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Friday, March 5, 2021

IT'S ALIVE!


Rampant Loon Press is excited to announce our biggest and most ambitious project yet: STUPEFYING STORIES 23. Twelve new stories, covering a range of genres from contemporary horror, to urban fantasy, to science fiction so hard it clanks. Twelve authors, ranging from names you probably know and love already to new voices we believe you'll be hearing a lot more from very soon. A nice balance of previous contributors and new friends; a good mix of lengths and tones, from a novelette set on a generation ship gone terribly wrong ("Outrider") to the delightful little confection that is "Brimstone and Brine," STUPEFYING STORIES 23 features:

Woe to the Hand, by Julie Frost
The Unicorn’s Companion, By Jamie Lackey
The Secret of Erin Stewart, By Terry Faust
Outrider, By Helen French
The Last Feast of Silas the Wizard, By Karl Dandenell
The Bird and Baby, By Allison Thai
The Worm’s Eye, By Tom Jolly
Magic with the Bones, By Beth Hudson
Eddie’s Upgrade, By Kevin Stadt
The Dead Barn, By Amy Caylor
They Call Me Charon, By Gary Pattinson
Brimstone and Brine, By Beth Powers

From magic to mystery to science fiction, from the mythic past to the dystopian future, here are twelve tales to chill, thrill, excite and amuse you. Always fresh and entertaining, never formulaic or predictable, Stupefying Stories is the terrific new reading you've been looking for!

 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

A few words from the editor...

 

[DRAFT]

Hello, I’m Bruce Bethke, editor of Stupefying Stories magazine and executive cat-herder-in-chief here at Rampant Loon Press. You hold in your hands Stupefying Stories 23, a book that was beginning to approach The Last Dangerous Visions in terms of its quasi-mythic “Will that damned book ever be released?” status.

Yet here it is at last: the biggest and most expensive project we’ve done to date. Twelve stories, covering a range of genres from contemporary horror, to urban fantasy, to science fiction so hard it clanks. Twelve authors, ranging from names you probably know and love already to new voices you haven’t heard before, but who we believe you’ll be hearing a lot more from in the not-too-distant future. A nice balance of previous contributors and new friends; a good mix of lengths and tones, from a novelette set on a generation ship gone terribly awry (“Outrider”) to the delightful little confection that is “Brimstone and Brine.”

Still, it’s been so long since we released Stupefying Stories 22 that is seems like a longer introduction is needed. Therefore, since author’s and editor’s bios are always written in third person, it’s time to shift into third-person and tackle two questions: who is Bruce Bethke, and why should you care about the stories he’s presenting in Stupefying Stories 23?

#

To answer the second question first, consider this review quote from Dave Brzeski at SFcrowsnest Magazine. Writing about Stupefying Stories 22, he said [emphasis added]:

“This is perhaps not a publication for those whose tastes fall within narrow boundaries, as the stories can fall pretty much anywhere within the broad scope of speculative fiction. It's fairly obvious that Bruce Bethke's only criteria for the magazine is that the work should be of a uniformly high standard.

To coin a phrase: Dave Brzeski gets it.

To answer the first question, then, we need to add a qualifier: when? In the 1980s Bruce Bethke was a successful short story writer, with a list of professional publication credits so long he quit counting new sales after a while. In particular some of the science fiction stories he wrote and sold in the 1980s are considered “significant” now, by people who feel themselves qualified to judge such things. (And if you want to talk about any of those old stories, there’s a feature called “Ask Dr. Cyberpunk” on the StupefyingStories.com web site where you can do just that.)

By the 1990s, Bethke had realized that writers cannot live on short story sales alone, so he graduated to writing novels and became an award-winning novelist. He also served a few terms on the board of directors of a certain famous science fiction and fantasy writers association, and took a contract job as an anthology editor at a major publishing house. In the process of doing these things he gained a great deal of experience and insight into how the commercial publishing industry really works, although he has difficulty describing that experience now—at least, not without using a great deal of profanity.

By 2000, fed up with the way the publishing industry grovels before a small handful of bestselling authors and treats all the rest of their original content creators like fungible contract workers, he walked away from fiction publishing and went off to do something else. Again, he has difficulty describing that experience now, but in this case it’s because of NDAs he signed that are still in effect.

In 2010, aided by a terrific crew of friends and volunteers, Bethke founded Rampant Loon Press and launched Stupefying Stories, with the goal of using the attention people wanted to pay to him, because of all those stories and novels he wrote back in the 1980s and 1990s, to help boost the careers of new up-and-coming writers. Since then Stupefying Stories has had its ups and downs, and more than a few times when things went completely sideways, but along the way Rampant Loon Press has published dozens of books, hundreds of stories, and given a hand-up to hundreds of newer and younger writers.

Judging simply by the number of writers who got their start here and then moved up and on, to become award-winning authors, successful novelists, or recognized names on the covers of major magazines, that part of the original goal has been a success. And with the backstory thus established, it’s time to shift back into first person and talk about Stupefying Stories 23.

#

As we turn the corner into the third decade of the 21st Century, it’s tempting to issue a manifesto, to declare that Stupefying Stories has made a fresh start, or in some other hubris-laden way to make a statement, laying out our ambitions and plans for the coming year. However, I’ve become gun-shy about doing that. For the past ten years we’ve been experimenting, learning, and making mistakes galore. Too many times, when I thought we finally had everything all figured out, the Fates decided to throw a new spanner in the works, just to see how we dealt with it. 2020 in particular was a year in which absolutely nothing went as planned or expected, for us as well as for everyone else. Frankly, if 2020 was a car, I’d call it a total write-off and call someone to tow it away to the scrapyard.

Therefore, rather than make a statement, allow me to present to you Stupefying Stories 23. Consider this the prototype for the direction in which I want to take Stupefying Stories, God willing and the creek don’t rise. As I said at the start of this introduction, this is the biggest, most ambitious, and most expensive project we’ve done to date. We’re even using interior illustrations in SS#23, for the first time since our 2010 debut issue. (Although the illos didn’t turn out quite as planned: some look much better in the ebook than in the print edition.)

We’re still learning. We’re still evolving. Stick with us. Stupefying Stories 24 will look even better.

Per aspera ad astra,
Bruce Bethke 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

JUST TWELVE HOURS LEFT!

 

Stupefying Stories #19 and Stupefying Stories #20 have both reached the end of contract life of go out-of-print at midnight tonight. To go out with a bang we've dropped the price to just 99-cents each. If you’re looking to add these two to your Kindle collection you’ll never find a better opportunity—but act now, because as of midnight, they're gone forever. 
 
 
COMMUNION • by Fi Michell
SUBMISSION GUIDELINES FOR THE FAIRYLAND GAZETTE • by Effie Seiberg
HORNS OF A PARADOX • by Julie Frost
THE BONE MERCHANT • by Robert Luke Wilkins
SOULLESS MACHINE • by Jennifer R. Povey
BEHEMOTHS IN THE PARK • by Henry Fields
THE INVASION WILL BE ALPHABETIZED • by Ryan Harvey
MORE CRACKLE THAN MUSIC • by RM Graves
A RAINFOREST, THE WATER CYCLE, AND FIFTY PREGNANT TIGERS • by W. Winward-Stuart
THE OLD MAN AND THE C • by Ronald D. Ferguson
DOGS AND MONSTERS • by Harold R. Thompson
 
 
ZOMBIE LIKE ME • by Clancy Weeks
THEIR NOSTALGIA WILL BE VERY MUCH LIKE OUR NOSTALGIA • by Eric Cline
HOW TO BUILD A TRAIN • by Brandon Kempner
ENDEAVOR TO DREAM ON BROKEN WINGS • by AJ Finley
PILES OF DUST AND BERRIES • by Sadie Bruce
ALIEN WHISPERING • by Bo Balder
LUCKY FIND • by Lance Young
SECRET SEED, by Shannon Norland
 
Remember, “likes” are nice, but “shares” help spread the word.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Review: Reverse Engineering and Behind Her Eyes • by Pete Wood

Arr, ye scurvy dogs, major spoilers ahead. Ye be warned, ye landlubbers!

