Total Oblivion

"A fast-paced, suspenseful dystopian picaresque, part Huck Finn and part bizarro-world Swiss Family Robinson..."



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Long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and finalist for the Crawford Award. Title short story listed for the 2000 O. Henry award.

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Takeaways (2)

It’s important to remember that, in the modernist mode of being a writer, publishing is publishing and writing is writing. The “making public” of writing can happen at a later, compositional (and typographical) phase-type needs to be set in place. In this instance, writing is a direct conduit from thought, and publishing is one step removed from that, at least:

thinking -> writing -> publishing

You could even put “dreaming” before thinking here in this lame flowchart (or the unconscious; thinking that we’re not aware of).

However, in the “cloud” of social media, the flow changes a little bit:

thinking -> writing/publishing

The compositional/typographical tools become the writing tools; a “press to publish” compositional field narrows the range and timespan of an embryonic “writing” stage to one that is more “in the public.” This can be demonstrated any number of ways, such as the collaborative/tribal give-and-take between an author and audience that was talked about in the last post.

The potential problem isn’t with the writing in this role per se (although this can lead to bad writing of a different sort than the bad writing of the traditional model). The problem is that it binds thought more closely with publishing. It has the potential to have the writer willingly cede her or his thoughts to the whims of the marketplace. Now, sure, it could be argued that that happens all the time; writers thinking of projects that will sell, or whatever. Nothing inherently wrong with that. But writing is the nether-dreamworld acting as an intermediary and buffer between our private thoughts and the interactions we have. That is where, to a large extent, it gains its restorative power: to remind the reader of an inner life, separate from the bounds of a commercial world we are all, to one extent or another, trapped in. (This can be intimated as “mere” escape or the multilayered pleasures of immersive worldbuilding.) Worse still is the potential creeping of the “commercial network” into the true wilds of the unconscious, so that we don’t realize that we really don’t want what we want.

The point is not to say that great art can’t be made within a hypertexted, collaborative space. The point is, rather (or one of them, at least) is that attitude of short term, tactical gains in a marketplace-with these new tools that can shrink the bandwidth of a writer’s private lexicon-can potentially yield mere empty interconnectedness, without durability or the idiosyncratic vision of a writer that might be, in the end, his or her only true hallmark.

The early pulp writers were not great writers, for the most part, yet they put their hearts into their work, and their stories had high-impact and were encoded (encrypted, if you will) with a high level of cultural impact for future generations. They were networked, after a fashion, with the fan community, but were also for the most part isolated voices (the poignancy of written letters also is an instance of the marriage of thought and writing).

From The Exploit by Galloway and Thacker (truly a great book):

The expectation is that one is either online or not. There is little room for kind of online or sort of online. Network status doesn’t allow for technical ambiguity, only a selection box of discrete states. It is frustrating, ambiguity is, especially from a technical point of view. It works or it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t, it should be debugged or replaced. … One way to fix the ambiguity is to be “always on,” even when asleep, in the bathroom, or the unconscious. All the official discourses of the Web demand that one is either online and accounted for, or offline and still accounted for.

If we give away the store (our reserves of who we are), if we give our selves, what are we really receiving in return?

Friday, April 2, 2010 at 12:29 am » Fiction » No Comments

Absence and Dreams, Roots and Branches (poem)

(these poems are just drafts, but in some nether-space of feeling they are both complete and incomplete)

Absence and Dreams, Roots and Branches

Here’s a chalice.
I’m in Dixie.
is much scarier
than “alchemists”
say. It doesn’t
ever happen.
Electrical cords
A screen-saver
comes over
the eyes: clouds
mangy cover the
mountains. They
are so reasonable.
Thieves also
go on vacation,
but they don’t -
they just
don’t — see you
coming. And
giving. I’ve doused
the brochure on the
American anchoress
in a hotel sink.
And the little soaps
won’t wash out… Some
where in a door’s
county a lye
archon is baptized.
Here all buildings that
matter are white.
A brook
solves silently.
The book will
often be written
struckthrough, carried
off by
powerlines. Clear-cut
forests will become
growth and utter pythons
in the wilderness
of math. (A rail +
a rail + dogwood)
At the x-roads unknowing,
I eat my
breakfast: congregation and
dropsy, kneeled to
the bone, shovel-
ready. The persimmons
in the parking
lot scrawl: Bus
your own cups,
then again.

Sunday, March 28, 2010 at 4:21 pm » Poetry » No Comments


OK, hopefully this will help.

I found this snippet on a book panel re: SXSW that I thought was illuminating in regards to some of the attendant issues of authorship and culture that I’ve danced around in previous posts:

# An author is no longer an individual working in a room alone, but the leader of an online “tribe” of followers –- the people who comprise the author’s audience. Several example kept coming up, wine guy Gary Vaynerchuck, author of Crush It!, business guru Seth Godin; and Kroszer’s favorite example, The Pioneer Woman, who “could organize a tour on her own without the help of a publisher.” The consensus, from another panel –- “Scoring a Tech Book Deal” was that a potential author needed a minimum of 5,000 Twitter followers. [this social calculus is pretty funny --ed.]
# For non celebrities, social media is the way most authors will get this tribe. This can be difficult for some traditional authors. [emphasis mine]

This goes far beyond paper book vs. digital book. This is a fundamental change in the way text (to use the broadest sense of term) is constructed. We are indeed entering a true post-Romantic era, with many attendant positives and negatives that come with any seismic change. And these changes will absolutely change the content of fiction, as well as other disciplines. This is, in itself, nothing that revelatory. Probably thousands of others have said this is happening, or will happen, over the last 15 years or so.

