Water Fall: Flood Waters

Five Days After the Michigan Avenue 

Helix 

There were many problems that resulted from the revelation that talents walked among us. Believe it or not, Project Sumter had very detailed contingency plans in place detailing possible fallout from public knowledge of talented individuals. These scenarios cover pretty much everything from witch hunts and pogroms aiming to wipe out talents to individual talents who set themselves up as the leaders of cults. 

Absolutely none of these scenarios mentioned the necessity of field agents taking part in press conferences. 

I feel that this was a major oversight, because anyone who put an ounce of thought into it would have immediately banned me from getting within a hundred feet of any member of the press. In fact, I have no idea why that memo didn’t go out as soon as I pulled my stunt to rescue Teresa from the reporter mob. And yet two days after I did that I found myself staring glassily at a wall of microphones and ravenous, soul-sucking journalists. It was less than ideal for my peace of mind, and not just because I was wondering what had gotten into Voorman. 

And while we’re on that subject, let me just say I found how easily he adjusted to the press a little disgusting. He gave the opening statement, a quick five minute summary of Circuit’s case and where we currently stood with it, using nothing but a couple of note cards and without showing any sign that he was nervous. This from a person who, a week ago, I would have told you was defined by his nerves. I’d say he looked totally in control of the situation except, as soon as he opened the floor to questions things went south. 

If you’ve never seen the press all over a new story, it’s kind of like watching flies swarming over a dead raccoon on the side of the road. It’s obsessive, repulsive and relentless. The basic shape of things was like this: Voorman was at the center at the podium and to his left were the three Senior Special Agents we had that had been involved in the case since the beginning; my current boss, Teresa Herrera, my former boss, Bob Sanders, and Massif’s boss, Harriet Verger. These four were chosen for their extensive field experience, their familiarity with the case and the fact that, with two men, two women, one Hispanic, one African American and ages ranging from mid twenties to late fifties, they made a wonderful picture of the diversity and inclusiveness of Project Sumter. I would have preferred to face the press backed by my highly experienced tactical team, but they were all middle aged white males and hadn’t been invited. 

Of course, the ethnically balanced, open and fair shtick may have been to counterbalance the fact that Amplifier, Massif and I were all white as they come. Only Samson broke the mold. Sure, that’s because the Midwest is a bit more homogenous than other parts of the country but that doesn’t play in front of the press and the fact that I don’t care for that kind of posturing much doesn’t change the fact that perceptions matter. The four of us were lined up by height, with Samson closest to the middle and the rest of us in descending order moving away from Voorman. We weren’t supposed to be there to talk, that was Voorman’s job, but we had been introduced to the public by our code names and our status as talented people made clear. 

Unfortunately, as soon as Voorman finished outlining, in general terms, the extent of our current investigation into Circuit’s activities and what kind information we were hoping to get from the public the press was free to ask questions. The first question came from a reporter from the local broadcast news, a shortish Asian American woman with black hair pulled into a bun. “Agent Voorman, is there any indication of what this Open Circuit’s motivation in his crimes might be?” 

“At the moment it seems to be purely self-interest, based on the pattern of his crimes,” Voorman said. “His public statements have suggested he wants to be seen as some kind of freedom fighter but so far most of his crimes consist of grand theft of pretty much every type and criminal trespass. And that’s just the things he’s wanted on five or more counts of. Not the behavior of an altruist.” 

A journalist with the ragged haircut and slightly worn clothing of someone who didn’t have to get in front of a TV camera every day raised his hand and asked, “There’s a lot of people with what you call talents coming forward all over the country and saying they’d like to use them in a productive fashion. In interviews they’ve said that’s something you’ve forbidden, by and large. Are there plans to change that policy in the future?” 

Voorman glanced at Sanders, who cleared his throat and said, “There’s been a lot of talk about that at the management level over the past few days, discussions I’ve been a part of.” I felt my eyebrows raise a bit at that. I had wondered where my old boss had gotten off to, since I hadn’t seen him with his new talent much recently. “Some talents do receive licenses for specific kinds of work already. State and Federal governments are debating how those programs might be expanded but our involvement in that is going to be strictly advisory from this point forward. Politicians will have to sort it and put it before the voters.” 

A different, younger looking reporter near the back shouted, “What about superheroes?” 

“That would-” Voorman began, but stopped short when Samson stepped to the edge of the raised platform we were standing on, picked up an empty metal microphone stand from off the floor and held it up for the audience to examine. 

Then he bent it into a rough circle using his bare hands. The room went deathly quiet as Samson carefully set the bent pole on the stage and said, “My talent is one of the most powerful we know of in direct confrontations. If you want to see something really interesting we can go to a junkyard later and I’ll throw some cars. But the fact is, even I rely on equipment, backup and information from Project Sumter to do my job. I can’t take a bullet safely without a bulletproof vest, for example. I still only have two eyes and they only see in front of me, so I need someone to watch my back. Vigilantes have none of that support and are more likely to get themselves and other people hurt than solve any problems.” 

“On top of that,” Verger added, piping up from the other side of Voorman, “the legal system itself doesn’t deal with them well. Evidence gained through vigilantes is rarely if ever admissible in court, and if they did take the stand we’d usually have to turn around and arrest them for trespassing or assault and battery. Vigilantism remains something the law highly discourages, and we are a law enforcement agency, no matter what else people choose to call us.” 

