Over at the Yankee Institute blog, I interviewed Frank Cortese, operations manager for a Greenwich-based fuel and energy company, who said the installation of tolls on Connecticut’s highways would cost him more than $57,000 during the winter months and maybe even $72,000 a year — a cost he will pass down to his customers.
At the tail end of 2017, I posted a story on Medium about a bunch of post-apocalyptic novels I had read over the course of the year, books with themes and situations that often reflected upon these United States during seemingly cataclysmic times.
After the clock struck twelve on New Year’s Eve I kept reading post-apocalyptic fiction. For whatever reason — maybe because every daily headline was more absurd than yesterday’s — the stories I read in 2018 trended toward wilder, more fantastical visions of the end of the world. For the interested, here’s a quick update on the stuff I read.
or Mannequin With Parts Made in Japan
It’s ridiculous how much I enjoyed Sea of Rust (2017), C. Robert Cargill’s cinematic novel of what
happens after the robot apocalypse,
in which the tin-man rebellion that exterminated all human life is immediately
followed by a civil war among AIs.
The result is a scorched planet inhabited by the few remaining
freebots trying to keep one step ahead of warring mainframes, which want to assimilate
them (and each other) and ultimately become the Earth’s singular intelligence.
With factories under the dominion of the mainframes, freebots like Brittle must
scour the wastes for the spare parts needed to survive. Unfortunately, Brittle
is also one of the last remaining Comfortbots — an automaton nurse and
caregiver — which puts her in literal crosshairs when the only other remaining
Comfortbot starts to fail and needs her parts.
Cargill, a screenwriter, keeps the thrill-ride steamrolling along, peppered by flashbacks to the events before, during, and after the robot uprising. His style is perhaps a little unpolished — among other flaws is a tendency to punctuate. Sentences. Like. It’s. Twitter. Circa. 2016. — and for a self-aware toaster oven, Brittle doesn’t seem to have much on her mind beyond PTSD.
That said, it’s hard to stay angry at a novel in which an assortment of Futurama robots battle hive-mind drones atop a speeding Mad Max battle wagon. Alexa, make sure to pre-order the sequel — and please, don’t kill me.
Yet what to think of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003)? On one hand I found it every bit as unputdownable as Sea of Rust, largely due to its kindred vision of created usurping creator. On the other, I learned the darling lefty author of The Handmaid’s Tale definitely has some rather narrow worldviews.
Just as Handmaid originated from Atwood’s anxiety over the state of women’s reproductive rights during the 1980s evangelical movement, Oryx and Crake has its genesis in her clear concern over GMOs. Snowman lives in a tree and wears a bedsheet, cared for by genetically modified people called Crakers. While wallowing in his own stink and self-pity — our protagonist brings to mind Thoreau’s jibe that “None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness.” — Snowman recalls his years as Jimmy, living in a crony-corporatist America where sequestered scientists churn out GMO medicines, enhancements, and food for consumers in the pleeblands.
You’d have to be very inattentive to miss where the book is
going once Jimmy encounters a transfer student named Glenn but that
predictability doesn’t diminish enjoyment of Atwood’s dystopia. Glenn is a
sociopath and a genius, and he and Jimmy spend their days watching crush videos
on the dark web and footage of pleebland riots on the news. Glenn’s eventual
rise as a master gene-splicer (along with Jimmy’s simultaneous plateau into
mediocrity) is merely background exposition for the real mystery of how Oryx, a
woman loved by both men, fits into mankind’s final act.
Which brings us to Atwood’s cringeworthy depiction of women. Female characters in the novel are sparse (Jimmy’s mother, who’s arguably the most interesting of them, is felt more than seen). Oryx, meanwhile, appears late in the book, usually in scenes of degradation as an Asian child prostitute. Somehow she rises to the level of executive career woman, presumably by sleeping her way up corporate ladders. We never know for sure, nor are we privy to any inner development because she’s presented as — ahem — inscrutable. Ultimately her character exists simply to inject jealous tension between Jimmy and Glenn.
Feminists might argue that’s exactly Atwood’s point — that women are nothing but playthings in a world of male corporate plutocracy — but for me, it’s just weak writing. I kept turning the pages, hooked on thrilling action scenes of a man pursued through the ruins by carnivorous chimeras and Atwood’s lush metaphors (“Amanda Payne shimmered in the past like a lost lagoon, its crocodiles for the moment forgotten.”). But even with all that going for it, I’ve zero interest in reading any of the sequels Atwood has since penned.
Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire
Andre Norton’s first full-length novel, Star Man’s Son (1952), panders to its audience. Having clearly
learned what notes to strike in her previous career as a children’s librarian,
Norton laid out YA’s ur-outline some
45 years before Harry Potter with this science-fantasy of rejected teenager
Fors is a both an orphan and an outcast, a silver-haired mutant among an enclave of pure-strain human survivors of the Great Blow-Up. After being passed over again for promotion to a higher echelon of his community, he’s faced with the prospect of being a farming drudge for the rest of his life, all because of his dirty blood.
Rather than submit, Fors runs off to explore the wasteland where his father perished, picking through urban ruins and crossing deserts melted into glass by atomic fire. Eventually Fors must consolidate several hostile tribes into an alliance against a rising tide of mutant Beast-Things, who aim to supplant mankind — mainly by eating us.
It’s a boy’s adventure tale set against the backdrop of crumbling skyscrapers instead of castles and dungeons, but Norton took her job seriously (she legally switched her first name from Alice to foster legitimacy among her young readers — I mean, who wants to read a book written by a girl?). The writing doesn’t stray far from simple sentences and straight-forward dialogue, but even so, she managed to sneak in some radical messaging for the 1950s. “Why should there be distrust between the twain of us because our skin differs in color?” asks a black character of Fors, who’s white. “In peace there is trade, and in trade there is good for all,” says another, later. “When the winter closes and the harvest has been poor, then may trade save the life of a tribe.”
Lessons of tolerance and free trade? These days, that’s crazy talk.
It’s hard to say nice things about a novel that even its own author disliked. Roger Zelazny expanded an earlier novella into Damnation Alley (1969) solely with an eye toward a film deal (which eventually came to fruition in 1977 — and which Zelazny similarly reviled). As a writer myself, I can’t fault his pecuniary motives; but as a reader I have to wish he’d put more thought into what’s fundamentally a great idea.
Hell Tanner is a captured murderer diverted from prison and put behind the steering wheel of a futuristic big rig for a suicide run from Los Angeles to Boston, carrying medicine to cure an East Coast outbreak of plague. Seeing his chance for escape, Tanner puts pedal to metal and strikes out across a United States blasted by nuclear hellfire and infested with swarms of giant bats and other mutations.
The novel’s plot is laughably linear and so steeped in its late sixties atmosphere of California motorcycle gangs, cops, and counterculture that it’s hard to picture the characters sporting anything other than bell-bottoms and fringed leather vests. And while the high concept of the book is matched by Zelazny’s terrific descriptions of monsters and killer tornadoes, secondary characters come and go and subplots are nonexistent, which is why Zelazny’s conceit of a bad-guy-as-savior thrown into a dystopic/apocalyptic setting has seen much better interpretations (e.g., Escape From New York). If given the choice between the two versions of Damnation Alley, read the novella instead — if only because it’s shorter.
As if we needed more proof that our contemporary reality is a phantasm sprung from Philip K. Dick’s Benzedrine imagination, I submit his early novel The Man Who Japed (1956) as exhibit Z.
Set in a post-post-apocalyptic world where civilization has rebuilt after a devastating nuclear exchange, Allen Purcell has lived a strait-laced life under Moral Reclamation, the conformist and puritanical one-world government that safeguards against immorality, which in its adherents’ view is what led to World War III. Purcell is such a good citizen, in fact, that the government promotes him to head its propaganda department.
Except Purcell also has a dimly remembered night life in which he “japes” society through vandalism, drunkenness, and other petty transgressions. His scaling the peaks of success has produced a psychological schism between his square public persona and his inner critic of Moral Reclamation’s inertia and claustrophobia. This conflict comes to a head when Purcell the propaganda chief orchestrates — wait for it — a fake news broadcast.
Later Dick is so much weirder and darker than early Dick, and here Moral Reclamation doesn’t come off as particularly sinister; nonconformists, for example, are exiled to a vacation planet that sounds more like a reward than a punishment. But Dick’s trajectory is still easy to see: his love of psychology and pharmaceuticals, the authoritarian setting, the questionable value of our perceptions. In other words: drugs, dystopia, and gaslighting. Welcome to the future!