The problem is that the tribe isn’t always right. God knows I love engaging with readers and other writers, but what, exactly, are the parameters of these pseudo-nano-states? I don’t want to take this metaphor too literally (obviously, unless we are in the real of interpersonal writerly experiments, most writers are still going to be “individuals working in a room alone.”). We are not in a troubadour era of oral culture. This interdependence for the written culture of reading silently (and in relative spatial isolation) is a drastic change.

And yet, to move it into the realm of fiction, and partic. speculative fiction (of all stripes) what does this entail for the content of stories? The subject matter? (Looking at the matter as a living, tactile thing?)

In other words, can the thoroughly modernist concerns of our fiction be served by this new world of tribalism?

Because, like it or not, the structures and “information embedding” of the stories themselves are still thoroughly Modernist. Ideally, the stories and novels that are brought forth as “the best and the brightest” in our field pay at least lip service to concerns such as, but not limited to: characterization, emotional resonance, the elicitation of surprise, immersion, perhaps even a sense of the secular numinous. This is where the Romantic bleeds into the Modern (using Poe as the pivot): the crucible of our fictions that have beginnings, middles, and ends.

And yet, the delivery of these stories is increasingly brought about by a play of surfaces: social media juice, buzz, and linkage; for a purely mundane example, I think about the open calls by people to nominate their story or novel on their blogs, tweets, etc. This is purely on the realm of horse trading, which has always existed-but it’s existing, perhaps for the first year ever in the SF/F field, in a completely different way than ever before in 2010, and the reason why this is the case is perhaps illuminated by the quote from the beginning of this post.

Perhaps it’s just a lagging indicator, and our storytelling forms will, in time, embrace different ways to deliver prose that matters in different ways than we thought possible. Perhaps. And this would indeed be a recalibration of the field that somehow manages to find the sweet spot between narrative depth and structural uncertainty. But until then, it’s “old wine in new barrels.” And the writer’s relationship to his or her materials-i.e., the space of a social media-is one of crucial importance. But as of now, in this time of transition, it’s really the “worst of both worlds”-the two worsts being:

1. the 1930s-1940s Golden Age notion of being a “pro”, which entails churning out quantitative work at all costs, cultivating status of being a “pro”, being ruthless toward aesthetic indeterminism.

2. the early 21st century branding of “self” in the hyper-public sphere of cyberspace (which very might look and feel like a real Self!), inculcating oneself with favors through the social network, embracing conglomerations and alliances of various tribes together to affect short-term gains in the field.

Finally, it has to be asked-what is the ultimate goal of the self-described digerati with literature in the first place, as a class? What is their use with literature? I honestly don’t know, and perhaps it is my bewilderment, or my own density of this issue, that drives me to explore this.

Maybe I’m writing this because I have deep misgivings which are my own and mine alone. I see, along the edges of sight, this ruthlessness creep up and pounce. I see takedowns and pettiness and it isn’t pretty. There have even been occasions when throughout the years I haven’t been on my best behavior myself. Writing isn’t necessarily a field in which to “feel justice” or equanimity. I do, however, think that this aforementioned tribalism gives a sense of false equanimity, false democracy. Which isn’t the same as community or truth. Where I do feel the need for truth is in my own voice-and that is certainly my “early Renaissance humanism” at work. (It took me many years to realize that I’m not a postmodernist. Imagine that.)

And I want other writers, especially ones just starting out, to realize that there are other ways to go about becoming a good writer besides getting 5,000 Twitter followers (okay, this is a metaphor…mostly), or getting one’s tribe up and running before going deep inside oneself and finding out what you need to say-what you really need to say, with gnarled persistence, and, yes, plenty of alone time.

Monday, March 22, 2010 at 11:26 pm » Fiction, Life Studies » 3 Comments

Reading Tonight at UVA Bookstore

As noted on my Appearances page (quick, look above you), I’ll be reading w/ three other fabulous writers under the aegis of “The Ways We Come of Age”, 6:00 at the UVA Bookstore. I’ll be around all weekend in town, and at the Author’s Reception for the VA Festival of the Book, so feel free to say hi. This is an honor and privilege for me, having received my MFA at Virginia when I was a wee lad of 23; I’ve grown (well, I hope) a lot since then, but I’ll always treasure that time in Charlottesville and the mentors and friends I had there. And it’s great to be back again.

On the Appearances page, you can see where else I’ll be roaming next week: Richmond, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Asheville! Also, starting in Richmond one other thing that I wanted to do is a real-life extension of what I’ve been doing online and that is fundraising for Mercy Corps. This blog post here talks a little bit about the online efforts, but essentially: Mercy Corps is a fantastic organization that works all around the world to better the lives of ordinary people. (In particular, you can read about what Mercy Corps is doing in Haiti:

So anyone that happens to come by the reading in the flesh and makes a donation of at least $5 will receive an impromptu micro-story written for them, then and there, set in the world of Total Oblivion, More or Less. I’ll also take requests-if you want a few sentences about your uncle, your dog, whatever…I can do that. And you don’t even need to buy a copy of the book (although if you DO, I’d be more than happy to inscribe it in the pages therein). Of course I’m still fundraising online as well, so if you can’t make it you can still participate and I will send you a little story either by email or postcard!

Thanks all!

Thursday, March 18, 2010 at 3:20 pm » Total Oblivion » No Comments

Half-Centaur, Half-Chimera: Humanism and Science Fiction

Charlie Jane Anders has a very thoughtful essay at io9 entitled “Is ‘Science Fiction Humanism’ A Contradiction In Terms?”:

But is science fiction really humanist? Much of science fiction turns out to be about exploring our vast cosmos, and expanding our being. From this quest, one of two outcomes often arises: 1) We meet something greater than ourselves. 2) We become something greater than our current selves. It’s rare, and becoming rarer, to find science fiction that rejects both mysticism and posthumanism. You could even argue that if the journey doesn’t change us somehow, then what’s the point?

