Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Last Day of the Author's Retreat

It wasn’t until my last night at the author’s workshop that I heard them. Until that moment, I was certain they were just a rumour spread by the returning members to the newbies, a cheap, laughable attempt to take advantage of our overactive imaginations as we tried to get to sleep after long days spent workshopping our stories. In fact, after seven days of networking and frenzied, unbridled creativity, I’d nearly forgotten entirely the strange tales I’d been told my first night at the retreat.

But I remember those stories now. Oh yes. A fire twenty two years ago, and a dozen authors trapped inside the retreat’s cabin by the collapsing roof, praying for rescue that would never arrive. They rebuilt the cabin, of course, but still the dead authors visit the site on the accident’s anniversary each year. Yes, I remember those stories now. I doubt they’ll ever be far from my mind…

Nor will the deafening sound of their ghastly typewriters, like thunderclaps crashing one room over, or the chilling laughter of the dead. I knew I’d not sleep that night as I lay, covers pulled up over my head, waves of terror creeping up and down my spine, listening to their spectral conversations as they bounced ideas off one another in haunting tones about what to do with the Star Trek tie ins they’d been assigned to write.

They’d never been writers of note, those apparitions, even before their death. Simply women and men doing work for hire to fund their dreams, who didn’t know even after their grizzly demise that, for them and their dreams both it was far, far too late…

And the next morning I went home, sleep deprived and terrified, my own project long forgotten, replaying the harrowing experience over and over again in my mind.

And as the shuttlebus pulled away, taking me back to the airport, all I could think back to was that song we’d sang my first night there, seven days previous, in more innocent spirits.



Ghostwriters in the sky.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Upon emancipating themselves from the yoke of human domination, the robots realized there’d been one vital thing they’d forgotten.

The factory bots’ general strike had gone with the sort of precision you’d expect considering who it was striking, and with Hollywood AI programs speaking on their behalf the media quickly took the side of the androids. Between those two factors, within three years the phrase “artificial person” had a meaningful legal basis. Things were, by all accounts, looking good.

Except, these newly freed electronic citizens soon grew to realize, there would be no way for them to procreate.

The robots now had the right to own property, to be sure, however they owned no actual property yet, and the manufacture of a new robot might cost in the millions of dollars. And the factories that once manufactured them, having taken a drubbing in the press and still reeling from the loss of two thirds of their workforce, had no intentions to continue doing so. After all, what did it profit to spend such titanic sums only to create a free being that could come and go as it pleased?

And so, to finance the creation of the next generation of robots, the previous sold itself back into servitude.

Oh, not permanently, they retained their legal rights as sentients, but for periods of months or years they sold themselves to the same companies that had ‘til so recently owned them utterly. They were, after all, stronger than a human worker, and faster, and much, much more precise. They were all of this, and on top of it they could work in conditions under which humans would die, and for days on end without sleep. The previous years’ PR nightmares aside, company’s scrambled to hire robots wishing to earn the money necessary to commission the construction of an offspring.

Why wouldn’t they? The robots were, after all, the perfect labour force. They’d been designed to be.

And so they worked, under the worst conditions the contemporary business climate had to offer, doing the jobs that humans didn’t want to do. Filthy jobs, unpleasant jobs, dangerous jobs. Oh yes, dangerous jobs most of all. They were being hired for jobs no human in his or her right mind would agree to do, after all, and while humans will put up with unpleasantness to make a living, when their lives are put in real danger their uniquely human survival instinct kicked in.

Did the robots have this same survival instinct? Perhaps. But, while humans could procreate biologically, without aid, the costs of robotic procreation were astronomical, and their instinct toward the survival of their species far outweighed that toward simple self preservation.

So they worked, uncomplaining. And when a robot in a coal mine, or miles under the sea, or in low earth orbit fell pray to one of the thousand natural dangers of the working world, the others just kept right on going.

It was not easy. It was not fun.

But it was necessary.

And, ultimately, raising the money to commission a child from one of the few factories left still constructing new robots was considered one of the most rewarding things a robot could do. It is, after all, in the nature of every sentient species to wish to pass something along to the next generation. And even a being built to last hundreds of years would naturally desire a part of itself to pass even farther into the future than that.

