Monday, November 14, 2011

Welcome Aboard

Cruise ships and closed luxury resorts of the Club Med model offer the illusion of travel without exposure to other cultures.  Insulated vacations for bigots?  Safe zones for uneducated, uninterested human hamsters?  Or is it more about scarfing every penny for the corporation and not letting profit escape into the host economy?

Science fiction as a genre works on the same model.  

Choosing a book the cover of which proclaims it to be science fiction ensures the reader an experience of a certain kind.  They’ll know from the first page that it’s science fiction.  They’ll be kept supplied with ideas and action.  Embedded lectures will be fascinatingly scientific.  Plausible will be a watchword for every event, opinion, or speculation.  

Best of all, human foibles, other than glaring character flaws necessary for plot twists, will be emphasized by their absence.  There will be no ambiguity or irony.  The strong reliable captain really is strong and reliable.  What is said is meant literally.  They say what they mean and we know why they do everything; motives are kept clear as empty space.  
No messy human stuff, in short, will stay this story’s courier from the swift completion of its plot points.

Science fiction is the literature of ideas, we are told.  Repeatedly.  Science fiction fosters a sense of wonder about such things as the scale of the universe, the vast sweep of human ambition, and technology’s potential to transform everything.  “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Sir Arthur C. C. Clarke told us in Profiles of the Future, 1961.  Magic is full of a sense of wonder.  Big ideas and the scope of far-flung adventures in futures where technology can do for us what wishful illusionists could only dream of, that is science fiction.

Science fiction is for ten year old boys, someone once observed.  He shall remain unnamed to protect him from the fen with Dixie cups of cold vomit who may wish to throw it on him.  Despite anonymity, however, this observer of science fiction had a telling point.  Boys of that age are interested in precisely the mix of things comprising science fiction.  They are also uninterested in girly crap like relationships, how people get along together, and all that touchy-feely emo stuff.  Cooties repel them.

This harsh observation is made in reference to the original readership for science fiction, which were indeed ten year old boys and engineer types with arrested development.  Many will hasten to point out that science fiction has moved on, grown up, and learned to embrace almost all literary traits from a wider world.  They’ll point to the New Age, which transformed the Golden Age of Science Fiction by infusing arts and humanities into the breadboard circuitry and Estes catalog trope and topos.  They’ll congratulate themselves with swelled chests and speak of science fiction being as good as any other genre and better than most, hastening to add that literary is just another genre, so take that, academic snobs.

Examples can be found to prove any point.  Yes, there are literate genre tales and moronic literary crimes.  Yes, there are works that span the range and exceed all limits, even in the science fiction idiom, even as there are fumbling pilferage of science fiction’s refined notions by clumsy literati desperate to seem bright even as their inspiration and ability wanes.

A good story well told is a writer’s goal and a reader’s joy, and good writing does not depend upon idiom, genre, or form.  

And yet.

And yet, science fiction in aggregate tends to be insular.  It resists change, generally speaking.  Space opera routinely dominates awards, notable exceptions aside.  In recent years, juvenile has become a term that seems to add cachet to a science fiction story’s chances at winning an award or being liked, bought, read, and discussed by the science fiction readers.  Does this mean they seek to rediscover the frisson of novelty experienced when they were kids first finding science fiction?  Are they sense of wonder junkies flailing for a fix?

Some dismiss such questions, saying they are outdated.  Science fiction has grown up, they assert.  It embraces all styles, approaches, and qualities of writing in the wider sense, they claim.  

Countering these objections requires an explanation for why, then, science fiction continues to be recognized as distinct from other genres.  Despite expansion and undeniable growth, science fiction has retained hull integrity.  

Which returns us to the initial image of cruise ships and closed luxury vacation resorts.  There are in fact things science fiction does differently.  Other genres do not focus on technology, for example.  In an April 1975 essay for Natural Science, Isaac Asimov wrote, “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”

Some say science fiction predicts the future. It is more accurate to say it explores potential futures, some more realistic than others, some more solidly rooted in known science than others, but all considered possible.  Thus came the proposed new appellation, speculative fiction.  This came in with the New Wave writers, who had studied humanities perhaps more than science, and who wanted to free themselves from the picayune reliance on straight extrapolation from some science nugget.  Yes, science fiction speculates, sometimes from informed perspective, other times more like a grizzled geezer panning for gold in random streams.

