Hour of Transformations

The first thought that ran through Sam’s mind was that he knew why the news had said the worksite blew up. He immediately dismissed that, pretty sure that a twelve year old probably hadn’t brought a bomb to a half finished building. Something else must have happened. He just needed to find all his arms and legs, put them back on and figure out what it was.

A ringing sensation rose in his ears. Actually, they had probably been ringing since the blast he was just getting enough sensation back to notice it. His eyes swam back into focus and tried to make sense of the world again.

Unfortunately, the world stubbornly refused to be sensible. The girl Sam had seen right before everything went haywire was gone. Men on the jobsite were running around at the edges of his vision and probably shouting, although with his hearing the way it was he couldn’t be certain. The scene was dominated by a statuesque woman in a frilled dress with a sash running from right shoulder to opposite hip, then wrapped around her waist. On the sash, in front of her shoulder was a weird glowing shape and spiraling out from her raised right hand was a glowing pattern of lights that were bright enough that Sam couldn’t make sense of them.

Not that any of it really made sense.

The woman drifted towards him, her feet stepping lightly, although in the heels she was wearing she should have had trouble crossing the loose dirt ground at all. On second glance, Sam wasn’t entirely sure her feet were touching the ground so much as just in the same general area. A lifetime of science fiction about time travel flicked through his head, reminding Sam that messing with timelines invoked consequences the likes of which were often severe, if not fatal, and of superhuman origin.

“Hey!” Clark’s voice cut through the haze in Sam’s mind and the ringing in his ears. The floating woman glanced to the side and slid backwards a few steps, defying several laws of momentum. Normally Sam would wonder what his foreman was up to but, given the circumstances, he chose to keep his eyes on the more pressing matters.

Namely the extremely dangerous looking woman and her special effects show.

So he had a perfect view of the moment that her look of confidence and satisfaction morphed into surprise and then panic. He was dimly aware of Clark saying something about hands and then caught the unmistakable sound of a gunshot, short, sharp and loud even over the noise in his ears.

At almost the same moment the pattern of free wheeling light winding in the air spasmed and contorted, the weird glowing design on the woman’s shoulder twisted in sympathetic movement. For a split second it looked exactly like the pinwheel thing the girl had been carrying. Then space twisted, snapped and the woman was gone.

It took a minute for that to sink in then Sam scrambled to his feet, head pivoting one way and the other half to look for the girl, woman or whatever that was half to clear the last ringing from his ears.

Clark, ever the practical man, was slipping a semi automatic pistol back into a holster behind his back. “You okay, Sam?”

It took a quick inventory but he did confirm that there wasn’t much of anything wrong with him. “Should be. If my hearing comes back.”

“So long as you keep hearing me fine you’ve got enough already.” He shook his head and looked around warily. “What the hell was that?”

“I don’t know.” But he had a feeling he could find out.

——–

And he did, although Clark never got to hear the answers. Sam went straight home, ducking out as soon as his foreman turned his back, and asked the future. Sure, it sounded like the woman was mad at him for just what he was doing but, since he was already in trouble, he couldn’t see the problem in doing it a little more. Especially if it helped him stay alive.

Unfortunately all the future could tell him was that, if he went back to work tomorrow he was still going to die, along with two other people on site, one of whom was Clark. There was only one boss Sam had ever had that he’d wanted dead, and he hadn’t worked for them in two years. After a short deliberation Sam decided it was time to be somewhere else, collected some clothes, his laptop and a few other necessities, packed them into his car along with the relay and made himself scarce.

Being scarce proved harder than he’d anticipated. After a week of driving around Michigan’s upper peninsula he discovered that, no matter where he stopped the next day’s news predicted some kind of catastrophe would come along with fatal results. He couldn’t get news far enough in advance to confirm he’d be one of the casualties but there was always some kind of fatality and he really didn’t want to draw anyone else into whatever was going on. Money was getting tight and he figured the relay was his best bet to get ahead of the game.

It was time to win the lottery.

Not the jackpot, that would bring too much attention. But with a little finagling of the numbers he managed to walk away with a $200,000 prize in the bank. That was enough for him to figure out a few things. However the woman was trailing him, bank transactions weren’t a factor. He’d been doing his best to use cash and make withdrawals only when leaving a place so he thought cashing in the prize might be a risk but, to his surprise, it made no difference to how the future predicted his death at all. Furthermore, every news story predicting his death said he died early in the morning or mid afternoon – shortly before most schools started or about ninety minutes after they let out.

