anthony dobranski online


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On anger

The Promised Land, and its malcontents.

In the story of Moses, the aging Moses needs water for his people. Jehovah tells Moses to speak to a rock, but Moses strikes the rock twice. Jehovah lets the water flow, so the Jews can drink, but the cost is that Moses can’t enter the Promised Land.

This story is a cliché now, but I think we use it wrongly. It’s not about authority punishing misbehavior, but about the failure to change.

When the Jews are enslaved, anger and rebellion free them, at a horrible cost. One wonders if Jehovah, who created the Egyptians too, actually chose the angel of death. Maybe Jehovah just let Moses into the divine armory, to choose whatever weapon he thought best – and at the time, “by any means necessary” was enough justification for Jehovah to accept his choice.

Forty years later, not so much. For the independent Jewish people, forced by their years in the wilderness to survive on their own, now ready to build a new land, rebellion risks their new social order. Moses’s anger and rebellion have no place here. They are no longer liberating, only destructive, for there is no longer an other to escape, to destroy. This is not to say that the Jews will never need rebellion, but as the story of David later shows, it will never again be an unalloyed good.

I am an angry person. Continue reading


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Robots vs. androids in fiction (go robots!)

Among the characters in my new novel is a collective of former package-delivery drones that, after a war, evolved themselves into a taxi service for their damaged city.

From the earliest drafts, I saw them as small flying saucers, with only a central trunk/harness to carry goods or a seated cross-legged person. It took a little time before I saw the plot and character possibilities of robots without hands or appendages. It meant that they had continued to evolve themselves to depend on people, both as customers and even as mechanics, like Thomas the Tank Engine.

I also gave them a limited vocabulary of green and red lights, suitable for bargaining over fares, but akin to the radiation-wounded Christopher Pike on old Star Trek. This made for a stranger, more labored interaction, but one familiar to anyone who has set a digital device.

It also made it easier for the taxibots credibly to be taken for granted by the people around them while they — well, you’ll read it one day. :)

This is a less common take on manufactured beings. Continue reading


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The STEM and the Flower (Education)

Thanks to Fareed Zakaria for his recent column calling out the recent obsession with STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I urge its wide readership.

The issue is not STEM, of course, but obsession — and it’s not really obsession, in the end, but the lazy desire for a panacea. Wouldn’t it be great to think that we could just do one kind of studying to be successful? And we could cut school funding too!

The world doesn’t work that way, alas. Defunding arts and humanities education will not make us a nation of successful technocrats. It will make us poorer in spirit, which will make us poorer in pocket, and make our culture harder to sustain. Without language, music, and art, people literally can’t communicate, explain, teach, and inspire.

It’s that last one which is hardest to quantify, least utilitarian, but most vital. Life is not easy, and even the most successful of us have days on end of meticulous tedium. Most people are hard pressed to give a damn about anything over time if their lives are not enriched by whimsy and beauty – not merely by consuming it, but by engaging with it, in the way one only can with understanding and training. Even Mr. Spock liked to jam with a band.

The stem is vitally important to the plant, but so is the flower. They are parts of a common purpose. Things can survive if they are stunted, but they can’t flourish or evolve. Lose sight of that, and we lose.


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Performance anxiety (Facebook edition)

If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise. — William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”

I noted recently that writing has become a performing art, one where we writers all have to be promotional and public. I’ve been mulling that over in regards to social media. Specifically, Facebook.

I made my first business career developing the consumer side of what we once called “cyberspace,” but I was quite late to Facebook. Most close friends who wanted to keep up with my personal life soon wised up and Friended my wife. My main reservation was Facebook’s awesome store of personal data (even now, my Facebook account is still under a different computer login than my work or personal logins), but it seemed harmless enough — shared humor, family updates and the occasional expression of political dudgeon by people whose politics I knew well.

When I signed up for the Superstars Writing Seminars, I joined their very active private Facebook group for news and updates on the seminar, and by extension, on the writers’ individual careers. To my great surprise, a lot of those people Friended me on Facebook — most before ever meeting me, and the rest after a very limited interaction (though you learn a lot playing Cards Against Humanity, and none of it good.)

