Category Archives: Atoms for Peace

2018 was not the year I anticipated

So out of 103 goals of varying complexity and importance, I accomplished 53 percent of them. That’s consistent with my performance for 2016 and 2017. As I don’t give myself any rewards for achieving them, I’m satisfied with the percentage. I set my list high, after all (rewards make a good incentive, but it’s hard to find something I wouldn’t do for myself or buy for myself anyway).

The bad news is that my creative output really fell way short of my aspirations. My top goal was to finish Southern Discomfort and submit it; didn’t happen. I wanted to finish four short stories; I didn’t manage any. I only occasionally pitched nonfiction pieces to any markets. I didn’t finish the Undead Sexist Cliches book.

The main reason was that my steady freelance gigs got in the way. Which is not a bad thing—I made well above my writing income goals for the year—but working on Leaf articles and Screen Rant took a lot of time. Particularly as the minimum Screen Rant listicle got longer and some of the topics got further away from my areas of expertise (like finding 17 secrets about the Nick TV show Victorious). Even though Screen Rants are fun and they gave me a chance to play with my writing style, I gave up the gig in the summer; it was just consuming too much of my writing week and Leaf, while duller, paid better.

I have learned from this. It’s the main reason I haven’t started submitting one nonfiction proposal in my files to publishers yet: I think it would just consume too much time and I’d like to do a lot more fiction in 2019.

I did self-publish the paperback edition of Atlas Shagged and Atoms for Peace, though, and I’m quite pleased with them. And I stuck to my goal of only checking email three times a day during work. And I finally got around to putting a PayPal donation link in the sidebar. Oh, and it occurs to me I don’t even bother setting any goals about staying as a full-time writer: barring disaster (which can’t be eliminated of course) it seems like I’m secure in that path.

In nonwriting goals, I kept the bird feeder filled, used sunscreen regularly when walking the dogs or bicycling and bicycled almost once every week (even discounting the weeks the weather didn’t permit it, I didn’t make the cut, but I’m doing better than last year). I called my elected officials off and on, and wrote them a couple of times, though I doubt it did much good (nor blogging about their pathetic performance). I traveled outside Durham several times, mostly with TYG (Mystacon was a solo act, on the other hand) and I got to see my brother and niece in October at my dad’s 90th birthday shindig.

Goals aside, it was a good year (not counting the frequent train wrecks emanating from President Shit-Gibbon). I snuggled with dogs and TYG, spent more social time than last year with friends, read a bunch of books and watched a lot of movies. I hung out more with the neighbors on our cul-de-sac and kept my weight to a reasonable level (not so much this past week, but that’s normal). I turned sixty and threw myself a birthday party (usually it’s just me and TYG). I enjoyed seeing my family (it’s not like they’re just a checkmark on a list) and catching up with my niece for the first time since she became an adult.

Next year I intend to keep having fun. But with more fiction. Details tomorrow.

Happy new year everyone.

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Fall weather, falling asleep, finishing stories

It’s been beautiful outside most of this week. I took an hour bike ride Sunday, and a shorter ride Thursday, relishing the cool air, the sunlight through the trees, all of it. The kind of weather that I mentally associate with returning to school, which gives me a nice feeling of cool new things coming down the pike.

On the downside, DST ended this week, and as usual that wreaked havoc with my sleep (which as regular readers may remember is poor even at the best of times). Normally I have trouble getting back to sleep if I wake after 3:30 AM, as a part of me feels it’s too close to time to get up. After the time change, 2:30 AM is the same as 3:30 AM was the week before. My brain has not accepted I still have lots of time before I need to get up. Not good.

Work, though, went well. I began rereading Southern Discomfort aloud, from hard copy, to spot any final mistakes, bad word phrases, etc.. It’s going well, and I’m pleased with the work so far. but it’s also going to be slower than I’d hoped. Ninety thousand words is a lot to read aloud, even without the corrections.