“Don’t you think constantly dismissing the potential contributions talented people make out of hand is part of the problem here?” The anchorwoman who had asked the first question demanded. 

“We’re not dismissing them out of hand,” Voorman said. “There are a lot of issues to be explored-“ 

“And that’s a process your agency has been actively suppressing for almost seventy years,” she said, too fired up to notice her breath gathering in front of her in an icy cloud. “Why do you call Open Circuit a run of the mill crook when he’s obviously been confronted with such widespread systemic injustice his entire life?” 

“Because he’s a liar, a thief and a killer.” Both Voorman and Sanders short me warning looks but I ignored them. I’d been prepared for a lot of strange sounding questions from the press but I honestly hadn’t expected them to be sympathetic to Circuit. “Project Sumter has asked talents to keep what they can do a secret as much for their own safety as out of a desire to keep the public in ignorance.” 

I stepped forward and picked up the stand Samson had left there and let it rest in my palm for a moment, until the heat gathered there melted through it and the two pieces tumbled to the ground. A flick of the fingers sent the last drops of molten metal sizzling onto the ground and I looked the reporter in the eye. She’d paled visibly. “On the face of it, what we can do is more than a little scary, don’t you think? Even fifty years ago, this kind of thing could have caused riots. Maybe times have changed and we can be out in the open safely. We’ll see. But it wouldn’t be the first time the government has erred on the side of caution and gotten it wrong. That doesn’t justify robbing people of their livelihoods, threatening their safety, or leaving their families in mourning. Circuit’s done all that, and the only reason for a person to act like that is pure selfishness.” 

Behind me Voorman cleared his throat. “I think that will be all the questions for now.” 

——– 

“You are not doing that again,” Voorman said, his tone closer to exasperation than anger. 

“Thank goodness,” I said, wiping sweat off my forehead with my sleeve. I didn’t let the air around me change in temperature but nerves still had me dripping. “I hate press conferences.” 

“You’ve never done one before,” Sanders pointed out. 

“But I’ve seen plenty on TV,” I replied. “And I hated all of them.” 

“Helix,” Teresa said, visibly struggling to be patient. “It’s going to be very important that the press not paint us like a loose cannon or some other kind of threat to the public interest.” 

“Because the press never smears people it doesn’t like regardless of facts,” I said, favoring her with a mock-naïve expression. 

“I’m not disagreeing with you,” Voorman said, regaining some of his patience. “But it would really help if we didn’t feed them sound bites to use against us.” 

“Hey big guy!” Jack waved to me from the other side of the floor, standing with Darryl by the computer that was keeping the situation map up to date. “Get a load of this.” 

When your tactical leader says get somewhere you get, and when you’ve known Jack as long as I have that goes double. Teresa, Voorman and Samson went along with me and, due to longer legs, Teresa and Samson got there first. I snorted in disgust and Voorman spared me a sympathetic glance. Then we were at the desk and the moment of short men solidarity was over. 

“What have we got?” Teresa asked. 

Lincoln Wu looked up from the computer station, which he appeared to be in charge of. Apparently he had gotten some new clearances, a lot had been going on in the office in the last week or so and I was keeping up with less than half of it. “The National Guard in Indiana sent us this about two hours ago. Records is working overtime and the Watch has been pulled in, too, since censoring the news is less of a thing now, but we’re still having a hard time keeping up with all the tips and reports coming in so it got lost in the slush pile somewhere.” 

He pulled up a new window and hammered a few shortcut keys, flicking through menus at a near-epileptic pace. A couple of seconds later we were looking at grainy image of a densely forested area. 

“This is the Chain o’ Rivers State Park in southern Indiana. It’s a hiking and camping kind of a place and, until last year you could even go canoeing through the rivers.” Jack grabbed a sheet of paper that had a map, presumably of the park, printed on it and handed it to me as he went on. “The problem is there’s no one route, they can be like a maze at some points and people have gotten lost before, sometimes for a day or more. It was decided to add some markers and close off certain parts of the river, to help keep people safe. The canoeing was closed while the work was being done.” 

Darryl picked up the story at that point. “Last week a cop who was there on vacation spotted some really heavy equipment being trucked through some of the maintenance roads. Concrete mixers, a small backhoe, not the stuff you expect to see in a State Park. Being outside of his jurisdiction and not wanting trouble, he called it in to the DNR. They sent in a couple of agents to look into it.” 

“No one’s heard from them in three days. Things get a little murkier after that but the Guard got involved at some point,” Jack said, gesturing back to the computer screen. “So they asked for some satellite images and this is what they found.” 

I leaned in for a closer look. “Okay, I’ll bite. What did they find?” 

“These,” Lincoln said, zooming in on the lower right corner of the image. Now I could make out a strange boxy thing nestled in under the branches of a large tree on the bank of the river. A dark line ran out into the water. 

“Is that a tree branch?” Voorman asked. 

“We think it’s some kind of makeshift dam,” Darryl replied. “You remember what that girl Amplifier was tracking when we first ran into her?” 

“A stolen prototype for a hydroelectric generator,” Teresa said. “One that would function even with very shallow water at high efficiency. Stolen by Circuit.” 

“And look.” Lincoln hit another shortcut key, cycling quickly through at least a dozen other images. “They’ve found at least fifteen of them scattered through the park. There might be more, better hidden. Then there’s this.” 