And if the journey does change us radically, are we still the mere humans that humanism purports to celebrate?

This might be the central question of 21st century sf, and why it’s still so essential (I talk about this in my Rain Taxi review of The New Space Opera, which Charlie cites.) I also think that this is the key point of intertwining between science fiction and fantasy, and why they are, genre-wise, in the same boat (even with fantasy currently ascendant): that search for transcendental content.

Zizek is consistently a writer I find maddening and fascinating in equal portions. But he had a passage in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce that I thought was highly relevant to this discussion, in which he talks about the threat of privatization (by capitalism) of three different “commons”: the commons of culture, the commons of external nature (i.e., the precipitation of ecological disaster) and most relevant for our discussion here, the commons of internal nature, which he defines as “the biogenetic inheritance of humanity”:

with new biogenetic technology, the creation of a New Man in the literal sense of changing human nature becomes a realistic prospect…

in other words, “the self-annihilation of humanity itself” as a definitive last act of “capitalist logic.”

He goes onto say:

we are in danger of losing everything: the threat is that we will be reduced to abstract subjects devoid of all substantial content, dispossessed of our symbolic substance, our genetic base heavily manipulated, vegetating in an unlivable environment.

What’s interesting in the field of science fiction is how many writers still fail to recognize the potential moral precipice society is on (and how we have indeed been pushed there by capitalism), much less tackle it through the art forms at our disposal, despite the rich heritage of such moral questioning in the genre. (As well as the obsession about “getting paid,” in awards and $$$ through the embrace of mediocrity, for its own sake. But that’s another post.) We are also in an age where, in fantasy, the geneticism of Monsters has been normalized. Nothing is more popular than heros and heroines as vampires, heros and heroines as werewolves, etc. We have grown more comfortable with the bioengineering science has provided us, even if they are packaged in mythopoetics. Many stories are about the recombinance of “bloodlines”-he’s a half vampire, half human, she is a were-leopard, etc. etc. (Just throwing out examples here.) These fictions are anticipatory, prophetic texts for the parahumans we might find in our global culture.

And yet, so much of our science fiction, rather than processing this march toward the inhuman, “the reduction of humans to manipulable machines” (Zizek again), is cheerleading the emulsification. A world of all objects and no subjects would be the final triumph of capitalism. Many sf writers write “against” the destruction of the first two commons (the first discussed-destruction of a common culture-having a great deal to do with intellectual property rights…and we need to say little to remind ourselves which writers have loaded for bear in this regard). No one wants ecological apocalypse. Yet many-not all, but many-would hail the totalizing vision of the anti-human, total nihilism masked inside a Singularity.

Purity is sexy, you know?

But this transcendence is, as always, a myth. Thinking realistically, how this transformation would not be under the purview of large biogenetics corporations is something I fail to grasp. The fact that this is a zone of contention within fiction proves that it is indeed a “hot spot”, in flux, and worthy of writing fiercely about.

Which many are.

But not nearly enough.

Friday, March 12, 2010 at 11:32 pm » Fiction, Polis » 2 Comments

Vulpine Orders (new poem)

Vulpine Orders

This verse is not about the spider marrying the deer.
That verse is to the left and then inside the chamber.
Nor is this verse about the Quizno’s burned down by
an evil story, which is still hovering in the smoke.
(The verse is hovering in the smoke.)
No verse about goose grease haunts this verse;
nothing comes easy. There is a glove compartment
trapped somewhere inside that verse. What,
an owner’s manual? There is a verse about the Taliban
of Atlantis, mumbling quite close undersea,
but this verse is not it by a long mile. The moon
holds a knife to the night’s throat, saying: …or else.
Which could be a verse but this is getting nowhere.
There’s something else in this verse, an interactive
sequence that is not verse at all, but akin to verse,
in that it searches out in all directions for similarities
not its own, likenesses which hide in the shadows
that verses cast.
But still, it’s close. Glancing up
and into the corner of the eye, the flawless
factory of verses comes to purchase this color
and that weight. This
is not the right order. But what do the verses
care? They are not each other’s friends
on the line. (The local anesthesia is
wearing off.) This is not the foxglove
dissassembled paw by paw by lamplight, and
these are not the heartbeats pressed into the dull
bestiary of a minor garden. There is something
else entirely inside: the naturally
dead, the worm of henhouse cocaine,
the desolation of nothing to eat but the
garlands of friends.

Saturday, March 6, 2010 at 6:00 pm » Poetry » 2 Comments

Crank Turning check-in

None of this has changed. Actually I think it’s getting worse. Or I’m getting older, take your pick. RIP, DFW.

N.B.: I actually do think in many recent instances, social media (though it’s a wonderful thing, I use it all the time) has made this crank-turning worse. I don’t care much about the good writers who are good at promotion, or the bad writers who are bad at promotion. I do care about the good writers who suck at promotion who get overshadowed by the bad writers who are great at promotion.

Friday, February 26, 2010 at 2:28 am » Fiction » 2 Comments


Fair reader,

Long have I been dormant on this matter, and indeed, I had harbored the secret hope that the transmissions of this nefarious document were a thing of the past. However, look at me, a fool! How could I conclude that the Palinomicon’s logorrheic THIRST could not be vanquished? For what is the span of a year, a decade-indeed, any unit of time known to man and woman-in the clockwork mind of an Infernal Being? Less than a blink. The patience, reader, is NOT HUMAN.

However, with that said, I nevertheless feel compelled to share these findings, in hope that one person, perhaps not in my lifetime, will be able to find the elixir to unwrite this diabolical tome.

