“Is Jeng-zai Heretical?”: a piece of Ninefox Gambit fan-fic.

[Warning: most of the content to follow is pure conjecture as to the exact nature of the jeng-zai deck of cards featured in Yoon Ha Lee’s fantastic Ninefox Gambit, which you should go read if you haven’t. – AL]

Is Jeng-zai Heretical? : An essay by Rahal Volare

(comments in red by Professor-Magistrate Rahal Sen Kann)

I would not dare to imply that any official action be taken against the playing of jeng-zai, a pleasurable and harmless (conjecture) tradition throughout the factions since before the hexarchate. I offer only a theoretical exercise on how the game and its variants could be interpreted as outside of Doctrine.

The Deck

The deck itself is a fairly simple matter: 27 cards in three suits (Roses, Gears, and Doors) running from ace to seven followed by two “noble” cards (the General and the Archate, or “Crowned” card). Yet the history, legend, and tradition surrounding these cards speaks to the effect they have on the shared minds of the populace at all levels of society.

Take, for example, the General of Roses, or “Drowned General” as it is known at jeng-zai tables. The standard depiction is of a military personage wearing a uniform decorated with rose-shapes, whose image is crossed at the lips by a line of waveform shapes clearly representing water. Overwhelmed, perhaps, or in failure. All manner of dramas can be found wherein a swarm leader draws the Drowned General and earns the mistrust of her crew. (cite these dramas for investigation) But some histories cite earlier forms of the card where several lines crossed the image at varying angles, representing bullets just missing the General. An error in the printing of one of the most-widely-distributed decks at the time made the waveform, and the tradition of the unlucky card (more here on luck. E.g. lucky unlucky 4 of any suit in Kel “dramas”, such as they are) has stuck.

Of course, the history of Shuos Jedao has lent deep meaning to the Deuce of Gears. Did the card choose the madman, or the other way around? (strike this from all drafts immediately) The lowest card in most jeng-zai variants, it is the only non-noble card to have oddities in its design: first, the varying sizes and shapes of the two gears and second, the lightning-strike shape. Design histories are unclear as to why this is the case. (end all investigation into this matter. handled by other scholars at length)

The Game

Jeng-zai is, at its most basic, a game of probability management and bluffing. Does your hand beat those of your opponents? Can you convince them it does even if it does not? The game draws interest from all factions for various reasons. The Nirai argue over the deep maths of the shuffle. The Shuos value the manipulation of others. (incomplete. what else do they value? what do they learn about a person by playing against him?) The Andan have an entire language of seduction built around the finer points of the game. The Kel love a winner-take-all game like the typically-Kel variant known as “F*ck The Calendar”, which rewards massive risks and presumed failure. (also breaking orders. this is a partner variant, with one partner as the lead, and certain card combinations only work when both partners contribute. but there can be only one winner. worth noting here that only in play will a Kel even think of disobeisance. the main social value of Fuck The Calendar is in allowing the Kel to flex any latent rebellious muscles a little in a controlled environment. see Shuos secret monitoring records of every game of Fuck The Calendar ever played in a military installation in the last 250 years). Even the Vidona find uses for the psychological strain the game can cause. (and what of us? and the Liozh? why bother writing about heretical gameplay without referring to them? see, but do not distribute, attached text)


We have seen that the individual cards have meanings beyond their values.  The game itself has an indelible and invariant (use different word) place in our society. These associations are social, and outside of any Lexicon. It may be possible, then, that the game and its deck could be heretical.

Could the arrangement of a deck of cards in the pocket of some fledge cause unintended results in a formation? A question for the Nirai, surely, but one worth asking. Calendrical stability is a delicate matter (strike), and if a dead soldier were to be found with the so-called Fire’s Own Fortune hand at the top of his favorite deck after a lost battle, the mental damage this could do to a swarm is worthy of investigation. Loyalty-states can be assessed by our weaponry, and loyalty is not immune to the effects of the near-exotic qualities our subconscious attributes to jeng-zai. (good Rahal reasoning here)

Indeed (awk), any social construct which operates by rules outside of Doctrine merits monitoring. All games are based in an agreed-upon rule set, and any rule set not measured and valued by Doctrine is a potential risk to the hexarchate and the Calendar. Thus, jeng-zai, while clearly not (conjecture), could be viewed as a heretical by its very nature.


The Last Time I Saw Superman: Lois Lane Fanfic

Here’s a little Lois Lane fanfic:


Audio Transcription:

The Last Time I Saw Superman,
A stupid puff piece for a stupid personal interest column Perry just came up with to cram more flights-and-tights into the Planet so I’m dictating it to some free app on my phone, the one I bought myself because Perry’s too cheap to pay for a business phone for his best reporter.
By Lois Lane, Society of Professional Journalists, 2014 finalist for the Kane Award, 2015 Straub’s Top Fifty American Journalists.

