Fancy Tea and Fantasy Authors
Join award-winning and critically-acclaimed fantasy authors Martha Wells, Stina Leicht, Amanda Downum, Patrice Sarath, and J. M. McDermott at the Twig Book Shop on November 7th, for a lovely, little gathering with tea for drinking, and books for signing. Fancy dress encouraged, but not required.
Monthly Archives: September 2015
Fancy Tea and Fantasy Authors
The sea had long ago become too toxic for the calcite-rich coral that had once formed such towers and topiaries there. The acid water also devoured the skin of the lobsters and crabs that could not keep their chitin intact and died en masse one brutal summer, when the pollution in the water reached a threshold and crossed the threshold and chemical laws are unforgiving in these matters. All that was left of the species were museum fossils, and the few that were kept alive in aquarium tanks. My uncle’s great hobby was to join the effort in preserving these strange creatures, expanding their population in tanks in his house, and selling off any excess that he could no longer keep. He was a retired banker, with a strangely large house propped up in the middle of unincorporated country. The nearest trapping of civilization was a gas station that doubled as a grocery store for most of the few folk out there, where my uncle purchased frozen pizzas, cheap beer, and anything else he might want to eat from the cereals and old fruits there. He said that he moved there because it still had an underground aquifer, and he didn’t need a permit to pump his well. The summer when the riots were bad, my father sent me to stay with my uncle, out in Kentucky. I had ridden a bus for two weeks from the west coast. It was hot, and stank, and the crowds pushed against me late into the night. I slept with my head against the crack in the window where air could get in. When we got past the long, long, long plains, past Texas, and over the Mississippi Bridge, I thought that I was going to be on a bus forever, creeping along, one bathroom stop after another, wrinkled packages of fast food rotting inside of my stomach and giving me the shits that I had to dump into the rancid community bathroom that stank so badly, we had to keep the windows open all the time even with the air in the bus pumping hard. Past the desert, and into the forested hills of Arkansas, where mountains and trees still stood, I was released into the care of the bus depot in downtown Oxford, near an abandoned laundromat and a city park without a single human in it. I was running a high fever, and hadn’t bathed in the near-two-weeks I had been on the bus, taking bum showers in bus depots and changing in and out of clothes that only got filthier and filthier. A policeman passing by took one look at me, my mohawk, and my dirty clothes, and he walked over.
“What you doing staying here, boy? Last bus leaving soon.”
“I’m waiting for my Uncle to pick me up.”
“Sure you are. Who’s your uncle?”
“Never heard of him. We don’t have a shelter in this town. You need to get back on that bus, boy, or I’ll run you as a runaway and if anyone’s looking for you, they’ll find you.”
I laughed. “Man, I’ve been on buses since Los Angeles. I’m not homeless. My dad’s a cop, and I’m out here to stay with my uncle until things settle down back home.”
“Where’s your ma?”
I shrugged. “Her husband, I guess. I don’t know where she is. I think she said she was going to be in Italy for a while.”
“You talk funny, kid. And, we don’t got a lot of Asians here. You’re going to stand out.”
“Seriously, can you just leave me alone?”
“Listen, kid,” he smiled and hitched his belt up. “I can’t legally ask for your ID, but I would sure appreciate it.”
“Am I doing anything illegal?”
“Am I being detained?”
“So, I can leave anytime?”
“You sure can. Best keep moving, though. Waiting at a bus depot is one thing, but loitering is another. It’s illegal to loiter here. We don’t want homeless kids holing up in our parks like they do in LA. We ain’t had no riots. Communism is frowned on, around these parts.”
“Mind if I get my phone out and call my uncle.”
“You go right ahead.”
I was real slow when I did it. My dad taught me this, and my friends reinforced it when they were training for the protests. I didn’t think I would need the skill in Oxford, Arkansas, with my rich uncle. I’m glad my hands didn’t shake. Dad says cops are mostly just bullies if they aren’t trained and constantly retrained. Most of them start out all right, but they have to be careful not to be just bullies.
I had my phone in my hand, ready to make the call, when my uncle’s van turned up. He rolled down the window. “Is there a problem with my nephew, officer?”
“Nope,” he said. “Just responding to a suspicious person.”
“He’s just a kid. He’s not suspicious. Can I take him home?”
