The World in the Satin Bag has moved to my new website.  If you want to see what I'm up to, head on over there!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fascism (or How You Can Spot Fascist Thinking in Book Bannings)

You’d be hard-pressed to get me to argue my way out of this one; I’m using “fascism” to elicit an emotional response from you, my readers. A little pathos does us all a little good. But I have a reason. Throughout our short history (speaking of America) we have been remarkably vocal against any sort of non-democratic way of life. We’ve, thus, applied fascism and communism as the exact opposites of our democratic (translation: truly free) methodology.

The problem, however, is that in being so anti-everything-else, we’ve started to become that which we fear. Case in point: the State Board of Education in Texas managed to get this book on Marxism banned from school libraries (and a book for kids by another author with the same name); a few states over in Menifee, California they are considering banning the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster (the dictionary) because it contains entries for “oral sex” (among others). I can’t help thinking that these bannings (or attempts, at least) are the result of an incomprehensible discomfort for those who still think it’s the 1600s. Even so, the problem with this whole picture is that for all its claims of protecting children and preservation of American freedom, it’s doing the exact opposite.

I am not a Marxist. I’m not a capitalist either (not in the current sense of the term). But stifling the dissemination of knowledge, even about controversial topics, is a kind of low-level Orwellian act. We’re not talking about keeping pornography from being in school libraries. We’re not even talking about keeping things like the Anarchist cookbook, which is, if memory serves me, still illegal due to its content (it provides the “recipes” for all kinds of bad things, like bombs). We’re talking about keeping knowledge of a diametrically opposed viewpoint from reaching our children, and I don’t think this is simply because we don’t like those ideas. We’re afraid (or at least weak-minded people are).

Marxism isn’t terrifying because it’s the opposite of capitalism, or because it is connected with communism and a lot of nasty things that have happened over the years. Marxism is terrifying because the more we learn about it, the more we realize that a lot of the things Marx and those that followed him said about capitalism are true. We’ve done a fine job maintaining the status quo in America. To break that by raising children who not only think critically about the way our nation is run, but are also willing to act and implement outside ideas to make changes (for the better, presumably) is essentially to shut down hundreds of years of damn fine brainwashing. Are fascism and communism actually bad? Sure, in a limited viewpoint, but in that same viewpoint our own system is equally as bad (American democracy and modern capitalism are not innocent systems by a long shot; to say otherwise is like saying colonialism never happened). American culture, thus, has become one of exceptionalism, particularly if you’re an adherent of a particularly vocal political right: they offer America an “out” from its “crimes,” while deriding other nations (primarily non-democratic ones) for the very thing we offer up as exceptions. Exceptionalism is equally applicable to the vocal non-political left, who often hold up more “socialist” nations as pinnacles of civilization, criticizing the failures of America, while exceptionalizing the aforementioned “socialist” nations.

The problem of American exceptionalism is that it is too close-minded for its own good. We are incapable of thinking outside of the box because we’ve been conditioned to fear a political other that is not all that terrifying to begin with. What exactly is so frightening about Marxism, Fascism, or Democratic Socialism? Once you begin to siphon off the oft-repeated examples of all that is bad about these things (the last of which gets the short end of the stick because there are actually few, if any, prominent “bad” examples; the result is that it is often associated with Fascism), there really isn’t much to say except, “I just don’t like it.”

Perhaps we need to really think about why it is we love Democracy so much, particularly in its American form. And where it’s weak, maybe we should also question why we are too afraid to criticize it, or only brave enough to criticize those who do the job for us. The one thing we can’t keep doing is looking away from criticism for fear that there might be some truth there in the first place. Marxism may not be correct in principle, but when you dig your heels in you begin to see why it is still so influential in the world and in universities: because it still says something true about the system we’ve all been conditioned to love; acknowledging that truth is a challenge to American hegemony. History, I’m afraid, does not shine too well on America’s reception of challenges.

Amazon (Retailer) vs. Macmillan (Publisher): Epic Battle or Silly Mistake? (Update)

(Some new links and stuff have been added on the bottom.)

The short version: Amazon pulled all of Macmillan's titles (print and otherwise) from their website due, apparently, to the publisher's desire to raise ebook prices. Speculation says this is because Amazon wants people to buy the Kindle, making higher prices for ebooks bad news when it's a big publisher pushing the price game. But there are also speculations that this is in response to Macmillan's deals with Apple, about which Amazon is not at all happy.

The long version: I'll send you to others for that, because I don't want to simply repeat what has already been said. There's Scalzi's three posts on the subject, then Writtenwyrdd's take, and Tobias S. Buckell's take.

My take: I can't help feeling like this is going to end up poorly for Amazon. Yes, playing hardball seems like it would work in principle, but I don't think Amazon has seriously considered the competition coming their way via the Nook, Apple's iPad (a minor nuisance right now), and the dozens of other companies pushing the ePub format. It could go bad for the publishers too, I suppose, but Amazon is the one that really should be rethinking its business model right now. Because if the Nook and the other ePub format folks take off, then Amazon will be unable to compete or negotiate because the publishers will no longer want to work with them on electronic format (or print format even, since B&N does both, and generally at the same prices as Amazon). Amazon will have to consider pushing other media over books.

But what do you think?

(An even more detailed analysis of what is going on can be found here at Tobias S. Buckell's blog and at Jay Lake's blog. You can read Macmillan's response here.)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The New Zombie Paradigm?

One of my old TAs from the University of California, Santa Cruz had this interesting thing to say about zombies:
When we're as sick of zombies as they are of being alive, when the total overextension of the metaphor shades all things blankly and uniformly under the prospect of undeadness, a fantasy bright spark I've been having: how about a post-Reconstruction deep South story of metayers and croppers forced to work too close the recently buried, putting rentier capitalist-backed structural racism back where it belongs (that is to say, where it still remains insistently, against any illusions otherwise, in the house of the never dead and never gone), bringing zombies back to the fields, and above all, taking this as theme song and title? A screen play to be pitched, perhaps, if only the catcher wasn't a Hollywood who won't stop making Resident Evil films.
A curious idea indeed! If only the catcher wasn't a Hollywood obsessed with repeating itself. If only.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Dear Authors: Please Don't Stand Up For What's Right (Make Profit Instead)

There's been a lot of talk about whitewashing covers lately. I haven't brought it up here yet because I didn't think there was much else to say that hadn't already been said elsewhere, and to greater effect.

Then someone wrote the following:
But there was one response from people who were justifiably angry that I do not think was practical, and that was the expectation that the author should have spoken up publicly and denounced this cover. Even if, these people said, even if authors really have no control over their covers and it's all the publisher's doing, she should make a stand!

This is roughly equivalent to expecting someone who has just acquired their dream job to curse their boss for doing something wrong. In front of a packed press room. While the boss is standing beside them on the podium.

Economics do not equal ethics, but I think it is important to consider how much we demand of people who could endanger their livelihood and their futures by speaking out. Great change has been made by brave people who have spoken out on social injustices committed by their employers, but they paid and paid and paid for it. There is real and substantial risk, and it is sometimes hard to gauge the cost-benefits to society of taking it, especially when we are talking about someone who wrote a story about a woman of colour who could well end up unable to do so ever again if she is decided to be a troublemaker not worth publishing.
The short of it is this: if you're afraid of losing a publishing deal for standing up for what is right (i.e. fighting against whitewashed covers, a.k.a. white people on covers for books with "colored" characters), then don't say anything. Those who get angry with you for not doing anything are just jerks.

To which I say, "Bullcrap."

While I understand the fear and the apprehension to act against any form of institutionalized (or even accidental) racism, you can't keep quiet about it while assuming that that no-action is ethically appropriate. Why? Because it makes anyone who doesn't say something, who doesn't stand up for what's right complicit in the wrong being committed, particularly if that person continues to participate in the institution committing the wrong (in this case, publishing).

Complicit, you say? Yes, because presumably that author is going to make money (or already has) by selling a book whose cover is the product of a racist system/accident. Said author is literally profiting off of racism, even if he or she had no control over the artwork for the cover (silence is complicity). If you don't see the ethical problems there (and I don't know if the original author does), then there's a disconnect between your reality and the reality the rest of us live in.

So, please, authors far and wide, do not stand up for what you believe to be right. Please, profit off of a system that under-represents people of color and women (for whatever reason) and participates in a racist scheme (even if it is accidental). Give in to fear and help the institution of racism to continue to permeate our industries.

A big middle finger to all those Civil Rights activists who were assaulted by fire hoses or beaten by police officers (or murdered) for having the audacity to face their fear and stand up for their rights. Big middle finger indeed.

