Monthly Archives: August 2014

Badass Retro Autosports

This was from the brief time, a few years ago, when car magazines thought it was a good idea to feature my particular brand of irresponsible idiocy. I warned them against it, but they insisted. With money. My only weakness. This was commissioned by an off-roading publication. I no longer remember the name. They never sent me a copy, much less a notice that it had been published, and internet searches turn up nothing. I am going to assume that I’m either cleared for use under copyright law, or that I was doing mushrooms at the time and hallucinated the entire job. They wanted it to be a sort of Cracked cross-over, so we re-used a couple of entries from my other columns (with permission, of course). But some of them are new, or substantially reworked.

We modern day idiots like to think we have a lock on ridiculous vehicular death defiance. Our trucks can take more damage, our bikes are faster, our planes fly higher – hell, we even have sci-fi staples like jet packs with which to mock the reaper in his frumpy old-lady robes. But no matter how much high engineering and hard science we put into our own hurtling attempted-suicides, the past has one thing that modern man just can’t compete with:  Giant, wobbling, almost unhealthily gargantuan balls. Back when ‘seatbelts’ were a rude suggestion, and ‘crumple zones’ were your own face and arms, people were hooning their automated carriages and motorized cycles in ways that put our modern shenanigans to shame.

Globes of Death

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The Globe of Death is basically a simple physics demonstration: Centripetal force can keep a moving vehicle from succumbing to gravity even when it’s gone completely parallel to the Earth. Though it looks like snarky motorcycle riders are exploiting a loophole in science, it’s relatively easy, if you know what you’re doing. We even have a few globes of death still around, running in county fairs around the world – though they have become a rarity, as children of today find watching reality programs about storage far more compelling than a man flipping about on a guided missile inside of a metal hamster ball. But those globes up there – the kind that you may have seen before, nestled between the funnel cake booth and the tilt-a-hurl – they were actually considered tame back in the day. Here’s what the real ones used to look like:

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That variation was called the Hornby Smith Globe, and though it works on the same basic principle as a regular Globe of Death (drive fast enough and hope that physics just sorta loses track of you), the consequences for failure were a hell of a lot more severe. Lose control in a normal Globe of Death and you fall no more than 16 feet, which is plenty enough to kill you, especially when you factor in the 300 pounds of out of control motorcycle trapped in there with you. Lose control on a Hornby Smith Globe, and you fell potentially hundreds of feet – sometimes into nice, forgiving water, sometimes into flames, or sometimes directly into the audience below, depending on how jaded with death the carnies had become over the years.

And falling wasn’t unheard of. Motorcycles today are just barely contained engines; back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, they were more like politely redirected explosions. Drive chains could and did frequently snap, overheated tires blew — hell, even a simple stall and accompanying drop in speed would send the rider straight to their death. But at least the old-timey vehicular daredevils died doing what they loved: Trying to die as elaborately as possible.

The Peking to Paris Autorace

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The Dakar Rally today is pure madness: We’re pitting the height of modern technology and human endurance against the worst that nature has to offer across two continents. And it’s absolutely brutal. But that’s nothing compared to the races of yesteryear. One of the first major international rallies was the Paris to Peking in 1907, which all began with this random challenge issued by French Newspaper Le Matin:

“…We ask this question of car manufacturers in France and abroad: Is there anyone who will undertake to travel this summer from Paris to Peking by automobile? Whoever he is, this tough and daring man, whose gallant car will have a dozen nations watching its progress, he will certainly deserve to have his name spoken as a byword in the four quarters of the earth…”

There was an initial response of 40 teams willing to mount up what was, at the time, a barely existent form of transportation and race it across half the globe, all because some French wood pulp dared them to. But 35 of those teams had apparently entered on drunken promises and with fingers crossed: Only 5 teams actually showed up in Peking (modern day Beijing; they’d reversed the initial route to avoid monsoon season). Due to low participation, organizers quickly cancelled the event…which meant less than nothing to the teams, who all went ahead anyway and held an ad-hoc intercontinental death rally just for the hell of it.