Along with the similarity between the glowing, shapeshifting thing on the woman’s shoulder and the plastic pinwheel the girl had carried Sam felt it was fair to assume they were somehow the same person. Far fetched, he knew, but he was also using news from the future to stay one step ahead of her so he wasn’t going to rule anything out. He wasn’t sure what to do with the information besides use it as a new search parameter while using his jury-rigged cell phone to poke the future’s social media. Other than finding a picture he thought was the same girl standing near the place he died in one of the dozens of news reports he looked through it didn’t get him much.

He still didn’t know how she was finding him or catching up to him so easily. She was far too young to drive and no girls her age had been reported missing in the area, so she must have gotten home after showing up the first time.

Finally he decided there was only one thing to do. He spent about half his cash rebuilding the relay, cutting himself off from the future for a tense two weeks during which he kept the hours of a student once again, frantically working on upgrading the relay so he could see further than a few days in the future. When he was done he found the relay could contact itself from nearly a year in the future.

It was time to concoct a counterstrategy. Before he could fight whatever avatar of death was so close behind him he was going to need resources and information.

While learning whoever or whatever the woman chasing him actually was proved still out of reach Sam did come up with a pretty simple way to get resources. He didn’t feel great about it, but U.S. patents were public knowledge. So one morning while school was in session, after a month and a half on the run, he picked up the phone and called the firm of Renninger and Howe, and said, “I’d like to speak with someone about filing a patent.”

——–

Some people spend their whole life dreaming about flying. Teddy Clapper was not one of them.

He spent most of his life dreaming about how to make things easier. Sure, flying could make your life a lot easier in a lot of ways, save you gas money and get you places without having to worry about traffic, but those weren’t the kinds of things Teddy thought about. Teddy’s days were consumed with thoughts of how to pick up money for the rent and to spend at the bar without having to, you know, work. At one time that meant finding cars in alleys in the bad parts of town and doing a little “salvage” work. That went on until he salvaged the wrong car.

Then he owned some bad people a lot of money and they gave him two options. Deal some red caps or, since he did know a lot about cars, become a delivery driver.

Since slinging drugs on a corner had a short career expectancy and tended to end people in the big house, Teddy opted to be a driver. What nobody had told him was that he wasn’t driving product from place to place. He was driving people.

He did it for six months, driving angry gang bangers from place to place, waiting where he was told and driving them away again. He saw a lot in those six months, drove everything he could imagine and then some. Stolen drugs, bleeding people, dead bodies. In the grand scheme of things, life probably would have been easier if he hadn’t gone salvaging at all. But no matter how bad it got he didn’t get directly involved himself. Until one night, when Teddy had dropped his boss off at a meeting with his dealers only to wind up in the middle of a running shootout.

It started when Slim Greg, his boss, ripped the door of the car open, startling Teddy from his cell phone induced trance, screaming, “Drive, TC, get us out of here!”

Slim was holding a gun and smelled like harsh chemicals. For all he’d seen, Teddy had never smelled gunsmoke before. He wasn’t likely to forget it quickly now that he had.

Almost on instinct Teddy’s foot came down on the brake pedal and his thumb hit the ignition button. With the key fob Slim was carrying now in the car it roared to life and Teddy peeled out, swinging along Lakeshore Road and along the side of the small warehouse the meeting had taken place in. “What’s going on, Slim?”

“Boys wanted new management,” he replied, looking out the back window, his handgun waving in a worrying way.

Two people hustled out around the far end of the warehouse and Teddy saw flashes of light from them. The windshield cracked into spiderwebs. Teddy yelped and did his best to duck down behind the wheel, Slim started rolling down his window, yelling incoherent profanity.

The car engine roared as Teddy swerved the car towards the two shooters, sending them diving for cover, then back across the centerline. The speedometer had just ticked past fifty when the back tire blew out, whether from a stray bullet or a well aimed shot Teddy never knew, and the hectic swerve became an even wilder fishtail that he struggled to correct.

He’d almost made it when Slim grabbed his arm, yelling about the docks, and the car went out of control, hit a safety barrier and crashed to a stop. Both occupants were sans seatbelts, not a priority when running for your life, so they catapulted forward towards the windshield.

That’s when Teddy felt the change. A haze seemed to surround him, he put an arm up and pushed out to ward off the windshield and the haze grew stronger. He flew threw the windshield without feeling a thing and kept on going. He was twenty feet up over the surface of Lake Michigan before he realized he wasn’t showing signs of coming back down. Slim Greg was still holding his arm, yelling wordlessly, his hands caught in the haze around Teddy and apparently unable to let go. Not that he’d want to at this point.

Almost as soon as he realized what had happened they stopped going up and started going down. Slim’s hollering changed pitch and he started kicking in fear. But Teddy barely felt it, in fact now that he realized it all he had to do was push whichever way he wanted to go and they could fly that way. He flew a bit further along the shore and set Greg down on the sand beyond the docks, then carefully set himself down as well.