P.S.: To the point about telling your racist boss off for being racist -- explain to me why you would want to work for a racist if you yourself are not of the same mindset? Exactly.

I also think the author isn't giving enough credit to the power of the Internet. If a whole bunch of authors writing about traditionally marginalized figures started getting "offed" by the publishing houses for speaking up against whitewashing, do you honestly think that the Internet wouldn't be on top of that like a diabetic on the last insulin shot on the planet?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

RIP: J. D. Salinger

I know he wasn't a science fiction or fantasy author, but J. D. Salinger, author of the controversial and classic Catcher in the Rye passed away yesterday. His death was apparently due to natural causes (which is a fancy way of saying "died of old age"). There's a lot more at the link that might be of interest (it details a lot of his life, particularly as a writer).

I read Catcher in the Rye many years ago and had a love/hate relationship with it. On the one hand, I enjoyed it; on the other, I didn't get what all the hype was about. But, looking back, I think it's because of the world I live in now, which doesn't deem the controversial elements of Catcher in the Rye as particularly controversial at all (cursewords especially).

Still, Salinger was a fine author who made one hell of an impact on the literary world, and whether you love or hate his book is irrelevant.

May he rest in peace!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Things You’d Think Female Movie Characters Would Have Learned

…or why having key chains full to the teeth with keys and knickknacks for things no human being can possibly need for every moment of the day is really a bad idea.

First things first, a disclaimer: I am talking very specifically about female characters in movies. I am not talking about real women (though movie characters are, I should hope, played by real women). This entire post is talking about fictional representations of women in the movies.

Now that that’s out of the way, I would like to pose a question preceded by a discussion.

It seems odd to me that so many action-oriented movies (and in this sense, I mean movies in which the plot, characters, and scenery are all active, such as might be common in, say, a horror or action movie) represent women as being unholy wielders of absurdly exaggerated key-blobs (for that is what they are, when you get right down to it). The oddity of this comes in the form of a familiar re-occurrence: every time you see a woman running from another person, specifically to escape, and they have one of these key-blobs, there is always a frantic moment at the very end where she proceeds to get caught precisely because she can’t find the right key for the *insert object here* (typically a door or a car, or both). This is not at all like what is more typical of every other character with moderately accentuated key-blobs; in such moments such characters may be caught simply because fear overwhelmed them and they couldn’t put the key correctly into the appropriate hole.

Curiously enough, female characters haven’t learned their lesson. They continue to have these key-blobs, something that is generally not true of male characters; in fact, if ever there is a moment where a male character fails to escape due to a key failure, it is because of the innuendo implied above, not because they couldn’t find the appropriate key. Evolution, I’m afraid, does not apply to female movie characters, for whatever reason.

And all of the above leads me to my question: if we are to take out the obvious answer of “misogyny” (or a more “friendly” term might be “gender stereotyping”), how are we to account for female representation in film where habits that historically have proven to be disastrous are still held? One must assume, for this question, that disastrous implies death (or, at the very least, a sound beating that one would not want to remember in the end).

How, I ask you, how?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Magnet Entry #3: Null Pointer and Star Strikers by Ken McConnell

The third entry for my Book Magnet Project is in, and late (because of me). There's a story, though: I picked up the letter containing Mr. McConnell's magnet and bookmarks and put it into a book, where it remained for quite some time due to my mind deciding it didn't want to memorize where I had placed the stuff.

But, I found the magnet again, and the bookmarks, and want to tell you all about this very interesting set of books by Ken McConnell!

So, let's start with this first:
Description of Null Pointer:
The man in the cubicle beside him was dead. The police say it was a heart attack, but programmer Joshua Jones knows better. A message he found in the dead man’s code points to a psychotic hacker who can strike through the internet, leaving no trace. Relying on the advice from his tech savvy friends, Joshua must solve the mystery of who the killer is before becoming the killer’s next victim.
It sounds interesting, right? The author was worried that it might not be specfic-y enough, but a story about a hacker that kills people through the Internet? That's pretty damn specfic-y to me!

You can find Null Pointer on Amazon.com or in the various other formats and locations listed here (you might also be curious to know that the novel can be found for free on a blog and in various ebook formats, including the big boys). So, check it out! Might be a thrilling read for the cyberpunk enthusiast!
Description of Starstrikers:
Starstrikers is a military space opera that takes place during a thousand year war between two galactic civilizations. It captures the strategy of fleet admirals, the bravery of common spacers and the adventures of an elite special forces team as they all struggle against a powerful enemy war lord with devastating new technology.
The description leaves much to the imagination, but if you're into space opera, it might be the one for you!

The novel can be found on Amazon.com and loads of other places listed here (in print and digital format). It's also free in several formats available at the aforementioned link.

About the Author:
Ken McConnell is a writer of SF and Mystery novels and short stories. He works as a software tester and writes fiction in his spare time. He has maintained a blog about writing and technology since 1998. You can follow him on Twitter (user name: KenMcConnell).
You can find more information about Mr. McConnell and his fiction at his website.

There you have it folks! Feel free to check out Mr. McConnell's books and his website.

----------------------------------------------------------

There you have it. If you have a promotional magnet for your sf/f (or related) book and want to take part in this project, send an email to arconna[at]yahoo[dot]com with the subject "Book Magnet Project." Help me cover my fridge!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Magical Realism: A Brief Definition (in the form of a rebuttal)

Over at Suite 101 they have an article about Magical Realism. While the author lists some excellent examples of the subgenre, I do think she gets one thing quite wrong:
An angel walks into your local grocery story with shiny wings and a glowing halo. Everyone accepts this as a natural occurrence and doesn't bat an eye.
My problem with this statement isn't that it's simplistic--the author admits that as a fault. The problem is that it's wrong on a fundamental level.

I would argue that Magical Realism is actually an exceptional disconnection of the fantastic from focus. Yes, it is about the acceptance of the fantastic as natural, but it goes beyond that. Magical Realism makes exceptional, both in its form (writing) and its content (characters, etc.), the naturalization and de-mystification of the fantastic; this means that, while Fantasy presents the fantastic in a way that is both exceptional in its presentation (i.e. we see it vividly and in a form that clearly demarcates the elements that make it fantastic) and its content (stories "of" the fantastic), Magical Realism does the exact opposite, taking something that we know doesn't exist (or at least only exists in a particularly limited supernatural scope) and putting it into the backdrop of an otherwise "real" story. You don't actually "see" the fantastic elements in Magical Realism unless you're intentionally looking for it. They become so utterly embedded into the world, so de-emphasized so as to be less than a passing fancy. You don't see the fantastic in Magical Realism well enough to say that it is a coherent structure of the fiction being portrayed.

So, when an author uses an example like an angel walking into a grocery store, that has far more to do with urban fantasy than it does with magical realism. Why? Because the angel is not de-emphasized; the example clearly allocates considerable textual play to the nature of that angel's existence, placing such a being outside of the exceptionally naturalized. Magical Realism goes that one step further by making the fantastic natural for us (the readers) too.

Does anyone disagree with me? Let me know what you think about Magical Realism. I'm curious to hear opinions on this.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Movie Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

You’ve probably never heard of this movie. More than likely, it’s not even playing in your local movie theater. What is it? Well, for starters, it’s the last movie to feature Heath Ledger, which became a problem for the director because they hadn’t finished filming (which explains why Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell make short appearances). Ring any bells yet? No? How about the fact that it’s directed by Terry Gilliam? Okay, well, if you’re not on board yet, let me get the important bits out of the way:

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a stunning example of how fairytales, myths, legends, and all those other things we’ve passed off as nothing more than childish fantasies can be used to tell emotionally engaging and complex modern stories that comment upon all facets of human existence. An immortal (Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus) and his little companion (Verne Troyer) run a traveling show with the Doctor’s teenage daughter and an impetuous youth. But Doctor Parnassus has made a terrible deal with the Devil, and the Devil has come for his payment. The Doctor must find a way to thwart the Devil and protect those he cares about without making things worse for he and his daughter. Slipping between a 19th century England (my guess) and a strange world driven by hopes and dreams (literally), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is beautiful in almost every detail.
I’ve been looking forward to this movie for a while, for many of the reasons I listed in the opening paragraph to this review. I expected it to be good, yes, but I didn’t expect it to be the one film from 2009 that will stick with me forever. IDP (the acronym I will use for this film from now on) is infectious in waya I don’t think anyone ever expected.

IDP is really a monument to collaborative effort. Everything from the cast to the design meld together into the closest thing one can get to perfection in a film whose main actor passed suddenly in the middle of filming. IDP is not flawless. How could it be? There are huge chunks of story that probably couldn't be done without making Gilliam's use of the fantastic in Ledger's absence inconsistent. But, what could have been a disaster turned into something I think I'll remember for decades to come. It's a film I might be willing to pay $20 for when it comes out on DVD, and that's a claim I can't make for most films.

