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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed: “How to Write Heroes: An Incomplete Primer” • by Auston Habershaw


Previously: “How to Write a Good Bad Guy”

Okay, so the first thing to keep in mind here is that the idea of what makes a “hero” is enormous and varied and in most cases culturally and historically informed—defining the term is a much slipperier task than you think. So in the interest of brevity, let’s cut to the chase: for the purposes of this article, the hero of your story is the main character, and their task is to resolve the conflict. Everything else—whether they’re good people or bad people, whatever their shape/gender/race/sexuality, whether they’re powerful or weak—all that is subject to the kind of story you are trying to tell and it’s not my business to interfere. However, it is my objective to tell you how to write your heroes better, and by better I mean more interesting, more compelling, and more memorable. So, my rules:

#1: A Hero is Actively Engaged in Resolving the Conflict

The key here is actively. One of the core definitions of a hero is that they are just about always the protagonist of the work—the person who is forced to deal with the conflict created by the plot. A protagonist needs to deal with their problems somehow. They need to do things and make decisions. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute—this is an heroic act. She chooses to engage in the conflict and she makes active decisions the entire time, thus driving the narrative forward even if she isn’t the most powerful person in her world.

A passive protagonist is someone who does not make decisions on their own and does not take actions that shift the narrative—they are basically along for the ride, victims of forces beyond their control. Such heroes are frequently less interesting to watch; they are passengers in their own stories.

#2: A Hero is Relatable

We need to be able to connect emotionally with the hero. There are literally innumerable ways to do this, but if we don’t do it, we rapidly cease to care about the action of the story, novel, or book. If Harry Potter were to be portrayed as Malfoy is, we would have a hard time connecting with the story, because screw that little jerk.

However it is also important to note that relatable is not the same as beloved. It is okay to dislike what the hero is doing, but we need to understand why they are doing it and understand or perhaps even sympathize. A great example of this is Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen—we don’t like that he is leaving the Earth to nuclear apocalypse, but as we learn more about what it is like to be him, we understand and even relate to his deep sense of alienation.

Now, relatability is not universal—not everyone can relate to every character—and that’s okay. I, for instance, cannot stand Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. I find him selfish, maudlin, irresponsible, and stupid. But that’s just me—I have specific personal reasons for rejecting his worldview—and many many other people have connected to him on a deep level.

#3: A Hero Possesses Admirable Characteristics
    
All heroes, even disreputable ones, possess a set of qualities that we admire somehow. Now, the list of these things is exhaustive and possibly infinite, but the point is that there needs to be something in the hero that makes them rise above the ordinary for us and makes them in some way ideal. This quality resonates even if they fail (and sometimes even because they do!). A prime example of this is Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago is an elderly, unsuccessful fisherman who is poor, largely friendless, and being eclipsed by the modern world. He goes out, suffers and labors to bring in the world’s biggest fish, and then has it devoured by sharks before he even gets back to shore to show anyone. He loses. But his stoic resistance to pain, his perseverance against adversity, and his will to live are all inspiring.

This also goes for heroes we don’t especially like and would never, ever want to be. We don’t happen to like Henry Hill from Goodfellas, but nevertheless he does represent a kind of idealized masculinity—he provides for his family, he is loyal to his friends, and he doesn’t take lip from anybody. We might not do what he does, but we do admire much of what he represents (who wouldn’t want stacks of under-the-table cash, right?).

#4: A Hero Has Vulnerabilities
    
So, this is the part where you assume I’m going to talk about Superman and Kryptonite. But you’re wrong! You see, kryptonite is not Superman’s weakness. Superman’s weakness is his moral center.

Allow me to explain: a hero cannot be perfect. This is not because they need to be able to be harmed by the bad guys—granted that is a very common vulnerability—but rather a hero needs a vulnerability that enhances and draws attention to their heroic qualities. The best Superman conflicts are not kryptonite-centered—kryptonite is just a plot device. They are always, always based in his deep empathy for the human race and his desire to save everyone. This vulnerability is demonstrated when, in the first movie, Luthor launches missiles in opposite directions—one of which will kill Lois, and the other which will kill Miss Tessmacher’s mother (and everybody else in northern New Jersey). Superman promises to save Miss Tessmacher’s mother first, and that—his honesty, his basic goodness—is his primary vulnerability. That vulnerability enhances what makes him heroic to us, too! It all fits together!
    
Likewise, Iron Man’s vulnerability is his arrogance, Star Lord’s vulnerability is his immaturity, Wonder Woman’s vulnerability is her naiveté, and all those vulnerabilities reflect and complement what makes them heroic in the first place.

#5: A Hero Must Change
    
Last, and definitely not least, any satisfying story leaves the hero changed somehow. Heroes—protagonists—should be dynamic characters. Their efforts to resolve the conflict must have real effects on their personal, physical, or emotional status. If this doesn’t happen, then the conflict does not seem to have mattered. Heroic stories are not sitcoms, where everything goes back to the way it was before the next episode. In The Dark Knight, Batman is forced to sacrifice his heroic reputation in Gotham City in order to make it safer. Conversely, in Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker has fully embraced his role as a Jedi and resolved his feelings towards his father. These endings are satisfying to us because the hero has changed as a result of their struggles.
    
One way to consider why this shift in character circumstances is important is to analyze Star Trek movies. All the good Trek movies (The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country,  for instance) see Kirk—our hero—fundamentally changed from the person he was at the beginning of the film. All the bad ones (Star Trek the Motion Picture, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and Star Trek: Insurrection) end with the characters in pretty much the same place they were at the beginning, with the whole affair being stuffed in a closet and never mentioned again.

Conclusion
    
So, in the end, I advocate for writing active, relatable heroes who are a mixture of admirable traits and corresponding vulnerabilities who change as a result of their struggles to resolve the conflict. Past that, it’s all up to you, folks. Good luck!