“You sure can, and I’m glad to be wrong about him.” He winked at me and nodded at my uncle. “You watch yourself you come to town, now, kid. We don’t want troublesome types here.”
I got in.
“Seriously,” I said, with the door closed. “I want to punch a fat, white pig.”
“You stink,” said my uncle. “And, you need a haircut. You look like a communist.”
“Techno-Marxist, Uncle Alan. Communism is just another form of feudalism, like capitalism. The political class become the elites instead of the corporate class. Same song, different dance. Technology has the power to liberate us from the feudal masters that keep climbing over everyone.”
“You’re going to a banker’s house, right? You know that.”
I laughed. “Man, I’m not rioting, either. Violence just hurts the movement. People stop listening when you start punching.”
“You want to grab a burger or something before we hit the road? It’s a long drive.”
“I’ll wait. I’ve had nothing but for a week. Tell me you have some curry or something at the house.”
“Fantastic. Real food. Take me home, man.”
About halfway out of town, I saw a police car behind us. I recognized the pig driving it, too. “Drive casual,” I said, laughing.
“You made an impression. Want a haircut? I could shave that off for you, get you cleaned up?”
“No, thanks. I don’t plan on doing anything illegal out here, anyway. Dad said not to get involved in politics until I’m old enough to vote.”
“You definitely have a fan, back there.”
“I can handle one stupid cop, Uncle Alan. It’s not like I’m going to do anything to encourage him. I’ve been living in LA my whole life. I’ve had encounters with the police over bullshit before.”
His house was around some hills, and it was backwoods country. He was off-grid, mostly. Reliant on the roads to keep shipping lanes open. He said he had drones, in case of emergency, but when he showed them to me, they were all busted. Fixing them would give me something to do.
And the tanks, of course. He was still building out the basement lobster tanks. The well water came up from a side building, and was piped into the basement from a fat PVC that wouldn’t withstand real weather for too long. Plus, he had only two tanks running, and they were small. He had them rigged for breeding, with just a couple lobsters in each, plenty of rocks and sand and foliage. The lights down there were really expensive, too. They ran off solar batteries that charged from panels all over his property. He gave me a tour of the basement, because while I was here, I was supposed to be helping him get more tanks online. The males had set up “caves” in the tanks that were already open, and when the females were ready to molt just before breeding, they would be herded into the cave by the male. After that, the female would decide when to make babies, which could take months. Someday, eggs would be like berries stuck in the female’s underside. Upon hatching, the eggs would float to the surface – thousands of them – and a whole slew of problems would arise for the basement lobster conservationist. There is only so much room for the thousands of baby lobsters. In nature, baby lobsters were very valuable food. In the tanks, each precious infant should be ethically culled, or cryogenically frozen for future researchers and preservationists.
“I’m not springing for cryogenic tanks,” said Uncle Alan. “I send them to a guy I know, overnight with ice packs, and he dumps them into a river, and letting it be.”
That night, I called my dad in the living room with the huge coral tanks in the living room, and the sound of pumps. He had a kind of coral that formed smooth, rounded towers. They were active during the day, and looked like clumps of fossilized, blue-grey cigars.
“What do you plan to do out there?” he said.
“Rebuild the busted drones.”
“Not really. The lobster tanks are a mess. He’s going to have mature breeders, soon, and he doesn’t have anywhere to put their… I don’t know what they’re called. Baby lobsters.”
“Well, try to have some fun with people, too. There have to be people your own age around there, somewhere. See if you can find a meetup group or something. My brother is a bit isolated. It isn’t good for him. I’m glad you’re safe, but I hope you don’t let him rub that off on you.”
“I like it here,” I said. “I can go days without meeting any assholes, dad. You should get a job in Oxford PD and move out here.”
He didn’t respond to that. My dad was a real tough guy. He’s had to fire his gun in the line of duty, and he’s out on the line, everyday, busting the heads of kids just like me, except they want to riot to bring about the Techno-Marxist revolution. I figure, it will happen whether I get my skull cracked, or not. The AI is already flooding our houses with smart tools. Marketers can manipulate our moods and decision-making with minor tweaks to our media engines. Most of that is algorithmic. Some people are really upset by it, but if it keeps people happy and it helps people get through their day, I don’t see what’s wrong about it. Let them take over.