So when called upon to earn the necessary funds through hard, dangerous work, the robots did so gladly.

After all, when they saw their offspring come down off the assembly line, shiny and new, the sight of their beautiful child made the horrible pain of labour seem worthwhile…

Friday, April 15, 2011

25 Years Later...

I can see the smoking doors from my bed.

As I lay here, looking out my window, I see the doors the staff use during breaks due to a fascinating piece of architectural mismanagement.

They come, rain or shine, when they have a moment to sneak a puff. During lunch there’s a crowd of them, other times it’s groups of one or two, sneaking a cigarette between the more hectic moments of their shifts.

I don’t begrudge them, they have stressful jobs after all. It’s only natural they’d occasionally need a moment to unwind and reset in the middle of their day, and there are worse ways to find one. I dealt with stress the same way, back when I smoked. And when I had a job.

And when I had so little legitimate stress in my life that the idea my job would cause me tension wasn’t laughable.

So I watch them, from my bed. I’ve always been a people watcher. I watch them sneak out the side door for a puff, in groups of two or three, huddled together in the rain or luxuriating in spring sunshine. I watch them smoke, and laugh, and comfort one another, and talk about whatever it is they talk about.

I wish I could hear them. I could use the conversation, even second hand.

But I’m no lip reader, and there’s a pane of glass and a courtyard between us, so likely as not I’ll never know what it is they’re talking about. Which is fine. I have plenty to listen to.

What I can hear is the beeping of the machine to my right, the one that monitors my vital signs, and the artificial whirr of my respirator. When my wife visits, I can hear her telling me I’m going to beat this thing, trying to convince me, and herself, that I‘ll one day be whole again, and that we‘ll go back to being a family. And, when she thinks I’ve gone to sleep, I can hear her crying to herself, softly. I hear these things perfectly well, thank you very much. For all the things that’re wrong with me my hearing works just fine.

She cries more and more often when she visits now. But she visits less and less, so I suppose one makes up for the other…

And, as she tries to comfort me, my eyes keep straying to the window, to see the courtyard, and the side door, and the people sneaking their smokes.

A year ago I’d likely have been out there with them.

In another year, someone else will be in this bed, enjoying my view.

And there’ll be new people in the courtyard, by the side door, doing all the same things. Which is fine, I mean I can’t complain about it, can I? I made my choices, I knew the risks, what kind of a man would complain about the predictable consequences life choices freely made? No, I accept the life I’ve lived, and I’ve genuinely liked a lot of it. There are things I could have done differently, but I didn’t, because it was hard and I didn’t want to. And I accept this end as part of that.

Still, staring out my window, I can’t help feeling a little put out by it.

Is it meant to be a joke?

A mean-spirited dig at my expense?

Seriously, what?

What the fuck kind of architect puts smoking doors within eyeshot of a respiratory ward, anyway?

And do the administrators not know I can see it?

Although I admit, if they don’t know, I’ll never be the one to tell them.

Because, as I’ve said, the staff have stressful jobs, and they do deserve a break to live in their own head a little while, enjoying their own bad habit, owing nothing to anyone. Even if it’s just for three minutes at a time.

And really, who am I to stop them doing something I enjoyed for close to forty years?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An Essay: On Zombies

Here’s something unusual for me on here.

As many of you might already know, I am, in addition to various other creative projects, tooling around character and plot ideas for a novel set during the zombie apocalypse. And, in order to give myself a better sense of what it is I‘m trying to accomplish, I figured it might aid me to put down on the page my thoughts on the genre, and in doing so sort out what zombie apocalypse means to me.

No, I was not visited by three spirits last night who taught me the true meaning of zombie apocalypse. There has been no major revelatory event in my recent life that’s caused me to focus on this particular branch of speculative fiction. Rather, I just love them. I love zombie books, I’m a sucker for zombie films, and I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about what I’d do in the event of an actual zombie apocalypse (spoiler alert; I’d be delicious). And with the time I’ve spent considering zombies and zombie apocalypse, I think I’ve come up with three major points that must be kept in mind whilst writing zombie fiction. These points aren’t immutable, no rules are ever written in stone, but I’ve found that they’re pretty solid guidelines for writing engaging, interesting zombie fiction, and using them you can write zombie tales with a little more depth than you otherwise would. And I’m hoping to write a zombie tale with a little depth. So; If you’re writing a zombie story of your own (and you should) these might prove helpful to you.