The last image was of an honest to goodness concrete dam. Jack tapped a knuckle against it. “That looks to have been built sometime in the last month, probably finished about the time our cop was visiting the park. It’s caused a lot of flooding but so far nothing in the public areas. The Guard didn’t want more people going in and not coming back out so they decided to send a drone to investigate.” 

“I’ll be the FAA was thrilled with that,” I muttered. 

“Not sure they’ve found out,” Jack replied. “Show them the footage.” 

Lincoln cued up a video that gave us a bird’s eye view of the area around the park. As in, it actually dipped and swooped like a bird, it was pretty nauseating actually. I have no idea how the people who operate drones put up with it. The footage went on for about ten seconds before suddenly cutting out to static, then the words SIGNAL LOST came up on a black background. Samson grunted in surprise. “What happened?” 

“Show them the satellite footage,” Darryl said mildly. 

“Right.” Lincoln sounded a bit sheepish but did as he was told without further comment. 

This time the satellite was focused on the drone so the terrain around it was pretty much a blur. But then the miniature aircraft came to a sudden stop and started to fall. Lincoln froze the frame before it went far and zoomed in. A gray blob was shooting through the bottom half of the frame, obviously moving pretty fast. 

“There was a big blast of static at the time the drone’s signal was lost. It could be explained any number of ways, but smart money says this,” Darryl pointed at the blur, “is some kind of EMP device launched from the ground and set of to fry our machines.” 

“Definitely Circuit,” I said. “I don’t know what he’s doing all the way out there but I don’t care so long as we can shut him down and drag him in.” 

Teresa glanced at me, then over at Darryl. “What does the National Guard think of all this?” 

“They were thinking it was a terrorist plot to take over a Park and poison the water supply. There’s a squadron of A-10 Warthogs based in Fort Wayne that they were planning to mobilize as part of an operation to storm the park and round up anyone present. Then the news about talents went public and local field offices started circulating information on Circuit’s case and they came to us.” 

“So when do we go in?” Teresa asked. 

“Actually, they just want us to send an advisor. They still plan to run their op, they just want someone from the Project to ‘look for unanticipated complications’ and suggest adjustments.” Jack’s tone of voice told me he thought that wasn’t going to be enough. By several orders of magnitude. 

I felt my own eyes narrowing at the thought of just handing this job over to a bunch of soldiers and sitting in an office while other people dragged Circuit out of his watery little hideyhole. I glanced from Darryl to Voorman. “What do you gentlemen say we go and explain to the Guard the errors of their ways?” 

Darryl rubbed his hands together and picked up his cane. “I’ll go get my team.” 

I glanced at Voorman and Samson. “That’s the Secret Service spoken for.” 

Samson shrugged. “Who knows that our position is not for such a time as this?” 

That got a grin from me. “Okay, Mordecai, get your bags packed, time’s a wasting!” 

“Wait.” Lincoln gave me a confused look. “I thought his codename was Samson.” 

Samson laughed. “At least he didn’t call me Sam. Or Esther.” 

“Then I’ll do it, Sam.” Voorman gave his partner and I a grim look. “You two need to calm down. We can’t take this op from them by force and we don’t have the standing to demand they turn it over to us. The National Guard isn’t going to give up on running their own plan unless we can bring them a better one, and they’re not going to let us execute our plan unless we give them a good reason why they’re not qualified to carry out that plan themselves.” 

“Fair points,” Teresa said with a smile. “But we have the world’s foremost expert on Open Circuit to draw on so that should be easy to do.” 

I frowned. “Darryl did work a lot of the early cases with me, but he had moved to Analysis chief before most of the really heavy stuff happened. This is Amber’s first time working a Circuit case, and Mossburger and Mov-“ 

“Big guy,” Jack interrupted. “She’s talking about you. Not the getmen.” 

“Oh.” I stared blankly at him, then Teresa. “Me?” 

“Yes,” she said slowly. “You. In eight years you’ve worked twelve cases involving Circuit, out of seventeen attributed to him in one way or another. And that doesn’t include whatever it was the CIA asked you to do in Morocco a couple years back. No one knows him like you.” 

I swallowed once, hard. “I guess not.” 

Jack grinned. “Then I guess you’d better get to work putting together a plan for us.” 

“Yeah.” I’d never been in a position where I had to put a plan together before. But as soon as Jack said it I realized it was Circuit we were going after all the pieces just slid into place. “Actually, scratch that. We’ve got a plan. I just need to get Darryl back and make sure he’s on board…”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter

Writing Men: Compartments

Welcome back to Writing Men, a look at what things a writer should keep in mind when writing male characters in fiction. Previous segments include the introduction, goal oriented behavior and axioms. Up to date? Then let’s get cracking! 

One of the best pieces of advice for women seeking to understand men that I have ever heard is this: When you’re dealing with men, it is important to understand that they are not women who are failing to communicate properly. Men have their own ways of dealing with ideas and emotions and they are just as correct and just as dangerous as those used by women. A perfect example of this is the way men compartmentalize. 

We’ve covered the way men are goal oriented and the fact that they amass a set of rules and principles that serve as the foundation of their behavior. To this point, the behavior of men is fairly straightforward and easy to understand, even if you’re not a man. From here on out, things get a littler murkier, even if you are a man. 

See, men tend to disassociate one object from another, devoting the entirety of our energies and thoughts to one thing at a time, where women frequently try to connect everything to everything else. I’ve heard this described as “waffles” vs “noodles” where men’s minds are a grid of separate and independent boxes and women’s minds are a dizzying mess of ideas running haphazardly into one another. We could dissect both these systems of thought, but our focus here is men and that means compartmentalization, a system of though that has effects on male behavior which are baffling to everyone involved, except possible the man doing the decision making. 