I do have to admit that this particular fresh entry, sent to me once again from Alaska, is unlike any of the others. Do not think me sensational, but it is a photocopy of a creature’s hands-long-fingered, enclawed, yet smooth-skinned, upon which this incantation was written with a fine-tipped “magic marker.” I cannot imagine how the arms, the torso, the head of this creature could be envisaged, but with trembling hand I transcribed the words. The palmistry must be left to your imagination.

A Makeshift Form of Diplomacy that Falls Upon Me

Hello everyone I’ve made it to the Kyoto accords!

I come with a message of peace from the Underwater Institute of Lacanian Sorcery, a non-governmental gang strike force.

Here is the message:

“Heated motorcycle storage during the winter of your endless desires.”

Also, my child soldier choir has put together this bad-ass PowerPoint of their illegal
dumping exploits and there are
no resources within this Holiday Inn that can contain it.

No mercury, no soot, no anomalous clouds cuz that would be embarrassing.

Note that are all in the “Lacuna” conference room, but in opposite corners
for purposes of water rationing.

Then there will be a recital. Hands will be held. Be it resolved that.

What the fuck? The restaurant downstairs, The Jenkem Grille, has been bombed by ecoterrorists
and twenty are dead, including a team of mercenary climatologists! Fuuuuck, now

our hands are really tied.

Those plushie polar bears on the ice floe, drifting from Juneau stuffed with Acapulco Gold
toward our melting minds?

Talk about fucked.

The nsfw Bible is very soft on this matter

like the pillow that conforms to the red assassin’s face.

Next, a panel: Strangling Whatever Instills a Lifelong Love of Reading “the Data”
(Which Must Not Be Named).

Focus on my projector.

Hello, ozone mother!

Sunday, February 21, 2010 at 3:18 pm » ?!?!?, Poetry » No Comments

What’s on the Table

So, just wanted to ask a few questions:

1. In nominating works for awards, is it ethical to do so with friends? In what instances?

2. Is it ethical to do so consciously, deliberately, and in a block?

3. Is it ethical to do so with members of your writing group?

4. Where is the dividing line between expressing genuine interest and excitement about the work of one’s peers and compatriots; and expressing one’s ambitions for publicity within, and upon, the field at all costs?

5. What should be the feeling behind navigating through all these questions? What are we trying to accomplish? (OK, that’s two questions.)

6. What are our responsibilities as writers to the field as opposed to our peers? Are they one and the same? Do we have a responsibility to history? Or is it delusional to think that ye olden Grand Masters were anything more noble? (OK, that’s a lot of questions.)

7. And yet the field is very different than it was in 1959, isn’t it?

(OK, not really a question.)

Everyone have a good night!

Monday, February 15, 2010 at 11:22 pm » ?!?!?, Fiction » 1 Comment


“To divorce fact from fantasy simply by labeling the one as ‘history’ or ‘medicine,’ and the other as ‘fiction’ is merely to create a new myth about ourselves. Life is inextricably linked with literature, and that is why there are no passports to a myth-free future.” -Gill Speak, “An Odd Kind of Melancholy: Reflections on the Glass Delusion in Europe (1440-1680)

Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 5:22 pm » Uncategorized » No Comments

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories

(This is going to have a fair amount of spoilers, so if you have a Wii and are thinking of playing this game, at all, don’t read this. Just buy the game.)

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is one of the most interesting games I’ve ever played. Now, this is also the first Silent Hill game I’ve ever played, and so I don’t really have an appreciation of the “canon” of the world. All I can go on is what I see-which, come to think of it, is one of the keystones of the game itself. As Harry Mason, in a car accident and left with nothing but a trusty flashlight and (later) a jack-of-all-trades cellphone, much of the game is spent with said flashlight peering into dusty corners of the near-abandoned town.

One of the things that makes this game so compelling is that your responses-your input; that is, what you choose to see and say-alters the playing experience. If not in gameplay then in characterization. Drastically, I might add. At certain intervals in the game (including the beginning), you find yourself in a first person view in a therapist’s office, and he asks you penetrating questions about your life, as well as provides opportunities for (mind) games of a sort, in order to probe your moral values. I played the game twice (which is almost a necessity to catch all the different nuances and story trails of the game), answering the questions the second time around the opposite way than the first, and the game changed with an accumulation of subtle cues that was both striking and unsettling. Different people encountered treated Harry very differently. Certain rooms were blocked off and others opened up. There was a scene in which I had to call a security guard (one of the delightfully mysterious things about this game is that the walls throughout the city are peppered with random phone numbers, which you, of course, can call). The first time he didn’t believe I existed and thought it was a prank. The second time he said he “had my back.” And the end…well, the end.

I guess I won’t reveal the MAJOR spoiler to this game after all. It’s that good and it’s that worth playing. Not in a “gotcha” sense, but in a way it reorients how one played the entire game that went before. And thus the very gameplay mechanics took on a totally new light.

Let me try to explain in a certain way that won’t SPOIL everything.

At certain intervals of the game, the world of Silent Hill freezes over, encasing everything in surreal ice. Geography becomes twisted. And what you traversed before becomes devilishly hard to navigate. These are the times of “the nightmare”, which you must escape. Creatures, called “raw shocks” (which mutate as well throughout the course of the game), chase you in very clever fashion. And you have no way to kill or hurt them as they hunt you down. At best you can shake them off and slow them, and keep them away for a time with a flare, maybe two, that you might find in the maze of the inverted town. It can be frustrating, as you bang through corridor after corridor, only to end up where you started out, but this is where the retroactive kicker has the most paydirt after finishing the game. And the lack of combat — no zombies to blow the heads off here, not that there’s anything wrong with that — becomes utter genius. Thinking back to the title, you as Harry Mason find yourself in a field of “frozen memories”. But what is the trauma that the raw shocks don’t want you to find? That is the unreal, fluttering heart of the game.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 11:22 pm » Games » 1 Comment


It’s been a really busy month, so I thought I’d do some small-batch catch-up:

Total Oblivion got a great review from the LA Times.

