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.

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.

“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.

Short Fiction Update (With Very Short Story!)

It’s been a while since I had something to say about my short fiction, so here’s an update and a bit of free stuff to read to boot (in this post and the next).

New Story Coming Your Way!

The update is that I’m very happy to have a short story that will be a part of a collection published this fall by Speculation Publications. They do volumes dedicated to a particular weird phenomenon filled with speculative stories explaining that phenomenon. This volume is about the “dancing plague” of 1518 in Strasbourg (in what is now France).

My story took inspiration from the great Fritz Lang film M, in which a group of mobsters unite to catch a serial killer because all the extra police attention is bad for business. More details the closer we get to release day – put on your dancin’ shoes!

More New Stories – One Right Here and Now!

I’ve also got a couple of stories I can share just for the hell of it. They’re both things I wrote for NYC Midnight competition, which I’ve mentioned a couple of time before. This one was written for the microfiction contest earlier this year. Microfiction, in this context, is 100 words or less. For the contest the assignment was to write a ghost story that involved putting flowers in a vase and used the word “free.” Here it is, “The Flowers in the Window”:

Something transitory, a final moment of beauty, is what the medium said. That meant flowers. Rhea had clipped a few stems with brilliant purple blooms from the lilac bush at the corner of the house and put them in a plain white vase on the table by the front window.

That night, she and Jason slept better than they had for months, since the accident. It was a night free from strange noises and freakish breezes.

In the morning, Rhea went downstairs, to the front room. The flowers were gone. She said a silent thanks. Her daughter was finally free.

Short but bittersweet (I hope). Click over to the next post for another new story.

Programming Change

I know that I decided this was going to be my month of lists, but other writing circumstances have conspired to push the final two installments back a week (or two). I’m working on a short story (with an interesting subject) to submit to an anthology that’s due on May 24. I need to focus my energies on that until then, so while I will be back with lists of favorite movies and books, they’ll be delayed a bit.

Wish me luck!

My Black Pages

One of the little bits of world building for the Unari Empire books that I had fun with was thinking through the newspaper situation in Cye. Given the steampunk(ish) setting, it’s the most plausible form of mass media and how it’s regulated says interesting things about the world. Hence, the “real” newspapers are known by how closely aligned they are with the Imperial regime, since to officially publish they need a literal seal approval.

When it came time to write Widows of the Empire I needed to expand my thinking a bit and figure what underground papers might look like and what they might be called. I settled on small papers crammed with type, so much that each page looked nearly black. Naturally, characters refer to them as the “black pages.”

This is not an accident.

Readers of The Water Road and its sequels know that I use a lot of musical references in my books. Lots of places in that series are named after musicians, the more obscure the better! The “black pages” are no different, as I’ve stolen the name from a song (or a few) by Frank Zappa.

Frank originally wrote “The Black Page” as a percussion feature, kind of on a dare. After an orchestral session, drummer Terry Bozio related that some of those players talked about the fear of facing “the black page,” prompting Frank to write his own. The song evolved from a short piece for drums and percussion into a song for a full band, in various guises.

In this video, musician Doug Helvering works through the first two versions of the song, with excerpts from the score to prove the that the song was well named:

A decade after that second version, the song morphed again, into a “New Age Version” that was performed on Zappa’s final tour:

Even laid back, it’s kind of a bear.

Names can be tricky for fantasy and science fiction writers. My suggestion – take inspiration wherever you can, even if it’s in an insanely complex song.

Why Not Just Write Fantasy?

Over the winter my wife and I discovered The Great*, the Hulu series about (very loosely) the early reign of Russian empress Catherine the Great.

While I’m not certain the series quite lives up to the title, it is very entertaining and, in spots, riotously funny. What it definitely lives up to is the little asterisk the end of the title (as displayed in the opening credits, at least), which notes it is either “An Occasionally True Story” (season one) or “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story” (season two).