Here’s my beef. The entire Netflix series and Sarah Pinborough’s source novel are geared towards reaching that head-scratching double twist. Nothing the characters do matters. The genre doesn’t matter. The only goal is to reach that twist. Plausibility and tone be damned.

The story is reverse engineered. Instead of having characters behave logically, the glorified chess pieces are manipulated to reach a preordained conclusion. The story works as tense psychological thriller, but there is an abrupt genre change that had me crying foul.

It’s all about the twist. And that’s a real shame. Exquisitely acted, it’s compelling with some innovative cinematography. The first three—maybe four—episodes, at least, are top-notch. Then everything goes off the tracks.

Louise (Simona Brown), a London secretary with a young son, has an affair with her psychiatrist boss, David (Tom Bateman). She strikes up a friendship with Adele (Eve Hewson), David’s lonely wife. We also see, through flashbacks, Adele ten years ago in a rehab center with Rob (Robert Aramayo), a heroin addict from Glasgow. There is something in the past of David and Adele that allow her to blackmail him into staying in a loveless marriage.

Here’s the twist. Adele isn’t really Adele. She’s Rob. Rob is gay and jealous of rich beautiful Adele and her hunky boyfriend, David. He switched bodies with her, murdered Adele in his own body, told David “Rob” died of a drug overdose and convinced David to hide the body. Flash-forward to the present where “Adele” switches bodies with Louise and murders the new Adele in a house fire.

This works only because of reverse engineering.

Rob’s really stupid plan

Yeah, his plan succeeds, but only because the other characters are stupider than he is. Rob’s farfetched scheme has to work perfectly. First, when Adele teaches him to astral project, we accept that he in one day becomes better at it than Adele to the point where he can manipulate her. Um, okay. Then we have to accept that his plan to teach Louise astral projection works to the point where he can switch bodies with her. So, she has to want to be friends with the obviously disturbed wife of her lover, buy into the astral projection mumbo-jumbo, and then become a pro. Those three links are all pretty unlikely. What would you do? Would you become friends with your boss’s wife under those increasingly bizarre situations? Would you hang out with a clingy person with no friends and no life who wanted to teach you astral projecting?

David has to be both an asshole and deliberately vague.

David does an exceptional job of acting like a complete asshole around Louise so that we and Louise can buy into “Adele’s” story that he’s an abusive husband. He’s really the good guy, but instead of just bringing Louise up to speed on his wife’s mental health problems and penchant for committing assault, breaking and entering, and other crimes, he fires Louise and gives cryptic warnings about being involved with his wife that come across as threats. When he’s alone with Adele, he still talks in vague unhelpful terms that shed no light on what happened in the past that binds him to his wife. Even his notes in his voluminous secret Adele file that Louise steals are vague and unhelpful, often resorting to open-ended questions. Why? Because it hides the ball and preserves the twist

Louise and David must act like complete morons.

David, when Adele tells him that Rob has died of a drug overdose, doesn’t just call the cops, because that would make too much sense. Why not? Because he has to hide the body so “Adele” can blackmail him in the future for Rob’s murder. When Adele begins to act more and more disturbed, Louise keeps talking to her, despite the warnings of everybody she knows to cut the friendship off. She continues to take phone calls from a sociopath. She gives her key information which help set up the fait accompli.

And then in that twist that really got under my skin, when “Adele” texts her that she’s going to kill herself, Louise doesn’t call the cops, like any sane person would. Nope. She runs over there and, seeing the house is on fire, she astral projects inside. Why? Because we have to have the twist. She can’t help Adele as a spirit. She’s still locked out of the house. Somehow fake Adele knows this is going to happen and leaps into Louise’s body, because, you know, that was the only logical result from the plan. No chance that the cops come or Louise breaks down the door or smashes a window or Adele dies in the fire. And one more thing, at this point it’s not even clear to “Adele” that Louise has even pulled off astral projecting. Louise claims she has, but, a lot of people claim to have astral projected. Would you stake your life on it?

Astral Projecting

There are no rules to astral projecting unless they lead to the twist. Either there is a mind-body connection or there isn’t. When Louise astral projects for the first time, she is yanked back to her body when she hears her son screaming through her body. So, the soul is tethered somehow to the body. Except it isn’t, because it can jump into any body and survive. So the soul is a free agent. Except it isn’t, because it needs a body or it dies or something? Huh? So, the spirit is independent of the body until the body dies then the soul is up shit’s creek, but it can be any body that dies, not the original body? I gave up trying to figure out the rules.

Look, I’m not against unhappy endings. I’m not anti-twist either. I just ask for the ending and the twist to flow logically from the premise.

The original Planet of the Apes, On the Beach, and Colossus: The Forbin Project all have unhappy endings. Those work, because the characters follow the rules. The actions taken by Taylor, the astronaut in Planet of the Apes, make sense. He is smart and logical. The President and scientists in Colossus come up with some pretty good plans to defeat the supercomputer that has control of our nuclear arsenal. These plans fail, because the computer is smarter or due to the hubris of the characters. They don’t behave stupidly for stupid’s sake. On the Beach, about the last survivors of a nuclear war, has the bleakest of bleak endings, but we don’t get there because of the stupidity of the characters.

I found the shift in genre jarring in Behind Her Eyes. Shifts can work. Take Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby. Psycho works, I think, because it’s obviously a mystery, it’s a Hitchcock movie, and it’s titled Psycho for God’s sake. It doesn’t become a monster movie or science fiction or fantasy. It’s still grounded in the real world. We know Rosemary’s Baby is a horror movie going in. We just don’t know exactly what’s going on and gradually find out like the protagonist. Behind Her Eyes just careens from tense psychological thriller—like Jagged Edge or Fatal Attraction—to mediocre poorly explained horror about two-thirds of the way in.

In You Can Count on Me (2000) Laura Linney has an affair with her boss played by Matthew Broderick. When he tells her she’s fired she flat out refuses to leave the office, because she’ll have the sexual harassment lawsuit from Hell. He backs down. That’s what real people do. When David, conveniently acting like an asshole to reach that damned twist, fires Louise instead of talking to her and explaining about his wife, she becomes a doormat and leaves her job. She’s not a doormat. She’s assertive and resourceful when it doesn’t interfere with the twist.

I’ll be frank. I am no fan of the body-switch trope. The victim of the swap seldom behaves rationally and the perpetrator seamlessly adjusts to the new body. The Outer Limits in “The Human Factor” and The Prisoner in “Do Not Forsake Me My Darling“ made it work with the victim still having his wits about him. But those are the exceptions.

I wonder how Behind Her Eyes would have been if the characters had behaved logically. What if the fake Adele had ended up hoisted on his own petard? What if the real Adele was still lurking out there in the spirit realm and helped out somehow? That would not have been against the fast and loose rules of Astral Projection which shift, like the characters, as the story demands. Instead of asking how can I shock the viewer, why not ask how would people respond to a mind-swapping bad guy?

Stephen King is a successful writer, not just because of his horror, but also due to his characters. King sticks his characters in a supernatural situation and tries to figure out how they would respond. The mother and son get out of the Overlook hotel in The Shining. They aren’t victims of some cruel shocking twist at the end. King doesn’t reverse engineer. He doesn’t force his characters to stay in the haunted house. He lets them figure a way out.



Peter Wood
is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke


In the early spring of 1980, I wrote a little short story about a gang of teenage hackers. From the very first draft the story had a one-word title—a new word, one that I’d made up, in a deliberate attempt to grok the interface between the emerging high technology scene and teenage punk attitudes, and this word was—

Oh, I bet you can guess. 

