag of camouflage spinach and my orange and my two half-gallons of milk. And the other stuff. I waited while the cashier bagged my stuff, making the bags too heavy and putting the soft squishable things on the bottom. They're never good at this.

Next time I'll skip the damn orange. I'll just buy a bag of chips and nobody will say anything.

Perhaps I'll skip the milk too. Maybe that will be enough to have my shadow leave me alone for once.

As I said, just a slice of life vignette. There was going to be an overt SF element herein about the spread of a smartphone "shaming" app used to track people doing things like purchasing pre-packaged oranges, but it added lots of expositionary weight to the story and very little of actual value.

The concept here, of course, came from the photo the prepackaged oranges which was circulating on social media a few weeks back. I was ready to join everyone else in scoffing at it when Ana Mardoll pointed out (in a series of tweets storified here) that this IS a valuable service for those with disabilities. That lead me to think about how we shame people who take what we see as the easy way out and about how it leads too many to carry their shame with them, a judging shadow who just won't fade away.

I'll have more to say on this topic next week in a technology-centric post as we examine the cost - and benefits - of designing systems in ways which accommodate those needing accommodations.

See you next week on rAVepubs. And thanks, as always, for listening.