And I’ve worked out the problems in No One Can Slay Her. If I can print it up this weekend, I’ll read it aloud next week. Putting in hard copy works for me because it feels final. Reading it aloud forces me to pay attention.

Leaf work for the year is winding down, but I still had some to do this week. That kept me from getting a lot done on Undead Sexist Cliches.

I’m doing my 1,000 words of fiction every morning, but I’m now wondering about my approach. I’ve turned out first drafts of several stories, unfinished first drafts of possibly longer works, and second drafts of some, but I don’t feel like I’m getting close to finishing anything or even seeing the finished structure. That’s frustrating. I’ve abandoned enough unsuccessful projects that I’m always afraid I’m putting a lot of time that will accomplish nothing.

Wisp is using and presumably enjoying her little house on our deck. She’s usually waiting when I bring out food. Sometimes waiting a while as she doesn’t realize 5pm feeding is now an hour later than a week ago. Sometimes she sits on the railing and watches me through the window as I get the food — or she’s staring at the bird feeder above the window.

Oh, and I’m actually selling copies of Atoms for Peace, which is cheering. Not that I’m going to knock Patrick Rothfuss off the bestseller lists, but it’s cool to know people are buying it (thanks, whoever you are).

On a personal note, I unfollowed one right-winger among my FB friends, and “took a break” from another. Every time I do, I find the satisfaction of not dealing with their bullshit easily outweighs any concerns I might miss a charming puppy GIF.

And here’s another example of a wine with a striking label. Haven’t tried it (anything above $20 is usually a no-go for me)f, but I do like the look.

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Story Behind the Story: Cover Stories

Writing the final story in Atoms for Peace posed the same problem as Who Watches the Watchmen. I was still planning to start Brain From Outer SpaceInstruments of Science with the events in so I didn’t want to advance the timeline any further. I was figuring how to do that, and then I thought of Kurt Busiek’s and Alex Ross’s Marvels.

Marvels tells the story of the Marvel Universe through the eyes of Phil, a photojournalist. He witnesses the debut of the Human Torch in the Golden Age. Years later, he’s in New York, working for the Bugle, when the Silver Age is in full swing. He sees the Avengers battle the Masters of Evil, the Sentinels hunting mutants, the arrival of Galactus and Spider-Man’s failed attempt to save Gwen Stacey from death. But he’s seeing it as an outsider, a regular guy. He has no idea what’s going on in the heroes’ minds, what mutants are really like, or exactly how the Fantastic Four defeated Galactus.

Yeah, I said to myself, that would work. Show life as a Science Investigator from an outside viewpoint, rather than the people who sleep, breathe and eat the fight against rogue science. The protagonist of Cover Stories became Cassie Sato (sister to FBI agent Harry Sato), freelance journalist. Atlanta is doing some big celebration of Gwen Montgomery’s father so Cassie pitched the Atlanta Journal a profile on “Mile High” Montgomery’s daughter, the science investigator. We open with Cassie along with Steve and Gwen on an investigation that turns nasty. Then she gets to talk to Claire, Dani, visit the local nightclub the Tower of Mordor, get Gwen’s thoughts on why she does what she does and watch the other agents at work (“A couple of desks down, a fat guy nicknamed Slim flipped through a file about a lab in Ojai that had dissolved overnight. His partner, an Italian woman named DiNaldi, was trying to calm a hysterical leather-jacketed teenager claiming his “chick” had only broken up with him because she’d been mind-controlled.”)

Cassie turned out nowhere near as tough as Dani or Gwen. Which is cool; not everyone’s suited for the front lines of a war. She’s a competent writer, dogged in getting the story, more than a little claustrophobic. Talking to Gwen and Steve in Science Investigations underground base makes her more than a little nervous.

And there my saga ends until I try to replot Brain From Outer Space and get it right.

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Story Behind the Story: Who Watches the Watchmen?

So along with the 10 Atoms for Peace stories published on Big Pulp, I sold them two stories that never went up (they paid, I’m not complaining). Who Watches the Watchmen? and Cover Stories see daylight for the first time in Atoms for Peace.

