Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus. Now in Paperback and Ebook!

Featured

Tags

, , , , , ,

Thanks to Vamkire Trannel for the cover illustration!

The Second Omnibus collects and updates volumes 7-10, plus two all-new stories, previously unpublished interviews, scenes, drawings, a mini-comic, and more!

In the aftermath of the disaster that nearly wiped out civilization on Ceres, a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat get set to throw the greatest birthday party of a lifetime—until alien death rains down from the sky!

Join Meteor Mags and her criminal crew, including the hard-rocking Psycho 78s and the teenage Dumpster Kittens, as they rage against the forces of law and order, struggle to control the future of the Asteroid Belt, and confront the total destruction of their beloved home on Vesta 4. Some will live, many more will die, and nothing in the Belt will ever be the same!

In fifteen episodes of relentless anarchy, sci-fi madness, and violent revolution, the pirate crew comes face-to-face with betrayal, annihilation, telepathic octopuses, evil space lizards, cybernetic murder wasps, game-changing technologies, objects of unlimited power, and much, much more! Strap on your battle armor and get ready to rock, because the asteroid-mining frontier is no place for the faint-hearted.

What readers are saying about the series:

“A violent, feel-good space romp. An irreverent, rocking series.”

“A lot of guns and bloody battles. Fast-paced and full of action.”

“Anarchy, asteroids, and rock music abound. A great read.”

“The swashbuckling spirit and generous—but murderous!—hearts of Mags and her cohort are endearing and engaging.”

“So insane.”

578-page paperback edition or Kindle ebook

(154,000 words plus illustrations).

BUY IT ON AMAZON.

postcards: the robot riddle

Tags

, ,

art generated by humanely raised free-range robots

One of the traditions here on Mars is sharing the weird and wonderful postcards that arrive in my mailbox, but it’s a tradition that hasn’t got nearly enough love in the past two years. Friends, family, and clients have sent me a joyous pile of fun, thoughtful postcards since I relocated to Tucson in early 2021. They are always a bright spot in my day, and they get displayed in the Martian HQ for months before being filed in my archives. Maybe before I blow out of this hellhole in Tucson forever in three weeks to start the next chapter of my life, we’ll enjoy a postcard retrospective.

Before we get to all that, I want to share one that arrived this week, because you might have some insight into the question it poses. This postcard is the very first to arrive completely unsigned since the hilarious call to begin the intergalactic invasion in 2013. Sending random unsigned postcards to make someone’s day a little more surreal is exactly the kind of frivolity this blog was founded on more than a decade ago.

I still don’t know for sure who sent the invasion postcard, but I am pretty sure I know who sent the following robot riddle for me to solve. I thought you might like to take a shot at solving this riddle, too. Post your answers in the comments, and maybe you will help the mysterious sender get some ideas for her robot novel.

What is the sound of an inert robot when he’s laughing?

I came up with one solution to this riddle based on a post at https://www.livescience.com/electricity-humming-noise, but you might have ideas of your own. And if you have never received a postcard from me personally, then that’s on you! Email me your address and get on my list for mailings that go out at irregular intervals once or twice a year.

Another year lost in the wasteland.

How to Order Author Copies from KDP

Tags

, , , ,

Ordering Author Copies for your paperback or hardback edition with KDP is a very quick and easy process that will only seem mysterious the first time you do it. I will show you how to get it done. First, your book needs to be LIVE on Amazon — not In Review by KDP, but fully Live. Second, you will be ordering at your wholesale cost — what KDP might call the printing cost — not the retail price listed on Amazon.

To begin, sign into your KDP Account. The first screen you see should be your “Bookshelf“, as shown below.

This might be unfamiliar territory if someone else set up your book for you like I do for my clients. So, let’s zoom in a little and see exactly where you click to Order Author Copies.

Clicking the Order Author Copies button will take you to the next screen where you will input how many copies you want. You can see this screen below.

Notice that you can order just one copy, or any other number you want, up to 999 copies. If you need more than that, then you are one fortunate author and also might need to contact KDP Support directly for help with that.

The only thing that sometimes confuses people here is the dropdown menu to select the “Marketplace of Your Order.” But it’s an easy decision. If you are in the USA, then choose “Amazon.com”. If you are in another country, pick the version of Amazon for your country. In the UK, for example, Amazon is “Amazon.co.uk”. Below, I have zoomed in to show you how easy this is.

Finally, click the big yellow Submit Order button in the bottom right corner. Then you are done with this part!

The final step is that you will soon get an email notice from KDP/Amazon that your order now appears in your Amazon Shopping Cart — the same cart where anything else you might buy on Amazon would go. Your cart is where you will pay for the order. You can also choose your shipping rate, if you want to pay more for faster delivery.

And, you can choose a delivery address. For example, if I order a book this way to send to a friend or reviewer instead of to me, I just give their address. You can also select the “Gift” option so you can add a short note to your friend, which will be printed and included in the shipment. That way, you don’t need to get books shipped to you and then re-ship them yourself; you can just “drop ship” from your cart if you want to.

That’s really all there is to it! If you want some low-cost and free marketing options you have available as a KDP author, see my post Five Easy Marketing Things to Do Once Your Kindle Ebook is Published.

Vote Down the Fascists

Tags

, , , , , ,

Here in the states, we are having “midterm” elections, which means we are voting on public offices at the state and federal level halfway through a president’s term, and also voting on a number of proposed policies on our ballots. Many people see this year’s midterms as crucially important due to the rise of Trump-influenced fascism, white supremacy, antisemitism, the brutal evisceration of women’s reproductive healthcare rights, the rising tide of anti-immigrant hatred, and the persistent brainwashing of a massive segment of the American populace by Fox News and other so-called “conservative” sources of misinformation.

Labels such as right, left, conservative, and liberal are partially to blame. The extreme far-right that has embraced fascism and a perverted version of christian nationalism that has been on the rise for decades has little to do with the beliefs of the people I know who consider themselves “conservative christians”. I have several friends and family members who embrace that label but harbor no hate in their hearts for people of color, people who fall on the LGBT spectrum, or women. Most of the so-called “conservative” people I know are wrong about a whole lot of things, but they are not actively trying to advance an agenda of hate and violence. Sadly, the hate mongers have become a major component of the current Republican voting base, and they are successfully courted by politicians who talk a lot about god and freedom when they really mean oppression of the biblical, old-testament variety where women’s rights were non-existent, children were regularly murdered, and violent, god-sanctioned genocide was the norm.

The political spectrum in the States has shifted so far to the right that the label of “the left” has become meaningless. We do not have any truly left-wing elements in national politics. The extreme left wing would be pure anarchy without any government, as opposed to the extreme right which is total fascism. You might find some anarchists in hippie collectives and punk-rock youth groups who embrace the philosophy, but to call someone like President Joe Biden a “leftist” is incredibly stupid. The so-called American left merely holds a centrist position when compared to many countries of Europe. Things like universal healthcare, social support networks for the poor, and not letting any idiot buy semi-automatic weapons to shoot up a school are non-controversial concepts in many European countries, the UK, and the UK’s commonwealth areas such as Australia. Only in America are these basic hallmarks of modern social progress labeled “left wing”.

Given that the left is virtually non-existent, and the right has been perverted by hate-filled extremists, where does that leave the rest of us? Most people I know are somewhere in the center and might have minor differences about their religious beliefs, or tax policy, or whether a developing fetus can be considered a human being. But most of them are reasonable people who could be convinced one way or the other by compelling facts, unbiased and repeatable research, or by sharing personal experiences. I know many people who have dubious beliefs but who are not driven by hatred and a refusal to face facts. They just don’t know any better, and they are willing to be proven wrong—which is a major intellectual accomplishment.

So, as we find ourselves in this year’s midterm elections, I hope that enough voters—and especially women and young people—can show up to cast their ballots and stop the rising tide of violent fascism that has become an acceptable political position in the States. Voting doesn’t fix everything, but not voting fixes nothing. To not take any action at all to stop the rise of right-wing fascism in America from seizing control of our government is the worst kind of laziness.

And if you don’t believe that something like what happened in Nazi Germany can happen in the United States, then you don’t understand history. It’s happening right now, and we were warned. If you need an in-depth historical account of the rise of fascist movements across the globe, then pick up a copy of Fascism: A Warning by our former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. She was not perfect, but she was a victim of the Third Reich who wrote a well-articulated book that shines a light on our current problems by placing them in a historical context. She warned us about our current crisis, and it would be foolish to ignore her warning.

Voter’s Guide: Fascism: A Warning is available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook editions. For a deeper dive into voter psychology, see my review of The Reasoning Voter.

Halloween in Cartoon World

Tags

, , , , ,

The term “metaverse” dates back to Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash and has been widely used among online gamers and virtual-world nerds for decades. So, it annoys me that the guy who created Facebook is trying to own the term now, and all this talk about getting corporations and businesses involved is tired old news to anyone who has used Second Life for any length of time.

We went through that years ago, and in the aftermath of all of it turning out to be over-hyped nonsense, a lot of awesome, creative people put their energy into doing something artistic and interesting with Second Life.

You might have heard a lot of negative stuff about Second Life. And you know what? It’s all true. I have seen it all firsthand. But despite the dweebs, dorks, perverts, and pinheads—all of whom I highly recommend you block and de-render—there are people making virtual reality fun and inspiring with immersive art exhibits and live music performances. People gather to read poems and stories, play games, and share new music they’ve discovered. They build fantastic environments and put on dazzling light shows.

They might get together to meditate, hold an AA meeting, ride a virtual roller coaster, or just go shopping for clothes. You would not believe how much time people spend shopping for clothes for their avatars! An entire virtual industry revolves around it. Playing dress-up with your digital dolly is more than a little addicting.

So, it should come as no surprise that Halloween is the season of costumes even in cartoon world. Today I’m sharing a few snapshots of the cool costumes and pretty pixels some people I know are sporting this October.

Suckerberg might still be trying to figure out legs, but in Second Life, we’ve had awesome legs for years. Even breast physics are old news to us. In video games, they date back to 1992—the same year as Snow Crash, coincidentally—and legend has it that some kid worked them out for Second Life eons ago as a project in college. So, work out your basic appendages, billionaires. We got bouncy boobs.

Shout out to comedian Ryan George for showing Second Life some love this month in his recent sketch about the so-called metaverse. Bagging on Mark Zuckerberg is TIGHT.

music review: Ssih Mountain by Kenneth James Gibson

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Sandra Leans Toward Eternity from Ssih Mountain is also on Spotify and Soundcloud.

The challenge of reviewing an ambient album like Kenneth James Gibson’s soon-to-be-released Ssih Mountain is that it isn’t music you review. It’s music you write poetry to, or paint ethereal landscapes to. It’s music you close your eyes to and let wash over you while you daydream or meditate or play out imaginary film scenes in your mind. It’s a collection of songless songs that use droning tonalities and slowly changing washes of chords to play with your emotions; sometimes uplifting, sometimes menacing, sometimes peaceful, sometimes pensive. Ssih Mountain is the countryside of dreams and the wind that blows across the distant hills of insomnia.

Probably the best-known similar works are Brian Eno’s most ambient albums. Neroli, New Space Music, and Thursday Afternoon come to mind. I don’t doubt that Kenneth is influenced by Steve Reich’s minimalist works, and Ssih Mountain also reminds me of the Incandescent Cinema album my friends in Trio Nine recorded. Ssih Mountain is one of those albums I like to play on repeat for a few hours to cleanse the musical palette and chill the heck out. It’s like sonic incense to calm the senses.

