Summer Plans

So as you may know I recently completed my Project Sumter novel trilogy leaving me confronting the summer with a couple of issues.

The first and biggest are the three novels I’ve rough drafted but not edited. I want to sell those at some point but they’re not nearly ready for marketing. So I want to work on that. Plus, while I’ve enjoyed the periodic feedback I get here and I really appreciate all my readers I haven’t really gotten quite the level of feedback I was originally hoping for. That’s mostly my fault, I’m sure, I keep far too busy with other activities to really participate in social media the amount I probably need to in order to get constant feedback from a large readership base.

Plus there are a lot of other projects I hoped to mess around with in the last couple of years but never found the time for because so much of my free time was caught up trying to write and edit, on average, over 3,000 words a week while also planning my own topics. It was a lot to write and probably a lot to read as well. I’d like to finally get around to some of that other stuff I wanted to do and who knows – maybe putting out less will get people to read more of it!

Basically what I’m trying to say is, I’m going to be scaling back on the blog because it hasn’t been turned out quite the way I expected when I started. For the most part the most readers and commentators have turned up on Fridays for the On Writing column – so that’s what’s going to stick around this summer. I’ll write one post a week and put it up on Fridays and focus on making that the best post it can be and I’ll spend the newly acquired free time on editing and marketing my books, working on other projects and planning new stuff. Then, some time in mid or late August, I’ll review where I stand and perhaps start posting fiction again – we’ll see.

In the mean time, this is where we stand so I hope to see you back on Friday when we’ll look at writing from a slightly different angle. As always thanks for reading and I hope to see you then!

Nate

Sound and Story

Sounds can tell a story. Have you ever noticed?

It’s not something you might think much about if you, like me, primarily concern yourself with words on a page. But every so often you come across sound really well used and you realize that just a few quick sounds can tell a story. The cadence in the footsteps of a walking person is different from that of a running person. Research in communication theory has proven that tone of voice carries something like a quarter of the meaning in what we say.

In case you’re not sold yet let’s look at a couple of pieces of music that use simple sounds to tell fascinating stories, then let’s flip it around and brainstorm some ways our stories can put sounds in readers’ minds.

First, listen to the theme from The CW’s The Arrow, starting from the 2:00 mark on. Or you can listen to the whole thing, your call. but we’re mostly discussing what happens from the 2:00 mark to 2:20.

Notice how the score is riddled with punchy, sharp strings followed by a harsh note that starts high and pushes higher in tone, creating the impression of a flight of arrows swooping in while a bowstring is drawn tight in preparation for a second flight.

Or listen to the first thirty seconds of The Flash theme. (Blake Neely is apparently really good at this kind of composition.)

Notice how it opens with the Flash’s leitmotif, a single tone builds and falls rapidly like the Doppler effect of a fast moving race car blowing past us, then follows with hurried notes rushing up and down, reminiscent of traffic whizzing by, before sounding the Flash’s leitmotif once again. Perfectly suited for the subject matter.

Sounds can tell a story all of their own. Simple stories, admittedly, but no less impactful for it. The written word has it’s own techniques for this. Often they’re not as effective unless your work is meant to be read aloud but at the same time there are techniques that will emphasize sound even if it’s not being spoken aloud.

The two most common ones are alliteration, or using multiple words in a row starting with the same sound, and cadence. Alliteration is a tricky technique to try, as it quickly becomes difficult to find words that flow nicely with the meaning you want and all start with the same letter. Also, letters are limited in the sounds they create, being as a letter is a stand-in for a sound the human voice can produce and that’s not actually a whole lot of sounds when you think about it.

On the other hand, you can do some fun things with alliteration. “S” and “TH” sounds create a kind of white noise impression, hard consonants like “C” or “T” create a kind of percussion rhythm that can drive a story at a marching pace.

Cadence is a different thing entirely. William Shakespeare made his name writing in iambic pentameter, a cadence driven kind of verse that creates very flowing phrases. It does this by alternating between light and heavy, or up and down syllables. By focusing on short syllables, particularly one syllable words, one can give the impression of text that runs along lightly and quickly while long vowel sounds slow down the feel of a phrase.

Of course, the actual sounds you use in a story, things like dripping water or howling wind, can contribute a great deal to atmosphere but that’s an entirely different blog post in and of itself.

Sound creates powerful impressions and is a useful tool in telling a story in any medium. Even if all you do is read something out loud to see how easily your story flows, analyzing the sounds you use is a necessary part of getting better at your craft. Pay attention to the sounds you use, even when you’re just writing.

Cool Things: The Conquorer’s Saga

Who’s the master of modern day sci-fi suspense? Well that would probably be Timothy Zahn. Don’t believe me? Didn’t read the Quadrail series? Choo-choo trains in outer space just a bit too far fetched for you? Don’t like the idea of a digitized soul? Then try this series on for size.