Half a lifetime later I’m still getting questions about this story, so rather than answer them privately and one at a time, I’ve decided to make answering questions about cyberpunk a regular feature on this site. If you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask me, post it here, IM me on Facebook, or email it to brb[at]rampantloonmedia[dot]com.

Today’s question comes from Mark, who asks:

“Many people speak of solarpunk, post-cyberpunk, and even the death of cyberpunk. In your opinion, looking at cyberpunk as a sub-genre of the 1980s and compared to the past ten years or so, what do you think is the biggest difference in cyberpunk media today?”

First off, it's hard to convey just how amusing I find it that people seem to expect me to be some sort of Elder Statesman of Cyberpunk. “Elder”and “Punk” are antithetical. An elder spokesperson of any kind of punk is an oxymoron. (Nonetheless, I think John Shirley claims to be the Elder Patriarch of Cyberpunk from time to time, and Pat Cadigan does seem to want to be recognized as the Den Mother of Cyberpunk or something like that.)

Me, I’m just a guy who wrote a story, and who put a good deal of effort into coming up with a snappy, fresh, one-word marketing label to use as the title of that story. I never for a moment imagined we’d still be talking about the thing more than forty years later.

Second, to understand where cyberpunk came from, you have to understand what was going on in SF/F publishing in the years just before it hit. The fantasy market was absolutely saturated with Imitation Tolkien in those days, to the point of it being a joke. (An elf, a dwarf, and a wizard walk into a tavern. The bartender says...) Pocket Books was moving an absolutely ungodly number of Star Trek spinoff novels, which were rotting the minds of readers and wasting the talents of writers world-wide. We’d just gone through a Robert E. Howard revival, and book racks everywhere were still overflowing with Gonad the Barbarian and his many imitators and spinoffs, striking body-builder poses as they stood there in their fur-lined jockstraps, holding insanely oversized and overtly phallic swords. 

Science fiction proper—serious, “hard” science fiction—had gone from being the literature of ideas (if it ever was) to being the literature of trope and melisma. Heinlein had become a self-indulgent self-parody. Asimov was writing turgid and flaccid mystery novels and calling them SF because they had robots in them. Larry Niven had turned Ringworld into a franchise (Real Estate Agents of Ringworld!), Frank Herbert was busy turning Dune into a both multi-generational soap opera and the family cash-cow, and Gordon Dickson—man, I loved Gordie, he was a good friend, but there was no excuse for The Final Encyclopedia. By the early 1980s the big-name heavily promoted SF authors that the publishers loved to throw six-figure hardcover contracts at had become the literary equivalent of arena rock acts, going out there and playing their greatest hits over and over again, but never actually bringing anything new to the table. It wasn’t science fiction anymore. It was self-referential metafiction.

Then along comes this next generation of writers—my generation—who came of political age during the Vietnam War, and who grew up on Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Thomas Disch, Anthony Burgess, the alternately brilliant or psychotic Philip K. Dick, and all the other writers who emerged from the 1960s New Wave, and we were carrying a surplus of cynicism and nihilism in our stony little hearts, and we looked at the future that lay ahead of us...

And said, uhn-uh. That clean, bright, and beautiful Star Trek future? Ain’t gonna happen. Well, maybe it will for the rich people at the absolute top of the food chain, but for everyone else the future is gonna be a whole lot dirtier, darker, more dangerous, and considerably less white. What’s coming down the pipe for us is going to make George Orwell look like an optimist.

So by 1980, the punk part—the cynicism, the nihilism, the anomie, the willingness to embrace anarchy, and the outright contempt for the Big Ideas of the 1940s~50s generation of science fiction writers—was already installed. All it would take was one good push...

That push, you may be surprised to learn, was not “Johnny Mnemonic.” It was Star Wars. When that cultural juggernaut hit, people all over the entertainment industry realized, “Damn, there’s serious money to be made peddling that Buck Rogers shit!” So while the most visible aspect of that realization was the flood of big budget sci-fi movies that followed in the years after Star Wars, a less visible but more pertinent knock-on effect was that there was a major influx of capital into SF print publishing, as publishers scrambled to get just a little piece of that Star Wars action.

Except...

Except the new writers who were producing the content to fill those newly opened publication slots, and the new editors who were choosing the content to be published in all those newly emerging magazines and books—well, quite a few of them harbored punkish sympathies, and they were saying, Nope. You may think that because of Star Wars, the science fiction of the 1980s is going to look just like 1935 all over again—but we’ve got some surprises in store for you.

The original 1980s cyberpunk wave came and went surprisingly fast. I think Bruce Sterling was already declaring cyberpunk dead by ‘85 or ‘86. I do know that by the early 1990s I was being told by agents and editors all over the industry that cyberpunk was dead, and there was no point in trying to write or sell anything like that anymore.

Then, of course, The Matrix hit in 1999, and it was like Star Wars all over again.

What happened to cyberpunk fiction in the 1980s was the same thing that happens to every successful new thing in any branch of pop culture. At first it was something unexpected, fresh, and original. Then it became a trendy fashion statement. Then it became a repeatable commercial formula, and publishers began signing writers who could work the formula and ape the style without doing anything too fresh or original, as in the publishing business genuinely original is always a tough sell. It’s much easier to sell a book if you can use the pitch, “If you liked X, then you’ll love Y!”

In time, cyberpunk became a hoary and ossified trope, as immutable as an IEEE standard, complete with a checklist of stylistic markers and time-honored forms to which obeisance must be paid if one is to write True Cyberpunk.

And in time the market became saturated with “me too” work, a lot of it written by people who had good writing chops but no fucking clue what they were writing about, they were just working the formula, and cyberpunk was dead again.

Looking at it from the vantage point of 2021, I must admit that as the editor of Stupefying Stories, it cracks me up every time I read a cover letter from some eager young writer who is gushing about how I of all people should appreciate his (or her, or their) new cyberpunk story. Yes, there are some really bright new talents out there writing some really great new cyberpunk-style stories that would be absolutely perfect—in the pages of Asimov’s in 1985!

But out here in the larger world time has moved on, and those kinds of stories look as quaint now as Chesley Bonestell’s beautiful 1950s spaceship art did after Apollo landed on the moon. A huge—enormous—depressingly mountainous amount of the self-identified cyberpunk fiction I see now is stuck firmly in the 1980s. It’s not new, fresh, or original. It’s paint-by-numbers Imitation Gibson. It’s Blade Runner fan fic, or Akira fan fic, or worse, wannabe Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2077 media tie-in fan fic.

The original cyberpunk writers of the 1980s: they were operating from a 1970s punk rock ethos, an awareness of the social and political milieu of their times, and a seemingly reasonable set of extrapolations based on the technologies that were just beginning to emerge at that time. Thanks to a certain few editors, this body of work developed into a sort of consensual vision of the future, some of which was spot-on, and some of which was laughably wrong.

I have spent the past forty years since writing “Cyberpunk” working in the computer industry; the past 20 working in supercomputer software R&D. And I am here to tell you: the baseline assumptions have changed.

I would dearly love to see a truly new form of SF emerge that reflects the baseline of now, and begins a whole new series of extrapolations that creates a new consensual vision of a different future. But I think that as long as you're intentionally labeling your fiction as “cyberpunk,” you’re deliberately handicapping yourself.

But probably playing right into Amazon’s marketing algorithms, because as I said before, genuinely original is always a tough sell.
 
To reiterate, I would dearly love to see something truly new. A lot of the assumptions that underlay the original 1980s cyberpunk, and thus the retro-1980s cyberpunk of today, were based on imagining how the wired world of the future might work. Now that we’re here, 40 years further on, we know that a lot of the things that were imagined then were just plain wrong; it doesn’t work like that; it can never work like that. Because physics.
 