After listening to the complete album that was sent privately to me for review, I bought Kenneth’s 2016 album, The Evening Falls. It uses more recognizable melodies than Ssih Mountain, usually minimalist piano or slide-guitar melodies played over drones and washes like those found on Mountain. Imagine someone took the first couple of minutes of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond and made an entire album with that vibe. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

From The Evening Falls.

Ssih Mountain will be released on November 4, 2022, and you’ll be able to pick it up on Bandcamp at kennethjamesgibson.bandcamp.com/music. In the meantime, you can find more news about and excerpts from Kenneth’s other works at worldofkennethjamesgibson.com and on the Meadows Heavy Recorders YouTube channel.

music review: Ape Law by Maybe Human

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Maybe Human’s soon-to-be-released album Ape Law is a hard-rockin’ tribute to the original Planet of the Apes movies. Each song contains samples of iconic lines of film dialogue which are sure to please longtime fans, and they even work artistically if you lack that context.

But don’t expect the eerie atonality of the first film’s original soundtrack. Instead, you’ll be treated to a combination of post-rock melodies and prog-metal riffs that bring to mind bands I like such as Tool, If These Trees Could Talk, Tuber, and Cambrian Explosion. Maybe Human even throws in a few electronica vibes and some industrial riffage in the vein of vintage Ministry albums. Ape Law is an ambitious combination of sounds and genres, but somehow it all works and feels cohesive thanks to the unifying theme and outstanding bass and guitar performances.

In case you haven’t seen the original films, Ape Law is based on the idea that the apes had two fundamental laws concerning social relationships. One: Ape shall never kill ape. Two: Humans shall never say no to an ape. Clearly, these are a comment on racism, fascism, slavery, and the subjugation of an “out group” by an “in group”, but this instrumental album is not in any way a political manifesto. It’s an affectionate tribute to a beloved series, and the only axe Maybe Human has to grind is an axe with six strings.

The full album will not be released to the public until November 25, 2022, but Maybe Human has made the first track available for your listening pleasure. (See the video at the top of this post.) As a reviewer, I had private access to the entire album, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

You will be able to purchase the complete album on Bandcamp once it’s released, at https://maybehuman.bandcamp.com/. There will be both digital download and vinyl versions available. Maybe Human’s Bandcamp page has many other tracks you can rock right now while you wait for Ape Law, so check them out.

Now take your stinking paws off my blog, you damn dirty apes!

EC Comics & Ray Bradbury: The Coffin

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

‘Tis the season to be spooky, so let’s enjoy a horrifying tale.

Back in October 2012, I celebrated the monstrous month of morbidity by sharing with you all the scans I could find of Ray Bradbury stories that had been adapted by EC Comics. You can access them all by clicking this link to my tagged archives. Since then, some delightfully obsessed readers contacted me to fill in gaps in my research and share additional scans. And, oddly enough, several institutions of higher learning now include a few of my Bradbury blog posts in their literary curricula for students.

No, that isn’t the horrifying tale. Use your head!

The horrifying tale for today is called The Coffin. It appeared in Haunt of Fear #16 in 1952, written by Al Feldstein and drawn by Jack Davis, and was reprinted in 1996 by Gemstone, who made so many great EC Comics available and affordable for a new generation. I believe this version also appeared in a rare collection called The Autumn People.

Bradbury’s original version appeared in his first published book Dark Carnival in 1947, and is sometimes called Wake for the Living. If you want a copy of that vintage tome, you will need around $1000. But The Coffin was reprinted in 1980 in The Stories of Ray Bradbury, which you can currently get on Kindle for $12, and affordable print copies still exist. Finally, The Coffin was adapted for television as part of Ray Bradbury Theater in the mid-1980s. You can see that episode in the video at the end of this post.

So, without further ado, here is a gallery of this slice of spooky weirdness from EC Comics.

Showing Versus Telling

Tags

, , , ,

This post is an excerpt from my book about writing and workshopping, My Life As an Armadillo, available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover editions around the world.

When we begin our writing journey, other writers invariably advise us to “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s easier said than done, and the terminology is to blame. After all, aren’t writers engaged in the art of storytelling, not story showing? How can we tell stories if we can’t tell anything? What does this advice really mean?

In January 2018, I took a writing course from Australian author, coach, and publisher Joanne Fedler, and she put her finger on the heart of this matter. Joanne challenged the class to stop writing about a feeling and instead write from a feeling. One of her methods involved identifying how an emotion can be communicated in sensory, physical terms. In other words, what does a given emotion look like? What does it taste, sound, and smell like? What would it feel like if we could touch it?

By describing an intangible emotion in tangible terms, we create a story where readers experience the feeling for themselves instead of simply reading a report about it. Joanne used the word “report” in her discussion about this method, and it was an eye-opening moment for me.

Consider sentences such as “He felt sad” or “Susan was annoyed”. These are reports about a character’s emotional state. They tell us information, but they don’t generate any feeling inside us. If we don’t experience a feeling, we don’t engage with the story.

Readers want to take an emotional journey, not read a report about someone else’s journey. This is the central idea behind “Show, Don’t Tell.” Telling means reporting about feelings instead of communicating them in a way the reader experiences first-hand.

Rather than “Show, Don’t Tell”, I suggest we say, “Immerse, Don’t Report.” We want to immerse our readers in a world they feel and emotionally respond to. We have several tools in our writing toolbox to achieve that goal: appealing to the senses, describing body language, and eliminating adverbs.

Joanne’s method of appealing to the senses forces us to consider how an emotion colors our physical experience of the world. Two people can observe the same event but draw totally different interpretations based on their emotional states.

Films achieve a version of this effect using soundtracks. For example, a simple shot of a sunset can elicit completely different emotions depending on the music in the scene. The musical score can make the sunset appear joyous or foreboding, triumphant or tragic.

Our emotional state affects the physical world in the same way. One person might view a bustling sidewalk full of people as an exciting opportunity to mingle with others and make friends while navigating the boundless adventure of an unfamiliar city. Another person might view the same scene with crippling anxiety about jostling shoulders with strangers in potentially dangerous territory. Based on our character’s emotional state, we can describe the same scene in totally different ways.

To practice writing about this difference, take a photograph and write about it from opposing emotional perspectives. For example, take a photo of the Grand Canyon and write about it from the perspective of a character who is excited to explore it. Then write from the point of view of a character who is terrified of being lost inside it.

In each case, refuse to report these feelings. Instead, focus on how the character’s emotional states color her perceptions of the physical environment. Do the rock formations rise triumphantly toward the sunlit sky, or do they loom like a menacing maze of stone? Do clouds grace the edges of the landscape like puffs of cotton, or do they smother the horizon in obscurity? It depends on what emotional state our character brings to the scene.

Sensation refers to the immediate response of our sensory receptors (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, fingers, skin) to basic stimuli such as light, color, sound, odor, and texture.

Perception is the process by which people select, organize, and interpret these sensations. The study of perception, then, focuses on what we add to these raw sensations to give them meaning.

—Michael R. Solomon; Consumer Behavior, 12th Ed., 2016.

Let’s consider another tool: body language. Again, we are rooting the emotional world in the physical world, but here we examine how characters move their bodies and interact with their immediate environment. To illustrate the point, let’s discuss cats.

We can infer all kinds of things about a cat’s emotional state from observing her body language. A hunched back, fur standing on end, and a snarling face show us the cat senses a threat and has adopted a defensive posture. Rolling on her back with her belly exposed and her paws curled shows us the cat trusts us to give affection without harming her. Even the way a cat wags or flicks her tail shows us whether she is calm or agitated.

Now, let’s consider how a cat interacts with her environment. When she leaps onto a narrow ledge, we sense her confidence in her own agility and power. When she stretches out on a high tree branch for a nap, we understand she feels safe from enemies or predators in her chosen spot. When she bats her paws at bugs or streams of water, we sense her curiosity about the world, and her willingness to mess with things just to find out what they do.

Regardless of our characters’ species, we need to find ways to communicate feeling through physical action. Many writers are stuck in a rut of boring actions such as sighing, head nodding, head shaking, eye widening, and eye rolling. These have been done to death, and I am sick of reading about them. We need to find more ways to communicate emotions.

As an exercise, take a single emotion and come up with ten ways a character’s body language communicates it. Embarrassment, for example, might involve a character’s fixing her attention on the floor, shrinking away from other characters, stuttering, blushing, having watery eyes, suddenly being silent, running away, shoving her hands in her pockets, kicking something on the ground, or fidgeting with something in her hands. Which one best fits your character?

The way you choose body language immerses readers because they see an action and must derive meaning from it. This is why I don’t much care for the advice “Show, Don’t Tell.” What is most important is how we choose what to tell. If we tell the reader the facts about body language and interaction with the environment, then we trust the reader to understand character emotions without our needing to report on them.

This brings us back to the union of style and substance. If the substance of our story is emotional, we don’t want to undermine it by using stylistic choices that make it a mere report. We need to trust readers to draw their own conclusions, and I feel that treating narration like a camera is the best way to go: Use the camera to observe action, and let readers bring themselves to the story to understand the emotional landscape.

This is why experienced writers advise us to avoid using adverbs. Adverbs are a shortcut that allow the writer to indulge in a lazy lack of description. For example, consider the sentence “Susan nervously handed him the keys to the car.” What’s missing here?

We’re missing details that communicate Susan’s nervousness. Did her hands shake? Did she fumble with the keys or drop them? Did her palms sweat? Did her heart race? Any of these descriptive facts communicate nervousness and paint a more vivid picture than an adverb that reports Susan’s emotion.

By adding action and description instead of using shortcuts, we create a rich and emotion-laden world readers can enter with our characters, a world where they experience emotion for themselves instead of reading a report.

indie box: my favorite cover

Tags

, , , , , , ,

I recently got a great eBay deal on the comic book with my all-time favorite cover: Anna Mercury #2, the WizardWorld Chicago Convention variant, of which only 1500 were printed.

Anna Mercury is one of many short series Warren Ellis wrote for Avatar, including Black Summer, a brutal sci-fi adventure featuring my other all-time favorite cover: a wraparound by the same artist, Juan Jose Ryp.

The Anna Mercury story itself is just okay. It works best when it gives us every excuse to watch the leading lady kick all kinds of ass and do amazing stunts. With art pages like the following action sequence by Facundo Percio, I could be on board for just about any plot.

Anna seems to have it all: mega powers, mega weapons, mega awesome hair, and superb stunt skills. But although she has all these things in the alternate reality she struggles to rescue from oblivion, they are revealed to be an artifice when she returns to her own reality, where she is just a regular gal. Maybe Warren Ellis was making a comment on gamers and virtual world users, and the difference between our hyper-awesome cartoon identities and the hum-drum of everyday life.

As a writer of over-the-top adventures featuring an ass-kicking leading lady who also has huge hair, big guns, and major attitude problems, I absolutely love Anna’s aesthetic. When I hired an artist to do an illustration for the cover of The Second Omnibus, I sent him another brilliant Anna Mercury cover as a reference for the type of bodysuit Meteor Mags might wear, but embellished with stars and skulls.