This post is very much not going to take the show’s creators to task for playing fast and loose with history, particularly since they admit it up front. Truth is, literature and theater and film/TV is full of examples of historical persons or events remolded for dramatic purposes. I know Salieri didn’t really work Mozart to death (they were pretty good buds!), but I still love Amadeus. Dollars to donvts Julius Caesar did not turn to Brutus and “et tu, Brute?” him in real life, but Shakespeare makes it work.

But as a writer, I wonder about the choices other writers made when playing with history. History is full of lots of interesting story fuel, after all. I’ve used some of it myself. I’ve said before that the idea for the basic arc of The Water Road trilogy came from seeing an “on this day” thing on Wikipedia about the anniversary of Napoleon’s return from exile to start the Hundred Days. I thought that sounded like something out of a fantasy series – a vanquished foe returning to the world to wreak further havoc – and wheels started turning in my head.

What never occurred to me was the make the story about Napoleon. I didn’t want to tell his story, but another one that might have echoes of his. Being a fantasy writer that’s not an issue, but with more traditional fiction things can get complicated. After all, a made up character doing made up things is the grist of fiction – sometimes everything even happens in made up places. But a made up town or neighborhood is one thing, what about a made up country?

I got to thinking about this again due to this piece in the New York Times about the recent glut of true-crime limited series that are all over streaming services. Things like Netflix’s Inventing Anna and Hulu’s The Dropout (both pretty good, though I’d go with the latter) are telling true-crime stories of recent vintage that, in most cases, have been thoroughly aired in other settings (Inventing Anna came out of a long-form magazine piece, The Dropout from a podcast of the same name). I don’t agree that just because these stories have been told in other mediums means the fictionalized TV versions are superfluous (not everybody consumes podcasts), but the author makes an interesting point:

Now, it is absolutely true that real life does not always give you neat “Rosebud” explanations; real people are often simply jumbles of unresolved contradictions. But that’s one reason we have drama: to make emotional, if not literal, sense of this kind of figure. (Hence Orson Welles reimagined William Randolph Hearst as Charles Foster Kane.)

Indeed, it seems much easier if you want to tell a story about a particular kind of person to do it with a fictional character rather than a real-life one. Legal issues aside, it allows you to mold and shape the story as dramatic (or comedic!) stakes dictate, without worrying about people complaining that you’re not “getting it right.” After all, fantasy only has to be compelling, not accurate.

So why not, if you want to tell a story that pretty much set in a fantastic version of a historical place, why not make it fantasy? What’s the pull of using a historical figure whose actual history you’re going to discard anyway? I suppose it’s easier to market a series about Catherine the Great (who’s not that well know in the US, anyway) with an ahistorical twist than it is to sell a bloody, bawdy, fantasy series nobody’s heard of before.

As I said, it’s silly to get bent out of shape about The Great’s lack of rigorous historicity. They’re doing something much more fun and not even hiding the fact. Nonetheless, it does make you think.

Come, join us in our fantasy worlds. The water’s fine – unless that’s not what you want! Huzzah!

Hey Kafka (Or, Ruminations on Dead Authors and Duties Owed to Them)

Five years ago I wrote a post about dealing with requests from writers to destroy their unfinished (or other) work upon their death. It was sparked by the destruction of the recently passed Terry Pratchett’s hard drive by running it over with a steamroller, per his desire. As I wrote then:

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchett’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

I got to thinking about this again reading Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.

What I thought was going to be a particularly timely look at the social or political factors behind drives to ban books was actually a love letter to libraries and archives and the need for society to protect and support the collection and retention of knowledge. No great surprise, I suppose, given that Ovenden is the librarian at the famed Bodlean Library at Oxford.