I hope I don’t come off like someone just one shot of Geritol short of shouting, “Get off my lawn!” As I said, I’ve spent a lifetime working out on the bleeding edge of the computing industry. And the ideas that were originally behind the cyberpunk trope—that’s the cool part. My friends who went into aerospace tell me the old guys who built their industry all grew up reading Heinlein and Clarke, and went into aerospace to turn those crazy things they read about as kids into practical realities as adults.

In my industry I get to meet a lot of really brilliant young kids fresh out of MIT, or Carnegie-Mellon, or Urbana-Champaign, and every once in a while one of them sees my name, does a double-take, and then starts to tell me all about how they grew up reading Gibson, Vinge, and Rucker—and yes, me—and that’s why they went into this field: to turn that crazy sci-fi stuff they read about as kids into practical realities as adults.

We don’t quite live in the world that the cyberpunk fiction of the 1980s predicted. But we live in the world that the kids who grew up reading that fiction built, and that is a very cool thing indeed. 
  
 
—Bruce Bethke
 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Lights, Camera, Action!


by Pete Wood

Two years ago, I found myself scouting locations for a film adaption of my short story, Quantum Doughnut. Ray Petrolino, the director, and I stood outside Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in downtown Raleigh. We had to revise the story. With customers lined up outside for the best doughnuts in the world, I doubted Krispy Kreme would shut down for a film shoot. We couldn’t shoot after hours, because Krispy Kreme is open twenty-four hours. Lucky for us, Ray had a friend in the doughnut industry.

The most gracious shop’s owner couldn’t let us shoot until after dark. So, we had to scrap outdoor scenes. I tweaked the dialogue and removed all references to local businesses and sports teams, because Ray and I didn’t know what might be permissible. Neither of us wanted to approach a university or a national company and ask permission to mention them in a movie.

I have exactly one film adaption under my belt. I have a long way to go before I come close to Frankenstein or Dracula, the most adapted novels of all time. Favorite authors of screenwriters include Mark Twain, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Stephen King, Philip Dick, H. G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among many others. The results are a mixed bag.

Monkey Planet (1963) by Pierre Boulle is a mind-numbingly dull read. Slow-paced with uninteresting characters, I found it quite forgettable. Thank God, Rod Serling did not. He gutted the novel and inserted compelling characters, a ton of tension, social commentary, and the greatest movie ending of all time when he penned the script for the original Planet of the Apes (1968).

John Carpenter morphed Ray Nelson’s  one-note 1963 short story, Eight O’clock in the Morning, into my favorite science fiction action movie, They Live (1988). Carpenter lifts the premise of subversive alien hypnosis and ditches a counterproductive twist. He adds a healthy dose of humor, some kick-ass characters (he cast Roddy Piper, a professional wrestler in the lead) and some snappy dialogue. None of the dialogue appears in the book. How great are the film’s one liners? Our local NPR station did a one-hour show on great movie lines and used a line from They Live in the promos. Since I suggested the line, they had me talk about it on the air.

Versions of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, range from great (the 1956 original) to pretty good (the 1978 remake) to don’t bother (all the others). All lack the book’s central logic. The novel’s body snatchers had a sensible plan that adapted when the humans got wise. Idiot plot drives the political allegory of the original and the horror slant of the 1970s remake.

Director, Clarence Brown, filmed Intruder in the Dust (1948)  in Oxford Mississippi, William Faulkner’s hometown, and the author’s inspiration for the fictional setting of most of his novels. The film has a rare authenticity since most of the scenes seem familiar to those acquainted with Faulkner.

In my opinion the worst movie adaption is the abysmal A Sound of Thunder (2005), in theory based on Ray Bradbury’s short story. You’d think there would be some sort of professional courtesy among screenwriters. Bradbury could teach a master class in how to make films of unfilmable novels, thanks to his brilliant reduction of 378-page Moby Dick into a two-hour movie. Bradbury’s short fable is the best time travel story ever written. Period. The film is junk. The four screenwriters (four!) abandoned Bradbury’s premise, added senseless action, incoherent rules of time travel, and cardboard characters and an hour and a half of filler. If you want to see a good adaption of a Bradbury short story, check out The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) which has little in common with Bradbury’s 1951 short story, The Foghorn, but is at least a good movie.

Even if filmmakers sometimes fix what ain’t broke, screenwriters have improved upon mediocre fiction enough that I can’t really complain too much about tinkering. I never would have thought you could  improve on the Odyssey until Joel and Ethan Coen adapted Homer’s epic poem into Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

Films have a daunting task of condensing longer works into two hours give or take. Larry McMurtry might have done the best job of culling when he condensed his own novel for Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 The Last Picture Show. The book is more nuanced, but the film is still pretty damned brilliant.

Sometimes filmmakers just give up and grab the title, a few key characters, and little else. Ian Fleming wrote 16 James Bond novels from 1953 to 1966. Every single one became a movie that had nothing to do with the novels, other than the title and the main character. The novels are generally better, but quite dated. I read Diamonds Are Forever (1956) a few months ago and had a hard time dealing with its racism. The 1950s Bond wouldn’t sell tickets today.

Maybe the best approach is to make a miniseries. That worked for Dune, The Shining, and The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror classic became Robert Wise’s 1963 movie The Haunting.  Mike Flanagan greatly expanded the perfect novel in his ten-part Netflix miniseries in 2018. He added backstory, many new characters, and two simultaneous ghost stories, one in the present and one in the 1980s. Flanagan’s rethinking took hubris, but it works. Alas, his similar approach to Henry James last year did not succeed. The Haunting of Bly Manor, inspired by the Turn of the Screw, is neither interesting nor scary. It’s just a mess.

I can’t possibly go through every single adaption. Movies and the written word are two different mediums, neither better. Bladerunner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are different, and I can’t choose between the two.

After someone finally adapts Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Lebowitz, I hope Hollywood gives me a call. I have 70-plus published short stories, y’all. The next blockbuster is hiding in there somewhere!



Read the original story: “Quantum Doughnut”
Watch the film on YouTube: Quantum Doughnut
Encourage the filmmakers! Say nice things about the film on IMDB: Quantum Doughnut on IMDB



Peter Wood
is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Taking “Quantum Doughnut” from Story to Production

 by Alex Granados

[continued from Part 1

... But a few months later, Wood got back in touch and told them production was a go.

“Of course everybody was up for it because it meant that we got to hang out all night in the donut shop,” Seth said.

Finally, Wood asked Seth if he could cast the loudmouth. Seth didn’t hesitate.

“Sure,” he told Wood. “I know the perfect person.”

Seth brought in Sean A. Cole. Cole is an attorney in Raleigh with a passion for the dramatic.

Cole said he did theater in high school and college, and he and Seth have both taken part in a production done by the local bar association called “The Bar Awards.” He described it as a “song and dance review that gives out fake awards for real events.”

“That’s the closest thing to real acting that I have done in some time,” Cole said, adding later: “Any kind of public spectacle I can make of myself, I enjoy that.”

So the cast is clear, but what’s up with the story? Who writes a science fiction tale that revolves around sugar-glazed doughnuts and a jerk?

“Well the story was kind of revenge for being stuck behind a really unpleasant guy in a restaurant in Blowing Rock, North Carolina for an hour who complained a lot about his damn race horse,” Wood said. That description will sound familiar to anyone who’s read the story.

Okay, that explains the story. But why was Petrolino so into making this film? Fame and fortune?

“I primarily just enjoy getting a good story out to people,” he said.

 

Petrolino was able to show the film at Cary Theater’s Rough Cuts Review, where local filmmakers can get feedback on their productions. After making some tweaks, he was able to bring the film back and show it again.

“And everybody came out it was just wonderful support,” he said. “If it didn’t do anything […] other than that, that would have been hugely rewarding because you probably had 100 people in that theater and everybody was having a good time,” he said.

In addition, the film got into the Austin Revolution Film Festival, where Petrolino estimates 700 to 800 people got a chance to see "Quantum Doughnut.”