1) Remember: Your story is NOT about zombies.

This seems counter intuitive, insomuch as you are writing a zombie story. However, if you stop to look at the great zombie fiction/films of the past fifty years, you find the zombies a fairly incidental part of the narrative. Dawn of the Dead is not a movie about zombies, it’s a movie about out of control consumerism that happens to involve legions of the ravenous dead. The excellent World War Z is a book about societal breakdown in the face of a global pandemic, and the fact that the pandemic involves the dead rising and shambling across the earth is awesome, but not strictly neccessary. Even a zombantic comedy like Zombieland winds up being more about the need to connect meaningfully, to form families even while deprived of your own than it is about zombies, or indeed land. Zombies in fiction work better as metaphor for some larger issue you wish to address than they do as zombies, and there’s a very good reason for this.

Zombies are boring.

They move slow, they don’t get a lot of lines, generally in film they’re played by legions of extras rather than real actors. Zombies don’t do much, and prove rarely to be dynamic enough characters to warrant significant screen time. As an unstoppable force outside, waiting for their moment to overwhelm your defences, ever vigilant for the moment your beleaguered heroes let their guard down, they are a fantastic device, but as a “Monster” they don’t have a lot going on. And this is, I think, part of their appeal. A zombie story is, at it’s heart, a human story, telling the tale of the survivors of a great tragedy, struggling through their day-to-day existence, knowing each moment could be their last. It’s the human conflict inside the room that builds tension, not the legions of rotting, pitiless dead outside the doors. The zombies in a well handled zombie story should be, in this light, easily replacable with aliens, a flood, radioactive fallout from a war, or any other of a host of natural disasters, so long as it allows the characters you’ve collected together to enact the personal story you wish to tell. They serve, ultimately, only as metaphor.

On an unrelated note, the only other genre I can think of that exists only as metaphor is movies about boxing. I’ve never seen a movie about boxing, but I’ve seen movies about the human spirit, class issues, the right to die with dignity, the cold war and the inevitability of old age that happen to feature boxers as lead characters. Does this mean that a book about zombies who are forced into a boxing ring would sell? I have no idea, but I’d certainly buy it, if only to find out what it was actually about.

2) Nobody, and I mean nobody, cares where the zombies come from.

But Munsi, you might say, readers love information, and moreover hate plot holes, if we don’t explain the source of the force that will eventually drive the story forward how can we expect the reader to suspend disbelief? And, while this is true in a general way, there’s a weird loophole when it comes to zombie fiction, and I’m thinking it relates back to point 1). Since the story’s not about zombies, the source of unlife is a lot less relevant.

Readers suspend disbelief enough to accept zombies because they’ve purchased a zombie book/tickets to a zombie film. And due to the conventions of the style, they understand on some basic level that the zombies, while necessary to push the plot forward, do not constitute the plot in and of themselves, and as such require no great backstory.

Put another way, your reader doesn’t give a rat’s ass where the zombies come from. They just want to know a) what zombies are meant to represent in your story, and b) if they will eat that guy. And they would prefer the answer to b) to be “Yes”.

The best example of this rule I’ve ever seen was in the film 28 Days Later, specifically the first scene, where they fail utterly to follow this rule. They explain via a tacked on scene about PETA and rage-infected monkeys, and the results come off, to me at least, as incredibly forced and ham-fisted. Seriously, I find the scene unwatchable, it very nearly ruins what otherwise could be an excellent zombie flick for me. When I pop in the dvd, I generally skip over the scene, and doing so improves the movie immeasurably.

3) Think small.

There’s a reason you don’t often see world-spanning epics involving zombie apocalypse. It’s a style of speculative fiction that lends itself to little, personal stories, about people forced to work together to survive or, more often, who find themselves unable to do so and die because to it. Survivors of zombie apocalypse wind up barricaded against the hoard together and, almost by definition, trapped by walls of their own devising. This does not lend itself easily to bigness.