As the title implies, the Conquerors’ Saga trilogy consists of three books – Conquerors’ Pride, Conquerors’ Heritage and Conquerors’ Legacy and they can only fairly be looked at as a whole. The basic premise is as familiar as space opera itself – humanity has expanded into the cosmos and winds up leading a multiplanet group of aliens that it has dominated primarily through fecundity and martial prowess. The story opens with a human task force (or group of warships) encountering another task force belonging to a previously unknown starfaring species. Being responsible sorts, the human task force fires up the radio and broadcasts a first contact package intended to establish peaceful communications.

The aliens promptly blow up the human fleet.

This marks the beginning of a war, one where humanity is actually on the losing side for the first time in a long time. The aliens capture a single soldier from the human fleet who must endure imprisonment by the seemingly savage Zhirrzh while his family struggles to recapture him. The first book closes with humanity reeling from the might of the Zhirrzh fleets even as the sole survivor of their first encounter is brought home to his family.

The second book switches things up like no one’s business because suddenly we find ourselves seeing the world through the eyes of the Zhirrzh who was in charge of looking after the alien’s one and only human captive. With his prisoner escaped our new protagonist finds his career plunging  into a downward slide. This is what sets the Conquerors’ Saga apart from most other space operas – it makes a wholehearted attempt to show both sides in a fair and positive light. There’s no moralizing or attempts to brush off differences between species as unbridgeable chasms created by circumstance, there’s just solid characterization and a fair shake given to each side.

That’s not to say these books don’t have problems. Characterization can be weak on some fronts and the end of the story feels very coincidence driven. Some people will say the technology end of things seems a bit weak, based on “old theories” about faster than light travel and such, but since none of those theories have been proven beyond the blackboard I tend to be more forgiving of that kind of thing. The biggest problem as I see it is a failure to develop anything outside of the two warring races – only the Zhirrzh and humans get a good examination even though both races are over hegemonies of other spacefaring races they have conquered.

Still, as a space opera that manages to tell a story with a grand scope, an even balance and a suspenseful tale, the Conquerors’ Saga is pretty good, and well worth your time.

Afterwords

Salvation is an integral part of comic books.

Saving the girl, saving your friends, saving a world or a galaxy or a universe – at some point all of these things became all in a day’s work. It’d be psychotic if it wasn’t so darn entertaining.

Something about the human condition has made us fall in love with the idea of saviors. We look for them, try to be them, a religion about a Savior has seriously influenced the political and social landscape of the last two thousand years in the West and yet, with trillions of lifetimes, billions of words and thousands of years spent on the problem humanity is still incredibly bad at the whole saving people thing.

Humanity is rife with contradictions and among our greatest is the fact that our propensity for evil tends to be greatest when we are trying our hardest to help others. C. S. Lewis said, “Of all tyrannies, the tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

When I first sat down to write Open Circuit nearly eight years ago it was with a very simple idea in mind. I wanted to create a character so repulsed by the world around him that the only way he could see to make it better would be to burn it to the ground and regrow it in his own image. A totalitarian, yes, but one with our best interests at heart. Imagine my surprise when almost every word he spoke boiled out of a festering discontent deep within my own heart. I was unsettled, to say the least.

Yes, I’ve waited all this time, until the very end of these three books, to make a confession to you, the readers who have come all this way with me: The character I am most like in all of Project Sumter is probably Matthew Sykes.

We’re both kind of reclusive, grumpy and given to thinking too much. We feel underappreciated and we worry that we’ll soon be too old to do any good for anyone. We’re frequently told we’re smart but things don’t work out for us so often it feels more like a consolation than a real advantage. And sometimes, if given the opportunity, I would climb in that wheelchair and conquer Chicago just the same as Circuit would.

Except the first thing I would do is put a coffee shop in at that reflective coffee bean thingy in Millenium Park because seriously not having one there is some kind of gross oversight. Then we would get to work restoring the lakefront. But I digress.

The one cardinal difference between me and the character I had created was that I have a savior – His name is Jesus Christ – and this helps me deal with all the things that Circuit can’t. So, long before I put the first word to paper, I knew that Circuit had to face up to his shortcomings at some point. And when he faced them he would have to be saved from them because that’s what real heroes do. They save people, no matter who they are. From there it was just a matter of working out who would do it and how.

The answers to those whos and hows I have already shared with you. I hope you’ve enjoyed them.

From a story that grew out of discontent and general grouchiness, political weirdness and a desire to do something different came something that was very simple and basic but that was none the less very difficult to achieve and satisfying to complete. The Sumter trilogy was by no means a perfect story in concept or execution but I’ve written it pretty much as I set out to and that’s something, a starting point at the very least.

Next week… well, come back next week and I’ll lay out my plans for the summer. Until then.

Writing Men: Dipper Pines

Hey, haven’t done this in a while! If you’re not familiar with this series of posts a summary and links to the others can be found on this page.

Up to speed? Great! Let’s take a look at the principles of writing male characters in application.

Dipper Pines is the male half of the protagonist duloagy of Gravity Falls. (The other protagonist is, of course, Dipper’s twin sister Mabel.) He’s an interesting character for several reasons, not all of which are the scope of this post, but one that we should look at right off the bat is his age. Dipper is twelve, which technically makes him a boy and not a man. Is that relevant?