I also partook in the Big Idea out in John Scalzi’s blogosphere, where I delved into some of the ideas of oblivion that informed the book. Very fun.

The novel also made the 2009 Locus Recommended Reading List!

I updated my reading itinerary; coming to quite a few places, so check out the Appearances above.

Music-wise, go download the new album by Colombian musical collective Systema Solar-it’s free from their site. But if that’s not enough, their video will force you to fall in love with them!

I’m absolutely in love with the Reebok Basquiat shoes. It’s just good to know they’re out there:

Be well, everyone.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 at 10:38 pm » Fiction, Total Oblivion » No Comments

The Watcher’s Journal (Total Oblivion outtake)

They’re replacing the furnace in our house, so as the living room gets colder and colder, I’m typing faster, as if that will provide some heat. But before I set up some space heater contraption, I thought I’d post this, before the new year: a relatively short outtake from Total Oblivion, More or Less. Consider it apocryphal! (But then again, most of the novel is anyway.)

Wishing you all a safe and happy new year.

The Watcher’s Journal

[note: journal entries of Imperial signal corps vision-engineer Nike Proclus, stationed in Transocean gulf watchtower (ex-Shell coat-of-arms), equidistant from Lafayette to Nueva Roma. Nike's journal, written on palm-sized scrolls, was transmitted to Nueva Roma via carrier kingfisher to the Emperor himself.]

Dolphin’s Month 2
Bats chase seagulls. I don’t know where the bats have come from. Is there a cave that I don’t know about in the vicinity? No. I am two days sail from Nueva Roma. And north of me… I look for islands and signs, but I haven’t found them yet.

The bats are white.

Dolphin’s Month 4
I do have a little garden, with vegetables I have brought from the swamps of Orlando, on the aft of my platform. The red squash and kelp do well in this climate. I had wanted to bring chickens to the watchtower—for companionship besides the ethereal gulls, but it was vetoed by the signal corps. Perhaps it’s just as well. The bats have taken to harassing the gulls, and I can only dare to think what they would have done with flightless birds. This evening, I found a gull in my garden with one of its wings gnawed off, presumably by the bats. I suspect that they are hiding somewhere in the watchtower.

Dolphin’s Month 7
Am I only imagining the bats? I haven’t seen them since I had found the one-winged gull.

Cool wind. Then rain that lashes the platform. The tower rocks. I hear the groaning of the sea and imagine serpents coiling around the foundations of my lonely post.

Dolphin’s Month 9
Bats are back, like they have never left. I think they are watching me when they think I’m not looking.

Fewer gulls.

I leave a plate of succotash for the bats on the opposite end of the platform from the garden. They are uninterested.

Dolphin’s Month 10
Perform a full inventory of my storehouses and quarters. They have been undisturbed. I miss land for the first time in a year.

How many days until the supply boat? Five.

At sunset, witness gull and bat spar. Gull loses and drops into the sea. I’m tempted to fish the carcass out, but it would require unfurling the ladder and readying the raft, and I’m too tired. The gull sinks soon enough anyway.

Dolphin’s Month 11
Sore throat. Mist. I can’t see the bats, though I can hear their wings, and the gull shrieks. I keep to my bed, only taking to the watchtower twice for the customary reconnaissance. Which is futile anyway.

The sea is phosphorescent as I write this. The mist hasn’t cleared, either. All I can see is gray and green.

Dolphin’s Month 12
Mist’s cleared. The platform is littered with gulls, in various forms of severance. All is quiet. I take the morning to clean their carcasses and the blood.

When night comes, in a fit of inspiration (or madness?), I do, in fact, drop the raft into the water and roll the ladder down. I row underneath the platform. It’s shadowy. Hanging underneath the platform on the beams are scores of the white bats. They are not the same as the bats I have known on land-they seem to hunt only in day and sleep at night, like any person would.

Dolphin’s Month 14
Black speck on the horizon. Is it really there? I check again with my lens, calculate the distance. Impossible to tell without knowing the size of the craft. So it’s pointless.

Perhaps a whale?

I make a trap for the bats, involving canned meat, box and string. But they don’t trigger it. Smart.

Dolphin’s Month 15
Supply boat arrives late in twilight. Crew of two seems none too pleased. They bring a lordly kingfisher. Wine. More succotash. Bundle of letters from my wife.
(My Emperor, if you read this, don’t think that these details have no use to the Empire. I stand vigilant here to protect her, and those like her.)

I tell them about the speck, but they have no use for it. They think the vision-engineers are strange on account of their exceeding loneliness. Yes, well.

The kingfisher is caged and is agitated.

Dolphin’s Month 16
The sailors seem eager to go. They eye the swooping bats with great apprehension. I tell them they haven’t harassed me, but they are suspicious, as if I’m colluding with them. I don’t tell them about the bats’ resting place. The sky is empty of gulls.

The speck remains the same.

I consider telling the about the speck, but the evidence is still too inconclusive.

They leave, sullenly.

I miss them, and yet I’m glad when the bats, two leagues out, swarm on them. I watch.

Dolphin’s Month 17
It’s too much.

Dolphin’s Month 18
The speck grows larger.

Dolphin’s Month 22
Bats are in the kitchen.

The speck has turned into a boat.

Why haven’t they killed me.

Dolphin’s Month 23
So, the trap. I have set it every day but it remains unsprung. The bait, I realize, has been insufficient. I realize that now.

My wife, I say to myself, I hope you forgive me, that you’ll be able to kiss my missing finger, my ghost digit and make it better.

The trap works. I’ve listened to a bat screech for five hours inside the box. The ship hasn’t revealed its heraldry.
The kingfisher looks ashamedly at my mutilation. I’ve named him Rufus.

