Pay the Piper – Prologue

(Found this when poking through the back end this week. It was scheduled to go up two weeks ago, on the 15th, but due to incompetence on my part got stuck in limbo instead. So I moved it up to this Friday, originally intended as a blank. Instead enjoy the prologue to Pay the Piper, my next fiction project, and look forward to chapter one next week!


“That is a delivery truck.”

The one snorted at the other’s obvious statement. “I have eyes. So far all you’ve proven is that your satellite uplink can handle livestreaming video.”

The truck was shakey in the frame about thirty to forty feet below the camera. There was a moment as the other fiddled with the camera controls, then the image steadied and zoomed in until it seemed the drone was only a dozen feet up. “That’s better. Noise canceling feature removes the shaking from the frame and keeps it focused on the truck.” The other sounded proud of the tech on display. “Would you like a blow by blow or do you wish to just watch things unfold at their own pace?”

“The truck’s making a left turn,” the one noted. “There’s not much to see. Am I supposed to be impressed that you’ve commandeered a delivery truck?”

“Ah, but that’s just it,” the other replied gleefully. “We haven’t commandeered the truck. It remains in the hands of its rightful owners.”

“Then you’re watching it with a drone.” The tone was dry and rueful. “You’re doing a poor job of convincing me this is the next frontier of warfare. Why should I trust you again?”

“The secret to evolving warfare is to apply the newest tools to the age old problems of attack and defense. This is the age of asymmetric war, when knife and gun are replaced with cunning and preparation.”

“I wish you wouldn’t try to wax poetic,” the one said. “It makes you sound silly. War has always relied on cunning and preparation as much as-”

“Fine,” the other cut in irritably. “We’re more prepared with the new tools at hand. Watch.”

And there was something to watch. The delivery truck came to a stop at a stop light and as it idled there for a moment a second drone dropped into view a few feet behind the truck then, in an impressive display of precision control, slid under the bottom of the vehicle and disappeared.

“Self-guided flight?” The one asked.

“Laser guided by a spotter on the balcony across the street.”

“You won’t be able to keep it there, then. What are you hoping to accomplish?”

“Once it’s under the truck electromagnets secured it to the chassis,” the other said with satisfaction. “It doesn’t require piloting anymore. And no one ever bothers to look under a vehicle at checkpoints. It’s a foot in the door.”

“You’ll need more than that. The payload on that drone is what, five pounds? Ten?”

“All we need, and it was cheap to boot.”

Two blocks later the truck came to a stop just outside the loading dock of its next stop. There was a brief pause as the doors to the building began to open and the other filled the time saying, “Morale has always been a huge part of warfare, and in an asymmetric war in particular how you look to the public is vitally important. Appearances matter so much more than substance, you know. And the brilliance of this plan is that it will allow us to strike without any of the worst kinds of PR. For example.”

The box truck began to pull into the door, only to sputter to a stop halfway into the loading dock.

“What happened?”

“A low strength EMP, taking advantage of the electromagnets already built into the drone. So much of a vehicle is computerized now, all it takes is a little scrambling and they come to a stop. And!” The other smiled an unpleasant smile. “Now we have an even bigger foot in the door. There’s a gap in their defenses just big enough for the killing thrust.”

The truck’s driver and a handful of uniformed building security officers were working to try and push the truck into the loading dock, only to scramble out of the way as a pale blue SUV suddenly revved it’s engine, served hard to the left and slammed into the back of the truck, pushing both vehicles up and out of sight.

“Cutting it a bit closeto keep up your appearances, don’t you think?”

“But no one was hurt.”

The one snorted. “Except your driver.”

“A self-driving car.”

“Oh? Sounds quite traceable.”

“It wasn’t built as one. We stole it and modified it ourselves.” As the other was explaining the video feed from the drone cut out. “And that would be the second EMP. Most of the cabin of that car was stripped out and replaced with capacitors and coils. It’s hard to predict how much damage it did, but if nothing else I expect that block will be without power for most of the day, if not longer. Best case scenario, the world’s largest online payment processor has just lost a quarter of their processing power on this continent.”

“They can share the work out, I’m sure. The losses won’t be as bad as you might think. Hardly an auspicious start to a civil war.”

You would be the expert on that, to be sure. But even if the can adjust their work loads, the appearance of problems will still hurt confidence in their product and slow investor growth. Wars tend to grow out of the problems we think will be simplest to manage, after all.” The other turned away from the blank monitors and headed towards the door. “It’s not a bad opening salvo. And it ensures the key player in stage two will take an interest.