Let me give you an example. In the Firefly episode “Trash”, Malcom Reynolds decides to team up with a swindler, one both he and the audience have tangled with before (in the episode, “Our Mrs. Reynolds”) even though the last time they crossed paths Mal and the crew of Serenity almost wound up dead. Why does Mal decided to do this, in spite of the obvious dangers involved? 

It’s because the last, near-death encounter was a different situation. Mal and his dubious partner will be allies this time, not adversaries, and there is a whole lot of money to be made. Yes, there’s no trust between these two, but they both want a payday. Further, Mal is dealing with a known quantity this time. He doesn’t trust the swindler, sure, but at least he knows to be prepared for the double cross. 

While it didn’t happen right away, Malcom built an entirely different frame of reference around different goals and axioms than those he used on his first encounter with the swindler and used it to asses the playing field during their second meeting. The result was his agreeing to take the deal and try his hand at a heist. 

This is the same kind of behavior you see from kindergarten boys, who will be calling each other names during lunch break and then turn around and play soccer like they were old buddies. Women do not usually indulge in nearly this level of paradigm shift when their circumstances change and unless they train themselves to identify and work with it they’re going to be frustrated by the men in their lives quite a bit. 

But this is not a relationship advice column, this is a column on writing men in fiction. So what does this mean for the male character you are writing? 

First and foremost, it’s important to point out that the fact that men compartmentalize does not mean men don’t interconnect the areas of their life. Rather, interconnectivity itself is a kind of axiom, a rule that is applied or ignored as circumstances dictate. If a man doesn’t see a need to switch on the interconnectivity node, he won’t. This means that, at least eighty percent of the time, he’s not actively building connections between what he’s doing and whatever else might be on his mind. But he can do it if he thinks he needs to. 

Second, the scope of a man’s thought may be narrow at times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t nimble. One of the benefits of compartmentalized thinking is it’s very easy to shift from one paradigm to another. Men can dance through several different mindsets in a short period of time, allowing them to adapt rapidly to changing situations or sending them dashing off after random side thoughts to the annoyance of everyone in a conversation. (Good luck getting them back on topic, since that bunny trail is going to be the total focus of their thoughts for the next five minutes.) 

But, by the same token, a drawback of compartmentalized thinking is that building new paradigms to switch to takes time, effort and significant fine tuning. Sometimes a man will just take a paradigm they already have and that looks like it fits a situation then run with it, without taking the time to really test their assumptions. In military strategy this is called fighting the last war. In social situations, it’s called putting your foot in your mouth (in the best case scenario.) If a man’s done this a lot before, he might instead ask a number of clarifying questions to make sure of the situation he’s dealing with, which might make him come of as obtuse when he’s just trying to cover all the bases.

Finally, men can be accused of switching off or suppressing their feelings because of compartmentalization. While sometimes this is true, far more often they are acting as they think the situation dictates – and all the while feeling something quite contrary to what their actions suggest. The classic example of this is courage, or the ability to ignore fear to do what needs to be done. Not all compartmentalization is courageous, of course, but it does all take an emotional toll that is rarely appreciated and poorly understood. If we leave these emotional conflicts unsorted for too long, it can take a great toll on relationships, personality and eventually sanity. You, the writer, should exploit this for all it’s worth.

Like all the things I’ve talked about in this examination of writing men, compartmentalization is not unique to the male gender. But it is something that is far more definitively associated with them. As always, I don’t pretend to assign values or reasons for this, only encourage you to look at it carefully, assess the corresponding strengths and weaknesses, and try to write your male characters accordingly. Good luck!

Cool Things: Raiders From the Rings

Time for a classic sci-fi tale. Raiders From the Rings is a space opera of limited scope that is none the less of excellent quality. Written by Alan E. Nourse and published in 1962 this story is both entertaining and purposeful and, to an extent, it holds water today.

Which is not to say it doesn’t suffer from zeerust, that peculiar brand of datedness that accompanies pretty much any work of science fiction published more than ten or fifteen years ago. Ben Treffon’s space ship runs on atomic fission and antigravity generators, but it’s mother computer reads magnetic tapes and takes commands from punch cards. So before we start, yes, not everything here is bleeding edge scifi. But, if you remember your space opera basics, that’s really not the point.

Plot summary time: Ben Treffon is a member of the Spacers, a group of interplanetary colonists. Ben calls Mars home but the Spacers are scattered everywhere within the Sol system.

Everywhere, that is, but Earth. Earthmen shut the Spacers out a long time ago, casualties of a Cold War that lasted much longer than the one we know. While the vastness of space provides plenty of room for the Spacers, there are some things you can’t get in space. So periodically the Spacers gather together and launch a Raid, diving recklessly through layers of defense satellites and ground based missiles to reach the ground and grab valuable supplies of grain and meat.

The Spacers are very humane, armed with web guns and striving hard not to hurt anyone on their way in or out, and they insist that given the chance they would trade for what they need rather than fight for it. The Earthmen aren’t buying it, however.

Because on ever raid the Spacers also make a point to abduct women.

Not just one or two, but dozens.