At night, I logged into the local network on my Uncle’s spare computer, and checked in on the damage done from some conflicting news feeds. The body count was rising every day. I recognized one of the dead from school, and it hurt, but I didn’t know him that well. It was a weight in my chest, though, that people I knew were fighting people I knew, and they were dying in the street.
Outside, owls hooted from the maples. The early summer insects were out, throwing themselves against the windows. Moths clung to the screens like paper ornaments. Uncle Alan had a screened-in porch. He was drinking whiskey with ice, the open bottle next to his glass on the ground. He had a little kabuchi grill that he was using to cook teriyaki mushrooms.
“You want a drink?” he said.
“Dad would kill me.”
He shrugged. “If you become an alcoholic, I’ll kick your ass out. Having one or two drinks at the end of the night is good for your liver.”
I didn’t take him up on it. The night was bright and clean. I knew it would be hotter soon, but for now, it was cool in the valley. His nearest neighbor had a stone house with a huge chimney that was always pumping smoke, every day, all day. I looked out my window, before bed, and I saw a police officer’s unmarked car squatting there. I didn’t recognize the cop inside. I snapped a picture and texted my dad, because I couldn’t believe I was under surveillence.
He shot back a reply.
Do nothing. I’ll call the sheriff at his house.
A few minutes later, the cop got out of his car and made a phone call.
“Uncle Alan,” I shouted. “Is there any reason you’d be under surveillance by the police?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” he said. “Are the police out there?”
“Dad is calling them now, I think.”
The other techno-Marxists think I’m the worst kind of poseur, because my Dad is a high-ranking police officer, and I don’t do anything he says I shouldn’t do. I obey, when obedience is a continuation of feudalism. I tell them that the enemy isn’t out to get out us. It is a political debate, not a civil war. If we act civilly, the police will respect us as civilians. They tell me that I am deluded. When I came out here, I was spit at, and thrown away. I was told there would be no friend for me in the movement if I wasn’t in the street when the time came. Often, I was accused of being an informant for the police.
I got to choose between my politics or my father, and I chose the latter. When he told me to leave town because of the riots, I packed a bag and got on a bus.
Looking out the window at the police looking in at us, I knew I made the right choice. If I had called the movement, they would have done nothing for me. My dad would stop the world to save my butt, and call in every favor. The arc of history will bend whether I bleed in the street, or wake up in a holding cell with a headwound like a hangover. I am not a coward. I don’t think I’m a coward. I am just not interested in violent solutions.
Thanks, dad. I don’t think they like the look of me, but I’m not starting anything, promise.
I won’t leave Uncle Alan’s house until they cool off.
Get a haircut, some decent clothes. Seriously.
I’ll think about it. How are you doing?
I’m off shift right now until 4AM. We’re eating pizza in the hot box. The protesters are tearing up Escondido Drive, right now. They flash mob, pick streets at random, with random times. We’ve called in the National Guard, but they’re worthless, trigger happy goons. I’m glad you’re nowhere near this mess.
You be careful, too. I love you, dad.
Love you, too, kid.
Uncle Alan was downstairs, checking the water lines before bed. Using well water meant checking it daily for changes in chemistry. Even small changes mattered. Inside the tanks, the coral was so delicate.
I asked him if he needed a hand, and he didn’t, so I went out onto the back porch to drink tea and check up on the news.
The same cop from downtown was out in the dark. He was standing there, glaring at me.
“Do you know what this is?” he said. He held up a device in his hands. I didn’t recognize it, but it looked like some kind of stingray, warrantless wiretapping or infrared or something.
“Why are you after me? I’ve done nothing illegal, nothing suspicious. I’m just a kid visiting his uncle because his hometown isn’t safe right now.”
“It’s perfectly safe if you aren’t a Techno-Commie. If you are, then it ain’t so goddamn safe. Kid, this device tells me there’s a lot of energy running through this house, a lot of heat.”
“Just because I believe something, doesn’t mean I’m going to be violent about it. I’m not violent. I’m not. Just because there’s energy. Stay out of the house and look in. You are not permitted inside. Just look into the living room. What do you see?”
“Big coral tank,” he said.
“Exactly. My uncle is a conservationist. Can you please leave us alone. I didn’t come to podunk Oxford to bring the revolution, okay? I’m trying to escape it, just like you are.”