The last time I saw Superman, I was in Clark Kent’s apartment.

Long-time Planet readers may remember Mr. Kent’s cutting journalistic style from such hallmark pieces as “Cats Stuck In Trees: Not Just A Midtown Problem” and “Metropolis Minis Give Their Best At Tee-Ball Quarterfinals”. Despite this reputation for hard-hitting, just-in-time reporting, Mr. Kent’s personal life is as bland as the milk that fills his refrigerator.

Memo: whole milk, not low-fat. Clark’s one weakness?

We were headed to the Metro Gala that night to try and pounce on some new CEO and get a quote for a piece on jobs. That’s “jobs” in the non-specific way only we journalists ever use. Are we getting more? Are we losing them? The less specific the better, right Perry?

My wonderful and intelligent and handsome editor engineered the invite, of course, and told me in an only vaguely sexist way to wear my best dress. I borrowed a Louis Vuitton from my rich friend, because of course I can’t afford a real dress because of course Perry still hasn’t come through with that raise he promised three years ago. Clark, on the other hand, was given extremely specific instructions on what to wear, peppered with insults about hayseeds and hand-made clothes.

I offered to throw in for a pair of glasses that fit well enough that he doesn’t have to push them back his nose every five seconds. He said “I didn’t think you noticed how I look, Lois,” in that puppy-dog flirtatious tone he uses all the time with me. That may have worked on the Corn Queen of Smallville County, pal, but it doesn’t play here in town.

I took a taxi to the address Clark gave me, asked the driver to wait, and gave him a nice tip. I was a high-class gala-goer that night; might as well live the part. He also managed to drive me across town without leering at me, so I figured that was worth a buck or two. Because that’s the world we live in; a place where a woman feels like she should tip a man for not making her uncomfortable.

Memo: Tell the IT boys to put a few extra filters on the comments for this one.

Clark came to the door of his apartment in most of a tux, and was clearly losing an epic battle with his cufflinks. He stammered the obligatory you-look-lovely, welcomed me in, and shuffled off to his bedroom to finish composing the disaster which was to be his outfit, leaving me to pry.

What? I’m a journalist. It’s how I pass the time.

I’ve known Clark for years, but I had never seen his place until that evening. A bit of Smallville, right here in downtown.

Usually when people move from the country to an apartment downtown, they decorate with what they consider city stuff. Black and white pictures of Metropolis’s Buildings of Architectural Significance. Reprints of old theater posters. Not Clark; his place his filled with plants. He’s got three rows of herbs growing on every windowsill. The only thing on his coffee table is a bowl of what I think might be wheat seed. The guy’s growing hydroponic tomatoes like some scraggly-bearded hipster.

No old sports trophies or photos of himself in a football uniform. Probably too busy shucking corn, whatever that means.

I asked him where his treadmill was.

He called from his bedroom, still wrestling with the tie. “What?”

“You’re pretty skinny,” I said. “I figured you must run or something.”

He laughed. “Me? Golly no. Just watch what I eat and do some pushups.”

I give myself a lot of credit for stifling a sigh. And, as would any rational person standing in a borrowed Louis Vuitton waiting for the world’s last boy scout to figure out how to put on a clip-on, I went to get myself a drink.

Nothing in the cabinets, of course. I had managed to stumble into the pad of the one bachelor in Metropolis who doesn’t keep a liquor cabinet. The fridge was stocked with a half-gallon of the aforementioned milk –

Memo: from a local farm in Kansas? Am I remembering that right? Sure, maybe he wants to support his home town. Probably smooched the dairy farmer’s gingham-clad daughter behind a haystack one sultry Kansas night and can’t live with the guilt. But what would it cost to get it delivered from the heartland?

…the aforementioned milk and a six pack of Coors. Actual Coors in the gold cans, not Light.

One beer was missing.

“When did your father visit?” I asked.

More sounds of struggle. “Uh… a few months ago, Lois. I brought him to the office to meet everyone, but you weren’t there.”

“Oh, I’m sure he was terribly disappointed.”

“He… uh… he got over it. Those farmboys are tough, right?”

At long last, my date for the night emerged from the lonely fortress of his bedroom in full regalia. I have to give him some credit; he didn’t look entirely like a kid going to Junior Prom. I played it up and swatted his butt with my clutch just to see him squirm. He – and this is 100% true – he blushed.

Clark started babbling on about the assignment. I looked out the window to make sure my taxi hadn’t taken off. I didn’t tip him that well.