Only a thousand of those were printed, and one of them arrived in my mailbox today. Stylistically, Anna’s been a big influence, and all I can say is that I hope Mags gets a movie deal before Anna does. May the best woman win.

Collector’s Guide: The five single issues of Anna Mercury were collected in paperback and hardcover editions. The three-issue sequel is Anna Mercury 2. An Art Book of pin-ups by various artists and the short Prepare for Launch sketchbook round out the collection.

book review: The Secret History of Empress M (Book 1 of The 64)

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

The Secret History of Empress M tells two action-packed stories that eventually intersect on the interstellar frontier. The first story concerns a ten-year-old girl named Em who starts out held in isolation from humanity due to her telepathic powers. Her only human contact is with some friends who visit her for tea parties using a technology that allows them to communicate from a distance through mechanical bodies. But Em’s secret location is breached by a mercenary hired to kidnap her, kicking off a star-spanning saga of conspiracy and conflicting agendas. And as you might suspect, a telepath is not so easy to kidnap.

The second interwoven story begins by gathering an interesting set of characters one-by-one to become the first members of The 64, a new police force meant to patrol the politically complex “landscape” of space where many different civilizations coexist—and not always peacefully. A war hero, a detective, a killer, and a futuristic samurai combine forces with a sentient spaceship and gain extra powers by submerging in a “grey goo” of nanobots. Soon, the team crosses the chaotic path of Em and her would-be captors, and the results are anything but predictable.

The Secret History is full of twists and turns made even more complex by the same consciousness-projecting technology Em’s tea-time friends employed, and by various means of exchanging consciousness between two people. You’ll need to pay close attention to follow who is who they appear to be, and who isn’t. But the reward for staying sharp is a one-of-a-kind adventure that will keep you turning pages until the very end.

Author Tony Padegimas has a knack for mining the humor from serious situations and finding a way to make us laugh by juxtaposing characters who all have radically different personalities and perspectives. The novel could easily be marketed as “young adult” science fiction, but I’m almost fifty and thought it was a great read. Tony covers so much ground and deftly juggles so many plot threads and characters that I never knew what was coming next, despite a lifetime of reading and watching science fiction and space opera. And yes, there is a sequel in the works!

Buyer’s Guide: The Kindle ebook edition of The Secret History of Empress M is currently available for $4.99 on Amazon, a bargain price for an epic of its length. If you are more into fantasy, you should check out Tony’s two novels about the continuing adventures of Jack the Giant Killer from the classic Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale, both wild, fast-paced rides much like Secret History: Beanstalk and Beyond and Taliesin’s Last Apprentice.

short story draft: Gods of Titan

Tags

, , , , , ,

Chronologically, this episode comes before the one I posted earlier this week. It just took a bit longer to get everything sorted.

art generated by Midjourney

Meteor Mags: Gods of Titan
© 2022 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
Episode 37 of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.

Mags, Patches, and Alonso travel to Titan to check on her errant octopus babies, only to discover their eight-armed friends have other plans.

4,500 words.

Now all you merry blacksmiths,
a warning take by me:

Stick to your country horseshoes
and your anchors for the sea.

When the gods of war come calling,
promising you gold,

they’ll take your hammer,
take your anvil,
take your very soul.

—The Longest Johns; Hammer and the Anvil; 2022.

🏴‍☠️

March 2032. From the letters of Meteor Mags.

Lonso and I had a blast partying on Isla Salida with the friends we left behind.[1] Patches did, too, but she seems to have fun no matter where we go. She couldn’t give a single fuck, so long as no one lets her dishes go empty.

I’m convinced she doesn’t need to eat anymore—or drink, or breathe. I think she just does those things because cats prefer routines, and maybe she finds comfort in familiar things that make her feel normal instead of like some kind of freak. I know what it’s like to be thought a freak. But maybe she just likes screaming at her bowls to remind everyone we exist to serve her.

It took so long to get to Titan that Lonso and I weren’t even hungover anymore. In fact, we’d had a few too many hairs of the dogs that bit us, and we were a drunken mess by the time the Saturnian moon came into view. We’d been listening to my massive collection of chanteys—what some people call “sea shanties” without realizing that every bloody chantey is a sea shanty by definition. Most of the damn things are older than me, and that’s saying something.

Lonso especially liked a tune that warned blacksmiths about working for the war machine. We listened to a bad-ass rendition in a minor key about five or six times in a row, and I knew why he liked it. Lonso was just a kid from the hood when I met him, and after the fascists slaughtered his bandmates, he got a fake identity and went to work for the interplanetary Port Authority.

Whenever he talks to me about those days, he makes a show of how he got all this awesome pilot training and combat skills, and so many high-tech toys to play with. He’s quick with a story about his drunken brawls, black-market entrepreneurship, and breaking all the rules.

But like most guys, he’s not so quick to talk about the emotional pain behind the funny stories. He doesn’t talk about how it was eating him from the inside out to be working for the man after so many years of rebelling and playing kick-ass rock. He doesn’t mention how serving the war machine and the incompetent bureaucracy that killed his friends took something away from him every day of his life.

Not that I want to paint a picture of Lonso as some sort of broken soul or wounded warrior. Fuck that noise. He’s right as rain these days. In ’29, I accidentally rescued him from all that Port Authority bullshit, and the time he spent rocking out with my telepathic octos did him some good.[2] Hell, that kid’s way more level-headed than me and far less cynical. Lonso’s happy to be alive, doesn’t sweat the small shit, and seems to make friends everywhere he goes—even in places where I’d make enemies.

But he did cry a little at that blacksmith song. I gave him a hug and another can of ale.

I’m an only child. I never had sisters or brothers. But even though Lonso still calls me tía after all these years, he’s the closest thing I ever had to a brother. I’d move heaven and Earth for that kid, even if he’s nearly fifty now. Even if he found my microphone and is drunkenly screaming along with the Dead Weather album Horehound.

Curse me for a papist. Patches is howling along with him now. She doesn’t even know the words.

What an ungodly racket.

I guess I better join them.

🏴‍☠️

Our space-bound karaoke trio had exhausted most of Jack White’s side projects and all but the last bottle of rum when we landed on Titan. The last time I’d been there with Patches and Plutes, a faction of twenty octopuses had teamed up with an object of unimaginable power we called the triglyph, and they’d merged their mental skills with its god-like abilities to terraform Titan, destroy Enceladus to get its water, and build a monumental radio from a star core and materials they found in space.[3]

Don’t get me wrong. The crazy shit they started broadcasting is awesome, and I still tune it to years later thanks to Plutes playing a couple of hours of it every day on his radio station. It’s the sound of the cosmos. But we had a bit of a misunderstanding last time, when the octos tried to dissemble me and Plutes and Patches to join a group mind and leave our bodies to die.

I don’t love any radio station enough to die for it, unless it’s the PBN. Fortunately, Patches showed those unruly octopuses who was boss, killed a few of them to make her point, and saved the day. We figured they’d be up to typical octopus things when we visited again.

We were so very wrong.

Listen, I’ve heard all the criticisms about how I should have known about this shit earlier. Get off my bloody case. I had a lot going on the past few years, and this shit on Titan wasn’t even on my radar. Why would it have been? When you have telepaths doing whatever they want, they can easily hide it from you.

We set down on the shore of nowhere, on a lake no one had ever named—not even its creators.

🏴‍☠️

The whole reason we went to Titan was that the octopuses living there had been members of the batch of genetically altered babies I helped get born and liberated back in ’29, and all the other members were approaching the ends of the lives. Lonso and I got the rest of my babies sorted on Earth, but we’d been out of touch with Titan for a couple of years. In ’32, I didn’t want them dying on me, either.

Lonso, who insisted on driving long past the point where he should have been in control of a space vessel or even a bloody tricycle, set us down on a flat spot near the beach. We came to an abrupt halt as the Hyades rocked back and forth from her off-kilter landing and settled onto the rock. I accused Lonso of trying to kill us. He pretended that was his plan.

He’s lucky I love him.

We were hardly out of the ship before the octos contacted us. It’s hard to explain what it sounds like when telepathic space octos get inside your brain. It’s like a language made of math and music, sensation and emotion. You feel yourself dissolving into that weird group mind they have. But somewhere in the center is something you still consider yourself.

I’m pretty sure it would melt your circuits and give the octos total control over your thoughts and feelings, but me and Lonso and Patches had been dealing with that shit for years. We knew who we were and what to expect.

What we did not expect was the society my errant babies had created.

🏴‍☠️

<Welcome, friends.> The octos spoke directly into our minds.

Thanks to the telepathic group chat, I knew Patches was offended they didn’t call us “mothers”. She had helped them get born just as much as I did. But she let it slide.

<We have been waiting.>

“For what?” I surveyed the sandy beach and the species of crabs, anemones, and the empty shells of lesser mollusks populating it. Strands of kelp lie strewn above the waterline. I picked up a sand dollar and held it in my hand. It was still alive. Tiny hairs around the opening in its shell struggled to bring food to its mouth. I whipped it back into the saltwater. It skipped along the incoming waves and disappeared.

Patches and Lonso were checking out stuff in their own ways. Lonso said, “Are we even on Titan? Because this beach is like the ones in SoCal.”

“They changed it.” Patches ran to my side and bared her little fangs. “They changed the entire moon. They used the triglyph to teleport some décor from the oceans of Earth so they could have a home. This is the result.”

“Trippy,” said Lonso. “Is that lake, like, real water or some kind of methane bullshit?”

“It’s water they got by destroying Enceladus. They salinated it using the triglyph to create a miniature sun on the far side of Titan—an energy source they used to fuse elements they needed to transform the atmosphere, raise the temperature, and do damn near anything else they wanted.”[4]

“Sweet,” said Lonso. He stripped off his clothes. “I’m going for a swim!”

“Lonso,” I said. “We don’t—”

But he was already in the water.

Patches jumped in after him.

From the beach, I watched them frolic and splash in water that shouldn’t even exist in liquid form that far out in the solar system. I must be getting old, because there was a day when I would have been the first one in. I stripped off my combat boots and arranged the rest of my stuff in a pile on the sand before plunging in.

🏴‍☠️

From every direction, octopuses swarmed me. Their suckers gripped my skin, and their arms embraced me. The added weight pulled me down, but upon sensing my distress, they brought me to the surface for air. Lonso and Patches bobbed above the waves beside me.

I sputtered and flung wet strands of hair away from my face. “You bloody bilge rats! I can’t breathe underwater!”

<Apologies. Everyone here lives in water.>

“How do you forget something like that? After all we’ve been through?!”

<Apologies. But we have never met before, though our grandmothers are legends among all the tribes of Titan.>

Grandmothers? What the—” Then it hit me. Those little squidlings weren’t my babies at all, but their sons and daughters. If that were true, it could only mean one thing.

The octos followed my train of thought as fast I could think it.

<Their final thoughts were of you. As the light of life dimmed inside our parents, and we were tiny things taking shape inside our eggs, they communicated their knowledge and history to us.>

Patches had made herself at home, curled up and purring on the squishy, bulbous head of an octo who appeared perfectly content to be her throne. She let out a polysyllabic mew.

<Yes, even your languages.>

“What about math?”

<Would you like to hear our proof of the Riemann hypothesis?>

Hell. Even I hadn’t cracked that one, and I’d made a hobby of proving or disproving unsolved math problems. The Riemann hypothesis proposes that the non-trivial zeroes of the zeta function—oh, bloody hell. I’ll explain later.