Dolphin’s Month 24
Right before dawn, I extract the bat and dissect the bat in my quarters.

Only it’s not a bat.

At least it’s not the kind that I have been familiar with.

The fur is like a whale’s bristles. The eyes are covered by a membrane. Tiny webs along the legs.

I toss it back.

[The next page's script is blurred beyond recognition. Whether this occurred during the kingfisher's transit or beforehand is impossible to say.]

Egret’s Month 2
I see twenty-two craft now.

Gave them many signals, in every code I know.

Rufus is restless.

Egret’s Month 3
Have watched their first volley with a deck-side trebuchet. Two hundred yards shy. They are testing me. It won’t be long. I extinguish the tower fire. I’m writing this at my own perch, the kingfisher beside me. When I am finished writing this, I tie the scrolls around Rufus’ leg. And I will wait. Rufus will speed past the bats-I know this. Its heart racing as he makes his way to Nueva Roma.

He has a head start.

Thursday, December 31, 2009 at 4:40 pm » Total Oblivion » No Comments

Review of Avatar (3D)

The question should be seriously asked, how do [cognitive sciences] compel us to redefine the most basic notions of human dignity, freedom? That is to say, what we experience as dignity and freedom is it all just an illusion, as they put it in computer user terms, a user’s illusion. Meaning, for example, when you write a text on a computer, you have this user’s illusion scrolling up or down that there is text above or below. There is no text there. Is our freedom the same as a user’s illusion or is there a freedom? -Zizek

I saw Avatar in 3D tonight. Avatar is a great movie, a groundbreaking movie in many ways (conventional in others, but let’s stick to the groundbreaking for now), and more complicated and tricksy than some of its critics, I think, are giving it credit for.

Warning, serious spoilers! Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

Avatar can’t be separated from the technology used to create it, and this push and pull of the wonders and devastation of technology ripples throughout the entire movie. It’s the Avatar Project, after all, that allows the movie to come into being in the first place (okay, and a lack of single payer health care for our hero-but that’s a different story!). And it’s the death of the Avatar Project at the end that brings about Jakesully’s rebirth. But, more than that, the audience is continually reminded of this dynamic by the fact that we are all sitting in the darkened theater wearing this funny little glasses, which allow strange creatures and landscapes to uncannily “pop” out of the screen. As a matter of sheer worldbuilding bravado (if not plausibility-though I love me some Magritte floating mountains, it was a lot of handwaving to describe them as buoyed by flux. But hey, whatever, it was cool), we are plunged into ethereal heights and soar through phosphorescent forest canopies. Or is it the other way around? No matter-that synesthesia is an intentional byproduct of having a world come out at you all at once, in all its inviting glory. There has been, of course, unadulterated land that needs protecting before in film, but never has the argument been made for it more beautifully and convincingly than in this 3D.

With new applications of mediums comes new forms of storytelling, and so it would be a disservice to the movie to call it “Dances with Wolves in Space,” or whatever. The movie is as much about scientific malfeasance as it is about brash imperialism as it is about love.

It’s the ambiguity of the Avatar Project that drives the story forward. The linchpin character in the whole film is Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver, who has a chain-smoking Helena Bonham Carter as botanist thing going). As a diplomatic and scientific mission, the Avatar Project is something of a failure. Sure Grace and her protege collect their samples at one point, but there’s a disconnect between that mission and the, uh, mining of unobtainium (which actually has a wider use as a term than I had thought possible). The science (whether soft or hard) is continually triangulating with the military and the privateers. The latter two, naturally, are slavishly intertwined-with the continual reference to mercenaries being the entire fighting force, this is hard to ignore-but this doesn’t mean that the scientists’ relationship with the two opposing forces are the same. With the military, it’s entirely antagonistic. Not so with the Resource Development Administration’s commercial arm. Its liaison on Pandora is not unconcerned with Na’vi casualties, mentioning the possibility of “bad press.” So are the scientists, and although there is some vague mentioning of a mission school that met some untimely end, Grace’s ultimate mission to convince the Na’vi to move. The movie is as much of a critique of neoliberalism as conservatism (or neo-conservatism, I guess)-having a “human rights” apparatus being wielded as a weapon to achieve some material gain.

Something happens, though. Closer to the climactic battle, Grace tries to explain to the peckerhead Colonel and the asshole mining manager about the interconnectedness of all life on the planet. Rather than being a pure impassioned Gaia-tastic plea, however, there’s something unsettling on Grace’s face. She can’t help but see the wealth in this. Screw the minerals, she’s saying, what we have here is bigger than raw materials. In a way, it’s similar to the utilitarian arguments made to “save the rainforest”: who knows how many cures to natural diseases are in those weird plants and funny little frogs that we don’t even know about yet-that is, until they are run over by clear-cutting bulldozers!

You can see Grace calculating, even then. And as she’s brought, wounded, to the Na’vi’s ancestral home, she jokes (paraphrasing): “I wish I could be taking samples of this.” The tribe tries to save her, by transferring her fully into her avatar. They take off her mask, and she dies; the transfer (going through the “Eye of Eyra”) didn’t take because she was “too weak.”

But what does this weakness mean? Weakness from the bullet wound? Or weakness because she couldn’t, in the end, fully let go of her own sense of scientific identity to fully become one of the Na’vi? (And yet, even still, she doesn’t entirely dissipate-more on that a bit later.) It’s truly unclear.

