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.

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"Awakening"
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.

Darkness.



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.

Darkness.


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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.

...you 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.

...you 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. 

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.

...you 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. 

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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.
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"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.

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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.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Tracks - The Return of Flash Fiction Friday!

Let's re-start Flash Fiction Friday with a brief sketch of life in suburbia.

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"Tracks"

by Leonard C Suskin

What the child liked best about the house is that there are places you can't go. No forbidden rooms, no hidden stairs, but small spaces encompassing tiny mysteries. The child had wished for a hidden room since the father had recounted the tale of Blackbeard the pirate one bedtime (and what a row that had lead to when the child refused to sleep for nights after, coming to the bedroom. The mother scolded the father for sowing nightmare seeds, but that wasn't quite it; the child awoke each night searching the tiny two-bedroom apartment for a hidden door, and was always brought to tears when none was found), but really knew that a forbidden door and a hidden room was a grown-up secret. The child was far enough from the threshold of adulthood to find joy in tiny child-size secrets. The space behind the boiler. The rusty metal floorplate in the basement closet which the mother said lead to a trap - not just a mouse-trap, but a house-trap. The child wondered if what was inside was somehow what had captured this house, anchored it hear.

The point, of course, isn't mouse-traps or house-traps (which you know is just plumbing because you traded away mystery for knowledge), isn't what's really in the spaces behind the walls or under the floor. The point is that there are hidden spaces and forbidden spaces. The point is that while the mother and father sanded and painted and carpented and plumbed the child could stand at the very edge of a mystery, the child-brain a radio searching for the frequency of whatever broadcast came from beyond the walls. Or a whatever the modern metaphor for "radio" would be now that everyone streams music over wi-fi and radio is just a lumbering RF dinosaur clogging a part of the spectrum. But I digress. Where were we?

Yes. The child.

The stair is wooden with those little square of carpet to keep one from slipping, dark-brown paint stained dusted with thick layers of plaster dust (remember, the mother and father are renovating). It was in this dusty corner that the child first saw the tracks. Tiny things, the sort a mouse would make, or perhaps an undersized rat. Tiny whispers in dust which, seconds ago, the child was sure had been pristine. The tracks started at that little carpetsquare in the center of the stair tread and ended... at the wall. The child marvelled at this, wondering where the creature which made them could have come from, where it had gone.

When the electric sander upstairs fell silent, the child wiped the tiny tracks away with a carelessly dirty sleeve, gathering both the dust and the empty spaces within. Even a child knows that an adult, seeing mousetracks in the new house, would hunt and kill, would lay mousetraps and not housetraps and whatever mysterious housemate they had would be gone.

The next day the child returned to the stair when the coast was clear. Again the skitchskitchskitch sound of sandpaper (not the electric one today). Again, a white dusting on darkwood stair. And again a track, but this one was different.

One print, right where the last had been. One print, midway up the stairs. Nothing below, nothing beneath. No mouse-tracks, this one. Even a child reared in the city knew this for what it is: a single cat's paw print.

The family did now own a cat.

Was it a stray? But how did it get in, and why no more prints? Where was it?

Do mice grow to be cats out here in the suburbs? The child wondered if some different logic was at work than there had been in the city.

We've already said that the best thing about the house is forbidden corners. The other best thing is the space, the empty parts of the day when the father and mother were sanding, were painting, were (though the child wouldn't have thought of this word) nesting. It made the whole world a secret corner, one in which a gentle-hearted child could steal a saucer from the kitchen, spill some milk into it, and hide it in that little cobwebby spot behind the boiler. The child did this quickly, eagerly, a touch frantically for fear that whichever cutecat (because in the child's mind the cat was never anything but cute) had left its mark was hungry, perhaps even starving.

Maybe a saucer of stolen milk (still three days before the expiration date!) would be enough.

Maybe.

The next day was a Monday. The child went to school, the parents to work.

The schoolbuilding was all shinynew, walls meeting neatly at sharp corners, no secrets, nothing hidden.

The child is usually the first to awaken, has a hidden moment for the cooldark of the basement.

The saucer is empty, sticky. No more milk. The child hopes the cutecat is happy. But then on the stair...

..a dog print. You saw it coming, didn't you? The child didn't. Just the one footprint.

A long time pondering, in the halflight spilling to the stairway from the old incandescent bulb in the kitchen. A trickle of light, a warm dusty light. Not the antiseptic fluorescent which makes everything too real, but the kind of old spilled half-light in which a monster can still hide.