Uncle Alan was coming, then. He walked right up to the screen door. He could probably smell the greasy sweat off that stupid pig and his fat pig face. He was a fat man, with a gut that hung over his belt. He was the kind of cop that dad hated – out of training, emotional.
“Hey,” said Uncle Alan. “You are not authorized to be on my land. You need to clear on out. I want your badge number. You are trespassing.”
“I go where I like, sir. You are harboring a Techno-Fascist.”
“Is he accused of doing anything?”
“I don’t know. Is he? What’s all the tech you got in there, anyhow? I’m getting all these heat readings.”
“It’s not any of your goddamn business without a warrant.” He closed the door behind him and stood with me on the porch.
“We can do this the hard way or the easy way,” said the cop. He was clearly all pumped up, ready to SWAT the place just to do something in this hick backwater.
“Do nothing until my lawyer is present,” said Uncle Alan. He reached for his phone. Another cop was slowly walking up the field, past the solar panels in the main yard. He had his hand close to his weapon, and a slow poker face, like he expected trouble.
“This ain’t the big city. If we want to search your house, we’re gonna,” said the one coming up the yard.
“Show me a warrant, and I will happily allow you onto the premises, until then, I’m calling police on you for trespassing.”
The cops laughed. “You can’t call the police on the police,” said the first.
The only thing that stood between us and the cops was the screen door. They stood outside looking in, and they had guns.
Uncle Alan pulled out his phone and dialed 911. The two cops stood there, waiting.
“I have two police officers on my property without a warrant, and they’re threatening me. They will neither leave, as I requested, nor will they state what they are doing here with evidence they are engaged in lawful investigation. I suspect they may be fake police officers trying to shake me down. I need help.”
“Wait for it,” said one of the cops, to the other. Their radios chirped. “Hello,” said one, into his radio. “We’re nearby and we can take the call. It’s probably nothing.”
Uncle Alan hung up and called his lawyer.
The first cop walked up the screen door and glared at us. “What are you doing in there, anyway? Huh? What the hell are you doing with all that power, and a Techno-Commie? You building something?”
“We are not engaged in illegal activities of any sort, and you will not hear any complaints about our activities from our neighbors. Ergo, you should leave. Uncle Alan, do not let them in the house under any circumstances. They are on a fishing expedition, and they will plant evidence if they have to, to justify what they’re doing.”
The cop pulled his gun out and pointed it at me. “Ain’t you an expert?” he said.
“I am no threat to you,” I said.
Alan pulled me back and stood between the cop and me.
“What do you want?” he said. “Just tell me what you want. No one has to get hurt, tonight. I don’t understand why you have pulled a gun at us. We have not done anything to threaten you. Are you determined to arrest somebody? Are you determined to tear through and break everything and arrest everyone just to prove something?”
“I don’t like your attitude, asshole.”
“The feeling is mutual. I’ve left the 911 line open the whole time. Everything you say and do is recorded. I am told that other police officers are on their way.”
“Shit,” he said. “Fuck you.”
He pulled the trigger and shot Uncle Alan in the knee.
I have read nearly all of this text, and I do not know if I can continue reading it. It is just one relentlessly awful thing after another, being the antithesis of the shorthand rule of writing to be one good thing after another. The slums beside the airport in Mumbai, India, are full of characters that spend every waking moment thinking about money, out of desperate need. Everything and everyone around them tries to extricate that money from them. It is a terrible walk in mud and darkness, and exposure to an alien culture and civic structure for an American audience.
That the author is a member of the American journalistic class merits some discussion. Firstly, I don’t have a good answer to the question of cultural appropriation. Secondly, I think Katherine Boo did a marvelous job constructing a compelling and informative narrative that matters. Thirdly, there is the gloomy specter of appropriation, though, all over the text. Presumably, Katherine Boo did a lot of good for that community by telling their stories. Presumably, she is the one who is profiting from the sale of the books, the sale of the stories. Now, this is not an accusation: She has written a marvelous text that illuminates so many of the problems of trying to intervene in a foreign country’s poorest corner, where cultural barriers and expectations make any actual progress illusionary. It is probably a very good thing for anyone interested in foreign aid to investigate this text and see how poorly managed all those aid programs are, on the ground, where everyone at every step see the aid as an opportunity for profit. The writing is tremendous. The prose sweats and burns and the dialog carries close the heart and soul of the characters of the story. It is unsurprising, to me, that this is a New York Times Bestseller. I can recommend the book wholeheartedly even as I try to intellectually grapple with one of the great ethical dilemmas present in the text.
