Hot Space Station Justice

Whence Cometh Evil?

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Plenty is happening on the writing front but I want to post something on a serious note.

In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, my wife and I attended an interfaith service at the Cape Cod Synagogue last night. Not the sort of thing I would have done earlier in my faith and religious walk. Not at all. But sometimes, things changed for the better.

No, I haven’t embraced warm and fuzzy, Kumbaya ecumenicalism; we were invited and I believe it’s critical to be numbered among those who stand against savage acts of violence and hatred.

Hundreds in attendance, the facility packed beyond capacity, I admit I was astonished by the level of the response, encouraged by it in many ways. Our society grants us the privilege and liberty to find common ground and see our common humanity.  I also admit I was discouraged in that as far as I could tell, there was zero Evangelical representation. I have distanced myself from that particular religious label with all its baggage in these past few years but still…  Not everything has to be a Revival Meeting – a little empathy, respect, and solidarity speaks volumes.

The service went on for 90 minutes or so as speaker after speaker came to the pulpit to offer comfort, express support, and grapple with the enormity of the tragedy. And to try to offer some facet of explanation and guidance. But in all the talk, songs, and even poetry, the topic of Evil, particularly human evil or depravity, wasn’t really mentioned. Sure, there was the menu of generic ills: hatred, bigotry, senseless violence, intolerance… And the common recommended cures: love, tolerance, faith, compassion, seeing the sacredness and divinity in human beings…. Nothing wrong with that, not at all.

But for all the feel good, hopeful optimism, spiritual ideals, and the huge show of solidarity, I left the synagogue worried, worried that for all the activity, there was no real advance. No actual traction. I woke up thinking about it still uneasy because I didn’t hear a clear call to personal action, change, or responsibility, precisely because for whatever reason, that one vital issue – human evil, AKA ‘sin’ – was skirted or ignored.

It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who pointed out ‘The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.’ That’s really the matter at stake here. It’s always struck me that at the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus commands that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations…”

The idea there is that individuals must turn from not only the world’s wickedness, or that of their family, tribe, generation, whatever… but their own brokenness, isolation, and defiance to God. Like it or not, that is the defiled wellspring of contempt, cruelty, envy, resentment, violence, hatred. Not out there, but in us, all of us, each of us. In me.

It’s only after that acknowledgment and change of mind, that primal shift from Self to God, that ‘remission of sins’ takes place. To me, that word ‘remission’ says the internal corrupting influence can be, will be, checked. Not completely removed, mind you, not in this life. But its spread and power, its decay and deception, is beaten back. Then I can heed the better angels of my nature, see that Imago Dei in others and treat them with a measure of the grace God has shown me.

Exercise can change a body, Education can change a mind, Discipline can change a habit, but only God can truly change a heart. (even then cooperation is required) In my understanding, He is the cure we so desperately grope for in times like these. God – not religion – is the answer. God who is Love, who is able, who is willing, who is present and yet for all that it seems somehow we never quite grasp on long enough or deep enough to let Him actually do the work only He can do.

Why do I say that? Because we’ve been here too many times before.

How long, Oh Lord? How long?  

***

Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

– 2 Cor: 13:11

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Sunrise photo from Anton Gorlin

 

 

More Audio Book news

Narrator Madison Niederhauser has agreed to read ‘The Stones Remember’. His work on ‘Hard Kill’ was pitch perfect and I’m fortunate to have him do another of my short stories. Should be done end of September and I’m looking forward to it.

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In case you were wondering, here’s HARD KILL at Audible. The eBook at Amazon.

Thanks. Have a great day.

 

Four Audio Books Released

New Titles Now Available at Amazon/Audible and iTunes

If you’re new to audio books, click on the titles below for more information and to sign up for a free trial at Audible.  Or simply log in to your Amazon or iTunes account and give them a look. Four quick listens. Well written, -if I do say so myself  – excellently narrated, and all at a good price.

The near-future short ‘Sozo’, included in The Crossover Alliance 2015 annual anthology. Narrator Steven Floyd’s weary cynicism is pitch perfect.

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The Celtic-flavored ghost story ‘The Barrow Lover’ about two small time treasure hunters who dig up more than they bargained for.  Narrator Daniel Purcell went above and beyond telling Declan and Paddy’s story.

