I grieve for my beloved Hong Kong

It has bad air. I was still a smoker when I worked there, and I joked it was protective. It’s impossibly expensive, though plenty of people live there cheaply. It’s a culture clash, crash, and fusion — Chinese and Anglo, old and new, rich and poor, metropolitan and tropical, high-pressure and laid-back. It’s fast, so fast. After you leave, for a long time, everyplace else feels slow.

Of course I set part of my first novel there, the most raw part, the true climax. That romantic imagined life was my consolation prize. Had my parents been younger when I left my corporate life, I would have moved back there.

I love Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s Lion Rock lit up as protesters gathered at its peak. Photo: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

I swore a while back not to write about politics, but this is more. Unique places are an endangered species. Hong Kong is its own strange ecosystem, married to change but in love with constancy. I admire its people. They are courageous and vivacious and more honest than most, except when haggling. I fear for them.

I’ve feared for them since the handover from British rule to Chinese rule, 22 years ago. I was happy for my Hong Kong friends after the handover — there was a pride then, akin to what African Americans felt with Obama’s election. Still, my parents fled Soviet rule. I saw this conflict coming — honestly, I expected it sooner.

It’s not the same, of course — unique is like that. It’s not left-right, not occupier-colony, not exactly rich-poor. For a shorthand, maybe old-new. Hong Kong is decades older than Communist China, but far younger at heart.

Call it this, now: One country, two incompatible hungers.

I’ve never lifted a billion people out of poverty. I do know something about the rare and the special. They are easy to milk and maddening to sustain — but if you don’t sustain them, if you don’t help them thrive, they dry up. There is no more special, and others know you for a fool.

China made a big deal, the biggest deal, about adopting this shining child, and then refused to understand it. Maybe it was jealous. Maybe it felt threatened. Maybe it wanted a trophy. Maybe it was just indifferent. Hunger, like justice, is blind.

China risks being a fool now. Soon, I fear, it will risk worse.

I grieve for my beloved Hong Kong

It has bad air; I was still a smoker when I worked there, and I joked it was protective. It’s impossibly expensive, though plenty of people live there cheaply. It’s a culture clash, crash, and fusion — Chinese and Anglo, old and new, rich and poor, metropolitan and tropical, high-pressure and laid-back. It’s fast, so fast. When you leave, for a long time, everyplace else feels slow.

Of course I set part of my first novel there, the most raw part, the true climax. That romantic imagined life was my consolation prize. Had my parents been younger when I left my corporate life, I would have moved back there.

I love Hong Kong.

I swore a while back not to write about politics, but this is more. Unique places are an endangered species. Hong Kong is its own strange ecosystem, married to change but in love with constancy. I admire its people, I call them courageous. I fear for them.

I’ve feared for them since the handover from British rule to Chinese rule, 22 years ago. I was happy for my Hong Kong friends after the handover — there was a pride then, akin to what African Americans felt with Obama’s election. Still, my parents fled Soviet rule. I saw this conflict coming — honestly, I expected it sooner.

It’s not the same, of course — unique is like that. It’s not left-right, not occupier-colony, not exactly rich-poor. For a shorthand, maybe old-new. Hong Kong is decades older than Communist China, but far younger at heart.

Call it this, now: One country, two incompatible hungers.

I’ve never lifted a billion people out of poverty. I do know something about the rare and the special. They are easy to milk and maddening to sustain — but if you don’t sustain them, if you don’t help them thrive, they dry up. There is no more special, and others know you for a fool.

China made a big deal, the biggest deal, about adopting this shining child, and then refused to understand it. Maybe it was jealous. Maybe it felt threatened. Maybe it wanted a trophy. Maybe it was just indifferent. Hunger, like justice, is blind.

China risks being a fool now. Soon, I fear, it will risk worse.

Hong Kong’s Lion Rock lit up as protesters gathered at its peak. Photo: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

On being good at sales

I’m still not totally comfortable with being really good at sales.

Because, I am. I’m a sales machine. At large comic-cons, my single-title sales are on par with best-selling writers — which is good, because I still only have a single title. (Working on it.)

Other writers tell me I am good at sales, a complex compliment inside our introverted guild. It helps that, if a reader doesn’t want what I am selling, I will send them to another’s work with equal enthusiasm. I’m good in the booth.

I have made money in sales, covering all my bills during my year as a ski-bum in Lake Tahoe with a part-time telemarketing job. One of my most treasured compliments was from my manager there, who told me, “You give good phone.”