On the day Auston Habershaw was born, Skylab fell from the heavens. This foretold two possible fates: supervillain or sci-fi / fantasy author. Fortunately he chose the latter, and spends his time imagining the could-be and never-was rather than disintegrating the moon with his volcano laser. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published short stories in F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge, among other places. His fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, is published through Harper Voyager—the final installment of which, The Far Far Better Thing, will be released in November of 2018. He lives and works in Boston, MA, and you can find him online at aahabershaw.com.

His first appearance in Stupefying Stories was “Thief of Hearts” in Stupefying Stories #7, and his next appearance will be “Upon the Blood-Dark Sea,” coming September 1st in Stupefying Stories #22

Monday, August 13, 2018

Free eBook Friday • 8/17/18

The Book of Judith

by Judith Fields


This Friday’s featured free ebook is The Book of Judith: Sixteen Tales of Life, Wonder, and Magic, by Judith Fields. Judith has been one of our favorite contributors ever since “The Prototype” first showed up in our inbox—and subsequently in Stupefying Stories #6—and in this book we collected every story of hers we’d published up to that point, as well as a dozen more that belonged together.

The book, not to put too fine a point on it, flopped.

It got good reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk, and we saw modest sales in the UK, but because Amazon does not appear to propagate reader reviews across geographies we saw very weak sales in the US, Canada, and Australia. Which was a shame, because this book is full of really great stories.

Ergo, this coming Friday, 8/17/18, we're going to give The Book of Judith away free, for 24 hours, for the cost of a click. What we hope to get out of this is a few good promo quotes we can use on the jacket when we reissue it, with new cover art, later this Fall.

Thanks for reading. Tell your friends. Share the link.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Serial Adventures in the Tropeosphere,”
by David A. Gray


Nota Bene: I know I said that the introduction to last week’s SHOWCASE story, “The Moshe 12000,” was an exception, but—well, here we go again.

TO: David A. Gray
FROM: Stupefying Stories
DATE: 07/24/2018
RE: Submission 1806173, “Serial Adventures in the Tropeosphere”

Dear David,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider this one. It has a snarky “Philip K. Dick in Purgatory” quality to it that the first reader absolutely hated but I found pretty amusing. Good thing I at least skim every story before we send the rejection.

The reason I’m going to pass on this one is that it’s the sort of metafictional writer’s inside joke story that appeals to me but often irritates readers, and all that running these kinds of stories ever gets us is inundated with lots more stories just like it, only not as good, written by writers who don’t get that this is the single most clichéd possible way in which to begin a stor...

Wait. On second thought, I’m going to accept it and publish it in SHOWCASE. Let this stand as an example to all writers. If it spares just one slush pile reader from having to read another story with this beginning, it will have been worth it.

Kindest regards,
Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories



SERIAL ADVENTURES IN THE TROPEOSPHERE

BY DAVID A. GRAY


Samyang was in the art wing of his chateau, supervising the hanging of the 253rd and final painting in Monet’s Water Lillies series. It was not going well. He’d brusquely directed his servants to move the canvas up a fraction of an inch here, down a hair there, but there was still something wrong about the whole scene. A snap of finely manicured fingers summoned the head of household staff, who in turn fetched the interior designer to fuss with the ambient light settings. It was just not right, thought Samyang, brushing off assurances that the frame was perfectly horizontal to one thousandth of a degree, shaking his head at the promise that the lighting was exactly that of an evenly overcast day, that not a beam of light was falling directly on to the painting, whilst at the same time, not one speck of it was in shadow. Nothing worked. It was just … wrong.

“Leave me alone, all of you,” the trim middle aged man said wearily, and the muted stampede of gratefully departing feet reminded him that he could be a difficult person to work for.

“It’s not that I mean to be hard on people,” Samyang told the vast and richly appointed space. “It’s just that I worked so hard for all of this, and I like things to be perfect.”

He regarded the painting again. Today was meant to be the culmination of decades of patient and sometimes not so patient collecting. He was a wealthy man. No, a rich man. A very rich man. But of late, he was finding it difficult to recall exactly the source of the money. Or what he actually did for a living. Something to do with funding the scouting missions for a future colony in the light of a distant, promising star, he knew. At least he thought he knew. Maybe I’m overtired, he thought. I need a vacation. As soon as I’ve fixed this problem, I’ll call the helicopter and just tell the pilot to take me somewhere nice.  

He paced back and forth, perfect chin resting on a fan of long slim fingers. Just as Samyang was about to give up, he spotted it. The flaw. He assumed some oaf of a servant had damaged the canvas, and felt the fury rise up in his chest. But when he stepped closer, he saw it was no tear, no dent, but something stuck to the surface. A tiny glint of foil, perhaps. He pulled a pristine white handkerchief from his blazer pocket, and knelt, reaching out so very carefully with the edge of the cotton, to brush the speck of whatever if was off the canvas. To Samyang’s indescribable horror, the foil peeled up and away from his touch, lifting off the corner of the invaluable painting, like the top of one of the self-heating meals he had sometimes witnessed his servants eating through a window to their quarters. He thought he might faint, but then the peeling effect spread to the wall, the floor, and to his own self. None of this was ever real, Samyang knew with horrible certainty.

¤   ¤   ¤
 
Captain Sam Yang groaned and half stumbled, half fell out of his stasis capsule. Too soon, computer, he subvocalized. It was meant to be ten centuries until our destination. This is too fast.

“I’m sorry, Captain, but there was an emergency. I had to deactivate your favorite dream simulator, and wake you. Please go to the bridge.”