Visually, IDP is not just stunning, but bloody brilliant. Whoever was responsible for the development of the fantastic “dreamworld” did something most films have never been able to do: take something that, to most people, would seem impossible and turn it into something so real, so odd, and so wonderful that it lights up the screen and allows viewers to revert back to that childish, dreaming state (all without playing down to the audience). The way the scenes (both in the “dreamworld” and outside of it) seamlessly mesh together real and fantastic gives IDP a charm, a kind of aura that recaptures the power of stories. You really have to see the film to understand. While everyone is talking about Avatar, I’m focusing all my attention on IDP, because there is nothing quite so mystical and astonishing as a film that can meld the real world with one that doesn’t exist (a feat that no secondary world/universe can ever do).

But what about the characters and the story? The cast works well together, and Christopher Plummer really shows his colors here. I've never seen him in roles that really require him to demonstrate emotional complexity (though I haven't seen all his films), but here he creates a character you love and hate all at once, who is so unimaginably human that you forget that he's an immortal. Ledger is also well placed here, along with the supporting case (even Verne Troyer is lovable, and his cracks about midgets were definitely humorous). The rest of the cast seemed to fit well, but most importantly, I think is the story: a mish-mash of fairytales and myths in a modern (or pre-modern, if you will) world. The story unfolds at a pace that gives you time to think, if you want to, or surprises you with humor or twists and turns. It's like watching a movie for kids with adult jokes tossed into the mix that everyone enjoys (except IDP isn't for kids).

The short version of all of the above is this: see this movie. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is an amazing film that deserves more attention than it is currently getting, and you should support it by seeing it in theaters. Forget Avatar or whatever other big movie is out right now. They can't hold a candle to what has to be Gilliam's finest work yet.

Directing: 4.75/5
Cast: 4.75/5
Writing: 4.75/5
Visuals: 4.5/5
Adaptation: N/A (it isn’t an adaptation as far as I know)
Overall: 4.7/5
Value: $10.00 (based on a $10.50 max)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Suspending Disbelief While Writing Fantasy (Harder Than It Sounds)

I may have talked about this before (in passing), but I wanted to bring the subject up again, and in a little more depth. And then I'm going to ask a question.

I've been struggling as of late with writing fantasy. While I love the genre, I can't seem to get past the third or fourth chapter in any fantasy novel I try to write (and from my reading statistics over the last few years, I apparently have read more fantasy than science fiction, as shocking as that may sound). The problem? Every time I start a fantasy idea (mostly in novel form), I end up burning out, not because of the usual (I'm bored of the story or characters), but because I cannot suspend my own disbelief in terms of the "cliches." I have no problem doing this while reading, though, and this poses a bizarre dilemma.

How exactly can I write in a genre I enjoy if I can't get past my own nagging guilt that I'm "telling the same story all over again?" Other authors do it (and let's face it, most of them aren't writing anything "original" at all, because that's not really what fantasy is about). I read it. I love it. And I rarely dislike fantasy if the writer can pull off the cliches with grace (meaning they write in a way that makes the cliches irrelevant). I don't know if that's my problem. Am I graceless when it comes to fantasy? Maybe. When I write fantasy I get a good twenty or thirty pages into the story (maybe even 50) before I tell myself "I've seen this before" and lose interest. No, I'm not consciously trying to copy others (in fact, the novel I was working on for a while, Watchtower, had what I thought was a fairly unique use of old ideas developed outside of fantasy and then shoved into the middle of it for what the genre offered to the story). I may be doing this unconsciously, and, if so, I wonder if that is also a problem all fantasy writers (published or otherwise) deal with on a regular basis.

On the flip side, what makes it easier to suspend disbelief while reading fantasy (again, in terms of the cliches) than while writing it? Is there a switch that needs to be turned on somewhere in my head?

So, I'll ask those of you who are writers (published or otherwise) what you do, or would suggest I do, to get past this? Is this a normal nagging thing for all writers of fantasy?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why I'm Glad I Was Poor When I Was A Stupid Writer

I've been thinking back to the good old days when I was young and unaware of my imminent demise from alcohol poisoning or a brain aneurysm. It occurred to me, in that musing, that I should be very grateful about growing up on welfare and various other degrees of poor-ness. Why?

When I started really getting into writing, there weren't a lot of great ways to "get published." This whole "webzine" thing hadn't happened yet, publishers were far away, meaning you had to pay for postage (because nobody took email submissions back in the day), and the scammers (i.e. what are now called vanity presses, in various shapes, since there was no Lulu or Createspace) were everywhere, milking anyone they could for every cent (to be fair, Lulu and Createspace milk you too, but at least they are honest about it and seem to avoid the unethical methods other companies do).

And back in those days, I was a dumbass. I actually thought that it was the same thing to spend $5 to send a manuscript to a publisher, to wait months and months and months, to get accepted with a $5,000 advance, and to see my book on the shelves as spending $5,000 to have a company print my book under the guise that somehow I would end up the same as Stephen King, that my book would be in stores and people would love me and all that happy stuff, and that the company was accurate and honest in its claims.

I learned my lesson eventually, much the same way so many others have: by seeing other people who weren't as poor, but equally as stupid as myself, get screwed over and lied to or put into various stages of delusion about the reality of their existence as "published writers."

So, if there's anything to be grateful for when it comes to being poor as hell as a kid, it's that I didn't have the money to do something absolutely positively stupid. You know, like fall for some of the horrible crap described here.

SF Signal's Newest Mind Meld: My Top Five Anime Films

The fine folks over at SF Signal asked me to contribute to their newest Mind Meld on the top five Anime films. I mistakenly assumed they meant movies as opposed to television, so I'd probably change a few things now. Still, the ones I did pick are all excellent movies. They are:
  1. Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki)
  2. The Cat Returns (Hiroyuki Morita)
  3. Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii)
  4. Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki)
  5. The Place Promised In Our Early Days (Makoto Shinkai)
The actual post for the Mind Meld contains a bit more info for each, and a hell of a lot of other selections by writers and Otaku alike.

If I were to change the list to include television, I'd probably consider some of the following shows:
  • Gasaraki
  • Saikano
  • Samurai X
  • Crest of the Stars (and Banner of the Stars I & II)
  • Gundam Wing (because I grew up on it, so bite me if you think it's stupid)
There are plenty of others I've seen and liked, which poses a problem for me when trying to narrow things down to five. It's easy for films; it's impossible when you combine the two.

In any case, you should check out the Mind Meld. There's a lot of great stuff there!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: A Thank You

Today is an important day in the United States. It's the day we celebrate the life and struggles of a great man some of you (or most of you) have heard of before: Martin Luther King, Jr. But, today, I'm not going to celebrate. I'm going to say thank you.

Thank you, Martin Luther King, Jr., for struggling and fighting against oppression, for putting yourself in the middle of it all and making the world better for it.

Thank you for making sure the world I live in today is the one it is and not the one it could be. Without you, your friends, and the many others who participated in your movement (and even before it), I would be forced to live in a world where it is okay to hate people based on skin color and where oppression is still the dominant mode of discourse and law.
Thank you for your amazing words, for never giving up, and for reminding us that great men come in all shapes and sizes, from all kinds of backgrounds. Thank you, also, for proving that sometimes violence isn't the answer, and that one can make a difference by showing compassion.

Thank you, Martin Luther King, Jr., for everything.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Story For Haiti: Catnip Pete and the Suricata Symbol (Part Two)

(You can read part one here.)

The important stuff first.

I am posting the second part of this story for Crossed Genre's "Post A Story For Haiti" project. If you enjoy the story, great; if not, please consider donating by clicking the following links anyway. While I hope you enjoy the story, I'm more interesting in trying to help raise money for the people in Haiti. So, if you hate it, but still donated, then feel free to let me know.

You can donate to any of the following places (the links below go directly to the donation pages):
--The International Red Cross
--Doctors Without Borders
--The Rainbow World Fund

There will be a third part of this story.

The story is below (you might have to click the read more to see it):

Catnip Pete and the Suricata Symbol (Part Two)
by Shaun Duke

The misses made fish gumbo for lunch the following day. We’d long since come to terms with the fact that I was a disaster in the kitchen, and she had refused me the right to use the good pans for anything. To be fair to the misses, she did cook for a living, which somehow made it acceptable for her to take on the kitchen duties and for me to assume the task of cleaning every inch of our little one bedroom Victorian. Before she left for work, thus leaving me to wallow in the emptiness of the world around me, she made a familiar request: “Get some rhubarb from the store.” There’d be a new pie by the end of the day.