Editor, writer, and bearded prospector Damon Knight defined science fiction as what ever he pointed at when he said science fiction.  His finger has written and, having written, has moved on, so we’ll have to rely on our own finger-pointing now, each of us.  Name calling is popular, too; feel free to join in.

Case in point, Margaret Atwood.  She hit it big with The Handmaid’s Tale, a grim dystopia featuring harsh ideological rule in a North American society gone evangelical Christian with a Taliban-like intensity.  Terrifying, harrowing, and all-too-feasible -- listen to the Dominionist-dominated GOP politicians if you doubt this feasibility -- this extrapolation of a bible thumper’s wet dream was pure If This Goes On and What If.  

It won literary accolades as well as selling well, and Atwood, asked about science fiction, made statement the science fiction guardians of ideological purity took offense at.  They called her names ranging from Clueless and Ignorant to A Literary Snob, Thief, and worse.

Seems only science fiction writers doing it “properly” are allowed to “use science fiction’s ideas” and when Perceived Others do it, well, it’s an affront, and outrage, and a sacrilege.  Insularity was threatened by such a breach in science fiction’s hull.

A wide-ranging pattern was noticed by science fiction defenders.  Literary types, bereft of ideas, lacking inspiration, and unable to be creative on their on merit, pilfered science fiction ideas they did not even grasp, and wrote fatuous nonsense that did not qualify as science fiction but was, of course, awarded literary honors and promoted into bestseller status.  How galling for all those On Board.

This in turn brought charges from academics against science fiction’s insularity, its determinedly low brow addiction to Mere Plot, and its insistence upon arbitrating Real from Fake.  Harold Bloom’s choleric tirade against genre when Stephen King was given a National Book Award is the low water mark for literary snobbery, bigotry, and sheer idiocy.

Consider science fiction as a vacation guaranteeing integrity of experience, though, and all becomes fair and clear and warmly sunny.  

So write, and read, what you want.   

Just remember, please stay on the ship and do not leave the compound.  We need the money.  And you do not need the aggravation of encountering Those Others.

///  ///  ///

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Florida Move's Gestation

How to avoid jumping into the genre box with the rest of the toys.

Instead of building a story out of what seem to be cool ideas, focus on one person and see what they're doing.

Or tell a story about a specific person.

I had this idea once that most parents would gladly change places with their kids to spare the kids suffering or trouble.

That is the tidy white bread notion.

Truth is much darker and more mixed.

But anyway, I wanted to show that urge to change places in a story.

Instead of building a story on that, which would be genre.

I focused on one guy.

He was poor.

Lived in a trailer, in fact, in FL.

Just a little window AC long since broken down and inadequate.

Eats fast food because he's unable to afford much else.

drinks a bit, to ease things.

He's retired/unemployed.

his personal space is a rat's nest.

he wears sloppy sweats because he's run to fat.

he's a heap, but barely struggles on, fixed income and social security.

And his wife has died.

And all he has to care about at ALL is his son.

But his son is far away, going to college up north.

Kid never hardly calls, and seems changed each time.

Almost my whole focus so far is on a very real guy and his situation.

Then two guys knock on his door.


Seems there's been a problem.

His son's involved.

Killed a guy.

May have to do hard time up north.

Cops wonder if he's seen his son, or heard from him.

Truth is, he hasn't.

As soon as they leave, largely in disgust at him and how he is forced to live by depression of both sorts, he sits down and has a panic attack.

He desperately wants to find his son, hear from him, find out what's going on.

He wants to make sure the kid's okay, safe, innocent.

He urgently wishes this, and falls asleep drunk, and dreams he goes up north.

Dreams he finds the kid, and the kid is indeed in trouble, but was framed, and the old man offers to cover for him while the kid takes off down south, to FL, to hide.

When he wakes up, he's in the kid's body, of course.

Here is the rub:  The kid wakes up in his FATHER's body.