The central character of Watchmen, Kate Meara, wasn’t even in my early drafts of Brain From Outer Space. Instead, I had the head of TSC security, Falconi, taking an interest in the suspicious nature of what was going on, and whether it implied Steve was corrupt or a ceecee (carbon copy, an alien duplicate of the real Steve). A couple of drafts later, it occurred to me that having the head of a national organization watching this one case — they had no way to know how important it was — didn’t make sense. I turned it over to his assistant, a heavyset (Camryn Mannheim is the physique I have in mind) Irish-American woman. Then I wondered why I even needed Falconi. Eventually I dropped him and made Meara the head of just the one base’s security, which made it more plausible she’d have time to focus on Steve.

When I started writing the Atoms for Peace stories, my unconscious asserted itself. Instead of the hefty, motherly-looking woman, I suddenly saw her as small, bony, younger, and plain (“horse-faced” is the adjective some people use). And in a wheelchair. Which was a good idea of my unconscious, I think; while I show several people with scars or prosthetics walking through the story, I didn’t have any in lead roles. Though I decided rather than a victim of some invasion or mecha, Meara had lost the use of her legs due to polio.

As the previous 10 stories took us up to the start of Brain From Outer Space, I didn’t want to go past the time of Instruments of Science. So I told Meara’s story from 1955 up to the “present.” At the start, she’s at low ebb. Boston-born daughter of union leader “Big Mike” Meara, she’s bright, capable, does a lot of office work for dad, plays chess with Senator John F. Kennedy when he visits (Big Mike delivers a lot of labor votes). However she’s married to a faithless cheat, separated but can’t get an annulment, as hubby is in tight with the diocese. JFK, who was instrumental in setting up the Technology and Science Commission, suggests a fresh start: work as the assistant to Donovan, security head of the TSC’s southwestern branch. Kate accepts; if only because it gets her out of Boston winters. And the new Veterans Access Act guarantees the base will have ramps and elevators — after all the craziness of the Invasion and the kaiju, the need for an ADA-style law became obvious.

In California she meets the stiff-necked Donovan who warns her security must be totally detached. No friends. Nothing to compromise your objectivity. She meets Johnny, a handsome young man Donovan hired to push her wheelchair around (she quickly explains she’d rather steer herself), and Nate Strawn, the chief of Science Investigations. And over the next four years, deals not only with conventional security risks but the growing threat of ceecees and alien mind-controllers. When the threats get personal, it turns out Kate has more friends than she realizes …

I think Kate turned out well as a character. She’s an enthusiastic, skilled chess player who interprets life in chess terms, hates smoking (too bad she’s living in a time when tobacco is everywhere), and while it’s only alluded to briefly, is part of a small disabled community. Unlike most of my cast, as she’s a good Catholic and still married, she’s chaste. I know “disabled people are sexless” is a stereotype, but it felt right (I do establish she’s able to “perform the act,” as they used to say). If not, my bad.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, copyright is mine.

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Story Behind the Story: Instruments of Science

In hindsight, the tenth story in Atoms for Peace is an odd duck.

This is the one I wrote as the first chapter of Brain From Outer Space, so I originally conceived it as introducing readers to this world. It’s a morning Science Investigations briefing at the southwest branch of the Technology and Science Commission; Nate Strawn hands out the assignments, mostly dealing with a new panic about “ceecees” (carbon copies, AKA pod people). Sure they’ve had panics before, but learning the ETs this time were actually marrying human women? Real scary!

This serves to set up the premise, plus introduce Steve (fully recovered from Roboticus breaking his arm), Gwen, Jo and Trueblood, plus a couple of other agents to round things out (I never want to write undifferentiated crowds of supporting characters). There are also some rogue science cases to deal with: strange lights outside a desert shack, an attempted theft of Edward Teller’s notes for a super-bomb (in this timeline, knowing the horrible effects of radioactive mutation, the H-bomb never got into development), a werewolf in a girl’s dormitory, some prostitutes apparently being used as guinea pigs. And several impossible deaths at a high powered commercial laboratory in Yuma. Steve and Gwen get assigned that one.