Not really. As I hope to prove through the course of this examination, Dipper shows all the relevant hallmarks of a well written male character but still behaves as we would expect a twelve year old boy to behave. This suggests that the patterns of thought I’ve put forward as distinctly male in character action are cemented at a very young age. So what are some of the male behaviors Dipper shows and how does he demonstrate them?

Well, let’s just go down the list. The first, most basic aspect of male thought is the easiest to see in Dipper. He’s very objective driven – he wants to know what’s up with Gravity Falls. Why all the weirdness? Who wrote the journal he found? Does it all have some meaning? He gets caught up in these questions very easily and chafes at anything that drags him away from solving them. But the mysteries of Gravity Falls aren’t his only objective – he also has a crush on the local girl Wendy and wants to see his sister be as happy as possible. We can see these objectives clashing from the very beginning but episodes that illustrate the conflicts (and synergies) of these goals particularly well include Irrational Treasure and The Time Traveler’s Pig.

Dipper also has a very simple set of rules he lives by. The two most important are established in Tourist Trapped. First, Dipper looks out for Mabel (when it’s not the reverse, Mabel is very in the moment while Dipper takes the long term view so Dipper needs just as much looking after as his sister). Second, Dipper takes the Journal’s warning to Trust No One very seriously, but amends it somewhat because he does trust Mabel. Every episode has some example of this but they are the most apparent in The Hand That Rocks the Mabel and Gideon Rises.

The compartmentalization in Dipper’s life is much less obvious. We mostly see it with the older characters he knows – Soos and Grunkle Stan, both of whom he leaves out of most of his paranormal activities. Grunkle Stan doesn’t seem to buy into Dipper’s theories about the town and is a bit of an overprotective authoritarian so he winds up outside the “Adventure” box most of the time. Soos is fit for both everyday work and adventures but Dipper can find his help questionable when dealing with personal situations like Wendy or Mabel. But for the most part, Dipper is a man who hasn’t yet worked out where everything goes yet and that may be one of his strengths – he can find out of the box solutions that most other people won’t think of.

Testing, on the other hand, is something Dipper actively avoids. He doesn’t like the hard work Stan throws at him, he doesn’t really want to confront most of his problems (and Robbie in particular) and he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time refining the useful skills he does show. One thing he does do is test out the things he reads in The Journal, but that could be more seen as a desire to confirm what others have told him rather than a particular desire to know his own limits.

Dippers lack of go-getting brinksmanship with his own abilities is probably one of the things that leads others to underestimate him. Dipper’s not a wimp but he doesn’t measure his abilities for the sake of knowing what he can do, either, so when a situation pops up that requires him to do something new he’s often nervous about it. We see this particularly in The Inconveniencing, Double Dipper and Fight Fighters. By the end of the first season, however, Gravity Falls itself has tested him to the point where he knows himself very well and he gains some confidence.

On a side note, Dipper has no solid mentoring figure. Stan’s hands off stance most likely reflects his own lack of confidence in his ability to mentor Dipper – the man’s been to jail after all, and his general lack of ethics and good sense probably makes him a poor role model, even if he’s fun to watch at times. Soos has a solid set of skills but is probably on Dipper’s maturity level himself and frequently looks to Dipper for leadership, so he’s not really a mentor either. The Author also teaches a lot of useful skills via his Journal but isn’t there to help Dipper understand the messages he left behind so he’s not really a mentor either.

Dipper could probably use one – Dipper Vs. Manliness certainly showed that and he would probably have liked someone besides Mabel he could talk to about things but currently Gravity Falls is short in the Good Role Model department. Instead of seeking a mentor Dipper usually goes off by himself, thinks things over and comes up with a plan of action. It may not be a good plan, but it’s a plan.

Finally, Dipper’s life is riddled with Sacrifice. Practically every episode he gives something up for the sake of Mabel, from a chance to impress his crush in the Time Traveler’s Pig to his part time job in The Deep End. While those are the biggest examples he gives up small parts of his dignity, time and desires on a regular basis to keep an eye on Mabel and make sure she’s not getting into trouble.

On the opposite side of things, he frequently gives up his time and skips out on work in The Mystery Shack to try and solve the mysteries of Gravity Falls. In fact, he willingly gives up just about anything to learn about Gravity Falls – except Mabel’s welfare.

So in conclusion we find all the typical male hallmarks in Dipper, making him a well written, well rounded male character in spite of his youth. In fact, it’s his youth that makes his male characteristics so pronounced – where maturity would mean reigning them in at times (because sooner or later Mabel is going to need to look to her own future) and shoring up some weak points (he’ll fail more if he fears testing his limits than he would otherwise) Dipper gives full vent to all his tendencies, good and bad. While Gravity Falls may not be a show for everyone and there’s no denying they do a good job writing they’re characters and Dipper is just one great example of that.

Cool Things: Insufferable

Imagine, just for a moment, that there was a man driven to fight crime. Although he has no special powers he still dons a cape and dark clothing, goes out every night and pummels injustice. In time he takes a grieving boy under his wing and they fight crime together. Sounds familiar, right?