In a couple of chapters, Ovenden discusses particular situations where authors either took affirmative efforts during their lives to destroy their unfinished work or asked executors/family to do the destroying once they were dead. In some instances (like Franz Kafka) it was unfinished work, where some others involved personal papers like letters or notes. Ovenden’s point of view is clearly that any loss of this information is a cultural travesty and implies that the heroes here are people who go against the wishes of their friends/loved ones and preserve their work anyway.

I get that, on the one hand. Destroyed knowledge is pretty much gone, after all, without any hope of getting it back. The world is undeniably richer for having Kafka’s unfinished work or the papers of someone like Sylvia Plath that gives insight into a writer’s life and process. But whose decision is it to make that determination?

The author’s wishes deserve at least some consideration, right? Maybe because in one side of my life I’m a writer and in another I fight battles to vindicate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy (usually unsuccessfully, alas), but airing things the original author never wanted to see the light of day seems like a violation. I’m not sure the world is entitled to anything the author doesn’t want to show it.

As is happens, after Burning the Books, I decided to read one of the most famous posthumously published works, Kafka’s The Trial.

I’d had it in my collection for a while but never got around to it. I’m glad I did, just to have been able to say I’ve read it. As a lawyer, you’d think it would be required reading, although the deep secret buried in The Trial is that there never is an actual trial that takes place. I sort of know that’s the point, but I expected a little bit more procedural chicanery – the kind of stuff that happens in regular courtrooms that get dubbed “Kafkaesque.”

The Trial definitely feels unfinished. My understanding is that the first and last chapters were actually written and designated as such by Kafka, but the rest was assembled by his executor, Max Brod, after his death. That said, it does have a memorable ending, so it doesn’t just peter out. I also found the atmosphere to be more dreamlike than nightmarish. The main character, K, is more frustrated and aggravated by the situation than he is terrified. In a way that makes it worse.

While there is no trial per se in The Trial, lawyers and the court system come off pretty badly. The part that stuck with me the most is a scene where K is in the court building and passes a group of litigants just huddled around not doing much of anything. It’s explained that they’re waiting for rulings in their cases, some of them for years, and that all they can do is continue to wait. That put me in mind of several of my clients who have watched their cases languish in court, just waiting for the judge to make a decision. They’d rather the judge get it wrong but actually get it done – at least then they could move on to the next phase of things.

My ultimate conclusion about The Trial is that I think K was dead the entire time. The suddenness of the accusation, the ultimate futility of fighting the charges, and the references to K needing to defend his entire life make me think that he’s in some kind of limbo (from which he’s ultimately released in the end). The way “the law” is discussed, too, sounds more like a religious concept than a purely legal one. It doesn’t ultimately matter, but it’s what jumped to mind while reading it.

Since I was on a Kafka kick, I decided to wrap things up with a book that dove more deeply into the battle over his literary legacy, Kafka’s Last Trial, by Benjamin Balint.

The titular trial here took place in Israel in this century and was a battle over where Kafka’s literary legacy would have its home. It stems from how Brod dealt with Kafka’s literary estate and whether it should be retained by the descendents of his secretary or should be taken into the National Library of Israel as a cultural treasure of the Jewish people (or even in an archive in Germany). The legal wrangling isn’t that interesting (it turns on technical distinctions between different kinds of gifts – you can read up on it here), but the question of legacy is really fascinating. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the issue of whether Kafka was a German writer (though he lived in what is now the Czech Republic) who happened to be Jewish, or a Jewish writer who happened to write in German and what the answer to that question means.

Of course, that issue could be hashed out regardless of whether Brod had destroyed Kafka’s unfinished works as asked (assuming Kafka became a big enough name without it). And it would have avoided an awful lot of expensive litigation generations later. So, in the end, is it better to encourage executors, friends, and families to abide by the wishes of the writers who trust them to do so?

I’m inclined to think so, but I also think that the question may be moot. After all, once a writer is dead he or she isn’t going to know what their executors do one way or the other. One pleasant thing about death is you don’t have to worry about your reputation. Weighing all the considerations, maybe Brod was on to something in the first place.