There was a moment for everyone to double over and catch their breath. Then Slim said, “What’d you do, TC?”

Teddy shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“Okay.” Slim took a deep breath and straightened up. “Can you do it again?”

Teddy took stock. There was still that weird haze around him. He pushed up a little bit, putting his hands over his head. Sure enough, he rose a foot or so off the ground.

“TC, it looks like you got yourself some kinda superpower.” Slim flipped the gun around and held it towards him, grip first. “And me lookin’ for a new number two man. Think you got what it takes?”

Teddy looked at the gun for a moment, then a hungry smile worked its way across his face. He took the gun and said, “Yeah. Easy.”

Hour of Epiphanies

Lottery numbers were the logical place to start. They were completely random, with astronomical odds, the Powerball folks still used a purely mechanical device to generate them so he couldn’t be accused of tampering with them electronically and the drawing was streamed live at a specific time and place. All Sam had to do was sit down at his work table five minutes before things kicked off, cue up the stream on his tablet and flick on the power to the relay.

In theory, anyway. But more than two hours before the drawing was supposed to take place Sam was up to his elbows in the relay’s power source, running another diagnostic in what his brain told him was part of an obsessive need to control but his gut told him was definitely, 100% absolutely necessary for the test.

He’d always had problems with indigestion.

Pure math was not his thing but after leaving grad school at MIT under a cloud he’d been determined to prove… well, something. Contrary to popular belief high concept, theoretical scientists were ruled by emotion just as much as other people. Some of them even knew how to deal with those emotions. Sam King prided himself on channeling them into his work. And so, anxiety drove him to rebuild the tachyon relay a fifth time and like it.

Twenty minutes before the drawing he was done.

With nothing better to do he switched the relay on and pulled up the Powerball app on his phone. It was hard to believe that people of the modern era, with all the education and what not it prided itself on, people were still drawn to such wasteful forms of gambling but, just this once, Same was grateful that the lottery had kept up with the times. It made this experiment really easy to run. All he had to do was push the appropriate lottery button and see what the winning numbers were, then activate the – highly modified – phone in the relay and pull up the same screen.

The numbers listed didn’t match.

Sam frantically checked the relay’s phone and confirmed it was working. There were still fifteen minutes until the drawing. “Not possible,” Sam muttered, checking the relay again. “It shouldn’t have that much range.”

After ten minutes of frantic shuffling of notes and double checking calculations he came back to the conclusion that everything was working properly. The two phones still displayed different sets of winning numbers. Sam pulled up the browser on his laptop and flipped over to the bookmarked page that would let him livestream the drawing. Four minutes to go.

The hosts were chattering about something or another but Sam tuned them out and ran over everything one more time. Then double checked his wifi router, to make sure the stream wouldn’t cut out. Two and a half minutes. There was nothing to do but drain his mug of tea, sit down in a chair, hug his knees to his chest and wait. By some heroic exertion of will he managed to keep himself from rocking back and forth while humming. He hadn’t gone that far down the nutty professor route.

Though, to be fair, he’d never been a professor.

Envy and discontent welled up in him, as it did countless times every day. As he did whenever that happened he forced it down by mindlessly running through simple differential equations and almost missed the drawing. It was only the fact that the hosts had stopped talking that yanked him out of his reverie. The small plastic ball with the first number on it was already bouncing down to the deposit. Sam leaned forward and held his breath.

Five minutes later the drawing was done. The numbers matched the display on his relay. Sam King had successfully predicted the future.

——–

Natalie jerked around, the sound of rushing waters in her ears. Pivoting frantically, she tried to place herself. Most of the world was dark, lit only by small patches of light that seemed to drift in the distance, far out of reach. Nothing nearby was illuminated but she had a sensation of floating.

The last bit gave it away, it was familiar enough. She was dreaming.

Dreaming was nothing new for her, she’d had horrible nightmares for years, to the point of insomnia, until therapy helped her learn to assert herself and dream in a lucid state. She inhaled deeply and phantom water streamed into her nose and mouth, settling in her lungs and stomach. But it wasn’t real, she told herself, and exhaled it back out steadily. She wanted to see.

Darkness took flight all around her, leaving her standing on a rough surface that was probably some kind of coral or clinging sea thing. It looked like she was in some kind of shallow depression in the side of a sheer cliff while over her head the seafloor rose up in some kind of ridges. Straight ahead there was nothing but open water as far as her subconscious had created the world. With a shrug she decided to go exploring and pushed herself off into the water, drifting away from the cliffside. She’d gotten far enough to catch a glimpse of some kind of stone wall rising up from the top of the cliff when a voice rose up through the water, loud enough that she felt it with her entire body.