The child pads to the kitchen on quietmorning feet, as the rest of the house sleeps. A tiny scrap of meat from last night's dinner, nobody would miss it. Right? Onto the secret saucer with it. Maybe it would make the ghostdog happy and it would leave the cutecat alone. Maybe the ghostdog IS the cat, grown up again.

Whatever it is, whyever its there, it is.

An invisible pet.

Or a parade of invisible pets. It doesn't much matter.

In what is already become ritual, the child dutifully gathers up the footprint onto a sleeve.

And leaves the secretshadows behind as the parents stir to wakefulness,

Through the day, the child carries the mystery, wondering what shape I'll show tomorrow.


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The picture was mine, and kickstarted this story. How did you picture the child? As a boy or a girl? How old? Much in this sketch is left intentionally vague, some ambiguous. There's a touch of an influence from Terry Bisson's "Billy" stories, but just a touch.


I'll be flexing the flash-fiction muscle more over the coming months, perhaps striving to return to at least one per week. If you have images, themes, or anything else you think would make an interesting story inspiration, feel free to share. Perhaps I'll see what I can do with it.

Monday, April 11, 2016

On Trump, Dilbert, and Who We Are

WARNING - This post contains politics

I've been absent from these pages far too long. Later this week we'll resurrect regular flash fiction - it's something I miss writing and that I hope some of you enjoy reading. First, as we head towards the New York State presidential primaries, a word on politics. Enter at your own risk.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this on Twitter after someone shared a baffling blog post by Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams regarding Donald Trump:



Adams had made the bizarre case that comparisons of Trump to a Nazi were racist attacks on his German-American heritage. While this is quite honestly so stupid and ill-informed an opinion that I can only believe Adams to be trolling, he does have a string of oddly respectful posts in which he regards Trump as a "master persuader". It was this pattern which lead me to speak as I did; to make it clear that, as technologists, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to distance ourselves from those who are divisive, racist, and bullying. On reflection (and after discussion with Twitter's appropriately-named AV Grump who said - perhaps accurately - that tech industries are not a monolith) I realized why this is an issue for the tech industry in particular as well as for the country as a whole. I also realized that the arrogance and bigotry of someone like Trump fits into the oeuvre of someone like Scott Adams.

Adams is an ex-phone company employee who has made an entire career out of a single joke: that the brilliant engineer is tormented by the unintelligent and technologically clueless imbeciles in management. In addition to being repetative and a bit dull, it sends a message to technogically-inclined readers: that we're better than the rest of you, that those above us with more money and status (from our boss all the way up to the CEO)  got there for reasons beyond our understanding and are, in any ways that matter, our clear inferiors. It's easy to take this a step farther and see any less tech-savvy people as our inferiors. It's the same thing that Trump does: define an "us" and a "them" and convince "us" that our problems are all caused by those who aren't as smart, aren't as savvy, who don't belong.

It's something which I sadly see all the time in the technology world. In my last piece on rAVePubs I spoke of a client who referred to a hardware-based videoconference Codec as a "Kodak". I know too many in the industry who would mock them for this, but that's playing right into the  "us vs them" philosophy from which we need to extricate ourselves. Why did the client get the name of the device wrong? Because they were trying to learn, because someone who is a professional used the word without bothering to explain it or define it, and they learned it wrong. Meanwhile, the client in question is a professional with their own set of skills which I certainly don't share. I'll never learn if I decide that another human being is stupid because they're not familiar with the narrow technical knowledge base which I have curated over the years.

This, perhaps, is why seeing a professed technologist like Adams speaking well of Trump strikes a chord with me; in Trump I see reflected the worst in all of us, and that includes the technology sector. Dilbert is, sadly, who many of us are. I have, perchance, fallen into that trap myself. We need to all remember that yes, we do have specialized knowledge and that knowledge has value. We've studied, we've learned, and we can teach. I'll talk later (after some flash fiction! I promise!)  about the role of tech in public policy advocacy and when (and how) we should raise our voices - and when the rest of the population should consider our opinion. Overall, however, most of what we know is what I refer to as "stuff" - how to size a video display, formats for audio transport, how to read the spec sheet on a loudspeaker. It's useful. It's even valuable. But knowing it does not make us any better than anyone else.

Nobody gets anywhere from segmentation into "us" and "them", from a lack of respect for those not like us. It might feel good in the short term, but it's bad for society. So, as we reject the actual Trump, let us all reject our inner Trumps, in our industry and in ourselves.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Moments to Reflect - Happy Birthday to her New Back!

