Story from a Dream

In this dream there was a small group of independent scientists working on a kind of mind-reading technology (some variants of this sort of thing are already in development) that enabled humans to understand the thoughts of animals. For the most part, they weren’t finding much of a there there, but then they accidentally pick up prodigy-level sentience from a horse and a donkey who happened to be in the neighborhood. They begin communicating with the creatures through their device, explaining to them what they’re doing and what they’ve found and try to convince the animals to work with them, to further the dialog across species, to help the creatures further develop their own intellectual capabilities, and to contribute overall to humanity and the world. The horse and the donkey are, in short, not interested. They want nothing to do with any of it. They know what they know and they’ve seen what they’ve seen and have made up their minds about people (and the world).

There was no Amy Adams success story in the end. There was no magic moment, no breakthrough, no brilliant insight, only continual stubbornness and persistence on all sides to no avail.


How to Go Viral Mechanically

According to this article in TechCrunch, machine learning will be applied to discover stories with hit potential inside Wattpad. Among the 565 million stories there, new jewels will be discovered by machines that cannot read, cannot think, cannot contextualize, but can formulate like hell along pre-determined spreadsheet equations. It’s the brave old world of search engine optimizations applied to fiction. So don’t worry about needles and haystacks, and let the machine find you. Good luck with that!

Stories to Not Write

the continuing saga of stories I will never write:

Alternate History of Humanity on a Planet where there is no metal.

Alternate History of Humanity with a Bonobo-like culture.

The Same Five Minutes of the Same Person’s Trivial Activity Set Concurrently in 100 Parallel Universes.

Infinite Futile Time Loop Attempting A Different Hairstyle.

Jack and Jill Successfully Fetch a Pail of Water Without Incident.

Audiobook of Fourteen Bleating Lambs.

Man Gets Sued for Being Sued by Inventor of Lawsuits.

Boy Meets Girl.

A Memoir of Lukewarm Applause.

(thank you very much)




45,000 Lawns

When I was five years old I wanted to have a life’s work. I didn’t know what that meant. I just overheard my mother use that phrase. She said it as if it was something very valuable, something not many people possessed, only the very lucky few. She said she was not one of those people. As far as she could tell, she would spend the rest of her days doing other people’s laundry and taking out their trash. So I asked her, if you could have a life’s work, what would it be? She thought about it for a moment, and then said, you know? I can’t think of anything!

I was not happy with that answer. I was only five, and didn’t have much experience with the world, so I couldn’t think of anything either, but I decided right then and there to make it my mission to have a life’s work. I locked myself in my room and told myself I couldn’t have another pretzel until I’d thought of a life’s work of my own, and since I loved pretzels more than anything, you can tell I was really serious. I stared at the walls of my room. I stared at the floor. I stared at my toys. I looked out the window. That was when I had my big idea.


I grew up in a small city in the mid-west where everybody had a lawn, even the poorest of the poor had a small patch of something in their back yard, maybe it was only weeds, and maybe it was mostly broken cement, but they counted. Even my mom’s sorry excuse for a backyard counted for a lawn. I looked at that patch of dirt and dandelions and I said to myself, George? (my name is George). You are going to make that lawn count if it’s the last thing you do. But no, I said to myself. Not make the lawn count. Count the lawn! That’s the thing. I was going to count the lawns, every last lawn I ever encountered for as long as I lived.

I did not originally have a target number in mind. I thought maybe there were about a hundred lawns in the world, and at the time, one hundred was the biggest number I knew. I didn’t hesitate. I was never a dawdler. I ran right down the stairs and raced outside and started counting lawns.

It wasn’t enough to see them. I had to physically occupy them in one way or another, even if only for an instant. That’s how I came upon the strategy of “one step, one vote”. I ran up and down the street, “tagging” every lawn in the neighborhood with either my right or my left foot (never both). I soon got quite carried away, so carried away in fact that by the time I counted my forty-fifth lawn I was already blocks from home and had no idea where I was.

When the police woman found me all I could tell her was that my name was George, and that my house had the sorriest excuse for a lawn, and that my mother did not possess a life’s work whatsoever. I don’t know how they ever tracked her down, but they did.