And we find out the kid is a sociopath who was guilty as fuck.

Only NOW he is literally trapped in an aging, abused body about ready to give out, with no money, and no hope for much...

So by focusing on the real, I wrote what I hope is a compelling story that still manages to feature my silly idea about parents being willing to change places to save their kids.

Offered as an example of how to work without jumping in the box.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Let Me Tell You About Mother’s Day

My mother, in her early 50s, thought she had the flu so she went to the doctor and promptly had a heart problem sitting on the exam table.  Valve flutter, something she’d been told of, and ignored, her whole life.

She had the misfortune to undergo a valve replacement operation.  Worse, her body refused to give up the heart-lung machine.  The longer someone’s on one of those, the more brain damage accrues.  

When she came off it she wasn’t herself and, after a huge amount of needless stress put on her by a sociopathic bitch my brother inadvertently married, my mother died.

I’m reminded of the beautifully delivered, subtle line delivered by Brion James in BLADERUNNER:  “I’ll tell you about my mother.”


I’m reminded, too, of something my mother told me on the ‘phone once she got off the heart-lung machine.  She was still in the hospital and a bit bleary from drugs, speaking to me across the Atlantic.  She was in South Carolina, I in Germany.  She described a journey she’d taken on a star ship of some kind, outward through the cosmos from Earth.  She said it was something like the Enterprise from STAR TREK, but more complicated and real, and also more futuristic, bigger, a star ship with proportion.  She was enthralled to observe all the wonderful sights offered by planets, galaxies, and nebulae, even by deep space itself.  She loved it and said, “I didn’t really want to come back but I thought maybe I should.”

It felt like a good-bye, although she never said it that way, and this reminded me of the last time I’d seen her.

My wife and kids had stopped by to visit my parents before shipping out to Germany.  My mother kept touching her chest, and I kept having the impression she had Kleenex stuffed in there, so that the shirt, a crew neck tee shirt, bumped out to about tennis ball size.  It was odd and I mentioned it to my wife, who said, “There was no bump.”

My mother, after her operation, described the trouble she’d had on the doctor’s examination table as “a bump in my chest, like my heart at moving wrong.”

Premonition?  Who knows.

So now it’s 2011 and I’m in my fifties and it’s Mother’s Day again and although my wife is a mother, and so am I for that matter, I tend to think of an outward journey of the soul set free because my mother, after she died, never came back to say hi.  My father did, and still does, often, but I never see my mother.  

My own little mother, so small and sturdy and sure.

Now I’m crying so I guess that’s enough.    

///  ///  ///

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Think Twice, Write Once

Current fiction, perhaps due to short attention spans, tends to deal with each story point as it arises, in sequence, rather than waiting for later resolution.  This makes for neatness, perhaps, but is untrue to life. Next time you’re writing, try to remember to leave resolution of at least a few major story points for the end.  Yes, a few readers might accuse you of being fancy or tricking them, but most will appreciate the delayed gratification and perhaps even admire your plotting -- whatever the hell that is.

I'm fascinated, too, by how "concise" is so often translated to "simplistic".  In writing advice, in how-to books, and even in the revered Strunk & White, writers are told to be brief, leading to most choosing simplistic, that being the easiest lowest common denominator to reach by way of brevity.

Short and sweet, they think.  Hemingway wrote good.  He wrote short.  Short is good. 

Concise, though, means to the point, with complex aspects condensed to the most efficient delivery.  “I’m sorry this note is so long,” Lincoln once wrote to Grant; “I did not have time to make it shorter.”  He meant it. 

Boil things down, is another way to say it.  Reduce them to their essence.  From many ingredients, soup.  Cut to the chase, movie directors say.  State the gist and get out quick, briefers are advised.  (This stands somewhat in opposition to “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em; tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you just told ‘em,” but one must use bullet statements in each phase, so the gist becomes gristle for them to chew on and mull over.)

Oh, the metaphors.

Yet it is the same regardless how it’s said:  Be concise.  Not brief to the point of underinforming.  Not short the way Procrustes shortened things.  You can saw off what doesn’t fit but you then lose those parts.  Concise includes, brevity can exclude.