I am a fierce fan of my stuff. It’s not for everyone, but it’s for more than might initially see themselves buying it. I see my book becoming ever more relevant to the world outside it. I want the world to know so my subset of it will find me.

I don’t presuppose any strengths or weaknesses. I say what I have, strongly.

In a teen-focused genre, I write mature work. At cons and festivals, I say “10 o’clock shows, not 8 o’clock shows.” It’s a happy expression because it’s a fact they differ, it’s not an apology, and it hints at earned privilege, an adult’s welcome relief from explanation or euphemism.

Demon is a standalone novel. No sequels, except for a Tarot. “A big book, but one and done.” Maybe a fifth of people don’t find that appealing — Vayan con Dios. Most are at least fine if not happy to hear it. We talk about the joys of a certain ending, a lack of commitment, an amuse-bouche while awaiting GRRM.

While I can spot aligned styles — if you cosplay Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, I will sell you a book — even at cons I can’t know my readers on sight, especially since I am winning a few over right there. I assume all bipeds are in play until they make it clear they’re not.

That said, I know the wrong audience. 1-star reviews never go away, and a good way of avoiding them is keeping your work out of inappropriate hands — or, disappointed hands. I use horror as a flavor, but if you want it as a main course, that’s not my Demon. For action, I have some fisticuffs, but only one drawn gun in the whole book. I have bone-dry acidic wit, but no chuckles.

I say these things and people buy my books, people of all kinds, in very good numbers for the venue. I don’t know why it worries me, as opposed to the superpower that it really is. Maybe it’s impostor’s syndrome, that I am somehow more appealing than my work.

Maybe it’s not impostor’s syndrome but honesty, of a kind. My sales self also expresses qualities of my work: unassuming but distinctive, unflinching not crude, erudite not highfaluting, seeking clarity but understanding about the muddle.

It makes me nervous because it is not sales. It is an art, an ethic — like this blog post, a form of my writing. I can’t pretend it doesn’t matter, because it only works when it does matter.

Then I’m a sales machine.

The safe bummer of legal marijuana

In the small clear-plastic cube on the counter were two shelves of smoking accessories. On the top shelf, clear glass pipes printed with silhouette men and women having sex; on the bottom shelf, blister packages of metal pipe and grinder combos, in Jamaican flag colors, with a Bob-Marley-ish face in the grinder. The gear was less surprising than the store selling it: a gas station in Merrifield, Virginia, where I had taken my father’s old truck for its state inspection.

Virginia is not a state with legal marijuana. It wasn’t long ago that the few record stores and novelty stores that also sold bongs and pipes had to sticker them with notices that they were intended for tobacco use. We Americans have all grown used to these fig-leafs being lifted, and to the eventual likelihood of its pan-state (if not national) legalization.

Still, it disappoints me. Not that I want it recriminalized. I just want it to be illicit.

The legalization of something already widely accessible is an end to hypocrisy, a chance to research and understand its real effects, and a huge boon to the poorest and least privileged among us, too many of whom still sit in jails for an ever-more legal act. Back when I was an illegal pot smoker — as all American pot smokers older than 30 once were — I certainly would not have wanted to go to jail.

But, it was thrilling to be illegal, for an hour here and there, and be unscathed. Thrilling, and maybe necessary.

Criminality is a form of puzzle-solving. You are not supposed to do something, but you find a way to do it, with no great consequence and possible great benefit. It uses the same skill-sets that get salespeople good commissions, that got my father through nine months in a Nazi POW camp.

I know, in head and heart, that no crime is victimless. Someone suffers. The Buddha reminds us we all suffer regardless.

So I will just say it aloud for once. I miss the risk and the seediness of being a pothead, the odd skill it took to know whether it was good or not, the randomness of the available product, the curious investigations tracking it down in new places. I miss making bongs out of foil ashtrays and Pringles cans. I miss not explaining that the good wood I sought in hardware store scrap piles was for whittling pipes. I miss scoring my weed instead of shopping for it.

Samuel R. Delany, a great writer and greatly carnal man, laments the transformation of his youth’s Times Square from dangerous and cheaply decadent to Disney-fied and casual-dining. Breaking Bad‘s murderous, enslaving white supremacists lament helmet laws. I lament legal pot.