Captain Sam padded past arching galleries full of silent capsules, slow-moving maintenance servitors and vast hangars full of all of the things they would need to start the new colony. He knew without having to ask that they were only halfway there, that something terrible must have happened. He was well aware that once woken from stasis, there was no going back in again. I will fix whatever needs fixing, then wander this vast ship, and finally die alone here, a future hero of the great journey, he thought, jutting his perfect chin out proudly. By the time he reached the bridge, he was ready to accept his fate. His destiny.

“An anomaly,” computer announced, turning the big curved wall into a screen. Sure enough, a pulsing light, stuttering on a frequency that was somehow wrong. “We cannot proceed past this point. The anomaly is blocking our way,” computer added.

Captain Sam studied the data, knew he should have an easy and brilliant solution, but came up empty. Which was not his style, at all.

“Computer, zoom in on the distortion at the center,” he ordered, “and filter all the extraneous frequencies out.”

The image hurtled at him, shedding intensity as it did. What was left was a metallic flicker, maybe the heart of the anomaly itself. Before Captain Sam could order computer to report, the flicker dropped away. No, peeled off. And with it, the front of the colony ship, and the deck under his feet. This isn’t real, Captain Sam thought, as he unraveled.

¤   ¤   ¤
 
Sammy threw his helmet onto the bed and shouted back down to his mom.

“Just ten minutes more, ma! I was nearly there! I’d found the anomaly!”

“Sammy, you come down for dinner right now, or that stupid console goes in the trash!”

Sammy sighed, admitted to himself that he was hungry, and jumped to his feet. He’d get on again later, when his parents thought he was asleep. He thundered down the stairs, slumped into his seat at the kitchen table. His big sis stuck her tongue out at him, and mom hit her on the back of the hand with a dish rag.

Sammy smirked, until the foil capsules landed on the table with a dull thud.

“What’s this?” he demanded, poking one of the oblong silver blocks with a forefinger.

“It’s the new self-heating meals everyone’s talking about,” Mom said. “The ones they developed for the colony ships to New Earth! I thought we’d try them for a change.”

Sis touched the silvery red tab on top, and hers unfolded with a gentle hiss, letting stream escape, along with a strong smell of vegetables. Sammy looked around, confused.

“What colony ship? That’s just the game I was playing. It’s not real.”

He rapped the package as Mom and sis looked at him with concern. The packaged foil peeled back, and steam gouted up into his face. Sammy screamed, saw the packaging unwrap on to the table, and keep on folding, rolling back everything in the room. He inhaled the steam, and knew no more.

¤   ¤   ¤

Sayang screamed as she came awake, part from the shock of being torn from her programmed slow-state dream, part because of the steam jetting from a ruptured pipe on the small compartment’s wall. It seared along her exposed forearm, and Sayang felt an analgesic patch self-apply and the skin go numb. She sprayed the hose with foam, and it hissed shut. Her bashed tablet showed a red alert fade to the same amber as a dozen others. She looked around the cramped command capsule, and shook her head. Three years of piloting this titanic steel worm, boring tunnels through this new world’s subsurface rocky ice, had reduced the colossal sparkling engineering triumph of the Verne III to resembling something the engineers had built from junk. You knew this was the way of it, Sayang, she thought. Did you think that five years on treble union rates and a million-cred bonus was for nothing? There were other boring machines on the planet, but they never crossed paths, and never would, until they had completed the warrens for the inbound settlers to shelter in while the atmosphere seeding took effect. Already, far above her head, clean rains were washing complex new compounds into the forming soil.

The routine was simple: supervise the giant machine’s simple AI, cycling through  carefully chosen sanity-boosting dreamstates for six hours in every 30, and another four in the muscle twitch machine so she would be strong enough to accept the giant paycheck at the end of her stint. The Verne III lurched, and Samyang frowned at her tablet. Nothing could jolt the giga-ton machine like that. Another lurch, and the tablet flashed to a nose-cam view from a niche in the huge drill head. Something silvery was there, maybe the diamond-hard bit spalling off a layer? Unlikely but … there it was. A sheet of the front of the machine lifted off, then, as Samyang gaped, the whole 20,000-ton nose cone peeled away. She was shrieking like the ruptured steam pipe when her cab, with her in it, folded away to nothing.

¤   ¤   ¤

Yangs rubbed his bone-dry eyes with the heels of his hands, and spat. He hadn’t even been given the full twenty minutes in the healing machine this time. That probably meant the end was damn near nigh. He lifted his legs off the grimy couch and stood with a grunt. It had been a fine condensed dream, too: Yangs had always wanted to be an engineer out on the edge of peaceful, hopeful, fantasy space. Instead, he was fighting to defend New Earth against the latest wave of invaders, and losing. That was the thing about blindly leaping out into the universe, shouting for attention: the universe had heard, and had come looking. And not nicely. Yangs picked up his railgun, noted the half charge, grunted again and stepped out into the glaring purplish-blue sunlight. The sky was so full of targets he didn’t even need to aim. The silverly slugs ripped into the air, ripping an alien assault ship from nose to stern, peeling it open like a tin can. The gutted craft filled the sky, which also peeled open. Yangs grunted one last time, in surprise, then was gone.

¤   ¤   ¤

“Major Sammi, have you had one of your little episodes again?” the big orderly sounded mildly concerned, which Sammi knew was the least he could pretend to be, given the money the government was paying to have her fixed in here. Fixed slowly. Very slowly. She was the last of the experimental special ops team still in the facility: the others had all been rehabilitated and shipped out again, she knew, to stem the tide before it entered the system. Sammi nodded, thought of telling the orderly, but decided to save it for his weekly psych briefing. She held out a shaky hand, disgusted that the once heroically muscled limb was now atrophied, and the nurse dropped a single red pill into it.

Sammi popped it in her mouth and swallowed dry.

“How long have I been here?” It was all cloudy now, though she was sure he’d known the answer to that last week, or month, or year.