I said, “Of course I do. But something like that could take hours. Maybe we should—”

<No. It’s simplicity itself.>

They sang me the solution. Objectively, it took no time at all. Subjectively, it was fucking epic. Imagine you took every Beethoven symphony and compressed them all into a single second, and you’ll have an approximate idea of what I experienced.

Poor Patches and Lonso. They got hit with it, too, and neither of them has my understanding of higher-level math. We’re lucky they didn’t get their brains burned to a cinder.

The solution itself was gorgeous. Intricate, complex, and rigorous, it involved a kind of math no one on Earth had ever seen before, even the nerds working on Monster set theory and higher-dimensional topology.

But the way the octos laid it out, from the basic premises to their surprising ramifications, it all made perfect sense. Compared to Beethoven it was, to my mind, even more rapturous—a beautiful re-imagining of how the universe works, a million melodies intertwined, a fundamental re-thinking of math itself that at first felt like gazing into the sun until you go blind. Then everything came into focus again, with crystal clarity and the last echoes of a symphony lingering in my ears.

“Curse me for a papist,” I said. “When did you come up with that?”

<Ten minutes before you landed. We sensed your approach and felt we should have an appropriate gift for our grandmothers.>

“Right, then.” They did all that in ten minutes? The Riemann hypothesis had stumped everyone for two hundred years! “I don’t even know what to say. That was—that was perfect. Perfect in every way. You should be proud of yourselves.”

Lonso looked like he had been hit by an eighteen-wheeler. I think if my babies—sorry, my grandbabies—hadn’t been holding him afloat, he would have sunk to the bottom. “Tía,” he said, “what the fuck was that? I saw fractals and crazy shapes and colors, and all this music and—”

“I’ll explain later,” I said, “but that’s what it’s like when they’ve solved a math problem.”

“I saw the music. I tasted it. That was math?”

“That was brilliance.”

“Whatever the hell it was, it was fuckin’ rad. Made LSD look like a cup of coffee.”

Patches meowed her agreement. Not that she’s ever taken LSD. Not that I know of.

But something my grandbabies said raised a question. “You said ‘the tribes of Titan’. Who are these tribes?”

<Would you like to meet them? We wanted to introduce you, but we forgot you would drown.>

“They’re underwater.”

<Yes.>

Lonso said, “Hey, I got an idea. We got some spacesuits on the Hyades. There’s no reason we couldn’t use them for an underwater dive. I mean, except for Patches. We don’t have a cat-sized suit.”

“Something tells me she’ll be fine. Baby kitty?”

She squinted at me a couple of times to show she was totally fine with the idea.

That’s how the three of us became the first mammals to explore Titan’s lakes.

🏴‍☠️

Titan had lakes long before the octos arrived. The lakes were made of liquid methane and, in some cases, ethane. Titan had, for millennia, possessed clouds that produced rain and snow, too—a complete “water” cycle like Earth’s, but with elements made from hydrogen and carbon instead of hydrogen and oxygen.

The largest of Titan’s ancient methane lakes dwarfed Earth’s largest inland, freshwater seas—at least as far as surface area goes. On the other hand, many of them were incredibly shallow, only a few meters deep. The deepest was about 170 kilometers to the bottom. All those lakes had familiar forms around them: tributaries, gullies, deltas, fjords. Some contained islands.

But the giant lake basins were not carved by glaciers. Instead, they formed from underground gas explosions, sort of like volcanic crater lakes you might have seen before.

No one could dispute the natural beauty of those lakes, but they were unfit for life from Earth’s oceans. When the octos and the triglyph had their terraforming adventure, they filled in dry lake beds and depressions in the surface with good old dihydrogen monoxide—H2O. They also made their fusion factory work overtime to convert the atmosphere, because what’s the use of having some nice saltwater to swim in if methane is just going to rain down and poison it?

I explained all this to Lonso as we suited up and prepared for our dive. Some of it I knew from my own research, and the rest I gleaned from my babies’ group mind on my previous visit.

Soon, we were soon ready to go exploring with my little grand-mutants. The only delay was coming up with a harness and tether to connect Patches to my suit. I mean, she can swim just fine, but we decided it would be easier if she wasn’t constantly struggling to stay submerged and could just swim at my side—or, you know, be a total lazy butt while I handled the swimming.

Finally, I needed suitable weapons to strap to the suit. I had no idea what we might encounter, but I wasn’t going into the unknown unarmed. The problem was that the fingers of my suit were too bulky to handle the trigger on a standard pistol or rifle. I settled on knives, grenades, and a sawed-off semi-auto I’d modified for use with a spacesuit.

I got a machete and grenades for Lonso, and we were ready for a night on the Titanic town. We locked up the Hyades and waded into the lake where the octos waited.

🏴‍☠️

On the way down, we discovered there were way more than the original twenty octos I’d left behind. Octopuses lay anywhere from hundreds to thousands of eggs. On Earth, most of those babies are eaten by natural predators. On Titan, they had none.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But if nobody is culling your species, then food becomes a major problem. After all, octos need to eat, and if no one is eating you, then you either need to get smart right quick about raising food or die from starvation.

They chose the former.

As the octos guided us down through the Titanic waters, they introduced us to gardens of meat. They had become farmers of the lifeforms they needed to survive: crabs, polychaete worms, clams, and other basically brainless animals they loved to snack on.

All up and down the craggy slopes below the surface of Titan’s new seas, thousands of octopuses tended their gardens. The aquaculture extended far beyond my field of vision, beginning in the light from our headlamps and stretching into blackness that might as well have been eternal. Hunger knows no bounds.

Lonso and Patches wanted to make sushi. Not that I blame them. But I had a bit of a problem with the idea of mind-controlling every species in sight just to make them into food. I mean, it was a crazy efficient idea, but was it right?

We dove deeper.

🏴‍☠️

I checked my oxygen to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. I called out, “Patches? Lonso?”

Lonso responded in my helmet.

Patches drifted by my side. I sensed all the seafood was making her hungry. Iridescent scales of a thousand colors dashed around us in a living rainbow constantly shifting and reorganizing into something never seen before. I reached out a hand and almost touched the beauty before it sped away.

My grandbabies explained that we had entered the zone of fish they did not eat. They had tried to teach telepathy to those fish, with mixed results. Most fish, despite their ability to feel emotion and pain, are not intelligent enough to maintain telepathy on their own.

But the octos, in the years I’d been away from them, had discovered the fish could achieve a rudimentary group mind with the proper support.

Debate about that development had gone on for some time. It would have taken you and me several years. But when you are dealing with telepathic octos, it only takes a few minutes. The speed of thought is an amazing thing.

The short version is: They left the fishes alone to cohabitate in all their colorful glory and decided against extending their telepathic gifts to the species they needed to eat. None of the octos had the stomach to grant self-awareness to their food.

Lonso, Patches, and I descended past the coastal farms and the deeper realms of those independent tribes the octopuses allowed to survive. All those organisms were known to us. Then my grand-squiddos revealed their biggest surprise.

🏴‍☠️

They presented me with a single glass bottle. Where the hell did they get glass on that godforsaken rock? It must have been something they crafted in those brief days when they had the triglyph at their beck and call to make anything and everything they imagined.

Even more mysterious was the horde of tiny microbes inside the vessel. I have better eyesight than most, but I couldn’t see them without the octos zooming in my vision and telling me just what the hell I was looking at.

Inside their little vial swam hundreds of thousands of single-celled organisms. Every one of them thrived in a methane-rich environment that would have instantly killed any organism on Earth.

Those little bastards. My octos had discovered an entirely new lifeform, and they hadn’t even bothered to call me.

“Lonso,” I said, “check this out.”

He said, “Is that methane?”

“Yeah.”

“Nothing can survive in that.”

“No,” I said, “it can’t.”

He drew closer. Patches seemed unconcerned. I guess when you can survive in any environment, evolving to survive on Titan probably isn’t a big deal.

But it was a big deal to me. “Babies,” I said, “where did you find this?”

I’ll spare you everything they told me. Cephalopods are notoriously long-winded. The short version is: Their parents discovered native life on Titan in the form of unicellular animals. Before the triglyph buggered off to parts unknown, they preserved a handful of specimens.

A tentacle full? Whatever.

Even after the triglyph disappeared, my babies reached out with their minds and contacted a million billion organisms living in the methane lakes around them. It wasn’t the easiest telepathy. Imagine trying to teach kindergarteners about calculus.

But the octos were nothing if not patient, and far more patient than I’ll ever be. They tried to connect my mind to those methane microbes, but it wasn’t really working for me. It was like trying to explain Jackson Pollock to a cockroach. Or chess to an ant.

Lonso, however, was undaunted. He said, “Micro bros, what the fuck? How long you guys been living here?”

They gave him an answer that compressed hundreds of millions of years into the present moment and just about fried his circuits. I grabbed the shoulder of his dive suit and shook it as hard as I could while screaming at him.

His eyes sprang open.

I locked my eyes on his. “Puta madre! Look at me!”

His pupils bounced back and forth for a second before he locked onto my gaze. “Tía,” he said, “we gotta save them.”

Fuck. I was afraid he’d say something like that.

The problem with the brilliant new lifeform was that it had evolved to live in methane lakes. Other than inspecting the tiny sample I held in my hand, my grand-octos hadn’t studied the animals other than telepathically, at a distance from a lake beyond the horizon behind jagged peaks and unconquerable terrain.

To make matters worse, microbes have never been the best conversationalists.

The octos worried that the long-term effect of interfering with the hydrocarbon “water” cycle would result in Titan’s first extinction. H2O would completely replace methane in the atmosphere and bring an end to native life on Titan.

They had set out to create a utopia, but they had begun a genocide. The octos appealed to me to do something about that tragedy.

The only solution was for us to take a large supply of the methane “water” containing those organisms so I could sequence whatever crazy strands of chemicals they used instead of DNA, record their biological processes and structures, and preserve the endangered animals.

I admit I wasn’t thrilled about the idea. But Lonso wouldn’t let it go, so we did it anyway.

🏴‍☠️

Lonso removed his helmet and set it on the pilot’s seat inside the Hyades. “We can do it, you know.”

I said, “We need a way to transport a bunch of methane, cooled to a liquid state. Maybe we could convert the old octo tank?”

“Word,” said Lonso. “I got an idea.” He picked up the journal I had lying beside my bed.

“Don’t touch that.”

“Just look.” He sketched out his idea in pencil.

The diagram made a lot of sense. I spent a moment in thought with other questions. What would happen if anyone else found about this? What kind of scumbags would start going to Titan to exploit these animals? How the fuck did those things make chromosomes without any phosphorus?

“Lonso, how many hours will it take for us to build this?”

“Depends on how much Anarchy Ale we’re hiding on this tub. The real question is: How much is it worth to you to get in on the ground floor of a whole new lifeform?”

I took a seat beside him on my bed and snatched my journal from his hands. “Don’t ever touch that again. I need a lab, and a fuckton of staff.”

“That sounds like a yes.”

Patches leapt into my lap. “Fine. Will you tell the octopuses?” I brushed a stray lock of hair away from my face. “Nevermind. They already know.”

Lonso said, “It’s funny. Most people think of you as a killer. Look at you now.”