This is driven home perhaps even more forcefully at the very end of the movie. Simply put-Jake dies at the end. There is no exact equivalence between Jake and Jakesully. The human is dead, though the memories of Jake are uploaded into the planet. Witness, at one earlier point before the final battle, how our hero actually requests to Eyra to access Grace Augustine’s memories of earth and the human species. Who, or what, is in Eyra, then? Information. Code. The world, through this information management, has an Avatar Project of its own. That, at last, is what’s so fascinating about this movie-not the simple clash of cultures but the variances in the relationships the cultures have to their own bodies, and how they retrieve information about those bodies. It’s telling that the last shot of the movie is Jakesully opening his eyes, with his corpse laying beside him.

He will certainly not be what he used to be.

We, too, have more opportunities to plug in, and leave ourselves behind. The flow is two-way. Even the Avatar action figures-long the hallmark of the science fiction blockbuster!-replicate the uplink and downlink movement of the movie. With a webcam, one can scan in the I-TAG of an action figure to receive downloadable content. Not on the screen-on the toy itself. Encased in their plastic casings on toy-store shelves, much like the living caskets that the human bodies in Avatar rest within, the toys become cybernetic apparati of the imagination.

All of this isn’t to say that the toy marketing of the film is somehow necessary for understanding and enjoying the film (though I’m sure the interactivity was part of some strategic planner’s “creative brief”). It’s more of a sense that-this is the world we find ourselves in. Not only one of environmental devastation, but one of identity slippage. This isn’t Kevin Costner sleepwalking through being Kevin Costner, but rather a grandiose adventure with two world-interfaces, and how a broken soldier rejects the one and embraces the other.

We’ve begun with Zizek; let’s end with him:

Catherine Malabou wrote a wonderful book called What to Do With the Human Brain. She develops, in a very nice way, that plasticity can have two meanings. One meaning is this neoliberal plasticity. Basically, it’s an accommodating plasticity: how to succeed on the market, how to adopt new identity. But there is a more radical plasticity, where the point is not just an adaptive plasticity. It’s a plasticity that not only adapts itself to existing circumstances but also tries to form a margin of freedom to intervene, to change the circumstances.

Cameron has developed a $300 million franchise-a full world, really-to explore that second type of plasticity, and to let the audience become participants in it, to dream about it, just for a few hours.

Go see it.


Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 2:12 am » Movies/TV » 8 Comments

The Gamebook/the Interactive Novel: Fables of the Construction

Of late I’ve been exploring and trying to fetter out online what in 80s parlance would be called a gamebook: a novel with choose-your-own-adventure (CYOA) plot branching but also with more of an RPG element as well-usually with a character with attributes and chanced to impact the story through combat and chance. Some of the best known series from that era are Fighting Fantasy (which I did not play growing up) and Lone Wolf (which I did).

Although I’m not intimately familiar with the publishing vagrancies of the genre, it had seemed like the form went into something of a decline in the 90s, but lately there have been some interesting applications of the gamebook online-which might be the natural home for such a storytelling medium after all. There are two particular examples online that I found striking-one a new, rather wild creation that pushed a lot of my “fiction buttons”, and another a “port” from a rather remarkable older series.

Age of Fable

Age of Fable by James Hutchings is quite literally the trip, a metafictional romp through all sorts of storytelling conventions. The art-usually gathered from paintings from the surreal to the macabre to the whimsical-adds to the sense of story-as-emblem (which might not get at exactly what’s going on here). It’s extremely fast and loose, but it works. There are twelve attributes to your character, and this panoply of various ability scores adds to the fierce sense of play to the work, especially when traversing the land with a randomly generated character named: Be-Steadfast Owl-Waits-For-The-Moon, an assassin.

Yes sometimes the puns don’t quite work, and the recursiveness of some of the quests becomes repetitive, but on the whole Age of Fable succeeds resoundingly as a new way to approach storytelling; it has that sense of a concocted world that one can only see small but bright glimpses of when playing.

The Fabled Lands

The Fabled Lands is a far sturdier proposition, one with more traditional high-fantasy underpinnings, but no less exciting and with even more depth of play. The interface was obviously created with a great deal of passion and care. It’s truly the greatest example of a “sandbox novel” that I’ve ever seen. One can literally traverse between the six novels-represented by different geographic areas-and in the downloadable App version, this is done seamlessly. Much like Age of Fable, there is no real overarching quest-although there are many quests to be had-but the level of what one can “do” in the novel is far deeper: there’s exploration, of course, but also trade, owning property in cities, sailing, and much more. It’s truly a lived-in experience, one in which the second person POV is given a panoply of sensations-perhaps most importantly, the sense that one really doesn’t know what’s behind any unknown corner.

If one of the purposes of a gamebook (or any work of interactive fiction, really) is to increase the player/reader’s agency, then these two projects are some of the strongest and most interesting examples around of giving authorship to the reader, in a way that is entirely different yet as utterly beguiling as the best of parser-based interactive fiction.

Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 12:30 am » Fiction, Games » 1 Comment

Signing at Uncle Hugo’s

Hi folks, for those in town, I’ll be signing (and chatting and the like) at Uncle Hugo’s in Minneapolis, this Saturday from 1-2 p.m. The last week, I know, has been full of these little semaphores as there’s been much busyness and much afoot, but I hope to get back in the blogging swing of things very soon!

Friday, December 11, 2009 at 12:39 am » Total Oblivion » No Comments

Radio (again) and reading

I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants this week, but wanted to let everyone know that I’m going to be on KFAI in the Twin Cities, on the Write On radio show that runs from 11-12 am Central (not sure when exactly I’ll be on during the show). You can listen live right at, or the show will be archived there as well (I’ll come up with the more specific link when I have it available). That’s 90.3 Minneapolis and 106.7 in St. Paul if you are in town.

Also! the book release reading is tonight at Common Good Books (Selby and Western), St. Paul 7:30 p.m. You’ll need a passport from either the Empire of the Agreeable Lands or the Scythian Confederation to attend but if you don’t have one on your person, one will be provided for you. A reception and signing follows. Please come by!