So finally, we get to a promise I made earlier in the piece. Just how many doughnuts were consumed? Okay, I might have strung you along a bit. The best answer I could get out of the case was “a lot.”

Cole called it more of a doughnut-tasting exercise, because in one scene he takes a bite out of a doughnut and spits it into another guy’s coffee. Rebecca said more doughnut ended up on her face than in her stomach.

But the measure of success isn’t the number of doughnuts eaten. In fact, in this case, it’s all about the memories. And since the film was made, a lot has happened. You might not have heard, but there’s a pandemic, and the notion of gathering a bunch of people together to make a film is a little less palatable than it once was. Petrolino looks back on the experience with longing.

“Just to be outdoors on a city street with a camera you know with other people around you. That would be really nice to be able to do that again,” he said.

And you, too, can have that experience, plus a little dose of profundity over doughnuts, with Quantum Doughnut.


 
Read the original story: “Quantum Doughnut”
Watch the film on YouTube: Quantum Doughnut 
Encourage the filmmakers! Say nice things about the film on IMDB: Quantum Doughnut on IMDB


 

Alex Granados
is a Raleigh-based education journalist. When he’s not reporting, he writes fiction, including his first novel, Cemetery Plot, published in 2012. He served as assistant director on the Baen Books audio adaptation of Larry Correia’s “Detroit Christmas” and has covered the arts scene in Raleigh and surrounding areas as a columnist for the North Raleigh News section of the News & Observer and a producer for The State of Things on North Carolina Public Radio WUNC.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Taking “Quantum Doughnut” from Story to Production


by Alex Granados

What do you get when an alien, a physicist, and a loudmouth walk into a doughnut shop? A Quantum Doughnut. Okay, so that’s neither a very good joke nor a particularly appealing introduction to an article about a deceptively profound piece of fiction, so maybe if I could just stop time for a moment and start over…

What do you get when an alien, a physicist, and a loudmouth walk into a doughnut shop? A meditation on the nature of reality, the path not taken, and humanity’s maturity in the face of life’s mysteries. Or maybe just a funny story about an alien who likes doughnuts. It all depends on the reader.

“Quantum Doughnut” by Pete Wood is a piece of flash fiction wherein an alien and a physicist discuss the nature of time and the secrets of the universe over a plate of donuts. Then their profound discussion gets hijacked by a loudmouth sitting nearby. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that the humans in the story learn a lesson. The film Quantum Doughnut is a short rendition of Wood’s story, directed by Ray Petrolino and starring Rebecca Blum, Seth Blum, and Sean A. Cole.

I sat down (via Zoom) with Wood, Petrolino, the Blums and Cole to talk about the story, the movie, and just how many doughnuts were consumed on the set of the film.

First, the tangled web of relations that led to this production.

Petrolino and Wood know each other from church. They were talking during service one day and Wood revealed his side hustle. Wood, a lawyer by trade, writes fiction—mostly science fiction—in his free time, and he’s been published in a number of professional magazines, including Asimov’s Science Fiction. “Quantum Doughnut,” however, appeared in a December 2016 issue of Page & Spine, a North Carolina-based literary magazine.

Petrolino wanted to read some of his stuff, so Pete shared. One of the stories he gave him was the titular tasty treat.

“I was very impressed with it,” Petrolino said, adding later: “I was kind of blown away with the premise.”

Petrolino is active in the Triangle film-making community. For those not from North Carolina, the Triangle is the reference term for Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, which kind of forms a triangle on a map. Petrolino has created a number of other short films himself and has helped out on other features and shorts. After he read “Quantum Doughnut,” he told Pete it might be fun to make a movie out of it.

The image that really stuck out to him was donuts going down a conveyor belt and being produced, something described in the story and depicted in the film. Petrolino won’t reveal the location of the shop used for filming the movie, but he did say that one of the biggest challenges was finding a way to cover all of the shop’s branding. In the movie, the name of the shop is Mad Monk Doughnuts, and Wood and co. actually had t-shirts made up with a fictional logo. 

 
Full disclosure, I’m friends with Wood and I wear my Mad Monk Doughnuts shirt regularly.

After Wood and Petrolino agreed that making a movie would be fun, it fell on Wood to find some stars. He reached out to old friend Seth Blum. Wood has known Seth and his wife Rebecca since the ‘90s. Seth was skeptical but agreeable.


“I said, ‘Well, this will never happen, so sure.”

And then Wood asked if Seth was willing to involve his entire family, which includes Rebecca as well as children Eowyn, Havana, and Scarlett. The whole family likes to act, but Havana and Scarlett are arguably the most famous since they’ve appeared in the popular TV show The Walking Dead, Seth said.

Seth and his family all agreed to take part, though they never exactly expected the film to move beyond the conception stage. But a few months later, Wood got back in touch and told them production was a go.

...to be continued...

 
Tomorrow: Pete Wood talks about what it took to turn the story as written for print into a viable shooting script. Meanwhile, you can:
 
Read the story: “Quantum Doughnut” - the story
Watch the film: Quantum Doughnut - the film
Rate the film on IMDB: Quantum Doughnut on IMDB


 

Alex Granados
is a Raleigh-based education journalist. When he’s not reporting, he writes fiction, including his first novel, Cemetery Plot, published in 2012. He served as assistant director on the Baen Books audio adaptation of Larry Correia’s “Detroit Christmas” and has covered the arts scene in Raleigh and surrounding areas as a columnist for the North Raleigh News section of the News & Observer and a producer for The State of Things on North Carolina Public Radio WUNC.

Monday, February 22, 2021

LAST CHANCE!

 

My, how time flies. Stupefying Stories #19 and Stupefying Stories #20 have both reached the end of contract life of go out-of-print at the end of this month. For the next week, we have dropped the price to just 99-cents for each issue. If you’re looking to add these two books to your Kindle collection, you’ll never find a better opportunity—but act now, because as of next Monday, they’re gone forever. 

Stupefying Stories #19 features:

COMMUNION • by Fi Michell
SUBMISSION GUIDELINES FOR THE FAIRYLAND GAZETTE • by Effie Seiberg
HORNS OF A PARADOX • by Julie Frost
THE BONE MERCHANT • by Robert Luke Wilkins
SOULLESS MACHINE • by Jennifer R. Povey
BEHEMOTHS IN THE PARK • by Henry Fields
THE INVASION WILL BE ALPHABETIZED • by Ryan Harvey
MORE CRACKLE THAN MUSIC • by RM Graves
A RAINFOREST, THE WATER CYCLE, AND FIFTY PREGNANT TIGERS • by W. Winward-Stuart
THE OLD MAN AND THE C • by Ronald D. Ferguson
DOGS AND MONSTERS • by Harold R. Thompson

Stupefying Stories #20 includes:

ZOMBIE LIKE ME • by Clancy Weeks
THEIR NOSTALGIA WILL BE VERY MUCH LIKE OUR NOSTALGIA • by Eric Cline
HOW TO BUILD A TRAIN • by Brandon Kempner
ENDEAVOR TO DREAM ON BROKEN WINGS • by AJ Finley
PILES OF DUST AND BERRIES • by Sadie Bruce
ALIEN WHISPERING • by Bo Balder
LUCKY FIND • by Lance Young
SECRET SEED, by Shannon Norland

Remember, “likes” are nice, but “shares” help spread the word. 

It's Quantum Doughnut Week!

What exactly are quantum doughnuts? Well, first you need to understand quantum dots, which are one of these areas where real science and engineering have so far outstripped science fiction that it’s an embarrassment to we in the Professional Imaginationeering business. To put it very simply, quantum dots are atom-sized synthetic semiconductor particles that, because of their incredibly tiny size, have remarkable electronic and optical properties that are very useful in quantum computing, medical imaging, flat-screen TV manufacturing, and a host of other applications. If you want to dig into it more deeply we can, but be forewarned that the conversation will involve things like “exitons,” “electron holes,” and “quasiparticles,” which I swear, are not terms I’m just making up.