Remember: Cars in general were such a new thing that most of the western world barely had roads. They were plain non-existent in the east: The racers had to take narrow footpaths and bumpy horsecart trails – they even drove up planks to mount their tires on railroad tracks, until the inevitable happened and the Italian team found themselves frantically prying up their car as an oncoming train barreled down on them.

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If you’re unfamiliar with your early 20th century Chinese history (not you, esteemed reader, surely), this puts the route right through the heart of rural China in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, wherein the long-oppressed Chinese finally rose up and murdered every foreigner they could find (but especially the western European ones), then up into the Gobi Desert, where racers had to feed their drinking water into the car’s radiators just to keep them from catching on fire (not always successfully), and  through post-revolution Russia. So to sum up: The Paris to Peking racers were mostly affluent Europeans in a place that hated affluent Europeans, they had no infrastructure in place for their largely experimental vehicles, and were trying to race them through two continents of hostile territory and post-warfare chaos. It’s like hopping in an electric car today, and racing from Somalia to the North Pole via Iraq, while blasting the Star-Spangled Banner the entire time.

The Italian team finally won, after 61 days of puttering a 40HP motorized cart through the most dangerous places on Earth, past several billion people that wanted them dead. They had nearly been hit by a train, fallen through a bridge, fought off a crowd of angry villagers with pistols, and caught fire in the middle of the desert.

And they did most of it without brakes, which they’d lost somewhere in Russia.

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But hey, at least they claimed their prize: One single bottle of Mumm’s champagne.

Auto Polo

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Just take a minute and really appreciate that photograph. Cast your eyes on the man who has just been freshly ejected from a speeding automobile. There he is, currently flailing through the air. Now turn your gaze slowly to the other man — the one with a giant smile on his face, waiting to smack said crash victim with a comically oversized mallet before he hits the ground. Everybody in that image either died immediately after it was taken or were promptly investigated for suspected Highlanderism. But that was auto polo:

You would head out to your nearest muddy field, mount up an unstable, dangerous, rickety car — a vehicle that had only been invented 30 years earlier, remember — and then wail the bastard about psychotically while swinging a friggin’ hammer over your head. That’s like you and your friends buying a bunch of jet packs and jai alai sticks today and just setting off into the open sky, giving the finger to your concerned families — it’s insane that you would even own the technology in the first place, much less have the balls to violently misuse it like that. Auto polo was not just some Jackass-style one-off stunt, either: Demonstration matches were frequently held at county fairs and stadiums all across the country, though it was most prominent in the Midwest during the early 1910s. It was usually played with a basketball, and the only mandated gear was a jaunty cap and a callous disregard for human life. It was every bit as unquestionably awesome as it was uncontrollably, screamingly idiotic:

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That picture is perfect. It’s everything art should be: There’s an Old West style sheriff in a ten-gallon hat, grimly staring off into the sunset as a pair of land-based airboats wait patiently for permission to start their automotive hammer-jousting. I’m going to dedicate that last sentence to my wife, because that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever created.

Don’t go thinking that auto polo was a case of things looking worse than they really were, either: I’m not cherry-picking exciting photos from a boring event. If you couldn’t guess from the ridiculous abundance of overturned cars and men flying through the air, about to successively eat shit and then have their heads bashed in by their own hurtling hammers…

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Auto polo was so deadly, it was eventually banned nationwide. Heartbroken enthusiasts of sport and blunt-force injuries the world over had to pack up their families every Sunday, and settle for attending another boring old…

Lion Drome

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This was how you took in a show, back in the day. It was like going to the matinee now, only instead of watching Jeremy Renner pout in front of a shaky camera, you had the kids stick their unshielded little faces out over a bowl of automotive trauma and told them to inhale the heady fumes of gasoline and jungle predator.

Lion Dromes originally started as a spinoff of the Globes of Death, but of course, driving sideways in defiance of how everything should be wasn’t entertaining enough for the discerning automotive hooligan of yesteryear. So they added lions, naturally. Makes perfect sense: What’s better than oddly stoic men in severe suits bolting small lions to tiny cars and trying to outrace a million years of primal, murderous instinct … sideways?

