Monthly Archives: September 2014

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.

The Unnoticeables Cover Reveal

Tor.com revealed the cover for my latest book today, and to call it awesome would be insulting. They need new words to describe how amazing this cover is. Alas, they would need a better writer than me. The best I can do is combine ‘fuck yes’ and ‘awe-struck’ and call it ‘awe-fucked.’

The Unnoticeables RD 1 selects A

Poor Will, his art deserves better subject matter than I can provide.

Check out the actual post for some of the many unbelievably cool alternates we didn’t get to use. Choosing between them was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do — and I beat Mega Man II.

Bukz 9/14

This week’s reading list is a bit…optimistic. Awestruck Optimus Prime and Vehicle Voltron for scale.

bookz

I’ll be happy if I can manage it by the end of the month – but then again I am really excited about all of these. If I emerge in a week’s time bleary-eyed and reeking, asking you what year it is, just roll with it.

Mirrored

A really old short. 2004 maybe? There’s a kernel of a good story here, and a few nice moments — but damn this thing is overwritten. Just shut up, younger me, and let the story tell itself. 

 

 

I tapped at the mirror lightly, and found it solid. I ran my fingers along its edges, decades of dust collecting on the pads of my fingers. They became chalky, and I quickly came to dislike the tactile feel of it. I rubbed my soiled fingers together and the sensation was like a sound running through my bones. A twitch shocked its stilting way up through my spine, and I shuddered. I wiped my fingers on my jeans and tapped at the mirror again, finally finding a loose shard of glass. I pried one end up with my fingernail and pulled it free. A small image of me shined and shifted across it. I narrowed my eyes, trying to spot any differences. There was nothing – a mole under the left eye, a wrinkle across the brow, a few days worth of stubble, a scar – wait, there. The scar. In the mirror, the end beneath my chin forked outward, forming a very faint cross. I pulled the Polaroid from my back pocket and held it next to the mirror. The images of my face – one static, one fluid – were nearly identical but for the scar. The picture scar turned only on one end, hooking off to the left. The mirror scar split into miniature crossroads, mere millimeters across. Satisfied that the shard held a difference, I set it down at my left foot and took a picture. The camera was old, dusty itself. It whirred and clacked like an ancient steamwork machine, the faint rumble of engineering feeling solid and important in my hands. The new Polaroid ejected, filmed white, and picked out the image slowly, finely, sewing up details in threads of color. When it finished, I set it at my right foot, and the older Polaroid I had used for comparison between them. I lined them up carefully, and focused on the crossroads of the scar.

“I see it. I’ve found it. The scar is different; the mirror shows forks at its end where there are none. There. There’s no point to it now, I know you’re there. Come on out, we need to talk.”

I focused intently on the mirror, and waited through the long silence. Dust mites drifted through slashes of sunlight; I could hear them fall. The mirror image focused back, did not falter.

“Here, knock it off, alright?” I said, growing impatient “you know the rules, I’ve found you. Out.”

The mirror self knit its eyebrows in worry, and reluctantly began to climb outwards. His hands grew larger in the reflection, caught its edges, and began hauling his body upwards towards my viewpoint. Something happened with perspective, the dimensions tilted nauseatingly as he worked his way through. A feeling like vertigo gripped me, and I felt the rising surges of a panic attack. I let it go, counted to ten, took a breath. And then he stood before me, the same in every way; the strain of fighting his vertigo showing on his face as clearly as I’m sure it did mine. When we recovered, he spoke first.

“How did you know?”

“Well,” I replied, pulling cigarettes from my pocket, “you’re not exactly the first.”

“How did you ever know?” He seemed tense.

“Vanity. Got a bad haircut in fifth grade, kept looking in the mirror. Obsessing. I memorized every hair of it in anticipation of the shame of showing up to class. I was passing a broken mirror in mom’s hallway when I noticed the part was a full inch lower. I took a picture to make sure, held them together, wondered out loud what the hell was going on and there you go; I found myself popping out of a mirror and asking me just what it was I wanted. Thought I was crazy. Spent two years in a hospital.”

“Jesus…how many have you found?” He asked, eyeballing my pack.

“Want one?” I put the cigarette up to my mouth, held one up for him.

“I…well, I quit actually. A few years back…”

“Huh. I never could get it to stick. Still,” I gestured the open pack towards him, “if there was ever a time…”

He took one from the pack and held it between his lips. I noticed it trembling.  As I lit our smokes, I caught a strange sense of déjà vu. Somewhere I had seen this before, this lighting of my own cigarette in a long forgotten storage locker, this striping of shadow and light, this dust falling like distant snow through the lazy nebulas of afternoon sunlight.

“Déjà vu,” we both muttered.

He looked shocked for a moment, before we put it together. Somewhere, right now, another pair of us were doing this same thing. Only with minor differences, of course. His hands shook as he smoked.

“You avoided the question,” he insisted.

