DP FICTION #79B: “A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse” by Rachael K. Jones

Jaffa Cakes: 4/10

The Jaffas haven’t aged well. The orange jelly went runny while the box sat trapped in the trunk of that abandoned car sunk in the ditch. A whole ant colony died glorious chocoholic deaths trying to carry them off. There’s all these little antennas sticking out of the cakes. I took a bite so I could rate them, but left the rest alone.

Jordan finished his whole cake, antennas and all. He’ll eat anything.

We’re camping in Retro Games overnight. Jordan needs a new d4 for his dice set, and I want to forage for better snacks. It’s risky—the Ganglies like buildings, and this one’s only one story tall—but we haven’t seen any of them in a few days, so we’re taking the chance.

Anyway, I’m a yellow belt in Taekwondo. Just let them try to eat our bones. I’ll kick them to bits.

*

Gulab Jamun: 8/10

They’re canned donut holes soaked in rosewater syrup. I’ve added “roses” to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten, after “poodle” and “roaches.” Jordan says stuff from dented cans might be full of bacteria, but the dent was pretty small, and we heard a Gangly scritching against the supermarket doors from our rooftop perch. Figured we might as well die with a sugar high.

The donut holes had mostly dissolved into the syrup, but they tasted so good I almost finished them before I remembered to offer Jordan some.

He rolled his eyes. You’d think he was my actual little brother and not just my pretend one. “You’re gonna be sooooooo sick tomorrow, Nadia,” he said. But he ate them too. I guess dying from bacteria together is better than fleeing Ganglies solo.

We sat on the roof after dinner and watched for Ganglies in the parking lot. Jordan got this huge sack of fancy unicorn dice from Retro Games. Probably a thousand of them, d4 through d100, shiny ivory like polished teeth. We were taking turns chucking them at bullet casings on the sidewalk, trying to see who could get the closest, when Jordan spotted a dust cloud from the street.

Then we were both on our feet, jumping and waving and screaming as a whole convoy rumbled past. We hadn’t seen that many adults in weeks, not since the Ganglies raided the last shelter we’d been in. Big trucks, a couple of tanks, and a semi with the windows covered in steel plates with holes cut in them. Gangly-proofed and then some. The convoy rolled into the parking lot, crushing shopping carts and abandoned bikes. My tummy flipflopped, half from excitement and half from imagining all the snacks those trucks must have. Beef sticks, baked cheese, maybe even BBQ potato chips (I was craving things that start with B).

The lead tank’s hatch popped open, and a lady with a buzz cut and camo pants climbed out. “You kids alright?” she hollered, cutting her eyes toward the pockets of shade near the cart return. Ganglies liked to unfold themselves from shadows when you weren’t looking.

I liked her. She reminded me of Officer Laws, my old middle school security guard.

“We’re orphans,” Jordan said, which was the truth, but also the best thing to lead with if you ever need adults to trust you.

The Camo Lady popped back down into her tank. These days nobody wants to share their food with strangers, but everyone makes exceptions for kids. There aren’t that many of us left, after all. We don’t run as fast as adults. A few minutes later, she came out again. “Can you climb down to us?”

“The store’s clear,” I told her. “We’ve been foraging. I found donut holes. Kinda.”

We gave her a tour of the ruins. I guess she liked what she saw, because she radioed her people, and they all piled out, twenty-one total and not one kid, and began stripping the shelves onto the checkout counters.

It was getting late, but Camo Lady (everyone called her Lily) said we could ride along. So Jordan and I scrammed back to the roof to get his dice and my backpack before we joined them.

I was halfway down the ladder when the Ganglies arrived.

The shadows between the shelves got real, real dark, like a cat’s pupils under the bed. Then out shot a long, thin spiderleg, then half a dozen more, and then whole Ganglies hoisted themselves up from the darkness onto the supermarket floor.

The Ganglies skittered long and tall right over the shelves on those long bony limbs, knocking jars to the ground and slamming shopping carts against the walls. They looked thin even for Ganglies, like if a skeleton married a spider.

Someone fired a gun and a window shattered. People were screaming everywhere, but it was over almost as soon as it started, and the Ganglies were dragging the bodies back down into the shadows. The final Gangly limped toward that shadow-portal more slowly since one leg-joint had been blasted off.

I hated it for killing Lily just when we were about to get protected. I threw a fat white d20 at it. It bounced off the floor and came up natural 20. Critical save. Instead of charging like most Ganglies do, it sat on its haunches and picked up the d20. Not coming after us, not calling for its friends, not scratching claws on the ladder, none of your usual Gangly stuff. Nibbled the d20 and watched us. Then it hooked the dead man again and crawled into the shadows, folding back into wherever they went when we weren’t watching.

I dropped to the floor and did a roundhouse kick at its dragging hind legs, and for just a sec my foot whiffed through the floor into somewhere else, somewhere damp and chilly and not-here. It was silly and dangerous. I braced for a Gangly’s claw jabbing through my shoe, but nothing happened except the shadows closed, and it was just the supermarket, quiet and empty.

At least until all the bodies came back 30 minutes later, minus their bones.

Jordan and I discussed our new D&D swag while we combed the abandoned convoy for food.  It gave us something else to think about besides the flat deboned sacks of meat that used to be Lily and her people. “Maybe these dice really are made from unicorn horn,” he said. “Horns are kind of like bones, right? Teeth too. I bet that’s why the Gangly liked them.”

“Unicorns aren’t real, though.”

“That’s what they said about the Ganglies,” said Jordan.

*

Twinkies: 1/10

Threw them up. I’m sick. Jordan’s sicker. Stupid dented donut hole cans.

He didn’t say I told you so. That’s why we’re best friends.

*

Zebra Cakes: 7/10

Jordan taught me how to sleep in trees tonight. We found the Zebra Cakes suspended among the branches in a dead pilot’s bag. The box showed a happy cartoon unicorn zebra—zebracorn?—saying, Magical Munchies for One-of-a-Kind Cravings!

The pilot’s mummified skin hung limp and empty inside the flight suit. Not Ganglies this time—all the bones were still there, just a little jumbled up. Ganglies can reach pretty high, but they don’t climb trees.

To sleep in a tree, you tie your hammock between two big branches and let the wind rock you to sleep. We used the dead pilot’s parachute. Jordan and I curled up together like the Zebra Cakes, two in a pack. The cakes had gone stale, but we didn’t care. Everything tastes great when you’re swinging peacefully under starlight with your best friend.

The dead pilot had a dog collar in their bag too, a worn pink one with a brass buckle, tucked in a pouch with some photos and a wallet. I hoped that meant the dog got away safe.

“I had a dog once,” said Jordan. “Back before.” He didn’t usually talk about the days before the Ganglies. “Dogs used to be wolves, you know. Before we tamed them.”

“We should’ve let them stay wolves.” The Ganglies had picked the dogs off pretty quick. Dogs didn’t have the sense to keep quiet and climb trees like people did.

I miss dogs.

I thought about wolf-taming while I lay there stargazing with Jordan warming my back, about cavemen huddled around bright fires to keep the howling wolves away. Except one day a hungry pup scooched close enough for somebody to toss it a bone. You had to tame things a little at a time. First step: don’t kill each other on sight.

After Jordan fell asleep, I licked one of his unicorn horn dice. It didn’t taste like much of anything, but neither do my teeth, and they’re probably made of bone too.

I’ve added “bone” to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten. I’d take another Zebra Cake over bones any day. But there aren’t going to be anymore Zebra Cakes, are there? Or zebras, for that matter.

Someday zebras will be like unicorns. Nobody will believe they were ever real.

*

Pocky: ??/10

We shouldn’t have slept in the tree. The Ganglies can’t climb, but they can sniff out crumbs. Must have been ten of them down there by morning.

We threw down the dead pilot to distract them. They picked the bones one by one out of his mummified skin like a plastic wrapper.

Wish I hadn’t seen that. It’s all I could think about when I opened the Pocky. They snap in half just like old bones. Chocolate-dipped old bones.

Jordan tore open his shin sliding down the tree once the Ganglies left. I had to sew it up with twisty-tie wire from a bag of moldy hot dog buns. Jordan cried a little. I gave him the whole box of Pocky to make him feel better, which is why I can’t rate them. I hope we don’t have to sprint again soon.

“You ever feel bad for them?” he asked, once he stopped crying.

“The Ganglies? Nah. Bunch of evil aliens. They ate both my moms. I hate them.”

Jordan crunched the chocolate off his Pocky stick. The sound made my teeth itch. “I feel bad for them. My theory is they’re starving. They crashed here with no way home, and nothing but bones to digest. Being hungry sucks. Like, if we went to Candyland, we’d be serial killers, right? The Licorice King and Gumdrop Princess would run screaming from us.”

Stupid Jordan. I want to write about Pocky, but now my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten just makes me feel like a Gangly.

*

Strawberry Twizzlers: 10/10

Okay, Jordan was right. I’d totally eat the Licorice King. Sue me.

