This Week in Wattpad

This week in #Wattpad I’ve been happily reading some more good stuff, including (but not necessarily limited to)

Companionship by @PeerGlen, a genuine space opera with unusually inventive escapades and characters

Cursed Times – What Now? by @linahanson, a supernatural culture clash set in contemporary Ancient Egypt

Someday by @drwhogivesadamn, an exploratory friendship with the new kid next door, a fascinating reveal

Ally’s Revenge, by @BrandyLee1031, an unfolding drama told by two major characters as their paths draw closer to intersect

Phantoms of Folklore, by @joannajadoo, folk tales old and new told enchantingly by a gifted storyteller

A thief’s nightmare by @Keeylie, a clash of clans in a mythical world

The Magician’s Horses by @bkbennett made me race to the finish of this fascinating time travel experiment

@AnnWrites had me on the edge of my seat with two stories, The Trophy Wife’s Lover and 666: A Psychological Thriller

My “Library” is too full and the Android version of the Wattpad app is unpredictable – I never know what’s going to show up or in what order, but as always there’s no shortage of stories to check out there.

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Satan’s Dollar Store

The first short short of a new collection that will be ongoing on Wattpad

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The devil is in the details they say, but what they fail to disclose is that he is in every single one of them. On closer inspection they advise that you don’t look any closer. Leave it alone, they maintain, well enough or not. Everything must go.

That’s what the sign said. Everything must go. “Everything?” I asked myself. “What exactly do they mean by that? I wondered. I found myself walking nowhere in the dry and dusty part of town that day, dying of thirst, asking myself all sorts of stupid questions. I do that a lot. Walking nowhere, that is. It’s sort of my job. I’m a sidewalk inspector for the city. Anything wrong with your sidewalk, I write you up. The city makes you fix it. You pay. I would be an unpopular person if people knew what I was doing but they don’t. It’s not like I wear a sign or anything. I just walk around, eyes to the ground, looking for evil-doing concrete to write up in my little black book.

Here in the dry and dusty part of town there were a lot of ticket opportunities, but I was getting dizzy from the heat. All I wanted was a cool glass of water. All I saw were boarded up storefronts, liquor stores, check-cashing spots, and the last place on Earth I wanted to go into, a shop that advertised itself as Satan’s Dollar Store.

“Really?” I wondered aloud. “Everything must go?” I thought perhaps it was a general statement, along the lines of “all things must pass,” or “all good things come to an end” or “you get what you pay for”, because when I peeked inside the door I saw nothing on the shelves. It was as if the everything that had to go had already gone, but since it was the only business that seemed to be open, I went in anyway, figuring that even if they had nothing at all, they still might have some water.

It was a narrow store, six cozy aisles wide with shelves from floor to ceiling stocked chock full of empty air. Just inside the door, a man sat behind a counter, head propped up on elbows. I think he was asleep but then he stirred and half rose to greet me before settling back down again in his rickety wicker chair. He had one of those ridiculous hipster beards crawling down his neck and fingering its way up variegated paths on his cheeks. His arms were covered in green and yellow tattoos that resembled vines of tomatoes except they were bleeding. He was bleeding. It was real blood, and it was also dripping from his long and pointy nose. He was bald except for a braided pony tail that started somewhere halfway down the back of his head and extended, near as I could tell, to the faded and grimy linoleum floor.

He decided not to welcome me with words, but sort of grunted as he sat back down and wiped his bloody nose with the back of his hand. I was about to inquire about water when I noticed, at the far end of the store, a row of soda cans languishing on a lonely shelf.

“I don’t suppose you have any cold ones,” I asked him as I made my way towards those items.

“I don’t do cold,” he muttered into his beard.

I sighed but figured any old beverage would do, so I picked up one of the cans and was startled to discover how light it was.

“Is there anything in here?” I turned to ask him. “It feels like it’s empty.”

I put the can down and picked up its neighbor, which was likewise zero gee. I tried another, and another and quickly realized they were all the same, so I carried the last one I’d tested over to the counter and set it down. Maybe I was suffering from heat stroke, I thought. Maybe I couldn’t tell there was soda inside because it was my head that was empty as air.

“How much?” I asked. He looked up at me like I had eaten razor blades for lunch.

“One dollar,” he snorted, and a clump of blood flew out of his nose as he said the words, landing by my shoe. That was disgusting, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I pulled out a dollar and slapped it down on the counter and put my hand on the flip-top to open the can.

“You sure you want to do that?” he asked.

“Um, yeah,” I replied as sarcastically as I could. “Thirsty? Soda? Paid for?”

“Not soda,” he said.

“Not soda? What the?”

“Soul,” he said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, taking a step back and shaking the empty can. It really was empty, or at least there was no soda in it. I reached to grab my dollar off the counter but he was too quick. He grabbed it and said,

“Paid for, yup. Now you got it.”