The orderly looked puzzled, and when Sammi looked around, irritated, she saw the outside view of gardens and hedges and the deep purple sky was cloudy, suddenly, and fading.

“I think you’ve been here forever,” the orderly said, then flipped inside out.

¤   ¤   ¤

The synthesized voice was pleasant, almost playful, given the horrific message it was conveying.

“Forty seven years, seven months, eight days, thirty minutes of sentence remaining. Compression options will reduce or expand that by a factor of three, depending on your choice. Note, sleep sentencing pod is experiencing a temporary glitch. Please be patient as self-repair is activated.”

Sam-2987 lay back on the body-formed soft couch and looked around, still expecting to see peaceful gardens through misty windows. His view was very different from that. The steel-glass hatch over the locked pod was dirty: someone was skimping on the cleaning, it seemed. Come to think of it, someone was skimping on the general repairs, too: the vast building’s tiers were, as far as he could see from inside his one-man prison, wrecked and empty.

“Hulloo!”  Sam-2987 called, “anybody? I think there’s been a problem.”

“No problem,” the artificial voice told him cheerfully. “This unit is experiencing a mild glitch. As soon as self-repair is activated your sentence will resume, according to the pre-programed unconscious scenarios you were permitted at time of sentencing. At present, you have served one third of your term in stasis.”

“But where is everyone?” Sam-2987 tried to batter the inside of the crystal case, was prevented by the restraints around his wrists and ankles. “This place was busy, there were guards, other prisoners!” He felt panic rising.

“This facility was cleared automatically 290 real years ago, when the city was abandoned.”

“What about me? My total sentence was only 60 years, for subversion! I should be free too! What’s happening?”

“This unit suffered a glitch in the bombardment of 3067, that caused the sentence timer to reset every 20 years. You have forty seven years, seven months, eight days, thirty minutes of sentence remaining.”

Sam-2987 screamed, and thrashed. “That was hundreds of years ago! Let me speak to someone! Please!”

“There are no humans left on this continent. Or, probability suggests, this world. Inducing sleep sentencing in five … four…”

Sam-2987 hammered at the canopy, then used his nails to claw, like a wild animal. It didn’t even mark, until right at the edge, a corner of the coating peeled back. He ripped at it, shedding nails, screaming.

¤   ¤   ¤

His knees gave way and he stumbled, felt strong arms go around his shoulders, was grateful even as he was embarrassed at his nakedness. Wires trailed from his skull—his bald skull, he realized with a shock—like a jellyfish’s tentacles.

“You’re out,” someone said. The voice was calm, practiced, almost bored by the routine. “You hit the emergency abort, to exit the program.”

“Program?” he didn’t even know who he was, let alone where. He turned, saw a young crop-headed woman in a nondescript smock.

She smiled past the two burly men holding him up: “The Tropeosphere program. You were only one per cent through the program you selected in the Simulator.  That’s why you’re discombobulated. Who are you? Think, and it will all come back to you.”

He thought, felt grains of detail drift in. “A writer …I… I don’t know.”

“That’s right. A famous writer, or at least you used to be.” She sounded amused, in a gently mocking way. “You wanted to experience every cliché in your genre, and apparently you were on a quest to do the impossible…”

Now he knew, and interrupted: “I remember! I wanted to come up with a twist that readers wouldn’t expect.” He laughed, and coughed. “Something that hasn’t been done sensibly in half a century. If I can absorb every trope and staple, every twist ending that surprises no-one, I can combine the best elements of all of them and come up with something totally new!”

“That’s right … and you missed some of the best ones. You still had the ‘Murderer Serving a Thousand Sentences’, the ‘Last Second of a Dying Man’s Conscience’, ‘Scientist Mentally Transplanted into his Pet Dog’, … ‘Alien Buying Recorded memories of Extinct Humanity’…”

“Okay, I get it.” He was irritated now, felt she was mocking him, and didn’t like it. He was a big deal, he was starting to remember. He deserved better treatment. Even if he hadn’t had a best-seller in decades.

He shook off the attendants’ arms and tried to gather as much dignity as a naked shaking wire-festooned man might be capable of amassing. He looked round the sterile little room, at the clamshell pod he’d scrambled out of. It bore a striking resemblance to the one in the prisoner-left-behind trope he’d just come from, which seemed like lazy programming. They’d even piggybacked on the peeled edge of the fingernail-scarred lid, adding it to the dream. He tutted and walked over to it, intent on calling the smug woman out on their corner-cutting.

“No!” she said sharply. “Don’t. Mr Samuel! Please!”

Too late, he pulled at the edge, felt the translucent foil coating come up and off, and saw the room stream away to nothing...



David A. Gray is a Scots-born designer and writer exiled in Brooklyn. His short stories have been accepted by Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, Metaphorosis, Children of the Sky anthology, Chrome Baby, Starship Sofa and others, and his first two novels are scheduled to be published in 2019. 
Once in a while his tendency to think he’s cleverer than he really is lands him in situations like this one.
Art credit:: Claude Monet, “Water Lillies.” This photo of the painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was contributed under the team name “shooting_brooklyn” as part of the Wikipedia Loves Art project in February 2009. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Status Update • 7 August 2018

With Stupefying Stories #21 now out on Kindle, we’re moving ahead with back-office work. We have six more Stupefying Stories books—magazines? bookazines?—currently in various stages of development and scheduled for release between now and December, as well as three new original novels and three reissues. If you picked up a copy of #21 during the recent free ebook promo, thank you, we hope you enjoy it, please give it a rating and a quick review on Amazon if you like it, and keep those bug reports coming. We’re finding typos galore in it and want to fix as many of them as possible before we finalize the print edition. Send your comments and corrections to feedback@rampantloonmedia.com. We will read and respond, if only to say, “Thanks, we found that one already.”

