Walls, Drones, and Dreams – Sleep Dealer

Recent events, involving our government’s horrific treatment of families seeking asylum from terror and death in Central America and the placement of children in privately run detention facilities, have made it difficult to do anything but post angry faces on social media, donate to folks willing to help, protest,  and circulate articles about how our borders have become a proxy for the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Running right against this reality was the unreality of the E3 conference, and the release of the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer. When I saw that, my first thought was “Wow. This was the corporate run cyberpunk dystopia we were promised when I was growing up.” The retro-ness of the game had an appeal. I can understand, though, why folk didn’t like it. It’s the way we thought things would be.

Here’s the thing: we are nostalgic for a more obvious, flashy, and stylistic world like that of Night City 2077 because it’s easier for us to get a grip on than the current cyberpunk dystopia we live in. Today, we can’t blame our lack of empathy on too many mods. It’s a constant drumbeat from the administration and their corporate backers, talking about the folks who lived south of the boarder as if they are parasites coming to infest America. As if they are not human.

What happens if it advances, though? If we do get the ‘Murica so many want?

Well, director and writer Alex Rivera crafted a vision of that future back in 2008. A while back, I wrote that we need the punk in cyberpunk now more than ever. We need the questioning of authority. We need cyberpunk’s storytelling to show how this path we’ve chosen can lead us down a very dark road.

Rivera showed the way in his story about life on the other side of a fortified, militarized US-Mexico border. Not only does it ask questions about technology – how it can liberate and enslave us – but also about how we’ve created an illusion about what goes into making America great again, and who does the actual building.

It’s a film called Sleep Dealer.

Memo Cruz lives on a family subsistence farm in Santa Ana Del Rio. During the day, he and his family try and keep the crops growing. He walks with his father to the fortified dam blocking the river water from flowing from the US to Mexico, where they have to pay for every drop they get for their farm. Cash goes into a scanner slot. Water comes out. Everything is commoditized.

When not working, Memo dreams of reaching out to the wider world. He taps into communications systems and listens in from far off places, including the land where dreams come true: The US. Unfortunately, his attempts at outreach get mistaken for hijacking attempts by ecoterrorists. When he, his brother, and his mother are out shopping they see a live edition of “DRONES” – a US program where ‘node pilots’ jack into drones and “blow the Hell out of the bad guys.”

In this case, the drone pilot destroys memo’s house, and kills his father.

Now lacking their dad’s income, Memo heads to Tijuana for work. There he meets Luz, who’s using her cybernetic implants (nodes) to try to sell stories and experiences on the web. She acts as a guide to the node worker community, gets Memo his first set of jacks, and tells him about the sleep dealers.

Sleep dealers are node work factories. There, hundreds of workers jack in and pilot remote construction drones in the US. The node workers provide cheap labor, building the American dream while being forever blockaded from it. In the US, all everyone sees are machines building new skyscrapers or laying new roads. But behind those machines working night and day, there’s a node worker in a Tijuana factory, pumping his nervous system dry.

They work until they collapse. That’s why the factories are called Sleep Dealers.

Meanwhile, in the US, someone is looking into the person whose father was killed by the drone strike – buying his stories via Luz…

I don’t want to give more away. I want folks to experience this film. It’s available on DVD and BluRay. You can also rent it on iTunes and Amazon. Then, tell two other people about the movie, and encourage them to get it as well. It does what good cyberpunk should do – question the status quo. It forces us to think about the people we ask to build our American dream, but refuse to give a part of it. It makes us think about the promises of the US, and who gets to redeem those promises, and at what cost.

And it’s not glossy. There are no pink mohawks. No combat cabs. No Blade Runner cityscapes. It’s all on the ground, and very close to home. If you want to see the cyberpunk dystopia we were promised, and fondly remember, watch the CP 2077 trailer again.

If you want to see the cyberpunk dystopia we’re getting, watch Sleep Dealer.

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Time Is the Enemy

It’s been two weeks since I was let go from my job. In the last two weeks, I have become a house husband. In addition to reaching out to everyone who said, “Hey, get in touch with me after the holiday,” I started cooking and cleaning up. And trying to fill my days with writing projects, photography, and the small things my wife needs to get done, but is often to swamped to deal with.

I’ve also been on cute patrol, helping cheer my wife up with images of the cats. This particular image is of Adia and Tellus in their new favorite spot – the low, wide box Amazon sent our way. The cute has been needed. The last two weeks were fraught with stress. Most I can’t discuss here, but they are the kind where you look at the future and wonder: will I lose everything?