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‘Hard Kill’, the ’15-minutes in the future’ action piece about a spec-ops team racing to stop an attack in the American Heartland. Solid narration by Madison Neiderhauser.

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And ‘A Prayer to Saint Strelok’ – inspired by the Russian Sci Fi film ‘STALKER’ by Tarkovsky and the Ukrainian horror-survival video games of the same name.  Charles Cromer captures the mystery and terror of the Exclusion Zone.

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As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the stories and the narration. Or if you’re busy, leave a star rating. Every one helps.

Thank you again for your support and encouragement.

Take care and have an excellent day.

 

Audiobooks and the magic of story telling

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I’m told all the Cool Kids are into Audiobooks these days, so I’m taking my first steps in that direction. I’m happy to announce the short stories ‘Sozo’ and  “A Prayer to Saint Strelok’ are now available at Amazon’s Audible and iTunes/Books.

The first is a straight-razor of a story about a combat vet returning to a broken, near-future America. Remarkably, it was included in The Crossover Alliance’s 2nd annual anthology in  2015.  (I note that of the three TCA anthologies, that year is the only one without a single review. “Coincidence? I think NOT!”) Sorry guys.

OTOH, ‘Saint Strelok’ is a recent short piece inspired by the Ukrainian post-apocalyptic S.T.A.L.K.E.R.  video game series. Set in and around the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, those games rank in my top 10 all-time favorites. They’re dark, brooding, terrifying, and wonderful. “Call of Pripyat” is the one you want. It’s the most accessible to the first-time stalker.

Back to audiobooks though… I have to say auditioning narrators and hearing my own stories read back to me was immensely sobering. ( I gotta keep at this. God help me.) But on a happier note, I was reminded  of how I used to read to my children – and now my grandchildren – and how there’s something truly wonderful about those hours that’s hard to express because the transaction of those moments goes beyond words.

Dr. Seuss to Tolkien, Kipling to Dahl, R.L. Stevenson, Lloyd Alexander, and a hundred more, reading out loud gets me thinking about the wonder of stories, the music of language, and what I think is a strange but essential osmosis of meaning.

Call me crazy, but I’ll go so far as to say that simple thing, more than any other everyday, ordinary practice in modern society, imparts not just parental/adult care and concern; it cultivates a sense of wonder and adventure. It feeds the imagination, exercises it. I think – depending on the stories- it’s how the core values of being a decent human being in the face of Life’s monsters and perilous journeys are transmitted to our kids.

Now some might label it frivolous but I say it’s a critical investment. Yes, STEM them chillun ’til they wins the Nobel Prize, but this is more than coding classes or the latest tablet/phone. This is heart, not mind, and I suspect this is probably one of the simplest but most profound investments a parent or guardian can make in a child. And all you need is a book. A library card. And an hour or two per week.

Now I’m not equating ‘St Strelok’ with Willy Wonka or Treasure Island. God no. I’m just letting folks know they can listen to two of my stories on their Kindle or phone or whatever device now. I think the narrators did an excellent job and I hope you will too. Please give them a listen or recommend them to a friend who likes my kind of stuff. Fire off a review if you can. It’s nice to get feedback.

Hard Kill‘ is next. My Celtic-flavored ghost story ‘The Barrow Lover’ should be available by September. I’ll let you know for sure when they’re ready.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.

Note to self: find that hard cover copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

*** Other Links

Click to see those two stories at AMAZON.

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SOZO                                           ST. STRELOK

A short book review

Of Dan Abnett’s The Magos

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I know the cover looks cheesy. I know game-verse fiction is often (rightly) dismissed as little better than fan-gush, but if you’ve never read Dan Abnett, I think you’re missing out on some truly good Sci Fi.

It was the Eisenhorn trilogy that did it for me. I’d never heard of Mr. Abnett before. Apparently he writes comics. Cool, but not really my cuppa. But as an avid table top wargamer and spec-fiction reader, the books appeared on my radar screen and I took a chance on the first one. Then I bought the second. And had to get the third.

I was hooked.

Yes, it helps to be familiar with the Warhammer 40,000’s grim, Gothic setting, but it’s not necessary. Abnett’s Inquisitor novels are ‘domestic’ 40K; all about conspiracies, cults and covert operations. The ‘total war in the grim darkness of the far future’ is an ever-present backdrop, sure, but they have more in common with police procedurals and Gothic mystery thrillers than grand-scale military Sci Fi. Interesting characters, twisted plots, good pace, depth, solid, efficient prose, I kept flipping to the back cover picture asking ‘Who is this guy?”