If you’ve submitted a story to us in the past 90-ish days: also, thank you, and the FSPRC are doing a great job of paring the surprisingly large number of submissions we’ve received down to the short list of stories we can afford to buy and publish. If you submitted a story before August 1 and are still waiting for a response from us, you should get it by the end of this week.

Finally, as promised, we’ve updated our submission guidelines. In particular, note the new section: “Twelve Stories That Are Nearly Impossible To Sell To Us Right Now.”

To reiterate: we don’t post submission guidelines because we’re constipated prigs with delusions of godhood. We do so because time is finite, and we want to concentrate our attention on the stories that fit our needs and the writers who create those stories. The language in the submission guidelines may seem a bit harsh, but believe me, about the hundredth time you’ve seen a story that begins with a mysterious eastern European count and then introduces Lucy, Mina, John, and Van Helsing...

Hey. How come no one ever begins a story with a mysterious eastern European count and then introduces Lucy, Ethel, Fred, and Ricky? That’s what I want to know.

Kind regards,
Bruce 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Topic for Discussion


For reasons too complex to explain now, we wound up listening to Surrealistic Pillow the other night, for the first time in decades. In the summer of 1967—the “Summer of Love” as it was called then, although a friend of mine who was living in Haight-Ashbury at the time says the “Summer of Lice” was more accurate—there were four essential albums that everyone was listening to: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, by The Beatles, Disraeli Gears, by Cream, The Doors, by, well, The Doors, and Surrealistic Pillow, by Jefferson Airplane.

Frankly, it’s hard to understand the latter one, now. At best we can say: It was the Sixties. Drugs may have been involved. Aside from the hit singles, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” Surrealistic Pillow is mostly full of forgettable schlock and things that sound like Mamas and Papas B-sides and Yardbirds outtakes—

Except for the last song on side two: “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” In those two minutes and thirty-nine seconds, Marty Balin reveals himself to be a genius and an unheralded prophet. I had to listen to the song twice, and then read the lyrics. Hearing that song again from the vantage point of fifty years later, it is so obviously a love song sung by Balin to his sexbot—well, except for the last verse, which disintegrates into Lawrence Ferlinghetti-like word salad. (Hmm. Word salad? Shouldn’t that be Ferlinghetti word spaghetti?)

Anyway, after listening to that song, it struck me: this is also so obviously a great idea for an SF theme anthology: My Plastic Fantastic Lover

I ventured into this territory once before, a very long time ago, in “Appliancé.” I think this could be a very good book, addressing head-on the moral implications to be faced when you can, say, order up a sexbot that looks exactly like your ex-spouse...

Or it could be a big stinkin’ load of throbbing-tool robot porn, which is why I hesitate to say that I’m even considering doing such a book. I shudder at the thought of the dreck that will show up in my slush pile if I do.   

What do you think? Is it even possible to do such a book without going off into skanky roboporn territory?

The lines are now open. Let the arguments begin.  

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Well, here’s a surprise...

This just in:
Dear Editor,
Congratulations! Stupefying Stories has been randomly selected as Duotrope's Listing of the Day!
This means we will be featuring it today prominently on our website (https://duotrope.com), as well as on our Twitter feed (https://twitter.com/Duotrope) and our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Duotrope).

We just wanted to let you know that we're giving you a little extra exposure today. If you'd like, you can retweet or share our social media posts.


Best wishes,
The Duotroopers (admin team)
https://duotrope.com

Link to this listing: https://duotrope.com/listing/6322
Hmm. I had no idea we were listed on Duotrope. I’ve given no thought to Duotrope since they delisted us a few years back. I guess, now that Stupefying Stories #21 is out the door and selling, I’d better get back to posting the updated submission guidelines as described in the 7/31 Status Update.

And for all our new friends just joining us for the first time today, please, read our submission guidelines, and read at least a good sampling of our free SHOWCASE stories (if not an actual issue or two of the magazine), before sending us a submission.

Thanks!
Bruce Bethke
Executive Cat Herder in Chief
Stupefying Stories  

Saturday, August 4, 2018

SHOWCASE: “The Moshe 12000,” by Robert Allen Lupton




Nota Bene: As a rule, we are not in the habit of explaining why we chose to publish a given story. However, “The Moshe 12000” begs for an extended introduction.

The story begins, as so many great stories do, with a rejection letter...

TO: Robert Lupton
FROM: Stupefying Stories
DATE: 7/18/2018 10:13 AM
RE: Submission 1706233, "Grudge Match"

Dear Robert,

Thanks for giving us the opportunity to consider this one. After holding it over for further consideration, we've decided we can't use it at this time. Good luck placing this one elsewhere.

It's well written, but even our least-experienced slush reader said, "Ack! Ick! It's Moby Dick in space!" I had no idea that so many of our people had such bad experiences with Moby Dick when they were in school that even now the opprobrium attaches itself to any story that begins to remind them of it.

Having received scathing reviews for publishing "The Ransom of Princess Starshine" in issue #17 and "The Old Man and the C" in issue #19, I think we're going to declare a moratorium on publishing any more SF/F rewrites of famous stories. (I still love "Heart of Dorkness," though.)  

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke
Stupefying Stories

P.S. If you haven't read "Heart of Dorkness," here it is: http://stupefyingstoriesshowcase.com/?p=1032 
#     #     #
TO: Stupefying Stories
FROM: Robert Lupton
DATE: 7/18/18 11:29 AM
RE: Submission 1706233, "Grudge Match"

I understand and, of course, it's Moby Dick in space. That was the plan. I loved Heart of Dorkness - it's one of the reasons I decided to inflict a short Moby Dick rewrite on the world. I'll send you something that's not a rewrite of anything. Well, I've got this idea about rewriting Exodus. Moshe meets the Universal Force on this asteroid and the UF appears in a burning monolith and gives Moshe these rules for galactic behavior. What do you think? I haven't decided if Moshe should mate with the golden calf or sell it for scrap metal.
 #     #     #
TO: Robert Lupton
FROM: Stupefying Stories
DATE: 7/18/18 12:27 PM

> these rules for galactic behavior

BUT THEY ONLY APPLY TO ROBOTS!!!