Except this caped crusader isn’t Batman, he’s called Nocturnus. And his crime fighting companion isn’t an orphaned boy who takes the name Robin, it’s Nocturnus’ son and he takes the name Galahad. And he’s not exactly easy to get along with. In fact, Galahad and Nocturnus eventually split ways when Galahad unexpectedly reveals his identity in front of the press and things get ugly. Galahad becomes a grandstanding, glory mongering ingrate more concerned with building his own image than actually fighting the good fight. Nocturnus continues to do things his own way, working on his own once again, until someone finds just the right button to push in order to get the two of them to work together again.

When the urns each man keeps containing ashes of the woman who was wife to one and mother to the other mysteriously explode leaving the message “help me” behind differences will be set aside to find the culprit. While neither man ever seems to indulge the idea that a ghost could be at work they both know there are people out there who wish them harm and both loved the woman who’s remains have been desecrated. So, like it or not, Nocturnus and Galahad are together once again.

Insufferable is a variation on themes for author Mark Waid. He’s looked at what it means to be a hero in many of his previous works, contrasting modern notions of the antihero and the protagonist with the heroic archetypes more common in the early days of comic books. He did this in his DC Elseworld series Kingdom Come and then again in longer form with the twin series Irredeemable and Incorruptible. However, where those books were concerned with notions like accountability, justice vs. revenge and the dangers of power Insufferable is all about humility.

Simply put, Nocturnus has it and Galahad doesn’t.

The fact that neither man has traditional “superpowers” and must rely on his wits and training to solve problems really lets the difference in attitude shine through. While Nocturnus is verging on obsolescence – he’s not as strong or fast as he used to be and he doesn’t get the electronic side of crime fighting at all – he still outperforms his son almost every time because he’s willing to listen, ask for assistance when he needs it and always takes people seriously, be they friends or enemies. Galahad gets technology and uses Twitter to help collect tips but he gets too caught up in himself and his image to stay on top of what’s happening in the real world and he abuses those around him to the point that very few of his staff can stand to help him out when he really needs it.

And this series is funny. Galahad’s the only one in the series that seems to lack a sense of humor, or if he has one it falls so flat as to be effectively invisible, but better yet the comic seems to be aware of it’s own absurdities and revels in them. There’s a piranha tank sequence for crying out loud – you only do those for laughs these days. Most of the humor hangs on the characters themselves, particularly the weird relationship between Nocturnus, Galahad and Meg, Galahad’s assistant and the only person who can tolerate him for any length of time. This well written, character based humor is timeless and will appeal to most everyone, except for all the real Galahads out there, and it’s one of the things that has always set Waid’s writing above most of his peers in the industry.

If you like your comics to be serious, well written examinations of human nature without being self-important handled then Insufferable might be right up your alley. You can read it as part of the subscription portion of Waid’s publishing website, Thrillbent.com, or you can buy it off of that same website. Either one will give you a great story although the comic is formatted for the website reader and the PDF layouts are a bit wonky.

But seriously, layout wonkiness is the one thing against it I can think of. Check this thing out, it’s well worth the price.

Thunder Clap: Era’s End

Helix

The door behind me swung closed. As soon as it latched I leaned back and blew out a long breath.

“You okay?” Sanders asked from where he stood by the observation window.

“Being okay implies I have something like normal to judge by.” I walked over to the window and stared out at Circuit, who was back to staring at the table top like the mysteries of the universe were written in the wood grain of it’s surface. “I’m not sure we’ve ever had anything like that. He was right about that much, even if what it drove him to was completely crazy.”

“He wouldn’t have been nearly as dangerous if he wasn’t right about a lot of things,” Sanders said, staring at Circuit with me.

I glanced past Sanders. Darryl was sitting at the far end of the window, leaning heavily on his cane and, like the two of us, contemplating the man in the other room.  I nudged Sanders lightly and tipped my head in Darryl’s direction. Had he said anything? Moved at all? Did we need to get him an ambulance? Or would Circuit need a security escort out of the interrogation room?

Sanders shook his head twice, a negative response on all counts.

“I can hear you two, you know,” Darryl said, not looking away from the window.

“We didn’t say anything!” Sanders protested.

“I hear you thinking.” Darryl snorted and finally tore his attention away from Circuit. “Since when were you two so good at reading each other, anyway?”

“Since we became middle management?” I offered.

That got a chuckle from him. “You certainly don’t act like middle management, Helix.”

“They never sent me to any classes for it. Maybe that’s why.” I searched his face for some sign of what he was thinking but Darryl had been in the field before I got out of middle school. People say I’m good at reading people and maybe so but Darryl was even better at hiding his feelings. “How are you doing?”

“Breathing.” Darryl laughed a weak, shaky laugh and turned back to the window again. “I’m not sure I’ve done anything more than that in the last three years or so. Not sure that’s going to change any time soon. If it’s saving I need then I didn’t find it here.”

Sanders put a hand on Darryl’s shoulder with a light, comforting touch. “Sometimes all you can do is keep breathing, if that’s what it takes to survive.”