“What exactly do I got?” I asked, tossing the can from one hand to the other. “What kind of place is this anyway? You got nothing on the shelves except for these empty soda cans. Looks like a lousy business model to me. I’m just saying.”

“Tell me about it,” he sighed. “Nobody’s selling their souls anymore, and those that do, ain’t hardly worth it. Can’t get nothing for them nowadays.”

“Right,” I said. “Selling their souls, huh? Like to the devil or something?”

“You can read, can’t you?” he asked. “You saw the sign, right?”

“Oh, like Satan’s Dollar Store? Seriously? That’s a terrible name for a business. No wonder you’re doing so poorly.”

“It is what it is,” he said, and it took me a minute to realize he meant that literally. This was actually Satan’s Dollar Store.

“What can I say?” he added. “It’s a franchise opportunity, and all I could afford was this lousy neighborhood.”

“Why soda cans?” I asked.

“Preservatives,” he shrugged. “They last longer this way. That one you got there? The one you bought? Check the expiration date. It’s on the bottom.”

“January Third,” I read after turning the can over, “three thousand four hundred and ninety eight?”

“Long shelf life, eh?” he grinned, but the smile quickly turned to a grimace as he added, “like that’s going to do anyone any good.”

I did some quick calculations and discovered that my one dollar purchase had an incredible amortization rate, less than a penny a century!

“Will it go up in value?” I asked, thinking investment opportunity.

“Maybe,” he said, “if there’s ever a market for a sad sack loser. That soul, phew. Guy sold it to me for a night in Vegas with a certain showgirl. Hope he got his money’s worth.”

“She must have been something,” I mused.

“I suppose,” he said. “Meant nothing to me. I was just doing my job. Guy wants to sell, I got to buy. It’s the rules.”

“I know what you mean, man,” I said sympathetically. “It’s like with my job. I see a badly cracked sidewalk, I got to write the ticket, whether that homeowner can afford it or not.”

“You?” He shouted, rising from his chair. “You’re that guy? I got one of those tickets a couple of weeks ago. That was you? You got a lot of nerve showing your face around here. Give me that.”

He grabbed the can out of my hand and threw the dollar in my face.

“You don’t deserve him,” he said, “now get out of here, and stay out, if you know what’s good for you. I got a little black book of my own, you know.”

I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t even pick up my dollar bill as it fluttered to the ground but hustled my tail back out to the street, but I’ll tell you one thing. If you ever see a sign saying “everything must go”, don’t even give it a second’s thought, just turn your head away and act like you never even saw it. Some deals are just too good to be true.

Recommendations: More Wattpad authors

This week I’ve found myself embroiled in several #Wattpad stories, jumping from one to another and trying to get at least a chapter in each every day. It’s a different experience – I’m typically a serial monogamist when it comes to reading – but these are all so good!

@DeborahWalker7 is a master – Future Tales is full of perfect stories

@bkbennett The Magician’s Horses is pulling me along, line by line.

@Lucillebee Percy the Parrot contains many 100 word delights

@KaryEnglish Totaled is just an incredible story you MUST READ

@JuliaProud has so many great stories – this week my favorites were Stupid Rogue and ItemDiscontinued

@SamanthaSLK watch out! Drawn to You should come with a warning label – seat belts required.

How My Brain Ended Up Free Online

When I was born I was so small I was mistaken for a french fry. I was never an ordinary child. My best friend was a seagull. I was also illegal. Artificially intelligent people like me had been banned ever since that thing with the Twelve Elevens. Mother raised me for profit. Buyers and sellers had other plans for me, but then I grew a mind of my own. This is my story, the story of how my brain ended up in this box.

My new short novel is now available from the usual suspects:

for free from Smashwords or Feedbooks or from Amazon Kindle if for some reason you feel like throwing ninety nine cents at it. It’ll make it onto Wattpad too one of these days (in the meantime, I have other stuff there if you’re a Wattpadite)

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Recommended: Flashed by Peer Glen

Wattpad is a huge honking site and it’s got stuff all over the map – I’m thinking of it as a sort of Los Angeles of amateur writing. It’s got a good spirit and as a big fan of indie writing I’m enjoying my sortee through its wilderness. Today I was very pleased to come across an excellent collection of speculative/sci-fi short stories called Flashed, by Peer Glen, which includes some sparse but evocative tales containing a great deal of originality and unexpected depth. I have several favorites, and several favorite moments within them. Highly recommended!

“Rift or Die” has a unique take on the practical side of life extension, where even those who theoretically can live forever are still stalked and haunted by death, which has all the time in the world at its disposal.

“Free Fall” has an all-too-believable twist on virtual reality (hosted by The Environment ™)

“User Security” takes monopoly capital to a logical and desolate conclusion.

“Blackout” brings to life the kind of “internet of things” nightmare that my own current place of employment spends most of its time worrying about.