I’ve been trying to work to a schedule: Blocking out time for writing, time for job work, time for house work. It’s a technique I haven’t had to use in nearly fifteen years. But it’s necessary. The last thing one can do is drift – not focus on anything.  That leads to staying in bed all day and listening to podcasts.

And it is a temptation. Losing a job, especially like this, is a trauma. It triggers depression, even if you don’t realize it at first. It’s the slow, long depression that saps energy over time. But we take positive action to move forward – we send out resumes to folks we’ve talked to over the last two weeks. We work on novel outlines. And we take our victories where we can.

In this case, my victory came last night. I’ll quote my tweet:

If you live in the DC area, and have been a long-time Washington Capitals fan, you know the name Kolzig. And you also know why we are celebrating.

Learning to live to a new schedule, or lack of one, is tough. Change is tough. And time, well, it’s a bit of an enemy. When you have too much of it, you can drown.  So, I’ve got to learn how to swim.

Unemployed in Greenland

I can see the moment in my head like a film sequence. Or a script.

***

INT. Office. Morning.

ANDY walks in, shoulder bag jingling. He turns on the lights and heads to his desk. He only pauses when he sees his BOSS and the DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS (DOPS) seated in the glass fishbowl conference room.

He approaches his desk and drops his bag into this chair. SLOW REVEAL – Andy looks down and sees a FEDEX BOX, open and empty, sitting right beside his desk.

Andy takes a deep breath. His hands start to shake, but he quiets his nerves and puts on a smile just as the Boss comes out of the conference room.

BOSS: Hey, Andy, can we speak with you for a minute?

Andy nods and keeps up his fake smile. He knows what’s coming. But he straightens out his cuffs and turns around.

ANDY: Sure! How can I help?

***

After three months at my new job I, and four others at the company, including the CEO, were given walking papers. In an irony only found in life, and badly scripted films, it was the 2nd anniversary of my marriage that day and this kind of corporate turnover was exactly why I wanted out of my last job.

What lessons? First – you can build a lot of dread and suspense with common items in just the right context. Anyone who sees a moving box on their desk one morning knows what it means. There’s one of two things coming. Either you’re being let go, or someone is running an elaborate Borderlands / Se7en in joke.

“Awww. What’s in the box? What’s in the BOX???”

Second – time is a blessing. It allows you to do things, yes, but it also gives you too much room to get lost in thought. Best to keep busy. Make a schedule. Stick to it. Shave every day. But keep in the back of your mind – you are still in shock. You need to have time to cope.

Third lesson – times like this reveal a lot about folks. The moment my departure hit social media, in addition to the waves of sympathy I also received a half dozen “Call me when you’re ready! Let’s talk!” Good folks react to a problem by running towards it and saying, “How can I help?”

So what do I do? First, take a vacation. I did not take off between my final day with my previous company and joining my last one. So, I’m rectifying this. Will start working towards a job at Memorial Day.

Now? Now I focus on the small things that need doing around the house and on my Litreactor course with the inimitable Gemma Files as my teacher. I will enjoy the vacation weekend I have scheduled with my wife in a secluded part of the Chesapeake Bay. And then I will get back to the job search.

One day, the scene I just wrote out will make it into a story. Just not today. Today, I need to focus on a few other things.

Strange Dice Not Required

I, like many table-top RPG gamers, love dice. Not as much as my wife – she is a serious collector and has a beautiful jewel case filled with the neatest dice you can imagine. In the end, though, it’s an aesthetic decision. Most of the dice we use in our game are surprisingly common. You can get six-sided dice at any gas station. And if you walk into any place that sells collectable card games, you can probably find polyhedral dice. Then, there’s on-line…

So, the connoisseur of fine dice lives in an age of plenty these days. But, then, I saw a new version of a game I’ve enjoyed playing for years is coming out.  A Beta was available so I downloaded and began reading. The first thing I saw was the fact you needed custom dice to play. Not just polyhedrals, but dice with specific symbols on the faces to resolve tasks. And if you didn’t have them, well, that’s OK. You can pay for a dice rolling app to generate the symbols for you.

This crossed a line with me. It’s one thing to get funky dice because you enjoy them, and think they add to the game. I’ve got dice with the 1’s marked as Skulls for systems where bad things happen when you roll a one. And that’s fine! You can still use dice with numbers or pips to play. It’s an aesthetic choice. Emphasis on choice. But with this new system… you don’t get a choice. You want to play – you have to buy our dice, or use our dice-rolling app. Otherwise, it’s all locked down.

It’s a symbol for so much gatekeeping in life – the world becomes pay-to-play.  It’s not enough just to have a stick and a ball. You’ve got to shell out for the full gear set if you really want to play.