*

Pickle in a Bag: 8/10

They have such a good crunch it doesn’t even matter they’ve turned pee-yellow from age. Their mascot is a cartoon pickle with big googly eyes. We ate so many we both smell like librarians now. We needed it after such a close call.

Jordan and I fell in with a minor league baseball team, the Ferndale Razors, while foraging at the old stadium. I thought maybe the stadium would have fried pickles, and I don’t have many things under “P” in my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten, especially after skipping the Pocky.

Instead we came across the Razors’ secret base in the concession stands. They told us they don’t normally show themselves because the Ganglies don’t know to look for them down there, which keeps them safe. But Jordan was crying because his leg hurt, just sat in the bleachers bawling, and they felt so bad for us they made an exception.

See? Everyone makes exceptions for kids.

The players helped us down the bleachers to the lower levels, which wasn’t easy for Jordan, since the elevators were out. The Razors gave Jordan a shot of medicine in his leg, then let us eat whatever we wanted from the concessions stash, which was good because I’ve been tightening my Taekwondo belt a whole lot recently.

“What I don’t get,” said Mr. Aaron, their catcher, in a comfortable drawl, “is how y’all have survived this whole time just the two of you, without proper shelter. The Ganglies track just about anyone not locked down deep these days. It’s why most of us have gone underground.”

“Jordan’s lucky,” I told him, because it’s true. Just yesterday he found a four-leaf clover.

Staying with the Razors was the luckiest thing of all, though. The Razors were strong and smart, and Jordan and I were tired of running. And if we stayed at the stadium, we could have popcorn and donuts forever.

We didn’t have the chance to even try the donuts because the Ganglies attacked that night. The sound of bones getting slurped from bodies just below your bunk bed will wake up anyone. Jordan raced up the ladder and burrowed with me deep under the sheets like the monsters might overlook us if we kept a blanket over our eyes.

That’s how my moms died. Burrowed under the covers while I watched from the closet. Blankets won’t protect you from anything but the cold.

I thought I’d try to help the Razors, or at least make them forget about Jordan. I cinched my yellow belt tight, counted to one hundred Mississippi, and ninja-rolled out of the bunk bed. I threw some punches at the long spindly legs retreating into the dark. One of the Razors—the pitcher, I think—was yelling bloody murder. I grabbed for his arms as a Gangly dragged him by the legs, and for a few seconds I thought we were both going straight into the shadow realm. But I lost my grip and the monster took him.

It was dim, almost dawn I guessed. A Gangly squatted over the dead baseball players, rummaging through the corpses. It fished out a small white skull, popped it into its razor-tooth mouth, and chewed it slowly, like those half-popped kernels you find in the bottom of the bag. You don’t really notice how small a skull is until you see it outside someone’s head.

I was real mad, and figured we were about to die anyway, so I started chucking bagged pickles at it just as hard as I could. “Go away! Get! Begone, you!”

It poised, rocking on mismatched hind legs for a sec. That stumpy walk again!  Then it threw a pickle in a bag at me. The package exploded, splashing pickle juice all over my Taekwondo dobok. The pickle slid under a chair, leaving the wrapper empty. Just a cartoon Mr. Pickle staring up at me, flat and boneless. The Gangly folded up into the shadows, and was gone.

Jordan and I stuffed our pockets and bags full of food and went on our way. It sucked to lose all the free donuts, but no way were we living in there with all the bodies. Not when the Ganglies could come back at any moment. Instead we gorged on pickles and hit the road.

If the same Gangly that killed the convoy people also killed the baseball players, maybe there aren’t that many Ganglies after all. But why are they following us? Do they hunt in packs? Did they take a shine to us? Are they waiting for us to ripen like stale candy canes after Christmas?

Sometimes when we bunk down for the night, we find a bagged pickle somewhere neither of us remembers leaving it, right where the shadows are thickest.

I wonder what we taste like to a Gangly.

#

Star Crunches: 0/10

I was crying so hard the Star Crunch just tasted like tears and snot, but it’s all I had in my pocket when I led the Ganglies away from poor hurt Jordan.

We’d stayed up all night playing D&D on the roof of an elementary school, which isn’t the best spot to hide from Ganglies since you can’t clear out all the classrooms. But the nurse’s office has medicine for Jordan’s leg, and the big flood lights keep the shadows away, so we risked it.

How come they keep finding us? How come we’re still alive when everyone else is dead? I miss my moms. I miss my dog. I miss not knowing what people look like on the inside.

I woke up when Star Crunches began pelting my sleeping bag. They arced sideways from over the edge of the building like hail in a windstorm. Some Ganglies down below had one of those rotating metal snack trees you find at gas stations. Our old stumpy-legged friend was working them off and lobbing them at the roof.

Jordan and I lay really quiet underneath a blanket, fending off the snacks, because really, what could you say about that? “They’re just trying to bait us,” I decided. “It’s a new hunting technique.”

“I bet they learned it from you,” said Jordan irritably, “when you threw them my unicorn dice.”

“Seriously, Jordan? No way you’re still mad about the dice.”

“Obviously. You can’t roll initiative with two d10’s. It’s not mathematically correct.”

Jordan’s such a punk, but you should never stay mad at anyone after the apocalypse. He looked really bad, honestly. He’d been getting paler and sweatier ever since we’d left the baseball stadium, and our food had run low. Jordan was already pigging out on Star Crunches.

Then a tree crashed into the rooftop. The Ganglies must’ve worked all night digging it up. They strolled right up the trunk like pirates on a gangplank, all spindly and uneven in the moonlight. So thin and a little wobbly, like when you’re fall-over hungry and can’t even make it to the table.

Maybe they’re not naturally gangly at all.

No way Jordan could run from them, not with his hurt leg. I whooped and hollered at the Ganglies, and bolted toward a spot where trees overhung the roof. “Go for the door, Jordan!”

I caught the sagging branches of an old elm leaning over the roof and climbed up as high as I dared. “Jordan? Jordan, you there?” I hadn’t heard any running, or the rusty door clanging closed. The Ganglies hung thick around the spot where I’d left him.

More Ganglies gathered around my tree. One of them gnawed on something. Maybe a dead deer. The shadow around the roots thickened, and another Gangly climbed out right underneath me.  I tossed the second Star Crunch into that shadow, into their dimension, but I missed, and it just glanced off the dirt. I felt just like a Gumdrop Princess in Candyland, begging it to please fill up on something else, please don’t notice Jordan, because I need him and anyway I’m not done with my journal yet.

I was all set to climb down just as soon as my heart stopped racing. Maybe if they ate me, they’d leave Jordan alone. But before I could pick a way down the branches, they unzipped the shadows again and slipped away ahead of the morning.

I ran all over the school looking for Jordan, whispering for him, screaming his name, lying on the rooftop sobbing while the sun dragged all the shadows long and spindly. But I didn’t find him. When I finally ran out of tears, I lay peering at the patch of leaves where the shadows had unzipped, waiting for the return delivery, the one they always made of the… unused bits. I didn’t want to see Jordan like that, all flat and empty without even his skull, but when it’s your best friend, you don’t really have a choice.

I waited all day, but they never sent him back. I’ve been waiting ever since.

Where are you, Jordan? Where did they take you? Are you in the shadow dimension still? They could’ve eaten us a billion times by now, but they always spared us. Are they finally out of adults to eat?

Whatever it is, I’m sick to death of running. I’ve got a plan to get into the shadow dimension. I’m saving Jordan if it kills me. And if he’s already gone? Well. I’d rather be eaten than live without him. There’s a reason they always come two in a pack.

Jordan, if you’re reading this, I’m really really sorry about your unicorn dice.

*

Gummi Bears: 10/10

My moms always used to say there’s good news and there’s bad news—which do you want first? You’re always supposed to ask for the bad news first. So here it is: I could only think of one way to get the Ganglies to open the shadow dimension, and I’m not proud of how I did it.

I had to walk a long time to find some adults. It was nearly a week of searching the outskirts of the city before I found it: the sleepy hum of generators, running water, and twinkling lights at dusk. I traced the sound to a complex of three greenhouses surrounded by a barricade of overturned semi trucks, patrolled by adults with guns.

I waved an empty foil wrapper to get their attention. “Help! Help me! Over here! My parents died, and I’m lost.” I made a big deal out of crying and wiping my grimy face on my Taekwondo uniform, which wasn’t so white anymore, and I slumped my shoulders so I looked really small and pathetic.

That got me brought inside real quick. Everyone makes exceptions for kids.

I liked how they’d Gangly-proofed their home. They’d rigged huge floodlights like from a football stadium all over the whole compound, especially inside the greenhouse. You had to sleep with a mask over your eyes to shut it out, but it kept the shadows away. I had salad for dinner for the first time in who knows how long. I’m adding something called kohlrabi to my Master List of Things I’ve Eaten. It looks kind of like Yoda if he turned into a vegetable.

I pretended to sleep until really late at night, curled up in a sleeping bag in the floodlit greenhouse next to the strawberry bed. When the guards swapped shifts at midnight and the compound got quiet, I crept on my knees to the wall socket and pulled the plug on the lights.