That’s it for 2018. Cash me at the bottom of 2019 to see where the endtimes took me this year. Fingers crossed we’re all still alive.
Late last year, I scored a gig writing for Story Terrace, a UK-based company that’s expanded into the US.
Story Terrace publishes memoirs and autobiographies ghostwritten by a stable of authors, who interview the subject at her home and then compose a finished book complete with photos and a professional layout. The company has gone through several rounds of investment, including a crowdfunding effort this past summer that raised more than £617,000.
So far I’ve written three books of varying lengths for Story Terrace: the first was a memoir of a successful lawyer about his years growing up in Queens in the 1930s and 40s, while the other two were biographies of an Italian-American couple and an Irish-American woman, all of them immigrants who left the poverty of their homelands and achieved the American dream. It’s fun and rewarding work — much more rewarding, in fact, than I had anticipated.
Initially I was reluctant to write about the gig publicly because the position was originally advertised as “ghostwriter.” Years ago, in addition to the bylined articles I wrote for them, I did some ghostwriting for Dig and Calliope, the children’s magazines about archaeology and history, which I was actively discouraged from talking about.
That, I now realize, was ghostwriting of a very different stripe. The editor loathed having to deal with PhDs with their jargonized writing styles, outsized egos, and complete lack of respect for any form of deadline, so in a few cases she found it easier to assign the writing to me and then, after a cursory review by the academic in question, slap Professor Snootynose’s name on it. I didn’t particularly care about the byline — as long as the check clears, I’m good — but I was also sworn to super-duper secrecy with cherries on top, lest the professor be unmasked as a fraud by his peers, ridiculed, and driven like a mangy dog from the ivy-covered halls. The editor took pains to stress how seriously I needed to keep my lips shut — because we all know how tolerant our colleges and universities are.
The work I do for Story Terrace is ghostwriting of a less stringent sort. It’s work-for-hire, meaning the copyright goes to the customer, but I get a small credit inside the front of the book so there’s no top-secret surreptitiousness involved.
Further, Your Most Obedient Servant actually receives a commission for referrals that lead to projects, so if anything, the company wants me blabbing about it nonstop (not to mention that they have my headshot on their front page). I’m happy to recommend them.
So — if you or someone you know has always said, “I should write a book,” but never has, Story Terrace may be able to help make it a reality. The company has three different standard packages you can buy or you can tailor a project specific to your needs. All of the projects I’ve worked on were commissioned by adult children for their parents to capture their memories and experiences before they were lost forever. If you’re interested, just drop Story Terrace a line and mention my name. If you’re local, we can even arrange for me to write the project.
Today marks the thirteen-month anniversary of the release of The Dead Ride Fast!1 To celebrate, I’ve cut the price over at Amazon to a low and loco $0.99 for the e-book.
If you haven’t already picked up my collection of six strange westerns, now’s the time. That’s less than 17¢ per story!
Why am I doing this after thirteen months? Simple — no number is scarier than thirteen! 2 Also, it’s Halloween season AND today is the release of the much anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2 — so if you like the taste of spoopy peanut butter mixed in with your western chocolate, you’ll love The Dead Ride Fast. 3
This special anniversary edition features improved formatting in the manuscript text 4 and a slightly altered cover, now at a skinny 1:1.6 size ratio.
So if you enjoy short stories about outlaws, Laplace’s demon, lost Native American civilizations, existential loneliness, haunted silver mines, being condemned to freedom, or just a dude who smokes ground-up mummies in his pipe, mosey on over to Amazon and grab a copy.
As always, if you liked the book please leave a review at Amazon or the social-media site of your choice, 5 and thank you for your support! 6
1 Technically, no. When I initially uploaded the mobi file to Amazon, I did it a week prior to the public announcement so I could stamp out any bugs first.
2 The timing is completely unintentional. I couldn’t get my shit together last month.
3 Again, I wish I was that organized. I learned about RDR2‘s release yesterday.
4 Mainly I eliminated the breaks between paragraphs. I’m so used to working with HTML that originally I thought the e-book text was too crowded and bunched up without them, but after a year’s reconsideration I decided to switch to a more conventional format.
5 A positive review at Amazon or Goodreads would be helpful.
6 Did you know Bartles & Jaymes is still a thing? It is!
C.M. Muller’s fourth volume of Nightscript has hit the streets and it features a contribution of mine, “A Different Sunlight.” The story concerns a boy in northern England whose father attempts to develop a machine that can construct entire homes from scratch.