And that is what really irks me. I know this world is a capitalist system. We’ve got to cover our costs, make sure everyone gets health insurance. But when you start building into the game a cost for every access point… where does it stop?

I’m Afraid of Stagnation

So, before I go anywhere, you have to check out this video of some kids doing Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio.” Absolutely amazing!

Now that’s done, back to the regularly scheduled thought balloon. (With amazing art by Michael Guerra).

I was reading an article where an author opined about David Bowie. He kept asking, in a more extended way, why couldn’t David Bowie write “brilliant” things like Ziggie Stardust or “Ashes to Ashes” all the way through his life.

My first reaction was, “What’s wrong with later Bowie?” It’s hard for me to imagine a world where we never had Black Star. Where Earthling never existed or the song that defines our current era, “I’m Afraid of Americans” was never written.

I can understand what he was trying to say. Later on, he explained that everything succumbs to entropy. Eventually, artistic endeavors tend towards blandness because it gets harder and harder to go out there, get a little crazy, unless you make a deliberate effort.

But did he have to use Bowie as an example? This is an artist whose last album in his lifetime was a made with jazz artists and produced a music video so strange, I’ve seen conspiracy theories stating it’s a Satanic ritual in progress.

David Bowie and Prince are the St. Peter and St. Paul of “Hey, let’s try something new.” Maybe one day I’ll write up why I agree with Eric Clapton that Prince was one of the best guitarists out there, but you get the idea. Both of them could have stuck with what worked – with the things that gained them fame. But they didn’t. They deliberately went and experimented. They tried new things.

This was a deliberate, conscious effort to explore and expand. To not stay in the, “Hey, this works. I’ll stick with it.” And they both paid the price for it, but also reaped the rewards. It’s hard work, breaking out of the mold. Especially if you’ve built it yourself.

And you’re certainly not encouraged to do it. But he did, despite market pressures.

So, if Bowie was actually practicing the law – fighting against entropy, trying not to succumb to blandness in a conscious way – why pick him?

I have my theories, but I think they’re a bit unkind to the author. I don’t want to pin him with Boomer style snobbishness. “Our generation knew Bowie at his best. You only got his leftovers, when he was spent, and not a vital artist.” But that’s what it feels like.

And to me, that’s succumbing to entropy and blandness as much as anything else. It’s one thing to say you don’t groove to later Bowie as much as you did to his Ziggy Stardust days. But it’s a disservice to the artist, and those who enjoy his later work to say it’s not worth enjoying. That it’s falling to stagnation just because it’s not what you enjoy.

Try and open up a bit. Might feel something interesting. Maybe a little wonder.

(And, yes, Earthling is my Bowie album. Fight me.)

C.H.U.D.s of Doubt

(FYI – Amazing C.H.U.D. image from Jorge)

C.H.U.D. – Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. Humans, through exposure to radioactive toxic waste, have turned into cannibals snacking on the denizens of early 80’s New York. They’re also responsible for recent plumbing issues in my home, but I don’t have direct proof of this… yet…

In this case, though, I’m talking about the CHUDs of doubt. They are frequent visitors to the sub-levels of my mental cityscape. Any time I feel confident and secure, they grab someone off the street and devour them. My city’s not so safe anymore. I don’t feel confident exploring it, or inviting others to explore.

I have a story. I really like this one – think it’s one of the better ones I’ve written. But I’ve been having trouble finding a home for it. Same holds true for a lot of stories I’ve written recently. I look at the Submission Grinder and look at the stories and think, “Am I missing something? What’s wrong with you?” Usually, that’s when the CHUDs of doubt start crawling out of the sewers and feasting on my confidence.

So what do you do next? How do you get the police to believe you, start sending out people to chuck napalm down there and burn the CHUDs out forever?

Well, I’m still working out that part. It may involve finding new writing groups, taking on-line classes, and looking for new ways to look at my work, and how I’m working. Or, maybe it means realizing that my CHUDs are just homeless folk and the real enemy are the folks who dumped the toxic waste that mutated them in the first place.

In either case, my CHUDs aren’t going away. So I have to deal with them.

 

It’s an Older Joke, But It Checks Out

Run, Runner!

This film was beginning pre-production just as I arrived on this world, on the first day of March. When it was released, I was walking and just starting to run. Later on, in my early con-going experiences, I heard a story about a time when DC’s SWAT team was called into a SF con because of someone being reported running around with a gun. Turns out, it was fans in Sandman costumes with working pistols. Luckily, the man in charge of the team had seen Logan’s Run and kept his men from shooting.

What stories will be told about us when this film reaches its 75th anniversary, I wonder?

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