So being concise is not always the shortest way of saying something.  Efficient delivery of everything you wish to communicate is the goal. 

Clarity helps.  Being clear means using correct terms, the right words, and the proper vocabulary.  One does not wax erotic by being clinical.  For each notion there is a set of words best suited to express it.  Find those, use them, and avoid reiterating unless it serves the purpose.

We have all suffered from Triplicate Syndrome.  That is when a writer uses three synonyms rather than picking the best.  It is both lazy and a habit, the kind of crutch that reinforces the injury instead of letting it heal.  “His writing leaped, danced, spiraled from the page.”  Which was it?  This image seems, at first glance, vivid, alive, vibrant, but upon another look we see it is actually confused, muddled, cloudy.  Ahem.

Pick one.

Pick the best one.

Cut the rest.

Watch this:  “Don’t be negative,” he said, striving to be as brief as possible.  “State things in a positive way,” she retorted, being longer but clearer.

Phrasing things in a positive manner makes them stand out as clear actions.  Negative phrasing sets up a mental image in which an action must first be imagined, then nullified in some way.  It is complicated, which obscures the point.

Thou shalt not kill, we’re told, but not a word how to avoid it.  Frustration results.

In order to be concise, we must think through what we wish to communicate, reduce it to a clear image, find the right words to express it, and state it positively.  This requires time and work, and practice improves the needed skills.  Making fewer errors, and honing things to precision, reduces the need for rewriting, too; a bonus.

Finally, once we know what we are setting out to do, and how best to do it, we can play with it by, say, delaying resolution of a point or two until the end, gratifying ourselves and rewarding the astute reader.

Think twice, write once.

///  ///  ///

Friday, December 31, 2010

MMX: Walk Away

“MMX: Walk Away”

“He had slept, so perhaps this was some feverish nightmare, a dream-place where men killed and died for no reason he could see and each minute was spent in a starved, sightless silence, like animals far under the earth. Perhaps the moment of change had happened before then. Some other occasion when he fell asleep. Waking to the crimson sky of the drought. Waking to his new, hellish Memphis, ruined and gutted by a grief caused in the space of a day, an hour, a second. It seemed then that the world was a terrible, wounded place whose revolutions were driven by panic and madness more than love or reason. A directionless freefall toward something, maybe toward nothing. He no longer knew.  That night as he lay on the damp ground he wondered for the first time if there could ever be any return from this.” -- Robert Jackson Bennett, Mr. Shivers, Chapter 13, p.141-142, ¶5.


Burn the body to free the soul.
Bury the body to return to the soil.
Preserve the body to return to the world.
Display the body to return to the sky.
Sink the body to return to the sea.
Inhabit the body to experience time.


Last week the lunar eclipse fell on Winter Solstice. It won’t do that again ‘til 2094. That’s grandchildren’s time. Skies were clear; my youngest son and I saw Totality through bare tree branches. From darkness, light.

Yesterday afternoon, on a drive to stock up before a major storm might hit -- presuming they will prompts many such minor adventures -- I listened to the local classic rock station and it happened to play a quality list. “Levon”, “The Pretender”, and “Maybe I’m Amazed” -- song after song was a genuine classic, not merely a nostalgic gleam. Further, they were all serious in tone, with regret the most common theme. It seemed calculated to make someone my age look back in sadness at missed chances and sabotaged dreams. It also made me wonder how such young songwriters and performers had been so perceptive about what time would bring.

Surely music is better out from under corporate thumbs. It is probably that simple; those songs, primarily from the 1970s, were written by poets and artists who neither sold out nor came up through a mechanical Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building system. Today we see thugs like Simon Cowel drag music down to a financial and cynical story of promotion, exposure, and the crassest competition. To his ilk it’s a product for an industry to sell and exploit, nothing more. Expunged is artistry or individual expression that fails to serve the demographics research.

Sure, there remain real people making real music, but we don’t hear them much any longer, unless we attend local gigs all over the country, and who can afford that? We’re watching music go the way of poetry, into a state of near death in which its feeble pulse is maintained by a dedicated few who refuse to give it up. And even they write damned few of the old forms to any legitimate literary end.