The labs were double-booked, so it looked like I’d have to wait an extra few hours before Skipper’s results would come in. I hated waiting as much as I hated it when the misses misplaces my catnip mouse. Aunt Felinia had a saying: if you’re too impatient to wait a mouse out, pretend to be doing something else; a mouse can’t resist the opportunity to get you with your fur down. She said a lot of things, and not all of them useful.

When the results finally came in—delivered by a squirrel runner from FeMA, a little fellow named Stub who suffered from a rare balding disease on his tail (which, no doubt, made it difficult to climb trees)—I had spent already spent a good six hours staring at the table, the pictures, and my notes. It occurred to me that I needed a hobby, but couldn’t for the life of me think of anything I could do. Short of hunting down criminals, keeping up the old exercises, and making sure the misses was happy, I didn’t have much else.

And the results? Salvador was right. There was nothing normal about the every facet of the case. Skipper’s blood had traces of an unknown substance; the docs suspected an antipsychotic, but that was iffy at best—you’d think Skipper would remember having a pill shoved down his throat. So, it had to be something else, something illegal, something produced by someone with access to medical supplies.

Then it dawned on me. I tore into the pages on the table, ignoring the cup of cold coffee the misses had left for me, and the fish bagel, pushing everything out of the way until I found what I was looking for. There it was, staring up at me in all its dead-tree glory: Skipper’s medical records. Plastered in big black letters was the name Dr. Charles P. Murkowitz.

If anyone had access to the kinds of medical supplies needed to give Skipper a psychotic break, you could bet it would be a vet. And Skipper had had an appointment with Dr. Murkowitz the morning of Mr. Smith’s death. I had a lead and things were looking up. For the both of us.

#

Dr. Murkowitz had a shady record—a two-time loser with a pension for recreational hop. With the way the humans ran their vet clinics, though, it wasn’t a surprise that he had access to a lot of the things he had been busted for in ninety-two. None of that was damning, though. Not really. I’d learned over the years that a man who looked guilty when reflected against the past usually was the opposite. Everyone makes mistakes at some point—I once stole a fuzzy teddy bear from a two-year-old—but the way Aunt Felinia figured it, you’re only guilty if you don’t learn a lesson—I’ve since kept my paws off fuzzy teddy bears, and two-year-olds, for that matter.

Murkowitz kept his new office on the south side of Corey Morgan City, a good six miles from FeMA headquarters, and three from his old location from a year ago. His clinic had been doing quite well ever since the CMC Vet Union got busted for padding their accounts, but there were a few other clinics still in operation since Murkowitz wasn’t much of a herp fan—neither are cats, if you get right down to it.

I took a horsetrain down Madison and made my way to the Sunny Side Happy Pets Clinic, keeping the tan trench coat wrapped tight and the bowler had snug around my ears. A chill wind blew along the south side from the harbor, and the tantalizing scent of fresh fish wafted along, tickling whiskers as if the fishermen, the fish, and the Norlington Fisheries were playing a cruel joke. I knew then that leaving the fish bagel on the table before catching the 2:30 to the south side was a bad idea.

Entering through the doggy door left me with two impressions. The first: that it was most certainly racist to have a doggy door without an accompanying kitty door. The second: vet clinics smell (in this case, the lingering stench of bleach, dandruff, and old vomit left me with a bad taste in my mouth). I shoved both impressions back, hopped up onto the counter, and set my mind to the task at hand; an old snow globe depicting a decrepit Santa Claus bringing blobs of presents to blobs of children in a sled pulled by blobs of flying reindeer jiggled.

I flashed my badge to the blonde on the counter. “I need to ask Dr. Murkowitz a few questions.”

She yawned, opened her bright blue eyes, stretched, and gave a sensual purr. If I wasn’t a married cat, I might have taken the bait. “Sure. I’ll let him know you’re here.”

I looked out the window at the dreary weather—dark clouds and the scent of oncoming rain. She did her best to impress, holding her tail high and moving her hips with a swagger that would have tempted a younger me. Then she hopped off the counter, disappeared around the bend, and returned to tell me that Dr. Murkowitz would speak with me in his office. I thanked her, polite as ever, and headed for the edge of counter. She rubbed her tail against my leg and giggled; I did my best to ignore her. Someone was going to have to get her fixed before her lack of inhibitions led her into trouble.

Murkowitz was already talking before I put both feet into his office. “Are you here about the damned gonif from last week?” His face was old, wrinkled and accentuated by a curled mop of graying hair. He was stalky and his lips were perpetually stretched tight over his crooked teeth; he spoke with a muffled accent.

I could see the criminal in him, lingering in the back of his dull green eyes—a criminal that wanted out. But, I could also see the restrained man he had become. Addiction does wicked things to a man, and anyone who can go from hero to zero to businessman deserves a little respect. Hell, even alcoholics have that guilty self sitting in the back of their eyes, desperate for another drink.

Dr. Murkowitz gestured for me to take a seat. I jumped into the old swivel-chair in front of his desk; he dropped his rear in the leather monstrosity sitting on the other side.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. You were robbed?”

“You bloody well believe it. Stole two grand worth of medicines. I had to order an emergency supply and send customers I couldn’t treat away. Cost me a fortune. I’ll be lucky to make a sizable profit this year.” He ruffled some pages on his desk.

“Did you file a report?”

“Of course I did. What do you take me for?”

I said nothing.

“So, if you’re not here about that, then what do you want?”

“I’m here about one of your patients. Skipper. You treated him yesterday, correct?”

“Chocolate lab?”

I nodded.

“Yeah. Just a checkup. Nothing major. Needed his toes clipped, though. Mr. Smith has a tendency to ignore the finer points of a dog’s life. He’s scheduled to bring Skipper in tomorrow, actually. Where is it…” he stopped and rummaged through the files on his desk before turning his attention to the file cabinets on either side of the room.

“Actually,” I pulled out my notepad, looking at my notes from the other day, partly for effect, “Mr. Smith is dead.”

“What? How?” His jaw dropped, exposing his teeth for a brief moment before he caught himself and closed up shop. It was a professional sort of surprise, as if he was more shocked by the prospect of losing a customer than the death. It was an honest response.

“I’m afraid Skipper may be the one responsible.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, Dr. Murkowitz, I’m afraid not.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of anything like that before. Pitbulls, yeah, that’s easy. Hell, even a Chihuahua snaps once in a blue moon. Chocolate lab? If you were anyone else I wouldn’t believe you.” He rubbed his chin while shaking his head. I couldn’t blame him. You spend as much time as Murkowitz has working with animals, you come to know a few universal truths: human owners always wait until it’s too late to take their pets to the vet, cats are notorious about keeping their illnesses hidden, and labs haven’t got a violent bone in their bodies. I could see the world turning upside-down for him.

“Out of curiosity, Dr. Murkowitz, what medicines were stolen from your clinic last week?”

“Hmm? Oh, right. Well, a few nonessential items. Minor painkillers. Doggy aspirin and the like. But whoever the bastard was stole my entire supply of antipsychotics and tranquilizers. No idea how the little fellow got it all out of the clinic.”

“Little fellow?”

“Oh, well I have security cameras in the place. A little critter about your size, all dolled up in burglar gear. Couldn’t see anything except his size.”

Now things were getting interesting. “Can I ask you a professional question?”

“Shoot.”

“Would it be possible to induce a homicidal reaction in a genetically friendly animal using medicines you might find in your clinic?”

“What are you getting at?” He leaned forward. “You think I had something to do with it?” Then he threw up his hands. “Always suspect the ex-con. Never any different for you flatties, is it? Well, I didn’t have anything to do with it. And you’re not nailing me for something I didn’t do because I’m an easy target either. So buzz off.”

“Dr. Murkowitz. You misunderstand my interest in your professional opinion for an accusation. I just want to know if it’s possible.”

He sighed, a big, thick stream of air that told me he had an unusually large set of lungs. “Theoretically speaking? Yeah, you could. It’d be one hell of a job, though. Maybe a mix of triglofan and mesiniclo could do it, but only at the right doses. To be honest, if you’re suggesting that the fellow who stole my medicines may have been able to concoct a potent mixture that could cause a chocolate lab to snap like that, then your list of suspects is probably pretty small.”

“How so?”

“The kind of knowledge you’d need to pull it off you’d have to get from someone with veterinary training. Which includes me and about a half-dozen other practicing vets, and maybe ten or so retired folks.”

“What about medical doctors?”

He shrugged. “They’d know the medicines, but a dog’s metabolism is drastically different than a human’s. You’re looking for someone who knows how a chocolate lab operates, and you’re only going to get that from someone who works or has worked with dogs.”

