It is November 14th. You should be fucking listening to…

…Like Clockwork – Queens of the Stone Age

I’ve always been lukewarm on QOTSA. They had a few good songs, but seemed a bit generic. Nothing really sold me on them, but god damn, their latest album really gelled together. I haven’t specified one song because, as you can see by that awesome video, huge chunks of it work together thematically, enabling them to do this half hour long graphic novel rock opera thing.

Bukz 11/6

My reading list for the week (okay, let’s be real, probably two). Crappy vehicle Voltron for scale – Optimus is on break.

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Learned a harsh lesson from my optimistic list last month. I just cannot read like I used to – largely because I have jobs and write books now. When I was barely employed and broke, I’d go to the library every week and grab a dozen books. I’d be back a week or so later for a new stack. In a way, I miss it, but I guess the trade-off is that I’m not getting rickets from malnutrition brought on by a diet of half-cooked instant Ramen, Taco Bell and angst.

First review of The Unnoticeables

And it’s good!

Thank God. Being a writer means having a tenuous balance between arrogance and self hatred. You have to be cocky enough to believe, apropos of nothing, that what comes out of your brain is worth putting into the brains of others. And yet you have to despise yourself enough to be able to reject the terrible premises, spot your own flaws, and edit that crap into something worth actually putting into your reader’s brain-holes.

So finishing a book is exhilarating: “Look what I have done! I’m so brilliant. I have birthed worlds and lives out of nothing! I AM A GOD!”

But it’s also terrifying: “Look what I have done. I’m an idiot, I slapped together a bunch of assholes out of cliches and adverbs. God forgive me.”

By the time I’m finished with a book, I know that it’s the best I can possibly do at that time. If I could do better, I would — I’d simply edit it further. But I have no idea if that means the book is, objectively, any good. That all depends on reader response, and I have to wait years to get that.

The few readers who’ve seen it have liked it, obviously some editors and agents liked it, and now here’s the first review, and it is good.

So I am a god. Until I’m an asshole again. It is the God/Asshole cycle of writing, and it is eternal.

Because Reasons.

I don’t normally join in on bashing pop-jokes — those structured set-ups the internet loves so much (think Chuck Norris). They’re usually just a harmless and accessible way for normal folks to get in on making comedy.

But if you’re actually writing comedy, please don’t use “because reasons” or “because science” or “because of course they do.” It’s such a missed opportunity. “Because” should start a joke, not end it. It’s a great set-up: What is the reason they would do this? Do you not know? Fine, theorize about it. Figure out something hilarious for that reason to be. Are they doing it because they’re stupid, vindictive, evil, confused? Well, like the old joke goes, how dumb/awful/baffled are they?

That “because” is giving you permission to play with everything that comes after it, and “reasons” is you forfeiting the game. It’s lazy, and as an editor, I will always, always change it.

Read It Or Die Alone: Spaceman Blues

This is not a book review. It is certainly not a book recommendation. It’s a book command.

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Spaceman Blues is a bizarre flowing narrative dreamscape, a mash-up of every sci-fi trope available — from underground cities to murderous aliens to superheroes — that reads more like poetry than fiction. It’s wonderful. I don’t understand it. I am excited for the day I forget about it so I can read it again.

Gamers at the Gates of Gamergate: The GateGate Saga.

I haven’t weighed in on Gamergate. In part because it feels like spitting in the ocean at this point. The people actually involved have told their stories, smarter folks than me have opined about them, and far, far dumber folks than me have had the opportunity to spew slurs in the comments sections there. Yet, thanks to the game content I’ve written for Cracked, I keep getting prodded about it. So here it is, the only things I have to say about Gamergate:

1. I think there’s something perfectly legitimate in the complaints about the laughably corrupt review industry.

2. That’s not how this whole thing started and everybody knows it. There’s no disputing that this all started out with attacking a woman for her personal life, based on a provably false accusation of corruption. The scramble to make it about “larger problems about reviews” only came about after public opinion turned on the rampant misogyny. It’s classic deflection.

3. If you want to talk seriously about paid reviews and incestuous practices in the game industry, fucking fantastic. Do that. It needs to be done. Most major review sites are entirely useless these days, everything is a B+ at least, and I’m sick of wasting my cash on crappy games because a marketing guy in alligator shoes bought somebody lunch. Take that shit on, it’s a good fight. Just call it something else. How about #reviewgate? How about #alligatorgate? Sticking with the label isn’t helping anybody. Let’s say a story breaks tomorrow insisting that Hitler has come back to life to lead the white race to glory. A bunch of Nazis whoop it up, spewing slurs and death threats against minorities on the internet. That story turns out to be false. I would not then try to piggyback my government-issued-jetpacks-for-voters argument on that story and call it HitlerGate. Those things have nothing to do with each other, and insisting on maintaining that connection would just degrade my current, very valid argument.