“You’re sure of that?” The one asked, still staring at the blank monitor.

The other paused in the door. “Of course. We used his calling card, after all. A chink in the armor.”

Next Chapter

Postdated Vacation!

Hey guys! Dropping a quick post to let you know I’ll be taking the next couple of weeks off, due to being on vacation – or rather, being back from a vacation. You may have noticed that I’ve been posting the last couple of weeks, but in truth I was actually absent for most of that time! This time around I managed to get a running start and had content to post for the time I would be gone, but now I’ll need to build a buffer back up, so I won’t be posting anything beyond this today or next week. Thanks for tuning in and reading and I’ll see you in April!


Disgust Kills Creativity

The arts in America are dying. If anyone is to save them, then the first thing they must do is overcome disgust.

Psychology breaks human personality down into five basic aspects: Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Openness to Experience, Extroversion and Neuroticism. What we call art or creativity is rooted in our openness to experiencing new things, which in turn dictates how much material we have to draw on when we endeavor to create something of our own. We can experience in many ways, ranging from reading books and talking with other people, to traveling new places and eating new foods.

The primary obstacle to experiencing new things is neuroticism, the tendency for the mind to focus on negative circumstances or outcomes. Neuroticism dictates how aware we are of fear and disgust, the part of our minds that warns of potential danger to us or those we care about. The stronger our neuroticism, the more things wrong we will see in a new experience, the more bad outcomes will dominate our expectations.

Neither neuroticism nor openness to experience are inherently good or bad. Overindulging in either one can have bad consequences, ignoring either one can have equally bad consequences. But in the arts, a little less neuroticism than normal is undoubtedly a good thing.

In just the last year of creative work, I have been in theater productions that involved incredible amounts of sweating and bad smelling costumes (as one friend of mine memorably put it, “Fame is stinky”), spent days with ink stains on my fingers from failed experiments in illustration and researched dozens of unpleasant subjects ranging from medical realities to nasty tribal rituals for stories I am percolating. Creative endeavors are rarely scary – although some forms of performance art can be – but they are very frequently gross before they are beautiful. The lotus flower flourishes among muck and grime. Famed animator Don Bluth once said you can show children pretty much anything, no matter how scary or gross, and they’ll be fine as long as you give them a happy ending. Unfortunately, we now live in a society that would rather be spared disgust than struggle through to the beauty at the end.

There’s a new spirit afoot in our culture, a spirit of disgust and revilement. You can see it at work every time we cower before media like Goblin Slayer or Shield Hero that shows us the unpleasant aspects of the human experience, every time artists like Kevin Hart have old statements now outside the orthodoxy used to run them out of jobs or off platforms, every time performers like Chris Pratt are taken to task for their social circles or personal beliefs. Overcome with disgust, our culture shuns these stories, these people, and either runs from them or attacks them. What they won’t do is engage with them, try to learn from their stories or performances, good or bad.

As a result our culture is suffering.

There’s a lot of disgusting things in the great works of literature. 1984 and Brave New World were rife with sexual exploitation, Shakespeare’s works were incredibly crass (for their time, and even now in some respects), Edgar Allen Poe was fascinated with the ways people abuse and torment one another, even Disney films show us a mother murdered before her child’s eyes. And for the love of all that is good, have you seen that pawn shop scene from The Brave Little Toaster? But there were hard lessons in those dark warnings about human nature, and the bright points that frequently followed them took us to heights far above the depths. Art gains its power from truth, and the truth is disgusting and frightful as often as it is glorious and joyful.

There are just not as many powerful but messy stories coming out these days. A film like Casablanca that portrayed the contradictory, often messy characters who couldn’t bring themselves to fight Nazis until after the climax of the movie, who in some cases were willing to give up the fight just to get a little personal satisfaction, would not find much approval today. Now, Nazis are gross and everyone knows better. It’s easy to forget how complicated and messy things were in the late 1930s, and how unclear the evil to come was. 

Neither could a film like Blazing Saddles be made. There was a movie grossly insensitive to the stereotypes and prejudices of its day. By acting so callously, that movie managed to turn demeaning caricatures into a joke, fighting to rob them of power and put them in perspective, suggesting things will work out better if we just stop taking ourselves so seriously. Good humor is a weakness now, blinding us to the fact that we’re being made impure. Then it was a weapon in the face of absurd notions others held, and we can’t bear to think of the days we engaged with those notions at all.