The book is also a packaged box of goods for Western consumption, and profits from the misery and ruin of real human lives, who are unable to tell their own story or profit from it.
I think of this frame after watching Waste Land, where a Brazilian artist tried to find a way to both tell the story of the garbage pickers in the dump, and a way to help them financially improve their lives from the very work that is being done about them. Vik Muniz hired the very subjects of the portraits to work in his studio, and made sure whomever was the subject of the portrait was paid the price at the auction of the piece. It is a fascinating way to think about activist art, like Katherine Boo’s brillian book. How do we tell these stories without appropriating them? Is it even possible? Muniz hacked a way into it, by involving the subjects in every process, and paying them for the sale of the energy he was utilizing on the canvas. Not every artform can find a way to do that. It would be very difficult to list all the voices as authors the way books are sold, as Katherine Boo’s name and track record as a journalist is the very personality driving the idea of the “author” that “sells the book” to readers, in name placement and marketing material and talent. There is no real, meaningful way to spread the bestseller wealth into the corrupt system, when the author is tremendously aware of what will happen to those families who experience a sudden windfall inside such a dangerous and deadly space.
What she does attempt is a sort of anti-globalization activism. This comes, actually, at the expense of the book, which is better when it is focusing on the real lived moments of the characters, not on the spectral boogeymen that must be responsible per the author’s tone and commentary. Globalization is bad, and corruption is bad, yes. But, the place was corrupt before and will be again. Globalization gives these characters, particularly the young ones who are not, yet beaten down by their hardscrabble struggle for subsistence, hope that tomorrow will be brighter for India and for everyone. The crushing caste system is crumbling, and even the divide between Hindi and Muslim is chipped away in the hope for a brighter, united India.
For the most part, it is a very successful book. But, always, whenever people in a place of privilege begin to tell the miserable real lives of the underprivileged, there is that specter hanging over everything, that an American woman wrote this for an American audience, and it’s not really a book for the Annawadians so much as it is a book designed to make us Americans feel terrible about the Annawadians. I don’t know if I’ll finish reading it.
I do not doubt the conviction of most preachers. It’s hard to go out on the pulpit and be heard when there isn’t a genuine love and affection for an imaginary figure that is probably God. For me, as a man of Catholic Faith, I often wonder at the misguided directions people go to find their faith, and to create a community around an idea. When I see the climate change deniers preaching lies from the pulpit, I am disgusted not because of the science denialism, but because of the attempt to separate this group of parishioners ideologically and tribally not only from mainstream society, but from good human practices and anyone not a member of this or that community. I have no patience for faiths that operate like sorting hats, putting people in one camp or another, heaven or purgatory or hell. This action is done by ministries that are more concerned about delineation and profit than about practical and positive impacts in their communities. The creation of a tribe that stands outside the mainstream binds the community of faith together strongly, because there’s no one else they can talk to without bumping up against the illogic and magical thinking being promoted in their faith community. And, saying this or that group is damned, well… There is too much work to be done in this life to be so concerned about where someone else is going to go in the next. First, let us do the work of faith by looking around and seeing what needs to be done in this life.
Regarding climate change, I attended an interesting talk last Friday held by an Evangelical Christian and Environmental Scientist who very much asserts that climate change is super-duper real, and hey, whoa, we need to get on top of that immediately or it will be very bad. Hey. Hey, everybody. Hey, you guys, can we… Hey, let’s do something to save our world, you guys!
One of the interesting things I learned is that in every community around the country with a Catholic majority, particularly Hispanic Catholics, climate change science is widely accepted as legitimate and a serious concern. A sociologist studied this and learned it was because the Catholic Church openly preaches about climate change and doing something about it. The overwhelming scientific consensus is not just clear, it’s dire and frightening and scientists are actually understating how dire and frightening it actually is.
So, let’s tell a joke to all the climate change deniers, who want to deny the science and the practical things. It is a common joke among the homilies. I’ve heard it dozens of times from different pulpits and different faiths. Here it goes.