4. Instead of worrying about Gamergate, I have been playing video games. It has been a lot of fun. Have you played Shadow of Mordor? Fucking Tarka Man-skinner. Asshole. I killed you by hiding in a bush and shooting you with an arrow one time and you’ve been making fun of me for it ever since. You’re the one that died, dick!

5. I really miss that period of about 5 years, between 2007-12, when being a gamer was totally fine and we were not considered flailing assholes best confined to basements and convention centers. We can get back to that, but only if we shut up. Right now. Starting with me.

Machinery

Another old piece, this one written about eight years or so. I can’t even call it a story – an exercise in description, I guess? Pure prose? Weird bullshit? You be the judge.

The doctor moved stiffly from bench to bench. Disinfectant hung heavy in the air, flavoring it with the slight aftertaste of a foreign, chemical burning. The girls watched the projector intently, strapped to their seats, their eyes unwavering on the film being played there. He took the opportunity to test the dilation of their pupils, the color of their gums, and adjust their medication. The half-light of the projector cast a dim, brakish quality to the room. Like looking through the porthole of a ship at night, its glass gone nearly opaque from the decades-old patina of scratches across its salt-worn surface. He still had dozens of girls to see, and the film was quickly spooling downward.

She felt the pull of the pistons on her lungs as they filled with incendiary smoke. The shafts descended, drawing the worn leather of her lungs with them, filling her with the churning fog. There was a dark rumble, a hold, and a muted clap as the motors within her reversed. The pistons pushed, and as her airways ballooned with the pressure, she spewed the wavering gasses from her chattering, wrought iron teeth. She used the energy to set a few rods into motion, the ones that pulled her eyes from side to side. The gearwork that controlled their vertical axis ground into life, groaning its protest faintly. She looked around her, drew another long breath through her baroque intake system, and vented her exhaust in exasperation.

The bulk of her, all that which you could see anyway, lay twisted in a small room full of little girls. The girls sat patiently at individual stations, so infinitesimally small as to be virtually unseen. Her joints, long since rusted, slipped and caught, slipped and caught again as she struggled into life. The massive grills on her head wobbled momentarily, before obligingly shifting direction. She expelled another vast cloud of spent, burning fuel across the room, trying to avoid striking the girls directly. They seemed oblivious to her ruinous presence. They were enraptured by something at the front of the room. Her eye gear lumbered to a halt, wavered, then adjusted force to the forward rods. The massive bulbs of her eyeballs, clouded with dust and the burn-off of old filaments swiveled to the follow the girls’ gaze. Her sight-line caught a figure moving amongst them, and the intricate mesh of cathode tubes that composed her brain began to fire.

Gargantuan lengths of chain were called up from the stores beneath her, each link a toggle that could be switched from vertical to horizontal, from yes to no, from nothing to something. Several thousand of these lengths began to rattle and vibrate as they were spun at faster and faster revolutions through the millions of switching centers scattered about her head. Eventually a tally of all switches was made, imprinted on another chain, and sent to the image recognition stations in the sockets that housed her eyes.

An older man stood among the girls. He was dressed formally, the only one there not in uniform. The girls, all young and identically clothed, waited patiently, bolted into their stations. As the man moved about the room, he would pause, periodically, to exam one of the girls more closely. The girl would then activate, culling a response from what little thought those tiny heads could hold, and the man, seemingly satisfied, would continue his patrol about the room. The crude metalwork of her chains sizzled and snapped as they were spooled and unspooled, run and re-run, switched directions a hundred times a minute. Some glowed white from the friction, others had yet to move an inch, their nigh infinite length inert, running solemnly away into the darkness below.

Perhaps this interaction, crude though it was, operated as a facsimile of a switching station. Perhaps there were a million rooms identical to this one, joined end to end in a vast labyrinth of halls filled with tiny, tiny girls. Perhaps the man was the switching station, the girls the toggles. He modified them, one by one, and they responded. They moved from yes to no, from nothing to something, from one to zero, and he took their tally. He would, once this operation finished, send their collective response to another room, and another man would modify his set of little girls into a different arrangement, and send his response again. The labyrinth would hum with motion, information congealing in the air like a tumultuous mist until a set pattern of all the rooms was determined. There to be sent to an even bigger switching station, one which would run the infinitely dense program written by the girls and come to some grand, cosmic conclusion.

So what, then, was her part? She was aware of herself, as a mass of hard iron and burnt steel in a net of soft, vulnerable flesh. What was her function here? She sent her now insignificant seeming toggle system into motion, and awaited a response. The radiant heat of her switching stations flexed and bent her struts, the million different metal strikes inside of her joining and rejoining until they were only one pure note of activity, until there was an abrupt stop.

