Disaster utopias

Hang in there ... this is another one of those long gotta-get-it-out-of-my-head-before-I-can-move-on posts. I'll try and do a fun post after this mass of thoughts has cleared my head.

Human behavior baffles me. It's one of the reasons I write. Stories are my way of trying on someone else's mindset in order to see how they think.

Sometimes reality intrudes. For the first six months after the 2016 election, journalist after journalist canvased America, trying to understand the phenomenon behind Trump's election. Nothing they said rang true to me.

I didn't--and still don't--buy into the theory that rural voters are stupid. Educated people live in rural areas too. People with college educations voted for Trump. Journalists' attempts to fit all of these groups into one mold felt like a jigsaw puzzle hammered together--the picture was disjointed at best, broken in other places. However, in reading all of those articles, I did find a couple of common characteristics in these voters: they were Evangelical (or identified with Evangelical churches) and they shared feelings of persecution exacerbated by the rhetoric of their pastors, the NRA, and straight-up lunatics like Alex Jones.

Remember that I was raised in the shadow of the Evangelicals. I talk a little about that here and also here, and probably somewhere else too, because religion and its grip on the supplicant's mind fascinates me. Anyway, the important takeaway from both of those posts is that throughout my childhood I was told not to question the authority of the Bible, or my minister. Likewise, politicians told me that they knew what was best for me, and based on their superior knowledge, I should simply accept my circumstances and be happy with what I had, because hey, questions are easy, answers are hard.

This is important, because the command not to question authority is drummed into a child's head from their first experience in church to their last. It's a form of brainwashing and explains why people like Alex Jones and Jim Jones can lead their followers to drink the Kool-Aid.

The indoctrination age also seems to have dropped too. When my daughter was very young, five or six, she wanted to spend a Saturday night with my niece and her family. I knew this meant she would end up going to church the next morning, but I figured, hey, little kids in Sunday school with Jesus and all of the baby lambs, what could possibly go wrong?

Over dinner that Sunday evening, I asked my daughter how church went and she proceeded to tell me about Satan and the demons from Hell and how the world was going to end in fire and blood. I inquired about Jesus and the baby lambs, and she told me the preacher talked about nothing but end-times. From that point forward, I took over my daughter's spiritual education, found a nice Episcopal Church (Catholic-lite, all the ritual, none of the guilt), and forbade my sister from taking my daughter to her cult-church again.

Bad experiences aside, I've always wondered why Evangelical ministers seize so fervently on these apocalyptic themes. It's almost like they exult in recounting the suffering to come.

And then, while doing research for my current novel, I think I accidentally stumbled on the reason. In this passage from The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and Their Influence on Nazi Ideology (p. 86), Goodrick-Clarke discusses Michael Barkun's theory of "disaster utopia":

"Barkun observes the ambiguity of disaster which, while obviously subjecting people to deprivation, can also produce unusual feelings of well-being. He notes that disasters often induce a temporary sense of common purpose and that 'invidious social distinctions disappear in a suddenly opened and democratized atmosphere.' This evaluation accords well with the euphoria implicit in the ‘Ideas of 1914′, and also illuminates [Guido von] List’s enthusiasm for the actual hardships of war. Because a belief in the millennium often assumes the occurrence of disasters that precede the epiphany, the sense of fellowship in the midst of actual disasters can appear to confirm the millenarian expectations. For List, suffering augured salvation."

Ah! said my brain as it is wont to do in these circumstances. This fits. These themes of end-times persecution give a lot of Evangelicals that sense of common purpose. Together, they will suffer through the occurrences of disasters, a process that will bring them all closer together in their shared adversity. The epiphany--or Christ's second coming--is soon to be had, delivering them from a world filled with pain and broken promises.

Suffering augurs salvation.

That's the Kool-Aid.

Some of us drink it, some of us spit it out.

Because no matter how Evangelical ministers might misrepresent the situation, Christians are not oppressed. Their churches flourish, their politicians are in office--misquoting Bible verses and making Jesus look bad--but there is no oppression here. No one is arrested for going to church. People might disagree with you (or your politics or your religion), but that's not the same thing as persecution.

Yet in the minds of those that adhere to the disaster utopia one cannot suffer without persecution. So the ministers and the NRA and the Jim Joneses and Alex Joneses of the world manufacture persecutions.