Quantum doughnuts, on the other hand—or more properly, “Aharonov-Bohm nano rings”—are an accidental by-product of manufacturing quantum dots. They are doughnut-shaped structures that have the remarkable property of being able to slow and even freeze light, and that can be used to hold individual photons and then to release them on command. The implications of this are still being worked out, but they promise to produce much more quantum weirdness to come.

“Quantum Doughnut” is also the title of a short story by our very own Pete Wood, which was first published in Page & Spine in December of 2016 and subsequently made into a short film by Ray Petrolino Productions. The film was making the rounds of the indie film festivals when COVID pretty much shut that outlet down, so if you’re the impatient sort you can watch the film right now on YouTube at this link: “Quantum Doughnut.” [The producers ask that if you do watch the film and like it, that you also leave a rating and a kind comment about it on IMDB.]

However, if you have a bit more curiosity, we have lined up a series of posts for this week talking with the people involved in the production about just what was involved in turning Pete’s original short story into a script, and then into a completed film shot on an actual location, by a professional crew, using real actors and actresses. Personally, I found the whole process fascinating. 

To begin, then, let’s begin where the filmmakers began: with the original short story.

 


 

“Quantum Doughnut” • A short story by Peter Wood

Mangum held up the piping-hot doughnut he had just bought at Krispy Kreme and smiled at the visiting professor from the far side of the galaxy. “You really should eat yours before it cools, Dr. Helzug.”

The alien took a bite. “Outstanding.” In seconds he had polished off the doughnut. He licked his fingers and wiped his hands on a napkin.

Mangum doubted anyone in the art deco eatery realized the man across the table was the emissary from an eons-old race. Helzug resembled a middle-aged used car salesman, not an alien who knew a theory that united physics and religion. Too bad he wouldn’t share it.

“This place has been around since before I was born,” Mangum said.

Helzug set one of the 1950s-era paper Krispy Kreme hats on his bald head. The shop gave them free to customers—usually kids. “Why did the college pick you to escort me here?”

“The physics department chair said that I knew doughnuts,” Mangum joked. He suspected Helzug had chosen N. C. State, because of the local cuisine. The alien had sampled a dozen barbecue joints in a fifty mile radius. He was a big fan of local microbrews.

“Ah. A more useful field than physics.” Helzug pointed to the Plexiglas that separated the dining area from the kitchen. A conveyor belt snaked through ovens and vats of boiling oil. “How’s that contraption work?”

Mangum was still surprised how an alien who knew the secrets of the universe was more interested in the little things of life. “The dough goes in one end, gets shaped, then the doughnuts are deep-fried. Then they get glazed—”

Helzug frowned. “Glazed?”

“They’re coated with liquid sugar. First one side. Then the machine flips the doughnut and does the other.” Mangum cleared his throat. “So, y’all believe in a science that connects the spiritual—God—with the material—physics?”

“Not exactly. God isn’t just an abstract concept. He exists as much as ions and electrons.”

“The scientific method can’t prove that God exists.”

“I have to disagree with you, Professor.” Helzug plucked a napkin from the dispenser. “There’s a simple proof that connects quantum theory and what you call a Supreme Being.” He pulled a pen from his pocket. “Some worlds welcome the truth. Others fear it.”

Mangum leaned forward. Politicians, clerics, and academics had been trying to pry this very information from Helzug for months.

And then, the front door chimed open. A man’s bellowing voice filled the room, “So, I boarded my horse on the ferry from Boston to Nova Scotia and they fed him tap water, not bottled water. Then we get to Halifax and there’s no first class stall.”

Mangum turned his head and saw an overweight white-haired man at the register with a small crowd. All wore Duke University sweatshirts. They were probably in town for the football game against State tonight. Mangum wanted to tell the blowhard to shut up.

But Mangum did nothing.

Helzug sat the pen down on the battered Formica table and picked up another doughnut. He took his time eating it before speaking again. “God is outside time,” he said at last. “We have learned to be timeless also. We exist in multiple timelines.”

“Multiple timelines? Y’all—”

The voice drowned out Mangum. “I don’t know why the concierge recommended this dump.” The loudmouth brandished a half-eaten doughnut at the next table. “I’ve had toothpaste better than this crap. And the coffee? If you want good coffee, you have to go to France. North Carolina. . .”

Mangum tried to tune out the man. “We have religions that say God is outside time.”

Helzug crossed his arms. “Yes, but your physicists would laugh at such a concept.”

“You’re right about that,” Mangum said.

“Millennia ago, we were like isolated doughnuts in the kitchen, only aware of our immediate spot on the conveyor belt. Now we can see the entire machine.”

Mangum hadn’t thought of time as being like an assembly line. “I see…”

“And this damned Filipino working the show in Halifax,” the voice thundered. “He feeds my show horse Fuji apples, not Gala. Idiot. I complained to the management.” The Duke fan laughed. “I hope they fired him.”

“I see the timelines now,” Helzug said. “I can assure you that man does stop talking eventually.”

“Thank God,” Mangum said.

“Such a man is focused on himself and his immediate time and space.” Helzug took a sip of coffee. “Sad.” He pointed to the conveyer belt. “A doughnut, if it could think, might be on that belt and miss being glazed. But, a worker could move the doughnut back to the start and right that wrong. And the doughnut would not understand.”

“I don’t understand,” Mangum said.

Helzug bowed his head.

The air stirred. Everything stopped. Then people moved backwards. Mangum felt nauseated and closed his eyes.

He opened them again after a moment.

“I glazed the doughnut,” Helzug said.

The door opened. A man in a flannel shirt and faded jeans strolled up to the cashier. “Give me four dozen of the world’s best doughnuts. Our church is taking some inner-city kids to the game. What’s a tailgate without doughnuts, right?” The man was the spitting image of the loudmouth horse owner.

Mangum turned around. The table of Duke Fans was gone.

Mangum blinked. “How?”

“Such things are possible with our race. The man is now much happier. He took a different path. He can see beyond himself.” Helzug crumpled up the napkin. “Earth is not ready for the proof. Yet.”

“Will we ever be ready?”

Helzug patted Mangum’s hand. “Someday.” He stood up. “For now, let’s purchase some more of those amazing doughnuts.”

¤     ¤     ¤

Coming tomorrow: what it took to begin to turn this sweet little story into a finished film.

Bon appetit!  

Sunday, February 21, 2021

MICHAEL SHAARA: Wishing for THE KILLER ALIENS • by Guy Stewart

[Editor’s note: A while back I sent Guy Stewart a book and a challenge, regarding a certain one-time science fiction writer who left the genre and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-wining author in the mainstream world. Herewith, the result. ~brb]

¤    ¤    ¤

He never won any awards with us—no Hugo, no Nebula (oh, that’s right, he’d stopped writing SF by 1966 and gone on to pen seventy stories for people who read those silly magazines like Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Playboy and the Saturday Evening Post…) no Locus Poll (oops, those didn’t start until 1971…Shaara was long gone by then)—leaving nothing to remind us that we’d had a great writer do his apprenticeship among us, the SF community. Somewhere around 1954, he wrote a story that Galaxy, F&SF, and Astounding rejected out of hand after publishing seven other stories of his. Shaara himself thought, “…this may be the best I’ve ever done.” But we didn’t want it. Published finally, grudgingly in Fantastic Universe in 1957, Shaara had already started moving toward people who enjoyed what he was writing.

That story, “Death of a Hunter,” wasn’t the best he could do. Twenty years later, the world saw the publication of his Civil War novel, The Killer Angels. An intimate novel of the Battle of Gettysburg in the style of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Angels became his best. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the award came as a stunning surprise because The Killer Angels had been a commercial flop—then went on to became a full-length feature film after his death in 1988 and has been required reading for more military organizations than you can shake a stick at ever since.