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That’s easy! Hot women and giant lions bolted to tiny cars and flinging haphazardly about a little wooden arena!

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Our forefathers were so jaded by the rampant, unchained awesomeness of day-to-day life that they looked at motor vehicles defying gravity with zero safety measures and stifled a yawn. Then they politely requested that the show owners mix some comely lasses and apex predators into the Bowl of Death to really earn that nickel admission fee.

I know that we, as a species, have come a long way since then: We have established such important concepts as “human rights” and “respect for animals” and “basic, rational safety measures” in our modern society. And that’s great. Wonderful. But maybe it’s time we all stopped and asked ourselves: Is it worth what we gave up? Is it worth the total and complete absence of angry lions doing sweet motorcycle tricks in our lives?

I humbly posit that it is not.

Unseen Projects

In my old backup folder, I just found what scientists are estimating to be “a bunch” of old articles for projects, sites and publications that are no longer with us. Unless you’re a Brockway super-fan, you haven’t seen these before (and to all my Brockway super-fans — hi, me!).

Now, bear in mind that some of these were from my early days in writing, some of them were written under duress from corporate overlords, and some of them just never saw publication for a damn good reason. You have been warned. Away we go.

Cut Material from The Unnoticeables

This is cut material from The Unnoticeables, the first book in my upcoming urban fantasy trilogy from Tor. The book itself won’t be out until June, 2015, with each installment to follow a year after. There wasn’t a whole lot directly cut from the book, which has to be a good sign, right? However, this section was in the first chapter and interrupted the flow a bit. “But Robert,” you say “this makes very little sense out of context.” To which I reply: “Why do you gotta be such a jerk all the time?” And then I sniffle a little bit. You monster.

The exact methods vary, from person to person: I had seen the angels before, but the first man I saw solved was a conductor named Harold, back in Lisbon.

It was 1974, two weeks after the Carnation Revolution, a mostly bloodless, beautiful little moment of peace and love that bucked the odds and won out over violence and oppression. Everybody descended to the streets with flowers in their hands, civilians mixing in with the soldiers, slipping carnations into the barrels of M16s. Into the lapels of grinning young boys in ragged uniforms who, at any other time, in any other place on Earth, might have been emptying their clips into that crowd with set jaws and hard eyes.

It was a crisp, churning mass of collective euphoria. Drivers left their cars idling on the street; mothers picked up their children and left their homes; shopkeepers left their stores to be a part of something unique and beauteous. Which was dumb, in retrospect.

Hey, I wasn’t the only one looting.

Two weeks later, and I was trading shots of aguardente with Harold, a little bug-eyed fellow in the back room of a recently closed brothel. We’d both swung by with conspicuously large bulges of cash in our wallets, and conspicuously average-sized bulges elsewhere, only to find the place half-burned and empty. I had a bottle. He had a flashlight. Neither of us had anywhere else to be. We were playing a drinking game, wherein one person said “drink!” and the other person did.

“Drink!” I said to him, and he drank.

“Drink!” He said to me, and I did.

“Drink!” I said to him, and half the room exploded.

Something pale and shining flared into existence on the other side of the singed sofa. It was impossible to focus on. It was like the aftermath of staring right into a camera flash – that washed out, smudgy brightness that you can’t blink away. I got the sense of an outline in there, something sharp churning in the heart of a star. The light was magnificent, but it was not beautiful. There was something cold and clinical to it, something more like fluorescents in a filthy warehouse than sunshine in a meadow.

“No!” Harold said, slapping at the air, “I did it! It all happened!”

I think the light may have wavered in response. Not something as dramatic as flickered, but maybe it pulsed, or shifted focus. I got the general sense that it replied in some fashion. But that might just be a hard drunk scrabbling to assign relevance to a traumatic event after the fact. Either way, the conductor answered as if it had spoken:

“Look outside! It’s there! It’s all there! Just like we s-“

But the light simply blinked out of existence. When our eyes finally adjusted to the dark, we saw what it had left for us.

Harold’s answer.