“I see.” I jotted down a few notes, then licked my paw and smoothed the fur between my ears. “Would you mind providing a list of the stolen items?”

“Sure.” He did some more rummaging while I wrote a few salient points on the notepad. Eventually, he hunted down a notepad of his own, scrawled a list of names in pencil, ripped it out and handed it over. I grabbed the paper, but he didn’t let go. “If you find the meds, I get them back, you hear?”

I narrowed my eyes and frowned.

“I have to turn this mess into a profit somehow.”

I pursed my lips. Selfish bastard that he was, at least he was honest. But he had to know as well as I that there was no way he was going to get those meds back for months, not so long as Skipper or whoever was on trial. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “As you wish, Dr. Murkowitz.”

He grinned and let go of the paper. “Now, I have patients to see. If you have any more questions, feel free to leave them with Athena up front.”

“Thank you for your time.” We both stood. I hopped down from the chair. He led me back into the hall and disappeared before I could say anything else.

I decided there wasn’t anything else for me to do there. But, I had another lead, and leads were always a good thing. Maybe if Aunt Felinia had had a few more leads back in the day she could have curbed the rodent rebellions of sixty-eight. But she had always said that you never saw the really bad things coming until it was too late, otherwise somebody would have done something about all those bad things and the past would have been a very different place. Mr. Smith really was the innocent victim in all of this; he never saw it coming.

#

The way back to the north side of Corey Morgan City seemed longer, extended purposefully by some baleful god. Thinking does that to you. It extends time, makes it into something distinct from the little inch-by-inch moments that make up life. The leads were getting dangerously close to being circular. Skipper led me to Salvador, who led me to Dr. Murkowitz, who led me to…Salvador? No, that didn’t make any sense. Salvador wouldn’t be so stupid as to lead me right back to him. That’d be like a murderer giving away the location of the body under the guise that it would implicate someone else. Salvador was smarter than that. I could see it.

But there sure as hell was something to this robbery. Maybe Salvador had led me there because he thought it might lead to the people he feared would kill him if he uttered a word. Clever? Yeah, but too movie-like.

Then it hit me. Not the answer, but a hunch, of sorts, and any time a cat gets a hunch, you listen. Cat hunches are good stuff, for most people; I had known a few cat detectives who solved cases almost exclusively on hunches (sometimes they were wrong, but nobody ever paid attention to that). In this case, my hunch told me to check out Dr. Murkowitz’s old office. The aging uber-capitalist was likely innocent, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a connection between him and the folks who might have screwed with Skipper. I needed answers, because sooner or later people were going to wonder why the lab hadn’t been strung up on murder charges yet—people have always been gloriously impatient.

I signaled the horsetrain to drop me off on the corner of Madison and Magdalena, a short jog from the old location for the Sunny Side Happy Pets Clinic. The old black stallion grumbled something about cats and their unquenchable desire for detours and huffed a few horse insults before pulling down a side street and back onto Madison. A few blocks later and the horsetrain deposited me on the corner of Magdalena. I marched inland to the old office.

The place still had the gold and red paint from when it had been Murkowitz’s dream. The windows were intact, the doors still on their hinges, and the lack of dust inside on the old counters and padded chairs told me that somebody was still visiting. And there was the problem. Murkowitz likely still used the place—maybe for private visits, since he still lived on the north side of Corey Morgan City—and there was nothing damning about that. Another hunch debunked.

I sighed and leaned against the door, peering up into the dark sky, expecting at any moment for the rain to come pouring down. Unlike the misses, I donn’t mind a little drizzle. It keeps the fur fresh. But this day smelled and looked like it was about to unleash a storm. Never a good omen.
Running a paw through my whiskers, I turned my attention to the other side of the street. I’d come to grips with the fact that my hunches weren’t all that great, that Salvador had led me to a dead end and left me to wriggle in the dark. And then I saw the dance studio. And the small, furry, devious-looking weasel scurrying about inside. And the symbol—a dancer with arms pointed to twelve and two, legs at three and nine.

And I thought about what Aunt Felinia had said before she congratulated me on graduating from the FeMA academy (only a handful of months before she passed away from a terrible wasting disease no vet could ever diagnose): always trust your instincts; we tabbies have a propensity for getting it right.

No truer words have ever been said, and I knew then that all this worry over how the pieces were going to fall together, and whether my hunches were any good, ended up meaning nothing whatsoever. Aunt Felinia, my sage and muse, had it straight, and somewhere out there she was smiling, saying, “I told you so.”

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Story For Haiti: Catnip Pete and the Suricata Symbol (part one)

The important stuff first.

I am posting this story for Crossed Genre's "Post A Story For Haiti" project. If you enjoy the story, great; if not, please consider donating by clicking the following links anyway. While I hope you enjoy the story, I'm more interesting in trying to help raise money for the people in Haiti. So, if you hate it, but still donated, then feel free to let me know.

You can donate to any of the following places (the links below go directly to the donation pages):
--The International Red Cross
--Doctors Without Borders
--The Rainbow World Fund

I've decided that the story is far too long to put in one piece (it's over 3,500 words at this point), so I am going to split it into two pieces. Part two will be posted tomorrow.

The story is below (you might have to click the read more to see it):

Catnip Pete and the Suricata Symbol (Part One)
by Shaun Duke
The universe is made of catnip. That’s what my Aunt Felinia used to tell me. Then again, she was crazier than an automated rat catcher—not that cats are bad at catching rats, just that we’re not all that interested in it for the usual logistical reasons—it’s a pleasure thing. But fantasies have a way of converging with reality, and I never thought I’d see a real dead body for my first serious case.

His name was Terrance Alimar Coetzee Smith, an Albanian fellow who apparently used to sell ice cream to the little tikes on Captain Street at dirt-cheap prices. Undercutting the big guy? You bet, and the Ice Cream Truck Alliance, with their steambots stationed outside I.C.T.A headquarters, breathing molten fire and vaporized air, would definitely have something to say about that.

But the condition of Smith’s body told me that the I.C.T.A. had nothing to do with it: teeth marks up and down his face, arms, legs, and torso. Someone had bitten him to death. The humans had already figured that part out—no homicide case had been filed—but I worked for another company—the Feline Monitoring Agency (FeMA for short)—and they usually wanted a hand in the affairs of humans, especially when man’s best friend was involved.

“Pete?” One of the officers approached, his buzzer flashing in the sun. He glanced at the crime scene, at the blood, torn flesh, and the terrified, wide-eyed stare of horror. The officer’s name was Wilson, a dark-haired fellow who had the look of an ex-gumshoe in his eyes. “FeMA call you in?”

I nodded. “I’ve got a case.”

“I see that. Pretty much open-and-shut, though. Dog turned on him.”

“Which one?” I scratched my ear.

“Skipper, apparently. He’s the only one missing.”

“I see.”

Rumor had it that Skipper was a bit of a booze hound, no pun intended. But that’s a far cry from murderous cog. Dogs can put up with a lot, unlike us felines, but they lack the independent nature necessary to take up regular employment. There are only two canine detectives in Corey Morgan City: Sigmund and Freud. Fitting names, too; psychoanalytic … the both of them. “Something must have triggered him.”

Wilson shrugged. “We’ll leave that side of the story to you.”

“Thanks.”

“Be careful. He doesn’t have his shots.”

“Yeah.” Nothing like a little rabies to keep you on your toes. “Thanks. I’ll be in touch.”
Wilson walked away and I fingered the matchbox in my jacket pocket. I didn’t smoke, but I liked the feel of them there—like kitty thinker caps playing on the edges of my claws.

Smith looked all kinds of terrible, like the leftovers from a meat grinder, or the strange canned cat food concoctions humans came up with to seize up the arteries of unsuspecting purebreds. Tabby’s, it seems, have it easier in the world: plenty of pampering and no heart attacks from ultra-rich regurgitated fish and chicken. But, after seeing the garbled remains of Smith’s body, I couldn’t imagine eating anything from a can again, even for special occasions. Something about the way his blood oozed out from the torn flesh and bubbled in the sunlight set my stomach churning. Thank the heavens that the misses is a fine cook, otherwise I might have sworn myself to a dried food diet.

But, in all actuality, bodies provide very little useful information when it comes to solving a case. I could smell Skipper, a sort of pungent urine-like scent that blended with the dozens of other dogs who had evacuated themselves in the field. The problem with dogs is they’re all so eager to mark everything, and when everything smells like everyone it’s like trying to find the really special kind of catnip—the kind that sends your fur into a frenzy—in a house of catnip.
But I’d find Skipper. Eventually. You can only stay hidden for so long. Besides, labs aren’t exactly the most intelligent critters on these streets.