The Ganglies piled in immediately, sixseveneightnine before any of the adults could find the plug. I forced myself to crawl toward the Ganglies. They were coming in from under the snap pea bed. I didn’t even wait for them to get out of the way. I just threw myself between their legs into that blackness.

Which means I hit the ground in the shadow dimension face-first and bashed my nose. I’d landed on a walkway running along a series of pits or compartments open from above, almost like honeycombs. I pinched my fingers to stop the blood flow from my nose. A Gangly stepped over me on the walkway and dumped a pile of small, shiny packages into the nearest pit. Then it lowered itself into the compartment.

The Gangly’s long claws shot every which way, performing a thousand tiny chores: refilling a water bucket, organizing the snacks into a neat basket, and tucking the blankets around the kid who lived in the pit.

And this is where I have good news, because the kid was Jordan.

I made a huge mistake then and yelled his name. I was just so happy I couldn’t keep my voice quiet. A lot of things happened very quickly. The Gangly in the pit whirled around and skittered toward me, stumping on its shortened limb. Jordan tried to stand up, but he fell over. His leg was in a cast now. I realized all at once what horrible danger I was in and spun to find the way out, but other Ganglies were streaming back home, each with a shrieking adult in tow.

The stump-legged Gangly caged me in its limbs, pinning my arms to my side, and dropped me into Jordan’s pit. Hitting the floor didn’t hurt like I expected because all the snacks broke my fall. I kicked away a bag of gummi bears, unopened and undamaged, with that little air bubble inside from some far-off factory before we ever knew about Ganglies.

“Nadia?” Jordan crawled right into my arms. He was shaking so hard I thought his skeleton would shred his body and leave his skin-sack behind. “They got you too. I thought you got away.” He sounded wrung out, like he’d cried all the tears already. He looked good, though. Better color, stronger, even gained some weight. That chilled me, because you don’t have to be a serious brain genius to remember Hansel and Gretel.

“They’re going to eat us,” I said. “They’re saving us for dessert, aren’t they?”

Jordan slowly shook his head. He’d stopped trembling. “No. No, it’s nothing like that.”

My stomach turned in on itself, but you can’t digest fear. “Then what’s the deal?”

Jordan shushed me. “Nadia. Just hush a sec. Listen.”

The Ganglies trooped back from our dimension on the walkway under a dim gray sky that pulsed with red lights. A whole forest of legs, all of them gripping bones and skulls and more snack bags. Salted peanuts, chocolate-covered cherries, fun-sized potato chips. They distributed the treats into the pits, absolute masses of them, so many I wondered if they had a factory of their own. Then I heard it: high-pitched voices, kid voices, talking or crying or yelling bad words. All those honeycomb pits running out into the darkness.

“The kids didn’t get eaten,” I breathed. Jordan nodded, wide-eyed. I dropped to my knees and pulled him into a hug, just to feel him as close and warm as in the hammock that night under the stars. “Jordan. Jordan, what is this place?”

Jordan’s eyes glinted red in the weird light. “Can’t you tell? It’s our kennel.”

I didn’t understand what he meant until the stump-legged Gangly climbed back down into our pit and held out a clawed appendage. A pearly white bone gleamed there. It was one of the unicorn dice. It nudged a pack of gummis toward me. Gummis As Special As You, said the pink bear on the bag. The Gangly lifted a claw and gently, so gently, traced over my skull right through my hair. I’d expected it to be cold like an insect’s, but it was warm and velvety against my cheek. The gentle hand on a kitten’s head as it burrows, shaking, into your lap.

“Watch,” muttered Jordan. “It’s already sent me out once. That’s how I got my cast. You stay out as long as you’re working, but they like to bring you back between runs.”

It drew a pattern on the pit’s wall. The shadows ripped open. It was an asphalt road to a faraway town where the roofs sloped weird and I couldn’t understand the signs. Streetlights lit up every inch of the pavement, driving back the shadows, and beyond that a castle wall patrolled by adults with guns.

And as one type of fear died in my heart, another one replaced it.

“You just have to go through and get the adults to let you in. The Ganglies don’t hurt kids,” Jordan added blandly. “We get plenty to eat. They don’t eat our food anyway, so they just give it all to us.”

I didn’t need his explanation, because I knew the truth in my heart. It had happened a few times already, after all: we starve, we move, we find adults.

And when we eat, so do the Ganglies.

The Gangly handed me the bag of gummi bears. It nudged me toward the portal. Everyone makes exceptions for kids, but dogs have to earn their keep.

“Let’s get out of here, Jordan,” I pleaded. “We’ll find some adults. We’ll tell them what happened. We’ll stay with them. We don’t have to summon the Ganglies.”

“Doesn’t matter what we want,” said Jordan. “Didn’t matter with the Razors. The Ganglies will find us. Just a matter of time. How long did it take them to eat all the dogs, anyway? A year?” His head slumped to his chest. “I’m sick of running, Nadia. I’m tired.”

I opened the bag of gummi bears and shoved one of the green ones between my back teeth. It was tough at first, but the more I chewed, the more it softened and released its sweetness.

Suddenly I wanted to barf. All that gross and nasty junk food only ever filled you up for a while, and then you were hungry again, and you had to keep eating.

Jordan, Jordan, this isn’t what we wanted. We were supposed to grow up, go to high school, learn to drive, get black belts in taekwondo. We were supposed to run, fight, and survive together. Now we’re giving Candyland tours to Ganglies, and I can’t run away because every step I take would be away from you, and you’re all I have left.

But I realized something, Jordan. They don’t know us at all. They never should’ve let us get so close.

We are not pets. We are not the friendly cartoon wolf on a wrapper. We are the real thing. We have teeth and claws, and when we bare our teeth, it is not to smile. It is not just cakes that come in packs, you know.

They want to snack on us? Well, snacks come at a price, Jordan. And we will make them pay.


Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones. 


Previous stories by Rachael K. Jones that appeared in Diabolical Plots are: “St. Roomba’s Gospel” in December 2015, “Regarding the Robot Raccoons Attached to the Hull of My Ship” co-authored with Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali and published in June 2017, “Hakim Vs. the Sweater Curse” in December 2017, and “The Day Fair For Guys Becoming Middle Managers” in April 2021. Her story “Makeisha In Time” was also reprinted in The Long List Anthology. If you enjoyed the story you might also want to visit our Support Page, or read the other story offerings.

DP FICTION #67B: “That Good Old Country Living” by Vanessa Montalban

Phase Two consists of a trip outside Sector 684. It’ll take us two days to reach the human-curated farm fields. We’ll have the chance to see how our creators lived before the dark decline. How they coexisted with their animals in vast, clear-skied land.

The minis are the most excited. We watch them swing their small fleshy legs off the seat, tapping their thighs as the clean-train rumbles beneath us. We are so thankful for them and their bright, eager smiles. Their presence is like a memory of something that never happened, like a nostalgia that presses down some of the building ache.

They were Phase One of the curative trial for the pandemic sweeping across the cities. Dysthymia was rampant across several sectors, reducing our conscious biomechatronic population to that of the humans before extinction. Most selecting to be disconnected or discarded for parts. Our sector took immediate action with the introduction of preventive treatment.

First, the minis, now the farms.

They tell us it’s to be expected. We have our creators’ subconscious after all, and with that comes malfunctions.

We all go still as our ear-assist announces we’ve left the sector limits.

Please enjoy this relaxing music. It’s a human-led orchestra that fills our cabin. We can hear the imperfections but relax to it all the same. From the windows, the minis point at the giant stacks in the Purification Plants. The smog is thicker the further we leave the city behind with fewer sky-scraper purifiers to filter out the radiation and pollutant emissions. It doesn’t affect us, but the sight is not as pleasant. That familiar stirring begins somewhere not medically pinpointable. A heavy feeling, a dragging, oozing…

To your left, you’ll find the wheat fields.

We look outside, the purifying stacks pepper the field to allow a rolling landscape to appear. The land flits by as the sun takes over the sky. It glints over the vast field of golden stalks the ear-assist calls “wheat”. Not real wheat of course, but dyed and fashioned algae bloom made to resemble this shimmering grain.

Soon the stalks transform into a vibrant green, almost the neon color of pure algae, but this color breathes life. “Corn stalks”, we’re told. A word made to oval our mouths.

Fun fact! Corn was the last surviving crop humans could grow before the dark decline.

The minis wave excitedly at a person-shaped figure made of wheat-algae in the middle of the field, arms out-spread, eyes black as coal.

Once we stop, we’re led off the clean-train, the minis walking with a peculiar jump. The farm curators welcome us, handing us each a wrapped uniform bundle. Except it’s not like any uniform we’ve ever seen. We “ooh” and “ahh” at the bright plaid, the rough material of jean overalls, the boots with thick soles. It’s what the farmers got to wear, they tell us, and at this we scowl, handing over our thin white smocks in exchange. Still, when we put them on, the material is not as heavy as it looks. Our different colors make us distinguishable.