Today is a look-back in time kind of day, and a day to be thankful, to be hopeful, and to reflect on the long road travelled and a long road ahead. Most of you know me here as a writer, as a speculative fiction fan, and as an audiovisual professional. Last year around this time I allowed myself the indulgence of discussing family in this space, specifically a very serious and major back surgery my lovely wife, Karine, needed to correct was was at the time an over 60 degree curve in her spine. Many of you helped us with donations to a crowdfunding page to help us defray the cost of her recovery and the months we knew she'd spend not working. Many more have - and continue - to offer well-wishes. We thank you and appreciate it. Today marks exactly one year since the big event. As I write this we are exactly twelve months removed from our arrival at the hospital for what would be over nine hours on the operating table.

Today she says "Happy Birthday to her back!" and looks back to a time when walking for five minutes was an accomplishement. The struggle isn't over, but we're on the path together. Today she's not back to what you or I would see as normal, but can already do so much more than she could a year ago.

The Story - Abridged
The day of had a surreal quality as it happens which it retains in my mind. It's a thing which is serious and frightening and important, but also something about which we as family members can't do all that much. As an AV person, of course, I noticed that the digital signage TVs were running video on a windows application which had frozen with a Windows update dialog box. Was this an ill-omen? A metaphor? A sign that my mind, in anxiety over the event, was fixated on the familiar? Some combination?
Signage Failure!

That day represented hours of work for the surgical team, hours of unconciousness for Karine, and hours of waiting for the rest of us. So we waited. We stepped out for lunch. I read an entire novel from cover to cover (John Scalzi's Lock-In for those who are for some reason curious. A terrific book but, as it deals with a mysterious and strange illness, is perhaps not the best choice to read in a hospital waiting room. But I digress).  We waited.

Reading and waiting.
And waiting. 
And we saw her briefly in the recovery room, then waited some more. And more. I'll hold private most of the details of the next days as this is more her story to tell than mine, save to say that it was nine days in the ICU before we moved to a recovery room. Then, quite suddenly, in-patient rehab was denied by the insurance company and, in an eyeblink, I was on my way to the city for the long trip home. (This was a joyous disaster. Joyous because the ordeal in the hospital was over. A disaster because it was frightening and painful. She was still getting used the the changes in her body, was barely recovered, and the long drive home was, quite simply, agonizing. Of the many painful memories, the feeling of helplessness as I drove and she suffered in the passenger seat remains in the forefront). And, in an almost too-neat closure of the above signs and portents, the day I picked her up was the very first day that damn digital sign in the lobby was actually working. Yes, it took over a week for someone to notice and click "OK" on the windows dialog box.

And then began the long year.

It Takes a Village - In which I give thanks
I've already thanked my friends - in the audiovisual community and elsewhere - for your contributions and support. The process also served as a reminder that we're not alone. January of 2015 was a tough time to do this; it was a bitterly cold winter featuring at least one dreadful blizzard. Travel to and from the hospital was a challenge, as was the rest of life. Until her trip home, Karine was likely the least affected by this: in the ICU room she didn't even have a window to the storm outside. Some heroes of the week:

Our new neighbors. For shovelling what looked like a solid foot of snow from our driveway and front walk. This was not asked for, not expected. It was appreciated and helped cement the feeling that, in moving out to Long Island, we'd stumbled into a community.

Thanks, Neighbors!
Marc and Alexa Suskin (and kids!).  Karine's brother and his family for housing our children through the snow days along with their three children in a Brooklyn apartment nowhere nearly large enough for quite so many people. The kids had a great time with distractions such as homemade "icecream" made with newly fallen snow from their balcony.

Malou Suskin - Karine's mother. For holding down the fort when the kids had to return home. She also earns a civilian "Purple Heart" for slipping on the ice and managing to break her shoulder in an attempt to set out the trash cans. Thankfully she is well-recovered from that injury as well.


Changes
This is, perhaps, what we expected and should expect, but the surgery was a starting point rather than an endpoint.


  • It wasn't over after the surgery
  • It wasn't over after leaving the ICU
  • It wasn't over after returning from the hospital.
  • It wasn't over after the end of physical therapy.
  • It isn't over today.


One thing that the surgery and its aftermath highlight to me is just how interconnected a human body is; The surgery didn't merely straighten her back. It tore and rearranged muscles, it effected her shoulders, legs, hips, etc. Those things too took time to heal, as much as the actual back. And today, in body, she is changed.
  • She has perfect posture, as if there's a straight metal bar in her back. Because there is (two metal bars, in fact).

  • She stands nearly two inches taller than she did before.
  • Her clothes hang differently on her.
  • The way she moves has changed.

Inside, beneath all of that, she's still the same woman with whom I fell in love. My heart sings to see her recovering, and weeps to see her suffering still.