“Survive?” Darryl shook his head and pushed up out of his chair. “Some days surviving feels like it just takes me further away from Mona.”

Sanders and I watched Darryl slowly make his way out of the observation room, his steps shuffling along to the rhythm of his cane. When he was gone Sanders asked, “Do you think we should keep an eye on him 24/7? Or just during the evenings.”

“Round the clock,” I said without hesitation.

“You want first shift?”

“Sure. Grab HiRes and the sisters cold to help out, too. It will look better if his own team handles him during the day.” I looked back through the observation window to the interrogation room. Circuit had left the table and pulled all the way back into one corner of the room. His head was bowed and he may have been resting it in his hands. Maybe he just fell asleep in his chair, but I doubted it.

He’d tried to save us all, in a way. His wife, Elizabeth, from parents who didn’t see a person’s gifts as something to be celebrated. Teresa from a world that had been content to never tell her that her father’s killer was gone simply because keeping the killer’s unusual abilities secret was more expedient. Me, from a system that wouldn’t let me use my greatest gifts to rise in the world. Even people like Sanders, who had spent a huge chunk of their lives laboring in a world no one knew about and that they could never share. It all seemed so noble.

“Do you think he realizes he wasn’t passing it on?”

Sanders shot me a questioning look, clearly not following my non sequitur.

I gestured towards the back corner of the far room. “Circuit wasn’t looking to save us. Maybe that was a side effect, but I don’t think it’s what he wanted.”

A moment passed while Sanders decided whether he wanted to bite or not. “So what did he want?”

“I think he was looking to save a much younger man from a plane crash that took a lot more than working legs from him.” I shook my head sadly. “Too bad he’s still stuck here with the rest of us.”

I turned and headed towards the door. Two steps later Sanders asked, “You going to keep an eye on Darryl?”

“Yeah. I’ll get…” I ran through a quick list of people in the office who could take the second shift from me and stopped as I had a sudden idea. “Actually, can you take first shift?”

Sanders gave me a confused look. “I guess. What are you going to be doing?”

I smiled. “Looking for a way to save someone.”

Izzy

I hadn’t helped set up for church in years but after the week I’d had, with all the power outages, kidnappings, smashing of buildings and incredible debriefings the simple action of setting up rows of chairs was soothing and distracted me from my impending First Media Interview. My ankles were still swollen and uncomfortable after my unpleasant experience with explosives but all in all the activity felt good. Good feelings when my boss snuck up on me and asked, “How are you feeling, Rodriguez?”

After nearly jumping out of my skin – and through the roof, super strength does have some drawbacks – I spun around to find Helix, looking like he was doing his best not to laugh. “Sorry, you startled me.”

“Sorry, not what I was trying to do.” He managed to say it with a straight face although I could tell he was still struggling. “But seriously, how are you? A lot of people, talented or not, who go into field work are ready to move on to something else after a week like the one you had.”

“I don’t know.” I sat down in one of the folding chairs I’d been setting up and sighed. “From what papa told me I knew not to expect anything like normal cop work. Taxmen get assigned to cases that need someone who can play hardball. I guess I didn’t count on getting abducted being part of that.”

Helix straddled a chair in the row in front of me, leaning with his arms folded over the back. “Honestly, I don’t think any cop or government agent who’s just finished training and been issued his sidearm and badge does. But it does happen, every once in a very long time. Being powerful doesn’t mean you’re not in danger and for someone who wasn’t even technically through training I think you handled yourself very well. But that also means if you want to stay in the field I’m going to assign you to cases like this again.”

I nodded. “I get that. It’s just kind of a daunting idea. And now Cheryl wants me to go and talk to the TV reporters. It’s kind of freaky.”

That got a laugh. “You can get used to the job, Izzy, but the media is something else entirely. And so long as you keep handling high profile cases I think they’re going to keep wanting to talk to you. Who knows? Maybe Cheryl will recruit you for the PR department and you can do it all the time.”

“How about I just get through the first time for right now.” I suppressed a shudder at the thought of dealing with cameras every day. Time for a subject change. “What did you want to talk to papa about?”

Helix grimaced. “Politics. That, and I need him on board as the man in charge of Project Sumter’s correctional and rehabilitation programs.”

There was only really one reason I could think of that he’d want to talk to papa about that. He’d talked about it often enough. “You want Mr. Sykes put in a special facility?”

“Actually,” Helix said, sheepish expression showing he thought what he was about to say wouldn’t make sense, “I was thinking of arranging for something more like work release. Partly because I don’t think he’d stay in any jail we could build for long unless he wanted to and I’d rather have him somewhere I can keep an eye on him. And party because it seems like a waste not to give someone so well intentioned a second chance. Either way I’m going to need Samson and Voorman in my camp if the idea is ever going to get off the ground.”

People who’d known him for a while said Helix used to be an idealist, back when he’d started, but I’d never reconciled that with the hard edged man I saw around the office. Looking at him now I could kind of understand what they meant. “Glad to see you’ve forgiven him.”

Helix sat up straight. “I’m sorry, what? Forgiving Circuit for what he’s done is way outside my authority.”

