Weekly Watch & Read: The Damned United

When I latched onto Leeds United as my favorite team outside the United States I didn’t do it with any sense of the club’s history. Sure, I knew they’d been around a long time, but it was their then-current form that lured me in (and led to years of heartbreak – alas, that is the truth of the beautiful game). What I didn’t know at the time was that for about a decade leading up to my birth they were one of the, if not the, best team in England, winning the top division twice, the FA Cup once, and finishing runners up in both competitions several times between 1964 and 1974.

What I also didn’t realize was that they did so with a bit of a reputation. Think of the infamous Philadelphia Flyers team known as the “Broad Street Bullies” and you’re on the right track, except there were twice as many of them and at the time there was only one allowed substitute in soccer. Any injury often meant the other team playing a man down.

That Leeds team was the product of manager Don Revie who, after the 1973-1974 season ended, left the club to become manager of the England national team. His replacement, Brian Clough, was a former player who had worked wonders as a manager at Derby County, dragging the team up to the top flight and to the league title. One the one hand, it looked like following on from one brilliant manager to another.

On the other hand, well, that’s the story of The Damned United, first a novel by David Peace and then a movie, directed by Tom Hooper with Michael Sheen (current Wales national team hype man) as Clough. They cover Clough’s rocky 44-day stint at the helm of Leeds and the culture clash that led to his ultimate downfall. It’s never a good sign when the new boss comes in and declares that all your prior success was down to “cheating” and you were going to start winning the “right way” now that he’s here.

I saw the movie first around the time it came out, based more on the good reviews than any particular interest in the story itself. Sports movies tend to be built around cliches leading to the “big game” and, honestly, once you’ve seen a few what’s the point of another? What makes The Damned United so interesting is that it turns the cliche on its head – rather than being about a coach who pulls together a group of underperforming misfits into a team of winners, it’s about a team of winners slowly falling apart. Honestly, it would be a good case study for a management class or something, a cautionary tale of how someone so convinced of his own brilliance can get things so wrong.

The biggest difference between the movie and the book was Clough’s motivation and general attitude about all this. Both portray Clough as a supreme egotist, convinced that he’s right about everything related to soccer (Peace uses the word multiple times in the book, so back off) and everyone else is wrong. In the movie, this comes across as more hopeful delusion than anything else. He has a better way to play the game, one that prioritizes attack and frowns on the “dark arts,” and that’s what’s driving him. He wants to improve things, elevate them.

Novel Clough is, by contrast, a complete rage-driven asshole.  This is evident in the book because we’re entirely in Clough’s head, privy to all his thoughts and the loathing he has for just about everyone and every place. While his wife and children come out unscathed (though they’re press so far to the edges that he might as well have been a bachelor, for the book’s purposes), he even goes after his assistant manager/partner Peter Taylor, with whom he had already had (and would again have) great success. It’s unclear at points whether he really wants to reform Leeds or drive them into a ditch. Clough’s head is, for the most part, a frightening place to be.

To be fair, the novel gives Clough some basis for his anger, giving us more detail on his playing and prior managerial career than the movie does. Primarily, we get Clough’s bitterness at his playing career being cut short by a knee injury. I think movie Clough mentions his goal-scoring tally at one point, but book Clough returns to it again and again. It is impressive – 251 goals in 274 games – but comes with a major caveat: all but a handful of those came in the Second Division, making Clough sort of a Crash Davis of English football, without Crash’s recognition that records in a lower league don’t mean all that much.

The other pillar of novel Clough’s anger is his belief that he should be manager of the England national team. This makes his taking over Leeds all the more fraught, given that he thinks Revie doesn’t deserve the England job. It adds an additional layer to the way that Revie haunts Elland Road (Leeds’ stadium) after he’s gone, like a millstone ghost hung around Clough’s neck. That he goes so far as to destroy and burn Revie’s desk is extreme, but you can kind of see where he’s coming from.

Aside from that, the novel and movie tell the same story. I think the movie does it better, partly because I found Peace’s style – which makes copious use of repetition of words (usually in threes) – annoying. As usual, I consumed the book via audio and even with the narrator’s cadence giving it some life, it felt overdone, as if the book (not that long to begin with) could have been a third shorter without it. And I can see why Clough’s family was upset with both the book and movie. One review I read noted that the three main characters – Clough, Revie, and Leeds midfielder/captain Billy Bremner – were all dead at the time the book came out. You can’t libel the dead, after all. Another Leeds player, Johnny Giles, did win a libel lawsuit about the book, although given British libel laws I’m not sure how much that means about what is, after all, a work of fiction.

That said, I kind of wish both book and movie had an epilogue of some sort. If you weren’t a soccer fan you’d think that Clough crashed and burned at Leeds and that was it, his days of success over. In actuality, he went on to even greater heights afterwards, leading Nottingham Forrest to not one but two European Cups (what they call the Champions League these days), an amazing feat for a club that size. Never got to manage England, however.

Art Isn’t Easy, But It Must Be Human, Right?

Like most writers (I think) I have way more ideas than I can handle, meaning that promising concepts often languish for years while I work on other things. You always think there will be time to go back and develop the good ones, but that might not be true. The sudden explosion in art generated by artificial intelligence makes me think a future I dreamed up years ago is here now, for better or worse.

The idea I had was that a group of computer scientists had built a super computer that, when fed with enough examples of a particular kind of art, could then produce the “perfect” example of whatever it had been fed. The computer, at the time the story would have started, had already written a best-selling mystery novel and created some impressive visual art, too. For its next project it would take on music, leading the cranky main character to show the world that music was a human endeavor that machines could never match. I actually started this story a couple times, but it never got very far.