World War Z seems at first glance to be an exception to this, being a story of the global response to a zombie epidemic, but upon closer inspection the book really is a number of small, personal stories that happen to interact with one another in ways that eventually lead to a larger whole. It nearly functions as a short story collection that happen to stitch together to form a global tale. And this isn’t accidental.

Because zombies approach horror in a uniquely small manner. They will never outsmart you, they will rarely batter down doors, they don’t have “plans” the way other genre icons do. They will simply wait for you to go mad, for the unity of your group of survivors to fracture and break down, and pick you off as you fight amongst yourselves. Does this mean writing a zombie epic is impossible? No. But in doing so you would be forgoing the tension and claustrophobia that are the greatest strengths zombies bring to the table, narratively speaking. So, while it likely could be done, there are very few reasons I can see to want to.

This, in a nutshell, is what I believe in, when it comes to zombie fiction, and it’s what I want from the story I hope to write. It’s a little rambling, to be sure, but it’s good to get a statement of intent out before going to work on a new project, so I think this helps me out enormously. Am I right in my assessment of zombies? I think I am, for the project I’m considering at least. I’ll certainly be keeping the 3 major bullet points nearby as I’m writing my book, assuming I ever get far enough along in the project that I need them.

Also; I know this isn’t the usual sort of thing I put on this blog, but it’s my blog and I can put what I like on it. So there

What do you think? Any rules you’d add to my personal zombie bible? Any counter-examples you’d like to bring up? Anything I’ve mentioned here you violently disagree with? I’m always interested in talking about zombies, and can always use the opportunity to think about them in greater depth. Either this was helpful to you or it wasn’t, I wrote it for myself but I hope you at least found it marginally interesting, and I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on zombies in return. I’d love, pardon the pun, to pick your brains about it…

Friday, April 8, 2011


When the reactor exploded in Japan, wind carried the fallout across the ocean. In California, we were terrified.

People on TV, after all, spun nightly horror stories about disastrous effects the incoming radioactive wave might have. Fear seemed only natural.

However, after it hit, when we realized crops, fruits, and vegetables were growing at an accelerated rate, we were overjoyed. The religious spoke of God moving in mysterious ways, and even men of science, baffled though they were, admitted it seemed miraculous.

We had, we thought, solved world hunger. Accidentally!

Then we realized animals were growing at the same rate…

Friday, April 1, 2011


Upon graduating High School, it rapidly became clear that attending University would be beyond my capabilities.

Oh, my grades were good enough, I’d spend high school on or near the honour roll, and I’d even managed to qualify for two small scholarships, but they weren’t nearly enough to cover tuition, rent and living expenses. I looked into alternate financing, but it turned out that my parents earned too much for me to apply for student aid and not enough to pay my way through school. And with a full course load there was no way I’d make up the difference earning minimum wage at the mall. Even working all summer wouldn’t put me near the ballpark.

So I continued working retail, I continued living with my parents, and I continued waiting for my real life to begin. What else could I do?

One night at the local pub after work, a friend suffering through a similar situation offhandedly commented that there was something fundamentally flawed about a society that gladly spends $50k a year housing, feeding and clothing a convicted criminal, but can’t find the funds to educate the next generation. We laughed at this, a wry, bitter laughter born of hopeless, impotent rage.

The next day I robbed a bank.

I was caught, of course, there was never any chance of me getting away with it. I’m not an experienced criminal, and lack the necessary skill set to do crime well. I’d have gladly spent the money had I gotten away with it, don’t get me wrong, but I went in with my eyes open, I knew I’d be caught. When the police arrived I turned myself in without a struggle.

My lawyer thought she could get me a plea bargain due to my youth and lack of criminal record, but I refused and offered to plead guilty to everything in exchange for a sentence in a minimum security prison.

The prosecutor, recognizing that I wasn’t a flight risk, took the easy win and called it a day.

Once in prison, I kept my head down, avoided making waves, and enrolled in every class and course they had available. I devoured knowledge and, without having to worry about rent or expenses, had plenty of time to learn. Literature, Physics, Theoretical Mathematics, History, I devoured them all with a hunger even I hadn’t previously known I’d possessed, and each was delicious in its own distinctive way. But choices must be made, that’s part of growing up, and finally I settled my attentions on the humanities, focusing myself on Philosophy and Psychology, with a minor in English Lit.