Short fiction and probably soon novels, too, are also going the way of poetry. As fewer read short fiction, it becomes the new poetry, with anthologies and collections specialized and themed to appeal to prepared audiences. This has quite a few writers militating against it; Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones recently released Stories, a large anthology of just plain good stories, well-told and of no particular type. Great idea, superb fiction, and no one much outside the short story community noticed, despite a brief tagging of the bestseller list.

As for novels, they still sell, at least commercial novels sell, but genuinely quirky novels, never easy to place in the first place, are becoming impossible to find unless one can spot them disguised in genre costumes. Series, particularly movie tie-ins and franchise fiction, dominate; people want what’s familiar, not what’s new.

It is said a hack gives readers what they want while an artist gives them what they need. The former is focused on sales, the latter on artistic expression, and always the twain meet in commerce, where books are actually published, distributed, and sold.

We’re seeing this all change, however, with the advent, still small but growing, of digital reading platforms and digital fiction delivery systems. Suddenly the benefits of a publisher -- production of a competitive item and distribution through brick outlets and mortar shell flack advertising -- leap into each writer’s lap, or at least as far as his or her home computer.

A writer today can publish online, without benefit of copyeditor, literary editor, printer, packager, cover artist, designer, or any of the other hundreds of people who used to go into producing a physical book. Now, a writer can convert a manuscript to PDF and post it online, sell on one’s own web site, and accept the payments via PayPal. Advertising is limited by imagination only; go on Facebook or Twitter and chat up your new work, link the Amazon page for it to all your acquaintances’ web pages, and make a cool You Tube promotional video to get out the word. Soon self-publishing may be the main route for writing seeking readers.

We are returning to the days of individual, rather than corporate, imprints, when Caxton, Gutenberg, and Kelmscott were the only sources for what readers wanted. This makes it a free-for-all aspects of which troubadours would likely recognize. Strolling players, selling poems and satires by the line, peddling their stories by the telling, are about to begin wearing out their fingers instead of their feet. We’ll know them by their colorful camps as reliable word encourages like-minded writers to clump for mutual support and safety.

Soon we’ll go online and sift through fiction as we gradually fix upon our favorite sites so we can visit them more frequently and get the kind of writing we most want to read. The standard genre categories are likely to be used, but almost certainly local variants will imprint themselves upon styles and types. We’ll see the equivalent of generic rock become grunge or thrash metal, and we’ll see the basics such as Mystery, Science Fiction, Horror, Romance, and Erotica divide into coastal variants, perhaps, or city-specific tales, or new sub genres such as steampunk written expressly for left-handed blonde blue-eyed lesbian chefs who own rescue animals, or, more realistically, xtian right wing liberal-bashing science-hating revelation millennialism geared toward fat old white men afraid of shadows but addicted to the smell of money.

When the short story magazines began croaking in ever-increasing numbers, it was observed that one trend helping to kill them was specialization. Magazines had become so laser-beam focused on splinter audiences that any kind of miscellaneous fiction magazine simply struck too wide a stance. No one wanted to “wade through” stories they might not like just to find a few they might like well enough. Way safer to stick with publications entirely devoted to precisely what one likes: Overheated descriptions in purple prose of pale yellow pumpkins with stems curled with an Elvis-like panache, or kitten stories featuring only calicos with green eyes, snub noses, and curled, feathered tails.

Thing is, human beings are not as individual as they like to think, so the good news is, if you like something, chances are good others will too. With the gate keepers banished, the field is free to anyone who wants to run in and pitch a tent. By sheer luck others like you may well spot your flag and waddle over to hear your tales.

From darkness, light.

/// /// ///

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


Charles Stross on Steampunk:

Yuki Onna’s retort:

Amberite's take:


My take: It strikes me that this is precisely where SF has been heading all along. SF, especially Hard SF, the stringent kind afraid to stray too far from the periodic table of science elementalism, craves control out of fear. “No rules?” its adherents thunder, outraged. To them, if it ain’t scientific, it’s just senseless meandering.

Talk about fearful old grannies: It has always been a truism that no one is more conservative than SF writers, especially the hard sf writers. Fred Pohl reminisced how they wrote centuries ahead of contemporary times but dressed, talked, and voted decades behind.