If I were to try and finish it now it would become more historical fiction that sci-fi, as AI art is really getting its moment in the sun. I’d seen some people on Twitter playing around with various programs where you give it a text prompt and it produces a picture. Some of them were kind of neat, others were horrifically creepy in an unintentional way. It all seemed like a lark until somebody took one to a state fair.

A guy named Jason Allen submitted an artwork called “Théâtre D’opéra Spatial,” which, from the presentation of it in this New York Times article, looks like something from a sci-fi or fantasy cover from the 1970s or 1980s. That’s no criticism – it’s pretty cool and I could see it prompting some interesting stories.

Allen submitted the work in the Colorado State Fair’s art competition, specifically in a category for “artistic practice that uses digital technology as part of the creative or presentation process.” The “digital technology” in this case is an AI program/website called Midjourney. It and similar setups work this way:

Apps like DALL-E 2 and Midjourney are built by scraping millions of images from the open web, then teaching algorithms to recognize patterns and relationships in those images and generate new ones in the same style. That means that artists who upload their works to the internet may be unwittingly helping to train their algorithmic competitors.

In other words, a user like Allen feeds text inputs into Midjourney, which then comes up with an image attempting to match the prompt. The process itself sounds like it could be excruciating, tweaking terms one word at a time to see what impact it might have on the final process (as someone who does that with legal search terms every day, I sympathize).

As an experiment, I found a freebie one of these to play around with. I fed it “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion” and got back these:

Pretty nifty, huh?

All of this would have had the air of a neat experiment or side story, had Allen and his work not won the category (and the $300 that went with it). For what it’s worth, I think Allen is clearly right that he didn’t break any rules. They apparently didn’t define “digital technology” to exclude AI or to only include tools wielded by humans on art they created, so good on him for exploiting the loophole.

But that isn’t the real question. The issue that has people upset about Allen’s win is whether his AI-generated painting is really “art” at all and what it means for human artists. The objections seem to break down along two lines.

The first is, well, that machines just can’t make art or, rather, “art” made by machines lacks something that human-made art does. As someone who at least tries to make art, of the written and aural variety, I’d like to think there’s something to this. On the other hand, as someone who makes electronic music specifically, I’m well aware of the history of musicians (and others) panicking at the onset of some new technological advance. British session musicians in the 1960s were initially super pissed at the Mellotron, one of my favorite instruments, because it was going to put them out of work. It didn’t, of course, because Mellotron strings or flutes or voices never sound quite real, which is part of its charm. Sequencers and drum machines, too, got similar hate for not being “real,” which ignores the fact that what makes them interesting is that they don’t sound “real” in the first place.

But in those examples there’s still a human being pushing the buttons, doing the work. But isn’t that what Allen did? He apparently tried numerous strings of search terms before getting images he liked, tweaking them as he went along. Is that so different than finding a synth patch you like, then using the tools of the synth to shape and sculpt it into something unique and personal? It’s not as if Allen sat down, had a conversation with the AI about what he was looking for, and the AI went away and created. All is doing was responding to prompts Allen gave it which is, for practical purposes, all any artistic medium does.

 The second objection feels more immediately justified, but doesn’t quite hold up under close scrutiny. As I said earlier, these AI image generators work by “scraping” millions of images already on the internet and using them as grist for the images the AI generates. This, to some, sounds a little like machines stealing the work of real human artists. Admittedly, I’d be pissed off if I found out some AI writing thing had scraped some of my stories as fuel for its work. But is that gut reaction reasonable?

After all, what are artists if not meat machines that absorb as influences the works of those who came before them? There’s even a well-known saying to the effect that “good artists copy, great artists steal,” although who said it is a mystery (I heard it from Zappa first, I think). Granted, a computer algorithm can absorb a lot more data than a human brain can in a lifetime, but does that make a difference? We’re hashing that out in the legal realm with regards to the Fourth Amendment and whether computers doing what police would never have the time to do themselves raises questions about the constitutionality of searches. Is the difference between Allen feeding the AI prompts and sitting down with a human artist and saying “here’s the kind of stuff I like, can you do one in that style?” one of kind or degree?

Which is where, I think, humans have it all over machines. As slick as any AI is, all it can do is what people have programmed it to do. A machine has yet to wake up one day and decide “I’m going to paint a flower.” I’m not sure they ever will, although I’m not sure I’d bet against it. There’s something to be said for humanity for having the creative urge in the first place.

Ultimately, this issue is one more in the long line of humans worrying about becoming obsolete. Machines and computers do more and more of our jobs. They’re getting to be a bigger part of law enforcement. And now they’re coming for the arts. It was probably inevitable. It’s worth shifting, then, to wondering not whether AI can make art, but whether it can appreciate it. Show a group of humans the same painting or movie or play for them the same song and you’re likely to have numerous reactions to it. Maybe it’s the reaction, not the creation, that is indelibly human?

Weekly Watch: The Most Dangerous Animal of All

One of my favorite David Fincher movies (of which there are several) is Zodiac. What makes it work so well isn’t that it “solves” one of the most infamous cold cases in American history, but that it compellingly portrays how the obsession with trying to solve something that might not be solvable can ruin a person’s life. In the end, it becomes less a triumph of perseverance and grit than a pathetic throwing away of a life’s potential.

The four-episode documentary series The Most Dangerous Animal of All, adapted from a book of the same name, is an interesting companion piece to Zodiac, although I’d hesitate to call it perfect.