I pulled out a notepad from my coat pocket and the misses’ favorite pen and started jotting down everything I’d need—and there wasn’t much at that. A broken leash and collar with Skipper’s name on a little bone-shaped ID tag, the body all mangled, pulverized, bloody dog prints scattered all over the place—chaotic—and the lingering sense that even if Skipper had done this, that there was something more to that story too. Maybe, I started to think to myself, the I.C.T.A. did have something to do with it. But how?

I shook my head and took a few more notes about the shape of the body—the arms pointing to twelve and two, legs at three and nine—before adjusting my bowler cap and heading home. I had told the misses I’d only be out an hour, and she’s not one to be kept waiting, especially when there’s pie to be eaten. Apples and cinnamon. Sweet paradise.

#

The misses had a few words to say before she let me return to the job. She remembered all too well what had happened to me the last time I had taken on a fugitive pooch—three months in a body cast, four hundred and twenty three stitches, five minor surgeries, and a huge cut in my pension. It took some doing, but I managed to calm her down enough to get out the door without ruffling her feathers (or fur, for that matter)—a good way to sooth the misses’ nerves is to appeal to her ego, which is exactly what I did (and if not for the misses and her random ideas and sharp wit, I don’t think I would be nearly as successful or as well known in Corey Morgan City). She’d said over dinner, in passing, something about Agatha Christie, and the simple mention of that name raised the sun over the horizon of knowledge. So, I left her behind with a big plate of apple pie in front of her and a look—her slit eyes open, brow curled slightly in worry, and her lips quivering with anticipation, like a serpent’s tail the second before the strike. Something about that look sent my senses flying, and for a good ten minutes my tail developed a mind of its own and swished about, a furry whip in the evening air. But I had a plan, and I was sticking to it.

I think Agatha Christie had some sort of magical attunement to dogs. I’d told myself after dinner that if I was going to find Skipper without following his scent, then I’d have find out wherever he had gone to lick his wounds. Christie seemed to have it right: injured dogs crawl away and disappear until they’re whole again. And where better to crawl away than a warehouse? There were at least five of them within reasonable distance of Smith’s body and home. It was in the fifth that I found Skipper. Maybe Christie was right about the wound-licking, but she was certainly wrong about them being wise. Seems to me if you don’t want to be found, you don’t go to an abandoned warehouse. It’s too noir, too obvious, too…cliché.

But, I had to paw it to Skipper; if there was any intelligence in that mutt brain of his, maybe he had it in his thoughts that a shadow-ridden place of horror would ward people off. It almost worked. Approaching the warehouse from the north meant I could see into the broken windows, into the darkness within. Yeah, we cats can see pretty well in the dark, but that doesn’t mean it’s an enjoyable experience. It’s like seeing the world through a colored lens, grainy and disconcerting, and yet somewhat comforting to know that at least you won’t bump into anything or get ambushed by some rabid pooch. But, if you’ve ever seen a dog attack through cat night vision, then you’ll understand the apprehension. It’s one thing to play a warbled tune on a piano in the middle of the night; it’s entirely another to track down a violent animal and lay down the law in a place littered with broken glass, falling support beams, trash, old wash basins, and rusted construction bunglers with all their gears seized up for good.

And that’s why I always kept the Pacifier with me. The blasted thing was illegal—most heaters were—and probably for good reasons, but it wasn’t like the cops were willing to do anything about it. A man, or cat, had to defend himself, and when you’re small and furry, and the enemy is ten times your size, well, a little extra help goes a long way. I ran a paw over the bulge in my coat, reassuring myself that it was still there. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to use it.

Tiptoeing through a hole in the front wall, I listened carefully for any sigh of life, looking back and forth, expecting that at any moment Skipper would appear from the darkness and rub me out. But he wasn’t at the front, or anywhere on the first floor. Only the sound of dripping water and the quarrel of irritated pigeons kept me company on my way up the enormous staircase in the back. All the stairs creaked and groaned and the structure itself looked like it would collapse at any minute. It’s a good thing to be a cat, all light on our toes and what not.

And that’s when I heard it. Not arguing or quiet conversation, but rushed, irritated whispers on two separate frequencies, a merging of two oppositional tunes, like a collapsing stream of musical notes until, suddenly, out of the dissonance, an unusual harmony appears. A phoenix from the ashes. A swan from an ugly duckling. A mouse sprung to life after playing dead.

It was probably a miracle that they were too engaged in conversation to notice me climbing the dying stairs, or hear the sound of the Pacifier whirling to life after I had plucked it from my coat pocket, or even notice the shape of a cat in a suit and bowler cap worming his way through the boxes and crates and other broken things. It was probably a miracle that they didn’t start running when I said, “The gig’s up, Skipper.” Hell, there were probably a few dozen miracles at work in those brief minutes before Skipper’s surprised chocolate face looked at me as if I were his mother and destroyer all at once. When the realization dawned on him and his companion—a slender, shifty-looking meerkat who seemed all too out of place in the landscape of Corey Morgan City—it was too late. The miracle had been done and the cuffs were already dangling from my free paw, the bulky, bronze-colored shape of the Pacifier, little gears whirling and the electric spark inside hissing, a serpent waiting to be released by its master, held firm in the other.

And if my Aunt Felinia had seen them willingly give themselves over to be processed by FeMA, without so much as a confession or a denial, or any of the two dozen other things they could of done instead of let me take them without a fight, she might have thought it strange, but still a miracle. She was always such a realist.

#

“Has he said anything yet?” Director Calvin said, staring me down with his flat nose and wide-set eyes—a shade or two lighter than the coffee in the mug in his paw. His tongue played with his lower lip as if anticipating food. It’s a Persian thing.

The observation room was empty but for the two of us, and uncomfortably quiet. Through the one-way mirrors of the two holding pens we could see that nobody was saying much of anything, and the ceiling fans were dead—the steam engine powering the northern quarter had been running on half-power for months. “Nothing, or so your boys tell me.”

“What about his companion, Mr,” he looked down at the documents on the desk, “Salvador Verne?”

“Nothing compelling, I’m afraid. He had some interesting things to say about the legal system, but you can’t really hold him for that.”

“Unless we charge him as an accessory to the murder.”

“There’s not much evidence for that, I’m afraid. I didn’t hear much of their conversation in the warehouse, and for all you know he could have been arguing with Skipper for other reasons.” I shrugged. “You’ve got nothing on him except a reason to hold him for twenty-four hours.”

“And he didn’t say anything to you when you called my boys to come pick them up?”

“No. They went all tight-lipped the second they saw me.”

“Odd that they gave up so easily, don’t you think?”

“Actually, now that you mention it, yes. Skipper doesn’t fit the profile.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, he’s a lab, for one, and they tend to be on the more loyal end. But more importantly, if he really went ape on Mr. Smith, you’d think he would have no qualms ripping this old tabby in two. But, look at him…” Now, the two of us really looked through the glass. Skipper sat transfixed on the bowl of water on the table. His eyes were solemn, and guilty, but the way they quivered told me something else: he was battling something inside, something he didn’t want to tell the rest of us. I hate secrets. “It’s almost as if he doesn’t have a violent bone in his body.”

“No, just a few genes buried somewhere in there.”

“Genes don’t snap to life and turn off like a light switch.”

“Well, we’ve got Skipper on irrefutable charges. This Salvador Verne…well, we’ll see what happens to him. There’s nothing else for you to do here.” Director Calvin turned and lugged his corpulent frame towards to door, no doubt heading for his office. He probably had a few cans of Félin Pompeux sitting on his desk, tempting him like the tree of knowledge. He most certainly gave into temptation whenever it came calling.

“Mind if I ask them a few questions? Might turn up some leads.”

He turned enough to land a dark eye on me from the door. “Feline intuition?”

“Something like that.”

He blinked, rolled his eye and body back towards the door, and waved a hand. “Whatever. Do what you like.”

“Thanks,” I said, but he was already gone.

#

Aunt Felinia had a way with words. She used to say that if you want to get someone to talk, threaten to break a limb; but if you want someone to tell you the truth, and nothing but, then threaten to eat them alive. Maybe that was sound knowledge back in the day when the mice swarms were eating every town from Corey Morgan City to Festington out of house and home. Detective work was a little different back then; Aunt Felinia had desperation on her side.

These days, if you want someone to talk, usually all you need is pathos. Hit a few heartstrings and the truth comes pouring out like a raging river of facts, fears, and explanations. I was betting on that to work with Skipper, but something told me that Salvador would be a tougher nut to crack—he’d have to go first.