The odd part is that this is the 10th story in the book, so nobody really needs an introduction to any of this. I rewrote the story to eliminate any info-dumping readers would already know and approached it as showing a typical day for Science Investigators. As such, I think it worked.

Dani only appears off-camera, talking to Steve on his wrist-radio. In the original chapter one we got to see her day, but that made things a little too crowded for a 5,000-word story. I cut that, and cut a scene with the Science Police setting up the main plotline. I also dropped a reference to Steve finally finding a lead on his missing brother Tommy.

All of which means I’ll need a new opening chapter for Brain if I want it to be continuous with Atoms for Peace (and I do) as I’ve pruned out all the hooks that would lead the reader onward. Still, I think Instruments of Science works as a short, perhaps better than in the book, so I can’t complain.

Big Pulp accepted last two stories, which I’ll get to over the next couple of weeks, but never posted them, so Who Watches the Watchmen and Cover Stories will give you something you can’t get on the website.

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Story Behind the Story: Mayhem Ex Machina

I conceived the ninth story in Atoms for Peace to lay the groundwork for the Steve/Dani relationship in Brain From Outer Space. Specifically, as they’ve been together for several years, and they’re in love, why aren’t they married?

Of course there’s lots of reasons that could be the case, but I took the one that promised the most conflict: Steve’s proposed, Dani’s said no. She still wants to be with him, and she’s not saying she’ll never, ever say yes, but every time he asks, it’s no. Partly that’s because Steve wants them both off the front lines, so they can live to raise children, and Dani likes her work as a medic. Partly classism: she’s upper-class Boston and Steve’s blue collar. Dani’s not entirely sure she wants to get married at all, but she’s very sure she doesn’t want to break up with Steve. So they’re a couple, but with a big elephant in the room. My original plan for the novel would have her say the L word by the ending, but not the M word.

In Mayhem Ex Machina Steve proposes for the first time and Dani panics. She can’t say yes, but will he end things if she says no? The story shows (I hope) that they make a good couple (I think Blood and Steel already showed that) and that Steve respects what she does: when she has to make a triage decision to help someone else, he understands.

But of course this is a series about my heroes battling 1950s SF-movie-style menaces, so I needed a menace. I’d included a scene in Brain where Gwen deactivates a robot threatening a black LA neighborhood, and initially decided to work it into this story as the B plot. Only when I looked at the scene, it came across very White Savior-ish, so I decided no. Instead I brought back FBI agents Harry Satao and Mickey Moon from Hunting Hidden Faces and switched the setting to LA’s Little Tokyo. And rather than a robot built with a white supremacist agenda, I reinvisioned him as a well-meaning idiot. In his big scene, he tells Mickey and Harry that yes, he built a super-robot (modeled on the ET tech from the film Kronos) without any research permit because the government just wouldn’t let him have one. But his ideas were so awesome, he just couldn’t pass them up! He’s raised the robot as a kind of surrogate son, but unfortunately his little boy has run away and it’s getting into trouble. And here come Dani and Steve, wandering right into its path …

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Story Behind the Story: Not In Our Stars But In Ourselves

As I’ve mentioned before, my protagonists in Atoms for Peace are a lot less racist than they’d probably be in the real world. In some vague gesture of realism, one of the leads in Not In Our Stars, Not in Ourselves, is a good deal more bigoted.

L.G. “Elegy” Walker was born in East Jesus, Kentucky, grew up poor white, but by 1958, he’s a mid-level official at Cape Canaveral. The space program, a joint US/USSR effort, is about to launch humanity’s first lunar mission (reverse-engineering alien ships has jump-started space flight). Walker has remade himself into a calm, accomplished professional. He’s shrewd about who to kiss up to and who he can safely ignore, and intensely career focused. Like a lot of people who know what it’s like to have nothing, he’s a little intense about not losing what he has, hence security officer Valentina Eisenstein nicknamking him Elegy.