Ah, of course. She knew now what she was; she was the relay. She was to send the patterns of the girls from room to room, each with their own version of her, and all in communication. What was information without a system with which to send it? What good were these massive algorithms of girls and quaint, formal men without her billion chains to send their calculations onward? Purpose was found, purpose was necessary. She was validated, was a valuable cog in the machinery of the grand decision. Ten million toggles switched and switched back; they sent a feeling of contentment to her. The man had completed his tally, made his adjustments, and strode amiably towards her great and complex façade. Her sight-bulbs flickered into light, rotated, and caught his signal.

He was asking her a question, but something was wrong. She had no method to accept his input. He used no gears, no toggles or chains, no punch-cards or switches. He made a sound at her, again and again. Just sound, like that of clockwork and bells, and she had no way to respond. Seventeen thousand miles of chain whipped into action, they rotated and whirled about her data centers, their message was a state of being she was forced to assume. It was that of fear, and she received it. She coordinated a desperate chain of information, and when the message was impressed upon it, licked out onto tons of forged steel, she spewed it outwards at him.

She hoped desperately that he had the necessary tools to read it.

The massive glass globes of her eyes rolled frantically around in their housing. Her clumsy, rusted digits tapped in useless agitation. The steamwork boilers that ran her chains chugged desperately in the abyssal depths of her gut. The steel-ribbed bags of her lungs pulled in shallow, hurried draws of the burning smoke that fueled her engines. She waited apprehensively, conflicting acres of chain running fear, hope, desperation, and anticipation through her switching stations at random. She retracted the message chain halfway, and hurled it at the man again. It is a message, she wanted him to know. She needed him to haul one of its great links into his mouth, run it through some unseen network of gears, and understand.

“She threw up on me,” the doctor said, dripping unpleasantly in the middle of the auditorium “twice.”

Superpowers, Limitations, and Characters

I picked up a Playstation 4 this weekend, along with Infamous: Second Son. I loved the first one, and it took me a while to pin down exactly why. It’s not because of what it does well, but because of what it doesn’t do. One of the most interesting aspects of superpowers, to me, is their limitations. An example: Locomotion in the first Infamous. They could have just bullshitted their way through it and had your character fly, but instead, you ran from rooftop to rooftop, jumped on powerlines or railroad tracks, and hopped on top of passing trains. You could coast a bit in the air, sure, but it wasn’t flying. It was much more satisfying for its limitations. It’s why Spider-Man’s web-swinging is so beloved, but nobody gives a shit about Superman or Iron-Man or a thousand other superheroes flying about.

That’s probably indicative of why I couldn’t get into Superman and Iron-Man in the first place. It’s not that they’re too powerful, or uninteresting characters, it’s because their powers are too varied. There was always the sense that they had a million tools for any job that might come along. And if they didn’t, the writers would just write them a new one. That’s some lazy storytelling right there. I always thought superpowers worked best when they were confined to a single theme: You can control electricity. What do you do with it? Do you just shoot lightning bolts, like Thor? Thor’s a basic bitch. Why not take it a step further and control power to machines? Or you could really push the envelope, and realize that thoughts are just electrical impulses in the brain, and damn – your one limited little power just became godhood.

I loved what they did with Magneto in the ’90s and onward – he went from flinging sawblades at people to manipulating the iron in their bloodstream. I wrote a whole story-arc about this kind of thing for an animated series that got caught in development hell, and will probably never see the light of day. It was a parody pop culture reference show, so we got to use existing characters. In one arc, I had our heroes tutor Aquaman, the Wonder Twins, Hawkman and Robin on how to be actually useful. Playing around with exactly what a character cannot do is some of the most fun I’ve had while writing.

Now, I’m not terribly far into Second Son, but so far it’s doing things pretty well. There’s a sort of smoke-based system of movement, where you duck into vents and get launched by fans. It’s not quite as fluid or intuitive as the powerlines from the first game, but it’s better than just generic flying. However, I get the sense that, based on what the story has revealed so far, the hero is about to get a lot more powers. He’s not going to use the existing ones in increasingly interesting ways, he’s just going to get loaded down with whatever new ability the writers want to confront the situations they throw at him. I could be wrong, but that’s the sense I get. And if that happens, that’s where they’ll lose me a little bit. It’s something I try to keep in mind while writing, and not even necessarily about superpowers: Sometimes the limitations are what make it interesting. Without them, you’re writing generic infallible protagonists, rather than human beings.

And now, if you will excuse me, I am going to blow up a truck with a heat missile.

If anybody asks, I was talking about the game.