Remember how armies of ISIS troops were flooding over the Mexican border? Remember how Obama was coming to take your guns? And how Obama schemed his way into being elected for a third term? And how many of these things came to pass?

None.

They were lies predicated on fear.

Since those portents never came to pass, the groups propagating disaster utopias must find different ways to keep their base in a state of fear. Now they must manufacture new and improved terrors. They want their listeners to be scared of people different from themselves. They divide the world into right and wrong, black and white, right and left, conservative and liberal.

Subtleties cannot exist within these labels. Nuance mitigates the community's suffering, and without suffering, salvation remains distant, robbing the true oppressors--those that advocate disaster utopias--of their power over others. And therein lies the answer to Trump's success. He, and the politicians and the Evangelical ministers who supported him, convinced people they were victims of persecution. He told them what they were eager to hear: your circumstances are not your fault, it's all of those other people who are the problem and once they're gone, everything will be just fine for you, and enough Americans drank the Kool-Aid, and here we are.

Now the NRA and Alex Jones are telling people that disaster is once more upon us, and that people must fight with "clenched fists of truth," because it sounds manly, I suppose. These fighting words make them feel important, like they are embroiled in a holy war whereupon their suffering will bring them salvation.

That's their utopia, not mine. I'll take my epiphany without a disaster, thank you very much. I hope you'll join me in spitting out that brand of Kool-Aid too, because if we allow ourselves to be manipulated into another disaster, we might not find our way out.

Cyborg report: Wonder Woman

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About the time I had the surgery for my cochlear implant, I saw some of the first ads for Wonder Woman. After my surgery, my audiologist told me that somewhere around six months post-activation, I should see a big improvement in my speech discrimination, although quite frankly, when you're starting at zero, anything's good, so needless to say, I kept my expectations low. Since we activated the implant in January and Wonder Woman had a release date in June, I decided that Woman Woman would be my six month celebration movie.

Going to see a movie in the theater is a big deal for me, because I used to love going to the movies. I practically lived in the theater during my teens and twenties, and I truly mourned the day when I could no longer enjoy a theatrical release due to my hearing loss.

Nothing excited me more than the thought of seeing Wonder Woman on the big screen. As a girl, I loved comics and Wonder Woman was my favorite. When Wonder Woman came to TV, I never missed an episode, and Lynda Carter was my hero. Naturally, I decided that if I ever had a child, I'd take them to a Wonder Woman movie. Being a good mother, I strong-armed my adult daughter into going to see Wonder Woman with me. I promised she would love it. She was less than enthusiastic over the whole thing until I got so overwhelmed by being able to hear again that I started crying, and then she promised she would be there for me ... with tissues.

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At the theater the young woman, who took our tickets, thought my excitement was cute. I asked her if they had posters for sale. She said they had two different ones. I couldn't decide so I bought both.

I loved the previews and marked a couple more movies that I might attend if everything went well at Wonder Woman. Then the movie started and I cried a little, and then a little more, and then--like when I was young and entranced by everything on the big screen--the story took me away.

Wonder Woman is an origin story about Diana Prince's youth and entry into the world of men. If you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it for you, but I will tell you this: Wonder Woman is not just a superhero movie, it's a film that reminds us what truly makes a superhero, and it's not all about the ability to deflect bullets.

The message comes early in the film when Diana leaves Themyscria. She tells her mother, "I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves."

That is what makes a superhero. The willingness to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. This is the Diana Prince I remember from my youth: a woman full of humor and empathy for others, determined to champion those who are helpless against tyranny.

During the scene in no man's land, the scene that was almost cut, I broke out in chills as Diana climbed out of the trench. The entire passage was so beautifully symbolic of her birth into the hard cruel world of men. And like so many of the vibrant women I have known, no matter how much destruction Diana encountered, she still believed in love and justice, and she kept fighting for those who couldn't defend themselves.

The men in this movie were magnificent too. I don't want to shortchange their presence at all. All of the characters treated one another with mutual respect, whether given or earned. So while we tell people to take their daughters to see Wonder Woman, take your sons too.* They need to see a movie with men who are secure enough in their masculinity that they treat women with equality and respect.

And while I didn't catch every word, I heard enough of the dialogue to follow the plot and thoroughly enjoy the film. Wonder Woman reminds us what a superhero movie should be--not gadgets or the ability to toss tanks, although those things are fun and cool--but about superheroes who advocate justice and protecting the weak. They are our better natures made manifest, and they remind us that sometimes empathy for others can be the greatest superpower of all.