I am grateful that my children, should they choose to use pot when they are adults, will never have to risk prison to get it. I alas feel this safety as a loss. Sometimes I wonder if our anxious populace clamors for CBD because we’ve taken away the risk of getting THC.

In the way of stopped clocks, do the desperate and the horrid have a valid point about the over-management of modern human life?

It’s an irresponsible question, but not an idle one. Even the optimists behind Star Trek had to admit, through the invention of Section 31, that society needs those willing to violate the Prime Directive on more than a captain’s whim, and with a very different sense of the greater good. The Devil’s Advocate was a real job in Vatican canonization trials. He kept the unworthy out of the ranks of the saints, and performed penance when he lost. Since John Paul II diminished the office, one could argue we’ve had saint inflation. (Someone should tell The Good Place.)

The CIA might want to leave the Ivy League to corporate recruiters. The children of today’s Dreamers may be America’s best future spies.

Science-fiction is neither cyberpunk nor broken

In his new Slate essay, Lee Konstantinou opines that Something is Broken in Our Science Fiction.
He isn’t really talking about science-fiction, so much as its subgenre of cyberpunk, which certainly still influences science-fiction subgenre naming, from steampunk to hopepunk. I’m not sure that cyberpunk has more influence than that these days – but let’s talk cyberpunk, for now.
Konstantinou calls cyberpunk a genre where the “hacker hero (or his magic-wielding counterpart) faces a huge system of power, overcomes long odds, and finally makes the world marginally better—but not so much better that the author can’t write a sequel.”
Never mind that this is the story of many novels in many genres. It’s a poor fit to cyberpunk, which usually sweeps its anti-heroes into situations where they are fitfully, perhaps only for a moment, masters of their fate. Usually, cyberpunk contents itself with not letting things get even worse. Its antecedent is the bitter Sisyphean resignation of Philip K. Dick. It’s telling that the book Konstantinou calls a parody of cyberpunk, Snow Crash, is one of the few that really embrace his straw-man of story concept in a funny and self-aware way — though, without a sequel.
According to Wikipedia, I am twelve years older than Konstantinou. I am fifty-three, so doing the math will show those were a significant twelve years. When he was a kid, he had the hammering-down of the Berlin Wall. When I was a kid, nuclear war, waged across that wall’s spiked concrete, was such a certainty that the network ABC made a prime-time movie about it.
In that light, cyberpunk was hopeful. Ecodeath and corporate control notwithstanding, we still had a world, and satellite casinos too. To state baldly, as Konstantinou does, that “cyberpunk is arguably a kind of fiction unable to imagine a future very different from its present” ignores that the present got more hopeful after the fiction. In its day it was a vast imagining, counter to both the militarized and the utopian strains of science-fiction, and more realistically human than either.
Konstantinou also dismisses style, which is a big part of cyberpunk. It’s like faulting Edgar Allan Poe for brooding. Even in our days of smartwatches, the scene in Neuromancer where the AI Wintermute chases after Case by ringing pay-phone after pay-phone is still powerful — BBC’s recent Sherlock steals it to introduce Watson to Mycroft Holmes.
Konstantinou’s biggest error, of course, is to conflate cyberpunk with the whole of science-fiction. In this century, most good and well-regarded science-fiction books are not cyberpunk, in either setting or style. Now that so much reality has come to resemble cyberpunk, in its technofetishism and anarchic capitalism, we do need new imaginings.
Thing is, we’re getting them. There’s lots of good sci-fi, and most of it owes its predecessors. No one would call N K Jemisin cyberpunk, nor Ann Leckie, nor Cixin Liu. All of them work in older traditions, and also do many things new.
So what does Konstantinou want? For his Twitter feed to be less full of optimism and fads, it seems.
Maybe the problem is less in science-fiction than on Twitter?

First look at Business Class Tarot!

COMING FALL 2018

Are you a business person, entrepreneur, or maker?

Do you work where product meets brand? Where data and money become one?

BUSINESS CLASS TAROT™
See the Present — Change the Future

Tarot cards have centuries of wisdom about human nature and power dynamics, hidden behind obscure symbols and outdated worldviews.
BUSINESS CLASS TAROT brings the Tarot’s deep knowledge and interactive format into our world of global connection, massive scale, and brutal competition.
Artist Jamin Hoyle’s beautiful, surreal images evoke the rush, despair, and joy that inform and derail life’s major decisions.
Designed and with guide by author Anthony Dobranski.