“For everything he’s done, sure. But he’s hurt you in the past and you wouldn’t be helping him now unless you’d forgiven him. God always forgave His people before He saved them.” I shrugged. “How could you help Circuit unless you’d forgiven him?”

Helix looked at me sideways, like I suddenly had two heads with three eyes each. “Your mind goes some strange places.”

I spread my hands. “We’re in a church, Helix. What were you expecting?”

He looked around at the polished wooden floors of the gymnasium. “We’re in the middle of a school, Rodriguez.”

“Come on.” I got up and straightened my chair out. “Papa’s in the office with some of the elders.”

Helix got up and followed me out of the gym. “You never said, but I guess I didn’t ask directly. Are you going to stay in the field?”

“Why’s it so important?”

He thought for a moment, then said, “You’re the first of the new generation, that’s all. Our first talent who came in after Circuit made us public. I’d feel better if I knew we’d done right enough by you that you’d stick around for a while longer.”

I smiled. “You know, Helix, I think you have.”

Fiction Index

Previous Chapter

In Defense of Cinderella

Disney recently released the latest of their live action takes on the old animated classics. I’m talking of course about Cinderella. I haven’t seen the movie but I have read and heard a number of reviews and I noticed a weird trend. Regardless of their opinions of the remake, most critics seemed to be very unappreciative of the original film. Or, perhaps more accurately, the character of Cinderella as she was portrayed in that film.

Now while I haven’t seen the new live action film I did seen the original animated film many times and I remember it very fondly. So imagine my surprise when most of what I read suggested that Cinderella had no character to speak of.

I take issue with this. Cinderella had a lot of character, even if it’s not developed in the ways we’re used to. So today let’s take a look at the classic animated Cinderella and some of the criticisms people have been making of it and then why they might not be entirely fair.

  1. Cinderella is entirely passive. She does nothing to escape the position her stepmother puts her in she just waits for the prince to come for her. While it’s true that Cinderella does nothing for herself, to improve her own situation, to call her passive is incredibly wrongheaded. She does a lot. Her most noticeable actions are just altruistic and directed towards mice. She does a great deal to proactively rescue, feed and clothe the mice of the house and in the process of caring for them indirectly provokes her stepmother (one of the most terrifying Disney villains there is). There’s more to Cinderella than just passively waiting, she’s actively doing good for those around here. That takes real moral strength – real character – to do.
  2. Cinderella undergoes no character growth during the story. This critique is actually very valid. Cinderella (the original animated film) is based on a fairy tale and is a very loyal adaptation of it. There was generally very little character growth in fairy tales because they were stories designed to serve as examples of desirable character qualities. Rather than showing how a character trait might come about they are designed to show that trait in action and what the rewards for it are. Her character is the result of a different storytelling tradition than the modern one and that does weaken her impact some, particularly to modern audiences, but it doesn’t make her character bad just the presentation of her story.
  3. Cinderella is a wimp. She never stands up for herself. This one really gets me. Given the time period of the story and the situation Cinderella finds herself in there’s only so much defiance we can reasonably expect of Cinderella. She does try and stand up to for herself and those under her protection when she does things like save the mice from the cat or ask if she can go to the ball. But she’s essentially been relegated to house servant since she was a young girl – she has few skills and little to no education. Just maintaining a cheerful attitude a taking the moral stands she does is already a herculean effort. What more do you want?

When you look back on it then it’s easy to see that Cinderella had its flaws as a film. The mice are kind of silly and take up time that might be used to develop the more important human characters like Cinderella’s stepmother or the nameless prince she ultimately marries, or showing a more modern character arc in Cinderella herself. The music is average and the stepsisters themselves really don’t add much to the story beyond giving their mother another excuse to be mean. But is Cinderella herself a flaw in the story?

She’s steadfast, patient and kind. Her good nature is her greatest charm and when she gets hers it is truly marvelous. Many times when I was young I laughed in gleeful vindication when Cinderella produced the second glass slipper, to her stepmother’s dismay and the Duke’s delight. She didn’t change or grow much but she sure made us grow to love her and for good reason. So give the lady a break. Or not. At the very least, no matter what you think, I’m pretty sure Cinderella would go right on being herself and, in an era when peer pressure is brought to bear with more strength and from more directions than ever before, that in and of itself is a sign of real character.

Local Theater: Around the World in 80 Days

Jules Verne’s novel  about the English gentleman, Phileas Fogg, circumnavigating the globe is a fairly well known tale and all for One Productions will be brining it to life on the stage this month! (In the spirit of full disclosure I will once again be among the cast for this show and if that’s a minus for you well… you had plenty of chances to see shows without me this season so I don’t want to hear about it.)

While not one of Verne’s most famous works 80 Days does hold a special place in literature as something like the world’s first travelogue and offers a lot of tongue in cheek looks at English and French mannerisms, towards each other and in a vacuum, circa the late 1800s. At the same time it offers a look at the importance of personal integrity, something Fogg has in spades, and the importance of priorities, something Fogg is not exactly good with.