It is, as I said a journey. Not a straight climb towards a better future, but two steps forward and one back. Still, we move forward and still, we get a little better, day by day, week by week.

I'll close with a cheerful story and a final thank you:

One thing that saddened us  deeply is the idea that she might never be able to hold our then three-year-old son again. He was getting bigger and she had literally months of not being able to lift anything heavy. Like a child. Last week I saw her standing with him in her arms, clinging to her with arms and legs. I didn't know that would ever again happen, and it brings a tear to my eye to see that it did. Something which could have been forever lost was not quite.

A final thank you
I am truly grateful to friends, colleagues, family, neighbors. Most of all, as I look back on the year and the decade before, there's one thought above all others. That I can walk this path and others with my lovely bride because she chose me as her partner with whom to share all of life's adventures.  The last - and deepest thanks - are to her. For having the courage to face these challenges. For pushing herself in her recovery to care for our children. And, most of all, for giving me the chance to share the journey with her.

Thank you, I love you, and I'll be there for you.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

On Star Wars, the Force Awakens, and Sharing Bad Literature with your Children

Warning: Herein lie spoilers for The Force Awakens. Proceed at thine own risk!

Yesterday I finally saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. While it was not, in my estimation, a particularly good movie, it is a good Star Wars movie. A series of discussions I had with Chloe (regular readers of this blog know of Chloe, the now-nine year old with whom I've been sharing my love of fantastic literature), I was pondering how some (but not all) of our beloved classics are, in various ways, deeply flawed. Can you still love something with problems?

The initial discussion was about Return of the Jedi, particularly the revelation that Luke and Leia are brother and sister. Her question (as she saw a part of it out of context) was WHY this was. It lead to a nice chat about the love triangle between Leia, Luke, and Han along with what a love-triangle does in fiction in the first place. I then pointed out that making Luke and Leia siblings after teasing the relationship for the first two movies can be read as a cheat. It resolves the conflict without having to have one of the two rivals "lose". It was a nice discussion that lead to more of a chance to teach about the shape of stories. And this brings us to The Force Awakens.

The biggest and most obvious weakness, to me, is how closely The Force Awakens tracks the plot details of the first trilogy. It's almost as if someone made a checklist:


  • Black-masked, lightsaber-wielding supervillain
    • Killing a beloved mentor (repeated in Ep IV, I, and and now VII. With a scream of "NO" each time)
  • Stormtroopers
  • Young dreamer on a desert planet
  • Hot-shot pilot.
  • Death Star. Even bigger death star!
    • With a small vulnerability
    • Destroyed moments before obliterating the Rebel base.
    • (Death Stars were destroyed in Episodes, IV, VI, and VII. A droid command ship was destroyed in similar circumstances in Episode I)
we also get Han Solo, the Millenium Falcon, Princess Leia, a new Emperor-like figure. It is, in its way, a better film than A New Hope; most notably, the acting and dialog are far better (although there are a few parts - especially near the beginning - in which it's a bit too far on the snappy side). Kilo Renn is a more interesting character than Darth Vader, yet he's less menacing. Vader was, in some ways, more of a force than a character. He had no facial expressions, showed no emotion, existing as a pure threat to the heroes. Renn, on the other hand, is emotional. In the Star Wars mythos of the "Dark Side" of the force being fueled by negative emotions, he's the first we've seen really feed on uncontrollable anger. It also makes him less of a credible threat, but more of that later.

As in all Star Wars films, the plot in  The Force Awakens relies heavily on coincidences. Landing in the one part of the planet where another important person lives. The one dessert scavenger who can use the force stumbling across the macguffin. Etc.

It's not without its charm. I LOVE the new "Jedi to be" character Rey; there was a moment early in the film in which she was in danger and it appeared that the male lead was going to rescue her. He then watched, almost slack-jawed, as she fought off multiple attackers on her own. Less convincing is her emergence as a budding force-user. We see some tricks from the standard Jedi playbook: the Jedi mind trick, the grabbing something from a distance with her mind, fancy lightsaber fighting.  Where it breaks suspension of disbelief (for me) is that she does all of these things almost instinctively, after revealing earlier in the movie that she didn't even believe for certain that the Jedi were real. We even saw her sneak through an enemy base in a scene very reminiscent of Obi Wan Kenobi on the Death Star in Episode IV.  It was, from my mind, too much from this character too early.