I was bemused. Why on earth would these people want to Friend me? Did they care about my son’s new style of dancing to 80’s pop? Would they be as thrilled by the new retaining wall we’re getting as I am?

My folly was in not recognizing that Facebook has become a public space to the exact degree that one is a public person — and performing artists are public people, and writers now performers. This for me makes Facebook an increasingly staged and risky place. In Soho where she lives, a major fashion model can go shopping without makeup and in sweatpants — but when that same model hits the stores at Mall of America, she is not shopping. She is making an appearance, as rehearsed and planned and calculated as any Oscar Wilde bon-mot.

Thing is, I have plenty of friends, and extended family, for whom Facebook is not that space, and whose socializing there is more honest, more mundane, and in some ways more substantive. If I actually become a successful writer, commenting to me on a Facebook post will be the equivalent of meeting your friend for coffee when your friend is on a reality-TV show and has a camera following everywhere. Little-f-friends, are you ready for that? Am I? Continue reading


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The cyborg in a time of prolonged war

A friend recently told me that the old TV series The Six Million Dollar Man, about a grievously-wounded astronaut fitted with human-looking but superpowered prosthetics, was being rebooted. I vented about this a while — I have issues with the constant readaptation of the recent pop-culture past, driven by the marketer’s fear of an unsure product — but a recent panel I had seen at the World Fantasy Convention put me in a kinder mindset.

The panel discussed the rise in European horror fiction after World War 1. Fiction helps us process the world (to a great degree, scientists now think), even the horrors of war, if it can address it. Even today, Outside the Wire’s Theater of War presents Sophocles’s Ajax to communities vulnerable to PTSD. In the US after the Civil War, and in Europe after World War I, horror stories helped society work out the true horrors they had seen and still saw, the desolation wrought around them, and the wounded disabled survivors.

Because of our improved ability to save the lives of the grievously-wounded, our 21st-Century wars are increasing both the number of young disabled people and the public’s frequency and depth of engagement with prosthetic devices. There’s things to say about that, well-suited for telling through a Steve Austin figure.

Continue reading


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On scaring people with writing

The Atlantic notes with alarm the bizarre saga of Patrick McLaw, a writer and teacher put under medical evaluation seemingly for the violent story lines of his self-published novels, to media reports wholly absent of reminders of the right of free speech. Although subsequent reports hint, weirdly, at greater issues, Ken White nicely states the concern that not only do governments overreach, the media often serves them as “obliging stenographers.”

I’m curious about the more general notion, that an imagined horror is somehow more threatening when the person imagining it is somehow related to the situation. Is it really so much worse if a teacher pens a novel about a school-shooting? If a colonel penned a novel about a rogue officer, would it affect the colonel’s career in a way Stanley Kubrick never had to worry about? Can an air-traffic controller not write about a disturbed pilot, or a lawyer write about a corrupt judge?

Must we outsource our dark sides to disinterested parties, absolved of ill intent by the condom of “research”?


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The pre-apocalypse

My writing group noted that my new story, though a different setting, is also a post-apolcyalypse tale, or at least post-disaster. One colleague included my novel in that theme, even though in my novel things are good, but about to get worse. It’s pre-apocalyptic, she said.

Something in that. My faith is that humanity will persist, but a lot of bad things are going to happen. By the standards of the past they already have. Like my mentor Philip K Dick, I’m less pinpointing details of the great shift, just exploring scenes after upheaval, where people have adapted to far different norms of environment and behavior. I no doubt absorbed this from my family history, for my parents fled war and Soviet occupation, and my own late 20th century life, where we took on huge social changes, and where the rest of the world changed vastly more. I greatly admire writers like Jim Shepard and Harlan Ellison, who change up place and time each story yet keep consistent in their approach and style.

Perhaps I’ll be more sensitive to this strain of pre-apocalyptic. I hope it will give me a way to glide across genre. I would enjoy writing historical.  Continue reading