There’s a feeling deep in your ear you get when something breaks the sound barrier, too low to be called a sound. I looked up, and there he was. He hovered there, his cape catching the wind in that perfect way it always does.

“Clark, it’s him,” I whispered, as if saying it out loud would break the magic and send him away. He didn’t answer. I didn’t blame him. The strongest person in the world, here to protect us, ever-vigilant. My breath still catches sometimes.

Superman saw whatever he was searching for and soared out of sight, faster than a speeding anything. When I turned around, Clark was still looking up at the darkening sky. His tie had come undone, so I stepped over and fixed it for him. Sharing something like that, it just makes you want to be close to people. Physical proximity fills in for the words we don’t know how to say. He looked into my eyes and smiled, not as shy as he was a moment prior.

And that, Perry, is the last time I saw Superman. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to get back to…


Wait, wait…





Miss Lane, you should know that distracted driving has been proven to be more dangerous than driving drunk.

Oh, well, I guess they’ve never been drinking with me! I mean… not that… I….

Are you alright?

Um… yeah. Yes.

Good night, Miss Lane.


Good night.


Oh screw this.

End transcription.

GLITCH RAIN Available Now!

The book is up:  http://www.apexbookcompany.com/products/glitch-rain

GlitchRain001_grandeAkuba is a low-level hacker for the city’s wealthy, making just enough to keep her bills paid and her booze flowing. Her job is to scrub the social feeds for faces who don’t want to be seen, hanging out at parties to guard the elite from errant social media statuses and incriminating photo posts. Not the most glamorous job, but she’s getting by. When an old debt comes due early, suddenly she is the one who needs to keep her face out of the drones’ omnipresent eyes. Thrown into the high-stakes world of international cybercrime, Akuba will have to have to outmaneuver unlimited surveillance, high-tech con artists, and an international hacker kingpin if she wants to survive. Every identity has a price inGlitch Rain.


My first book birthday! (I’m totally not reading anything into the fact that Keats died on this day.)

Images and Symbols in Dan and Dave’s “Sons of Liberty” Deck

There’s a deck of cards based on the people and images of the US Revolutionary War, and there seem to be some secrets hidden within. It’s like Christmas!

First, go get Dan and Dave’s Sons of Liberty Playing Cards, because they’re beautiful. Next, let’s take a close look and see what we can find,

The Outside

Let’s start with some of the particulars of the box.

sons-of-liberty-playing-cards-12[1]Sealed with a sticker. A variation on the Anti-Stamp Act logos.



Upon opening, we get a hidden “Liberty Or Death”, reference to Thomas Paine.


Also, the side tabs present a snake and a lit fuse.


The snake in this set of images probably doesn’t connote evil, but rather refers to Franklin’s  Join Or Die image. Why Franklin chose a snake over any other animal which is dead when cut into pieces, I couldn’t say.


The card backs present a mix of images related to the founding and icons of the Freemasons.


Here we have the eagle, a wee Liberty Bell, and a banner displaying the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”.  This motto comes from Franklin’s proposal for the Great Seal, and was apparently adopted by Jefferson for his personal seal. (Note: we need to bring back personal seals.) 

The Masonic Square and Compass logo, as well as everyone’s favorite pyramid-topper The Eye of Providence are featured prominently.

The Cards

Now to the best part:  the cards themselves. The general rule seems to have been to use famous figures for the kings and queens, and then more general roles as the Jacks.


The King of Spades, with the crossing of the Delaware behind him, can only be Washington.


The King of Hearts is Paul Revere on his midnight ride, ft. a lantern and the Old North Church.


The King of Diamonds, backed with images similar to those in John Trumbull’s painting of the signing, I am assuming to be John Hancock. TJ’s hair is way too messy.


The King of Clubs has some mystery to it. With the Tea Party in the background, I think we can safely say this is Samuel Adams.

Especially when we compare to his non-beer portrait. (Thank you, MFA Boston).

But what of the Masonic symbols in his hands? Why Adams and not the others? A quick googling returns citations of all of the other three kings as Masons, but not Adams. Or, in the broader sense of the imagery in the deck, are we to see Adams an an architect of the Revolution? He was certainly active in the Sons of Liberty. MYSTERIES ABOUND.


The Queens.

Great stuff in here.

The Queen of Spades, loading a cannon under enemy fire, is folk hero Molly Pitcher.  I had never heard of Pitcher until I started looking into this deck, and I have yet to forgive my Social Studies teachers.

Now here’s something notable; the scrollwork on her clothes has two snake-heads (just at her collar). There’s scrolly goodness on all these cards — why are we just seeing the snakes now? Hmmm….



The Queen of Hearts is Betsy Ross. Note the inclusion of the queenly flower.