“Natalie. The world bends. So few are left who hear our voice.”

She stopped her drift through the murky water and looked around frantically. Dreams of drowning in the ocean were nothing new for her – even though she’d never seen a body of water larger than a retention pond – but dreams with dialog were another story. “Who-?”

“You must find the cause.”

“Yeah, how am I-”

“You shall feel our power in your bones. Think with the minds of the ancients. Hear with our wisdom. See with our eyes. You shall be everything you have ever desired to be. Wield the power to set things right.”

The depression she’d just left spasmed, then split open to reveal an angry yellow eye with a black vertical pupil as tall as her three story apartment building. Natalie’s mouth opened but she couldn’t scream – the weight of the water was suddenly too much and crushed all the strength from her.

“Go, Natalie. More depends on you than you know.”

She jolted awake, fighting against phantoms, and found herself panting and tangled in cords and sheets. As calm returned she realized she was in a hospital bed, attached to monitors. The door burst open and a nurse hustled in, already shushing her and trying to straighten out the mess she’d made of things. “W-why am I…”

Natalie trailed off, trying to remember why she might be in a hospital. The nurse guessed the question anyway. “You’ve been asleep for the past two days. Your parents brought you to the ER when you wouldn’t wake up.”

That hadn’t happened before. “Two days?”

The nurse nodded. “That’s right, honey.”

Her mind worked to process that, then blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “I missed my math test.”

——–

As tempting as it was to just win the lottery a couple of times and retire, Sam knew that would immediately get him in trouble and the ability to predict the future was too good to waste on something like that. He wasn’t quite sure what practical implications it had just yet but, before thinking too much about that, he needed to prove it worked in as many different ways as he could.

The concept was simple. He’d built a relay that used tachyon particles to talk to itself in the past. The cost in power was pretty high, he was going to have a killer electrical bill that month, and at first it had only been able to talk to itself half an hour in the past. Not super useful.

But after a week of tinkering he’d managed to run the relay for about an hour and pull up news reports from two days in the future on it. Then the relay had blown a capacitor and was going to need serious retooling. Sam figured it was time to give it an overhaul, think about how to improve it for presentation to the scientific community. But first things came first. He’d read several news stories from yesterday twice. Once on the relay, once when they happened. So far everything had been pretty accurate. Which made today kind of tricky.

He had to go to work to pay his bills and the costs of another build of the relay. Problem was the worksite was supposed to blow up that morning. He climbed out of the car and looked over the bustling site. A huge scaffolding and gantry system supported a 3d concrete printer, laying out the shell of a planned commercial suite intended to hold six offices for dentists, optometrists and the like. Most of the place was printed already and contractors were bustling through the dried sections, running utilities and whatever else happened in there once the printing was done. The big concrete printer was still whirring away on the third floor.

The report said the explosion came in the area of the concrete printer, which was crazy. As one of the four techs who programmed, set up and supervised the printer when it was in motion Sam knew it wasn’t the kind of thing that could explode and take out half a building. Still, he didn’t have any reason to doubt the report he’d read, either. Other than the fact that it came from the future.

Sometimes new technology was more trouble than it was worth. Sam set out to find his supervisor.

As it turned out Clark was at his truck, drinking coffee and listening to the architect drone on about something or other and nodding at the right times. Clark had made foreman for his diplomatic approach to contractor/employer relationships. He usually didn’t talk when they told him what they wanted, then ignored how they wanted him to do it and made sure the job got done right. He was a better boss than some Sam had worked for in academia. Certainly more patient. Clark put up with almost ten minutes of lecture before the architect moved on. Clark let him get a good ten feet away before snorting, shaking his head and walking over to Sam.

“Morning, King.” The foreman was not a man fond of given names. “Anything I can help you with?”

Frivolity wasn’t something Clark like in any form and Sam had a feeling that mentioning news from the future wasn’t going to get him anywhere in this situation so he decided on a more practical tactic. “Do you have the last safety and maintenance inspection report on the printer? It was acting a little funny yesterday and I was hoping to see if I could find the cause.”

Or at least a reason to shut it off and keep it from killing four people when it exploded.

“Sure.” Clark went to his truck and pulled open the back door on the cab, rummaging for his box where he kept those kinds of papers. Sam rolled onto the balls of his feet, impatient. The news had said the explosion was early in the morning, although it hadn’t given an exact time. And he’d run every safety check he could think of on the thing yesterday, no telling how that might have altered the variables since he last checked the future’s news. But he still didn’t want to waste time.

He was so preoccupied with the question of what might go wrong with the printer that he didn’t notice the girl until she was standing right next to him.

