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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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.

 

Anger is an Energy

“Stay angry, little Meg,” Mrs. Whatsit whispered. “You will need all your anger now.” For those who don’t recognize it, this is from Madeline L’Engle’s  A Wrinkle In Time.  It’s an important thing to hear, especially for the young (alas, I’m no longer in that group), and for women, and people of color. Too often, there is a denial of anger. You’re not allowed to be angry. You cannot voice that anger. You can’t give it form.

Why? Because it’s rude. It’s unladylike. It confirms everything they say about you. (Never mind “they” are allowed to be angry, and have think pieces written about their anger, and have talking heads on networks want to explore their anger in depth.) I’m going to quote a young lady, Emma Gonzalez, who said today “We call BS!” Anger is needed right now. And I hope this lady stays angry for a long time to come.

Anger is explosive fuel. It can consume you. You’ll burn out like 40,000 matches. But anger can be channeled and focused. It becomes passion and drive. You can use it to build and create. You can use it to fight back in ways most folks can’t conceive.

Take control of your story. Show that your lives matter. Fight the default narrativeBe the stone that the builder refused.

Please. Because we need the right kind of anger now, more than ever.

 

 

 

In the Heat of the Sun: Desert Noir

Film noir. Two words which conjure images of unshaven men in fedoras, dangerous women in evening dresses, rain-slicked back alleys in America’s cities, and… prospectors in California mining towns?

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And yet, I’m starting to find the arid lands outside of the great noir settings hold just as many people making bad decisions in a desperate attempt to escape their circumstances.

Every Sunday morning at 10am Eastern, I visit Noir Alley.  Hosted by Eddie Muller – a man who earned the title “The Czar of Noir” with his work in the Film Noir Foundation – I watch our host lead us through classic films of the era. And while I’ve seen my share of bank jobs gone wrong, or loves turn to murder (and tweeted along to them on #NoirAlley), I was surprised by one location which kept appearing: the desert, and the mountains.

Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino’s High Sierra is a famous example. This early noir ended in the desert town of Lone Pine, California, with a sharpshooter taking down Bogart after a tense stand on the rough mountains. But as films went on, the desert became more and more prominent.

In Framed, Glen Ford’s follow-up to Gilda, Ford plays a mining engineer looking to start anew. He finds an old prospector, a chance at a good job, and a James M. Cain style murder plot all under the glaring sun.  The end of The Prowler, a dark little film staring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keys and written (in pseudonym) by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, ends with the larcenous pair trapped in a ghost town where their adulterous desires will meet a brutal end.

And then there is Split Second. On the surface, this is a hostage drama with escaped convicts. But instead of an urban home, everyone is in an abandoned resort town in the desert under a ticking clock. In this case, an above-ground atom bomb test.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen someone get their (film production code mandated) bad end through a nuclear detonation.

But even through other films, the desert shows up. Las Vegas becomes a setting in many places. A good number of chase scenes take place out away from the city. I know it’s likely just because it’s cheaper to film out there, yet I think here’s something more.

Take Ida Lupino‘s brilliant film, The Hitch-Hiker. Without the desolate beauty of Baja California, would the main character’s plight as hostages of the high-hiker been half as tense? In the desert, you can run anywhere, and still have nowhere to go, and no safe place to escape.

Think about this the next time you’re heading down a dark road in the middle of the desert, no companions but scrub brush, coyotes, and a strange man who asks you: “Got a light?”

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Babooshka & Delirium’s Mistress at Tea

Often, when I write, it’s downstairs on the couch. Usually there’s a cat attempting to knock my iPad out of its Qwertkey keyboard. Often there’s sun spilling through the blinds. But always there’s something playing on YouTube. Usually, it’s music. Today, it was about music. I threw on a 2014 BBC documentary on Kate Bush as I wrote up notes on various possible stories and novels. And as I listened to Kate Bush’s songs, and watched her videos, a notion hit me.

I posted this on Twitter: “In my imaginary world, Kate Bush and Tanith Lee used to spend afternoons together, laughing, and telling each other stories based on dreams.”

And I could see it. I could see the two of them in a small house somewhere – either Lee’s residence or Kate Bush’s Wickham Farm home studio. Kate would be working on Hounds of Love, singing bits and pieces of it, toying with a piano or keyboard. Tanith would be writing everything longhand, as if possessed, and reading early drafts of Delirium’s Mistress or “Medra” from a battered and cluttered writing desk.

Why these two? In some ways, I’ve always tied them together. The first time I heard Kate Bush sing, it was “Love & Anger” from The Sensual World.  Around that same time, the first of Tanith’s books – the Flat Earth Series – found their way into my hands. The back of my brain connected their voices.

But watching the documentary on Bush, and thinking back to ReaderCon discussions about Lee, I realized they were kin to each other. They were strange and sensual voices in a time plagued by sameness. No one could ever read one of Tanith Lee’s novels or listen to Kate Bush’s songs and say, “Well, it’s obvious they’re just riffing off this artist…” You can’t draw a direct line from their works to some antecedent.

They would always surprise you. They’d go down their own path and invite you along for the ride.

After all, these are ladies who would describe snow as ‘hooded-wept’ and ‘warm as toast.’ How could they not share garden space in the neighborhood of my mind?

We Can Be Heroes

They say you should never meet your heroes. You will realize they have feet of clay, lecherous hands, and spiteful mouths. Let them remain a shadow in the back of your mind. The Platonic idea of your hero will always beat the real thing.

In this case, I’m glad I didn’t listen. Over ten years ago, I went to GenCon with three close friends. We were there to support our favorite mini game at the time. And I realized that Michael Stackpole, fantasy and tie-in fiction author I admired for years, was not only attending but presenting  a multi-day workshop on writing. At the time, I dabbled and tried get a few things published – mostly to see if it would impress folks who really didn’t deserve the attention.

Michael Stackpole changed all of this.

I met him through the Battletech tie-in books. The Warrior trilogy in particular grabbed me by my little mech-powered heart over many a summer when I was young. His Rogue Squadron books influenced some of my favorite sessions of the old West End Games Star Wars RPG. And I will say his fantasy novel, The Dark Glory War, still haunts me.

And I mean it. The ending haunts me. The protagonist lives, but gods, you wish he had death’s peace.

So, I was concerned about the seminars. Would he grab the novella I had tucked in my backpack and set it afire in front of everyone, as I heard some Clarion instructors were wont to do?

No. He was open, forthright, friendly, and smart. His lectures completely turned me around. While they are currently trunk novels, it’s because of him I have three completed books hidden away.  He gave me just the right push, at just the right time, to start acting like  writer. Later, when his 21 Days to a Novel came out, I used it as a blueprint for one of my projects. Michael Stackpole still had a lot to teach me.

I returned to GenCon this year with three publication credits to my name – not much, but a start – and ran into Mr. Stackpole at the Catalyst Games booth. Not only did he put up with my stammering, he graciously signed my autograph book with two words: “Keep writing.”

No worries, sir. I will. Damn right I will.