We lost Michael Shaara because in part, the editor at Galaxy thought his readers wouldn’t like “Death of a Hunter.” They wouldn’t like it because he thought it was “too serious, too gloomy.” Of course, the SF of the time tended toward the positive salvation of humanity through the application of technology. Shaara’s work didn’t flow in that vein—it wasn’t about glittering machines and conquering the planets, the stars and the galaxies. His work was about people and their response to the forces in their lives. That phase of popular SF didn’t arrive for another twenty years.

Admittedly, he also wrote better after 20 years of practice. Compare these two descriptions of the alien:

“It was a great black lump on a platform. The platform had legs, and the thing was plodding methodically upon a path which would bring it past him. It had come down from the rise and was rounding the gorge when Dylan saw it. It did not see him. If he had not ducked quickly and brought up his gun, the monkey would not have seen him either, but there was no time for regret. The monkey was several yards to the right of the lump on the platform when he heard it start running; he had to look up this time, and saw it leaping toward him over the snow.” (p 32, “Soldier Boy,” 1954)

“To be alien and alone among white lords and glittering machines, uprooted by brute force and threat of death from the familiar earth of what he did not even know was Africa, to be shipped in the black stinking darkness across an ocean he had not dreamed existed, forced then to work on alien soil, strange beyond belief, by men with guns whose words he could not even comprehend. What could the black man know of what was happening? Chamberlain tried to imagine it. He had seen ignorance, but this was more than that. What could this man know of borders and state’s rights and the Constitution and Dred Scott? What…” (p 180, The Killer Angels, 1974)

Both passages are one hundred and eleven words long but it is clear that Shaara had come into his own by the time he wrote The Killer Angels. The prose vibrates like a quartet’s string bass played in an intimate curtained chamber, while “Soldier Boy” twangs like a banjo in a clapboard dance hall.

Is there anything we could have done to keep him with us—perhaps allowing the growth of an early Mary Doria Russel or Stanislaw Lem? Unlikely. SF hadn’t matured enough by then to admit to literary aspirations. Shaara himself alludes to this in the afterword of Soldier Boy, the only collection of his short fiction still in print. He says, “Very little I wrote has ever moved me so much as being with Neilson when he killed those two in the mountains. I felt for the first time in my writing life, that maybe I was growing up, and maybe I’d done something truly worth doing…”

Fifty-eight years later, Shaara’s work has stood the test of time as The Killer Angels enjoys consistent sales and continues to illuminate one of the bloodiest battles in American history. As good as it is, I cannot help but wonder what Michael Shaara might have given the SF community, had we encouraged him to explore the darker reaches of humanity’s battle with technology.

 


 

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

A few words about the book business

 

As we work to get Stupefying Stories rebooted and up and running once again, a few observations about the evolving book business seem in order. I have been in the publishing trade in one capacity or another for about forty years, and while I’d thought the changes that occurred between 1980 and 2010 were dramatic, the changes in the past ten years have been breathtaking. More importantly, the rate of change continues to accelerate on an exponential curve. At some point it must top out—the supply of content being produced has already far outstripped the number of people demanding to consume it—but when that will happen or what the fallout will then be for we who create that content, I haven’t a clue.

I suppose at least one outcome is obvious. At some point AIs will take over the job of producing mass market genre fiction. There are already sweatshops filled with writers cranking out, to use the French term, merde that is published in ebook form on a weekly basis under corporate pseudonyms. The crucial advantage humans have right now is that unemployed MFAs and Creative Writing majors are still cheaper to hire than machines are to buy, but that state of affairs can’t last.

If you’re in the book business, you can’t help but develop a loathe/hate relationship with Amazon. Amazon is the business. Other retail outlets may move a decent percentage of print copies, for some new titles, but the bulk of new book sales have moved to ebook, and the overwhelming majority of those ebook sales are on the Amazon Kindle platform. From the beginning we have made periodic attempts to branch out into wider distribution of our titles, but every time we’ve tried it, we’ve end up reaching the same conclusion: that a good month of sales on all the other platforms combined—Nook, Kobo, iPad, etc., etc.—is at best a slow week on Kindle, and going wide costs us sales on Kindle, because of the way Amazon incentivizes putting your ebook exclusively on Kindle. How they avoid antitrust prosecution continues to amaze me.

Over on the other side of the house—literally, the other side of the house, the K&B Booksellers office is about twenty feet from where I now sit—we are also back up and if not running, at least hobbling along at a decent pace. Physical copies of old used books continue to sell; the older, odder, and longer out of print, the better. However, Amazon has really bombed the crap out of the used book business, too. At one time Amazon let us have our own little virtual storefront, and that was nice. Now, while you can still see our inventory listings on Amazon, if you should try to click through to buy a book from us, you will immediately see the comparative prices of all of our competitors as well. When you’ve made it a point to hand-select books and carefully curate your inventory, finding yourself in a race to the bottom with some sweatshop in California can be … frustrating. 

Lately Amazon has begun to do something else that I as a free-speech advocate find very disturbing. Their bots now comb through the inventory listings of theoretically independent sellers, like us, and they will cancel the seller’s listing if it violates some nebulously defined policy. At first they were targeting books for strange pricing practices—which I sort of understand, but again, antitrust? Then they moved on to canceling listings for books that contained “unacceptable” speech—which again, I sort of understood. We stock a large number of out-of-print theology books, and some of those older Catholic theologians could get pretty blatant in their anti-Semitism. We select books for condition and relative scarcity. We don’t have the time to read every page of every book we stock, to see if we approve of what the author had to say.

Most recently, Amazon has taken to combing through all of your listings, both active and inactive, to see if you have ever sold a book that Amazon has now declared unilaterally and retroactively to be forbidden. The penalties for failure to comply are Draconian. If you use the “fulfilled by Amazon” service (we don’t), in which you basically pay Amazon to warehouse and ship your inventory for you, you have 30 days in which to arrange to get your inventory back from Amazon at your expense, or else they will destroy it. Even if you don’t use FBA, in any case, you have 48 hours in which to permanently delete the offending book listing from your inventory—even if it’s an inactive listing for a book you haven’t had in stock in years—or else Amazon can shut down your bookstore and confiscate any money that may be in your account.

Last week we received take-down notices for five titles. I have to think it was a mistake; two of the books were biology textbooks published by McMillan, one was a book on probability published by Princeton University Press, one was a Norton anthology of fiction by Black authors, and one was a particular edition of The October Country, by Ray Bradbury. All the same, since the penalties are so drastic and the appeals process is so Byzantine, we deleted the listings. Still, I keep thinking of that last one, and what happens to inventory being held by the FBA service.

Apparently the irony of burning a Ray Bradbury book is completely lost on Amazon. 

—Bruce Bethke 


 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Not Precisely The Friday Challenge

On further thought, that would be fun, wouldn’t it? To do a steampunk-style remake of A Clockwork Orange? I don’t want to try to revive The Friday Challenge again—that would be way too much work—but I would love to see a short pastiche or vignette spring-boarding from that idea. Make the story earn that “clockwork” in the title.

If we get enough good ones, maybe we could even publish a collection under the Stupefying Stories Presents aegis. Call it A Clockwork Fruit Bowl…  

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk: with your host, Bruce Bethke

 

One of the weirder things about being known the world over as “the guy who wrote ‘Cyberpunk’” is that people seem to think I am some sort of judge, arbiter, or elder spokesman for the genre. On the face of it the idea of there being any sort of elder anything for cyberpunk is a contradiction in terms. What part of punk don’t you get? 