Randall’s father was proud of a particular innovation he developed. The new concrete ties were not prefabricated but rather poured into place by the machine using rebar and quick-drying cement. The possibilities of these materials soon seized the father’s imagination; he became distant and preoccupied at meals, given to odd remarks about what seemed to Randall as random news events or statements of fact: the Great Fire of Newcastle in ’54, or the lack of housing for the country’s exploding population, or of the cheapness and abundance of concrete itself. Then, after weeks of midnights spent at his drawing table surrounded by reams of tea-ringed paper, he emerged with plans for a machine even greater than the company’s steel snail chugging over the mountains.
Think of it, Randall, he said as he stabbed at various lines and shapes on the whiteprints, A machine that can build a house.
As might be expected, events turn out unexpectedly.
What’s funny is that when I wrote the story, I believed I had concocted the idea of one-piece cement houses from my imagination alone — I fancied a giant steampunk 3D printer, maybe scuttling around on mechanical spider legs, printing houses with concrete. Turns out that none other than Thomas Edison was way ahead of me, and while his houses weren’t created by a single machine, his motives were very similar to those of Randall’s father:
During this period, Edison also came up with the idea for building homes out of cast-in-place concrete. … In theory, this would result in a whole new kind of home with various benefits: fireproof, insect-proof, easy to clean, and at a very affordable $1,200 per house. Edison saw this as a potential solution for cities with housing shortages, allowing people to move from slums to cheap new residential areas of poured concrete houses.
Great minds, am i rite?
Nightscript, Volume 4 features stories by 20 other authors as well, including terrific writers like Steve Rasnic Tem and V.H. Leslie (who also appeared with me in issue 31 of Black Static, way back in 2012). It’s available at Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.
Most economists agree that while raising minimum wages benefits a majority of workers, some jobs are lost no matter how small the increase. A paper by a DC think tank duplicated the methodology of a similar Congressional Budget Office study and found that those job losses affect young, unskilled entry-level workers, thereby disproportionately hitting the workforce in already struggling cities like Bridgeport and Hartford. The study suggests that governments can aid low-income workers without jeopardizing any jobs by instead expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. I didn’t know this when I wrote the piece, but in 2011 Connecticut cut the state EITC to 25 percent of the federal credit, down from 30 percent.
Just last week I wrote about how CT’s Department of Labor mandates that employers report all new hires to the state within 20 days. The state even has a website telling you how to do it: just print out a form and either mail or fax it in. That’s right, unless you’re willing to use the state’s hyper-complicated FTP format, there’s no way to send the information online because the website hasn’t worked for at least three years. Instead you must send a piece of paper to Hartford, where presumably somebody manually punches it into a database. Connecticut — the land of tomorrow!
But my favorite so far has been a piece of investigative journalism in which I reported the state gave $5 million to a Wall Street company to move from White Plains to Stamford. With companies like Aetna and General Electric routinely abandoning Connecticut for more salubrious shores, Malloy’s Department of Economic and Community Development has been throwing corporate welfare at anybody with more than two house elves on the payroll if they’ll move to CT or, if they’re already here, just simply stay put. In this case, the DECD handed out a $1 million grant and a $4 million loan to a company called FSC CT, of which only $1 million had to be paid back.
Except it turns out the guy running FSC CT, Leonard Tannenbaum, was a crook:
In October 2014, Tannenbaum went public with an IPO for Fifth Street Asset Management, a company which in turn invested in two other publicly traded companies he also started, Fifth Street Finance (FSC) and Fifth Street Floating Rate Corp. (FSFR). Both FSC and FSFR were business development companies (BDCs), financial instruments that offer loans to small and mid-sized businesses.
On the eve of the IPO, Tannenbaum owned 94 percent of FSAM, raising the value of his shares to $684 million once it went public.
Yet not long after the IPO, FSC revealed that many of its loans to businesses were considered nonaccrual loans, meaning they couldn’t generate interest because the borrowers hadn’t been paying them back and were in danger of default. On top of that, FSC had been overpaying fees to FSAM.
A bunch of lawsuits and one SEC investigation later, the whole pyramid collapsed, burying at least $2 million of the loan irretrievably. The state will probably never see the $1 million grant again either.
There’s more of my work to come at the Yankee Institute. In the meantime, Yay, Connecticut!