We’re starving our culture, thinking we’re keeping it pure. In the end, we’re just whittling it down. While I love some of the Marvel movies, they’re practically the only movies of note being made today. And they’re by and large bright, shiny, optimistic movies, less concerned with the frailties of the human condition than with its zenith. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a diet of only bread leaves you with scurvy. Our arts have been purified. There’s nothing disgusting in them anymore. And it’s left our creativity horribly stunted.


Desty Nova: A Villain Destroyed

Alita: Battle Angel is a movie about cyborgs punching stuff and the nature of the human experience. The story is theoretically a direct, big screen adaptation of one of my top ten favorite manga of all time, Battle Angel Alita. It’s also a very mixed bag.

This is not a complete breakdown of the adaptation, what I thought was good and what I thought was bad, as that would be an undertaking and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. Visually the movie is pitch perfect, but storywise it runs into some deep, deep flaws, tossing aside many of the themes of the source material in order to produce a trite, overused, downtrodden vs oppressors narrative. Nowhere does that failure come through more clearly than in the character of Desty Nova (just Nova in the film). As Alita’s greatest antagonist, Nova was a cruel and capricious character in the manga, and to an extent the film presents him as such as well. But in his adaptation of the manga, James Cameron throws away the questions Nova was trying to tackle and reduces him to a cardboard cutout of a cartoon tyrant rather than presenting him as the dangerous philosophical and moral threat that he should have been.

You see Desty Nova, the manga character, was trying to develop a scientific theory of free will and destiny. To do this, he would find people and offer to help them do anything they desired – unfettered free will – and then observe what happened to them, and whether they could overcome their circumstances – their destiny. In this process Nova was entirely amoral – he was as likely to assist a vicious serial killer like Makaku as a caring brother and conscientious sportsman like Jashugan, and he didn’t really care if he had to do things others might consider amoral to forward his goals. Eventually Nova would become more sadistic and arbitrary in his actions – Makaku and Jashugan seem to have been early and comparatively benign experiments – and he never hesitated to leverage his technical expertise to smooth his way and help himself survive the ever growing horde of people who wanted him dead.

Through Nova’s experiments we get a glimpse at the idea that our own desires can destroy us. He never gives his subjects anything other than what they want, to the extent of his considerable ability. But they invariably wind up self destructing. Makaku gains a robust cyberbody that can survive almost any situation but, with his limited sense of self, he can only understand pain and suffering and only communicates with others through them. He raises trouble until Alita finally destroys him in a tragic act that he perceives as love – affection from the only person who has ever cared about him in any way. Jashugan loves his sister and his sport, but he devotes himself to mastering that sport so fully that he gets his brain remodeled to make him a better player, ultimately leading to his brain shutting down a few years later depriving Motorball of its greatest player and Shimura of her only family. Nova did things for both these men that made their burnouts bigger and more spectacular – but there’s no doubt that they would have wound up in the same place regardless.

But the important thing about Nova is that he was fascinated with free will. He helped his subjects do whatever they wanted, and in turn he did whatever he wanted to get them there. Controlling people was never a part of his character. And Nova was a genuinely curious scientist. He wanted to understand things and answer questions, he didn’t really care about his own status so long as he could satisfy his curiosity. And he loved flan.

The adaptation of his character is practically the exact opposite.

In Alita: Battle Angel Nova is a tyrant. He rules the city of Zalem and oversees a network of servants on the surface to ensure no one there challenges his position. He is capable of controlling the bodies of those servants, completely overriding their free will. And when confronted with Alita herself, the most fascinating experimental subject for Nova of the manga, the foundation of a dozen experiments into free will over the course of decades, movie Nova orders her execution without expressing the slightest shred of interest. Alita is not a way to try and satisfy his curiosity, Nova just wants the power source in her cyborg body so he can make his own position in Zalem secure.

Makaku (or a very similar character with an unpronounceable name in the film) is just a pawn that does Nova’s bidding, we don’t even know why he took up working with Nova in the first place. Jashugan’s part in the story hasn’t come in yet but we do see Nova manipulating the Factory master Vector in much the same way. When these character die it’s a nonevent. They had no meaning, nothing to say about themselves or the nature of Nova’s desires and ambitions. They’re just fuel for spectacle, and props that show Nova is Bad. Hollow shells, nothing more.

It’s disappointing to see something you love translated to a new medium badly. It’s worse to see something that was trying to say something profound boiled down to something trite. In the character of Nova, Alita: Battle Angel manages both.