Nonetheless the questions keep coming in, so I may as well get some value from this smelly dead albatross I’m wearing and turn it into a regular weekly feature. Friday seems as good a day as any for it, so beginning right now, the lines are open. Have a question you’ve always wanted to ask me about that story? Post it here, email it to me, send me an IM—or what the hell, think it at me, really hard. But be advised that I am absolutely immune to telepathy, so I probably won’t answer.

Today’s question comes from Adrian, who asks: What comes between atompunk and cyberpunk, timeline-wise? 

The answer, obviously, is “beepunk:” stories of tech-savvy rebel gardeners hacking the genomes of common backyard pollinators in order to fight the agribusiness megacorporations and stick it to the man. Like this one: SHOWCASE: “Bootleg Bees,” by Laura Jane Swanson

Somewhat more seriously: cyberpunk began as a self-conscious attempt to apply 1970s punk rock anomie to the emerging 1980s high tech scene, and then to extrapolate what might happen next and take it forward from there. I have always been more interested in what comes next than in what’s already been done, and figured that—

Well, that doesn’t matter, because that book was never written.

In the meantime, while almost every other young sci-fi writer around was writing Bill Gibson fanfic and every agent and publisher in the business was scrambling to find another book “just like Neuromancer only different,” Paul Di Filippo took a really good crack at “what’s next?” in Ribofunk, and essentially invented biopunk. 

Unfortunately, Gibson & Sterling had a much bigger hit with The Difference Engine, and thus invented steampunk.

I thought the basic idea of The Difference Engine was fairly clever—that Charles Babbage’s analog computers had actually worked, and therefore the computer revolution hit western civilization a century earlier than it actually did—but what most everyone else seemed to seize on was the Victorian Era costumes, trappings, and set dressings. Instead of going forward and thinking about what might be next, it was as if science fiction as a whole suddenly took a great leap backward and started over again with Jules Verne.

Ontology recapitulates phylogeny. Steampunk begat clockpunk—and gods below, I grew to hate clockpunk. Seemed like every week one of the major publishers was launching a new series with the word “clockwork” in the title: The Clockwork King, The Clockwork Crowbar, The Clockwork Assassin, The Clockwork Toaster, The Clockwork Schlockwork...

Nota bene: A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, is not a steampunk novel.

Steampunk begat dieselpunk, which begat raypunk, which begat atompunk, which begat solarpunk, which begat … oh, I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few more in there. The point is that science fiction is now cluttered with dozens of *.punk microgenres, all of them suffering from such paucity of imagination that they can’t even think of a word to describe themselves that doesn’t end in punk. Speaking ex cathedra, Doctor Cyberpunkenstein heartily wishes that all these eager young writers would find their own damn names for their new genres! 

Ahem. Excuse me.

So to answer the initial question: if atompunk is a sort of refurbished atom-age SF of the 1940s~1950s as derived by way of steampunk, and cyberpunk begins in the 1970s, then what falls between them in the timeline would be …

Hippiepunk? Except hippiepunk is an oxymoron, as punk rock was first and foremost a rebellion against hippies in general and the pompous dinosaur arena bands that evolved in the 1960s in particular, so let’s call it, oh —

Acidpunk. Stories of society’s rebels and outcasts fighting the pharmaceutical megacorporations and sticking it to the man by hacking the chemistry lab and cooking up new psychedelic drugs.

While listening to The Doors and Jefferson Airplane? Suddenly this all begins to seem terribly familiar to me. I suppose, just as William Burroughs and Alfred Bester were the points of departure for so many of the early cyberpunk writers, this means your points of departure for acidpunk would be Ken Kesey, Thomas Wolfe, and Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories. Considering that out here in the Real World we seem to be recapitulating 1968 through 1973 right now, this is also probably exactly the right time to be revisiting Kurt Vonnegut’s early novels, with an eye towards giving Vonnegut’s ideas a punk style refresh. If I were to do this, I think I’d start by rereading Cat’s Cradle.

Over to you.

—Bruce Bethke



 
In lieu of an author’s bio, Bruce Bethke would like to direct your attention to this very short story:

“On the Conservation of Historical Momentum”

 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Coming in SS#23: “They Call Me Charon,” by Gary Pattinson

 

Artwork ©2021 Jonathan Semones
Gary Pattinson writes: 

“This short story grew out of my noodling over an SF novel idea. The novel’s heroine was to be exiled from Arc City in a highly public event at the city’s gates. I riffed off of the Charon of Greek mythology and envisioned this old roughened cop who’d become a kind of celebrity, escorting the exiled from the city in much pomp and ceremony. I decided I’d write a short story from Charon’s point of view and see what would happen when he exiled a young woman branded as a revolutionary. 

“With the first sentence, Charon just took over. He not only insisted on speaking in first person, but also in present tense of all things. He was urgent yet thoughtful, violent but constrained, and his surprises for me didn’t end there. I hope readers enjoy the story.”

Bruce Bethke adds:

I’m pretty sure our readers will. It’s a stark, dark future story, yet leavened with hope. It’s a tightly focused story with just two speaking characters, whose conflict has been years in the making but is now coming to a head and must be resolved one way or the other, and I was pretty much hooked from the first paragraphs:

The citizens of Ark City call me Charon.

Tier upon tier, the citizens assemble on the spectator stands towering behind the zap-barriers. Charon, Charon, their chants reverberate within the city’s glass walls, against the brushed steel gates at my back. Their lust for justice charges the air, and energizes me. I deal the justice of our conglomerate overseers, and I alone escort the walking dead over the river to their exile. I play this role with relish even today, when justice falls on the one woman I hold dear to my heart and purpose. 

My Face-unit singles out ID chips in the stands. Her supporters mingle with the cheering citizens, and prowl like caged animals behind the zap-barriers, impotent in their rage. I feel their eyes upon me and savor their anger. It feeds me. It gives me hope.

A low tone and a flashing icon on my vision’s edge warns me the hover-van approaches from the prison deep within Ark City.

At last, she comes...

Characters, conflict, stakes: all established with a few deft strokes. The problem is that it’s easy to write a good beginning to a story, especially if the author is thinking in terms of the novel they intend the story to evolve into some day. We see a lot of stories in the slush pile that start off with great beginnings but then either fizzle out and collapse into a puddle of meaningless mush, or worse, should have as the last line in the manuscript not “The End” but “To Be Continued...” because the author so obviously intends this to be the first chapter in a much longer work. So all the way through my first read of the manuscript I had this nagging worry in the back of my mind: will Pattinson actually end this story, or will he leave the characters hanging with the conflict unresolved? 

Obviously, “They Call Me Charon” delivers the goods, with an ending that is both surprising and satisfying, and I’m proud to be bringing it to you in Stupefying Stories #23.

About the illustration: 

As we were working through the copy-editing and production process, Gary surprised me again by showing me this illustration that a young relative of his had drawn to go with the story and asking if I might be able to use it. I was delighted to see it. We’d been having some trouble finding the right art to go with this story and I thought this drawing, while a bit rough, nailed it right on the head. It reminds me very much of the way Carlos Ezquerra drew Judge Dredd way back in the dawn of time. Therefore, in another Stupefying Stories first, we are delighted to bring you the first published artwork by Jonathan Semones. We hope to see more from him as his talent matures.

And now, the author’s photo and bio:

Gary Pattinson read his first space opera when he was nine years old. Weaned on fairy tales and hero adventures, he primarily writes fantasy and science fiction. He was a denizen of the now extinct Liberty Hall Writers. His first publication came in Ray Gun Revival when he won the Space Monkey Flash Fiction Contest (under a nom de plume). Since then, his fiction has appeared on Drabblecast, Horizon, Every Day Fiction, and in the anthologies LocoThology: Tales of Fantasy & Science Fiction 2012 (V2), The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom, and Alternate Hilarities: Hysterical Realms (v3).

Gary is a software engineer who has built scary things that self-heal and self-organize. From a family of lifelong learners, he is a devoted husband, Dad, and Granddad who enjoys family history, fossils, and gardening with his wife.