So, there’s a flood coming. It’s going to be bad. Everyone needs to evacuate. But, this one woman is a devout Christian, and she is praying for a miracle to save her, and she has faith and just knows that she will be all right. A truck comes up and sees her in her window praying, and they screech to a halt and run out and bang on the door. They want to help her evacuate before the flood comes. But she shuns them and sends them on their way. God will protect her. She just knows that the flood will not touch her as long as she keeps praying. The men in the truck, exasperated, leave before the flood can wipe them away.
When the flood begins, she has to climb up into the second story of her house. She keeps praying, there, just praying and praying that the floodwater will not touch her. She opens a window to look up at the sky and pray to God. A boat comes by, looking for survivors, and they call out to her, and they try to get her out of her house, but she swears that she will be fine, because God will save her. Soon, she’s up on the roof, praying to God, certain that salvation will come, a miracle will occur, and the floodwaters will never touch her. A helicopter flies by, after hearing reports from the boat, and they try to get her up on a ladder, but she just keeps praying and praying. She won’t leave.
So, within about two hours, she’s up in heaven, and she is furious with God.
“God, I was praying and praying! I have been faithful to you my whole life. I thought you were going to save me!”
God crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow at his ungrateful servant. “Lady, I sent you a truck; I sent you a boat; I even sent you a helicopter in the middle of a storm. What more did you want?”
I enjoyed immensely the fairy and folk music tale “Wylding Hall” by Elizabeth Hand. It wasn’t the fae that sparked my brain, though well done it was. It was the folk side of it. It was the kids making music side of it. One section, a character mentions the way record albums used to be. When these discs of vinyl came out in stores, they were objects of genuine excitement. At the isolated towns and communities, record stores would receive these shipments of discs from far away, and place them out on shelves. Excited teenagers gobbled them up, and ran to friends’ houses to play new records on turntables, over and over again, dancing and sharing over music. I do not recall ever having an experience like this outside of video games, in my youth, and I played music and made music and even toured with a drum corps for a while, presumably, because I loved music. I never rushed to a friend’s house with the latest CD, or had anyone rush to my house to share a CD. Perhaps certain video games had that communal effect on us – Street Fighter II, perhaps – but I feel a genuine sense of sudden shifts in culture because when I talk to the students at the community college about their lives outside of college, I am often struck by how I couldn’t imagine any of them doing that thing that people used to do with records just thirty years ago. No one is rushing to their friend’s house with their impulse purchase, celebrating the moment and the excitement and the energy. Video games are mostly on-line. They are mostly played on-line.
Perhaps movies, in theatres, have this effect sometimes. People line up together, with their friends and lovers, to see the latest film. But that involves leaving the home, going out into the public sphere. Series television can be watched in groups, but more often they are talked about in groups, while everyone watches from their own private cyclops. Bingewatching is what is done, now. Whole series are released at once to the web, and people pound their eyeballs against it as if they are reading Harry Potter books. They do this miserable immolation of their eyeballs alone, mostly, or just with family who are already in the home.
What feels revolutionary, anymore? Where did that energy of music go? What do people do that makes them excited to share with their friends?
Even when I was young, I can’t think of anything that made me feel that. Communal experiences were communal. Home experiences were private, mostly. I’d go to a concert with friends and feel a communal excitement, but I’d never take a CD to a friends’ house to share this music with them, and nothing more, but just listen to the music and talk about the music and repeat the music and feel like something amazing was happening, something amazing was about to happen.
The magic of music, in Wylding Hall, this pulsating energy of possibility and youth and revolution made me pine for a world in the same way that Julian pined for a world. Julian longed for mysticism and spells and the ancient, hidden knowledge – what other characters called “Aleister Crowley shit”. I pined for the long summer energy and spirit, where someone would buy a record with so much excitement – where art was so important that it had to be shared immediately and run to your friends’ houses and share it all, because something amazing was going to happen. The magic came in the song, and the whole society shifted into an open, liberated, liberal culture, with these spells that carried hippies and punks and all those rebel yowls into the bedrooms and homes, where the spell was cast on a generation. I wish I lived that kind of youth, in my lonely suburb. I wish I lived the kind of youth where we thought the world would change with a brand new song.