Oh, and the cyborg report: I saw my audiologist last week. I now have 50% speech discrimination. Just in time to go see Wonder Woman again.

*The film is set during World War I and is much too intense/violent for the very young.

Evil is a Matter of Perspective

Many of you know that I was invited to participate in an anthology of antagonists for Grimdark Magazine called Evil is a Matter of Perspective. The anthology will soon be available through several outlets, so if you missed being a part of the Kickstarter, you can still pre-order your copy, which will be available on June 16, 2017.

Now you can experience your favourite fantasy worlds through some of the most fearsome, devious, and brutal antagonists in fantasy. Villains take centre stage in nineteen dark and magical stories that will have you cheering for all the wrong heroes as they perform savage deeds towards wicked ends. And why not? They are the champions of their own stories—evil is a matter of perspective.

Contributors are: R. Scott Bakker, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Michael R. Fletcher, Shawn Speakman, Teresa Frohock, Kaaron Warren, Courtney Schafer, Marc Turner, Jeff Salyards, Mazarkis Williams, Deborah A. Wolf, Brian Staveley, Alex Marshall, Bradley P. Beaulieu, Matthew Ward, Mark Alder, Janny Wurts, E.V. Morrigan, Peter Orullian 

Artists: Tommy Arnold (cover), Jason Deem (interior art), Shawn King (design)

Available at:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Kobo

If you're looking for a Los Nefilim fix while I'm between projects, the anthology contains the short story, "Every Hair Casts a Shadow," which features a story from Alvaro's point of view as he tries to lure a teenage Rafael back to his rightful place among the daimons.

It Was a Long Hard Winter and Other Stories

I haven't been here for awhile. The winter got me down. The spring wasn't much better.

Being a cyborg and being able to hear again helped me through it--that, and my family, who've cheered me along every step of the way. I spent a lot of time reading other people's books. A lot of non-fiction, but a lot of fiction too. I'll be reviewing some of the fiction here soon.

April was the cruelest month. My good Macavity was fourteen years old when I had to say goodbye. It's taken me this long to be able to write about him. I called him my little buddy, kind of as a joke, because there is nothing little about a thirteen pound cat. He was there to see me off to work every morning and there waiting for me to come through the door every evening. We had our evening rituals where he would sleep beside me as I wrote and then sleep some more beside me while I read before bed.

I've never had a cat quite like him, and I never will again.

I'm not sure who grieved his passing more, me or our dog Dimie. Her whole world revolved around Macavity, and while they never slept side-by-side, they were never far apart.

After a week of me and the dog moping about, I checked the Rockingham County Animal Shelter's adoption site. I didn't see a single cat that seemed to be right. I wanted a young cat, because I wanted to be sure s/he would get along with Dimie. That was the only condition.

On a fluke, I decided to check one Friday before I left for work and there was Emerson. At ten months old, I figured she was might have a good chance of fitting in with an old boxer that loves cats. Emerson appeared to be a Maine Coon mix like Macavity, and I loved the fact that someone had named a female cat Emerson.

I stopped by the Shelter, but Emerson had already been taken to PetSense, where she would be at PetSense's Adoption Day. I had an appointment that afternoon, and decided that if Emerson was still there Saturday morning, I'd see if she and I fit together.

My daughter went with me, and Emerson and I got along just fine. The good folks at PetSense took the papers off her crate while I went home and got things ready for her. The big test was how Emerson might act around Dimie, but we needn't have worried. She stiffened up a bit when Dimie got close, but otherwise, she didn't seem to mind the dog.

Dimie, on the other hand, absolutely lost her mind when she realized a new kitty had come to live in her house.

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Now here we are, settling in a new addition to the household once more. Emerson is young and energetic, but she's got oodles of toys and a big house where she can run about all day. Every morning, she bounces across the bed like a squirrel to wake us up so she can have her breakfast.

I don't have many pictures of her yet, because she doesn't stay still for long.

Unlike Macavity, who was so huge, Emerson was five and a half pounds when she came to us. A couple of weeks later at her first vet visit, she came in at about six and a half. So she's a teeny thing, and while she'll grow a bit more over the next year or two, she won't be Macavity-sized by any means.

She is black from the tip of her nose to the tip of her tail and has great gold eyes. Her only distinguishing mark is her outsized personality. My husband thinks that a cat named Emerson belongs in a writer's house and I tend to agree.