“Right you are. How many have I found, was it? Honestly, I don’t even know any more. I did it over and over again after the hospital, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Tried showing the doctor, once. You know how that went.”

“God. The blurring.”

“Yeah, anyway, dozens probably. I had a lot of regrets, to start with. Now I’m just fucking bored.”

“Boredom? You would do this out of boredom?” He was smoking furiously now, his pacing carving little rivers of bare floor through the dusty landscapes.

“Boredom can get big. It can get mean. I thought I had it good here, but everything was too ordinary. It’s a good life though: Syl is still with me, I have a decent enough job writing copy for pharmaceutical ads, no kids, beach house, all good stuff. It just doesn’t feel like the one, though. Something is missing here, something I haven’t had yet.”

“Syl…she’s still with you in this life? Is she, uh…is she okay?” I had piqued his interest apparently.

“She’s gone in yours? She was in my original life, too. That doesn’t happen a lot, maybe four or five times out of all the ones I’ve been through. She left?” I exhaled a cloud of smoke through the fog of dust, it swirled symbols in the air.

“No. Dead. Cancer. Took years. God, it took fucking years. Another?” He gestured towards my pocket, and dutifully I offered another cigarette.

“That’s a first,” I said. “Not exactly promising. She’s still with me in this one, very much alive. We’re pretty happy, all told. At least she is, and I keep her that way. So you get something out of this too, see. It’s not all bad.”

“You’d still go, knowing she’s dead in mine? Why?”

“The fuck would I care, honestly? She’s not really my Syl, you know. Mine left. Fucking a doctor in Virginia last I heard. You can have her again, if you want.”

“I don’t think you’d like my life,” I lit his cigarette, and he continued mapping pathways across the floor.

“Then I’ll leave again. So what? I’d like to see for myself. I’ve been in this one six months now, sent this poor bastard to a place where he lost a hand in a rodeo, of all things,” we both laughed, imagining ourselves in rodeos, “I skipped as soon as I found out, myself. I imagine he had to explain how he suddenly grew a new fucking hand back to a few folks there,” the laughter died out, and we smoked in silence for a few minutes.

“Could I leave, too, do you think? If I don’t like it. I didn’t know anything about this stuff until you pulled me off the mirror, then it all just sort of came to me. Do you think I could do it too, now that I know?”

“No, you only know because I know. Once I leave, you’d have to find out for yourself all over again. Speaking of…” I shrugged towards the mirror and the self-photographs, lying absently on the floor like a shrine to narcissism, “I really should get going.”

“So…will I like it here? All of these decisions I never made, I mean…they’re not me, will I know it’s not me? I…Christ this is all a bit much…” he flicked his cigarette into the dark, where it smoldered, burned the dust.

“This one seemed happy enough before I came. You’ll find yourself slotting into everything like you’ve always been here just as soon as I go. These will be your decisions. This will be your life, not just something that could have been,” I stepped towards the mirror, gathering up my photographs and camera.

“And she loves me, here? And she’s…God, she’s healthy?”

“Yeah. It’s all rather homey actually, after the shit you went through I think you’ll do just fine. You’ll probably feel some kind of uplifting as your old life sloughs off onto me, and if it’s anything like when I came here first, you’ll get a whole new sense of gratitude for the things you have. That should be it. I have to be off now. Best to do it quick. Forgive me, but saying goodbye to yourself for the fiftieth time just doesn’t have the same impact as the first,” I raised a hand towards him in farewell, and headed towards the mirror. I reached to slot the shard back into place, and stopped. I turned and threw him the cigarettes. Leave the poor bastard something to remember me by, anyway. He smiled a little, and I snapped the broken shard back into the mirror again.

I must have been spacing out. I shook my head to snap out of it, and looked around the storage locker. What had I come down here for? I thought for a minute, but nothing came to me. I locked the gates behind me and headed back up the stairs. Syl would be home before me tonight, and I found myself suddenly missing her. Things were going so good lately, I don’t know, it’s all just so perfect. I feel like I’ve walked across broken glass to get here, all of a sudden, but heading home to her now seems like the best thing in the world.

Where the hell did I get these cigarettes?

 

 

 

 

Cars. Booze. Central Oregon.

Just a short prose piece I wrote for some friends’ zine a while back.

You know it’s wrong, and immoral, and unsafe, and an all around bastardly thing to do, but honestly now, is there any better feeling than getting a vicious buzz on and coasting down an empty backroad at four in the morning in a beat-up 1986 Ford Taurus, the summer air just now turning too cold for a T-shirt, all the windows open to keep you alert, shitty lo-fi punk rock blaring out of the shitty lo-fi stereo, and you’re young, and hollering along, and Brandon is passed out in the backseat, and Matt threw up on his shoes earlier, and you need to go home, should really go home, but god damn it, is there nowhere else to go?