Despite the changes in him, the racism Walker grew up with is alive and well in him. He’s able to accept that a few blacks can be as good as a white man (there are black astronauts in the program), but they’re the exception. When ‘s framed for murder, the horror isn’t the murder but the supposed motive: he had a black lover, she got pregnant so he killed her to avoid scandal. The thought that people might think he’d crossed the color line, the thought that his parents or the other folks back home might believe it … his brain pretty much shuts down with horror.

Fortunately Eisenstein’s brain is working. A WW II Soviet sniper turned security officer, she identifies with Elegy in a way; they’ve both had to work and fight to get their present position. She knows he wouldn’t take a black lover, or one who was bottom-drawer of the working class (that’s what he’s running away from). But can she prove it? And given that he’s not really anyone important, what possible motive could anyone have for the frame?

I really like Eisenstein. She’s smart, capable, smokes a pipe (it keeps men off balance, which is useful for a security officer), and hates life in Florida with its head, humidity and lack of culture. I’d love to use her in Brain From Outer Space but I doubt I can work her in.

This was the first story in the series I wrote after moving to Durham, and the writer’s group helped a lot, straightening out some plot points. Thanks, y’all!

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Story Behind the Story: The Mind That Wanted the World

Story seven in Atoms for Peace, The Mind That Wanted the World, is the one that required the most changes.

In Brain From Outer Space, the bad guy was Torgo, an alien mind-creature Steve and Gwen had confronted a couple of years before. As the point of the Applied Science series on Big Pulp was to create a backstory for the book, telling the story of their first encounter with Torgo — inspired, but not based on, the villain in Brain From Planet Arous — was a natural for one chapter.

Unlike most aliens, Torgo’s not an evil envoy from an evil world, he’s a crook from a good world, or at least as good as Earth. That’s an advantage against the good guys: he favors cunning, subtlety and blackmail over brute force and ray weapons. Like the alien brain in Arous, Torgo finds having a body capable of physical sensation stimulating. In the movie, the brain-possessed John Agar attempts to rape his fiancee; in my story, Torgo does. He also has a dungeon full of kidnapped sex slaves, both sexes, as from his alien perspective it doesn’t matter which gender his partners are (only one woman shows up as a prisoner in Mind, but Brain establishes his tastes are broader).

So the opening scene is one woman telling Steve that her boyfriend has raped her, although she can’t bring herself to use the word. Steve, perpetual hater of bullies, is ready to bust the guy; Gwen, however dismissed the rape in the original version. Gwen was usually smarter and saw things clearer than anyone else; I thought it might be interesting to make her dead wrong for a change, representing the era’s outdated attitudes towards rape.

Going over the story for Atoms for Peace I found that didn’t work for me. After a year of #metoo, having one of my protagonists toss off standard rape-apology lines about how the woman was over-reacting, and just felt guilty about going all the way … it left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. And I realized that I could make Gwen wrong even without that. In the book’s rewrite, she informs Steve that rape doesn’t prove Professor Caldwell is an alien; lots of respectable men turn into brutes when they get the chance. And if it’s not ET-related, they have no authority to take action (the woman has refused to call the police). Same result but a lot less repellent to read.

As revised, it remains one of my favorites in the twelve short stories. Atoms for Peace is available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook (and someone just bought the ebook, woot!). #SFWApro, cover by Zakaria Nada. All rights to poster remain with current holder.

 

 

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Story Behind the Story: Hunting Hidden Faces

I wonder if Hunting Hidden Faces, the sixth story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook), doesn’t work better in book form than as one short story in a series.

The first five stories were all interconnected, but they could pretty much stand on their own. This one is a lead-in to number seven, The Mind That Wanted the World, so it’s Part One of Two. It’s also much more a setting story  than plot or character driven. It has several different subplots and a larger cast than usual, which I used to explore the alternate timeline.