Now if you’re familiar with the Pierce Brosnan TV miniseries that adapted the work the idea that this story is a comedy may be a surprise to you – it was my first introduction to the work and still probably the definitive one in my mind. But this is a really funny story of the fish out of water variety. Not all of the humor comes from the contrast between the straight laced Fogg and the world at large. A great deal of it comes from the differences between Fogg and his manservant Passepartout and those between Passepartout and the irascible
Detective Fix.

While humor abounds in the story and the impetus of the trip is a bet between Fogg and some of his associates in London the real center of the story is when Detective Fix mistakes Fogg for a notorious bank robber and chases him around the world. It’s Fogg’s unshakable integrity that convinces Passepartout to stand with his employer when the accusation comes to light. In turn Passepartout’s solidarity
lets Fogg stay just ahead of Fix… for a while.

All for One is proud to present this classic story. Show dates are April 24th-26th and May 1st-3rd. Tickets can be ordered from the afO website so if you’re going to be in the Fort Wayne area then go ahead and give it a look. I will personally guarantee you’ll have a good time.

Although I wouldn’t go so far as to wager 20,000 pounds sterling on it…

Thunder Clap: The Interview

The room was sparse, poorly lit and had three distinct features. First, the table in the middle. Second, the chairs, both on one side of the table. Third, the reflective sheet of glass in one wall of the room next to a barely visible door. Opposite the room’s two chairs Matthew Sykes sat in a chair of his own. Not the rather absurd, overbuilt, motorized electric chair that had served as his court of last resort during the struggle for Waltham Towers but rather the simple leather and metal wheelchair that had served as the prop for a masquerade lasting nearly ten years until the sham had somehow turned into the truth.

Whatever thoughts might have been going through the mind of Sykes in that melancholy room had their progress halted when Double Helix pushed into the room, the door behind him swinging closed on well oiled hinges. Practically the only sound in the room as Helix walked over to the table was the sound of him turning the pages of the enormous file he carried. Finally Helix plopped it down on the table with a soft but forceful thud and sat in one of the open chairs. He prodded the file with one finger. “You know, we usually pad these to make them more intimidating? But yours didn’t need any work. Everything in there is an actual document produced during the course of investigating you over the past ten years.”

Sykes glanced at the file then back at Helix. “I’m guessing you wrote at least half of that.”

“More or less.” Helix folded his hands on top of the file and stared hard at Sykes.

The silence stretched out, neither man seeming particularly uncomfortable with it. Helix looked the other man over repeatedly, as if looking for something and repeatedly failing to find it. Sykes was more interested in the file, studying the bulging manila folder as if he could see through it and read the information within.

Finally after a good two or three minutes Sykes looked Helix in the eye and asked, “Should you really be doing this alone?”

“No.” Helix leaned back in his chair, the back resting against the wall. “But then, should you really have spent a decade running roughshod over the US?”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Helix laughed, real amusement in his voice. Sykes frowned. “It wasn’t that funny.”

“Sorry. Irony is a personal thing, probably no one else on the planet that would laugh at that.” Helix tilted forward again, still smirking. “Tell you what. This isn’t on record, although there are some people out there,” he jerked a thumb towards the glass, “who would like some answers. And I’d like them, too.”

Sykes’ head jerked momentarily towards the one way mirror, then back to Helix. “Elizabeth is here?”

“Just the psychologist we’re thinking of assigning you in prison,” Helix replied. “So level with us, Circuit. What possesses a man to try and overthrow the government single handedly? You never struck me as the ideological type. Was it glory?”

“It was my parents.”

“The Sykes? Or your biological parents. The…” Helix flipped the folder open and started looking through it.

“My adoptive parents,” Sykes clarified.

Helix twitched the file closed again. “Go on.”

“It’s hard to explain what it’s like.” Sykes looked down at the table for a moment, absently dragging his thumb back and forth along the armrest of his chair. “The system isn’t a place for kids. Foster homes… you never feel like anyone really wants you there and hiding the fact that you can touch the TV to feel that it’s practically alive doesn’t help things. When Daniel and Martha came and took me out of that place I was more grateful than I’d ever been in my life.”

Helix tossed the file aside, braced his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “And that drove you to try and rule the world?”

The shadow of a smile brushed across Sykes’ face. “When I asked him why he wanted to adopt a kid Daniel told me that he’d been pretty successful and he wanted to pay it forward. Since he and Martha couldn’t have kids they decided to find one to share with. Then he told me that sooner or later I’d probably want to do the same, and when the time came I’d know how I wanted to do it.”

“This still doesn’t sound like the foundation for megalomania.”

“I took them flying because Martha really wanted to try it. There was a cloud… probably a small rainstorm brewing. I’d been through clouds before but there was more charge that time than there’d ever been before. It…” Sykes waved his hands ambiguously. “That was the first time I realized I could be a living lightning rod.”

Helix sat back in his chair, a little thunderstruck himself. “That’s why your plane crashed and there was no records of what happened. The lightning fried the black box.”