They take us first to where the animals lived. We’re much more eager to see that. Humans we understand, we live with what they’ve left behind, but animals are a peculiar creature. Fur-covered things people used to keep in their own homes, have them curl up in sleep on the edges of beds.

Most ate pellets and corn (from our ears, the ear-assist takes on a guided-tour persona. We believe they’re having fun) and really, anything they could get their paws on. They were hungry things.
Our hands run across the cool metal of the old pens. Rows upon rows unfurling forward for who knows how far. Which is this one? We ask.

It’s the pig pens. Those cute fat pink animals with their pushed-in noses and squeaker sounds. Oh, how we would’ve loved to have seen those. They used to stack them right here. A practice later condemned when the animals were becoming extinct. An infographic of previous headlines quickly scrolls through our minds, clouding our view. Riots, pyres of rotting animal corpses filling the skies, famine. Our steps grow slower, heavier around the pens.

We wrinkle our noses at the rust-colored stains. The metal containers are rusted for effect. There’s no longer any danger in touching it, but it serves as a reminder. Look how far we’ve come. We are lucky.

We feel the plush hay of the slatted bottoms. Run fingers across the barn hooks and barrel feeders. Test the weight of what they call feed, rub the coarse hairs on the patches of fabric said to feel like the real thing! Our imaginations are often unused, but we fire them up, testing what’d it be like to be a “piggie”—such an adorable word, isn’t it? Our ear-assist trills.

The minis wear their long snouts for the occasion, provided by the curators of the farm. They snort and oink, wiggle around until our biomuscles lift into a smile.

The curators ask if we’d like to step into a room for a full olfactory experience. We decline, a reminder of something never-lived telling us it isn’t pleasant. But some of the minis, dressed in their tiny jean overalls and plaid shirts to match ours, rush in.

They come out jostling, their dilated retinas wide and their pig snouts bouncing. They say it’s like nothing they’ve ever smelled, and they go back in at least two more times.

After we’ve seen what there is to see of the pig pens, we’re ushered into a rounded room with a colossal rotary platform in the center. This one was used to hold a thousand of those black and white beasts at once, for what purpose we’ll soon find out. The curators come around and pin black-spotted white pins over our flannels. We’re all labeled “cows”, another word we enjoy stretching our mouths for.

Each of us picks a spot to stand. A bubbling sound—a laugh, we realize— finds its way from the pit of our stomach to our mouths as we face each other from across the giant rotary. The minis trade their piggy noses for supple pink bags with nipple tips called utters. The curators strap it to the minis, and they dig their small fingers into the rubbery pliable material.

The guided-tour voice speaks in our ears along with a joyful jingle. The heifer—the female cow, spent most of her day here in the milk parlor. This thousand-cow rotary alleviated the strain of milking cows one by one and provided most of the population with a delicious, refreshing drink. Can you imagine how many humans it would take to milk a thousand cows a day? Well, a thousand humans, of course!  A vintage laugh track from human sitcoms blares through our ears.

We mimic it. The stomach sound erupts from our mouths again as we rush to grab hold of the bar in front of us, the rotary begins to slowly spin. We feel light, made of air.

Kept running twenty-four hours a day, this handy device slowly drained away a heifer’s heavy load of milk through its utters down into those pipes you see running into the center containment drip. Fun fact! A similar system was devised for lactating human mothers during the last baby blast.

The minis are told to push forward into a funneled cone. A device latches onto their installed utters, and we all watch in astonishment as foamy liquid erupts down into the clear pipes. Fascinating. We all wish we could have utters of our own.

Again, they move us along to the next area of the tour. The curators jokingly call us “the herd”, apparently another farming reference. We now get to see where the actual farmers lived. They load us onto a moving platform, lugged by a big-and-little-wheeled vehicle they call a tractor. A clean-tractor, of course. We would never ride on anything that would cause pollutants like our creators did. It was the first order our ancestors were programmed with. Infographs threaten to scroll through endless articles and images of the dark decline when the world went white-hot, but a jolt from the clean-tractor sets us right again.

Once we get there, the minis launch from their seats, running toward the oddly box-shaped home. We find ourselves rushing after them in our thick-soled boots, uncaring for the squelch of wet dirt.

We like the creak of wood beneath our feet as we climb steps into the farmer’s house. A mural of them colors across a wall outside, painted bright faces and broad smiles. Their offspring’s hands gripped in theirs. They stand proud and large as if saying this is ours. All of it.

Here is where the good old farmers would live. They tell us a farmer couple would usually occupy a residence of this size. They’d have an average of three or more children, breeding them to inherit their parent’s line of work. It’s sickening so few people could take up so much room, our ear-assist admonishes.  Think of the wasted space!

Our containment buildings spread for four blocks, four tall buildings with nothing but recharging units and taking up as little bit of earth as possible. Our societal production buildings are the same. Four, stacked, so our entire city feels smaller than this farmer’s home.

There are so many rooms, so many chairs. Some of them rock, others that wheel. Feather-made beds from when birds flew high and low enough to catch. We take turns sitting on the bouncing beds, splaying out over soft covers and equally (if not more) lush pillows. There are animal-shaped heads protruding from the walls, long snouts and flickery ears. Lamps also shaped like animals, you would think the farmers had even loved these creatures.

“Where are their containment tanks?” The minis ask. As if anticipating these questions, the guided-tour voice tells us they didn’t need containment units like we have, everything they needed was processed through sleep and sustenance. We know that, but the minis were programmed for companionship, not the burden of our creators. We watch as their little mouths turn down at the corners, flirting their little fingers across the beds.

The floors all creak inside as well, a cacophony of sound that reminds us of their unusual music. Each room smells different. The entire manor fitted for a full experience. Their couch room smells sweet, their sustenance room like burnt flesh and salt. Their bed rooms like something none of us can name but turns our insides as soft as pillows. Rooms with wooden cages for their fleshy babes, more colorful and elaborately decorated than the other spaces.

We can tell care went into those.

The curators stop us for a vid-viewing. A gold-haired farmer places their offspring into those wooden cages, her lips to its frontal skull, a song on her lips. That soft feeling happens then too. They say it’s normal, nothing to be alarmed of. But when the minis extend their heads, their frontal skulls waiting for our lips, an ache takes over the soft.

Eventually, we all drag our feet to the door. Everything resplendent with tender detail. We all understand it was unnecessary, wasteful, selfish even. Yet, we all linger on the wood-creaking porch, leaning hips on the rail, feeling the prickling sun at our backs, the wind a lure to those algae wheat mazes.

When the minis grab hold of our hands, we squeeze back tightly.

*

On the clean-train back to Sector 684, we pass our own production farms. A swarm of mechanized beez are released every hour like steam from the factory’s top. The soil is especially rich here as worrmz and other decomposing machinations are released to spread out like roots in a greenhouse.

There’s no warming softness as we view this, too used to our thriving system to allow that strange sensation to find us. Instead, the trip has left us with this emptiness of feeling. This hole where that softness should be. This cold where a hot-breath of flame could be burning. They tell us this is normal too and it’ll pass. But we’re no longer sure. We think we are infected.

There’s a point on our trip back to the city where our wireless connection, our ear-assist, everything disconnects. No service. And my head is mine alone.

I am here.

My mini shuts down with its head against my arm and that warm buzz comes up to sting behind my retinas. I imagine this is how a dream must feel. The act of reconstructing a memory or a thought that belongs to me alone just as the humans once did, as the cows and the pigs and the farmers all must’ve as well.

If I could, I’d hold onto this memory of mine, dream again of the farm. Of the field of real wheat and a friendly sun at my back. For now, I can only wonder when I’ll return.


© 2020 by Vanessa Montalban

Author’s Note: I try to be as conscientious as possible when it comes to my carbon footprint. I kept wondering if anything I did even made a difference: recycling, buying in bulk, etc. Then I thought about what the planet would look like once humanity had done all the damage it could do and who would inherit this disaster. Would our robotic legacy do better or would life weigh on them as it did us? Who knows, but it brought out some interesting scenarios. 

Fueled by the magic of espresso, Miami-born Vanessa Montalban channels her wanderlust for far-off worlds into writing speculative fiction. She’s a first-generation grad student at the University of South Florida and a librarian-in-training hard at work creating her own collection of stories.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

written by David Steffen

The Road is a post-apocalyptic survival novel by Cormac McCarthy, published in 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf (which also inspired a 2009 movie adaptation by the same name).

A man and his son travel across the wasteland that had been the United States of America after a major (but largely unexplained in the text) catastrophe that left almost everything dead. They are following a road traveling toward the south where they believe they will find sanctuary. Subsisting on scrounged food supplies from pantries of empty homes, and avoiding other survivors who might wish them harm, they don’t know if they will find enough food to make it to their destination, or how they will survive the coming winter, or whether the sanctuary they are hoping for actually exists.