A deputy let me into the room and locked the huge door behind me. Levers slid into place with a series of clicks, and then something else made a clang; nobody was getting out of this room. Salvador sat there with his pointed black nose angled towards the ceiling and his beady eyes closed. Long stripes of fuzzy brown fur lined his back, reminding me how far out of his element he was—no zoos for this fellow; the real deal.

“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.” His eyes opened and he tilted his head in my direction. He had a thick accent—I suspected Kenyan—but his English seemed unrestrained, fluent.

“Is that so, Mr. Verne? Please, enlighten me.” I pulled the other seat out from under the table, letting the legs grind on the stone floor, and then sat down, playing the good cop/bad cop role all on my own. I shuffled some papers around and feigned disinterest.

“I see no reason to put my life at risk.”

“We can offer you…”

“Protection?” His laugh came as a surprising boom, followed by an equally surprising echo; he could project remarkably well for a rodent. Surprises like that at the start of an interrogation never bodes well. “I’m sure you’ve heard it before, Catnip Pete, but you can’t protect me. They have people everywhere.”

“They?”

“You’re not getting anything else out of me.”

“Just hyperbole.”

His lip curled into a sardonic smile. “I was trying to help Skipper. He’s not a bad dog, but he makes a good patsy.”

“A patsy for what?”

“You’re not very good at this.”

“Skipper murdered a human being. So far, that’s all the humans need to rub him out for good.”

“You and I both know there’s nothing right about the whole situation.” He crossed his furry arms and gritted his teeth. “The poor bastard didn’t see it coming, I suspect.”

“So, you were in the warehouse helping Skipper? Helping him to do what?”

“Get him out of the country, of course. You cats have it in your heads that dogs are predisposed to violence, and that every so often a dog just snaps.”

“That’s one school of thought.”

“Yeah?” Salvador slammed his paws on the desk. “A school of thought that everyone seems to buy. Nobody ever looks a little deeper, at least not when it comes to us animals. They pass it off as just another attack, another example of why we’re still so wild. Nobody asks the perpetrators what happened. Nobody does a few tests or talks to folks like Skipper with anything less than an assumption of guilt. Open and shut, as your kind says.”

He had me interested, if not a little convinced. That first day, after seeing the body, the evidence, and getting an idea of who Skipper was. None of it seemed right. But, conspiracies and evil organizations that nobody knows about? It sounded too much like a bad action movie. “So, in your eyes, Skipper is innocent?”

“I know he’s innocent. And I’m not saying anything else. Maybe if you dicks and coppers did your job for once, we wouldn’t be here.”

We stared at one another for a few moments. It was a curious silence, both of us anticipating what neither of us could say. There were secrets on both sides: I didn’t want him to know that I might actually believe him; he didn’t want me to know who he tought was behind everything. Not yet.

Then the staring contest ended and I stood up to leave, ruffling the papers for effect. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Verne.”

“No problem.”

I pounded in the door, sighed as the bolts were undone and the door flew open. Taking a few moments to stare over Skipper’s file, I thought about how all this seemed to tie to my earlier assumptions. Could the I.C.T.A. really be behind this, all because Mr. Smith had been undercutting their business? Or was there another organization at work? And then, I wondered how. If Skipper really was a patsy, how did they get him to attack Mr. Smith? Mind control? I snickered at that. I’ve had a few weird ideas in my day, but nothing quite so…science fictional.

When a few minutes passed, I decided to let myself into Skipper’s interrogation room. They had him chained to his chair, but that didn’t seem to stop him from turning around to stare at me with his big dough eyes as I walked in and took a seat. I didn’t let him get too comfortable.

Interrogating Skipper produced two lines of thought: the first that he had done something terrible; the second that he could remember every detail, but had been unable to do anything about it, as if he had been trapped in his own furry body. Thus far, nobody had actually asked him anything that would allow him to explain his situation; that might have been one of the reasons Aunt Felinia had suggested I move on into the private business—cops have a way of intentionally avoiding finding the facts.

The Skipper experience made the strange conversation with Mr. Verne look emotionally stilted, like a conversation between robots. Skipper cried and whimpered throughout the entire discussion, and it took all my effort to keep him cogent enough to explain everything. It wasn’t that he feared his imminent death (let’s face it, being in the FeMA headquarters was one step on the way to death row); no, he feared for Mr. Smith’s immortal soul, and his own.

In the end, I had one lead: Skipper’s trapped-in-body experience. If Mr. Verne’s story was at all credible, maybe the docs would find something in Skipper’s blood, and if they did, well, that meant someone other than Skipper had a hand in Mr. Smith’s death.

Aunt Felinia was laughing in her grave.

End Part One

Two Quick Things: A Story and A Movie

Two big things to discuss about what is happening this week and today.

First, as you undoubtedly know there was a massive earthquake in Haiti and all sorts of bad things are happening there. Crossed Genres is asking people to help acquire donations by posting stories online for free with a donation button pointing to one of the many relief efforts for Haiti. They're calling it "Post A Story For Haiti." Later tonight I will be participating by posting a new humor/Steampunk/detective story for your enjoyment. Even if you don't like the story, I encourage you to donate (in fact, you don't even have to read the story if you don't want to; that's not why I'm posting it).

Second, I saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus last night and I have a few things to say before I post a full review:

See it. It is by far one of the best movies I have ever seen. The story, the magic, the visuals, and all else are simply stunning. This is what films are supposed to be. They should be enjoyable, beautiful, and should say something deeper in a way that allows the audience to choose between seeing or ignoring it. If you are having a hard time picking something to see in theaters, then see this one. Screw Avatar. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a must see.

And that's all for now.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti and Pat Robertson: Slavery is A-OK

There are only a few things to say, but you have to watch the video first.

Now, having seen that, let me translate:
Pat Robertson is saying that the Haitian slaves who revolted against the French colonists all those years back made a deal with the devil to do just that, which means that Robertson is perfectly fine with slavery and colonialism. That's right. Robertson thinks both of those things are perfectly acceptable conditions by which people can exist, and that the idea of violently opposing a system that violently oppresses people based on skin color is the same as being in collusion with the devil (i.e. Satan).

And, no, it does not matter one bit whether he's talking about the original slave revolt, or the brutal Haitian defense against France some years later. It's all the same thing: Pat Robertson is a-ok with slavery and colonialism.

Now I leave the floor to you.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What I Learned Today: the Nook, Taco Bell, and Google

I have a few quick things to say about some experiences I had today (one of them was actually from earlier in the week, but it was too small to devote a post to).

First -- The Nook
I had the opportunity to fiddle with Barnes and Noble's Nook today while I was running errands. I have a few impressions:

The Good
--It's exceptionally light (about the weight of an average trade paperback), making for a reading experience that doesn't break your wrist.
--It looks lovely. The design is fantastic, though I would prefer it came in different colors.
--Text actually looks good on the screen. It's readable, easily changeable to other fonts or sizes, and I can see myself reading from such a machine at some point in the future without losing the reading experience. Immersion is possible.
--The touchscreen and buttons are pretty easy to figure out without reading a manual (I had it down in about a minute).

The Bad
--It's not as fast as it should be. This criticism is something many others have said about the Nook and other eReaders, and is probably simply a problem with e-ink technology that will have to be overcome in the next few years. I do know B&N is planning to upgrade the software for the Nook, which should alleviate some of the sluggishness. I should clarify that when I say slow, I mean it has a very slight, but noticeable lag when turning pages. If you're the kind of person who often flips back and forth between pages (like me), it might be irritating. For anyone who tends to read "simpler" texts, it likely won't be a problem.
--It still costs more than I'm willing to spend for a product that isn't quite as good as it could be. At $259 it's still one of the cheapest and best eReaders out there, but I find it hard to justify spending that kind of money for something that has less computing power than one of those mini laptops.

Overall, it has potential (and B&N is far less evil than Amazon has been in the last year), but they've still got a long way to go.

Second -- Taco Bell
Apparently Taco Bell has been running a series of health ads on television in the same vein as those Subway commercials we're all familiar with (you know, the ones with the guy who lost weight eating Subway and what not). The reasons are clear enough: they want to sell food (particularly their "healthy" food).

I'm actually surprised by this, because when I first saw the commercials some time ago, I thought they were a joke. I laughed and thought, "I have to give Taco Bell props for turning a somewhat goofy, but appealing story into a joke for the purposes of selling food that induces cardiac arrest." But, then it came to my attention that the woman in the commercials is real, and so is her story. Am I the only one that has a hard time taking the whole thing seriously? I can't stop myself from laughing at what seems to be an outright mockery of everything Subway has stood for over the last decade. But that's me.