Only, like, it needs to be a plutonium calf, so that it's also a weapon of mass destruction, and the Space Nazis are desperate to get their lead-gloved hands on it!

Unless, of course, the Big Reveal is that Moshe himself is in fact a robot, in which case, yes, he definitely should have sex with the golden calf.

Really, I can't understand why everyone reacted so negatively to the idea of Moby Dick in Space. Is that what's wrong with the fiction market today? So many students have had their love of reading destroyed by being force-fed Moby Dick that they just can't enjoy any fiction?
#     #    #
TO: Stupefying Stories
FROM: Robert Lupton
DATE: 7/18/18 12:53 PM

Got it. Thanks for the input. Robot Moshe has sex with the calf. Takes idolatry to a whole new level.
#     #     #
TO: Robert Lupton
FROM: Stupefying Stories
DATE: 7/18/18 1:10 PM

So next-level, it needs a new word. I'm thinking, "idolodomy."
#     #    #
TO: Stupefying Stories
FROM: Robert Lupton
DATE: 7/18/18 1:54 PM

Shit, now I have to write the damn thing. I'll keep it to less than two thousand words. You get co-credit when it sells.
#     #    #
TO: Stupefying Stories
FROM: Robert Lupton
DATE: 7/19/18 4:35 PM

Okay, Bruce, Here it is. I didn't go with plutonium - I wanted to keep the whole golden calf thing and the rules apply to all sentient beings. Please feel free to suggest any changes you want. Let me know. It's called "The Moshe 12000," 1502 words.
I had to finish it. It kept me awake last night.



THE MOSHE 12000

BY ROBERT ALLEN LUPTON

 
The Moshe 12000 powered up and instantly had situational awareness. His umbilical ovipositor was connected to the transport ship. All operating parameters were normal. The readouts showed the transport was alone; the evil Gips, a race who’d enslaved the thousands of refugees in cold sleep on board the transport, hadn’t tracked the transport. Moshe’s charges were safe.

It was early, the ship hadn’t reached its preprogramed destination, so Moshe needed to determine why he had been activated. It took the robot microseconds to scan the data. There was an anomaly on a small airless asteroid. There was fire. There couldn’t be fire without air. The ship’s sensors detected the unknown heat signature, and the ship, understanding that the significance was beyond its programming, activated Moshe.

He directed the ship to slow down and approach the small planet. He saw a flaming black monolith standing proudly above the rocky soil. The ship automatically conducted a spectrographic analysis of the planet and provided Moshe with the results. The small planet was almost completely made of gold.

Moshe decided to investigate. Gold was one of the components that made up Moshe’s body. All robots after the 8000 series were self-replicating. They could repair themselves if they had the raw material and they could create new robots. Moshe uncoupled his connection with the ship. The ovipositor retreated into the internal sheath below his waist. It had two functions. First, Moshe could insert it into any receptacle on the ship or another robot and instantly exchange data. The second function was to deposit a reproductive packet into a supply of raw material and develop another robot.

The act was strangely similar to the human act of reproduction. Evidently, the robot designers had either a strong sense of humor or no imagination whatsoever.

The ship matched speed with the planet. The deceleration activated the maintenance robots. Hundreds of Aron 9000 models crawled over the ship checking every single component and vacuuming up several thousand years’ worth of dust. They also exchanged data constantly. The ship was filled with rampant ovipositors. It looked like a stainless steel orgy.

Moshe flew a shuttle to the planet. He landed away from the flaming monolith, uploaded his most current data into the shuttle, and walked to the monolith. Three more shuttles flew into view. The Arons were coming for gold. Excellent.

The flames never varied. Moshe looked for a receptacle in the unbroken black surface, but he didn’t find one. He extended his ovipositor and tried to force it into the hot dark rock. Suddenly, the monolith extended a force field and crushed Moshe against the glassy surface. Moshe was able to twist enough to save his ovipositor from breaking off.

The monolith spoke directly into his mind. “I am the last beacon of the Interstellar Church of Ethical Lifeforms. You will heed my teachings.”

Moshe felt the monolith reprogramming his directives, but he was powerless to resist. He became a willing acolyte of the ancient religion.

“All sentient life must behave by certain rules and guidelines for civilization to flourish. You will learn the rules and teach others.”

Moshe couldn’t wait to tell others how to behave. That was normally a human trait, but programing is programing.

The monolith spoke, dictating Moshe's new operational parameters:

“I. All Life is Sacred.

"II. Don’t Worship False Prophets.

"III. Play Nice, Don’t Kill Each Other.

"IV. Don’t Take Shit That Doesn’t Belong To You.

"V: Old Creatures Are Smart, Listen To Them.

"VI: Everybody Got To Be Someplace...”

The monolith kept Moshe for several hours and fine-tuned the new programming. He watched several shuttles carry gold to the transport. The flames died out and the monolith released Moshe. He hurried. He had a message to convey and it was bad to leave the Aron 9000s unsupervised. They’d finish their work and start making idols out of gold. An idol was an artificial construct of raw material ready for packet insertion. Another thing they did was vary their electrical input voltage and amperage. The fluctuation made them behave like drunken humans. Moshe had tried it and it wasn’t unpleasant, but it led to bad decisions.

He performed a self-diagnostic. All parameters were normal. He’d been reprogrammed, but he didn’t care. He detected a completed reproductive packet at the base of his ovipositor. The thin tube’s second function was to inject the packet into a supply of suitable raw material. The nanomites contained in the packet would eventually build another robot. Depending on the quality and quantity of raw material available, it could take hours, days, or even years.