Ben Treffon is about to set out on his very first raid and his assignment is mauki recruitment (read – kidnapping duty). After months of careful study, consultation with agents on the surface and analysis of previous Earth response patterns, Spacer High Command have conceived of the following plan:

  1. Crash the Earthling’s singles night.

  2. Abscond with females.

  3. Profit!

Unfortunately, like most plans, this one does not survive it’s encounter with the enemy. In fact, by the time Ben gets back into space, he’s juggling not one but three distinct problems:

  1. He’s abducted a girl but she hates his guts. So much that she’s kneed and elbowed him in them repeatedly.

  2. The girl has a brother, who has come along for the ride in an attempt to rescue his sister. While abducting women is totally kosher, taking men of Earth into space without their consent isn’t just frowned on, it’s illegal.

  3. Decades of raids have allowed Earth to crack some agents and feed the Spacers false information, setting them up to get hit hard this time around and giving Earth time to launch their own fleet and hit the Spacer fleet as it lands. Now, most of the Raid fleet is wreckage and the space between Earth and Mars is crawling with hostiles.

Problems? Ben’s got them. And did I mention the invisible spaceship that’s stalking them?

Nourse is actually kind of leisurely in dealing with all his plot threads, carefully explaining one thing at a time until we have all the pieces and we just have to wait for Ben and company to decide what to do with them. In fact, what Ben and his Earthman companions choose is the hinge of the plot on more than one occasion.

This is where Raiders holds up. As a genre about ideas, science fiction also presents us with the choice of what ideas we will choose to operate under. Nourse goes to a great deal of trouble painting a picture of two conflicting ideas of thought, how they came to be and what people might do about them.

Unfortunately, at the same time, one of his schools of thought, and how that school of thought might become dominant over it’s opponent, are a little naïve and fail to take into account important aspects of human nature. In the world of the Raiders, all that’s needed for peace is less ignorance and more music. While that’s a noble sentiment, and may take your part of the way to achieving your ends, I’m afraid I don’t think it will actually usher in an era of human peace.

But that’s okay! While some aspects of human behavior in this book may look unbelievable, Spacer society itself is quite fun looking, especially once we understand all the dynamics behind it (such as those that lead to the constant kidnapping.) Many of Nourse’s ideas for what might be done with the outer solar system remain in discussion today, a sure sign that he was on the right track with his technological innovations, even if he did wiff on some of the details.

On the whole, if you’re looking for a quick, fun, kind of light-hearted space opera that’s both meaningful and classic, Raiders From the Rings is a good choice.

No Water Fall Chapter This Week

Dear readers,

I know that some of you look forward to the weekly installment of Water Fall. When I started this blog I knew that I wanted to publish weekly for as long as possible and took a lot of steps to try and make sure that I could make every post, including writing a two week backlog and doing my best to keep it up. Sometimes it’s lapsed and I’ve had to double time to try and fill it back out. Sometimes I’ve taken planned vacations and used some of that time to push further ahead than planned.

The last two months I’m afraid I’ve not kept up as much as I would have liked. There’s a lot of reasons for that, including weather related problems, busy schedules and assorted other matters. Things really went off the rails a couple of weeks ago, when I was seriously sick for two days and basically sat around being miserable and trying to sleep to get my health back. As a direct result of this, and in spite of my best efforts to catch back up, I don’t have a complete chapter ready to go this week.

I’ve said before that writing is a discipline, and someone aiming to be a pro (as I am) will do all they can to keep up with it in spite of the obstacles. Unfortunately, it looks like I’m not quite a pro yet. I have done a fair amount of work, and there were definitely be a chapter ready next week and, Lord willing, each week after that until the book is done. In the mean time, I hope you’ll forgive this lapse and come back on Wednesday (or next week, if you just tune in for the story). Thanks,

Nate Chen

Genrely Speaking: Dystopia

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking, the part of the show where we examine the classifications of literature and what we mean when we use them here. The dystopia is a particularly notable genre at the moment, as it is used to describe a number of stories that have come out recently, particularly The Hunger Games and Divergent series of books and the corresponding movies. Shall we take a moment to break down the genre and see what that means, and if these two series actually qualify?

Of course we shall!

Let’s begin at the beginning. Dystopia, like so many words today, started life as two separate Greek words. “Dys” is derived from a Greek adjective that refers to something hard, or straight out bad. “Topia” comes from a Greek word that can refer to either a place or an incredibly horrible artificial substitute for hair. Thus it is most literally a hard place, or possibly hard hair, something certainly favored by real life dictators who tried to create dystopias.

But enough of that. What is it that makes these stories, and the places in them, so hard?

  1. The government is treated much like a god. It is nearly or perfectly all-knowing and destroys all attempts to challenge it ruthlessly, but at a time of its choosing. Its power may or may not be absolute, but the long arm of the law is at least powerful enough to crush most resistance and probably alter most circumstances, including culture and sometimes even memory, to suit its own ends.

  2. Like most gods, the government cannot be destroyed or even appreciably harmed, only annoyed. In this way, dystopias are oddly like cosmic horror. Except instead of squidheaded aliens poking their heads out of R’Lyeh, like you’d find in a typical example of Yog’Sothery, what you get instead is masses of humanity united into Parties and actively tearing one another down. The result is actually far more chilling, as the human motivations are far more believable than the supposedly uncaring cosmic beings that populate Lovecraftian stories. Worse, these human gods can and do demand appeasement at the expense of their followers, appeasement that quickly grows natural, then even enjoyable.