It’s about Gary Stewart, who was adopted as an infant into a loving family. For decades, he struggled with questions of his real identity and what it meant to be abandoned by his birth parents, so he started working to track them down. He found his birth mother easily enough and through her learned that his father was a guy named Earl Van Best, Jr.

Best was a bad dude at the time he met Stewart’s mother. And by “met” I really mean kidnapped, raped, and abused. He was 27 years old at the time, she was only 14. Their “love affair” even made headlines, allowing Stewart to get not just a feel for the circumstances of his birth but pictures and even some in-court film of his father when he was eventually caught, convicted, and sentenced for his crimes.

All that was bad enough, but then Stewart, armed with a mugshot of his father, saw a documentary on the Zodiac killer and that iconic drawing of the suspect:

Stewart realized it looked a lot like his father. This sets him off on an odyssey to determine whether his father was, in fact, Zodiac and solve this coldest of cold cases. Through the first three of the four episodes, Stewart marshals his evidence and it sounds pretty compelling. He wrote the book upon which the series was based and then, well, it all went to shit.

What’s particularly interesting is, according to this article, said going to shit started happening while this documentary was in production. This left the creators in a pickle – how to deal with the evidence that seemed to show that Stewart’s argument that Best was Zodiac was full of shit? The way they handled it was to present, point by point, experts debunking each of Stewart’s claims – to him. Essentially, they made the documentary on one track, all the while building the case against Best as the Zodiac (culminating in records showing he wasn’t even in the United States when the Zodiac killings took place) on another, only bringing them together in the end.

The result is compellingly awkward. You might expect that Stewart, confronted with the evidence contradicting his theory (some of which implies he just made shit up), that Stewart would come clean or break down in some way, blame the stress of his quest for driving him down this particular rabbit hole. Instead, he steadfastly holds onto his conclusion that his birth father – who had nothing to do with raising him – is the Zodiac killer.

To what end? It’s not clear. Maybe it’s because Stewart is so desperate for a personal history, an identity that latching onto one that horrible is preferable to not having one at all. Maybe it’s that, if he’s going to be the offspring of a monster, anyway (which Best, by all evidence, was), might as well be the offspring of one of the most infamous (and unidentified) monsters of all time? Or, maybe it was all a grift, with Stewart coming up with a slick way to monetize his search into his background.

I don’t think it’s the last one. From the documentary it really appears that Stewart believes the story he’s trying to sell. Either of the others are heart wrenching, in their own way, and make you feel sorry for him. Which is what makes this series so compelling – come for the potential true crime bombshell, stay for the fascinating portrait of a man who is so wrapped up in the distant past that he can’t come to grips with the more recent version.

Talking Is Good 

Better Call Saul wound up being one of my favorite bits of TV ever (Emmy voters be damned!).

I even like it better than Breaking Bad (which I’ve now seen all of, thank you). Partly it’s because Jimmy/Saul is a lawyer and so his character resonates more with me (he is one of our patron saints, after all), but mostly I think it’s because I find Jimmy/Saul’s character arc more compelling than Walter White’s. White’s was more viscerally terrifying at time, but the fate of Jimmy/Saul (not to mention Kim Wexler) hit me right in the feels.

So why was I so disappointed by the series finale? It wasn’t bad, far from it, and I’ve got no real beef with how character arcs wrapped up. I sort of thought the very end should have come while Jimmy/Saul was on the bus headed to prison and all the other inmates were chanting “better call Saul!”, as it would have indicated just how he was never going to be able to outrun his past, but I don’t begrudge he and Kim one last smoke.

A nitpick here about that prison, though. My federal public defender self got overly excited during the scene where Jimmy/Saul is negotiating his deal with the Government. There was talk of the US Sentencing Guidelines! He even mentioned being sent to FCI Butner, a real facility in North Carolina where Bernie Madoff (not to mention several of my clients over the years) did his time. Hooray for verisimilitude! So why, then, was his final destination a fictional prison, ADX Montrose, that was clearly a stand in for ADX Florence, the real “Alcatraz of the Rockies?” There must be a reason, but damned if I can figure it out. Maybe I’m just miffed because Montrose was the name of my elementary school.

Anyway, back to the bigger question – what was it about the finale that left me unsatisfied? Ultimately, I think it was that everything happened too quickly. Better Call Saul (like Breaking Bad before it) was never a show to rush things, sometimes coming in for criticism for being too slow to move things along (a criticism with which I don’t agree, by the way). You couldn’t say that about the finale, though, which breezes through a good chunk of time in a single hour (mostly). It felt a little forced.

Was it because I wanted more Guideline talk? Not really, but I think “talk” was something that was missing. By the time the finale rolled around the show’s two main characters, Jimmy/Saul and Kim, were worlds apart (geographically and otherwise) not just from themselves, but from anybody else. Kim had coworkers and a boyfriend down in Florida but was keeping them at arm’s length. There certainly wasn’t anyone she could confide in about things. Jimmy/Saul didn’t even really have that much, unless you count all those cinnamon roll delivers to the guy from Parks and Rec.

As a result, the decisions they make and the way they reach those decision occur entirely inside the characters’ heads. I’m not saying they don’t make sense in the end, but there’s no way to really have them grapple with their decisions because there’s no one for them to talk to. As it happens, I just read the novel Fletch (the movie was better) which gets around this clumsily by having the titular reporter dictate his thoughts into a tape recorder which is at least something.

Of course, it’s easier to handle a situation like this on paper than it is on screen. Novelists or short story writers can easily open up a character’s skull and dive in, charting as the synapses fire while the character develops a plan. Short of a voiceover there’s no good way to do the same on film or television (or radio/podcast), aside from having characters talk to other people. Which is why it’s worth thinking about how characters are going to work things out if you strip away anybody else to talk to.