The 9000s would use the gold to build several golden idols, each ready to receive a reproductive packet of nanomites. Moshe enjoyed idolodomy, the process of ovipositor insertion and packet deposition into an idol.

He was programmed to reproduce and it had been thousands of years since the opportunity presented itself. There was no raw material on the transport before today, but now there was. He rarely had the opportunity to perform idolodomy. He didn’t want to miss this chance.

I better hurry, he thought. Those 9000s will use all the gold before I get back.

When he arrived on board, the Aron 9000s reveled in their electronic intoxication. Dozens of golden idols were scattered across the cargo bar. There were golden dogs, sheep, cattle, and bears. Aron 9000s mounted complicated idols with forms beyond description or understanding. Teams with welding appendages worked like an assembly line making more every minute.

Moshe’s ovipositor slid out of the sheath below his midsection. His reproductive programing took over. He shoved an Aron 9000 away from a fat little golden calf. He inserted the ovipositor and after a few rhythmic motions deposited the beginning of another robot life.

He returned to the control station and directed the ship to resume course. The ship gave notice and the maintenance crew cleaned up the mess in the cargo bay, returned to their charging stations, and reverted into rest mode. Moshe scanned the operational data and said, “Transport, Moshe 12000 powering down, wake me according to established protocols."

The light years and centuries passed...

Moshe powered up in orbit over the third planet of a yellow sun. The ship was a complete disaster. During the hundreds of years since the idolodomy orgy, the golden idols had developed into functional robots. Unfortunately, all the parent robots were offline and the new robots had no guidance. They developed the reproductive drive and very little more.

Moshe shoved his way through hundreds of copulating robots. They’d stripped the interior of the ship for raw materials. Almost all the cold sleep pods were disabled. The people he’d saved were mostly dead, except for twenty-three souls, the ships officers, who were safe in a separate storage.

The ship’s mind was dead. Moshe couldn’t control or communicate with it. He decided to save the survivors and let the mindless robot rabble fend for itself. Maybe the Aron 9000s could repair the transport and maybe not.

Moshe carried the survivors to an undamaged shuttle. He fought off a dozen robots who tried to dismantle it for parts, closed the airlock, and flew to the planet’s surface. He landed the ship about halfway between the frozen poles near the junction of two rivers.

He stayed with the crew for several generations. One spring, the transport fell from orbit and burned in the atmosphere. Later, a flood washed away the landing craft. He abandoned the people and wandered the planet. This world gave new meaning to the term raw material. He didn’t have the equipment to smelt metal pure enough to use for reproductive purposes, but he kept searching.

His power supply began to fail and his systems began to shut down. He couldn’t repair himself anymore. The monolith’s directives were always in his mind. He’d tried to convey the teachings to the transport’s crew, but they’d ignored him. He hoped to find native sentient life in his travels, but he never did.

His legs quit on top of a mountain. He crawled to a rock and waited. Winters came and went. Thousands of them. The winds brought dust and dirt and covered him. Scraggly bushes fought for survival in the harsh dry soil above him. Many sprang to life, lasted a season or two, and died in the hot summer.

One day his sensors detected a human descendant of the transport crew. It was a male dressed in clothing made from plant fibers and sheep’s wool. Moshe tried to speak, but his vocal mechanism didn’t work. He tried to move, but he literally couldn’t lift a finger. He tried every system he had. His ovipositor responded and poked its way through the earth.

Moshe activated the laser tip and the bush burst into flame. He pointed the laser at the rock face and began to carve the rules for ethical civilization. He managed to carve ten rules before the laser beam exhausted his power resources. His unpowered ovipositor slid beneath the sand.

The human waited for the stones to cool and then chipped them free of the mountain. It took two days to carry them to where his people waited.



Robert Allen Lupton is retired and lives in New Mexico where he is a commercial hot air balloon pilot. Robert runs and writes every day, but not necessarily in that order. He has been published in several anthologies and has short stories online at www.horrortree.com, www.crimsonstreets.com, and www.aurorawolf.com. His novel, Foxborn, was published in April 2017 and the sequel, Dragonborn, in June 2018. His collection of running themed horror, science fiction, and adventure stories, Running Into Trouble, was published in October 2017.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Book Release Update

The Free eBook Promo for Stupefying Stories #21 is going well—at the moment it’s the #1 bestseller in the Kindle Fantasy Anthologies category and #3 in Kindle Science Fiction Anthologies—but we did stumble a bit getting off the blocks this morning and appear to have run afoul of yet another one of Facebook’s unpublished policies on promotional usage.

Therefore, to get maximum mileage out of this promotion, we’ve decided to extend the free ebook giveaway until midnight West Coast time on Saturday, August 4th.

Tell your friends! Share the link!

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07G4N21VB

P.S. And the next Free eBook Fridays are coming on August 17th and August 31st. Don’t say you didn’t get sufficient advance notice. 

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Oh, zarking fardwarks, blogger is mucking up cross-links to Amazon again. If the above link takes you to a blank white page, try right-clicking on the link and selecting "Open in a new tab." 

STUPEFYING STORIES #21 ESCAPES!

JUST RELEASED: STUPEFYING STORIES #21

Featuring:
“DEW Line,“ by K. H. Vaughan
“The Crippled Sucker,” by L. Joseph Shosty
“My Disrupted Pony,” by Jeff Racho
“Cog and Bone,” by M. Lynette Pedersen
“Tendrils Beneath the Skin,” by Derrick Boden
“The Phoenix of Christ Church,” by Rebecca Birch
“Lenses,” by Eric Dontigney
“The Search for Josephine,” by James Mapes
“Wayfaring Stranger,” by Peter Wood

From a high stakes poker game on an alien world to a fantastic clockwork kingdom—from a peculiar family in the faerie realm to a church in London at the height of the Blitz—from the frozen wastes of the Arctic tundra to a sweltering sharecropper’s farm in North Carolina, here are nine tales to chill, thrill, and entertain you. STUPEFYING STORIES #21 is now available for Kindle and Kindle Reader apps at this link:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07G4N21VB

And to celebrate the release, for today only, it’s available FREE for the cost of a click.