“You shouldn’t have looked.”

Sam jerked out of his musings at her voice. She was short, maybe five foot, and young. At a guess, he’s have said thirteen, although she might have been fourteen. Wavy brown hair framed a solemn face and hard brown eyes. Sam frowned. “Honey, you shouldn’t be here. This place is dangerous. What-”

“You’ve seen something you shouldn’t have.” The girl pulled a weird piece of white plastic off of her belt. It looked a bit like a pinwheel. “You shouldn’t have looked.”

Sam felt the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. Something was off about this. “What are you doing here, young lady?”

“The world is bent,” she said. “I have to make it right.”

It took a moment for him to realize it wasn’t just the hair on the back of his neck standing up. All of it was. Then a bolt of light struck the girl and he was knocked back with a deafening crack.

Creativity is a Response

Postmodernism came about fifty to sixty years ago to insist that the only way that artists could be truly free to create was to tear down every obstacle, tradition, convention or interpretation. Prevailing wisdom had to go, centuries of understanding about art, founded by brilliant men like da Vinci or Rembrandt, was junked because there was no way those guys could have had anything relevant to say to people as advanced as ourselves. The artist was finally free to create whatever they wanted. The direct result is that modern art is terrible.

What happened?

Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic: The Gathering, the world’s most popular card game, has a little saying he frequently shares with the people who ask him for advice. That saying goes, “Restrictions breed creativity.”

This saying suggests that having limits placed on what you can do leads to more creativity, not less, and if it’s true then the very notion that someone seeking to be creative must have no limits is not only wrong – it’s counter productive. And if all that’s true then the postmodern conception of art and creativity is directly responsible for the decline of the quality in creative endeavors postmodernists undertake.

All this is not to say it’s bad to toss all restrictions to the side and think about ideas in the abstract. It’s part of how we drive human thought forward. But art is meant to be shared with other people, that’s why there are museums, galleries and showings, to say nothing of the lessons, classes and even schools dedicated to the arts. There are a lot of very good, useful human processes that aren’t meant to be shared with others and personal naval gazing is one of them. The personal background that underpins such introspection makes it difficult to relate to in any format short of a dissertation when it is entirely based on personal epiphanies, which seems to be all that postmodernism leaves the artist to work with.

In short, it may not be a coincidence that postmodern art has such a bizarre fascination with human excrement. One of the boundaries it’s lost seems to be what should be public and what should be private.

Moving on.

Let’s talk about how restrictions help us be creative. Human beings are fundamentally lazy creatures, if we can make a straight line from Point A to Point B we will. But put a wall in the way and all of the sudden what a person does to get from Point A to Point B can be any number of things. Go around the wall, climb over it, cut through it or dig under it. This creativity is engendered by the limitation put in their way. It’s not even possible to climb or cut without a wall in place to act on. Yes, a person could still wander around or dig without a wall, but they’re not likely to go to all the work if they don’t have to.

And as I said before, having restrictions placed on you can give you new ways to look at the problem. Instead of going about things the way you always have, restrictions can force you to look at an issue in a new way and create whole new ways to problem solve – or to express yourself.

And a person could say to themselves, “Well, I’ll get where I want to go without using any straight lines.” But guess what? As soon as they’ve done that they’ve set a rule they have to follow in order to help them be creative. The restriction breeds creativity.

You see, rules don’t have to be limitations set on us by society, or physics, or human nature. They can just be guidelines we create for ourselves. When confronted with the seemingly limitless possibilities of a blank piece of paper it helps to have guidelines to help determine where you’re going to go with it. Are you writing a story? A poem? Painting a landscape? Or drawing a cartoon? All of those things are limits on what you are creating. Without them the possibilities would be paralyzing.

Beyond that, many rules exist to tell us what has been tried and found wanting. Yes, we could try and reinvent the wheel. But doing so is neither groundbreaking nor helpful. To go back to the original analogy, by throwing out all the rules in art postmodernists not only threw out years of conventions, that admittedly may have hindered artistic expression to an extent, they threw out all the rules built on an understanding of what makes a thing beautiful to see and easy to understand. While the occasional modern artist will stumble across something that makes their ideas accessible to others they won’t bother to share it for fear of limiting their peers. And so they keep badly reinventing the wheel when artists like Michelangelo were the artistic equivalent of interstellar flight centuries ago. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Too often people who want to be creative look at a restriction on what can be done as a block to creativity. But the truth is, creativity expresses itself however it can, overcoming obstacles and reveling in the things that should undo it. It responds to the idea that a thing should be difficult by showing how it’s a delight. Without structures, creativity is dead.