I rubbed my eyes. “Lonso, I never wanted kids. But somehow, I ended up being a mother to all these goddamn species.”

“Life’s fucked up, tía.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

We smoked a joint then got to work.

🏴‍☠️

EPILOGUE

Puta madre,” said Alonso. “That was the last of the rum.”

“No worries,” said Mags. “We’ll be at the Jolly before you know it.”

“I hope so.”

In the vast darkness between planets, Mags lit a candle and placed it in a candleholder. She set it on the back of her keyboard. She played a couple of chords, adjusted the volume and EQ, then played the chords again. Satisfied, she closed her eyes and sang.

On Earth, stars twinkle in the atmosphere. In the vast emptiness of space, they stare unblinking at everything in the reach of their ancient gaze. They never flinch.

Alonso wiped tears from his face. On the last chorus, he joined his oldest living friend in harmony. He lent a rich baritone to her soprano, and though she had intended the performance as a solo piece, she could not have been happier that he was there to create a moment with her.

Titan faded into the distance. Saturn faded into the distance.

Mags felt closer than ever to her friends.


[1] Mags refers to the events of Pieces of Eight, which immediately precede this story.

[2] A very general summary of events in Blind Alley Blues and subsequent stories such as Small Flowers and Farewell Tour.

[3] As recounted in The Crystal Core.

[4] Mags refers to the “far side” of Titan as the one that permanently faces away from Saturn. Titan is tidally locked with Saturn, so one side of Titan is always facing the ringed planet—which appears quite a few times larger in its sky than Earth’s Moon does on Earth.

short story draft: Reborn

Tags

, , , , ,

While I work on finishing Episode 37, enjoy this draft of the much shorter Episode 38. Despite being only 2,500 words, it is an important bridge to what comes next for our criminal crew.

art generated by Midjourney

Meteor Mags: Reborn
© 2022 by Matthew Howard.
Episode 38 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.

Mags assembles a genetic research lab in her old hangar on Vesta. Her first experiment is a complete disaster. After much bloodshed, she tries again.

As for the fish of the sea, their names dispersed from them in silence throughout the oceans like faint, dark blurs of cuttlefish ink, and drifted off on the currents without a trace.

—Ursula K. LeGuin; She Unnames Them, 1985.

🏴‍☠️

In April 2032, Meteor Mags flipped a switch and turned on the lights. Patches ran past her feet. The hangar on Vesta had stood dark and unattended for the better part of two years—but not silent. The recently re-named Planetary Broadcasting Network played over the speakers non-stop, powered by the free-energy system Mags installed on her test run in 2030.[1]

Mags turned up the volume. “Baby kitty?”

Patches scampered here and there, sometimes stopping to listen and smell the faded traces of once-familiar scents, sometimes to carve gouges in the furniture with her indestructible claws.

For a moment, the weight of memories overwhelmed Mags. Her shoulders slumped forward as she removed her glasses and polished the lenses unnecessarily. She remembered the hangar filled with the survivors of the invasion that destroyed her club, killed so many of those dear to heart, and almost ended in her death.[2]

But even in the aftermath, her crew had found ways to celebrate the fact that they were still alive. To celebrate each other. Mags recalled the impromptu drum circles and singalongs.[3]

She lifted her head and got down to business.

After the invasion, Mags protected Vesta by installing a killer satellite network built by her friends on Mars. But she had never decided what to do with the lonely asteroid. Ceres kept her busy.

The experiments she had in mind required privacy and distance. If they went wrong, Mags didn’t want them happening anywhere near a Ceresian city. The more she thought about it, the less she wanted them on Ceres at all.

With one leather-gloved hand, she brushed the dust off an old console. Mags had often bragged that her private hangar was nuke-proof, but nothing could conquer an asteroid’s constant dust. Lights flickered below her fingertips, then shone brighter as she wiped them clean. She typed instructions to check all the systems.

“Patches? Patches!”

A howl came from a far corner.

“Be right back.”

Mags returned not once but three times pushing a pallet jack loaded with stacks of crates. She wiped sweat from her brow and lined them up against the wall.

Patches, content with her scouting and marking, sprawled on the warm green lights of the console. She licked a forepaw and laid her chin on it.

Patches purred.

Mags uncrated a few things, plugged a storage drive into a machine, and lit a smoke. She raised her hands above her head. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new headquarters of GenetiCorp!”

Patches typed the word into a search engine on the touchscreen beneath her. She mewed.

“What do you mean, ‘It’s already taken’?” Mags frowned. “Way to ruin my big moment.” She paced back and forth, and the sharp smack of the soles of her combat boots against the floor echoed in the empty chamber. “Weyland-Yutani? SkyNet? Omni-Consumer Products Corporation?”

She interrupted Patches’ typing with a hand on the bushy calico’s torso. “I was just kidding. Those are definitely taken. Oh, well. Fuck the name for now. Scoot over. We have work to do.”

She cracked open a bottle of rum, took over the typing, and posted several jobs on darkweb.

🏴‍☠️

Four months later, the lab was in full swing. Fifty staff members had joined, all individually vetted by Mags, and paid for with the interest she was earning by loaning her ill-gotten fortune to Solana’s central bank on Ceres to be loaned out again to start-up companies.

The staff lived in newly constructed apartments built by a Ceresian company Mags partially owned. Though small and decidedly functional, the residences were posh by the standards of the asteroid belt. Mags knew the accommodations weren’t as much fun as the former club, but they got the job done.

Her net worth, by her closest estimation, had ballooned to more than seven trillion dollars, not counting the value of Vesta itself.

Not that she ever filed taxes. That was the least of her crimes.

In August 2032, on an asteroid rarely visible to the naked eye on Earth, and only then under the darkest conditions, Mags made a poor decision.

She set a hand on her lead technician’s shoulder. “Sure,” she said. “Let’s do it.”

Her staff got to work.

🏴‍☠️

Cloning is never an easy process. To grow an animal from a pair of cells or a strand of chromosomes requires a womb. At some point, the blastula becomes an embryo and needs a mother in which it can grow.

Mags’ lab workers had settled on Komodo dragons. The scientists believed the reptiles’ robust and occasionally parthenogenetic reproductive systems resembled the ancient wombs that first gave birth to the ancestors of the dinosaurs Mags intended to bring to back to life. Plus, the massive monitors tended to mate between May and August, giving birth in September. The timing seemed fortuitous.

Mags visited her dragons several times each week and joined them in their pen which mimicked the dry, open grasslands and low tropical forests they preferred. She knew she was committing an unspeakable act upon them, but she pet the fearsome beasts and spoke to them in soothing tones only they could understand. They trusted her. They welcomed her touch. They laid eggs.

🏴‍☠️

The first birth began when Mags was away. A leathery, reptilian egg cracked open, and something the solar system had never seen before shoved its face through the shell and screamed. The infant clawed the atmosphere in a rage.

The scientists called Mags. That did not save them.

They had placed an embryo cloned from Odonata’s genes into one of the dragons to see what would happen. Unfortunately, all of them saw what happened.

🏴‍☠️

Mags set the Bêlit on the rocky Vestan surface and called out, “Patches!”

The lazy calico groomed herself. Humans, she had long since decided, had a knack for turning every event into an emergency. Surely there was nothing on Vesta she could not kill.

Still, she loved her best friend. She appeared at Mags’ feet and loudly mewed while showing her fangs.

“About time,” said Mags. “Everyone on this rock is apparently dead—everyone except one malevolent arsehole.”

Patches chattered as if she had seen a bird through a window.

“You and me both. Let’s send this motherfucker to hell.”

Patches rubbed both sides of her face against the smuggler’s boots.

“Alright,” said Mags. She pressed a sequence of numbers to open the side hatch on the Bêlit. “You go first.”

🏴‍☠️

Most of the Vestan experiments had gone well. Besides fully sequencing the alien genes of the methane-based microbes Mags brought back from Titan, they showed quite a bit of promise for resurrecting Mags’ unusual space pets, including her cybernetic mantas and the reptiles she had once abandoned on Earth.

Sadly, for the fifty dead members of the laboratory, Mags had underestimated the human cost of bringing one particular alien species back to life. She and Patches encountered a monster who grew out of control with a single-minded focus on destroying everything it encountered.

The unnamed clone had been born with six limbs. It sprouted more in its personal torment. Eyes spread across its face and sprang into existence up and down its limbs and torso until they defied counting. Spasms wracked its body. It dripped with the blood of those it had killed. The flesh it had consumed fueled its growth. Already a meter and a half tall, it grew with every passing second.

Mags introduced it to a spray of .50-caliber hollow-point rounds from a Desert Eagle. Like a mosquito in a camping tent, the beast took to the air on a chaotic path and evaded death. Mags shouted, “Patches! Can you take him down?”

Borne on four diaphanous wings like a dragonfly, the monster sliced through the air and divebombed Patches. But to the cat, it was merely a game. Her claws rebuked his attacks. His violence was met with even greater violence in a white and coffee-colored blur.

Mags holstered her pistol. The Benelli shotgun slung over her shoulder flew into her hands. “Go for the wings!”

Patches launched herself into the air and shredded every part of him she encountered. A whirlwind of destruction, she swarmed over his head and dug her claws into his back. Once she broke his wings, he plummeted to the floor. Patches landed on her feet and pounced on him. She howled her triumph. The nightmare struck out with flailing limbs and sent her sprawling.

Mags stepped up with the shotgun and blasted the monster in the face and chest until she ran out of buckshot. The clone’s brains and blood and shattered carapace decorated the floor and walls. Even in death, its remnants writhed and grew new organs. Mags stomped it without a shred of mercy.

“Motherfucker!” Mags swept a sticky lock of hair away from her spattered glasses and spat on the corpse. “Don’t you ever touch my fucking cat!” She knelt and held out one hand. “Are you okay, baby kitty?”

Patches rubbed a paw across her face and demanded petting.

Mags scratched the fuzzy face. “I guess it was a rhetorical question.”

Patches flopped onto her side with no regard for the rapidly expanding pool of green blood below. She licked her fur. It made no difference to the tufts of her unruly coat. Her enemy was dead. Her friend was alive. Her bowls were empty.

Such was life.

🏴‍☠️

Mags filled Patches’ bowls and scrubbed the hangar without any help from her friends. She did not want them to know what had happened. After the remains of the alien clone were taken outside and burned to ash on the unforgiving Vestan surface, bleach water destroyed all the errant DNA in the lab. Mags mopped every centimeter of the floor three times, wiped down every other surface, swept up broken glass, patched bullet holes, and deleted several terabytes of incriminating audio and video evidence.

She collected the bodies of the slaughtered humans and Komodo dragons, stacked them on pallets as best she could, and took them outside for a proper burial attended only by her and Patches. Through her friend Solana’s bank on Ceres, Mags paid out fifty generous pensions to next of kin who electronically signed non-disclosure agreements, per the staff’s original contracts.

The process took three days, and she almost ran out of rum.

Then she posted some job listings on darkweb.

🏴‍☠️

One month later, Mags’ new employees began what they believed to be their first project. Neither Mags nor Patches disabused them of that notion. Using the cells Mags had harvested from the remains of her cybernetic mantas, they created embryos they injected into rays imported from Earth.

The scientists supplemented the mother mantas’ diets with minerals they hoped would support the development of the metallic and electric components that defined Mags’ original mantas. The animals grew not from DNA but from a similar chemical spiral that had replaced one of our mammalian nucleobases.