  3. The character is feeble in the face of the government’s overwhelming strength. Again like the protagonist of a cosmic horror story, the characters in a dystopia are pretty much unable to make a meaningful change in the world around them. The power of the government is too absolute for them to challenge, their society, crafted by the government to keep them imprisoned, withholds all skills and ideas that would make challenging the status quo practical or attractive. This doesn’t mean people don’t try, just that they’re very bad at it.

What are the problems of a dystopia story? Well for starters, building a believable one is very, very hard.

Keeping all those lemmings in lockstep requires an almost equal sized herd of cowboys (lemmingboys?), all of whom would have to buy in to the ruling ideal unquestioningly. How exactly is a society supposed to make the jump from even the most repressive regime known to man (say, North Korea, where people still escape on a nearly constant basis and subversive ideas like Christianity runs rampant in the backwoods) to a true dystopia where all contrary ideas are extinguished? That such a powerful and self-contained society could exist defies belief and you have to be very, very careful when including ideas that defy belief in a story.

Another problem lies in the very ideas underpinning most dystopias. From Big Brother’s hate (1984) to the World State’s soma (Brave New World) to the hedonism and agism of the Sandmen (Logan’s Run) to the enforced ignorance of the Firemen (Fahrenheit 451), none of them are very good foundations for societies. As the old parable says, a house built upon sand is doomed to collapse as soon as the floods come. It really shouldn’t be possible for these societies to stand up to any kind of serious testing, so why bother telling stories about them at all? In other words-

What are the strengths of a dystopia story? Dystopias are a kind of science fiction, which means the stories they tell are about human ideas. Dystopias seek to take an idea that might look serviceable and even attractive on the surface, and carry itto its most extreme logical implementation.

Doing this exposes the weaknesses of a given system of thought. This is true regardless of what the system of thought is – it’s possible to found a dystopia on the maxim “love thy neighbor as thy self”. (And some people might say we’re in the process of doing that in modern day America. Humans are nothing if not inventive in finding new ways to oppress themselves and others.) The point is, when we take these ideas to their natural conclusion we realize maybe they aren’t such swell things after all.

So dystopia stories fill an important purpose in social commentary. They show us our ideas, and what can become of them when we let them get out of hand. This is where they shine.

You may have noticed that I’ve defined dystopia very narrowly. Like all genres, the dystopia as a kind of amorphous and vague thing, but I feel that it’s important to limit the genre to stories about a society where human culture is in the process of active and gleeful self-annihilation, and not confuse the genre with others it often overlaps with, such as post-apocalyptic literature, or noir (both to have their own days in the spotlight here, I’m sure). Elements of these two other genres can often turn up in dystopias, particularly in modern times, and elements of dystopia can turn up in post-apocalyptic or noir stories as well.

So I don’t consider The Hunger Games, Divergent or even The Matrix dystopian stories. While each contains a totalitarian society that is ruled over by a government that has gained power through manipulation (of food and entertainment in The Hunger Games, social structure and work life in Divergent and technology in The Matrix) they don’t carefully examine the ideas that would create such a society or spend a great deal of time deconstructing how that society dehumanizes individual people. The totalitarian governments are just there to be torn down. While that story serves its own purpose, that purpose is not the purpose of a dystopia story.

Ultimately, dystopias serve to show us human society at it’s nadir and remind us that there, but for the grace of God, go we.

Cool Things: The Way Things Work

Let’s talk about the way things work.

Excuse me. Let’s talk about The Way Things Work.

Much better.

This book is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. Neil Ardley wrote and David Macaulay illustrated this excellent tome to take many of the pieces of technology we encounter in the day to day and explain to us, well, the way they work. Done wrong, this process could turn out to be incredibly boring but, thanks to Arley’s conversational writing style and Macaulay’s whimsical illustrations, we find ourselves being interested and engrossed instead. Sure, the books are crawling with wooly mammoths (mimmoths?) and the gizmos aren’t always drawn to perfect scale, but the scientific principles the book engages with are surprisingly deep and thorough.

The book is broken into sections ranging from the very basic mechanical principles up to electricity and primitive electrical devices and, if you pick up the updated version, basic computing ideas. Don’t remember how buoyancy works? Treat yourself to a quick refresher and a chuckle as you watch a hapless mammoth try and keep its balance in a too-small boat. Never understood how a nuclear power plant works? There’s a basic primer here that will leave you with a better understanding of the process – and profoundly grateful that mammoths never got their hands on enriched uranium.

Now there’s not really a whole lot new or unique going on in this book. If you’ve been to a high school physics class you’ve probably seen half or even all of this before, but that’s kind of the point. The Way Things Work takes high school level material and breaks it down to a level that even a young grade school student could easily understand it. In fact, I was in first or second grade when I first read this book and I loved it. Not because I was unusually smart (although I’m not so humble as to deny that I might have been) but because the material was presented in such a simple, straight-forward and engaging way.

The mammoth motif is a great example. Do we need woolly mammoths (and the attendant theories of extinction) on nearly every page to appreciate the ideas presented? No, of course not. But it’s these added touches of whimsy and fun that make the book engrossing and they succeed in making advanced ideas accessible to younger minds. For that alone the book would be worth the price of admission. That the book holds up well to age, continuing to engross and teach us slightly more chronologically advanced folk just adds to the value of the book.

Whether you’re looking for a quick, fun primer to physics and mechanics for a young person(s) in your life, or you just need a quick, fun refresher on the same for yourself, The Way Things Work is the book for you.