An incredibly talented and prolific writer, apparently.

Mr. Abnett is now on my very short list of writer’s I’ll pre-order. (William Gibson and Steven Pressfield are the other two)

The Magos is a collection of short stories packed in with a new Eisenhorn novel. Some of the shorts appear in the Eisenhorn Omnibus and other Inquisitor novels, but several are brand spanking new. Plus there’s a novel at the back of the book.

I’m not a spoilers/book report kind of reviewer, so I’ll spare the synopsis, but if the previous Inquisitor books caught your attention, you’ll want to add The Magos to your Summer reading list. Enjoy.

You can get a copy (hopefully) at your local book store, or Here at Amazon

Have a good day.

My lodestars for drafting

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Second editing pass though my next novel, I’ve got a new Post-It on the bottom of my monitor: three  points to steer by as I hack, slash, and burn my way through the undergrowth.

1. Err on the side of the reader’s intelligence.

Aside from the fact my latest isn’t a YA novel, I’m writing to a capable, nuanced audience who, while new to my particular story, is familiar with the genre as well as Life’s genuine struggles and victories. I will not talk to them like they’re pets or three-year olds.

2. Don’t BS the reader.

See above. The reader has been gracious and given me of their time and money. I don’t want either to be a waste. Of course the story has themes and the author has opinions and values, but the reader can smell an agenda a mile off. There may be types or tropes that function as fiction shorthand, but they cannot devolve into cliches that cheapen or interrupt the story.

3. Less is more.

There’s a fine line (and a yawing chasm) between poetic and verbose. This is the ‘right word versus almost the right word’ dilemma. I will not fall in love with my prose and will cut what doesn’t best serve the scene, regardless of how clever the turn of phrase. I’m not padding my word count. Make it lean and precise, not bloated or boggy.  Remember the Failure Mode of ‘Clever’ is ‘Asshole’.

***

Time to hone the machete, top off the flamethrower, and get back to work.

Have an excellent day.

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Zombie Six Release and Notes

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In the 22nd century, the ethnic Uyghur in Western China still dream of independence. Decades of discrimination, surveillance, and repressive policies by the Chinese government have only strengthened their resolve. Frustrated with the separatists , the Beijing enacts a final solution: the forcible deportation of all dissidents to Mèng Tiān, a desolate mining colony in the Kepler system, five hundred light years from Earth.

When the relocation program backfires and a full-scale insurgency erupts, the elite operators of Zombie Six arrive as part of the U.N.E. Peacekeeper force. Ordered to kill or capture the Uyghur leadership, the team finds itself in a deadly crossfire of corruption, deceit, and drone-borne IEDs. To survive, Zombie Six must first remember Truth is still the first casualty of war.

“Enemy of my Enemy” is a stand-alone novella from the author of the Eshu International novels, the ongoing Clar1ty Wars cyberpunk series, and other spec-fiction works.

***

Enemy of my Enemy –  A Zombie Six Mission is now available at Amazon, both in print and for Kindle.  I wanted to take a moment to let folks know and thank everyone for their support, both online and in the real world. That anyone takes the time to read my stuff still amazes me. So… a few words about how ‘Enemy of my Enemy’ came about:

There’s always that initial something that pushes a story into motion. A spark that gets the creative gears turning or a seed that takes root and grows. Enemy of my Enemy was born out of a hard kernel of news concerning the Chinese Government’s treatment of the ethnic Uyghur in their western provinces. It didn’t show up on my radar all at once, mind you. It was more jigsaw puzzle pieces, assembling over  a year or so to form a genuinely disturbing image of relentless, hi-tech coercion, forcible assimilation, and repressive policies.

My eldest son was the first to bring the situation to my attention, and to be honest, I filed it under a Communist administration’s usual rigid treatment of dissidents.  Remember, these are the same folks who brought us the crackdown of the Tiananmen Square protests back in 1989.

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It wasn’t until I read This article. This one. And this one. that I began to grasp just how pervasive, insidious, and invasive the PRC efforts were.  The more I thought about it, the less I was able to sleep.