That unfamiliar structure was the blueprint for the clones, and the main problem for the staff was providing raw materials for construction.

The mother rays floated at first in narrow glass tubes that rose from floor to ceiling. Mags decided that was unacceptable and ordered the construction of a gigantic tank to hold them all. On more than one occasion, she dove into the tank to have words with them.

Those words were not anything another mammal would have understood. But after three years of telepathic bonding with an odd assortment of species—from the normal to the mutated, from the cybernetic to the prehistoric—Mags had become adept at talking to more animals than just humans and cats. She swam and cursed and conversed like a space-age Doctor Dolittle with a penchant for profanity.

The rays understood. They spoke to her about their lives in Earth’s oceans, gossiped about their simpleminded yet effective cousins the sharks, and spun poetry about what it was like to be a beast made of wings and cartilage. They told her secrets no mammal had ever heard, oceanic mysteries much older than humanity. They whispered legends mantas had passed down to their children since unrecorded eons, and the meaning their species had found below the surface of the seas.

Mags listened, learned, and told them secrets of her own.

Manta ray gestation takes about a year before—unlike their egg-laying cousins the skates—they give birth to live young. In September 2033, Mags and Patches attended the birth of a new generation.

🏴‍☠️

Mags stood before the massive tank. Mantas swam in oddly geometric patterns that conveyed meanings to her but not to her staff. She would explain later.

Some of the mother mantas possessed wingspans greater than three meters, but their newborn pups were much smaller. Such tiny things, born alive.

Mags said, “Come to me.”

She had not controlled a manta in nearly four years, not since she summoned them to help her during the attack on Vesta. Still, the baby mantas responded. They swam to the top of the tank.

“Come to me.”

One by one, they broke the surface and breathed air for the first time. They survived.

Mags held out her hand and beckoned them, curling her fingers toward herself until they formed a fist. “Come to me.”

One by one, the baby mantas descended and gathered around her. They swarmed in the air, swimming in the atmosphere as gracefully as their mothers swam in water.

Patches batted them with her paws, but her claws remained sheathed. As if she were gathering her own kittens toward suckle and shelter, she herded them into a ring around Mags.

Mags said, “Show me what you got.”

The shiny, silvery mantas crackled with electricity that threatened to destroy the laboratory. Lightning bolts cascaded across every surface. The employees dove for cover below their desks.

In a storm that lit up her face in a stark relief of light and shadow, a sinister smile spread across the smuggler’s black-painted lips. She produced a cigarette and lit it on the hot, sparking wing of the nearest manta.

Mags took a puff. The tip glowed as red as a dying star.

“Bloody hell,” she said. “It’s good to see you again.”

Her mantas agreed.

🏴‍☠️

“Earth,” said Mags.

“Get the fuck out,” said Celina. “You can’t conquer a planet with only a handful of your fucked-up pets.”

“No?” Mags stretched out on the bed and crossed her arms behind her head. “Watch me.”

Celina brushed her hair in a mirror and thought about that. “You do realize it’s just you against thirteen billion people?”

“Fourteen. And fuck them,” said Mags. “Their nations have been at war for thousands of years and caused more suffering than anyone can comprehend. I’m fucking sick of it.”

“So am I, magpie.” Celina set down her brush and turned away from the mirror to face Mags directly. “But we always made a lot of money on those conflicts.”

“We did,” said Mags. “We absolutely did.” She lit a stolen cigarette. “But now, we can end it.”


[1] See Small Flowers for the test run. The PBN was renamed in Infinite Spaces.

[2] As told in The Battle of Vesta 4.

[3] As seen in Hunted to Extinction.

Patches IRL

Tags

, , , ,

A year ago, someone posted this photo of Cookie the calico cat on Reddit, and they gave me permission to share it here with you. This is exactly how I’ve always imagined Patches when writing her scenes, right down to her fluff and color patterns. Like Patches, Cookie was homeless before being adopted, and she is very intense about getting people to feed her. Rock on, Cookie!

Five Easy Marketing Things to Do Once Your Kindle Ebook is Published

Tags

, , , , , ,

Congratulations! Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) has approved your new ebook, and it is live on Amazon! What next? What can you do now to promote your book and spread the word? Here are five easy, low-cost actions to get you started.

Disclaimer: I am not an employee of Amazon or KDP, and no one is paying me to write this. I am a freelance editor, designer, and self-publishing consultant who has explained this stuff so many times that I thought I might as well put it all in one handy reference for my customers, friends, and every other writer on the Internet. Let’s rock.

1. Get the correct link to your book. You can get the URL for your book from inside your KDP account—not just the URL for the listing in the States but in other countries, too. But many authors end up searching for their book on Amazon like a customer and copying the entire URL they get. The result is uglier than sin and is full of garbage you don’t need. The actual URL is much simpler.

Here is what I mean, using one of my books as an example. If I go to Amazon and search in the “Books” category for “meteor mags permanent crescent”, then click the top search result, the URL I get is this beast: https://www.amazon.com/Meteor-Mags-Permanent-Crescent-Other/dp/B0B6XSNMV6/ref=sr_1_1?crid=O50DN9C02VR0&keywords=meteor+mag+permanent+crescent&qid=1664326036&qu=eyJxc2MiOiIwLjg3IiwicXNhIjoiMC4wMCIsInFzcCI6IjAuMDAifQ%3D%3D&s=books&sprefix=meteor+mags+permanent+cresc%2Cstripbooks%2C453&sr=1-1

Help! It’s making my eyes bleed!!! But everything from “ref=” to the very end is just garbage. If you look closely, you can see it shows the search terms I used, and other data that is useful to Amazon but is pointless to share with other people when promoting your book. The only meaningful part is this first part: https://www.amazon.com/Meteor-Mags-Permanent-Crescent-Other/dp/B0B6XSNMV6/

2. Set up an Amazon Affiliate Account. This one isn’t exactly simple, but since it involves linking to your book, we’ll cover it now. I’m not giving a full tutorial on how to set up this account, but it’s pretty easy to get started here: https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/

When you are an Amazon Affiliate, you can get short links to any product page—including the one for your book—and those links identify your affiliate account to Amazon. That means if people buy your book after clicking through the affiliate link, then you don’t just make your royalty on the book sale; you also make a small commission as an affiliate. And if you share that link with people, and they share it with other people, and those people share it again… Do you see where this is going? Every time anyone in that chain clicks through that link and makes a purchase, you get a little commission.

Once you’re an Affiliate, you get a special toolbar when you are logged into Amazon, and you can use that toolbar to make short links to your book (or anything else Amazon sells). At the time of this writing, it is called the “Amazon Associates Site Stripe”, and it looks like this in an Internet browser:

Using “Get Link” and “Text”, it only takes a second to create a short and simple affiliate link to the same book I shared in Step One above: https://amzn.to/3ShU30g

Isn’t that much nicer and simpler than the others? Isn’t it nice that it earns me a little extra commission that goes on an Amazon gift certificate to fund my graphic novel addiction?

If you want something more visual for your website, you can also generate a clickable image of your book (or any other product) using the same affiliate toolbar. I would show you here, but WordPress.com doesn’t allow “iframe” code in these posts, which is what Amazon will give you to embed in your website. (If you are no stranger to website design, then you are probably already thinking, “I could just put the book cover image on my website and hyperlink that image using the affiliate URL.” And you are right.)

3. Set up an Amazon Author Page. Using your KDP/Amazon login credentials, go to Author Central and create your own Amazon Author Page: https://author.amazon.com/

You can upload a photo, add your bio, and add your book to that page. You can also add your blog feed to it, plus photos and videos. It’s all about you! But it’s also one way to improve your credibility and engage both fans and potential readers. Plus, you can get a nicely customized URL. Here’s mine: amazon.com/author/matthewhoward which when clicked on, redirects to the actual page URL of https://www.amazon.com/Matthew-Howard/e/B00S3DYDEK

4. Promote Your Book by Buying It as a Gift for Other People. Just about every successful author you meet has done many book giveaways and sent out tons of free copies. That can be a major expense of both money and time with printed books. With ebooks, it’s much easier and less expensive.

Just go to your ebook’s listing like any other customer and click “Buy for Others”. All you need is a valid email address for the recipient, and you will be able to add a short, personalized message to the email that gets sent to them with a link to claim the gift.

If your book is 99 cents and you are on a 30% royalty plan, then you will get back 33 cents of the 99 you spend. Sure, it will take two months for that 33 cents to hit your bank account via direct deposit, but your net cost is reduced to 66 cents. (For simplicity’s sake, I have not included sales tax in these calculations.) If your book is, for example, $9.95 and you are on the 70% royalty plan, then you will earn back $6.48 of your cost, reducing your net expense to $3.47.

And guess what? Your ebook gift expenses are now tax-deductible marketing expenses for your publishing business. Keep track of them and claim them at tax time on your Schedule C.

If you really want to be thrifty and ultra-low budget, you can first reduce the price from inside your KDP account to the lowest allowable price, buy a bunch of gifts at reduced cost, then change the price back to your normal retail price when you are done. Just keep in mind that each of those changes require about a day to update through KDP.

5. Consider Enrolling the Book in KDP Select for More Marketing Options. You can do this by checking a box during the initial set-up, but you can also add your book to this program later through your Marketing Manager page: https://kdp.amazon.com/marketing/manager. Enrolling in KDP Select opens up several marketing possibilities for you.

KDP Select is related to the Kindle Unlimited subscription that allows customers to read KDP Select books at no additional cost beyond their monthly subscription fee. Select pays authors for these readings out of a general fund, and how much you get paid depends on both the size of the fund and how much of the book gets read. (It’s complicated.) It probably won’t make you a ton of money, but it is a zero-cost way to gain potential readers who might tell their friends, write a nice review, or buy your other books.

Plus, once you are enrolled in KDP Select for 30 days, you can run Price Promotions as part of your marketing efforts. You can, for a limited time, make the book available for free, or make a Countdown Deal. With a Countdown, the discount starts at the maximum discount and decreases over time until the last day of the Countdown. This is an incentive for people to buy sooner rather than later to get the best deal. Currently, you can run these promotions multiple times per year.

Finally, being part of KDP Select allows you to enter your book in various Amazon Literary Contests. Winning an award would certainly be a good thing for your book, wouldn’t it?

Bonus Action: If the five things I’ve discussed were easy stuff for you, then maybe you are ready to take it to the next level by running an Ad Campaign for your book on Amazon. The main site for setting up an Amazon Ads account is https://advertising.amazon.com/ but if you already have a KDP account, you can skip that. Instead, just log in to KDP and find your ebook on your “Bookshelf”. There will be a button for “Promote and Advertise” that takes you to a page where you can begin setting up an Ad Campaign. (Alternately, go directly to Marketing Manager.) A basic Sponsored Product campaign for one book takes about five minutes to set up. You determine your daily budget and how much you bid for clicks, plus the duration of the campaign, so you completely control your cost.

Conclusion: If you’re serious about promoting your self-published book, you have so many options available through Amazon and KDP—and most of them are free or cost next to nothing. Some authors can do all this on their own, while others need to hire someone like me to handle the technical details. Either way, they are useful tools available to all KDP authors, so take advantage of them!

The Paul Morphy Blues

Tags

, , , , ,

art generated by Midjourney.