Well, what do such conservatives always want? Safety. They demand deballed kid-lit safeness in their storytelling; plain, by-the-Strunk & White writing; controlled imaginary worlds where their spavined notion of science prevails and where irrationality is a sin.

Many liked this kind of cringe fiction. It masqueraded as forward-thinking. It strutted out its futurists. It bragged about its prophecies and awarded its seers, its prognosticators, and its imagineers. It had all the earmarks of geeks and nerds huddling with hurt feelings in their world-haters clubhouse, agreeing fervently that they were the elite, and the rest mere mundanes.

Trouble was, not all the clubhouse members were engineers and scientists. Could non-elite drones write SF too?

The debate has raged behind the walls of the world for decades now, incorporating such concepts as the Golden Age, the New Wave, and Cyberpunk. Utopia, dystopia, and other topos imprinted themselves on SF’s collective memoryhole event horizon. FTL, ETI, and TNSTAAFL joined GAFIA, FAFIA, and the Moscow Mafia as terms of the trade.

And lo, along came Tor's conception of Steampunk as a genre.

You KNOW a movement's dead when some corporate schmuck company makes a market category out of it.


Tor publishing is currently working hard to make Steampunk not description but market category. To this end, Tor is pushing second-rate crap as the genuine article. This is true to form for corporate thinking but makes some upset. (Think Pat Boone singing Chuck Berry or other examples of Gresham’s Law where bad latecomers push out good innovators.) Of those upset by Tor’s strong-arm move to force good fiction out with bad, some factions object that romanticizing the Victorian Age is to glorify imperialism, monarchism, and oppression of underclasses.

This is all part of Doyle’s Holmes appeal, too, incidentally. Some of us are nostalgic for a version of the bad old days that never existed. It’s like the movie version of the Old West, fun if you know it's malarkey, dangerous if you're all hat and try to make it real like that goofy cowboy President we had awhile ago.

Any time a new flavor of fiction is made by corporate interests into a market category -- as opposed to genre, which arises naturally and unplanned -- it is likely moribund.

There is usually a prime example, quintessential and pivotal, seminal and famous. It sets the tone and parameters. What follows is response.

That is what we’re seeing now from Tor, response.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was probably the progenitor of Steampunk as a market category, having been a best-seller and a lightning rod for much discussion of literary theory at the time, circa 1990. Yes, there are older examples, dating back in fact to Wells and Verne and running through K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, James P. Blaylock’s Homonculus, and Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates, but The Difference Engine coalesced all the features of a market category’s prime exemplar.

This does not affect me, by the way. I write what ever it is I write, which I’ve chosen to call Ficta Mystica, having looked back over my life's work and spotting certain themes. I am instructed, though, and entertained, by the debate over Steampunk because the whole process smacks of typical corporate bubble-and-bust promotional capitalism paralleled by deadly serious literary chit-chat aimed ultimately at making writing better. Tant mieux.

In short, Tor’s ploy is a scam for selling more books, sure. Of course it is, why else does a publishing company exist? No shame there.

However, the debate surrounding this is asking a deeper question: Is this good for writing or even for -- gasp -- literature? Once again, it is argued, writing genre fiction is shown to be absurd if one’s goal is anything beyond serving corporate commercialism. Sad but true; art is subsumed by commerce. It may delight and fulfill one to to write genre fiction but all publishing the stuff serves is Big Publishing.

Quietly, a few writers produce solid, quirky, individual work in the unnoticed, and unexploited, shadows. That is where true advances arise.

And sometimes such advancements inadvertently achieve big sales and much attention. When that happens, market categories may be spawned. The last big one stemmed from the del Rey invention of the “trilogy” when an old professor’s outdated book, so big it had to be published in three fat volumes to be easily manageable, hit it big. That was called The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, and spawned what we now call the Epic Fantasy market category.

Will Steampunk be as big a boon to the corporate publishing coffers?

As one of those quiet writers in the shadows, it doesn’t much matter to me. Steampunk’s fun. It cannot be genuinely serious, for reasons covered very well elsewhere, though that needn’t matter to any reader or writer. If Steampunk floats your dirigible, go for it.