“When I was in recovery after the crash and the surgeries I started poking around the Internet, finding places where the underground talent community compared notes. I learned some of the things I could do.” Sykes pulled his gaze up from the table, long buried fury smoldering in his eyes. “And I learned that there were people – there was a whole branch of the government – that knew about people like me. That could have warned me of the risks I was running. But they didn’t because they were too scared.”

Sykes pulled himself up and looked Helix right in the eye. “That was when I knew how I was going to pay it forward.”

Helix nodded slowly. “You were going to take over and change things.”

“No.” Sykes’ composure crumpled and he slipped down to stare at the table top again. His voice faded to a whisper. “I wanted to save them.”

Confusion flitted over Helix’s face but his expression quickly shifted to neutral again. “I don’t follow.”

“Daniel and Martha saved me from the foster system, from feeling like I was just a face in the crowd. They showed me that people had survived the kind of indifference that’s endemic to systems before.” Sykes threw his hands out as if to encompass the whole building and the organization that had built it. “Sumter was a system, Helix. It didn’t explain, it didn’t protect. It just demanded people do as it wanted and damned the consequences. There were three other fuse boxes in the state that could have explained the dangers of flying a plane to me, to say nothing of all the experienced field agents who had probably seen dozens of those kinds of accidents before. What was the statistic before Project Sumter went public? One in five talents died in accidents caused by their own talents?”

“One in eight.” Helix looked away for the first time since he’d come into the room. “One in five was a guess Analysis made to account for accidents that were never tied back to the talents of those involved.”

Sykes slammed his hands down on the table. “Too many! It was going to end!”

“And damn the consequences?” Helix asked.

“There were things I should not have done. But Helix, there’s something you have to understand.” Arms straining, Sykes pulled himself forward and pushed himself into something like a standing position. “Everyone wants someone to save them.”

Helix looked up at Sykes then nodded at the other man’s chair. “Sit down, Circuit. You’ll hurt yourself.”

Sykes glared down at the shorter man but Helix ignored it with the ease of long practice. “Tell me you didn’t feel isolated, Helix. How many times did you accidentally start a fire with your talents? How often did you worry about hurting someone when you touched them before your grandmother taught you how to control a heat sink.”

“Careful who you bring into this,” Helix said, his voice soft but full of menace.

Finally Sykes did slump back into his chair with a disgusted snort. “I have an IQ just shy of 130, I ran track in high school, people thought I was decent looking. But I couldn’t see a way out of foster care on my own. Don’t you understand, Helix? Sometimes you need other people to help.”

“The Project -”

“Not only wasn’t the help people needed, it was actively getting in the way.” Sykes sighed and looked down at his hands. “So I decided to get rid of it.”

“And set yourself up in its place?” Helix folded his arms across his chest. “Not exactly inspiring confidence.”

“Someone was going to do it sooner or later.” Sykes shrugged. “Frankly I’m surprised no one ever tried to play the supervillain before. Ruling a country seems like a simple business from the outside, though I’m sure it’s much harder once you actually have to do it.”

“And you wanted to try anyway.”

“Oh, I had a plan.”

“How surprising.” Helix didn’t sound like he thought it was, really. “What kind of genius plan was it?”

“You.” Sykes chuckled at Helix’s blank look. “Or someone like you. Come on, you don’t think I really could have taken over the country just because I had some breakthrough transportation and electronic warfare technology, did you? I knew that sooner or later someone would put together a way to stop me but by the time they did Project Sumter would no longer stand in the way of talented people. It would be the first step towards letting them be all they could.”

“You were going to save people by getting thrown in jail?” Helix shook his head. “That is a really stupid way to live.”

“It’s a great way to die.”

Silence ruled the room for another minute, much less comfortable this time.

“I paid off the doctor who declared me disabled after the accident,” Sykes said when he grew too uncomfortable. “But once the grand plan started to take shape I had to get rid of him. I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve blackmailed, I’m sure a lot of security directors at banks have lost their jobs because of me. Parts of my organization haven’t always… proceeded as I’d have liked.”

Helix snorted. “You mean like this last week? Or how about in Morocco?”

“Two very big examples.” Sykes rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “Then there was Templeton. Not even a deliberate decision there. I just made a stupid mistake. But it was Elizabeth that made me see it.”

“Please don’t tell me this is the power of love at work.”

A cynical smile crossed Sykes’ face. “In a way. It wasn’t until I saw her toss away everything I thought I was going to be giving people – family, support, a place to belong – that I started to realize.” He gripped the armrests on his chair and took a deep breath. “I wasn’t saving anyone. Michigan Avenue was well intended and it even succeeded – far beyond what I was expecting. But everything before and after that… it was me trying to justify what had happened in the past. And I decided that it was time for all of that to go away. So I did. Until this week, when I realized my bad decisions weren’t quite as gone as I thought. But we’re finished with that now, too, so I suppose I really am done now.”

Sykes lapsed into silence again. After waiting to see if anything more was forthcoming Helix picked up the file on the table and stood in a single well practiced motion. “I suppose we’ll have to see about that.”

A few minutes later the door swung shut behind him and Sykes was alone with his thoughts once again.

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