Thus ends the story of the long hard winter and the cruel spring. It's almost summer, the world has moved on, and so have we.

Exciting things are happening in the background, and I'll announce them when I can. Meanwhile, stay tuned ... I hope to be around more this summer with reviews and new posts and maybe a picture or two of Emerson, the Writerly Cat.

Interview with Dan Koboldt

It's been awhile since I've posted a good, old-fashioned interview, but luck is with us, because I have one for you today!

This is the publication week for Dan Koboldt's second novel in his Gateways to Alissia series, The Island Deception. I thoroughly enjoyed Dan's first novel in Gateways to Alissia, The Rogue Retrieval, and you can read my Goodreads review for it here.

For stage magician Quinn Bradley, he thought his time in Alissia was over. He'd done his job for the mysterious company CASE Global Enterprises, and now his name is finally on the marquee of one of the biggest Vegas casinos. And yet, for all the accolades, he definitely feels something is missing. He can create the most amazing illusions on Earth, but he's also tasted true power. Real magic.

He misses it. Luckily--or not--CASE Global is not done with him, and they want him to go back. The first time, he was tasked with finding a missing researcher. Now, though, he has another task: Help take Richard Holt down.

It's impossible to be in Vegas and not be a gambler. And while Quinn might not like his odds--a wyvern nearly ate him the last time he was in Alissia--if he plays his cards right, he might be able to aid his friends.

He also might learn how to use real magic himself.

How did you get started writing?

Like many authors, I was a reader first. I fancied the idea of becoming a writer, but didn't really try until my late 20's. I took an "Introduction to Fiction Writing" night class, which required students to write and workshop two short stories. I'd done a fair amount of nonfiction writing as part of my job as a scientist, so I thought it would come easily.

It did not. Writing my first story proved quite difficult. My classmates found it stiff and inaccessible. Even so, that class taught me the fundamentals of offering and taking feedback. I took the next class, as did many of my fellow students. We continued to critique for one another after the class ended. One bit of feedback I consistently received was that my work felt like part of a larger story.

That was around when I heard about National Novel Writing Month, a crazy community effort in which participants try to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. That was 2008, I think, and I've been doing it ever since. The NaNoWriMo project that I began in 2012 went on to become my debut novel, The Rogue Retrieval.

What's the idea behind Gateways to Alissia?

Well, I'd always grown up reading epic fantasy. I loved immersing myself in fantastic secondary worlds, so of course I wanted to create my own. But I have a second love, which is science. For a long time, I thought it would be impossible to write something that let me play in both worlds.

Then I had the idea that maybe there's a portal between a magical world and ours. Rather than some children or a snarky teen stumbling upon it, maybe the gateway falls into the hands of a large and powerful corporation. Of course, they keep the other world's existence a secret, and have been quietly studying it for fifteen years.

Then a member of the research team goes missing through the gateway, and the company must assemble a retrieval team to go get him. Because the other world is inhabited, but at a medieval state of technology, they recruit a Vegas stage magician to come along and pose as a wizard on the other side. He’s the main character in the Gateways to Alissia series.

Tell us a little about the main characters ...

I’d love to! The main character is Quinn Bradley, an up-and-coming stage magician out of Las Vegas. At the start of the series, his only dream is to headline for one of the major casinos on the Strip. Then he gets a puzzling offer: half a million dollars for six months on a private assignment. Ordinarily he’d have refused, but they don’t really give him a choice. Luckily, he’s adaptable, and quickly learns that the company’s secret world has a lot to offer. Real magic, if it exists, could give Quinn a huge advantage in his chosen career. And he’s the kind of guy who’s always looking for an angle. He also has a knack for getting into trouble and a slight problem with authority, which keeps things interesting in the other world.

Lieutenant Kiara is the company’s top military official for in-world operations. She also has operational command of the retrieval mission, which is unusual. She’s a veteran with a long history of service to the company, extremely loyal, and sees the world in black and white. Basically, she’s going to get the job done whatever it takes. She comes to the Alissian world with some baggage, since her predecessor – who was lost sea in the early days of the project – was also her older sister.