Talking, as the song says, is good. It’s a good rule for real life and it’s an even better thing to keep in mind when writing fiction.

Weekly Watch: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Last year, in my review of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery, I laid out how I’m not really a fan of nu-Trek and was happy to let the rest of that series go on without me. What really dragged it down for me was that it didn’t feel very “Trekky” and it was too slavishly devoted to the modern streaming serialized storytelling ideal.

So along comes Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Another prequel (of sorts), but also a spinoff of something that occurred in a subsequence season of Discovery, Strange New Worlds gets us back on the Enterprise during the time it was commanded by Christopher Pike. Pike is well known to original Trek fans as the guy from the pilot (replaced by Kirk for the series), with said pilot being cut up for use in a later episode that reveals Pike to be horribly injured, but with great loyalty from Spock.

 Although I’m skeptical of prequels, I thought I’d give Strange New Worlds a shot, for a few reasons. First, since there’s not a lot out there on the pre-Kirk Enterprise, I figured there was some room to tell some cool stories. Second, given that this is the Enterprise we’re talking about here and the name of the show is Strange New Worlds, I hoped it would lean into the exploration angle more than Discovery did. Finally, what I read about the show suggested it was going to be less serialized and more “mission-of-the-week,” which, again, provided some room for good stories (and to not be stuck dealing with the aftereffects of bad ones).

I’m fairly happy with how Strange New Worlds met those expectations. The prequel part is the least successful, I feel. It’s one thing to have certain characters involved because we know they were there from original Trek (Spock & Chapel, mostly), but is there a particular reason the security chief has to be named Noonien-Singh?. And isn’t Kirk’s fight with the rubber-suited guy supposed to be first contact with the Gorn? Then there’s the final episode of the first season, which is a take on the original Trek episode “Balance of Terror” (the one where we first meet the Romulans), where Kirk himself shows up. There’s more of him promised for season two, as well, which makes me worry that the writers aren’t confident in the new stories they have to tell and will keep wrapping in known characters from the show as crutches. I won’t get into potential continuity issues with the original Trek stuff (it makes my head hurt) except to say, again, what’s the point of a prequel if it doesn’t lock in certain things about your world?

 All that said, most of the stories told in the first season of Strange New Worlds are really good, some inching towards great. As promised, the episodes do tend to stand alone, which provides a good variety of atmospheres (so to speak). “Children of the Comet” is a pretty cool culture clash story, with the do-gooders on the Enterprise confronted with religious dogma. “Spock Amok,” in addition to having fun body-switching, has a diplomatic plot that reminded me of something out of Babylon 5 (high praise from me). “The Elysian Kingdom” was probably my favorite, using a typical old-school Trek plot device (an energy being!) as an excuse to dress everybody up in fantasy garb to push to a really heart-wrenching ending (sort of). Then there’s the aforementioned “A Quality of Mercy,” which “what if?”s that classic Trek episode in a pretty satisfying way.

My only real beef is that the writers had a lot of issues with endings (I can sympathize – endings are hard). Take “The Elysian Kingdom,” for example, which looks like it’s going to end on a note of melancholy uncertainty as the ship’s doctor says goodbye to his ill daughter who is going to live with/as the nearby energy being. Rather than leave this unsettled – you think you do the best thing but how can you know? – the writers went ahead and threw in a little more to make sure of a happy ending. Not bad, but could have been better. There were a couple of other episodes that went the same way, headed towards really great but they couldn’t stick the landing. Or, alternately, they didn’t do more with it, as in the episode that was less a riff than a cover of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (should have started with that ending and explored what it means).

And I have to say that while these stories were mostly self contained, there was an overarching theme to the season in terms of characters, particularly Pike. Apparently, in the Discovery episodes that spawned Strange New Worlds, Pike learns his eventual fate as we’ve seen from original Trek (it’s unclear if he learned he’ll become a running joke on Futurama) and so in this season he’s trying to figure out if there’s a way around that end. That’s what triggers “A Quality of Mercy,” but Pike confronts it several other times during the season. It’s well done.

Which is to say, I’m cautiously optimistic about the second season. Given results thus far, I’m willing to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that we won’t be overwhelmed by Kirks (Jim’s brother is on this ship, too, for some reason) and we’ll be introduced to more strange new worlds.

I Meant to Do That

Make a Jazz Noise Here, one of the live albums documenting Frank Zappa’s final tour, kicks off with a rousing version of “Stinkfoot” which ends, as his opening numbers tend to do, with an introduction of the various people in the band. At the end of the roster is Ed Mann, Zappa’s long-time percussionist. Zappa explains that prior to the show one of the fans came up to Mann and “treated like a war criminal” because he “fucked up” a riff in a song called “Dicky’s Such an Asshole” (it’s about Nixon) at a show weeks before. Zappa explains how the people who come to the show listen so carefully that he wanted to take time to allow Mann to “warm up” for that big riff by practicing it right now. The band drops out and Mann plays the riff perfectly. Then he says something to the effect of “here’s how we played it that night” and plays a different riff. The band cranks on, point made.

The point was, of course, that Mann hadn’t “fucked up” anything weeks before, he’d played the riff differently on purpose (at Zappa’s insistence, or at least with his blessing, surely). In other words, when a professional is doing something, maybe assume that they’ve got everything under control and what seems like a mistake to you might actually be completely intentional.