Christmas is coming up, and this is my last post for the year. So I’d like to leave you with a little gift. Here is a list of ten creative endeavors, complete with things restrictions, that you can try out. Hopefully they’ll give you a new appreciation for how your creativity comes out in response to them.

  1. Write a haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry with three lines where the first and last lines have five syllables and the middle line has seven.
  2. Write a short story in one hundred words or less.
  3. Write a review of the last movie you saw without adjectives or adverbs.
  4. Build a LEGO house using no pieces smaller than 2 x 8.
  5. Describe your day without using colors or numbers.
  6. Prepare a hot meal without using a knife.
  7. Draw a self portrait without using a pen, pencil, brush or crayons.
  8. Write your next five Facebook posts or texts without using the letter ‘u’.
  9. Film and edit a music video using nothing but your phone.
  10. Draw a portrait of a friend but lay out every line using a ruler.

Hope you’ll chose to share a few of your endeavors with me. See you next year!

The Reading List, Act Four

See previous reading lists here, there and everywhere!

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Doomed by Cartoon by John Adler

Genres: Nonfiction, Political History

The election was tense. A controversial candidate was running for office, backed by the corrupt New York political machine and partisan journalists, only to find the way blocked by a ragtag conglomeration of other partisan writers. The final thorn in the side was a constant barrage of stinging pictures aimed to highlight the ridiculous, corrupt nature of the Democratic party. In the end, they were swept from power.

It was 1871 and Thomas Nast, father of the American Cartoon, had won his greatest victory.

After three years of campaigning “Boss” William Tweed and the Tammany Hall political machine that had bilked New York for millions of dollars was driven from public office. Doomed by Cartoon is a history of how it happened and includes every cartoon Nast drew against Tweed and his conspirators. As much a record of the formation of modern political cartooning – Nast is credited with inventing or popularizing both the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey – this book analyzes each of Nast’s cartoons, their themes and what context led him to draw them. It’s a fascinating look at an era of politics that, lets face it, we still live in.

It’s also a study in ironies both delicious and tragic. A must for anyone who loves politics.

Irredeemable by Mark Waid

Genres: Comic Book, Superheroes

Volumes: Ten in total

Comic writing legend Mark Waid wrote this tour de force to explore the question of what happens when the man the whole world counts on goes bad. This series isn’t tied to either DC or Marvel’s comic universes, although it takes strong cues from the lore of DC. It focuses entirely on the central conceit and never shies away from the idea that sometimes people who have legitimately earned our love and respect can be come reprehensible villains. The question we must answer is, are they irredeemable?

Not to spoil anything – it’s never a plot point in much debate – but the Plutonian, who was the Superman of his world in both power and moral character, doesn’t go bad because of mind control or coercion. He just makes a choice to stop being a protector and start being a destroyer. Worse, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy with why he did it.

But the Plutonian’s swath of destruction takes a horrific toll and the people who used to support him are faced with hard questions. How far do you go in fighting a friend? When is he no longer the person you knew? Is there a point where mercy for a criminal is the greatest crime? And how do you take the measure of a man who is both the world’s greatest hero and it most despicable villain?

Incorruptible by Mark Waid

Genres: Comic Book, Superheroes

Volumes: Seven in total

The companion to Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, Incorruptible gives us Max Damage, perpetual anarchist. Few people on earth hated the Plutonian as much as Max. To Max, he was the symbol of everything keeping the little guy down – morality, social acclaim and order. Unfortunately for Max, he was there the day the Plutonian went mad.

If the Plutonian was the world’s greatest pillar of order his fall from grace was the world’s greatest moment of chaos. Max saw that and it doesn’t look like he enjoyed it as much as an apparent hardcore anarchist should. After a month off the scene Max comes back, burns all his illegally obtained cash, turns his gang in to the police and sets himself up as the new protector of his home city of Coalville.

People are naturally skeptical. For a long time he was a vicious and self serving man. Worse, Max’s superpower makes him stronger and tougher in proportion to how long he’s been awake. While the nature of his unique metabolism spares him the physical fatigue of staying awake his mind still goes loopy – and who wants a superhero suffering chronic sleep deprivation?

Still, Max is sure he can handle it. He was one of the world’s supreme supervillains for years. All it takes to be a hero is to do all the villainous things in reverse.

…right?

Pegasus Bridge by Stephen E. Ambrose

Genres: Nonfiction, Military History

Bridges are probably the most important structure in warfare. Without them it is difficult, if not impossible, to get all the things an army needs where they need to go. In medieval times a bridge could be held for hours or even days by a handful of people with the right armor, enough supplies and strong nerves. In modern war they can be taken by the same. Only a few people have done both in the same day. If you’ve ever read about Operation Market/Garden (a recommend book on the subject is A Bridge Too Far, mentioned in one of my other reading list posts) you know how badly it can go when an airborne division paradrops into enemy territory to do just that.