Third -- Google Smacks China
I heard the news from Tobias S. Buckell and the first thing I thought was: "Way to go, Google." You can't ignore the rampant institutionalization of Orwellian-style politics in communist China, from their desperate desire to control information to their disturbing thought police who patrol the Interwebs in search of anti-Communist bloggers and the like in order to incarcerate them indefinitely. And now Google is saying, "Yeah, we've kind of had it, jackasses." Okay, so they're not really saying that (they'll likely play the whole thing fairly safely, if not a-politically), but they might as well be.

And that's all I have for today. Thoughts?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Why I Now Love Avatar Because I Hate It

Some time back I talked about why Avatar would suck, and yet it would still be one of the biggest movies in years. Thus far, it seems to be exactly that. Most of the people who love the movie point out that the story is horribly cliché, but that the visuals are stunning; those who dislike it point out that it’s either a crazy liberal fantasy (it probably is) or a visual stunt (considering that it’s in 3D, that’s not far off the mark). Probably the worst part of this is that I've seen Avatar recommended not for being a good movie, per se, but because one can't miss the visual revolution it will likely start.

And now, having seen all that is said about the movie, good and bad, I have come to love it. No, I haven't seen the movie (I don't have to in order to understand what the film entails), but I have come to love the film for the same reasons that I and others "hate" it. Here are a few of those reasons:
  • It comments upon numerous American fantasies, particularly a nostalgic desire for an unattainable British-style empire (fueled, perhaps, by what Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. refers to as the “British imperial nostalgia displaced onto the American heirs” in his essay “Cyberpunk and Empire”) in an exceptionally obvious and unrelenting way. This makes for interesting analysis when one tries to consider how the vision Avatar gives us comments upon both the creators and the world we live in.
  • What can only be said to be a remarkable ability on the part of the writers to reduce racial or ethnic subjects (or, for the purposes of this discussion, the “Other,” or the more apt term, “Subaltern”) to caricature, thinly veiled and served with a side of American-guilt masqueraded as White-guilt (I refuse to reduce problems of genocide to racial stereotypes when we live in a world beset with the perpetuation of this practice by people of all races).
  • A uniquely anti-capitalist, anti-military, and anti-imperialist fictionalization that is and probably always will be mistaken for something it is not (i.e. some liberal critique of the U.S. militaristic state in need of refutation via indefensible positions. Such positions are, unfortunately, taken as legitimate critiques in this world--to put it more plainly, the use of the “this is an evil liberal movie” argument to reduce the term “liberal” into something derogatory while both ignoring and inviting others to ignore the truth underneath whatever is being said; we might call this the “head in the sand” mentality, which exist in all stripes of politics, no matter how right or left leaning).
I'm sure there's much more I could add to this, but these seem to be the three most important points to make. Avatar’s story is still trite; it’s character are still cardboard cutouts; it’s ideas are still representative of yesterday’s greatest hits; and no matter how hard you try, you can’t make it into anything more than a technology stunt worthy of the praise it has received (namely, that it is visually stunning, and nothing else). Whatever revolutionary power it will have will, thus, be reduced to the technological. I don’t think fans of the film, however, should be put off by this, because many great movies have influenced filmmaking while being terrible or mediocre or “just okay.” Influence is influence.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Reading Resolution Redux: A Question For Readers

A couple days ago I wrote a post about my reading resolutions for 2010. In it I discussed my goal to read more international science fiction and fantasy, under the guise that intentionally doing so would not be as artificial as seeking out work by people of color. Looking back, I completely disagree with my original statement. But Dave B. from Robot Comics beat me to the punch with the following comment:
I don't know if "Read more international books" is more or less artificial than "Read more books by PoC." They're both seeking out specific types of authors, and nationality and race are by and large the same type of divide when speaking about sectioning people off into "groups".

Theoretically (though not at all absolutely), reading books by PoC gives you a different SUB-cultural voice/view, where reading international authors gives you a different cultural view/voice. But beyond that prefix, I don't see any difference in consciously seeking one out or the other. Same with gender.

It's good to keep your mind open to all three - keep aware that you WOULD like to read more of all three - but to actively seek it out in numbers will be artificial no matter which of the three you're talking out. Or so it strikes me.
The first section is absolutely true. The very idea of intentionally seeking out international SF/F makes the actual reading artificial (in the sense that I am no longer reading organically--by how I find the story--but instead by a systemic, probably well-researched, purchasing/selecting method). No matter how I try to spin it, there is no difference between seeking out international SF/F or works by people of color.

And this is where I have such a big problem: the end of Dave's comment hints to exactly how I read (I am open to all manner of writing by authors of various nationalities, genders, and races, with the exception, obviously, that the work be written or translated into my native and only tongue--English). I generally do not select what I read by any factor other than by what I happen to like (and those likes are changing dramatically these days due to exposure to all kinds of new forms of writing), but at the same time I am always on the look out for new and interesting stories from all over the world and often gravitate towards such things when they are properly advertised as such. Only, that rarely happens (for international SF/F or people of color), and in some cases probably for good reasons. I can see problems with publishers using one's gender or race as a gimmick for selling one books, which might be why many of them don't do it (a guess on my part).

So, do I simply take the artificial road and try to find these works where they appear? Is there anything wrong with an artificial method for selecting reading material? Am I reading too much into the notion of "artificial" and, thus, creating doubt within myself about the effectiveness of such a "habit?"

I'd really love opinions on this, folks. While I do not base my reading habits on one's race, gender, or nationality, I still am very uncomfortable with the gaps in my reading, not because I am guilty of anything, but because I feel like I'm missing something vital.

Video Found: George Lucas on The Daily Show (geek out!)

Yes, I love George Lucas. Yes, I love Jon Stewart. Both of them in the same show? Breathtaking.

Here it is (click the read more):
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
George Lucas
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Reading Resolutions: Enhanced and Revamped

Earlier this year I laid out some New Years resolutions for 2010, some of them related to reading and others related to writing. But Laura Miller over at Salon.com (and Larry over at OF Blog of the Fallen) wrote something that made me think that maybe I should be a little more challenging and, perhaps, rigorous in how I address my reading habits this year.

Looking back over all the books I have read in the last two years (not including school books, which are chosen for me, rather than by me), I’ve noticed the following things:
Books Read (07-09): 60 (roughly; I’ve forgotten a few here or there and left off books I couldn’t finish or were anthologies of some description)
By Women: 22
By Men: 38
By People of Color: 3 (this is not exact and based entirely on available information)
By International Authors (not including Canada or the UK): 5
Fantasy: 30
Science Fiction: 26
Other: 4
Again, these are books I read for my own enjoyment. If I included books for school you would see a dramatic shift in works by people of color and women (and I do quite enjoy many of those school books, by the way, though certainly not all).

What I find curious about these numbers are three things:
  1. I have an almost even 50/50 split between SF and F.
    You’d think I would have read twice as much science fiction in the last three years. Apparently not.
  2. I’ve read around 1.5 times more books by men than women.
    I had expected the numbers to be a little closer, but I’m also pleased that the difference is relatively nominal.
  3. I've read few novels by authors from outside of the big three (the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.).
    I wasn't surprised by this, but it is something that I want to resolve. In this case, I don't think it will be as artificial as #4 (below) simply because international SF, while not hard to find, is certainly not what seems to get pushed on bookshelves.
  4. I’ve read almost no works by people of color.
    Now, there are two things that I think need to be said about this. The first is that I had to do a whole bunch of Google searches to figure out who was and was not a person of color (using a fairly broad definition). I couldn’t have told you who was and was not Asian or African American or what have you prior to this. The second is that I didn’t buy or review the books I read based on race (I can’t do that if I don’t know).

    This, of course, concerns me. While I had the opportunity to read a heck of a lot of women in the last few years, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to read works by people of color (I’ve read a lot of short stories by PoC, but I left those out of this analysis). I don’t know if it would be fair to say that this is indicative of a void in the SF/F publishing industry; having read 60 books in the last three years (a pathetic number, to say the least), it probably wouldn’t be right to use my numbers to comment on a bigger object.

    At the same time, however, I don’t know if I can use this as a basis for any particular challenge for 2010. While it would be nice to read more work by PoC, it would also be too artificial and meaningless to spend my days intentionally trying to find work by PoC. I’m not saying that works by PoC aren’t worth the effort, just that it defeats the purpose of legitimately reading work by such folks if I’m intentionally trying find them. I don’t know if that makes sense (please, leave a comment if you’re confused by what I’m saying here, or if what I’m saying is somehow indicating a negative attitude towards PoC writers).
Looking at all of this, I do have some revamped reading resolutions for 2010 (challenges, actually).
  • Read at least one full book a week.
  • Read more international SF/F.
  • Read a book or two outside of my traditional reading interests.
  • Read more non-fiction.
I think those are fairly reasonable reading goals. What about you? Do you have any reading goals?