I thought about that episode when I came across this column from April by Damon Young. It’s entitled “A letter to that man who emailed me to correct my grammar” and, well, it’s brilliant. Young is a regular at the Washington Post and has a long string of credits, including a book of essays that won the 2020 Thurber Prize for American Humor. It’s safe to say he knows his way around words.

He certainly has no problem claiming that expertise, as the first line of the response column is “I’m better at this than you are at everything you do.” Harsh, but probably fair. Later, he digs into the specific complaints of the email:

In your email, you declared that my use of the word “ain’t” was a “really poor choice,” corrected my use of “them,” and demanded that I don’t try to sound like I’m “still in the street.”

If you were better at this than I am, you would know, as I do, that the rules of grammar are mostly suggestions. Guardrails to help us corral and curate the mess in our heads into something cohesive.

***

You would also know — if you were better at this than I am — that sentences are music. And that both sentences and music are math. Equations. Beats separated by pauses. Microbursts of energy clustered and cut and culled to find balance. You would know that sometimes “ain’t” just fits in a way that “isn’t” or “is not” does not. Same with “them” instead of “those.” You would know that even the choice of “does not” at the end of the above sentence instead of “doesn’t” was intentional, because of the repetitious rhythm of “does not” existing immediately after “is not.” You would know that short phrases lead to shorter sentences, which punch in a way that longer ones sometimes can’t. Like this just did. You would know that “ain’t” ain’t a signifier of being “still in the street.” You would know that “still in the street” ain’t do what you think it did. You would know that writing a thing like that just proves you’re a living anachronism. But not in a romantic way, like a streetcar or a Ferris wheel. But like cigarette smoke indoors.

I mean, damn, that’s gotta’ sting.

Young is right, of course – rules are meant to be broken. But beyond that, what he’s saying (I think) is that people who break rules know they’re doing it and have a good reason to do so. That’s why as a writer or musician or whatever it’s important to learn the rules, even if you intend to ignore them completely in your creations. Rules, even as suggestions, have some value in generating expectations among your audience and if you’re going to confront them with something different it’s best to both realize it and question whether it’s worth it. Young, clearly, knew the score and what he was doing.

Of course, when it comes to rules, Young has broken one of the cardinal ones in even writing this piece. Writers are repeatedly (and correctly, in my opinion) advised never to engage with critics or reviews of their work, even positive ones. It’s a hard firewall we’re supposed to put up to avoid being dragged into the social media muck. Go blow off steam with your spouse or writing buddies, but, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t respond online.

But again, Young knows what he’s doing. He knows the rule about responding to critics and decided that, in this instance and in this way, he should break it. As such, this pieces serves as a bit of wish fulfillment for writers everywhere who don’t have the courage (or the skill) to clap back at critics.

Inspiration Strikes at Odd Times

So, you know how I’ve released two volumes of the Unari Empire Trilogy, right? That would be Gods of the Empire and Widows of the Empire.

What about the final volume, you might ask, Heroes of the Empire? Any update on it? Yes, friends, and it’s good news!

But first, some context.

Although Widows just came out last fall, I’ve been working on Heroes since about a year before that. It was my NaNoWriMo project in 2020, so I started writing it in November of that year. I “won” that year, but the book was nowhere near finished, so I kept working on it into the new year. By June of 2021, according to a timestamp on the Word file, I had something saved as “First Draft.” Except it really wasn’t.

What had happened is that I got about 80% through the draft and my creativity came to a complete halt. I didn’t have a good idea of how to bring things in for a landing, so rather than try to push through the end, I took a different approach.

In my day job, sometimes I take pieces of legal writing from others in my office and synthesize them into a single brief. It’s safe to say that each of the attorneys in my office has a different voice and just cutting and pasting won’t work to produce a clear, readable final product. So I have lots of experience rewriting the words of others to produce a smoother end product.

When I wrote Moore Hollow and The Water Road I did the same thing – I took my first draft of each book and rewrote them completely, filling in any shallow bits and using the quicker pace to connect up things better. It worked well, but I hadn’t felt a need to write that way for the other books that followed.

Until Heroes. Since I was stuck I decided to pull a Bruford and go back to the beginning again and rewrite the first draft. According to yWriter I started that process last April and everything went swimmingly for a while, until things bogged down again. In particular, when I got to that ending, I just completely lost momentum. It wasn’t that I didn’t know where the story was going to end up, I just didn’t quite know how it was going to happen.

Last week I was bogged down (again) in what I thought was the next-to-last chapter. It shifts POVs a lot as the climax happens and that made it hard to write, anyway. Otherwise, I was just kind of drifting.

Then I got up to take a piss one night.

I was up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, my mind barely functioning, when it hit me. This was out of the blue inspiration of the kind I don’t generally have. The solution was simple – a short time skip to move straight to the consequences of what we’re seeing, rather than the details of the incident itself. I was so stoked I couldn’t really get back to sleep (which made work the next day quite a drag).

This is a long way of saying, this past weekend, I finally put the final words of the first draft of Heroes of the Empire into yWriter! It’s finished! Well, I mean, it tells a complete story. Now comes the fun part, the several rounds of edits, but at least I can see the end of the process at this point.

Thus, coming late this year or (more likely) early next, the final, gripping part of the Unari Empire story, Heroes of the Empire.

Weekly Watch: The Staircase(s)

A few weeks ago, in my list of favorite movies, I mentioned that Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Murder On a Sunday Morning, went on to direct The Staircase, an epic (it eventually had 13 episodes) true-crime documentary about the death of Kathleen Peterson and the trial of her husband, Michael. It is basically the urtext of the modern true-crime doc boom. So when I heard that someone had made a non-documentary miniseries not only about the Peterson case but about the documentary itself, I wondered whether this was something the world really needed. Having binged it over a weekend I’m still not sure it was necessary, but it certainly was interesting.