But you probably haven’t heard the story that proved that, as badly as Market/Garden went, what they were trying to do was more than plausible. It happened successfully just months before.

Operation Overlord was the turning point of the battle for Fortress Europe, the beginning of the fall of the Nazi war machine. The first stage of the journey was called Operation Deadstick, a simple operation by the British 6th Parachute Division. All they had to do was precision land their gliders full of gear near a river, rush across a bridge rigged to explode before anyone blew it up, kick the Nazis off and not let them drive their tanks up and get the bridge back.

And the Sixth did just that.

Pegasus Bridge is the story of how they did it and how the people in England and Normandy helped. It’s the story of courage under fire. And it’s an explanation of why a bridge came to be named for a flying horse – the same flying horse the soldiers who took the bridge wore.

Angelmass by Timothy Zahn

Genres: Science Fiction

Sequels: It stands alone

Premise: A handful of worlds in the galaxy lie clustered around a microscopic black hole from which emanate unique particles called angels. These worlds work together to harvest these particles and distribute them to as many people as they can, particularly leaders in politics, military and law. Why? Because angels make people nearby good.

Nothing sinister to see there.

Okay, there’s probably something sinister there. To the point that the government outside has sent in a military ship to seize the black hole, known as Angelmass, and deal with the local government. Meanwhile, a physicist has gone in to study the angels and try and figure out how they work and a down on her luck drifter takes a job with an angel harvesting crew in the hopes she can pick up an angel and make a quick buck. By the time the dust settles, nothing that people thought they knew will hold true.

Angelmass is a fun, fast tale about free will, morality and the ways people get in touch with their better angels. While hardly a home to Zahn’s most inventive ideas or his twistiest plots, it is a great introduction to the work of one of SciFi’s most prolific and zany authors.

Frequency – A Show Don’t Tell Masterclass

Make no mistake – Frequency is not a perfect show. It’s not the best show airing right now. But it might be the best new show of the season. The actors are not going to win awards, although they’re solid enough, and for the most part I think the writers take the show more seriously than anyone else ever will.

But it does one thing right, and that’s – you guessed it – show don’t tell.

The basic premise of Frequency is that detective Julie Sullivan, a modern day NYPD detective, lost her father Frank Sullivan, also an NYPD detective, at an early age. Then an old HAM radio is struck by lightning, allowing it to communicate with itself 20 years in the past. More to the point, allowing Julie to speak with her father shortly before he dies. The two quickly set out to use cross-time communication to save Frank’s life and fight for justice!

The wonkiness of the plot was enough to intrigue me into watching the pilot. The ability of the pilot to pack information into a single episode convinced me to stay, at least for this season. Frequency manages incredible information density through show don’t tell in three specific areas. First, in establishing the show’s split time periods. Second, in establishing that the linked timeframes are synchronous (and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second). Third, in showing causality and chaos there. And it does all of this without an exposition dump or unwieldy “sciency” character. Not that such characters are always bad, but putting one in this story probably wouldn’t have served the plot very well.

Let’s start with the way the show frames itself. The story has two timeframes, 2016 and 1996, both of which are established before they cross paths. The modern era is established by just showing us things that we take for granted – modern cars, smartphones and current music. The past is a little trickier, but still pretty easy to do. We see Frank watching the 1996 World Series as he’s first introduced and, a little while later, we see former President Clinton on TV at some kind of official function where the announcer introduces him as the leader of the free world – implying that he is, in fact, the president at the time. Add in little things like CRT TVs and out of date cars and it’s pretty easy to make a rough estimate of the time period. Of course, there’s also Julie herself, who we see as a young girl in this era, and who’s birthdays – eighth and twenty-eighth – are mentioned as touchstones to hammer down the exact timing shortly before the first father and daughter cross-time talk.

The second thing established is how events in 1996 and 2016 are synchronous, and until Frank does something new in his era Julie won’t see the results of it in hers. We see this in two separate incidents. The first is probably the most ingenious. When Julie and Frank first speak Frank is so weirded out he sets his cigar down and misses the ashtray. It burns a hole through the wooden top of the HAM radio – a hole Julie sees appearing in her time in real time. The hole has not always been there, as it would be in some time travel stories, it appears before Julie’s eyes as she’s watching and she asks about it, prompting Frank to pick the cigar up and put it back in the ashtray then brush the coals off the top of the radio. The hole stops growing in Julie’s time period. In much the same way, Julie labors under the impression her father is dead until the moment that history changes and her father’s life is saved.