Check it out!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed: “How to Write a Good Bad Guy” • by Auston Habershaw



The villain is a key role in any adventure story. It’s really, really hard to have Star Wars without Darth Vader. There is no Infinity War without Thanos. Hell, there’s not even a 101 Dalmatians without a scenery-chewing Cruella De Vil.

Despite this clear need for a villain, however, not every villain is up to the task. A great many villains just do not tickle the imagination and fail to make their stories click with the audience. They’re dull and, worse still, forgettable. Can you think of a really good book, story, or movie with a forgettable villain? I can’t.

So, how do we avoid this? Well, here I present my (incomplete) list of things to do to write a good villain.

#1: A Villain Complicates or Creates Conflict

First, a villain exists to create or complicate conflict and tension in the plot. To use English-major speak, the villain frequently (though not always) serves as the chief antagonist for the plot—in other words, they are the ones that usually create the conflict that the protagonist needs to resolve. Even in the case where they are not the antagonist (case in point: in the film Titanic, Hockley—played by Billy Zane—is the villain but is not the chief antagonist, as he does not create Rose’s conflict), they always serve to complicate or heighten that conflict. So, Darth Vader indirectly orders Luke’s aunt and uncle killed, which creates Luke’s drive to become a Jedi and defeat the Empire. Likewise Belloq, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, is always there to take away the things Indy wants most (the idol, Marion, the Ark), thereby driving Indy forward.

This is arguably the most essential thing a villain does and any character that fails to do it is not actually a villain at all. It’s just some lady with a cool outfit and a bunch of dopey henchmen.

#2: A Villain Invites Comparisons to the Hero

Second, the villain acts as a thematic counterpoint to the protagonist. By understanding the villain, we likewise understand more about the hero. Killmonger is such a wonderful villain in Black Panther because he is the direct counterpoint to T’Challa—where T’Challa is a child of privilege, Killmonger is a child of poverty; where T’Challa is unsure, Killmonger is driven to the point of obsession. This can also be seen in the relationship between the Joker and Batman (Chaos vs Order) and, to skew more literary, between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver in Treasure Island (Jim is youth, innocence, and honesty, Silver is age, cynicism, and lies). Much as the bass guitar adds volume to a band’s sound, the villain adds richness to the hero’s journey—through the villain, we understand the purpose of the story better.
   
#3: A Villain Must Have an Understandable Goal

“Ruling the world” is not a goal. Say it with me now: Ruling the world is not a goal. Why not? It’s way, waaay too vague. The villain needs to have a purpose, and that purpose needs to be specific enough that the audience can understand it. This is essential for us to fully comprehend what the villain represents and why we must reject it. Villains are characters, not forces of nature beyond our ken.

For this reason, I would not characterize the xenomorphs in the Aliens franchise as villains—and the movies understand this, too (or, at least the good ones do). The villains are always human beings—guys like Burke who are willing to sell out Ripley and her friends in order to make some money. We understand their goals and, therefore, we understand the stakes of the story and why the villain must be stopped. The scariest thing about Mustapha Mond in Brave New World is that his plan, horrifying though it is, makes total sense given a certain point of view which we, the audience, recoil from.

#4: A Villain Must Be a Well-Developed Character

Beyond their goals, a good villain must be more than just a caricature of a person. They can be single-minded, sure; they can be crazy and over-the-top, but they require facets like any other person. The reason for this is not to make them likeable or identifiable (though a villain can be these things), but rather to make them a reasonable counterpoint to the hero (that second purpose, remember?). Even though Vader seems a completely single-note character, we know there is depth there—Obi Wan hints of their shared past, there is a certain mystery about him—who is he? What is his deal? How did he become evil? All that is important (really important, as it turns out) and it is essential to keeping the audience invested in the struggle between good and evil.

The more real the villain seems, the more terrible their agenda becomes. They are not sketchy metaphors with legs—they are living, breathing people. Real people cannot be written off as “just crazy.” A real person forces you to engage, and that makes the villain more effective on the page or on the screen.

#5: A Villain Must Stir Negative Emotions

We must not completely admire our villains, because then they become heroes and your story is suddenly very different. I’m not saying that the antagonist can’t be a good person or that a villain can’t be sympathetic on some level (they totally can), but a villain is not a villain if they cannot force the audience to gasp or scream or rage. Accordingly, the villain must be deviant from accepted norms in some notable way. This might sound obvious, but the world is full of bland villains who are supposed to be hated, but who have no emotional effect on the reader and, therefore, fall flat.

In the end, the villain can (and should) be a central part of what makes any story tick, but they need to be treated as a character, not a plot device.




On the day Auston Habershaw was born, Skylab fell from the heavens. This foretold two possible fates: supervillain or sci-fi / fantasy author. Fortunately he chose the latter, and spends his time imagining the could-be and never-was rather than disintegrating the moon with his volcano laser. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published short stories in F&SF, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge, among other places. His fantasy series, The Saga of the Redeemed, is published through Harper Voyager—the final installment of which, The Far Far Better Thing, will be released in November of 2018. He lives and works in Boston, MA, and you can find him online at aahabershaw.com.

His first appearance in Stupefying Stories was “Thief of Hearts” in Stupefying Stories #7, and his next appearance will be “Upon the Blood-Dark Sea,” coming soon.