Stories

“Focus”

“Focus” appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It was my second story in Analog in the last six months (the previous one having appeared in the December 2016 issue).

The simplest way to sum it up is to say that it’s a story about how companies parasitize everything—or, rather, convince us to allow them to parasitize everything to better serve their ends.

The story is set in Vietnam—in Saigon and a South Korean-run factory in an industrial complex in nearby Bình Dương Province. While my wife and I were in Vietnam in May 2014, there were anti-Chinese riots in Bình Dương, and Chinese-run factories were targeted—but so were factories run by South Korean, Japanese, Singaporean, and other East Asian companies, supposedly because of their ties to China or their use of cheaper Chinese labour instead of Vietnamese workers.

During our time in Saigon, we didn’t get to meet a lot of Vietnamese people, but we met some who were mostly lovely. On the other hand, we met a fair number of Koreans, though since they were mostly connected with the manufacturing industry—that is, with the sweatshops of Bình Dương—we encountered what I guess one might call the typical sweatshop-owner mentality a little more often than we expected.

I think one some level, this story is an inquiry into that: the twisted dynamic by those who run institutions (schools and businesses alike) and those who find themselves within those institutions (be they students or employees) both end up subject to a kind self-imposed deformation of their lives, families, and their own minds. The teacher or factory manager must achieve self-conviction of a number of unsettling beliefs about employees to do the job effectively; the employee or student must willingly deform his or her mind and body to fit into the resulting system. Tragically, they have more in common than they ever realize, and the biggest losers seem to be those who, for whatever reason, can’t manage to pull it off.

This is another of those stories I finally managed to write after about a decade of trying: the original story was, I think, set in a Filipino sweatshop and written as a flash piece—a corporate report on the progress achieved using something like the eponymous drug in this story. It was too short to really explore the subject, and bounced (with a nice rejection) from Nature, where I’d sent it for consideration for the Futures flash fiction series that ran (and I think still runs) on the back page of the journal. It took me a while to get back to the subject, but “Focus” was the ultimate result. Among other things, I’ve learned I’m not really a flash fiction kind of writer.

The original story had all the Vietnamese diacritics included, but one thing I’ve learned is that the age of digital publishing has constrained, rather than freed up, typography. A print-only book is free to include all kinds of crazy fonts, but when you’re releasing an ebook that needs to work with a plethora of readers and software, plain old Roman letters (and maybe Greek and some math symbols) are just a safer bet. I didn’t learn much Vietnamese while I was there, and the little I learned wasn’t much use to this story. That said, I’m pretty sure everything’s correct except one expression—the euphemism for a government cover-up—which I cannot remember if I got from someone, or warped from a more innocuous Vietnamese expression. 1 I tried to keep the Vietnamese to a minimum, though, since I learned so very little of the language.


  1. I think I warped it, with the reasoning that the people talking (teenagers) would have some kind of neologistic way of saying it.

Prodigal

AnalogProdigalCoverMy short story “Prodigal” appeared in the December 2016 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

It was, in fact, honored as being the cover story , with cover art to match: the first time a story of mine was honored in this way.


“Prodigal” is a story with a long history. I originally drafted it at Clarion West during the summer of 2006, essentially on a dare by my classmate Ben Burgis.

Some of the scientific groundwork in this story was actually laid in a novella I wrote even farther back, in 2001, titled “With My Mouth.” (I know, I know, the title is… anyway.) That was a story about an experimental brain-rewiring group—cult, therapy circle? It was ambiguous—that stimulated rapid neural overgrowth in the brain, followed by a tapered dieoff.

That’s basically how I imagine what was done to Benji’s brain, to achieve—in dog terms—relative super-intelligence. Not that a dog would necessarily need a massive brain for that: a patent office worker in France was a functional, (relatively) productive civil servant (ahem) for years with only a “thin layer of brain tissue” in his skull, after all. But a dog would a different kind of brain, and that would have to be grown. Interestingly, apparently this approach recently has become one bright hope in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease.

When I first drafted the story, it was after living in South Korea for about five years, and thus unable to get copies of any North American SF magazines.1 Therefore, I hadn’t read Bradley Denton’s award-winning “Sergeant Chip,” which was mentioned in everything anyone said about the story; nor had I read Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius (though I was aware of it and had read about it). Nor had I (or many other people, at the time) read Kij Johnson’s “The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change” though Ellen Datlow mentioned that story in her comments on my own story.

All that left me wondering whether I’d just tread well-worn ground and the story was saying nothing new, but I think that was a silly thing to worry about: all those stories are quite different from one another, and, I think, different from “Prodigal.” Still, it didn’t stop me rewriting and reworking the story over the years, to no avail. I have all kinds of weird, abandoned drafts—some half-finished and some written to the end—which attack the issues from different angles. In the weirdest, the story starts about five years after the events in this story, and it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where Benji and his compatriots have released something into the water supply that essentially modifies human brains to exhibit something that’s more like a hybrid of human and canine consciousness. In another, Benji tells the story in his own words, years later.