The nights bleed together in memory. Did we go up on the roof that night, or was that the night we played spy-games with the cows? It was Griffin’s house, sure, but which night? Was that the night we broke in when he was on vacation, and the next morning somebody woke up and asked “are you Chuck Norris?” and a foreign, adult voice responded “No.” Too bright, too hungover to risk moving lest the nausea catch on that you’re awake and force you into the bathroom, every step driving a headache into the place where your spine meets your skull. So you stay perfectly still beneath the blanket, hoping that Walker, Texas Ranger just…just goes away. Hoping that whatever he was here to do, he decides against it, after finding this purportedly empty house full of drunken heaps of teenager instead. But he doesn’t. He stays, he asks angry questions of somebody, and that’s okay too: That’s for outside-the-blanket-people to deal with. That’s not your world.

It wasn’t that night – so when was it? The night you crested that hill cutting through the sage grass fields, and the moon was full, bright, cold. You stopped the car, right there in the middle of the road, because you could. For no other reason. You hugged the steering wheel, looked up at the moon, and lit a cigarette and said “God damn.” And then you said “1,2,1,2,3,4” because the song did too and that’s always your favorite part.

What song was that? What band? Dead Kennedys or Dead Milkmen? Something was dead, anyway.

Matt stirred, and he asked if you were here, and you said “no,” and you kept driving. Smiling so hard, the way you only do in private – got an image to keep up, deep teenager is way too cool for pure euphoric childhood joy – but you can’t stop it because it’s just all too good. And tomorrow night is the same. Probably. Hopefully. If you can get somebody to shoulder-tap (you’re way too shy for it,) and if somebody’s got a place, and hell – even if they don’t. It’s not too cold for the woods. Climb down those rocks that the cops don’t feel like trekking down, set up a tent, chase apparitions in the woods with the giddiness in your chest that the mushrooms give you, and no – that’s another night.

This night wasn’t the woods. This night was definitely Griffin’s house.

Not the night you got in a footrace on the dirt road without your glasses and crashed into a tree, woke up in the waterbed in a pool of blood. You didn’t make it home that night. This night, you pulled into the driveway with your lights out, cursing every single individual piece of gravel that betrayed your car to your sleeping dad. You stood on the deck, it still smelled like fresh stain, and watched the air be cold and clear and still for a minute. Then you turned and hauled Matt in, pushed him up through the window and heard the thump as he fell over the recliner you used as a step-stool whenever you snuck out. You climbed in after him, threw a blanket over him on the floor, and slept in your bed, dreading how quickly the handful of hours would pass before dad would be there, waking you up with a project.

He’s building a helicopter in the garage. Out of wood. What?

No, that’s later. This time it’s a boat made out of carpet, soaked in resin – it’ll work! He says! It’ll work!

Ah, that was in Bend, though.

This is Redmond, Oregon, 4:30AM, nighttime in July. He’s building a cabinet, and he wants you to sand tomorrow. You wish, now, that you’d paid attention to that stuff; that you appreciated what it was to make something tangible, physical, spent more time learning how good it was to build. But it’s gone now, and it’s bed then, and the drymouth is already setting in, so you better get to sleep before you’re too hungover to sleep.

Did you lay for what seemed like hours, with your eyes closed, trying to chase that song out of your head? Who was it, Buzzcocks or Screeching Weasel? Or did you dream stupid power dreams, still giddy from kissing that pretty girl by the side of the road, headlights flashing by right as you closed your eyes? That wasn’t at Griffin’s house. You never kissed anybody too special at that house.

Probably. From what you can remember.

No, at Griffin’s house, you mostly fought for position in the beanbag chair (you didn’t call fives; I did too) and listened to records, and drank shots of cheap, foul liquor because you’re a man, god damn it, and you’re broke (god, damn it.) Sometimes a moment stands out, but two years could all have happened in one hectic, blurry, fantastic night – laughing, drinking, hurting yourself and others, not on purpose but it happens and let’s go on the roof! Trying to kiss pretty girls and mostly failing – but that drive home is the one constant.

You’re the last one up. Drunk, but you hold it well enough to drive, and you never did see a single other car on those back roads at four AM, nighttime (morning? Morning is more like ten, if you’re lucky and Dad forgets about the cabinet) in July. And you’re sure there wasn’t always a fuck-all moon, and you’re sure you didn’t always stop in the middle of that road, and you’re sure Matt didn’t always throw up on his shoes, and it wasn’t always Brandon in the back, and it wasn’t always The Clash on the radio, but when you look back, it is.

It’s all the same night, and it’s a good night.

Sometimes these stupid words, they don’t do what you tell them to. You want them to communicate what it is to be mad and horny and drunk-tired and drug-wired and insecure and sublimely arrogant all at the same time. You want them to talk about the peace in that moment, the way the cold feels only during early summer mornings, the quietness of that moon, how fucking in love you are with the notion of cars – you can go anywhere, everywhere! – and how great friends are when you’re young, and how they’ll never be that great again, and all they want to talk about is Griffin’s house.

And what’s on the radio.