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.

Back to the Future II: Surprisingly Cyberpunk

12118970_1020177268026997_3376775669711255293_nLook at those kids.  Change the saturation on this pic and you’ve got yourself a cyberpunk dystopia.

The bad guys in Back to the Future II (set tomorrow) dress like the California suburb version of cyberpunks, which implies that actual cyberpunks must be around somewhere. Like, teched out clothes and circuit-board makeup are being used by the real deal in the dark corners of the cities, and some coolfinder borrowed the style to put in the malls.

So, here’s your gritty cyberpunk BttF 2015 super-flash fan fic:

Relax. Enjoy your 3D movies. Don’t pay attention. Ignore the tremor in the voice that dries your clothes. Don’t think about the freaker who can hack your kid’s hoverboard. Don’t connect the rise in certain stocks with Cubs alleged win, or the fact that no one you know actually attended the World Series. Just keep thumbing away your money, bozo. You’ve given us the whorls on your skin. What else will you give us? What else can we take?

Hacking your biometrics is easier than even the fear-mongering propagandvertisements tells you. USA Today’s not the only one with drones. The eyes that keep you safe are everywhere, which means we’re everywhere. Hi-res photo plus 3D-printed skin equals us spending your cash wherever we go.

We know where you are. We know where everyone is. And we can tell you this — there’s someone in this town that doesn’t belong.

Three people. A man and two teens. We don’t know how they got here. And we don’t like not knowing things.

I mean, come on.



A Little Bit O’ Star Wars / Hamlet Goofiness

A buddy asked me to write something to go a long with this photo. So I did!


Alas, poor Porkins! I knew him, dear Lando; a fellow of infinite blasters, a most excellent pilot; he hath covered Gold Team’s six a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my Jedi senses it is! E’en the rancor snorts at it. Here hung that blast shield he wore I know not how oft. Where be your s-foils now? Your torpedoes? Your shields? Your flashes of covering fire that were wont to set the TIE fighters aflame?


New Game Gets Post-Cyberpunk Storytelling Right – Transistor

It took me two tries to really get into Supergiant’s action RPG Transistor , and boy am I glad I did.

I wasn’t in the right mood when I first loaded it up is the thing. I wanted fast and mindless. So I dumped a bunch more hours into the hamster wheel of Destiny, then returned when I was ready for the real stuff.

I’ve written about new cyberpunk here before, so no surprise that a new and unique treatment of the genre would attract my attention. But… nowhere on the game’s site is the word ‘cyberpunk’ mentioned. Why? I mean, your powers have names like Crash() and Ping().

Here’s my guess. It’s the pantone thing. As soon as you say the ‘C’ word, it’s all twitching data junkies in alleys and wraparound sunglasses with stark color gradients. Green and black. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) The visual aesthetic of the genre’s origins has come to define it.

And along comes Transistor, closer to noir than anything else. You play as a famous singer, not a leather-clad street samurai.  It’s fashion and high art, not jackers and addicts. But the tropes are there — AI, technology and identity, personality as software. It’s cyberpunk without the trappings. A new take.

Four story-telling elements of note:

  • Each new power is the… mind? soul? program?… of a human being involved in the back story. You want the full tale? You need to use the power in different ways to unlock it. A great way to blend a rewards system with world-building.
  • The MC’s voice has been taken, and the sword-thing she’s carrying around won’t shut up. The voice of the transistor sets the tone of each scene and drives the emotional response without ever getting annoying. It’s very well done.
  • Speaking of the transistor’s voice, on the PS4 it comes through the controller’s speaker. The guiding voice is coming from what you’re holding, just as it’s coming from what the MC is holding. It seems a small thing, but it really packs some emotional punch.
  • So how does the MC (Red) communicate? How do we get a sense of who she is? News terminals are set throughout the city (classic cyberpunk there), and Red adds comments to the public feed. You see her type something, then change her mind. What does this mean? Is she impulsive, with just enough sense to keep her from saying anything too crazy? Is she a strategist, arguing with herself over the best play?
    • One particularly fine moment is the first Red uses one of these terminals something for the transistor to read. It’s the first actual interaction we see between them, and it comes unexpectedly. A cool, surprising use of the tech — which is what cyberpunk is really about, right? The street, and the protagonist, finds its own uses for things.

Gameplay is varied and fun as well. So go play it!

‘Proximity’ in Apex

I’m proud to announce that my story Proximity is in this month’s Apex Magazine. (link) It’s one of the pieces they make available online for free, so it’s out there for all the world. Many thanks to Sigrid Ellis et al. for working with me!

This story marks my first foray into the cyberpunk-nouveau thing I’ve been riffing on for a while. It’s been about a year since I first wrote it, and I’ve used the same setting for a couple of other pieces now. One was a 3d-printing chase story for J. M. McDermott’s March Flash Madness, (which was a blast and everyone should participate in next year so get ready), and will be available in the e-book collection of the same.  The other is a novella which is currently out on the far shores of submission land. So if you dig Proximity, keep your eyes open!

Why Hillary Will Be President: Old Magicks

In 1776, the mages and augurs who oversaw the sacred rites of Founding, Declaration, and Constitution put into place a number of long-term spells (often referred to as “curses” or “boons”, depending on their intent — and interpretation) to secure the binding. One of these was translated roughly as “E Pluribus Unum”. Subtleties of language between English, Latin, and the unknowable source text* has led contemporary thinkers to read this as “Out of many, one”, but this is not entirely the case.