Thoughts on Eden while mowing my lawn

In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil on the serpent’s advice, “know their nakedness,” and are thrown from the garden to a life of toil and want – the original sin that in Christianity, Christ died to forgive.
This sin of the apple is such a tortured and joyless reading of the story that I (nominally atheist, though also not) had to wonder how it has taken hold. Perhaps because we learn it as children, when banishment seems impossibly hard, when knowing nakedness only connotes embarrassment.
If you let go of this reading, the story is a much better message for adults than for children. It’s an obvious metaphor for adulthood, and of the need to separate from any parent – if you’re gonna have sex under My roof, God tells His creation, time to get your own roof.
If you are anthropologically minded, it represents the transition from the hunter-gatherer life to stabler but more labor-intensive agricultural life. A fall from grace, perhaps, but with the planet’s grace, hewing our own structures and spaces out of it, using ever more of it, removing ourselves from it with the flaming swords of burning wells.
Eden is garden, always a garden. Gardens are safe. You don’t worry about running through thorn bushes from lionesses in a garden, but you can still pick a strawberry. We take this idea into our names for safe child spaces, real or imaginary – kindergarten, A Child’s Garden of Verses.
A garden is a managed space. Adam and Eve don’t mow their lawns or trim the verge – who does? Maybe this is why the angels rebelled.
To a gnostic, of course, the serpent is the true good in Eden, the pirate message from outside the garden, warning the garden is unreal and pernicious. Think of the clones in Never Let Me Go, or Neo in The Matrix. They know something’s not right in their managed world. The serpent is the path out, and a reassurance that maybe what is beyond isn’t nearly as terrifying as they tell you.
Maybe you don’t need forgiveness for wanting to leave. Maybe you just grew up. Those flaming swords keeping you from that past? They’re just time.

Book Review – Under the Skin by Michel Faber

My vacation book on my family trip to New Orleans was Michel Faber’s elegant, familiar, horrifying novel Under the Skin. I’ve owned the book a long while, and knew very roughly what it was about. I had no idea what a perfect foil it would be for my trip – an escape from my escape, yet apposite too. The Big Easy is vibrant and gorgeous, but its beauty is also painted and its energy pushed with stimulants. It celebrates scoundrels as much as talent, and romanticizes vampires.
Isserley, Under the Skin‘s narrator, is not exactly a vampire, and her hard life in forbidding rural northern Scotland is far from easy. In Faber’s wry, spare telling, she is as sympathetic as anyone in a lousy job, and a monster in the truest sense – one who sees humans as food.
(All spoilers ahead.)
Isserley’s race are intelligent alien ponies with hand-like forefeet, technologically far ahead of us, who live in a feudal-capitalist society  under their world’s polluted surface.
Once a beautiful mistress to the rich, discarded when she aged, Isserley escaped a short life of toil in deep mines by going to Earth. Radically altered, her face and body both halved, she can pass as human. She drives around rural northern Scotland, looking for hitchhiking men – only men, muscular and not fat, whom she drugs and takes to her farm. Once castrated and bulked up with hormones, her prey are prized meat, sold by her planet’s greatest corporation, each small filet worth a month’s oxygen and water combined.
Under the Skin is a decadent novel in a hard bitter place, and that is only the first of its many clever subversions. Isserley’s bitter self-pity is thoroughly earned, but she also knows her relative privilege. Even the sleekly beautiful corporate scion of her firm, fashionably vegan and contemptuous of the huge profit his family makes from human meat, envies her the planet where she gets to live, no matter the deformity it required.
Like all privilege, it will fade, from the most obvious of pressures. Despite the astronomical profit, hunting in northern Scotland is too haphazard. The request has come for Isserley to start taking fertile females.
Under the Skin does not preach or lament, though Isserley does a lot of the latter. Rather, it admits. This is how we are, and it’s no surprise that this is how they are too. There is no them or us, save our eternal tendencies to seek an us, and a way to profit from those who become them.