This was echoed in my mind later when she fights Kilo Renn. It's a great lightsaber battle in which the untrained, young woman who has never before held a lightsaber defeats a foe who had destroyed the new Jedi order and sent Luke Skywalker into hiding. It's a moment which, to me, not only did not feel "earned" but is the wrong shape for the story; I'd rather have seen the hero defeated in a hard-fought battle rather than emerge triumphant. This leaves something more to which to build for their next encounter. As things stand, he's been beaten once. That will make it mean less when he is beaten again. 

Was the movie fun? It absolutely was. It looked like Star Wars, with all the rough edges and beautiful decay we've come to expect. Harrison Ford gave a very memorable performance as Han Solo and, sentimentality aside, did an excellent job showing us the once-swashbuckling hero as an older man, hanging on to the things he knows how to do after facing a tragedy. Ditto for Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Overall, though, what bothers me the most is how safe it felt. It's like a once-great band on a reunion tour playing their greatest hits from back in the day. Yes, we still like them. And yes, it's fun while it is happening. At the end of the day, though, it's not "art" so much as a package: as what we expect wrapped up in a pretty box for us. Disney spent four billion dollars on Lucasfilms. 
 What they got is a cash cow to milk, nostalgia to sell back to us. 

Was it a good Star Wars movie? Ultimately yes. A good movie? For that it would have had to take more risks, break more new ground, give us something to say.

And that is today's lesson: it's one which would be harder to tell with a better movie. To look critically at film and literature and see it for what it is, not what we want it to be. 

So endeth the lesson.

May the force be with you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Flash Fiction: Small Flames

A bit of flash fiction to light your way this winter season.

Small flames, and a callback to an old, old story. These stories are our heritage; they only live so long as we remember them, retell them, reinterpret them.



Small Flames

by Leonard C Suskin

Winter, still,  is a time for small flames. That serves as a small blessing to me, me who left this world through the comfort of the smallest of flames. It's grey here between, so very grey, but sometimes I can see backward through a small flame.

Yes, it's true, what he wrote about me. Are you surprised that I know? People did once read by dancing candlelights, or even gaslamps. But now, as I learn more and grow into a flickering shadow of what I might have been, now candleflames are for lovers, for birthdays, for mourning. Yes, time still passes here and my innocence has faded but still I was never a lover. The dance of flesh in counterpoint to the flickering candleflame holds little longing, little interest for me. Perhaps a small measure for the closeness, the touch.

I do so miss touch.

Sometimes I glimpse a birthday. Through the flickering lights of the slenderest candles I can see their eager faces, see families whole and in love, see sweet cakes stacked on garish-colored plates. Everything smells of smoke and soot, but I can still see and, sometimes, still remember. If I listen closely I can hear a child's wish.

A bicycle.

A pony.

A reunion with a parent, sibling, or even beloved pet who's passed on.

Fear not, small child. The last wish will be the one granted. Not in this life, but the next.

Sometimes I show them. I still carry with me the image of the Christmas dinner that never was with my grandmother and hers, that one scrap of warmth that eased me into the cold. To show it again to a small, sad child is no hard trick, and I think they always see theirs at the banquet. I think it's comforting.


Anyway, like I was saying, winter is the time for small candles. For years I'd look forward to it, to a chance to linger about Christmas trees strung with popcorn and adorned with flickering tiny flames. Then more and more the candles went away, replaced by cold, dead, electric fire encased in hard glass. To look through no longer brings comfort, but an icysharp pain, a view of a world too sharp and too hard and too real. It breaks my heart to be driven from Christmas.

But it is winter and it is, as I said, a time for small flames. They aren't my people, but there are some who light candles, one more on each day, tiny flickers of living fire. Tiny windows for me to peek into the world.

There's a part of my story they never told, not in any of the times I read it by candlelight.

When I passed, I clung to the dead matchstick like a talisman and, even in this place, I still feel it with me. I drift, drawn to the small flames, have not yet joined the banquet myself.

I've yet to meet Him.

Very few stop here to stay with me with the candles, in between. You're the first in a long time. I'm sorry, but thank you.

Anyway, like I was saying, there are still candles, and still people who light them. I don't know the language, but I know they're calling to Him when they light them. I know they do because I can feel the light getting brighter, I know because I feel an unnatural warmth spreading from the flame. I know because for a moment - just a moment - the scent of beef stewed all day in root vegetables and the oily smoke scent of cooking overcomes the ashes and soot. For that moment I can step into the flame and join the banquet myself.

It might be soon time for me to leave this place between, to join Him and all who came before me and lose myself. To cast off this dead matchstick I carry.

Perhaps soon.

Will you take my hand? Will you come with me?


Or will you linger for a time beside the small flames brief flickers dancing across all too brief moments of life?