The Queen of Diamonds, with laurel, spear, dove and Greek-looking head apparel, is the “goddess” Columbia. (Full disclosure: I always just called her “Lady Liberty” until I heard the name “Columbia” from a friend.)



The Queen of Clubs. Let me say the thing about my Social Studies teachers again. I mean, they were all fine folks and taught a bunch of great stuff. But I never heard tell of Nancy Hart, who got a bunch of enemy soldiers drunk and killed them with their own gun. Awesome.



The Jacks

Head-scratchers. I don’t think they’re meant to be particular people, but I’m not sure.

Jack of Spades. A naval captain. John Paul Jones?



Jack of Hearts: A blacksmith, beating what we have to assume was once a ploughshare into a sword.

Note the snake-head at his shoulder! What the heck’s going on with those?



Jack of Diamonds: Ah the noble aspect of the patriot soldier.


Appears to have been influenced by this illustration by FOC Darley. (?)


Jack of Clubs: a drummer. Not the one from the famous painting.


The other cards

The Ace of Spades, traditionally used for the company’s logo and other rad illustrations, features the Liberty Tree with 1776 above it. I thought it might be the Charter Oak, but the leaf shape seems elmier.

And there’s our buddy the snake again, this time in a figure-eight knot.


The Joker may be my favorite card in this deck. The stocks, symbol of abusive governmental punishments, now in disuse and growing ivy.



And that’s that. If you have any clues on the images in this beautiful deck, please let me know!

So Close! – GPS Artists

Well, I almost made it. GPS art is now an app.

From Atlas Obscura:



From Glitch Rain, which comes out in two weeks:

“We currently have on board a half-dozen poets, of the ‘predictive text’ and ‘found spam’ schools mainly, as well as the current Clickbait Laureate of Scotland. A drone choreographer and an auto-tune violinist are collaborating on a new rendition of Ashton’s Ondine, and you can watch a live feed of their home workshop from any mobile device. That GPS painter who sent Uber cars all over Tijuana has been openly hiding out with us for a few years. That one who set up a Google maps overlay to draw a self-portrait from their routes.


News – Novella GLITCH RAIN Due out 2/16 with Apex!

Very happy to announce that I have signed a contract with Apex Publications for my cyberpunk nouveau novella GLITCH RAIN. Come February 2016, get ready for some drones, container homes, hackers, and heavy, heavy drinking*!

Apex Publications is pleased to announce that we have acquired Alex Livingston’s GLITCH RAIN.

GLITCH RAIN is a post-cyberpunk novella set in the same world as the short story “Proximity” that appeared in Apex Magazine. The novella will be the fourth book in our Apex Voices series!

Alex Livingston’s short fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Bastion Magazine, among others. He self-published the novel Rhymer, an Irish wonder myth told as an exciting sci-fi space opera.

GLITCH RAIN is set to be released in February, 2016.


*By the characters. And me, let’s be honest here.


Black Mirror: Writing Stakes

If there’s anything cyberpunk nouveau Twilight Zone TV show Black Mirror is good for, it’s tension. I binged the first two seasons yesterday, having intended to just watch one episode. Edge of my seat, standing and shouting, creeped the hell out.

So how did they do it?

The first episode hits you with major life-and-death-and-the-crown stakes in the first minute and doesn’t let you go. Seriously tense. The conceit is so wild it’s almost gimmicky, so how to keep this going in future episodes? Raise them stakes.


The Entire History of You: In a world where you can play back any memory, what happens when you suspect your wife of having feelings for an old friend? Higher – maybe they slept together when you stormed out for a week. Higher – And doesn’t the timing match the conception of your child?

Be Right Back: Your husband dies in a car accident. Higher – you just moved into his family’s old farmhouse, miles from anywhere. Higher – Oh, and you’re pregnant.

Brian Staveley lays out three kinds of literary tension as psychological, social, and environmental in this post (A LOVER, A PIGLET, AND A DEEP HOLE; OR, THREE TYPES OF TENSION), and they can certainly be applied to these episodes.

The Entire History of You:

Psychological: The main character has trust and jealousy issues. This has led his wife to be less than honest about her past relationships.

Environmental: And memories can be played back. Harder to lie now.

Social: Throw his wife’s rakish former lover in the mix.

Be Right Back:

Psychological: Martha is a social person. She prefers to be actually present in her life, rather than sinking into social media and her phone.

Environmental: She is utterly alone out in the countryside, and soon to be a single mum. A friendly voice in the dark sure helps….

Social: And now she can talk with an AI that talks just like her dead husband. She reminds herself he’s not real, and eventually hates “him” for it,.

These are episodes which mainly feature people sitting around and talking, and they shook the hell out of me. Every new layer of tension got a verbal “oh shit”. Good stuff.