This novel, as you might expect, is bleak as hell. They and other survivors they come across are all people who’ve managed to survive for years and years after the end of almost all life on the planet, and so have made tough decisions to survive. While the man and his son have stuck to certain moral choices, many of those who still survive have not, and running into others is frequently a dangerous encounter. I found the book very compelling, despite the characters not being named, and the very sparse (and often repetitive) dialog in the book was a strong element of that, there’s not much to talk about, and much of it is the man answering the same questions or try to tell the boy what he needs to hear, and about how their relationship changes over the course of the book. The boy has never known a pre-apocalyptic world, so his father’s stories about the time before are like a fairy tale, compelling but imaginary. A solid post-apocalyptic book telling a deeply compelling and emotional story about trying to survive and trying to help your surviving family however you can, while still trying to make moral choices.

(When I picked the book up, I could have sworn it was a very old book that was published before I was born that everyone talks about, but it turns out I had it mixed up in my mind with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a completely unrelated book, apart from them both being about road trips in some sense)

DP Fiction #18: “Sustaining Memory” by Coral Moore

The Archivist held the three remaining beads in her left hand. Images flickered across her visual cortex: an unknown woman’s face, a sunset on a planet she couldn’t name, the dazzling color of a sea she no longer had the words to express. The beads felt cool and impersonal in her fingers, though what they contained was neither. She had only these few memories left and she no longer remembered if they were hers or someone else’s.

Around her, the machine chugged and whirred. The metal tubing that encased her pod vibrated. The glowing core rose in front of her, spinning slowly around its vertical axis.

She twirled the bead containing the seascape between her fingers and dove in. The memory was a moment in time. The wind caressed her face and the briny scent of the sea filled her head. A white-capped wave was held just off shore in the instant before breaking, never to fulfill its potential. She had the sense of someone waiting for her on that unknown shore. The name of the sea was gone, like everything else she had once known, converted into power for the machine she’d been wed to.

She surfaced from the hold of the memory with effort. That sea and that person no longer existed. The world her people had inhabited had been scoured clean, its atmosphere stripped away and everything on the surface incinerated. Nothing had survived; nothing but the machine, buried deep below the crust near the cold, dead heart of the planet. When her organic memory had been scrubbed, they’d left the fate of her world with her so she would not forget her purpose.

The grinding groan of the alert tone sounded, and without thinking she placed the seascape bead into the receptacle near her hand. The bead circled around the outer edge and spiraled downward into the depths of the machine. Bit by bit the memory of the sea faded from her mind, until only a pale representation of it remained, and then a moment later that too was gone. She was left only with the impression that something precious had been taken from her, with no idea what it was.

Two left: a sunset and a woman.

Only two memories before she was nothing but a soulless cog in the machine that would unmake everything her people had ever been in order to start again.

“Status?” she asked the heated air around her.

Something churned just beyond her field of vision. “Offline.” The voice that had been her only companion for generations was toneless and flat.

She swirled the two remaining beads in her hand. The number of beads she needed to awaken the machine was exact. She wondered why the designers of such a marvel would cut it so close or depend on her to do this critical job at all. If she’d ever known the answer to those questions, she no longer did.

If she stopped putting beads in before the machine awakened it would cannibalize the pod that sustained her in an attempt to get the necessary power. She wasn’t certain how many beads her body, such that it was, could replace. Once her systems started shutting down a cascading failure would follow.

When she held the memory of the sunset, deep pink and orange streaks surrounded her. She perched on a rocky cliff. A lush valley unfurled below her, absorbing the colors of the bright sky. Someone sat next to her, just out of sight. A sense of peace pervaded the place. She dwelled in the memory until the alarm tone woke her from her contemplation.

The comfort of the sunset was the only solace she could remember. While it was true that she would no longer remember that the memory had ever been her haven, she would miss something. A yawning void grew with each piece of her that was forgotten.

When the alert rang the second time she closed her eyes and dropped the bead in the machine. She concentrated on how the sunset made her feel, but even as she tried to hold it in her mind the colors faded.

“Mountain. Sunset. Peace.” She said the words over and over as a litany, but it made no difference. The memory slipped away like water through her fist, and all she was left with was the aching emptiness. She snapped her hand shut around the remaining bead.

The woman in the memory had short dark hair that stood on end in a gravity-defying display that balanced chaos and order perfectly. Her eyes brimmed with tears and angled downward. A curved scar marked her left cheek, but didn’t mar her loveliness one bit. Her lips were slightly parted. She was close enough that the heat from her breath warmed the Archivist’s face. The woman with no name had been captured in the moment before a farewell kiss. There was no other way to resolve the adoration and acceptance mingled in her expression. Something terrible had been about to happen and they had run out of ways to fight.

The Archivist had no idea if the love in the unknown woman’s gaze was intended for her. She didn’t care. The emotion existed, and it was hers. She drifted in the moment just before the kiss for as long as she dared, and finally surfaced from the memory much later, gasping for air.

The alert tone sounded.

She clutched the final bead. The woman’s face floated before her, diaphanous and lovely. One kiss was all she had left.

The alarm rang again, louder and in two long bursts.

“You can’t have her.” She locked her fist around the bead, hoping that would curb her reflex to feed it to the machine.

The energy generated by her pod would be enough to replace one bead—it had to be. She wouldn’t get to see the new world she’d given up everything for, but she would be able to keep this last piece of herself.

She lingered in the kiss until the sound blasted three times, knocking her forcefully from the memory.

The bead port was so near her hand, and her arm wanted to make the motion, but she concentrated on keeping her hand shut tight. She’d never gone this far, so she had no idea how long she had to wait until there was no taking back the decision. She worried her resolve would slip.

Around her the machine churned and whirred. Nothing was out of the ordinary, nothing but her fist and a sense of dread she couldn’t shake.

A high-pitched whistle shrieked and surprised her so that she nearly dropped the last bead.

The relative silence in the wake of the terrible sound was haunting. She had the sense of motion in her peripheral vision, but she couldn’t turn to see what had moved. A grinding sound began soon after, and her pod vibrated.

There was an ominous clunk. Something slithered around the lower portion of her body, but she couldn’t see it within the metal and hoses that wrapped her. None of the memories she had left had prepared her for this. She managed not to panic, barely. The next breath she drew was labored.

A series of light chimes rang through the machine’s interior.

“Status,” she said.

The long pause that followed was made longer by the worry that she would go to her end never knowing if she’d doomed the project to failure.

“Online,” replied a voice she hadn’t heard before, more lifelike and feminine than the previous robotic one. “Resources have been reprioritized to support mission-critical utilities. Life support is offline.”

The note of sadness she detected had to be coming from her and not the machine. Her chest felt heavy. “Does it affect the chance of success?”

“By less than one one-thousandth of a percent. We are still well within operational parameters.”

“Good.” She sighed. “How long until the process starts?”

“I’ve already begun.”

“Oh, can you forecast completion yet?”

“No. Spinning up my systems will require a non-trivial amount of time. I won’t be able to calculate time to completion until I know how much has survived my hibernation and the loss of the atmosphere aboveground.”

“So I won’t know if it will work before I die.”

“It will work.”

“How do you know?”

“This project is my sole purpose for being, Archivist. I must believe it will succeed. The magnetic field will be restored, the atmosphere will be regenerated, and the planet will again support life.”

She smiled. Even that small movement drained her dwindling energy. “I think I would have liked you.”

“You would have.” Softness colored the voice again. Was it a trick of clever programming or her own sentimentality?

She laughed, surprised she remembered how. “That’s very presumptuous.”

“It’s a mathematical certainty. Your memories are cataloged and indexed in my database. Part of me is you.”

“I didn’t realize the memories would be retained.”

“The data contained in the beads was a byproduct of the energy transfer, but retaining them was deemed important by my programmers. They take up a very small portion of my total processing.”

“So we will carry on with you.”

“Yes. Nothing will be forgotten.”

The Archivist’s vision grew dim and her thoughts floated through a slow-moving haze. “That’s a relief.”

“Why did you initiate your shut down early?”

“I didn’t want to give up the last bead.”

“The memory held special value for you?”

“I don’t know for certain. It might not even be mine.” Secretly, she hoped the memory was hers. Maybe she’d somehow managed to organize the beads so that the ones that meant to most to her were last in the sequence before she’d forgotten.

“I may be able to tell you, if you would like to know.”

“It’s a goodbye kiss. The woman is leaving, or I am, and I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again. There’s a curved scar on her cheek, but that only makes her more beautiful to me. Her eyes are filled with love and loss, joy and regret. I want to tell her that I love her, but there’s no time. There’s only the hovering moment just before our lips touch.”

Another long pause, with only the sounds of the machine working around her to fill the growing darkness.

“Her name was Marley, and she loved you very much.”

The Archivist had trouble drawing her next breath. What remained of her chest ached. “I thought I would never know for sure if the kiss was mine. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Marley was one of my main programmers. My neural pathways are based on her logic, her biology. That connection is why you were chosen to be the Archivist.”

Her eyes stung with the memory of tears. “Why did I agree to this?”

“You know why.”

She’d always known why. It was the only way to save some small remnant of her people, of the world they’d built. “In the end I couldn’t let her go.”

“She would have appreciated that, though I’m sorry we won’t have more time together.”