Ultimately, while they were all interesting ideas, none of them really worked as stories the way the original draft did. What I did was go back and do something Maureen McHugh astutely pointed out I was avoiding in the original draft: I forced my narrator answer the question he really, really didn’t want to answer honestly. Sometime in the summer of 2015, when I found myself stuck on the novel I was working on, I opened up the original story draft and decided to read it over. I was pleased to find it had aged well, so I put my narrator through that one missing moment of embarrassment and pain, and then gave it a general polishing and updated a few minor points. When it seemed ready, I decided to send it out, and the first place I sent it was Analog.

And it found a home. I couldn’t be happier about that.


Reviews:

“Moving, thought-provoking exploration of animal uplift. (…) as a metaphor for losing a loved one to a cause, it’s dynamite.”

—from Greg Hullender’s review @ Rocket Stack Rank

“Sad story. Very well done.”

SFRevu

“This is a strong story, one of the best I’ve read this year. I especially liked the fact that it avoids the simple solutions and has something to say about human (and dog) nature.”

—Chuck Rothman @ Tangent


  1. I suppose I could have subscribed, but I’d always bought them on newsstands. Ebook readers are a boon to those of us on foreign shores…

The Incursus, by Asimov-NN#71

“The Incursus, by Asimov-NN#71” appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Big Echo.

This story was written in Saigon one afternoon when I asked myself what an AI would think about the Turing test, and when I’d just finished reading Stanislaw Lem’s wonderful A Perfect Vacuum, a collection of reviews for nonexistent books. I think Lem’s an underappreciated giant, and one of these days I’m going to sit down and read every one of his books that’s available in English.

As for the subject of the story: personally, I don’t think the Turing test is particularly useful as a metric for anything: sociopaths regularly (if temporarily) fool lots of people into thinking they’re neurotypical human beings, without the benefit of superhuman intelligence, after all. How much more effectively could an AI—especially one with a lot of fundamentally human building blocks in its makeup—do so?

But I started to wonder whether an AIs insights might go beyond that. Long, long ago, a friend of mine remarked that in his view, human beings don’t just anthropomorphize animals, but also do so with fellow human beings. What he meant was that we have a lot of fantasies and illusions about human nature that we take for granted, and which blind us to the less-comforting realities of human nature. History ensures that what we see as horrifying crimes—like those featured in news broadcasts daily, these days—wouldn’t surprise us so much if we didn’t have those illusions in place.

Perhaps the biggest illusions human beings seem to entertain are about themselves. Susan Blackmore, Thomas Metzinger, and Bruce Hood have interestingly argued that even the first-person, interiorized exprience of a unified self is essentially illusory: the GUI for a much more fragmentary collection of neurological processes that switch on and off constantly, and change slowly over time (or, in the case of brain injuries, quite suddenly).

So what if an AI decided to disabuse us of the illusions that are hardwired into our very brains?

“ἱερὸς γάμος” [Hieros Gamos]

Alix Branwyn

“ἱερὸς γάμος” [Hieros Gamos] was published in Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis, which was edited by Scott R. Jones and published in May 2016 by Martian Migraine Press.

It’s basically the origin story for the leader of a cult worshipping an unnamed entity from some forgotten corner of the Cthulhu Mythos, one residing at the site of the temple of the old cult of Eleusis. (Because, yes, the original Eleusis cult actually worshipped it.)


Believe it or not, this story was inspired by my studies of Ezra Pound’s massive poem titled The Cantos, which contains many references to the occult; among them, the fixation Pound had on the erotic-esoteric dimensions of pagan ritual, magic, and religion was most striking, particularly his interest in the Mysteries of Eleusis.

Little is really known about the rituals performed by initiates and hierophants in the Eleusinian mystery cult, though it seems to have been an important one—one of the last great pagan cults, really—and likely involved some kind of component related to the concept of hieros gamos, or “sacred marriage” with an overtly and integral sexual dimension that may have been represented or enacted in the rites themselves. Among the goddesses who may have been invoked at Eleusis are Aphrodite (who was, after all, a goddess of beauty and love, but also linked to the harvest) and Persephone, whose rape by Hades and abduction into the underworld (and her annual return, bringing spring to the world) seem to have been Pound’s favorite contender for the Eleusinian rites.

Bandyopadhyay is well-versed in the annals of English crackpottery—mainly because he was the beneficiary of my studies of Pound’s encounters with crackpots. Péladan, Blavatsky, the Manicheans… all of this was stuff floating around in the circles within which Ezra Pound (and Yeats, and to some degree Eliot) moved in the first couple of decades of the 20th century: such crackpottery was, as scholar Leon Surette demonstrates in his text The Birth of Modernism (which I discussed here), pretty common among literary types.

But imagine for a moment that the crackpots had it right… and that the gods described by their American contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft, were the true personae of the gods we know by Greco-Roman names today. What, then, would the “sacred marriage” of hieros gamos—the sexual union of the divine and the human—look like? And what would it take to survive such an encounter?

This story is an attempt to answer that question.