In 2033, Meteor Mags records 88 Light Years, the second solo album featuring her vocal and piano talents. This lyric for one of her original tunes is about a legendary chess player who defeated damn near everyone in the States and Europe before quitting the game entirely at age twenty-two. At age forty-seven, he was found dead in his bathtub as the result of a stroke.

The Paul Morphy Blues

I fought fools and princes,
taught them how to kneel.
Vict’ry gave me nothing,
nothing I could feel.

I fought states and countries,
taught them how to cry.
My heart is a riverbed
drought has all run dry.

Conquered all horizons,
I solved all the math.
Quit while you’re a legend.
Someone draw my bath.

Will you come and visit?
Will you say my name?
Hist’ry’s what you make it.
Now it’s all the same.

Call me pride and sorrow.
Say I was insane.
I can’t see a damn thing,
blinded in this game.

When there’s no tomorrow,
future’s in the past,
I won’t care for legends.
Someone draw my bath.

Learn more about chess history and improving your game with Levy Rozman at GothamChess.

big box of comics: The Sandman — Overture

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

I am a child of Time and Night,
and this place will prove my end.

—Morpheus; Overture #5.

Last month’s Big Box of Comics featured Sandman: Endless Nights. This month, thanks once again to this blog’s readers, I filled in another gap in my Sandman collection with the superbly illustrated Overture. While I enjoyed Endless Nights, it didn’t quite earn a place among my all-time favorite Sandman stories, but Overture definitely made my top five. Let me share with you why.

First, the art by J.H. Williams III—assisted in no small part by colorist Dave Stewart—is probably the most awesome art to ever grace the pages of a Sandman story. It has incredibly inventive panel layouts that re-imagine what is possible with the very concept of panels and are perfectly suited to this story’s journey through numerous levels of reality and dreams. Williams employs a variety of art styles for the various realms and characters, even going so far as to draw multiple styles in a single panel, such as the four-page fold-out mega-splash page in the first issue where many incarnations of the Lord of Dreams gather in a single place.

Longtime fans of Sandman since the 1980s might recall the days when the original issues were printed on cheaper paper with more primitive printing processes and the colors often lacked vibrancy. But in Overture, with Dave Stewart’s colors on high-quality paper, the vibrancy is turned all the way up to eleven. Overture is a visual feast that must be seen to be believed.

Second, Overture brings back all the elements that made so many of the original long-form story arcs into instant classics. We travel through all kinds of fantastic realms, meet fascinating characters whose infinite depths we barely have time to explore, converse about weighty and poetic concepts, re-imagine mythologies, and create new mythologies on the fly as only Neil Gaiman can do.

Some reviewers have posted negative comments about the story, but those reviews only make me wonder if the reviewers remember story arcs such as the wandering Brief Lives from the original series. Sandman was always content to spend a lot of time on journeys that at first appeared aimless, was never in a hurry with the build-up, and reached unexpected and often quiet conclusions that left you scratching your head thinking, “WTF was that about?”—until you re-read the entire thing and grasped the meaning of it all.

Some reviewers complain about a lack of dramatic tension, since you know that somehow all of Overture’s complicated plot must eventually resolve into the events of the first issue of the original series. After all, it’s obviously a prequel. But I found the high stakes kept me engaged in wondering how Morpheus could simultaneously succeed on his quest and yet find himself captured at the end, and the outcome was anything but predictable.

One of the joys in reading Overture is how it connects to so many ideas and stories that were alluded to in the original series but were never fully explored or explained. Some reviewers say Overture is a bad place to start with Sandman because it requires you to know a lot about the original series for context. I disagree. I would absolutely recommend this as a starting point, because even though a new reader won’t totally understand all the context, the same could be said about starting with Sandman #1 and saving Overture until you finish the original seventy-five issues.

Sandman always had a lot of unexplained back-story about major events that were only alluded to in a couple of panels of dialogue. Overture gave Gaiman a chance to go back and fill in or expand on what might have seemed like throwaway concepts forty years ago. After reading Overture, I re-read the original series and found a new appreciation for so many small moments. Here are a few examples.

Overture gives us a more complete tale of Alianora, a former love of Morpheus who only briefly appeared near the end of A Game of You. Reading her scene in A Game of You made so much more sense to me after Overture. Likewise, when Morpheus recalls in just two panels of The Doll’s House how he failed to properly deal with a Vortex a long time ago, you know what he meant after Overture.

In Brief Lives, Delirium tells Destiny there are things that don’t appear in his book that contains the entire universe, and there is a single panel which mentions how Morpheus was weakened after some major episode that left him vulnerable to being captured in the first issue of the original series. Both of these brief moments are explored in much greater detail in Overture.

Overture also harkens back to one of my favorite standalone issues: Dream of a Thousand Cats. Morpheus appears differently to different species, such as when he appeared as a fox to the fox in Dream Hunters, and Dream of a Thousand Cats showed that he appears to cats as the Cat of Dreams. Overture explores this idea in its opening pages where Morpheus appears as a sentient carnivorous plant to an alien lifeform, and it also features the Cat of Dreams. Plus, a major plot point centers on having one thousand beings dream the same dream to create a new reality—a central concept in Dream of a Thousand Cats.

Overture builds on the idea of stars-as-conscious-entities from Endless Nights, giving the stars an entire cosmic city you don’t want to mess with, and developing the antipathy Morpheus feels for his androgynous sibling Desire as a result of that story.

You also discover the origin of the weird gasmask-plus-spinal-column thing Morpheus sometimes wears, another item whose origin was only ever mentioned in a couple of panels of the original series. DC Comics geeks know the real reason for the gasmask is that the original golden-age Sandman wore one while he was gassing his foes with chemicals that made them sleepy, but Gaiman took an old idea and ran with it—much as he did with the subsequent Jack Kirby version of Sandman in The Doll’s House.

Those are just a few things I picked up on, and other fans of Sandman will undoubtedly find more. So, as to the question of whether this is a good place to start with Sandman, I say it is. New readers won’t always understand what is going on, but that’s the same experience they get if they start at Sandman #1. To read Sandman, you must be willing to not have everything explained to you, to put together pieces of a puzzle, and to read the stories more than once to pick up all the clues and see how everything ties together. You must also be ready to indulge Gaiman’s love of leaving many mysteries unsolved, and many endings ambiguous.

I loved Overture, and it made me love the original series even more than I already did. The art will blow your mind, the story will deepen your appreciation of the original series, and it works not only as an overture but a coda to one of the finest examples of what can be accomplished in comic books. A huge Thank You to this blog’s readers for helping me add this missing gem to my big box of comics.

Collector’s Guide: Get the Sandman: Overture 30th Anniversary Edition on Amazon in Kindle or paperback formats. It’s a little harder, but not impossible and certainly rewarding, to find all the original single issues in stock.

holograms

Tags

, , , , , ,

art generated by Midjourney

Holograms

We might be inconsequential,
but every fragment of us
contains the whole.

Every atom of our lives
holds a universe.

You and I
have always matched:

our eyes the same color,
our origins identical.

We came from nothing.
We stole everything,
and we refuse to leave.

This poem now appears in the book
Meteor Mags: Permanent Crescent and Other Tales.

from the musical archives: Country Hate Machine

Tags

, , , , ,

Country Hate Machine began as a solo acoustic side-project to record hillbilly versions of songs by Nine Inch Nails, whose first album was called Pretty Hate Machine. Eventually, CHM evolved into a punk-influenced hybrid mixing rage with humor. I recorded a bunch of demos in informal settings, but life got in the way of doing formal studio sessions. So, I’ve collected twenty of my favorite acoustic demo and concert recordings from twenty years of musical madness for your listening pleasure. They contain strong language and adult subject matter, and they might be inappropriate for children or any other form of mammalian life. Consider yourself warned.

Country Hate Machine: The Lost Years is now available as a free mp3 album including twenty songs, the album art, and a mini-booklet in PDF with credits for all those who contributed lyrical and musical ideas or were kind enough to share their recordings.

I have also added several other out-of-print projects as free downloads on my Music Albums Page.

DOWNLOAD THE COMPLETE MP3 ALBUM AS A ZIP FILE.

book review: The Puma Years by Laura Coleman

Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

I was always scared of her.

The Puma Years: A Memoir is my favorite book I’ve read this year. It’s the true story of a young woman who, feeling like something was missing from her nice, safe life with a soul-crushing white-collar job, went on a trip to Bolivia and visited a ramshackle wildlife sanctuary. There, she was assigned to care for Wayra, a puma with a troubled past due to being a victim of the illegal wildlife trade which killed her mother and placed her in an abusive home as a kitten.

Over time, Laura—the author—bonds with Wayra, but the path is not an easy one. Wayra distrusts people, and rightfully so, and she is kept in an enclosure where she is very unhappy. One of Laura’s jobs is to take Wayra on daily runs, as pumas like to roam, but the big cat is almost too much for her to handle safely.

You might wonder why they didn’t just let Wayra run free into the Bolivian jungle, but Wayra never had a mother to teach her to hunt and navigate the wilderness. In one especially heartrending episode, Wayra does escape. But she cannot deal with her freedom, so she constantly circles the camp and becomes a danger. When Laura finds Wayra and tries to put her on a leash, Wayra lashes out, and the wounds require stitches.

But Laura does not blame the puma. She realizes she handled the situation in the worst way possible. Laura writes:

It’s me who has these ropes, ropes that held her when she was a tiny, mewling puffed-up ball of fur, that tightened around her neck. That whipped her when she was sad, that took her mother and everything she knew away.

Other dramatic passages tell of the outbreak of a forest fire that threatened the entire sanctuary and the lives of the many animals and people there. Laura and her friends risk their lives to dig a ditch, clear away the plants, and make a firewall. It appears many times that all might be lost for the big cats and their caretakers. But at last, the fire burns out, and when Laura visits Wayra in the aftermath, something magical happens.

Wayra, who had never swum in the nearby river—unlike a typical puma who has no fear of water—decides to go for a swim. Laura enters the river with her, and the two of them frolic in waters that I personally would be too scared to explore.

For most of the book, the relationship between Wayra and Laura seems like one step up and two steps back. I don’t remember ever crying so much over a book, but the journey is worth it. In the end, things do work out for Wayra. But Laura reminds us that deforestation and the illegal pet trade and the super-sketchy “zoos” of Bolivia require much more work to solve—a work Laura continued long after the events of The Puma Years.

If you have ever loved a cat, or wondered how those of us who do can form such strong bonds with our feline friends, then you need to add The Puma Years to your reading list. It will break your heart and sew it back together many times, and give you a glimpse into the nature of these magnificent animals.

Collector’s Guide: The Puma Years is available on Amazon in paperback, hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook editions.

big box of comics: Hello Kitty — Hello 40

Tags

, , , , , ,

The red lettering and bow are shiny and metallic in the print version.

A few weeks ago, I told you the story of my Hello Kitty ice pack. Shout out to my friend Ashley who found a couple on Ebay—but they were like fifty bucks. That’s a lot to ask for an ice pack, so I looked around for some Hello Kitty comic books.

That’s how I ended up with an excellent used copy of Kitty’s fortieth anniversary collection, Hello 40: A Celebration in 40 Stories. Thanks to this blog’s readers, I had just received an Amazon gift certificate that covered the cost, and Hello Kitty has joined the Big Box of Comics.

