Category Archives: essay

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?

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.

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.

The Inner Loop reading series

I had a great evening under twilit stars – and frequent, seemingly aimless helicopters –  with The Inner Loop, a monthly DC reading series for poetry, fiction and non-fiction writers, at Colony Club. The headliner was Jennifer Atkinson, a poet drawn to human disaster, with readings by Joel Goldberg, Matthew Moniz, Alyssa Oursler, Alex Aronovich, Peg Alford Pursell, Alan C. Page, Leila Rafei and Sam Mahone.
Standing room only!
       
I’m firmly in the camp that writing is an art for the ear. Studying other languages’ poetry let me hear the latent music in my own writing. I always want my work to sound good aloud and I love to hear other authors reading. It’s a happy time for this viewpoint, with the growing market, and quality, of podcasts and audiobooks. I’ll be fascinated to see how English prose style changes for a world where most of it is heard not read. (Prediction? Dialogue tags will lose “said.”)
The evening had a warm, friendly feel. I talked shop with other writers, books with readers. A writing event is quieter than a band, with no dancing or chatter and surprisingly little phone use other than recording videos. The vibe remains casual and attentive. Even for the writers – 5 minutes, and you’re back in the audience.
There will be a bigger market for these. Already the Moth series has spread to live events in several cities. Reading for performance will be the new penmanship.

Sexual tension in fiction

My guest post for the Fictorians, a site on writing fiction, discusses sexual tension and its different roles in different stories. It’s part of the Fictorians’ month-long Tension series.
Read it at: 

Sexual Tension in Fiction

Sticking to my knitting (opinions)

As Facebook gently reminded me —
2017-fb-little-while
my professional media have been stale. It was less a writer’s block than a blind alley. Perhaps others will find my thinking instructive.
Like everybody, I have opinions about the world, and in these contentious times, it’s very tempting to share them. Everyone else is, and I talk prettier than many. Why not join the fray? Ooh, ooh, you’re discussing politics, or climate change, or guns? I can do that too!
I drafted three different posts on things political. One even got into my WordPress dashboard, until I deleted it.
Truth is, I just don’t want to be a public intellectual.
It feels irresponsible to say this. In the face of the great activists of the past, and today’s popular writers who still manage worthy columns (or at least snarky tweets) – and often get slagged by some fans for voicing opinions they don’t like – it seems weak to say, nah, I’m out.
I’m out. While it might feel good to get something off my chest, people aren’t waiting around to hear what I have to say about today’s crisis. Or, if people are, they don’t just want it once. If I start down that road, I have to stick with it, have to make it a bigger part of my life and thought.
Perhaps this would be virtuous, but it wouldn’t be singular. Many good people already discuss the state of the world, plainly and well, after actually investigating it and reporting on it. If I want to change the world in favor of my political beliefs, I’m better off writing checks.
Or, writing novels.
Not that I’m going to be ripping tales from today’s headlines. That’s not my thing. More to the point, the political power of good fiction is often indirect. Fiction can say complicated things to culture, often better than it says simple ones. There are political ideas in my novel The Demon in Business Class, but they’re neither immediate nor partisan.
The “messy ground where the worldly meets the divine,” as my back-cover text promises, is a place in the mind. My characters in their big world might inform your opinions about tomorrow’s crisis, whatever it is, but only by example and analogy.
That’s my contribution. We’ll see if it’s enough, over time.