Water Fall: Breaking the Levy

Three Days After the Michigan Avenue Proclamation 

Circuit

After all the prep, the pursuit and the press, I’d finally achieved a lifelong dream: Exposing the existence of unusual talents to the world at large. Naturally, once we’d shaken off pursuit I decided to repair to my evil villain’s lair and plot my next diabolical move. Also, since the place had been under construction for nearly a year and I hadn’t visited in three weeks, there were a lot of things to check up on. Being a conscientious evil mastermind I immediately set out to bring myself up to date in a fashion most likely to be unpleasant for all involved. Which is to say, I scheduled a meeting.

There were no donuts involved.

And, since it was my meeting, I dispensed with an agenda and skipped straight to the questions. “Status of the maglev relays?”

Davis waved his hand over the northern section of the map of the Chainfall site we were gathered around. “The last quadrant has the system fully installed and connected, but the reserves aren’t charged yet. You can only expect fifteen to twenty minutes of use right now. We won’t have the full hour and a half of reserves until tomorrow afternoon.”

I nodded. “That’s acceptable. What about the Empion grenades and their launchers?”

“They’re all up and running,” Wallace said, rapping his knuckles on the table and sending pens and pencils jumping. “You have full coverage of the base and we’ve done a couple of test detonations. We don’t know how well they handle, since the maglev system works best in your hands, but the basic principles are sound.”

“That leads us to the ground situation.” I glanced at Heavy and Grappler. “How prepared are we?”

Heavy laughed. “You know us, boss. We got flypaper and glue out everywhere you want it and a couple of places you didn’t think of. But the guys you got here? They ain’t pros. Not like the Army, not like the cops. When the hammer comes down, they’re only gonna buy you so much time.”

“Not to worry,” I said with a half smile. “Chainfall isn’t a permanent site, it’s just a temporary production facility.”

“Which raises the question,” Davis said, “of what, exactly, you need that would require you invest almost fifteen million dollars of time, effort and material in building this site.”

“Only fifteen million?” Hangman asked, glancing at Davis.

“You save a lot when you don’t need permits, zoning adjustments, board of health and safety inspections and the architect does the work free of charge,” Wallace said.

“The answer,” I said, a bit louder than the byplay going on, “is this.”

I took a small stretch of bronze colored wire out of a box that sat on one side of the table and set it on top of the map. It was about the thickness of the wide rice noodles you find in Chinese cooking, coiled into the rough shape of an electromagnet. For a moment the rest studied it, as if there was some great significance hidden in its coils. Which there was, although I could tell from their expressions they didn’t know what it was.

Finally Wallace said, “We’re making copper wire?”

“Not copper,” I said. “Cuprate-perovskite ceramic wire.”

Davis made a sound somewhere between a whimper and a squeal of glee and snatched the coil up to inspect it more closely. “A high temperature superconductor. And you made this here?”

“For a quarter the cost buying it on the open market, to say nothing of the cost of buying it through the black market. Assuming there was even enough of the stuff in the world to meet our needs.” I folded my arms over my chest and turned my smile up to full strength. “Worth those fifteen millions to you, Davis?”

Hangman waved her hand a bit to catch our attention then asked, “Excuse me if I scroll back a bit, but, what’s so special about this cupping ceramics?”

“It’s cuprate-perovskite ceramic, and when-”

Letting Davis try and explain would take all day so I jumped in and intercepted before he could work up too much of a head of steam. “Let’s just call them CPCs and say the short answer is, they can function as superconductors without having to be frozen all the way down to near absolute zero.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Room temperature superconductors?”

“Liquid nitrogen baths are still required,” I said. “The phrase ‘high temperature’ is extremely relative in this case.”

“Ah. I see.”

“But if we’re going to finalize the Thunderclap array,” I continued, “Davis is going to require a great deal of CPC electromagnetic coils. We’ve known that for more than five years, thus the necessity of adding the Chainfall operation to our long term strategy.”

“The what?” Heavy asked, sounding a little confused.

I glanced at my senior engineer, who was still studying the coil with something approaching reverence. “Mr. Davis? Would you care to explain the purpose behind that invaluable piece of wire you’re holding?”

“I would be delighted,” he said, slowly lifting the coil up until it was at his eye level and rotating it for the whole table to see. A few of the other hands in the ops room glanced over from their monitors to see what there was to see but, for the most part, the people Simeon had found to staff Chainfall were maintaining a professional interesting in their equipment. Just as well. Davis, oblivious to the interest or apathy of his surroundings, went on. “A superconductor has a number of unique properties but, from the moment I was hired, Circuit and I have only been interested in the way they can hold current for a near infinite length of time.”

“You mean it’s like a battery that never runs out?” Grappler asked, sounding interested in the conversation for the first time.

“More like a flashlight that doesn’t actually use any electricity,” Davis said. “It took a year of research to determine the best way to exploit that. It all ultimately hinges on the fact that electricity and magnetism are the same thing.”

“Right,” Heavy said, nodding. “Even I get that much. With a the maghand the boss can reach out and flip switches or mess with power lines he’s not touching. Why’s the superconductingness of the magnet make a difference?”

“Because the nature of a superconductor is such that a fusebox like Circuit can tweak the resistance just enough to get slightly different shapes of magnetic fields.” Davis quickly but gently set the electromagnet coil back down on the table while continuing to talk and motion with his other hand. “Before you ask, that means one electromagnet, cooled to superconductivity and attached to the right computer equipment, can do triple duty, serving as a ‘maghand’, as you call it, a maglev relay and a lightning funnel all at once. Put enough of them in a city and a fusebox at the center and you know what you get?”