“Mesoplanet Triumphant” is a well-told tale of a friendly alien encounter – you wonder why there aren’t more like this in the annals of science fiction.

Robots, Jobs and Handbaskets

There is no shortage of handbaskets in which the world can go to hell, and certainly robots qualify as one. It’s something to think about, as technology more and more ‘disrupts’ one industry after another. What will be the impact of automation devices in the short- and long-term future? An interesting take on this is provided by the novel Robonomics, by S.A. Wilson, available on Wattpad. In this book teachers are the focus as the target of a general takeover by robot instructors. Told in the first-person by schoolteacher Andrea Anderson, society at large undergoes great shifts as more and more workers are replaced by automatons, unions are busted, protests are infiltrated and co-opted, the underclass grows and the world goes to hell. Wilson is a polished writer who covers a lot of bases in telling the story, and moves the tale forward mainly by dialog and critical events. I would have been interested to see more of the micro-experience, more of the inside-the-classroom-with-the-robot and perhaps a bit less of the macro-society stuff, but that’s just my personal preference. The story reminded me in some ways of a very different ‘handbasket’ story, Blue Tent by Carla Herrera, which is an intensely focused and more visceral evocation of a similar dark future.

There is no doubt that occupations face challenges from future automation. We already have more and more automated factories and warehouses, mechanical jobs that require minimal human interaction. A higher level disruption, such as teachers and doctors, is probably a considerable way off. It would begin, I think, with more low-hanging fruit, such as cashiers. There are now self-checkout lines in more stores, and jobs are certainly lost by that.  ATM machines are another case in point. There are definite limitations with this approach. These, like Facebook, turn the customer into the worker, and that doesn’t fly so well with the higher income levels, whose clear preference is for personal service. Rich people want to be served by poorer people, not by machines, and certainly not machines that make them do any actual work. It’s one thing for Home Depot to have self-checkout lines – that’s a store for do-it-yourselfers who are happy to do it themselves, but I doubt we’ll ever see such things in upscale environments.

Speaking of scale, that’s another reason why I don’t see actual physical robots replacing people in professions such as teaching. Instead, and we are already seeing this, online classes are far more likely to deprecate and deplete that profession. Sites like Khan Academy, and the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses, are based in the cloud which makes them not only much cheaper but also much more efficient and effective. These classes can iterate rapidly, weeding out the unproductive from the more productive, and self-improve at a rapid rate. In the classroom, teachers will likely – as in Robonomics- become more like monitors, shepherding students’ interactions with their laptop software, and possibly supplementing and guiding one-on-one a little where necessary.

Another reason not to be in such dread of ‘everyone losing their jobs to robots’ is the cost, especially relative to small businesses, which are still, and likely to remain, a large source of job creation. Small business with few employees are also less likely to automate with robots because of the customer service aspect. Kiosks work at airports for self check-in, but can you visualize your local liquor store being manned by a robot? Or the gift shop? Or any small shop in a touristy or trendy neighborhood? I don’t see it. Crappy jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, while some professional jobs may suffer from skills deprecation. We have automated stock trading, but we still have stock brokers. We have ATMs but we still have tellers, if not as many. There will probably be some self-driving cars replacing some taxis at some point and maybe fairly soon, just as there already are fully automated train shuttles at airports, but I think it’s still a way off before no human ever drives a car. The technological challenges are also stiff; human interaction requires deep awareness of context, and applications like Siri show that we have a long way to go before a true AI is achieved.

The future will be made by people, though, and novelists are among the people who create the visions and the expectations, as well as the warnings and the guidance which define that future, and novels like Robonomics are worthy contributions to that project.

Trying to do Wattpad right

I haven’t gotten much traction on #Wattpad yet, but I was also posting stuff the wrong way. You’re supposed to do it chapter by chapter so that stars can add up (readers can give each chapter a star). So I’m starting over, beginning with The Lemon Thief’s Ex-Wife’s Third Cousin, as multiple readers have recently suggested. Maybe it’ll help, maybe not. It’s a whole world of its own. You probably have to get more engaged with it than I do, but then there’s the matter of time and effort! I am trying to read and interact with some of the other writers there. I’ve already found some good ones.

It’s a ridiculously small sample size, but so far it seems that most people who read The Lemon Thief have liked it. It’s a version of the old doppelganger theme, only in this story, rather than having the Double show up and steal the original person’s life, they both unwillingly (and, of course, impossibly) steal each other’s lives. The story grew out of my yearning to both remain in New Zealand and return home to California a couple of years ago, when we had the opportunity to live and work in Christchurch for a time. Wouldn’t it be something to be able to just split yourself, and go on in both worlds, then meet up again at some future time and see what had become of each other? Well, The Lemon Thief is not exactly that story, but it’s still a pretty good one.