The E Pluribus Unum spell (hereafter referred to as “the EPU”) states that the last name of every President will be used exactly twice. Adams, Roosevelt, Bush, for example.

Does the spell require this binary relationship? Or does it create it? A matter of great debate. It the opinion of some scholars that the Kennedy “assassination” was facilitated by the spell’s requirement — a second Johnson needed to take the office. Some even go so far as to posit that the EPU has reached into the psyche of populace and can be found reflected in popular culture. Archie Bunker’s plaint that “we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again” has been read as such**.

Of particular note is Grover Cleveland, an accomplished magus in his own right, who may have used a loophole in the text of the EPU to become elected on two non-consecutive occasions. In a telegram to British spiritualist and author Sir A. C. Doyle, he states that “no-where in the Codex is it explicitly stated that the Name in question must be held by two separate men”.

There will almost certainly be another Clinton in the Oval Office, but whether or not Hillary would satisfy the EPU is unclear. Does the spell require that the incumbent’s birth name be used twice, or would a married name suffice?

A topic as dry and arcane as this may seem trivial, but it would serve to keep in mind that once every last name has been used exactly twice, the nation will fall. If this is true, and we were to assume the continuation of four-year terms, we can count on a minimum of another century or so***, but after that, what?


*The use of three languages is key to spellcraft. There needs be a living language (English in this case), a dead one (Latin), and a third, neither living nor dead. This is the secret language of magic, of course, and can only be understood by the initiated.

** Was J. Edgar meant to become President? Is that why his name appears in Ghostbusters as a vengeful, destructive force?

*** Though, William Henry Harrison’s brief tenure reminds us there must be some leeway. He served to fulfill the binary name requirement, certainly, but not for long.

Review – The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu has written a book both sprawling and subtle here. Go get lost in it.

Liu consistently presents his characters with impossible choices. Sometimes they are true to the tendencies we have seen throughout, and sometimes they surprise us by doing the opposite of the expected. Either way, we get to see the consequences — both societal and personal — of their decisions play out over decades.

And boy howdy are there lots of characters. Lots of POV characters, no less. We see this world changing through the eyes of children, of soldiers, of kings, of mothers, of gods.

The Iliad seems to be a major influence here. Now and then we see the gods fighting over their favorites, or appearing in human form to nudge events a certain way. We don’t see glowy magic twirling around evil mustachioed advisers as the dark gods they have bought their powers from come to collect. We see a bald guy in a cape talking to someone in the street.

Magic is present, but no more than (some might say) it is in the real world. You know that story your aunt tells about the time she saw a ghost? Or the long-dead great-uncle who you’ve been told could pull any card from a deck just by thinking of it? We’re talking that level of magic here. Again, no glowing.

If you like your fantasy realistic (no oxymoron intended), heavy on the politics, and well-fleshed out, give this book a shot.


It’s March Flash Madness!

The bloodied plain of fiction combat. There is where you will find me.

I’m participating in J. M. McDermott’s annual March Flash Madness,

wherein two writers go head-to-head with dueling prompts, and readers vote on who continues to the next round. 16 writers enter the ring. Only 1 will stand upon the crushed paper and spilled ink of their enemies, victorious!

I’m matched up against last year’s victor in the first round. Comment to vote & help me overtake the champ! (If you like mine better, that is.)

Local Arts News Radio Snippets – Make This Happen, NPR

Every day I hear a few seconds of sports news on the radio via NPR. I propose a few seconds of local arts news daily.

But what? Other than an events calendar (“and in arts, last night such-and-such show opened”) of what would this consist?

Sports is easy: “The Sabres lost 3-0”. So what does an arts news snippet sound like? News is when things change, so how does that apply here?

A few ideas:

  • Casting announcements / changes.
    • “And the cast for Equus has been announced….”
  • Contest openings/results.
  • Review announcements.
    • “Today’s Buffalo News features a review of Equus. It says….”
    • “the NY Times has a review of author Brian Castner‘s book….”
  • Any of the many author visits, signings, lectures.
  • Interesting productions of local authors’ works:
  • Tour notes:
    • The Albrights played in Brooklyn last night as part of their current tour. According to their Instagram account it was a great show, though the band is of mixed opinions on cronuts.”
  • Sold-out shows, unusual shows.
  • Business:
    • “And such-and-such theater company has a new artistic director….”
  • Other interesting oddities:
    • “A tumblr post featuring the paper-cutting sculpture of local artist Maude White has over 200,000 notes and shares.”
    • Michele Marie Benzin interviewed by Yahoo for her rendition of….”

I mean, seriously. Like I care how the Bandits did last night. This would take all of fifteen minutes to compile every morning, especially if you set up a news submissions line. There are so many artists with so many amazing accomplishments in Buffalo. This is at least as newsworthy as a sports team practicing.

BUT… is being “in the know” part of the mystique of the arts scene? Even if it is, the good of giving people actual interesting news outweighs it.

One last note — does this actually happen already and I just don’t realize it?

The USA is the Empire

Let’s sum up.

We destroy civilizations from the sky, using terrifying technology only we control.


We torture…

…and it proves ineffective.

Governor Tarkin: [refering to Leia] She lied. She lied to us.
Darth Vader: I told you she would never consciously betray the Rebellion.


We use killer robots.




Our militarized police kill civilians without trial or repercussion.




But we’re the good guys. Right?