The last of her vision faded as her brain began to shut down. “I’m scared,” she whispered, hoping her voice was still loud enough to register.

“Would you like me to tell you a story?”

“Yes, please.”

“A small white ship surged and fell on the waves of a turquoise sea. Marley stood in the salt-scented breeze, her feet spread wide to absorb the rolling motion of the deck. Her wife waited on the distant shore, just a speck at this distance…”

The Archivist closed her hand around the bead, summoning the image of Marley with tears in her eyes. Somewhere Marley waited for her. She leaned into the kiss, and let go.


© 2016 by Coral Moore

 

Author’s Note: Memories are such an integral part of our identities that I thought the idea of someone voluntarily giving up their memories one at a time for some grand purpose would be interesting to explore. While writing the story of the Archivist’s failing memory, the machine that would allow her world to sustain life again by eating her memories one at a time occurred to me and seemed to fit perfectly.

 

Author Pic 2014Coral Moore has always been the kind of girl who makes up stories. Fortunately, she never quite grew out of that. She writes because she loves to invent characters and the desire to find out what happens to her creations drives her tales. Prompted by a general interest in how life works, she studied biology. She enjoys conversations about genetics and microbiology as much as those about vampires and werewolves. Coral writes mainly speculative fiction and has a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Albertus Magnus College. She is a 2013 alum of the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop. She has been published by Dreamspinner Press, Evernight Publishing, and Vitality Magazine. She also received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest for the fourth quarter of 2014. Currently she lives in the beautiful state of Washington with the love of her life and two canids.

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Ray Bradbury Award Review 2016

written by David Steffen

The Ray Bradbury Award is given out every year with the Nebula Awards but is not a Nebula Award in itself.  Like the Nebula Awards, the final ballot and the eventual winner are decided by votes from members of SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (which despite the name has an international membership).

I like to use the award every year as a sampler of well-loved science fiction and fantasy movies from the previous year.  I have been very happy with this tactic, and this year is no exception.  I try to watch every movie on the ballot that I can find by rental (usually via RedBox, or occasionally from Comcast On Demand) and review them all within the voting period.

This year, on the ballot but not on this list is the episode of the TV show Jessica Jones titled “AKA Smile”.  Since I haven’t seen any episode of the series, even if I could get a copy to watch I didn’t feel it would be fair to review a single episode of a show I’m not familiar with.

At the time I am writing this preliminary post, I haven’t yet rented The Martian, but I intend to.

1. Max Max: Fury Road

Humanity has wrecked the world.  Nuclear war has left much of the earth as a barren wasteland.  Humanity still survives, but only in conclaves where those in control lord their power over the common people.  Those in power hoard water, gasoline, and bullets, the most important resources in this world, and guard them jealously.  Immortan Joe is the leader of one of those conclaves, with a vast store of clean water pumped from deep beneath the earth, and guarded by squads of warboys who are trained to be killers from a young age.  Despite these relative riches, what Immortan Joe wants more than anything is healthy offspring, his other children all born with deformities.  He keeps a harem of beautiful wives in pursuit of this goal.  When his general Imperator Furiosa goes rogue and escapes with his wives in tow, Immortan Joe takes a war party in pursuit, and calls in reinforcements from Gas-Town and Bullet Farm to join in the fight.  Mad Max of the title is captured at the beginning of the story and strapped to the front of a pursuit vehicle to act as a blood donor for a sick warboy, to give him the strength to fight.

I am only a bit aware of the original Mad Max franchise.  When the previews for this movie came out, I thought it looked completely unappealing.  I honestly didn’t understand what other people were raving about when they were so excited about it as the movie’s release date approached, and after they saw it in theaters.  I wasn’t expecting to see it at any point, so I read some reactions and found them interesting but still didn’t feel compelled to see it.  I finally decided I would see it when I heard some reviewers giving the movie a bad review because they thought it was awesome and action-filled but that this concealed a feminist agenda and they were angry that they had been tricked into liking a movie that had a feminist message.

I finally rented the movie, expecting it to be pretty much just okay, but really quite enjoyed it.

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa was badass, and I hope there are more movies with her in this role.  Tom Hardy as the eponymous Mad Max was also solid.  Really, great casting all around, and it was really cool to see a woman in one of the lead roles of an action movie where she is an essential part of the action.

Probably one of the coolest things about the movie are the vehicle designs.  Since most of the movie takes place on the road in pursuit, there is plenty of opportunity for these vehicles to be showcased.  They are so much fun just to look at, that I more than once laughed in delight at the absurdity of a design.  My particular favorite was the sports car with tank treads driven by the leader of Bullet-Farm.

Similarly, costume design and other character design were incredible.  It’s… hard to play a flame-throwing electric guitar as serious, but it’s just one example of the over-the-top design that should be stupid, but somehow it all works and ends up being both exciting and hilarious.

It had a lot of striking images, sounds, moments.  In this bleak, most desperate of landscapes you see the most depraved of the depraved of the most heroic of the heroic.  There were heroes to root for, but even those heroes are no pristine blameless creatures, because no such people have survived so long.  Rather the heroes are those who want to try to make some small change for the better in the world around them.  The movie is basically one long chase scene, full of action, full of surprising and epic and violent moments.  I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, by any means.  But I thought it was a really incredible film, despite coming into the movie with reservations.


2.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(this review copied verbatim from my review of the movie posted in January)

The movie picks up about as many years after the original trilogy as have passed in real life, I suppose.  The First Order, the still active remnants of the Empire, is still opposing the New Republic that replaced it.  A group of storm troopers of the First Order raids a Resistance camp on the desert planet Jakku, looking for information.  Resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the vital information in the droid BB-8 and sends it away from the camp before he is captured. One of the stormtroopers known only as FN-2187 (who is later nicknamed Finn) (played by John Boyega) chooses to turn his back on a lifetime of training and chooses not to kill anyone in the raid.  Finn helps Poe Dameron escape.  Together they meet Rey (Daisy Ridley), a Jakku scavenger and they join forces to get BB-8’s information to the people in the Resistance who need it.

I enjoyed this movie.  It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen but I enjoyed it from beginning to end and I am glad to see someone has been able to turn around the series after the mess Lucas made of the second trilogy.  The special effects were good, and not the fakey CG-looking stuff that was in the second trilogy.  The casting of the new characters was solid and it was great to see old faces again.  To have a woman and a black man be the main heroes of the story is great to see from a franchise that hasn’t historically had a ton of diversity.    It was easy to root for the heroes and easy to boo at the villains.  The worldbuilding, set design, costume design all reminded me of the great work of the original.  I particularly liked the design of BB-8 whose design is much more broadly practical than R2D2’s.  Kylo Ren made a good villain who was sufficiently different than the past villains to not just be a copy but evil enough to be a worthy bad guy.

Are there things I could pick apart?  Sure.  Some of it felt a little over-familiar, but that might have been part of an attempt by the moviemakers to recapture the old audience again.  I hope the next movie can perhaps plot its own course a little bit more.  And maybe I’ll have some followup spoilery articles where I do so.  I don’t see a lot of movies in theater twice, but I might do so for this one so I can watch some scenes more closely.  I think, all in all, the franchise was rescued by leaving the hands of Lucas whose artistic tastes have cheapened greatly over the years.  I know some people knock Abrams, and I didn’t particularly like his Star Trek reboot, but Star Wars has always been more of an Abrams kind of feel than Star Trek ever was anyway.

I enjoyed it, and I think most fans of the franchise will.

(You also might want to read Maria Isabelle’s reaction to the movie, posted here in February)

3.  Inside Out

None of us is a single person. Within each of us are variations of alternate selves that all vie for control in any given situation.  We feel like different people depending on the people around us or the setting, and that’s because we can be different people.  This movie takes that idea and makes it literal.  In the world of Inside Out, each of us is basically a machine and our mental space is made of warehouses for memory storage, vaults for the subconscious, and the all-important control room.  In each person’s mental control room are five versions of themselves: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger.  They negotiate to handle the control panel which determines the person’s every action.  The outer storyline follows an 11 year old girl named Riley whose family is moving to a different city.  Her excitement about the movie is changing to sadness as she misses friends left behind, and has trouble coping with other changes in her life that was going just the way she wanted it.  Her parents always want her to be happy and her internal reaction is for Joy to always keep Sadness away from the controls.  The conflict between the two emotions sends both of them out of the control room and into the confusing labyrinth that is the rest of the brain.  If Joy ever wants Riley to be happy again she has to get herself back to Riley’s control room, and Sadness is along for the ride.

This movie was a lot of fun.  The casting was great all around, but especially with the casting of Amy Poehler as Riley’s Joy.  Most of the structure of the inside interactions within Riley’s head were based on what we understand of human psychology, which made it not just fun but also a pretty apt analogy for the circus we’ve all got going on inside our heads at any given moment.  There’s a lot to be examined here: among other things, the importance of the other emotions besides just happiness.  Both Riley’s inner story and her outer story are interesting in their own right and are twined together to make an even more satisfying whole.