Thursday, December 3, 2009 at 12:08 pm » Total Oblivion » No Comments

Radio appearance today

Really brief notice, but today I’m going to be on the radio show Fictional Frontiers (5 pm EST), WNJC-1360 AM in Philadelphia. I’ll be on at 5:20 or thereabouts, but it looks like a fantastic show all-around! You can listen live via their webstream, or catch it on their podcast site later on.

Monday, November 30, 2009 at 3:41 pm » Total Oblivion » No Comments

Total Oblivion, More or Less released today + Announcement

Well, at the end of a long day, two dogs sacked out next to me and our oldest cat somewhat skittishly on the arm of my couch, I have to look back at it and really try to take stock of it. The book came out today, and I did, in fact, see it “in the wild” on a shelf (well, on a dolly waiting to be shelved), which was needless to say very exciting. It also is kind of odd that there’s a calmness to this excitement, mixed with a large part of gratitude and introspection regarding all the people who helped bring this book into being. I’ve come to realize that, with any production of writing into a public medium (a book, online, wherever), there are a whole host of people who helped it along its way. We take this for granted with movies-that it’s never one person’s work that springs from his or her forehead, but with novels-when it makes the transferrence from writing into a book (if that makes sense), I think the culture kind of assumes that it’s that singular person carving a block of wood into a statue in the middle of the woods. OK, weird metaphor, but I think you see the point. The point is, there are a ton of “producers” and “editors” and “set designers” that bring a book into being. It’s truly a collaborative effort. What’s going to be interesting, I suspect, in the next ten years is how these interrelationships are going to change with the advent of more fully digital book distribution. But that is another blog post…

So if you get the book and you read it and want to drop me a line, feel free to. Would love it. Even if you don’t like the book or have mixed feelings about it-that’s okay; no one is forced to like everything.

Also, if you can’t buy the book, libraries are truly awesome and your friends! Request the book at your friendly local library. That way, you can think of it as regifting it for someone else who might stumble upon it on the shelf…

FINALLY, I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how the writing we do intersects with the political realities we are faced with in our current day. Some of my latest stories (such as the one in Interfictions 2-speaking of a great assemblage of collaborative energy!) and of course Total Oblivion delve into these issues as part of their fictional underpinnings. But if there’s the opportunities for something more, even in a small way-the tiniest platforms that our writing affords us-then we should do our best to seize them.

And in particular, regarding families around the world who are uprooted as refugees, in dangerous, frightening situations — this is something that isn’t a fictional abstraction, but something that happens every day.

Mercy Corps is a charity that I really believe in, and have for years. They do amazing work with refugee and displacement crises, among a host of other complex issues. I’ve set up an online fundraising page for them. I do hope that, if you’re passionate about these social justice issues (and I know you are!), you’ll make a donation to Mercy Corps here. Even a small amount would be absolutely superb.

But wait, there’s more! In order to provide a more direct engagement with the book, if you make a donation on this page, drop me a quick note ( and I’ll send you something extra: a one-of-a-kind paragraph of ephemera and apocrypha set in the world of the novel, made just for you! It could be a snippet of a travelogue from a city unwritten about along the Mississippi, an Imperial naturalist’s description of strange flora and fauna of Middle America, a postcard from a soldier in the Bemidji Irregulars back home to mom. Anything and more. And I can send it by post or email. I’m easy. (River transport of mail post is forthcoming.) Just let me know which you’d prefer and I’ll get it out to you in about a week. So hopefully we can, in some small way, assist others in making an impactful change.

Because the most important piece of the puzzle I described above, in terms of a novel as a collaborative effort, is the reader. Without the reader, the work doesn’t live and breathe. And perhaps this is a way we can together make the work live and breathe in a real-life way.

And thanks out there. For everything.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 2:04 am » Life Studies, Total Oblivion » 1 Comment

Starred Booklist Review for Total Oblivion, More or Less + Locus review

It’s a bit belated, but Total Oblivion, More or Less received a starred review from Booklist:


For 16-year-old Macy, the whole world has gone crazy, quite literally. Barbarians from antiquity have invaded America, while bizarre plagues and impossibly shifting landscapes ravage her Minnesota homeland. Together with her parents, sister, brother, and a possibly evil dog, Macy sets out down the Mississippi on an adventure that takes her into the smoldering ruins of St. Louis, aboard a wooden submarine that’s bigger on the inside than outside, and finally into the stone-skyscraper capital of Nueva Roma. All the while she dodges oil-men turned slavers, plague-instigating wasps, an albino bounty hunter, and, perhaps most dangerous of all, her scheming younger brother. DeNiro (who flaunted a knack for offhand SF oddness in Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, 2006) makes sure never to do anything as dull as explaining what the heck is going on—we simply accept that the world has become a surreal, historical landscape come to life and move on. He drops in so many tantalizingly inspired touches—the new (old?) empire considers Post-it notes a precious natural resource—that leaving his inside-out America at the end is almost painful. There aren’t many writers who take weirdness as seriously as DeNiro does, and fewer still who can extract so much grounded emotion, gut-dropping humor, and rousing adventure from it. A dizzying display of often brilliant, always strange, and definitely unique storytelling. — Ian Chipman

There was also a strong review by Faren Miller of the book in the most recent issue of Locus. Some parts:

Their journey south…sometimes resembles a stressed-out teenage Ballard’s take on an American classic like Huckleberry Finn: hallucinatory madness laced with more blatant social satire…but also with scenes of genuine poignancy. Total Oblivion offers more than just an antic apocalypse or a non-SF writer’s sidelong approach to dystopia. Like the people who survive its trying times and the river tha runs through it, beneath all the madness there’s something to be gained, something that endures.

More later!

Monday, November 9, 2009 at 11:10 pm » Total Oblivion » No Comments