It’s 1957, and America knows that along with physical invasions, we have to worry about pod people, aliens who appear to be perfectly human, but aren’t. As I don’t want to infringe on Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, my terms are ceecees (carbon copy people) and pups (people controlled by alien puppet masters). The burden of investigating potential ceecee and pup cases (“My girlfriend would never have broken the engagement if she was still human!”) falls on Science Investigations because nobody wants the work.

Just as our 1950s had investigators hunting down Communists and gays in government (check out the excellent The Lavender Scare to learn more on the latter), so Steve and Gwen, along with their colleagues have to hunt down whoever gets the TSC’s Senate overlords upset. Reds, gays, beatniks, civil-rights activists. Just to see if maybe they’re really outside agitators from way, way outside. It’s a waste of time, mostly, but it keeps the politicians happy.

Against this backdrop I introduced several new characters. Jo Davies is a British detective who moved out to the US after a nervous breakdown from one particularly nasty ET case. Her partner, Trueblood, is a “wolf” as they used to call guys who hit on women non-stop. He’s also psychic, a little: the LSD agents take (if they’re pupped, the puppeteer won’t be able to keep control when they’re acid-tripping) opened the doors of perception, giving him occasional flashes.

Harry Sato and Mickey Moon are FBI agents working for the Science Police. It’s a new branch that specializes in criminals using high-tech weapons or stolen alien artifacts. It overlaps some with Science Investigations, which is intentional; the FBI heads don’t want the new agency stealing too much of their thunder. J. Edgar Hoover is no longer in charge, having died in the Martian invasion. That will keep the agency from becoming quite as monstrous as it did in our timeline.

Mickey is a tall Texas drink of water. He’s clean-cut, straight arrow and saving himself for marriage. Harry is Nisei (first generation Japanese-American), a former resident of the WW II internment camps and later a member of the Nisei battalions in WW II. He’s older and little savvier than Mickey. He’s gay, but it doesn’t figure into the story at all; I want to work it into Brain From Outer Space but I’m not sure how yet.

Like I said, it’s a little aimless compared to most of this collection, but I think it’s still interesting and readable.

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Story Behind the Story: Blood and Steel

Blood and Steel is the fifth story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook), pitting Steve and Dani against an army of killer robots (somewhat more substantial than the illustration, and Dani’s not fighting in her nightgown). The robots were supposed to be part of a National Guard war game, testing their robot-fighting techniques. But something’s gone wrong and people are dying …

One of the challenges in writing these short stories is that when I conceived the characters in The Brain From Outer Space, I didn’t have to go into the details of their backstory. I knew Steve and Dani met during the Invasion (the Martian invasion, that is, but even years later, that’s the one that gets capitalized) and had a one-night stand. They met again when they were both working in California, Steve for the TSC, Dani for the National Guard. I didn’t have to go into detail on either encounter.

Now, though, I was writing the second meeting. I had to explain why they’d walked away from each other back in Boston even though they had a connection. And I had to make meeting each other again feel real; even though they’d had other lovers since, I had to convey that they meant something to each other, that the night they’d spent together had meant something. And that there was enough between them to keep them together after that. Fortunately, my best friend Cindy Holbrook is a former Regency romance author, so I trust her judgment that I got the emotional side right.

I also didn’t want to have Steve, or Steve and Dani, single-handedly save the day. Not that I object to characters who can; I’ve written several. But I like the idea that in this setting Steve isn’t the hero, that the other Science Investigators are perfectly capable of handling things. As a female National Guard medic, Dani’s more unusual, but she can’t do it alone either. For whatever reason, in this series that works for me. So I had to show them both getting a share of the action, contributing to the fight, but not  defeating the bad guy on their lonesome.

Rereading it as I proofed this volume, I felt very pleased with my work.

#SFWApro. Fantastic Adventures cover by Harold McCauley, courtesy of wikimedia. Cover is out of copyright. Atoms For Peace cover by Zakaria Nada, copyright is mine.

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