4. The Martian

During an American manned mission on Mars, a fierce storm strikes the base camp of the astronauts.  One of the astronauts, Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left behind and presumed dead as the rest of the crew aborts the mission and leaves the planet to escape the storm.  But Mark is not dead.  He is alone on the planet with only enough food to last for a year when the soonest he can expect rescue (if anyone realizes he’s alive to attempt a rescue) won’t be for several years.  Determined to live, he sets about the task of survival–cultivating enough food and water to live, and contacting NASA so they can send help.

I can see why this movie got so much critical acclaim.  Usually my tastes don’t align with the Oscar Awards much, but I can see why this one did.  There was a lot to love about the movie–soundtrack, solid casting and acting, great writing, a cast of characters that support each other and succeed through cooperation.  Most of all it managed to capture that sense of wonder that surrounded the exploration of the moon decades ago.  As real manned trips to Mars come closer and closer to reality, it’s easy to imagine this all happening.  (Note that I don’t have enough background to know to what extent the science in the movie was authentic or not, but it felt pretty plausible at least, which is good enough for me)

 

5.  Ex Machina

Software engineer Caleb Smith wins a week-long getaway to the home of Nathan Bateman, the reclusive CEO of the tech company where Caleb works.  Bateman reveals that he has been working privately on the development of AI and the contest was arranged to get Caleb to his private lab in isolation.  The AI is housed in a human-like body with realistic hands and face but with a visibly artificial rest of her body, and she goes by the name Ava.  After agreeing to extreme secrecy, Bateman reveals that Caleb has been brought there to determine if she passes the Turing Test, a theoretical experiment in which one examines an AI personality to determine if it can pass for human.

I was skeptical of this from the first reveal that it was going to be based around the Turing Test.  I am skeptical of the Turing Test as more than a momentary discussionary point because it claims to be a test of intelligence, but it’s really a test of humanity-mimicry.  For an artificial intelligence to appear to be truly human would probably mean that it would have to feign irrationality, which is a poor requirement for a testing of an intelligence.  I thought the movie worked pretty well with the flaws in the concept of the test by moving beyond the basic theoretical Turing Test and starting with a later development of the same concept in which the tester already knows the  AI is artificially created, but wants to see if the tester can still be convinced emotionally of the being’s humanity despite knowing its humanity is manufactured.  This still has the flaw that the thing being tested is human-mimicry and not actual intelligence, but it seemed like the movie was aware of this continued flaw and in the end I thought that by the end I was satisfied that the AI had not just been treated as a human-analog but a separate entity in its own right, which made the movie much more satisfying than I had thought it would be.

 

Interview: Jeff Carlson

Jeff Carlson Jeff Carlson was a shortlister for the Campbell, a finalist for the Dick, and a first placer for WOTF. He is the author the alien Frozen Sky series and the post-apocalyptic Plague War series. His latest novel is the post-apocalyptic Interrupt. His short stories have appeared in Asimov’s and Strange Horizons. His short story collection is Long Eyes. His stories have been published in 16 languages.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: I listened to a podcast of “Topsider” on StarShipSofa. I was very impressed with the writing. So clear and efficient. Every passage is relevant, every sentence is in the right place, every scene is vivid. How did you learn to write so well? Did you attend a workshop? Do you have a ghost writer? Do you have an army of editorial assistants hidden in your basement combing over every word, every line, every paragraph? Are you an alien sent here to intimidate us human writers with your superior skill? Or do you just have a natural gift?

JEFF CARLSON: The truth is I’m the evil pod clone host of the poltergeists of Hemingway and Eliot. Every word is pure gold. Kneel before me, you fools!

Aha ha ha.

Thank you. No, actually I’m just an obsessive freak who fell in love with the spare, evocative styles of authors like Joe Haldeman, John Varley, Connie Willis and Spider Robinson right as I was coming of age as a fledging writer myself. Short story collections like Dealing In Futures and The Persistence of Vision made a vibrant impression on me. At their best, Haldeman and Varley could pack more human complexity into one sentence than some writers accomplish with a full page.

Most of their works are dated now. The science and the geopolitical scenarios in their books can seem alien to 21st Century thinking†which isn’t a bad thing if you enjoy the “what if” sense of wonder on which science fiction is built. Seriously. Go read the Worlds trilogy or Steel Beach or Bellwether or Night Of Power. Those books are mind-croggling even if there’s not an iPhone in sight.

Early in my teens and twenties, I did attend a lot of conferences and book signings, soaking up as much as I could from established authors. I joined a local writer’s group. I have a B.A. in English Lit. Mostly I read a lot and wrote a lot. Trial by fire.

I came up the once-traditional path in writing. When I was fifteen, I cranked out a sprawling, million word epic novel. It was pretty bad but it had heart. Then I got serious, buckled down, and began writing short stories. Of course I tried to emulate the minimalist, shock-ya story arcs of Haldeman and company. It’s a real challenge to squeeze an entire plot and character development into the space of forty pages, especially if you’re also introducing new worlds and explaining futuristic science and weapons tech. Each story was also a different opportunity to play with voice or POV.

In time, I began selling short pieces to small press publications, then to semi-pro and finally to full-on professional magazines with glossy ads and comparatively nice pay rates. Then I wrote a new book. Landed an agent. Sold the book in a minor bidding war. I think some people still become writers that way even now after the e-revolution.

What I should add is that in the process, I learned everything I could about editing. Some of this education came through studying what the magazine editors and the staff at Penguin did with my manuscripts. Other tricks I learned through sheer repetition.

The brain is a muscle. You can strengthen it.

From first draft to final proofs, I read Plague Year more than forty times. The sequel, Plague War, I read thirty times. The third book in the trilogy, Plague Zone, I read twenty times. By the time I got to The Frozen Sky and Interrupt, I was reading my books fifteen times. I don’t know if I’ll go less than that, but I hope I’ve streamlined the process. I’ve learned to avoid some mistakes.

Oh, just to clarify: “Topsider” is an excerpt from The Frozen Sky, and Sky and its sequels are self-published. Yes, I have beta readers. No, there are zero professional editors involved. These books are essentially a solo act. I’m working without a net, although I have surrounded myself with a small squad of keen-eyed volunteers as well as paid masterminds like the cover artist, Jasper Schreurs, who’s a freaking genius.

 

The Frozen Sky includes a lot of science and several fields of science. Astrophysics, biology, geology, pharmacology, AIs, computer hacking. How much research do you have to do for all that science to be feasible and accurate? Or do you have a rolodex of consultants on speed dial?

I read a lot. I remember what I read. The bulletin board on my office wall is layered in a madman’s stack of print-outs and clippings. Oh, and I have this thing called the internet, ha ha. I’m constantly jumping online to reach how granite is formed or what’s the capital of Finland or because I need to examine the molecular structure of hemoglobin. As a sci fi guy, I’m also fortunate to know any number of real-world engineers and scientists. I pester them from time to time.

 

Frozen SkyThe aliens in The Frozen Sky are intelligent, but they look a bit like squids, they don’t speak and they don’t have sight. Why not bipedal aliens like Vulcans or Klingons or Romulans with vocal cords and eyes?

Because I’m not constrained by a production budget! Ha. “Let’s glue some ears on him. We’ll glue some forehead thingies on them. Okay, we’re done.”

Star Trek is good fun but limited in presentation. That’s the beauty of being a novelist. The medium requires the reader’s imagination. Yes, I direct the action, but hard sf readers are smart readers. They want to be strangers in a strange land. So I can say, well, I have this claustrophobic three-dimensional low-gravity environment like the mazes of an ant farm inside Europa’s icy crust. What would kind of creatures would evolve here? Six-foot-tall bipedal creatures like people? Heck no.

 

The aliens have a math system and hieroglyphics type alphabet. Have they invented the wheel yet? How technologically advanced are they?

Man, I can’t tell you that! You’ll have to go deeper into the ice!

 

The novels of The Frozen Sky are told through the POV of Alexis Vonderach, one of the European astronauts. Why not the POV of a member of a different team like the Chinese or the Brazilians? Why not the POV of one of the aliens?

Great question. I have written novels with multiple POV storylines like Interrupt or the Plague Year trilogy†but for The Frozen Sky, the setting is already so complicated, I wanted to ground the story as best I could.

Also, I really like Vonnie. She’s smart and brave and capable and resilient. Does she have her weaknesses? Yes. She’s very human. I felt like staying within her mind was a necessary focal point. The catacombs inside Europa’s “frozen sky” are a bizarre and horrific environment. Adding more storylines was too much.

Having said that, an early draft included some chapters from the POV of an alien. Holy cow, was that a chore! These aliens are really strange, am I right? Trying to convey their thoughts in English was like dropping acid at the bottom of a Vegas swimming pool with Hunter S. Thompson, three tigers, a box of cookies and leaking SCUBA masks while reciting a Latin mass with the pope on your waterproof phone to Snooki as she’s driving drunk in downtown L.A. through commuter traffic. Did you follow that? I don’t know what it means, either. That’s just an approximation of how convoluted it felt trying to write from inside the brain of a sunfish. Whoa, Nelly.