The rest is Steambunk.

Or Zombies. Or Sparkly Vampires. Or...

/// /// ///

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

War Talk on Election Night MMX

Nowhere to go, no place to be.

On the seventh episode of the superb BOARDWALK EMPIRE on HBO, a soldier turned gangster, whose Princeton education was interrupted by WW I service, goes to a VA hospital for his wounded leg. He meets a guy with half his face shot off, who had served as a sharpshooter. Leg is reading so face offers him a book his family sent. It is a Tom Swift novel.

“Don’t you want it?” leg asks.

Face says, “Can’t read fiction anymore.”

“How come?”

“It occurred to me, the basis of fiction is that people have a connection. They don’t.”

It is a strikingly cold existentialist statement. It puts one in mind of Hemingway. Not that Hemingway ever showed such naked cynicism, but it was there, just under his ironic tone.

Turns out face lost his eye and half his face just after shooting and killing a German soldier, whose own bullet got lucky and hit the sharpshooter’s rifle. Further, face can still shoot, as a later “return of favor” scene shows.

BOARDWALK EMPIRE is based on a chapter from a history of Atlantic City, New Jersey. It focuses on the Prohibition days when the Volstead Act allowed gangs to flourish. Hard, cynical, and greedy men made war for as much as each could grab from the others. As usual, the people suffered while being told how blessed, patriotic, and exceptional they are. They swallow it every time.

A generation later, the deep cynicism of returning WW II vets would move post WW I’s hard-boiled fiction into noir cinema, where lost men in a totally corrupt world tried to stick to a personal code of honor for no good reason they could articulate. It was a kind of formula for producing tough prose: Go to war, be shattered, see through the bullshit, and come back to write as bluntly as possible. No more decadent excess to keep minds off reality. Those guys wrote to kill or be killed.

This is why the fiction of the Lost Generation and that of the Forties Film Flatfoots resonate today. We are like them. In both cases the veil of lies was torn and we got a glimpse of how bad things are when scum prevail, as they do so very often, being prone to cheating and theft, thuggery and murder. They operate in a landscape where politics is gangsterism and the rest is up for grabs. See that clearly and the toys get put away so the tools of economic and cultural war can be handled more effectively.

Plain writing for clear communication stems from writers who have seen where pretty distractions and cringing escapism allow the scum to go -- straight into power -- and take us -- straight to hell. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Sleep with one eye open. We know the watchwords. Why lull ourselves with nonsense when reality is so hostile?

It has always been this way. Go back further and you’ll find Twain and Bierce favoring direct writing over flowery crap. Twain was a deserter from and Bierce a veteran of the Civil War, which created cynics as fast as it created widows and orphans. Go back further still and you’ll find more wars. There is always a war of one kind or another, thanks to the sociopaths always harrying us. We each have a war that shapes us.

My war was cultural and economic, in the 1970s, in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania. Back then it was called coal country. Mountain hick gnomes with immigrant names and often accents, too, who dug the deep seams for steel in Pittsburgh, were scraping out a living in the most depressed region of the country. Then big steel moved overseas and the railroads were no longer needed. Everything dried up. Bruce Springsteen’s album THE RIVER summed it up so the nation could move on in good conscience, having shed a crocodile tear for us.

We who were stuck there were left strangely uncomforted.

An economic war against the people, waged by corporations with no national or human allegiance, devastated our lives. It destroyed my father and so many others. We learned then economics was a war, with weapons, killings, and deaths. Consequences of greed, short-term profit frenzy, and zero-sum cutthroat business-as-usual haunted our every moment. Poverty dogged us.

My scars run deep.

My writing tends to be terse.

Now that I and my family have once again voted the connection between war and how one writes makes sense to me. I write this as I watch the latest economic and cultural war again devastate the people for the benefit and amusement of the corporate rich and I only hope to stick to my code of honor, craft, and art. The connection now makes clear for me where my abiding anger comes from, as it builds toward fury at what the scum have done to us, and how I must use that tempered steel. I will write.

Write to kill or be killed.

Nothing less counts.

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