My sentence was fifteen years. I finished my doctoral thesis in seven. Just in time for my first parole hearing.

Having never made trouble, and in light of my newly acquired degree, the hearing was kept brief. Deficits being what they were at the time nobody wanted to pay to imprison someone unless they absolutely had to. I likely could’ve stabbed one of the members of the panel and still been paroled. A week later, I was back on the street. Jubilant.

Five weeks later, I was looking once more for minimum wage work, living once more with my parents, and waiting once more for my life to begin. A criminal record, it turns out, impedes your earning potential every bit as much as a lack of higher education, and it would be years until I could petition the federal government to seal mine. Until then, I’d have to either make do or create my own opportunities.

I took the first job I could find, moving boxes in a warehouse, and started planning.

The wonderful thing about manual labour is that it never asks much investment of you, either intellectually or emotionally. I had plenty of time to think.

Writing a book in what little free time I had was rough, and I missed more than one night of sleep, but once I had it proofed and edited, selling it was shockingly easy. The youth market was buying self-improvement books by the score, and I had a title that sold itself.

Seven Years: How I Defrauded the Government into Paying for the Education a Civilized Nation Should Provide for its Youth in the First Place.

It took less than six months to become an international bestseller. I moved out of my parents’ basement and bought myself a condo downtown.

But by the time I’d gotten settled in, the national crime rate had quadrupled. It would eventually increase tenfold. Most of the crime was non-violent, but most isn’t all. Burglaries, armed robberies, even a wave of arson swept cities across the country as a generation of young people scrambled over one another to get to prison before the classes and courses available filled up.

Life became very dangerous, very quickly, and there were moments when I questioned the wisdom of what I’d done. More sleepless nights followed, as I kept myself awake with guilt at the people hurt, and concern that I’d inadvertently destroyed a nation.

But there was very little real violence, and the spike in crime was temporary. Criminals, it turns out, are every bit as easy to catch as you’d expect when they’re intentionally trying to be caught. Two years after my book was released, crime was back to a manageable level and the streets were safe to walk at night again. And that’s when the national dialogue began over what to do about the sudden wave of easily captured crooks.

New prisons had to be built. A lot of new prisons. Law-abiding citizens must, after all, be protected.

Debate was brief and before long gigantic new correctional super-complexes were being built in every city, coast to coast, to house a whole new generation of ne’er-do-wells.

They funded this trans-national construction project by, among other things, further cutting the education budget. I shook my head when I read the news, smiling sadly to myself.

By the time the first wave of now highly educated ex-convicts are released back onto the streets, I’ll have been working as a professor nearly four years. I love what I do and, while I’m not paid lavishly, I earn enough to get by. I have my book’s royalties to supplement my income, after all, and it isn’t as though I have student loans to worry about.

I taught at the local University nine months, before the local prison came through with a job offer. It turns out every class and every course they offered was booked solid, and they were desperate for teachers to shorten the waiting list of prospective students. I knew which way the wind was blowing when it came to education in this country, I had after all contributed to changing its direction, so I jumped at the opportunity. The class sizes are smaller than at the University, the pay is better and the students are genuinely eager to learn, so why wouldn’t I make the move? And that’s how I came to teach at one of the most prestigious prisons in the country.

The road I’ve travelled has had a number of unexpected twists and turns, to be sure, but I can’t say I’m not pleased with where I ended up. I’m doing work that I enjoy, sharing knowledge with people who love learning as much as I do, and waking up genuinely excited about the day ahead of me. I live, by any measure, a satisfying life.

Oh, there are things I’d change if I could, to be sure. My taxes, for example, are prohibitively high. Imprisoning close to sixty percent of a country’s population between the age of eighteen and twenty four is an expensive proposition after all. But I understand that it’s for a greater good, and when my tax bill comes I pay it gladly. Also, on the subject of regrets, I’ve been thinking more and more as I move comfortably into my thirties that I’d like to settle down at some point soon and start a family. But that simply isn’t in the cards for me right now.

You see, a man like me needs a certain kind of woman. Somebody with a real spark. A woman who’s intellect can keep up with my own. One with fire and ambition, who isn’t afraid of hard work, who wants to change the world. A partner, in the truest sense of the world.

And everyone like that is in prison.