Recovering technophiliac

I use a MacBook Air 2012, second version of the Air line and model for all that follow. It’s a perfect size for serious work, with a screen that usefully shows a half-dozen apps in a single desktop space. It’s substantial yet light, easily portable, fine in a lap or a desk. It has local storage so no need of wifi for work on the go, and cloud backup the moment it connects.
At my desk, it runs two HD+ monitors, a backup drive, and any peripheral I need. Home and away, from apps to settings to bookmarks to the structure of the folders, everything is the same on it, wherever I take it. It’s the most useful thing ever.
Drives me crazy.
I have an addiction. I like new computing gear. I like to get better gear that does new stuff. A perfect computer can do everything – but that.
Every other year, I spend good money on e-trash, some quirky machine with a clever feature like a touch screen or small size. Each time, the affair is short-lived, and soon the device ends up housed in a cabinet, so backlogged with updates that I fear to turn it on. My last one went three days from unboxing to reboxing.
It’s as if I drive a McLaren sports car, every day, but I keep buying new Cadillacs for the bigger cupholders.
It started out innocently enough. I got into computers as a teen, as a writer, at the dawn of word-processing, still a hobbyist’s preserve but even then superior to typewriters. My then-rare comfort with the technology dovetailed with the dawn of online connectivity as a consumer business. I was rewarded with a prestigious international career.
If you bought your winning ticket for the mega-lottery at the liquor store, how would that affect your alcohol abuse?
The same for my success and my need to poke at new gear – even in this new career where (from a gear perspective) I merely key words in empty spaces, and there’s no more technology to master.
Meanwhile my MacBook Air just works. It’s got another four years at least. Four more years of perfection, of comfort and familiarity and a natural flow.
Maybe longer.
The itch is stressful. I am trying to realign it with better pursuits, like the ambulance-chasing lawyer in Banks’s The Sweet Hereafter, proud to have a good use for his anger. When my dad’s old desktop needed its final backup, I taught my son the basics of computer architecture. We rebuilt it at modest cost with new drives, cards, and memory. We did such a good job my dad demanded it back.
Of course, I spent two afternoons after thinking through and researching how to build powerful desktop machines for different uses from parts at low cost.
But I didn’t buy anything.
That’s something.

Destroying Budapest

My science-fiction work-in-progress is set in a single city, and I needed to see it to imagine living in it. Welcome to Pest! Only walk on gray parts….
Pest, the White Lake and the Soft Lands
Budapest was a proxy in the One-Day War between Greater Russia and Umoja East Africa. Buda is now the White Lake, a boiling toxic waste of microscopic robots that eat carbon dioxide, and anything else, to make diamonds that wash on its shores. Both embargoed no-person’s-land and boomtown, Pest houses thieves, smugglers, engineers, and skaters, daredevil gladiators who jump and spin over the Lake in maglev boots, just one fall from death.
I suppose I could have done any old thing to ruin a city, but I wanted a dusting of Science! in my fiction. I thought a fractal would make a believably consistent result small enough for microscopic robots to store. I used FractalWorks, a Mac app, to generate a tiny portion of the celebrated Mandelbrot function, and overlaid this on a large screenshot of central Budapest, so its finer arcs and whorls were the length of city blocks.

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver

Budapest map and Mandelbrot sliver


I didn’t think at the scale of blocks it could ever be so precise – if nothing else, land would collapse – so I cut out the Lake using an image editor’s predictive selection tool, to make the edges sloppy and eroded.
Both the pink and white areas are products of the fractal. The white is the Lake itself, while the pink represents Soft Lands, areas of shifting underground streams through which nanites recharge, around which smugglers tunnel.
It’s been a huge help to have the reference. Putting my characters on a literal map lets me figure out relative distances, and helps me imagine the land and the city that might grow from it.
I also thought further about my mechanical monster’s makeup. Where Lake meets land has always been seductively quiet, since earliest drafts. Instead, let the meeting of Lake and Soft Lands be a place of churn and upheaval, the turbulence of nanites going into and out of dormancy around the buzz of other nanites quantumly-uncertain just where their strange fractal stops. I have a heart murmur too.
It’s easier to name things in the context of the city’s weird sense of humor now, and I’m looking at it as more impressively built than previous drafts. Where before it was falling apart and hastily erected, now I see it as printed and reprinted, strange but regular, by the same artificially-intelligent drone “taxibots” that run the city services. This has new virtues and a very different look. And some rewriting.
If this map gets reproduced in the book, I don’t want the plain line drawing quality of most novel maps. Rather I’d commission a graphic artist to generate a cityscape, degrade that so it looked like a 12th-generation-photocopy of an old image, have all the landmarks written in sloppy marker. At top: “Welcome to Pest where you will likely die.” At bottom: “Wanna know more? Live and learn.”