The base facts of the case are fairly simple – in December 2001, Peterson found his wife dead at the bottom of a set of stairs in their home. The scene of her death was seriously bloody, evidence of a violent and tormented death. Everything else is supremely complicated. Peterson was charged with murdering his wife and eventually convicted, but his trial was rife with prosecutorial misconduct and expert witness fraud, leading to the conviction being overturned. Rather than go through with a second trial and risk going back to prison, Peterson eventually entered what’s called an Alford plea to manslaughter, in which he did not admit responsibility for his wife’s death (the point of an Alford plea is to allow a defendant to get the benefit of pleading guilty while maintaining their innocence – admittedly, it’s counterintuitive).

Part of what made the documentary series so riveting is that Lestrade and his team basically embedded with Peterson, his defense team, and his family, providing the kind of in-the-moment access that most true-crime docs can only dream of. The crew initially had similar access to the prosecution team, but that waned as the case went on.

Given that the documentary was such an interior view of proceedings, what does the miniseries bring to the table that it couldn’t?

Primarily, it brings life to Kathleen Peterson, whose death hovers over the documentary but who isn’t given any chance to be developed as a person. The miniseries splits its timeline three ways, with one being events leading up to Kathleen’s death. It does a good job of bringing to life someone who tends to get overlooked in the whole true crime genre and Toni Collette does a great job with the part.

Another thing the miniseries gives us is a more in depth look at the Peterson family and how the trial impacted them. The way that family was put together would strain fiction – two sons from Peterson’s prior marriage, a daughter from Kathleen’s prior marriage, and two adopted daughters whose mother had died in Germany (at the bottom of a set of stairs, no less!). They pull apart in different ways as the miniseries goes on and lends a real sense of how a case like this grinds up everyone who is caught up in it.

Finally, the meta touch of the miniseries is that it includes the makers of the documentary in it as characters. With one notable exception this really isn’t commented upon that much, as in large part their presence is simply noted in the background as filming takes place. The exception – and it is a doozy – is that the editor of the documentary wound up in a multi-year romantic relationship with Peterson while he was in prison, casting her objectivity into doubt (she has issues with some of the facts portrayed in the series – and isn’t the only one – but doesn’t deny the relationship). I mean, it’s an “ooh, I didn’t know that” moment, but unless you think documentaries are rigorous exercises in balance the idea that the documentary had a POV (and it was that Peterson was innocent) doesn’t come as a shock.

But is he innocent? It’s here that I find the differences between the documentary and the miniseries have the most interesting effect.

As I said, the doc is largely framed through the trial itself and the ways the state’s case is shaky (and the doc doesn’t even include an entire state’s expert witness whose testimony was struck for perjury!). That plays into, at least in my criminal defense lawyer brain, the presumption of innocence. If it can’t be proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he did it then he didn’t right? The Alford plea at the end of things is meaningless in this regard as the entire point is that it allows a defendant to take a deal while maintaining innocence. There’s a burden and the state didn’t meet it. Simple as that.

But the miniseries, perhaps because of its broader scope, leaves me less certain. I think it’s that in paring away a lot of the legal wrangling you’re left with there being, basically, two stories of what happened – one in which Peterson killed Kathleen for not particularly well explained reasons and one in which it was simply a horrible accident. Neither story accounts for all the physical evidence and the only person who knows the truth, Peterson, has issues with honesty. I still think, if I was on a civil jury, I’d find that he didn’t do it, but it would be a much closer question.

So back to the original question – did we need a fictional take on The Staircase (aside from the incredibly funny Trial and Error)? Probably not. In truth, the miniseries doesn’t shed any more light on the case or the people involved. It does allow for some dramatic speculation, however, about areas that were beyond the scope of the documentary. So necessary? No. Worth a watch? Absolutely.

“Trust” – A Short Story

As promised, here’s the other new short story for your reading pleasure. This one was from the NYC Midnight short story context last year. For that one I had to write a sci-fi story involving “shared custody” and “a liar.” Difficult assignment, but I think I came up with a neat way to handle it.

Without further ado – “Trust”


Shaylan was reduced to this – trying to find the doorbell of a spaceship.

Hand Cannot Erase sat alone in the far outer ring of the docking station. Aside from a few hoses running to it from various huge vats it looked like a museum piece. No lights blinking. No ramp deployed for crew or visitors to easily enter. No one climbing over the outside of the ship, making last minute repairs.

She looked around one more time then pulled out her hand terminal. She was in the right place – where was her welcoming party? She thought her message, watched the text appear on the terminal, and then zip into the aether. “I’m here?”

A moment passed before her terminal buzzed. “Shit! Sorry!”

From the other side of the ship came a rush of air and a mechanical whirring noise, like machinery operating over protest.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Asulon said as she ran around to where Shaylan was standing. “I thought it was half past, wasn’t it half past?”

Shaylan held up her terminal. “It is half past.” She snapped off a quick salute, hoping it didn’t look too practiced. “Shaylan Moore, reporting for duty.”

The ship’s executive officer waved off the formality. “Save it for Captain Bhemhath. Come on, I’ll introduce you around.”

Inside, Hand Cannot Erase was tight and utilitarian. There was no wasted space, with access panels and storage cubbies along every corridor. Shaylan and Asulon couldn’t even walk through the corridors side-by-side.

“I was so glad when I saw your file,” Asulon said over her shoulder. “It’ll be nice to have another human on board.”