Yes, I added elite spec-ops, gun drones, firefights, and a high body count on top of it all to make a typical Mil SF action story, but the foundation is a picture of real-world authoritarianism made frighteningly more wicked and effective by advanced technology. This part, tragically, is not made up.

‘Enemy of my Enemy’ is a spec-fiction action piece set in the next century, but perhaps, in some small way, the mention of this real life, present situation can do a little to raise awareness – not only of the Uyghur’s treatment, but of the rise of ubiquitous, invasive monitoring and surveillance, and the corresponding erosion of human rights and dignity.

Because if history is anything to go by, this trend and this technology will only grow and spread. We need to be vigilant and proactive against it in every form.

If you want to do more, take a look at Human Rights Watch. They deal with these kinds of issues and have an excellent rating at Charity Navigator. In fact, I plan on donating a portion of the first 6 months of ‘EomE’ sales to them.

So buy the book. Tell a friend. Or donate direct.

Art hard and have a great day.

Making it easy on Beta Readers

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I’ve always understood ‘Beta Readers’ to be those long suffering friends and family of writers who are willing – after putting up with the author while they were writing the novel – to then read it, in its entirety, for internal consistency.  They’re not copy editors or grammar nazis scrutinizing for typos and errant semicolons. No, they’re weighing the substance of the story. Plot flow, character motivations and story logic. They might trip over the occasional repeated phrase, but did it work? Allowing for conventions of genre and personal taste, is this a story worth reading?

To that end, I was trying to come up with a one-page hand out to Betas. I want an easy code for them to mark if/when/why the spell was broken. Jot a number or letter in the margin near the offending passages and move on. Here’s where I’m at so far:

  1. So what? (or Do you care?) Are the characters engaging? Is the drama worthy of conflict? Did you stop caring?
  2. Oh Yeah? (or Is this credible?) Is the tech/magic/psi power ‘logical’ in the story world? Are the characters actions and words believable?
  3. Hunh? (or What the hell just happened?) I’m confused.. ‘Two pages ago we were traveling east and now the Sun is setting right in front of them.’ or ‘I thought she had a gun. Why isn’t she shooting at them?’ stuff like that.
  4. Can we go now? (or I just read a bunch of words and nothing happened) Sure there’s ambiance and milieu, but I define ‘fiction traction’ as ‘plot over word count’. No Value Change, no forward motion, and the prose gets boggy.

Add in a big red “R” for REDUNDANCY – ( “*Sheesh* You said his name 37 times in two pages.”) and a big red “C” for CLICHE – (‘She was as dead as a door nail’ Really?)

One of Neil Gaiman’s Rules for Writing is that when a reader says something doesn’t work, they’re almost always right but when they tell you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.  I think those 6 notations will let a writer – me, in this case – know where the story falters without putting too much of a burden on already gracious and patient people.

Any thoughts on this? Weigh in.

Have a good day.

 

 

Altered Carbon, Common Humanity

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Binged ‘Altered Carbon’ this weekend, Netflix’ latest and reportedly most expensive series to date. ($6-7 million per episode? whoa) A 10-part cyberpunk/noir piece based on Richard K. Morgan’s book of the same name, it’s a bloody, sensual, cynical look at the future. Designer clone bodies, digitized consciousness, virtual imprisonment and torture, galaxy-spanning Spec Ops/Secret Police, obscene wealth disparity, functional immortality… the future’s so dark, you gotta wear NODs.

A solid Sci Fi show with a gritty story and great effects, but if ‘Altered Carbon’ says anything about the future, it’s that science is really secondary; humanity’s progress is not and never will be linked to technology. The bottom line is we never advance beyond our morality. Period.

In fact push it as far as you want, technology remains just another function of old-fashioned human cruelty, conceit, greed, lust, and rage. Dub, sample, and remix – it’s still the same old song all over again. Hide behind chrome and smart glass and mirror-shades, dress it up in gene-spliced, supermodel customized sexiness with neurachem lethality, package it in alien alloys and complex algorithms, our depravity still shows.

When the end credits rolled on episode 10, I was brought full circle back to 2009 and the fundamental conviction I had when I decided to try and write a SF novel as a Christian: only a spiritual ethic that upholds life as sacred can restrain humanity from becoming inhumane. Lose the preciousness of life and you open the door to contempt and cruelty; commodify people and you end up committing atrocities.