Of course I never told her what I was up to, not then, and not ever, not even when I graduated from high school some eleven thousand, two hundred and eighteen lawns later, and not when I graduated from law school, where I studied property law and amassed a total of twenty six thousand four hundred and ninety lawns by the time I passed the state bar. Somehow I knew it was nothing to be particularly proud of, especially on those occasions when my life’s work got me into trouble.

I was something of an expert on trespassing by then, but even experts make mistakes.

Still I kept my secret, even under severe cross-examination and throughout the lost years I spent in prison when I stepped on no lawns at all. I can promise you that the first thing I did on my release was begin to make up for all that time. I racked up hundreds more within my first few months of freedom.

I became a connoisseur of lawn treading. I began to resist the urge to stomp on every mere patch, reserving the right to refuse steps for lawns that didn’t measure up to my increasingly lofty standards. Now my lawns were required to be cared for, to be respected if not always treasured. My lawns deserved a degree of dignity. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a figure had begun to take shape, the number 45,000 began appearing in my dreams and randomly occurring to me even during daylight hours. Perhaps it was a shadow, a reflection of those early forty-five, the first I had counted before I got lost and had sat down by the side of the road, sobbing and miserable and certain I was doomed forever.

Now, as I approached the numinous integer, I applied my standards ever more rigorously, until there was hardly a lawn that qualified for my attention. I stalled out in the mid forty-four thousands, and for an entire sixteen months I stepped on nary a lawn. Finally I decided to break through this blockage, this self-inflicted obstacle barricading me from the achievement of my life’s work, and I resolved to trod on every lawn until I reached that sacred figure and that once I did, my journey would be complete. Only then could I rest.

So you see, your honor, that’s what I was doing in Mrs. Jenkins backyard on the evening of the 27th. I was certainly not attempting to break into her house, and of course I always wear all black when I go out counting lawns. Doesn’t everyone?


(the narrator would like to think that this story has been illustrated in the manner of the classic children’s book, Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag:

Data Mining and Data Undermining

“Write what you know,” some say, while others recommend the opposite, or even “write what you knew, or thought you did.” I recently visited that prescription in a bit of seriously lightweight fiction I wrote (The White-Hole Situation, now available where e-books are free to download and/or pirate). I was a kid during the first generation of Star Trek, and a young adult during the next, and I got to know that world pretty well, well enough to riff on its larger implications, and it was fun to do, enjoyable writing if not meaningful, deep or otherwise significant in any way.

That bit of writing, combined with the concurrent death of Philip Roth and all the various “takes” on his life and work, I’ve been thinking about how writers mine the data of their own lives and the worlds they’ve experienced. Some writers do this far more than others. Philip Roth, for example, was of white upper-middle class east coast Jewish extraction, and I the same. His generation was my parents’ generation, so there’s that gap, but it would never have occurred to me to write the kind of fiction he wrote. In fact, I never liked his books or his writing and as an author he was only stock-on-the-shelf to me during my lengthy career in bookstores. He was a classic self-data-miner and an exemplary representative of his era of white male patriarchal misogyny and whatnot. I don’t see how there can be any argument about this. If you enjoyed his books then good, you’re the audience for them. If you didn’t then you’re not.

Data under-miners could be the reverse – writers who deliberately attempt to flee from the identities imposed on them from their surrounding culture, writers who feel they are not what they appear to be. Perhaps analogous to transgender individuals, whose inner identity is not pegged to their biological happenstance, some writers know in their heart who they are and that who they are is not who they are seen to be. Some will use pseudonyms as a way of dealing with the disconnect. Some will hide from the public, become reclusive so as not to be tied to the photo on the jacket of their books. Some will go further and lie about their identity, make up alter egos for their public life. Others will just go about the business of writing and not worry about all that.

In my case I’m pretty much the last case there, but I do wonder when people see my name on my books, and how some of them are science fiction, do they think I’m related to the famous Jacqueline Lichtenberg? (I am not). Do they think I am as Jewish as my name (and face) imply? (I am not). What else do they infer? That I am Caucasian (I am considered white in America these days, although my grandparents were not considered white in America when they were young), that I am male (I am), that I am probably cis-gendered (I am) though who knows, I could be gay. After all, I write, and that’s kind of arty, which is kind of gay (to a large swath of the populace). I’m pretty sure that data-mining my books would make it pretty clear that I am white and male (from my vocabulary, and the majority gender of my characters, though I do like to think I’ve done a decent job with my female characters, who are the protagonists in many of my books).