“Another?” Shaylan asked. She hadn’t given any thought to the makeup of the ship’s crew. All she knew was that there were seven of them, including her, and some of them were aliens. She’d said she didn’t have a problem with that in the interview, but she wasn’t sure it had been true.

“It’s just you and me, sister.” Asulon stopped and turned. “There’s nothing wrong, they’re all great, you’ll see. It just takes some time to learn everyone’s quirks. It’ll just be nice to have someone else familiar around.”

“Sure.” Shaylan didn’t know how closely Asulon had read her file. This we her first time on a ship, her first time off planet. She’d seen aliens out and about, like everybody, but she’d never worked with them. Certainly not in close quarters like this.

Asulon led her around a few more bends before she turned into an opening, knocking on the doorway on her way in. “Good! Looks like just about everybody is here.”

Shaylan turned the corner into what appeared to be the galley and conference room. Three aliens were sitting around the table, murmuring to each other. Nearby was a fourth, a green, gaseous blob about three feet in circumference, floating on the air like a dandelion seed. A tendril appeared from one side and wiggled at Shaylan.

“That’s Khels, our navigator,” Asulon said, before going down the line. “That’s Es’un, our pilot.”

Es’un, a spindly grey being with eye stalks and at least four arms, waved one of them. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Shaylan said, with a nod, thankful she had her translator implant refurbished before she arrived.

Asulon pointed to a thick, blue-scaled, lizard being who barely fit in the ship. “That’s Qhaax, head of security. Don’t worry, he’s not as crabby as he looks.”

Qhaax frowned, but didn’t object.

“And this is Zingaell, our cargo specialist,” Asulon said, pointing to a tall, thin, bald, green biped. “Don’t believe anything he says and you’ll be all right.”

The others all nodded, even Khels, somehow.

Shaylan was about to ask was Asulon meant about Zingaell when an electronic chime sounded.

“Sorry, gotta go,” Asulon said. “Captain wants me on the bridge.” She turned back to the table. “Can one of you show her to her quarters?”

Zingaell stood and nodded.

“Thanks, Zing,” Asulon said, slapping Shaylan on the back. “Welcome aboard!”

Zingaell slipped past her, into the corridor. “Come. Your quarters aren’t far.”

As they walked, Shaylan couldn’t shake the idea that this being, part of her new crew, wasn’t trustworthy. She had to ask. “What was all that about not believing anything you say?”

“A joke, nothing more,” he said, turning another corner. “You’ll learn that our fellow crewmembers think they are much funnier than they really are. You can rely on me just as much as any of them.”

Shaylan nodded, trying to shrug it off. “Sorry. Should have figured as much.”

He stopped at the next door, which was already open. “You’re in here. There are instructions for setting the biometric locks inside.”

“Thanks,” Shaylan said. “What do I do next?”

“I’ll let the captain know you’re settling in,” Zingaell said.

“Will you let me know if he needs me to come see him?” Shaylan didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot.

“Of course,” he said, smiling a thin-lipped smile.

Shaylan stepped inside and stowed her gear. She found the biometric instructions and coded the door lock to her eye scan, with a two-password backup. Intending to review the details of their last job, she flopped onto the bed and quickly fell asleep..

~~~~~

Shaylan awoke to pounding on her door, angry muffled thumps. She shook her head and heard a voice join in, gravelly and agitated.

“Moore? You already asleep on the job? I’ll toss you out the airlock if you don’t get out here now!”

“Captain?” Shaylan said, head still hazy. Reality clicked in quickly. She jumped off the bed, smoothed her jumpsuit, and ran to open the door. “Captain Bhemhath!”

On the other side of the door stood a squat, hairy biped with short arms. His face and hands were covered in silver grey fur. “This is not the best way to start our relationship.”

“I know, sir,” Shaylan said, fighting the urge to kneel so she could look him in the eye. “I must have dozed off. I thought Zingaell was going to come get me?”

Bhemhath shook his head. “Didn’t anyone tell you not to believe anything he says?”

“Yes, sir, XO Asulon did,” Shaylan said. Before she could go further, the captain cut her off.

“Well, do what the XO says. That’s how a ship works. I tell her what to do, she tells the crew what to do, and it gets done. Get it?” He put his hands on his hips and tapped one foot.

“Yes, sir,” she said and decided her confusion about Zingaell could wait. “Is there something I can do for you, sir?”

He nodded. “Grab your hand terminal and get down to the galley. I want to go over your duties with you and Asulon. Five minutes!” He stormed away down the corridor.

Shaylan took a moment to splash water on her face, grabbed her terminal, and headed toward the galley. She wasn’t about to be late.

~~~~~

Life on board settled into an easy routine. Shaylan’s job was to analyze potential targets for acquisition. Captain Bhemhath didn’t like the word “salvage” – “makes us sound like carrion eaters,” he’d said – preferring to think of them as engaging in targeted waste disposal. Shaylan had an office just off the cargo bay where she surveyed wrecks and other jobs, matched them with potential buyers, and figured out how much junk the ship could haul at once. After she saw the cargo bay she understood why the rest of Hand Cannot Erase was so tight and cramped – as much room as possible was given over to cargo.

Everything ran so smoothly that she didn’t get a chance to talk to Zingaell. She wanted to confront him about how he let her face the captain’s wrath, but their schedules were mixed up. They’d pass in the corridor, each on the way to somewhere else. They were never in the galley at the same time, able to strike up a casual conversation.

One day, Shaylan went to get tea on her break and found Khels floating near the dehydrator. She had to start somewhere. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” the green blob said, sounding like a drunken angel.