His solution was a snatch of discordant music, and a rippling patch of color in the air – something softly red, that undulated blue as it moved. When he heard those notes and that saw that disembodied, shifting swatch of crimson-blue, his heart collapsed. The empty space in his chest sunk into itself with a crackling sound, like tires on gravel. It brought the rest of his body with it, folding his legs and arms up with sickening snaps, and slurping his head down and around like a wad of flushed toilet paper. I still remember the expression on his face: There was no terror there, just pure, unhappy surprise. Like he’d answered the door and found a particularly vile ex-girlfriend standing there, holding a baby.

There was a loud pop, the floorboards beneath my feet rattled once, and Harold was gone. Answered. Reduced to something simpler, I suppose.

Harold got a few notes of strange new music, and a color never before seen on Earth that shifted states through space and time, and he was solved.

You Are Loved.

Early attempt at some more classic sci-fi, circa 2005. I was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick at the time. 

The sun rose on another miserable, rainy day inside Deek’s apartment. The Weather-generators, set to Dramatic Downpour, sent sheet after sheet of torrential waves tearing across his bedroom. Deek lay silently, placidly accepting the lashes of water like a much-deserved flagellation. The drainage pumps thwacked and grinded into action, setting up a harmony of dissonance to the dull, omnipresent roar of the rain. Deek cried silently, his tears lost in the downpour, only adding ever so slightly to the rising water level in the room. Eventually, after hours of weak sobbing amidst the relentless storm, sensors determined the water level to be too high and the Suicide Alarm chimed sadly from the Monitor across the room.

“Sorry big guy,” the speaker intoned, in a carefully crafted simulacrum of sympathy “the water level’s just too high. Anything over an inch and it becomes theoretically possible to drown yourself. I have to shut off the water and drain the room now. Remember… you are loved!”

The static scream of the rain stopped abruptly, leaving only the gentle smack and groan of the pumps – now kicking into overdrive. The waters swirled around the overflow grate, and soon disappeared entirely. The Weather-generators began emanating a slight fog, the smell of a snow yet to come dwelled almost imperceptibly behind it.

Deek sighed heavily, and then again. After an hour of heavy sighs interspersed with an occasional soft moan, he raised himself wearily from the bed and soddenly trudged into the kitchen.

“Wine please. Red. A Cabernet would be good I guess,” he told the refrigerator.

“Aw, come on, pal,” the refrigerator drawled “you know I can’t dispense alcohol in the morning, even on the best of days. Remember, though…you are loved!”

Deek sat down on the floor and placed his head in his hands. He considered crying, briefly, but decided his pain was ultimately futile against such an uncaring, apathetic world.

“Coffee then,” Deek said, “black like my heart.”

“Aw, buck up soldier…” the refrigerator replied, but obligingly stirred into motion.

He took his coffee from the shelf and, slumping back to the floor, sipped at it half-heartedly.

“Sorry sport,” the Monitor interrupted “you’re scheduled for work duty in thirty minutes.”

Deek choked back a yell, looked desperately around him for something to smash and, finding nothing, hurled his coffee cup at the low slung metal box that housed the Monitor’s speakers.

“Come on, buckaroo” the Monitor crooned.

“I’m not going.”

“Aw, buddy…”

“You can’t make me! I’m going to die today! I’m going to die!” Deek collapsed in a heap at the base of the Monitor’s shelf.

“You know the drill, chief…” a dull pulse sounded in the ceiling as a myriad of speakers and vid-screens lowered into the room.

“Pally, you know I have to initiate Ejection Protocols at twenty minutes,” a tension-loaded silence pervaded, the smell of snow somehow amplified by the hush.

“Please…” Deek implored, his eyes ran frantically about the room, seeking anything to implore to, “please!”

The speakers popped once, stuttered, and began:

“LET THE SUNSHINE IN AND CHASE AWAY YOUR BLUES…” the volume carried in the largest of Deek’s bones as he leapt to his feet and charged for the wardrobe.

“CAUSE FROWNERS NEVER WIN… ”

He hastily ripped his work uniform from its hanger and, running-hopping- falling as he dressed, made his desperate, stumbling way toward the door.