“Anything you want,” I said. “This is the age of information, and CPC superconductors are the secret to exploiting it. Hijacking any security system, manipulating traffic flow, shorting out substations and using the resulting current both offensively and defensively via the lighting funnel effect, it’s all possible once we have the tech in place. And that’s just scratching the surface.”

“Which is swell and all,” Hangman said, “but kind of raises the question, where are you going to install this Thunderclap array? I know you have property holdings all over the nation but a magnet that size isn’t going to cover a whole city block. Will it?”

“One of the bright sides of using superconductors is that they use so little current to keep running, so even a small coil like this will make a bigger magnetic field than you might think.” I picked up the wire and tucked it back into it’s box. “But that was just a test product. The real things will be several times bigger and should cover at least a half a dozen city blocks.”

“Again,” Hangman countered, “You don’t have the real estate to make that practical. What are you going to do with all-”

“Hangman, my dear, you underestimate Simeon’s ability to play the great game.” I pulled two sheets of paper, folded into thirds, from my jacket’s inner pocket and slid them across the table to Wallace. “Three years ago I left the country in order to set up a financial network in southern Europe and northern Africa. The incredible mineral resources of Africa, in particular, were of interest to me as a place to acquire the raw material to build the Thunderclap array, but Germany and Spain both served as conduits to funnel money back through dummy corporations and silent partners, some of whom aren’t even aware of what they’re investing in. When you run it all together we have more than enough access to turn not one but three cities into test sites for Thunderclap.”

“Always good to have options,” Wallace said, picking up the papers and flipping them open. “But I assume you already have your heart set on one?”

I nodded in confirmation. “The others serve to distract Project Sumter and, as you say, provide us with fallback sites if the first implementation doesn’t go well.”

As he read the first sheet of paper Wallace’s eyebrows rose until the practically touched his hairline, which takes some doing when it’s receded that far. “You’re setting this up in your own back yard?”

“Talented people exist in the public eye now,” I said, holding up half a dozen newspapers from across the country with front page stories on the subject. After my initial interview revealing our existence it sounded like most publications had more than one person in their local community volunteering to give an interview of their own, complete with demonstrations and, in one case, a fanciful costume to protect their identity and cause unfortunate misconceptions. All in all, it was about as expected. “Sooner or later, and I suspect it will be sooner, Project Sumter is going to put itself forward and try and assert control. But they’ll lack credibility and trust from the public, most secretive government branches do. After they flail about for a while, we can step in and pick up the pieces. And what better place to do it than right under the nose of one of their biggest offices? Plus, the fact that we’re operating in the same city we chose to reveal ourselves in will emphasize that we’re confident and in control.”

Glances passed back and forth around the table, and I saw one or two skeptical expressions warming to cautious enthusiasm. Heavy actually laughed and said, “Ballsy, boss. I like it.”

I offered a slight bow from the waist, then said, “Any other questions?”

And of course Davis had one. “How long?”

“Before we’re ready to use the array? Maybe a year. Six months if all goes smoothly.”

“Not what I was asking.” He leaned forward and gave me a hard look. “I just remembered that the method we devised for manufacturing cupra – excuse me, CPC materials involved the direct involvement of a fusebox. You were supposed to hire three for the occasion.”

Grappler saw where this was going quickly. “But one of them got arrested in that arms sting that went down while the rest of us were out around the country. So now we got two.” She glanced at me. “Unless you’re filling in?”

Wallace shook his head. “Not a good idea. A lot of our defenses only work at top efficiency if there’s a fusebox at the controls. For example, the maglev system can only throw an Empion grenade straight up, if we want to actually get a target in range of it’s pulse we’re going to have to be able to move it horizontally as well as vertically, and for that we need Circuit. And it’s less likely to work if he’s exhausted after spending a bunch of time fabricating electromagnets.”

Davis scowled. “I said in the past that making too much of your stuff dependent on your talent-”

“Relax, people,” I said, making a hushing gesture. “We’ll just have to make some concessions to the timetable. I had originally hoped to have things done in five or six days with our three other fuseboxes working around the clock. As it is, we’re probably looking at a week to ten days. Hangman? How long until we’re likely to be spotted?”

She spared me an arch glance, then turned her attention back to her laptop. “The next satellite overflight will be in one hour and sixteen minutes. I don’t know how many passes it will take for them to actually notice that dam you’re building outside, but I’m guessing it won’t be that many. The whole country’s probably on alert at this point.”

“Every second counts,” I said, running numbers in my head. “Wallace, that means you should be able to grab the first batch of finished CPC coils and head back to the city with them before anyone is paying attention. Use the Chinatown safehouse and start building the array based on the blueprints I gave you. There’s a list of preliminary locations to install them at as well. See Simeon before you leave, he’ll provide you with documentation on what kinds of cover stories to use.”

“Just as a helpful reminder, I did live in town for several years,” Wallace said. “There’s a chance someone’s going to know who I am. Might raise questions.”

“An acceptable risk, at this point. Anyone have a point they’d like to raise, now is the time.” I glanced around the table but no one looked like they had anything to add. “In that case, get settled and stay sharp. It all comes down to how the other side reacts now.”

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter
Next Chapter