Finally, the show demonstrates causality and the “butterfly effect” not by having someone explain it to Julie but by having her live it. After saving her father’s life she hurries to keep a date with her fiance and his parents only to find that he doesn’t have any idea who she is. Then she discovers that her mother is dead – the result of her going to the hospital to visit Frank there after he survives the shooting that should have killed him. In the process she becomes the target of a serial killer rather than the victim he had originally selected. Again, this is a sequence we see happen and it drives home that this is the consequence of what Julie and Frank did far more than just hearing about it.

With all this basic, world building exposition happening along side of the character building dialog the first episode of Frequency does an amazing job of establishing the world, it’s rules and the people who we’re going to watch play by them in the confines of the forty three minutes most network TV shows have to work with. It’s worth watching for the pure craftsmanship even if you don’t like time travel or police procedurals. What’s more, most of what the show does would only work on the screen, meaning the writers were giving careful consideration to how best they could use their medium, which many writers neglect. All together this makes the pilot alone worth watching, even if you choose to pass on the rest of the series. Don’t deprive yourself.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Saitama doesn’t enjoy life.

He used to. Three years ago he set out to become a part time hero, saving people to get an adrenaline rush that would let him shake off boring everyday life and really live, if you know what I mean. Problem is, after three years Saitama has become so good at fighting evil he always defeats it in a single punch. It just isn’t satisfying anymore.

Then he bumps into the cyborg Genos while swatting a mosquito (long story) and suddenly finds himself with an aspiring apprentice. Like most people suddenly faced with unexpected responsibilities, he tries to walk away. The problem with people (or cyborgs) is that they can follow along with you.

One Punch Man is the story of Saitama’s search for fulfillment. After three years of winning difficult fights against every stripe of evil you’d think he’d have made some progress on that front, but nope. He’s still living in a small, rundown apartment by himself in a mostly abandoned part of town. He joins a hero team and chases fame but satisfaction eludes him. The fights still aren’t challenging and most of the other heroes are jerks. Saitama gets that being a hero means fighting to protect people but he doesn’t seem to grasp why that’s important, just that it is.

The heart of the story, the moment when Saitama starts to see a glimpse of what’s wrong, comes with the appearance of the Sea King. It’s a neat bit of symmetry, we first got a full understanding of why Saitama was so frustrated in his brief  encounter with the Earth King, now the Sea King offers us the solution to the problem, but I digress. The Sea King could serve as a master class in how to build up a villain, as most of his story arc is dedicated to his ascendancy, but the part that’s important to us comes at the very end of his story.

The Sea King has defeated heroes of every type and level of power and is about to wipe out a shelter full of bystanders when he’s brought up short by Mumen Rider. Basically an over glorified bike cop, Mumen Rider is technically Saitama’s superior, although the only category Mumen might outclass him in is book smarts. The chances that he could defeat the Sea King are nonexistent. Mumen fights anyways, throwing everything he’s got at the Sea King. In turn, the Sea King brushes him off like a gnat.

As Mumen falls to the ground Saitama catches him and lays him out gently.

Of course, with Saitama on the scene the fight is essentially over. The Sea King is defeated between animation frames with a punch so hard that it blows rain clouds away and the day is saved. The twist comes after the villain is dead.

Remember that Mumen Rider is considered to be a better hero than Saitama, although the only aspect Mumen is ahead of Saitama in is book smarts. In all other categories Saitama is, by the rules of the story, the most powerful being in existence by a wide margin. As a result, Saitama’s easily defeating the Sea King makes Mumen Rider – and all the other, much more powerful heroes who confronted the Sea King – look pathetic. So Saitama throws himself under the bus, saying that the Sea King seemed incredibly weak after fighting all the other heroes in rapid succession in order to salvage the reputation of his fellow heroes.

Later, Saitama gets his first piece of fan mail, thanking him for saving the anonymous sender’s life. With it comes a couple of other letters, calling him a fraud for stealing glory from other heroes who did all the work for him. Later, Saitama stumbles across Mumen at a food stall and we learn that Mumen Rider was the source of Saitama’s one piece of positive mail. The two heroes, one the best of the weakest the other the best in the world, pause to share a moment of camaraderie and for the first time in a while Saitama finds something he’s been missing – a sense of satisfaction.

Many young people set out to do something for their own satisfaction but the fact is, most humans find satisfaction not when they’re focused on themselves but when they’re focused on others. Fiction rarely tackles the challenge of showing how that particular aspect of a coming of age comes about. But under the over-the-top action, slapstick humor and biting satire One Punch Man tackles that question with surprising gusto. While the evolution is by no means complete it is an interesting story to watch.