Textual analysis would probably come up with a decent portrait of me as a person, despite the fact that I’ve written almost nothing autobiographical or even much taken from my own life and background (Raisinheart and The Part-Time People are the only ones I can think of that even cast a shadow on my own history). It would not surprise me if the accuracy of such an analysis came close to one similar for Philip Roth, or for any writer. Whether we write what we know, or what we don’t know, or what we knew or what we thought we knew, in the end the “we” who writes is the “we” who we are, and that’s true even if you think you’re only a medium through whom the Holy Spirit is communicating its own soap opera.

It’s also made me think about what other influences I could dredge up, what else do I know as well that I could transpose onto another platform, that I haven’t done already. I’ve already done a bit of that with noir fiction (Death Ray Butterfly), and my Outlier series was a mashup of Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage and Freakonomics. You wonder just how much you can cannibalize (everything!) whether consciously or not. Are all writers mere data-miners of their histories, and/or how could it really be otherwise?

Some tropes I’m bound to ignore. I grew up on spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry but have absolutely no interest in writing anything shoot-em-up (Star Wars included in that genre), slice-em-up (as much as I liked samurai flicks) or yuk-it-up (how many sitcoms have I seen every episode of?).

When you start making a list of your childhood and youthful influences it can get downright discouraging as well as embarrassing!

The White Hole Situation

Sometimes a story has momentum, sometimes that only goes so far. We’ll see how far this one goes. It’s already gone through several title changes, from “IBU” to “IBU: a white whole situation”, to “September and the Situation” to, finally,  “The White Hole Situation“. It’s kind of a fun story to write. One could riff all day on the implications of technology and the benign attitude towards it as reflected in the original star trek series and in “white male sixties moon shot sci fi” in general.

Sci Fi is one of many (most?) fields long dominated by the white western male human. The realm has been opening up more and more to women and people from other regions and groups in general, and that’s got to be a good thing. As a white male science fiction writer, it doesn’t bother me at all. I use the analogy of a shower. If you want a nice warm shower, you can’t just have the hot water turned up all the way and the cold water off. No, you need to adjust the mix until you get it just right. So to let more non-white non-male writers into all of these fields, you’ve got to turn down one knob and turn up the other. There’s an expected backlash, as with affirmative action and desegregation and any other program attempting to redress imbalance, but I’m sorry if you were born at the wrong time for your turn. Everybody else who’s not like you has been born at the wrong time for centuries.

Anyway, I digress.

Back in those days, technology was going to solve every problem, ease every load, make the impossible not only possible but easy. Warp speed? Sure. Teleportation? Why not. Handheld devices that not only diagnose but cure every ailment? You got it. All you have to do is talk to the thing.

“Computer,” you say, followed by your heart’s desire.

Everybody on board is assigned a rank and some color uniform. There’s hierarchy and patriarchy in full force, for no good reason, really, since the machine does everything. And the machine is only for good. Now and then they dabbled with some danger coming from that side of things, but in the end, pure reason saves the day and men are rational creatures who might be a bit hot-headed but damned handsome and charming as fuck.

So what’s it like to live in such a world? What could be wrong? What could you complain about? What if the technology continued on that trend for another two hundred years. By that time, it gets so good that it has pretty much figured it all out. Smooth as clockwork, smooth as silk, smooth as the whole space-time continuum. The universe is a hologram, says Stephen Hawking.

There’s no Matrix in this one, no Twelve Monkeys, no horrible future, no dystopia, just a bunch of randos minding their own business and living their lives in a world that’s been made perfect just for them. Of course, something is bound to go horribly wrong. Otherwise where’s the plot? But what if a tree falls in a forest and the computer doesn’t let anybody see it? Was there a tree? Was there a forest? Who is the dreamer and what is the dream? (ok, I stole that line from some peak TV show. Damn they’re good these days – I especially recommend Twin Peaks, Atlanta, Babylon Berlin, The Dark, Legion, and Superstore)