That’s not to say I want my fiction to be sermonizing. No, I aim for entertainment, escapism, and action. Most of my stories have loads of firepower and a high body count. But I want to build the work on a solid foundation. I want substance, themes, meaning in there as well.

Despite the cool visuals, wicked action scenes, and great acting, I was disappointed when Altered Carbon was over. Not that it had ended but at the sordid sameness of it all. It was almost a relief. What was meant to be action-packed cyberpunk coolness and world-weary wisdom was just so uninspired, so sad.

There was a smack upside the head afterwards too: a call to confront the question of faith in spec-fiction once again. To respect the conventions of genre, the demands of the medium, and the expectations of the audience  and aim for quality, and yet somehow portray spiritual realities organically in the plot, characters and fictional world.

Guess I’d better start praying about that again, eh?

Thanks and have a great day.

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BTW, that first novel, RUNNING BLACK, and the sequel SHIFT TENSE are available at Amazon. HERE and HERE

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Thoughts on ‘art’ as ‘ministry’

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When churched people learn I’m a stained glass artisan who also writes fiction, after they recover from the initial surprise, they often spin my vocation as some form of ministry. (After all, it’s artistic, not practical. Not ‘real’ work, eh) So my windows must be for churches and my stories about Jesus or theology. Or maybe the End Times – that’s OK too.

If I have the time and enough of a relationship with the individual, I try to explain my “Christian” testimony in these contexts actually consists of me treating my client well, doing the work honestly, on time, on budget, and meeting or exceeding expectations in terms of design, execution, and craft. It does not mean I incorporate the shape of a Cross in the window or hide the face of Jesus somewhere in the pattern. And when it comes to writing, well my speculative fiction pieces are most definitely NOT dramatized sermons with Chapter and Verse cross references. In fact, I caution some people against reading my stuff because I sense they’re looking for moralistic parables or family-friendly entertainment. My stuff will only confuse them.

Over the years I’ve encountered various reactions that range from relief through perplexity to downright distrust. Some people understand. Others simply aren’t wired for it. Some are in different  places in their faith, and a few are so locked in to a particular mindset about religion, that any derivation is deviation and immediately suspect. Even though I’ve run this gauntlet many times, I’m on edge whenever it comes up; I’m not looking to argue or persuade someone against their convictions. I’m simply doing what God has set before me – however clumsily.

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After this morning’s devotions, my eye caught the spine of a book on one of my overflowing shelves: Dorothy Sayer’s ‘Letters to a Diminished Church’. Opening it, it fell to a dog-eared page.

“The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

   Church by all means and decent forms of amusement certainly – but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Not, if they did, could anyone believe they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.

   Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.

   And why? Simply because She has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be called a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.”

This absolutely rings true for me. This is what makes me strive to be a better, more creative stained glass artisan and to write more honestly and skillfully. I hold myself against this standard whenever I step up to my worktable or sit down at my desk.

And this principle right here is why I urge any believing artist never to shy away from honing their craft and employing any and all the conventions of their medium and genre to make good work. Excellence should always be the mark of Christian endeavor. Our worldview provides us with a foundation, not a straitjacket. Faith is inherently supernatural. It is wings, not chains. It is a benchmark gauge, not a Procrustean Bed.

Don’t accuse me of advocating gratuitousness here, I’m not. By all means be gracious and aware. But Christian artists must access all the tools available to them so their work – whatever that is – stays true to itself and thus to God.

No, I won’t always thread the tension between my flawed understanding and the reality of God without a hitch. But I have to do the work set before me, tackle each project honestly to the best of my ability, and trust it is God who works in me both to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:13)

Trust God. Go forth and Art hard.

Have a good day.

 

 

  • PS: This is also the reason I’m simultaneously stunned and irritated with ‘Christian’ services like VidAngel that censor naughty language and ‘offensive’ scenes from television/movies like Netflix’ recent “Black Mirror” and “Bright”. As if cuss words were the defining factor in secular content and not hearing them somehow makes me more Christian, or renders the show magically ‘God-fearing’ and acceptable. Those folks are cashing in on a cloistered religious mindset and utter lack of discernment.
  • BTW, ‘Black Mirror’ is a disturbing as it is brilliantly incisive. I wish I had the chops to write those kinds of stories.