“It’s about Zingaell.”

The blob nodded, Shaylan was certain of it.

“When I first came on, Asulon told me not to believe anything he said,” Shaylan explained. “Then, after he left me high and dry with the captain, the captain said the same thing. How do you all work with someone you can’t trust?”

“There is no question of whether you can trust Zing,” the blob said. “He is eminently trustable. You will know that after working with him. Set him a task and he does it. Ask for help and he provides it. He is critical to what we do.”

“Then why can’t I believe what he says?”

Khels floated closer to her, like it was going to whisper. “You’ve never met a Thulean have you?”

Shaylan shook her head.

“Thuleans are incapable of speaking truth. By that, I mean, that they have no way of knowing whether they mean what they say. It’s an odd quirk of their evolution. What did he do that set the captain on you?”

“I asked if he’d let me know if the captain wanted to see me, then he didn’t tell him,” Shaylan said. “He lied to me.”

A tentacle appeared and Khels waved it, a substitute for shaking the head it didn’t have. “Lying requires that the being saying it knows it’s false. Zing doesn’t know that. It’s why you cannot trust anything he says.” It put great emphasis on the last word.

“So he doesn’t lie all the time,” Shaylan said, working it through, “but you never know when he’s telling the truth. Is that it?”

“More or less,” Khels said. “It takes time to read him, to establish the rapport, but don’t worry. You’ll get there.” It floated out of the room.

Shaylan leaned on the counter and sipped her tea. She couldn’t afford to let this fester. She needed to build some trust with Zingaell, quickly.

~~~~~

They made two hauls from wrecks before heading for Keneally Station, which was in orbit above a small, lush moon, to unload. This was where Zingaell was in his element shifting the cargo out, so Shaylan did her best to stay out of his way. She convinced the captain that she needed to go to the surface, “for research,” but all she wanted to do was get away for a while.

Not far from the spaceport she found a walkway that ran along a meandering river. Stalls were set up every few yards with vendors selling all kinds of goods. The sun was strong and warm, the air clingy and damp. It was a welcome change from the dry, sterile environment on the ship. She sampled a local root vegetable on a stick, roasted and covered in a savory brown sauce, while exploring other vendors.

As the river bent around a copse of trees, she saw a small stand set up in their shade. In the pale yellow grass in front of the stand she saw what looked like small, furry meatballs bounding up and down. As she got closer, she could see that they were creatures of some kind – almost perfectly round, with three stumpy legs that made them look like a cotton ball sitting on a stool. The one closest to her turned and gazed at her with its single, large brown eye.

“Oh my gods, they are so cute,” Shaylan said, holding her hand out. The creature jumped into her palm and started rubbing itself against her outstretched thumb. She stood and asked the woman manning the stand, “what are these?”

“Joyrits,” the woman said, snatching up one that had been hopping around the table. “They make wonderful companions. Great source of happiness.”

“How big do they get?” The one in Shaylan’s hand closed its eye as she stroked its back.

“No bigger than this.”

“Really?”

The woman nodded. “These are all full grown. Hypoallergenic, sterile. They’ll never breed, never grow bigger. Only need food or water.”

An idea began to form in Sheylan’s head. “Have they been cleared for transport off planet?”

The woman pointed to a graphic on the tablet laying on the table, displaying the clearance.

“Just a sec,” Shaylan said, putting the creature down in the grass, where it bounded away to join the others. She pulled out her hand terminal and searched for “Joyrit,” to see if she could find anything negative about them. All she found was countless videos of them being adorable. She thought about clearing it with Asulon or even the captain first, but decided to bite the bullet.

“I take two,” she said, waving her hand terminal over the payment droid.

~~~~~

Back on the ship, Shaylan waited until they were underway, then made it a point to track down Zingaell. He was in what passed for the ship’s library, which was really just a couple of seats in front of computer terminals.

“Hey, Zing,” she said, trying to make it sound natural. “Can I borrow you for a moment?”

“Of course not,” he said, then shut down the monitor and stood up. “What do you need?”

“Come with me.” There was a small cubby in the wall, between her office and the cargo door, that she’d managed to convince to remain open all the time. Inside, the small puffballs bounced happily around in an enclosure, chirping quietly.

Zingaell lowered his head and looked at the creatures. “What are those?”

“They’re called Joyrits,” Shaylan said. “Do you have pets on your world?”

Zingaell stiffened. “No. We find them distracting.”

Unsure what to make of his answer, she pressed on. “Well these little things, which I’ve named Bob and Betsy, are pets. They’re our pets.”

Zingaell snapped his head to face her. “Ours?”

“Yes. I want you to help me take care of them. Feed them, play with them every now and then. Keep an eye on them. Would you like to help me with that?”

“No,” he said. “What do I need to do?”

She handed him a sheet of paper.

“This feeding schedule is very detailed,” he said, studying.

“I know,” Shaylan said. “Little guys need to eat a little bit several times a day. I thought we could alternate days, you know? Share the burden, a little bit.”

“May I?” Zingaell nodded toward the habitat. At her nod, he reached in and petted one of the small creatures, eliciting a low, long coo.

“Nice, huh?”

“Not really,” he said, but his manner didn’t match the words. “Do I start today or tomorrow?”

“I’ve got today,” she said nodding.

“I’ll go study, then,” he said, waving the papers. Then he added, “I’ll help you take care of them. You can trust me.”

As Zingaell walked into the corridor, Shaylan felt that, for the first time, she could believe that.


For more of my short fiction, click here. And, yes, the ship is named after the Steven Wilson album.