Ex-Navy S.E.A.L. Paul Logan is Lieutenant Commander’s right hand, and tasked with security on both sides of the gateway. He also trains the mercenary teams who undertake missions in the Alissian world. That means he’s also responsible for Quinn, which he isn’t very happy about. Since the beginning, he’s opposed the idea of bringing a civilian along on what he sees as a purely military operation. He’d never admit this, but part of his reluctance is that he likes Quinn and doesn’t want to see him get hurt.

At the time of his disappearance through the gateway, Richard Holt had headed the company’s Alissian research team for fifteen years. Much of that, he spent in the world itself, studying the people and their culture from the inside out. His intelligence network would impress the American CIA. His defection is not only a loss for the research team, but also makes him the most dire threat they have faced. Because Holt knows Alissia better than anyone.

Veena Chaudri is an anthropologist by training, and she’s just taking over leadership of the research team when the story begins. Richard Holt trained her well, but also left big shoes to fill. Veena has studied the Alissian world for longer than the rest of the research team, but she let Holt handle most of the fieldwork. She must not only prove herself to the retrieval team, but wants to impress her former mentor as well. She’s a more valuable asset than everyone realizes: in all those years that Richard Holt was studying Alissia, Veena was studying him.

What are some other books or authors that The Island Deception reminds you of?

My publisher pitches it as appealing to fans of Terry Pratchett and Terry Brooks. I think that’s far too high of praise, but I understand the thinking: Brooks is a founding father of second world epic fantasy, and Pratchett was the king of dry humor. I certainly aimed to have a good mix of both in my books.

Because I’m a scientist, I like to include some of the super-cool near future technology in my books -- whether it’s drones or super -- LEDs or novel synthetic materials. There’s also a large corporation with somewhat nefarious intentions. If you put these elements together, I think my books might be reminiscent of Michael Crichton, one of my favorite authors.

If you want a more recent comp title, I think that the Time Salvager series by Wesley Chu has very similar themes to mine, especially time travel and a hint of military science fiction. Rumor is that his series is being developed into a movie directed by Michael Bay, so I’m clearly not the only one who finds all of this entertaining.

So now you've achieved your dream! Is writing your full-time job?

HAHAHAHAHA *dies laughing*

No, writing is my hobby and I don’t expect that to change any time in the near future. That’s primarily for two reasons. First, it’s very difficult to make a living as a full-time writer these days, particularly if you only have a couple of books out. Most writers have day jobs or other sources of income (like a partner who works). Those who do go full-time often do a lot of freelance work to make ends meet.

The other reason I don’t write full-time is that I enjoy my day job. I’m a genetics researcher for a major children’s hospital. Our institute uses next-generation DNA sequencing to study rare pediatric conditions, with the goal of improving the lives of our patients and their families. If that’s not rewarding work, I don’t know what is.

Tell us about some of the good books you've read lately.

I have! One perk of joining the ranks of published authors is that I hear about a lot of great books, even if they don’t generate a lot of buzz in the mainstream media (very few books do). My favorite book from last year was Uprooted by Naomi Novik, which is a Polish-inspired epic fantasy and just lovely. This year, I’ve been reading awards-nominated work including Arabella of Mars (David Levine) and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. My favorite book so far is the one I’m currently reading -- The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin -- which won the Hugo Award in 2016.

My favorite nonfiction book in recent memory was The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers by Donald Maass. It offers a wealth of advice for aspiring and established novelists. The author heads my literary agency (DMLA), so take from that what you will.

What are you working on next?

Right now, I’m writing the third and final installment of Gateways To Alissia, tentatively entitled THE WORLD AWAKENING. That’ll go to my editor this summer, and is slated for publication in February 2018. I have a short story (not related to this series) that will appear in Rhonda Parrish’s EQUUS anthology this summer, and a couple of others due out this year in Galaxy’s Edge magazine and Stupefying Stories magazine.

I also plan to maintain “Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy” which is my ongoing blog series. Each week, we discuss one of the scientific/technical/medical aspects of science fiction or a cultural/historical topic in fantasy, with the help from an expert in the field. It’s a wonderful resource for aspiring SF/F authors and I think it’s informative for fans of the genre, too.

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Dan Koboldt is a genetics researcher and fantasy/science fiction author. He has co-authored more than 70 publications in Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine, and other scientific journals. Dan is also an avid deer hunter and outdoorsman. He lives with his wife and children in Ohio, where the deer take their revenge by eating the flowers in his backyard.

If you want to keep up with Dan, follow him at his website, on Twitter, subscribe to his mailing list, Facebook, Amazon, or Goodreads.