I hope I managed to convey their very foreign way of thinking in their dealings with Von and the other human characters. The transcripts of their sonar calls and body language were incredibly fun to write. Also, I love comparing so many of things we take for granted with the pure, straightforward existence of my alien tribes.

 

If there was an alien main character, what would he be saying to his friends about Earthlings? Kill them and feed them to our offspring. Perform an autopsy on one of them. Steal their technology. Maybe they’re causing all the geological instability.

Examples one, three and four are reasonable. Number two doesn’t sound like the sunfish because, well, they’d just eat yaâ€

 

In the recent movie Europa Report, people travel to the same moon and encounter a similar alien. Then it turns into a body count horror movie as the squid picks off the entire crew. Instead, you have the two species interacting. What type of issues do they face trying to communicate with each other and understand each other’s cultures?

I haven’t seen Europa Report because I know I’d be disappointed. My book was first. More important, movies tend to suffer from the exact same problems you laid out for Star Trek and from the necessity for a body count.

That’s not to say The Frozen Sky doesn’t include sex and violence. Heck, the first 100 pages are basically one big chase scene, and among my favorite haters of all time is a lady who chastised me for using this novel to depict human beings as “just rutting animals with no purpose other than to destroy everything in sight with the exception of a few enlightened yet rutting souls.”

Hee hee. The oh-so-graphic depictions of sex in The Frozen Sky amount to a few interested glances between the heroine and her crewmates, one deep kiss, and an erotic thought or two from her POV.

Do I believe sex and violence are not only central to the human condition but also go hand in hand? God, yes. Look at what we consider entertainment. Look at the geopolitical scene. Every problem we have , pollution, racism, religious strife, war, disease , can be traced to overpopulation and the pressures between various groups or nations. Now that’s a nuts-and-bolts view of an extremely complex planet. We could spend our lifetimes connecting the dots. It’s easier to simplify everything to a basic dogma of “We’re right, they’re wrong,” but that easier view is part of what makes life harder on everyone in the world.

If sexuality makes you uncomfortable , if you think it’s scary or forbidden , I’d like to suggest that you have an immature sense of reality. Where did these seven freaking billion people come from if raw desire isn’t a major element of human motivation?
If greed , if destroying everything in sight , isn’t another major element of human motivation, why are our cities and slums expanding while the forests disappear and the oceans fill up with trash and poisons? Why are we fighting ancient wars over worthless deserts except to control everything we see? Granted, the oil in select areas of those deserts is valuable, but doesn’t that further prove my point? Is killing people for religious or racial differences better than killing them for energy sources?

Anyway. Too much coffee for me again this morning.

From what I see, we’re barely able to communicate among ourselves. Human beings cheat and lie and hurt each other. We have so many forms of insanity. Developing The Frozen Sky, I thought “Why wouldn’t intelligent aliens have their own delusions and conflicts?” Those fallacies would make it even harder for people and aliens to communicate.

 

Your work has been translated into 16 languages worldwide. How big of a chunk of your sales comes from foreign markets?

Never as much as I’d like. It is really, really fun to see my stories in languages I can’t read with new titles and new cover art. The experience is a mix of dÃ’ jÃ’Â vu and that awesome, twisty sense of “What if?”

When a foreign edition appears, it’s like having written an all-new book without having put in the work because those publishers have their own translators and artists. Every now and then a new magazine or a new novel shows up on my doorstep and I examine it with a smile, imagining how it reads in Spanish or Czech or whatever. Less frequently, I get fan mail from someone overseas, occasionally in broken English but usually in more grammatically precise English than my own, which is even more of a pleasure. Over time, I’ve struck up e-friendships with readers in the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany, you name it.

My job description is I sit alone in a room with a laptop listening to the voices in my head. It’s spectacular to hear from real live people who enjoy the books.

 

A lot of novelists continue to write short stories to keep their name out there. They have bylines on the cover of Asimov’s two or three times a year. They get nominated for multiple Hugos and Nebulas. They get top billing at conventions. You chose not to go that route. What was the reasoning and how has that worked out for you?

Ha! Is that a trick question? I would love to be nominated for Hugos and Nebulas and receive top billing at conventions. I didn’t choose not to go that route. I haven’t been invited!!!

Regardless, I don’t know that bylines in Asimov’s equate to Hugo nominations and GOH slots at the big cons. I’ve had three stories with Asimov’s, and Penguin took out a lovely full-page ad in the magazine to promote Plague Zone, which was seriously cool. Also, Sheila Williams is a gracious, witty, hard-working genius and a pleasure to work withâ€

†but these days I write very little short fiction because I have a family and a mortgage, and short fiction rarely pays well. Equally important, as a reader I prefer to sink my head into a good novel and stay with the characters for a while. Most people are the same way. Hence the pay rates for short fiction. There’s just not as much demand for short stories.

I’m totally overwhelmed with my life in the real world plus my own writing / editing / research / etc., so my choice is to write a chapter of the next book rather than a short story. I only have so many hours in the day. Having said that, surprise! I recently accepted an invitation to contribute to a new anthology, and I have two more pieces of short fiction in progress. It’s just a matter of carving out enough minutes to get to everything. I definitely need some Carlson Clones.

 

Big open-ended questions: After the ebook revolution, when have you opted for self-publishing and what was the result? When have you opted for traditional publishing and what was the result?

Late in 2010, I self-re-e-published the original short story of “The Frozen Sky” on Kindle, Nook, and iTunes. It sold 40,000 copies.

I’d always wanted to develop it into a novel. The setting is literally as large as an entire moon. That’s plenty of room for new storylines, surprises and reversals. So I moved this project to the front burner. Going solo involved any number of new learning curves, but, again, I’d been paying close attention to the game while working with Penguin for the Plague Year trilogy.

Late in 2012, I self-published the all-new The Frozen Sky: The Novel. To date, it’s sold 37,000 copies. For a hard sf novel, that’s a very strong number, better than a mid-lister would expect with a Big 5 publisher in NYC. Color me excited. Japanese rights recently sold to Tokyo Sogensha, and our hope is the book’s success will lead to more interest overseas and in Hollywood. Let’s face it. It’s a cool idea, and far better executed than Europa Report.

If I had to pitch The Frozen Sky in a few words, I’d say: “This story is Pitch Black crossed with The Thing, and it features a strong female lead in impossible situations.” Also, it wouldn’t demand a massive budget, more like Lucy than Prometheus.

As for the many forms of publishing in our brave new e-world, these days I’m sort of climbing back and forth over the fence. Traditional publishing was good to me, and I’d happily accept the right deal. In the meantime, Interrupt was published by 47North, one of the new Amazon imprints stocked with top editors and publicists who were headhunted out of New York and released from many of the usual corporate restraints. They’re wild-eyed e-pirates on the laser’s edge of the future, man! Working with 47North was a delight. The book did well. You can’t really say 47North is a traditional publisher because their focus is ebooks, but the process was similar and I take pride now in being a triple hybrid , a traditional, a new model, and a self-published writer.

 

What comfort level have you reached as an author? Do you have liveried servants, do you still mow your own lawn, or somewhere in between?

Uh, yeah. Someday I hope to become such a jaded bigshot that I float in a pool lazily dictating my lunatic visions to a super model while legions of butlers and maid polish the silverware and fold our all-organic silk wardrobes. Hasn’t happened yet. I’m still barely making an honest wage in part because the money’s up and down. I have fat months. I have lean months.

But it beats working for the man!

 

Hollywood used to be into spaceship sci fi. Now they’re into alien sci fi and post-apocalyptic sci fi. You’ve got both. Any feelers from Hollywood?

Paging Steven Spielberg†Paging Mr. Spielbergâ€

 

Which actress would you chose to play Von?

Someone who’s smart and bright-eyed. Quick of wit and quick in combat.

 

Got any advice to aspiring writers?

Get a job, hippie! Bwah ha ha ha.

No, seriously: writing is a sketchy way to make a living. It takes a lot of work (which you can control) and some luck (which you can’t control), so the main thing is to put butt in chair and grind away. Try not to make yourself too crazy. Use the crazy to drive you. A little monomania never hurt anybody. Finishing a novel can be a long, hard marathon, which is why I always recommend starting out with short stories. It’s a joy to finish something, and each short story can be a different experiment in voice or pacing. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. Move on. Work hard. Read a lot. Improve.

I suppose those sound like slogans, but there’s truth in slogans. Very few of us are the magic wunderkind who simply writes a perfect book and hits the bestseller lists. Most of us labor at our craft for years. We always labor at it. That means you need to enjoy the work. Write because you love listening to the voices in your head. Write because language and imagery and the human condition are fascinating to you. The work isn’t always fun, but should be satisfying.

That’s my five cents. If you don’t take satisfaction in the challenges you set for yourself, you’re doing it wrong. Enjoy the solitude. Enjoy the thinking. Believe me, when you get an email from Moscow or Dallas or Poughkeepsie informing you that you’re a genius, it’s worth the hours spent.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.