The hardback edition is gorgeous, from the metallic red lettering on the cover to the overall design and the non-stop cuteness of the short comics that showcase a wide variety of art styles, from watercolor painting to paper cut-outs. While many of the vignettes revolve around Kitty having a birthday party or eating cake with friends and family, she also crash-lands a spaceship and explores another planet, meets a dragon who roasts marshmallows with his flame, goes on a couple of wild roller coaster rides, uses a time machine, stars in a movie, and has fantastic dreams after eating too many cookies before bedtime. Fans of San Rio characters will recognize a few of her friends such as the penguin (Badtz-Maru) and frog (Kerropi).

Sure, some scary or sad stuff happens, but Kitty’s tales always end happily, and no one is ever hurt. When Space Kitty makes an alien monster cry by taking away his shiny new toy—a fallen satellite she and a friend are sent to retrieve—Kitty cheers him up with a giant cupcake, and everyone is happy. Kitty has a knack for winning over her fearsome foes through acts of kindness and irrepressible good humor.

The stories are almost entirely wordless except for text-based sound effects, earning Kitty a place in our wordless comics collection, too. When the characters speak, their words are simple pictures, a kind of emoji-based dialogue.

By now, you know most of my favorite tales involve hyper-violent dinosaur battles, doomed criminals, and ridiculously grim super-hero deconstructions. Hello 40 might seem like an odd addition to my library but, hey, I like some cute stuff too! Whether you’re looking for a kid-friendly book or you want to indulge your own inner child, Hello 40 is sure to bring a smile to your face.

Collector’s Guide: Hello 40 is available on Amazon in hardcover and a Kindle edition.

Remembering Ktahdn

Tags

, , , ,

art generated by Midjourney

Today, I got the sad news that my artist and poet friend Ktahdn passed away last week. If you don’t know how to say his name, don’t feel bad; hardly anyone ever got it right. Most of us just called him by his preferred nickname: “KT”. He was a softspoken, gentle guy who never had a harsh word to say about anyone, and he was always exploring different avenues for his creativity.

I met KT at an audiovisual presentation where he read original poems and short, reflective pieces about his favorite art form: building abstract sand sculptures on the beach. He displayed gorgeous photos of these ephemeral works and interspersed his readings with soothing yet evocative piano pieces by artists such as Philip Aaberg. The presentation was a hit with the storytelling group we were both part of, and he returned several times with follow-up presentations and lengthier pieces about all the work that went into his sand sculptures. For the past couple of years, he had delved into writing fantasy stories and taking part in various multimedia collaborations.

KT and I weren’t super close, but I enjoyed our conversations about art, sand, stones, and poetry. He recommended a few great books to me, including The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History by Jan Zalasiewicz. I’ve mentioned it before, and it’s a fascinating read.

It starts with observations about an apparently simple, ordinary stone on a beach, then quickly expands into a history of the universe that made such a stone possible: from the formation of the first stars where hydrogen was fused into heavier elements disbursed when those stars exploded, to the collision of the Mars-sized planet that struck Earth billions of years ago and resulted in the formation of our Moon. The book continues with a history of Earth where geologic dramas created different kinds of rocks, and how those rocks were distributed across the planet through continental drift, erosion, and other natural forces.

That’s how I will remember KT. He was a man who could look at something ordinary and see the extraordinary. He appreciated how even the smallest things most of us take for granted are the result of complex, elaborate histories, and he knew those histories would continue long into the future after those things had gone from our lives. Like his sand sculptures that stood as beautiful monuments until the tides rolled in and washed them away, everything exists in cycles of creation and destruction, which are really just two sides of the same coin: transformation.

The tides have taken KT away. But I will remember that even the smallest grain of sand returning to the ocean will become a part of something else, something with an intricate future that dwarfs even the history that brought it onto the beach in the first place.

I don’t think KT would want us to mourn his passing any more than he ever shed a tear for one of his sculptures. Instead, he would want us to return to the beach and, once again, create something beautiful. Whether it lasts for an hour or a lifetime doesn’t really matter. What matters is the experience.

“At One Point I See Antelope”, from Field Notes by Philip Aaberg.

August 30 Update: After meeting with mutual friends last night to remember KT, it hit me that my first art adventure with him wasn’t in the storytelling group but many years earlier in a weekly gathering to musically explore the old trade routes known as the Silk Road. Following the path of the Silk Road from Europe to China, KT played music from the regions and talked a bit about the various cultures. I picked up several albums he sampled for us, though I would have liked to get them all.

While going through my music library, I also found an hour-long recording I made of one of his reading sessions. Click here to have a listen.

Big Box of Comics: The Sandman – Endless Nights

Tags

, , , , , ,

With all the talk about the Sandman thanks to his being adapted as a Netflix show, I realized I’d never read Endless Nights. Published in 2003, years after the original 75-issue series by Neil Gaiman ended, Endless Nights is a collection of seven stories. Each one focuses on a different member of the Endless: Death, Dream, Desire, Delirium, Destiny, Destruction, and Despair. As Gaiman recently mentioned in a video about mythology, the Endless are not gods, because gods die when no one remembers them anymore—but the Endless are forever.

Thanks to this blog’s readers, this month I added the hardcover edition of Endless Nights to my Sandman collection, and it was a good read. I would not recommend it as a starting point for getting into Sandman, because it will be confusing to readers who don’t already know the characters and concepts. But for those of us who read and loved the original series, it offers interesting vignettes and wildly creative artwork.

Each of the seven stories employs a different art team, and the pairings of artist with story feel very well-matched. Who but Bill Sienkiewicz could have created such wildly demented illustrations of a team of mentally ill people gathered for a mission to rescue Delirium?

Barron Storey’s non-sequential illustrations for 15 Portraits of Despair are truly disturbing.

Frank Quitely’s painted artwork for the story about Destiny shows a side of the artist I don’t recall seeing before; it’s recognizably Quitely, but with a very different vibe compared to his work with Grant Morrison or on The Authority.

Dave McKean—who did the multi-media covers for the original series—did an amazing job designing this book and all its various title pages and front matter. Todd Klein, the letterer of the original series, also shines by giving each story its own style.

My favorite chapter deals with Dream, also known as Morpheus—the Sandman himself. It’s like so many of the original Gaiman stories in that, yes, there is a “plot”, but it’s more about concepts and characters than action or adventure. Sandman is one of the few comics I enjoy even when there seems to be little more happening than characters talking to each other.

One reason is that Gaiman can achieve more in a couple of panels of dialogue than some writers can do in a single issue or even a whole series. For example, in only two panels of the story about Dream, Gaiman completely recontextualizes the origin of Superman and the planet Krypton.

Despair tells Rao, the star around which Krypton orbited, how artful and poetic it would be to have an unstable planet that would eventually die, and how wonderful it would be to leave only one survivor to despair over its loss. Millions of people have seen Superman as a symbol of hope, despite his tragic origin. By making him a character whose life was meant as an homage to despair, Gaiman adds a layer of poignancy and complexity to Superman and makes it all the more meaningful that he became something else entirely. Pretty heady stuff for two panels of conversation.

Overall, Endless Nights is a little too fragmentary to earn a place in my all-time favorite Sandman books. The story about Destruction, for example, never really gets explained and feels like an unfinished tale. But competition is stiff when it comes to Sandman favorites. The story arcs Season of Mists (which led directly to the masterful Mike Carey series Lucifer) and The Kindly Ones are epic in scope, and the original series is loaded with gorgeously written and drawn single-issue stories. The two limited series starring Death are also masterworks (The High Cost of Living and The Time of Your Life, now collected in a single volume).

But my all-time favorite is The Dream Hunters. It first appeared as a prose novel with incredible painted illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano, then was re-imagined as a four-issue comic book drawn by P. Craig Russell—whose work also appears in Endless Nights. The Dream Hunters is presented as an ancient tale from Japanese mythology, but Gaiman just made it up! It tells the story of a fox who fell in love with a Buddhist monk, and the dramatic sacrifices they made for each other. I’ve read it many times, and I don’t think I ever made it through either version without crying. If anyone asks me where to start with Sandman, that’s the story I recommend. There’s now an inexpensive ebook edition along with paperback and hardcover collections.

The fox perceives Morpheus as a fox in the Dreaming.

Still, Endless Nights is an artistic addition to the Sandman canon, and well worth exploring for fans of the series. You can find it in hardcover or paperback editions, or snag a $4 ebook of a more recent edition. A big Thank You to the readers of this blog for helping me add this book to my Sandman collection.

volcano

Tags

, , , , ,

art generated by Midjourney

Volcano

The old volcano
slowly releases her heat.
Ponds ripple gently.

Birds flock to her warmth
and nest for generations
until she erupts.

Startled birds flee to
nest on quieter islands,
remnants of raging,

sheltering their young
from the unexpected storms
brought in on the waves.

The young ones will grow
and raise their own to migrate,
exploring the seas.

This poem was written in collaboration with SisterMoon, who also composed the original poem that appears as the epigraph to The Singing Spell in Meteor Mags: The Second Omnibus. Although our 5-7-5 verse format is an oversimplification of traditional Japanese haiku, we did use the classical method of taking turns creating verses to form a longer poem.

Joining this collaboration as illustrator is the Midjourney AI, whose otherwordly imaginations you will now see adorning many of my original poems in the poetry archives.

playing with midjourney – the robotic artist

Tags

, , , , , , ,

The painterly image above was one of four generated in about a minute by Midjourney, an artificial intelligence that creates images based on prompts you give it. You can find Midjourney on Discord and put it to work for free at discord.gg/midjourney or start out at Midjourney.com. The prompt for the image above was “/imagine mars will send no more”, the title of this blog.

Below is a variation on the prompt “/imagine calico cats become space pirates and conquer the moon in the future”. It looks to me like a vintage science-fiction book cover, but painted on drugs.

If I had known about Midjourney a month ago, I probably would have used it for cover art to Permanent Crescent. The only drawback is that copyright doesn’t seem applicable to A.I.-generated imagery, at least according to this month’s article in The Register, which features Midjourney’s founder.

Below is a result of the prompt “/imagine alien dragonfly attacks a space colony”. Truly trippy!

I’d never used Discord before today, but I’ve been curious about trying A.I. Art platforms and saw some amazing Midjourney renders this week on Reddit. You can get about 25 renders before needing to pay for a Midjourney subscription, and you are basically producing them in an open chat room. On the one hand, that’s a little annoying because there are dozens of people using the robot all at once, so it is hard to keep track of your images while new messages are entering the chat every couple of seconds. On the other hand, it’s fascinating to see what everyone else is conjuring with the robot. (A paid subscription allows you to invite the robot to your own chat room so you can work with it one-on-one.)

My renders for “/imagine giant space wasps attacking people on an asteroid” looked cool but not at all like wasps. However, I was impressed with the results for “/imagine telepathic space octopuses controlling the brains of dinosaurs“!

I used up all the images from my free trial, but I will return to play more with Midjourney. Below is a gallery of the stuff it made for me today in about an hour based on the five prompts I’ve shared with you.

Note that these are “upscaled” versions. The first thing Midjourney does is make a set of four low-resolution images, which you can then instruct it to “upscale” individually to get more detail and greater resolution, or you can tell it to create “variations” of any of the originals (which can also then be upscaled). You also have an option to “upscale to the max”, which means even higher resolution.