“…AND SMILERS NEVER LOSE SO LET THE SUNSHINE…”

The vid-screens set into motion brightly colored animations – chipmunks jumping rope with blue-jays, a smiling sun dancing, kittens fighting – while the lights steadily grew in luminosity until they peaked just shy of the purest, whitest sunshine. Deek yelped and, covering his eyes with one upraised arm, crawled pitifully through the living room. Perfumed shots of air (candy corn and daisies mostly,) began pelting him from the tiny aerosol vents that littered the house. He rallied his strength and, hunching into the smallest protective ball he could manage, vaulted through the doorway just as the padded robotic arms lowered from the ceiling, readying their Projectile Hugs.

“You are loved!” The Monitor yelled its refrain through the closing doors, only half-heard through the blaring horns and peppy strumming.

Deek barked hoarsely, his breath coming in hyperventilating gasps. Eventually, he began to assemble himself. He smoothed his uniform, brushed the remaining water from his brow, and did his best to rub the perfumes from his skin. He set his jaw resolutely, and after only twenty minutes of muttering reassurances to himself, headed off towards Sector Septa and work duty.

Bryan greeted him with mild apprehension; a lowering of the eyes and a timid shuffle of the shoulders told Deek they were in the same boat.

“How’re you feeling?” Bryan asked, skulking over to greet him.

“Got driven out today,” Deek spat, switching the status from Rest to Work on his uniform.

“Yeah?” Bryan seemed to cheer a bit at the news, “me too! What was it? Whistle While You Work? That’s what got me.”

“No,” Deek shuddered, “Let the Sunshine In…”

“Oh good God,” Bryan muttered, as they both contemplated the horror, “You need to be careful then; Binny is manic today. He practically fucking skipped onto duty. Aw, son of a…”

Binny saw them and screamed a friendly greeting from the third level. He leapt spritely from the balcony, sliced through the air, and curled into a ball – trusting the Monitor to catch him. He let out a happy sigh as the nets shot out and set him lightly at their feet.

“How are you guys?!” He ensnared them both with a massive hug, then stepped back to appraise their expressions, “Oh no! You’re both depressive today!”

Deek and Bryan nodded solemnly – Deek visibly restraining the urge to take a swing at him.

“Well don’t worry guys! Tomorrow’s another day, right?” He laughed and tumbled away from them – literally cart-wheeling and somersaulting – into the waiting elevator.

“I swear to fucking Christ this is the day. I’m really going to do it. I am. I will die this day,” Deek whispered.

“I’m with you, man,” Bryan said “let’s do it now before-“

“Work Duty has begun fellas,” The Monitor speakers beneath their feet sounded, “All suicide locks are on; all levels with external balconies are now off limits to depressives.”

Bryan’s knees went out at the announcement. He slipped to the floor and laid still, his eyes unfocused and distant.

Deek fought back a wave of consuming hatred; he steadied his hands and took several deep breaths. “Bryan was right,” he muttered, “tomorrow is another day.” And he swore and undying oath that it was a day he would not see.

“All workers: Your attention please for a special announcement,” the Monitor called to attention “you are all loved!”

Return of the King. Well, Prince. Duke? No? Fine. Me. Return of the Me.

Oh hey, website. Didn’t see you there.

So almost immediately after I ask what fans want to see of writers, and they answer “Something! Anything!” I disappear and post nothing instead. I’m a rebel, and I’ll never, ever be any good.

Real explanation is long and boring, so I’ll just post the short and boring one: I got sick. Really sick, and for a long time. Some sort of mysterious infection, I still don’t know what it is. But it appears to be getting better, and I see a specialist tomorrow. I’ve barely been able to get my work done, and extracurricular stuff fell by the wayside.

It’s not you, dear website; it’s me.

But good news! I read all those responses to what people want to see, and I listened. A lot of it was cut material, or other stuff I’ve written — just content, really. I can do that. I’ll be posting some short stories I wrote, mostly before I actually knew how to write. They’re not very good, but they show an interesting progression as I slowly, painfully learn what the hell I’m doing (sort of). As well as a bit of cut material from my latest book that will make absolutely no sense out of context.

Hey, you bastards said “Something! Anything!” You never said a word about quality. That one’s on you.