There are stories in your head. I can smell’em. What I wouldn’t give to get in there and elbow your inhibitions in the eye, tear the guts out of the pretenses that you throw out instead, and kick your denials solidly in the ass.
Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder is, simply the single most intelligent comic – and indeed, of any contemporary story-delivering medium – that I know. Whatever her background is, she certainly received top-drawer training in evolutionary biology, behavior, ecology, and cultural-political history, without a shred of the usual pop-psych and pundit-y nonsense that coats these topics like scum. And she uses them for compelling plots, insightful spins, rather biting humor, and plain old spectacle.
She’s been doing it for what now, twenty years (!), introducing and developing but never really explaining a far future which is decidedly exotic, but yet, really plain solid social science fiction, to think about today. (Way ahead of the curve on internet publishing + collection publication too.) I could go on and on geeking out about the setting and her protagonist, Jaeger, but I’ll leave it to you to discover if you’re lucky enough to not know it and to get started. My aim here is a little different.
The collected story “Dream Sequence” is more than a favorite; I consider it a battle-cry (possibly in partnership with “Talisman”). Not to put too fine a point on it, the story is about the drive to create, specifically stories, and how easily it’s diverted into an infantilized, stunted, and ultimately self-paralyzing form. It’s all the worse because the actual creativity, and the beauty of the thing created, does depend on the input of all these participants – they refuse to do so openly and believe it’s all the mastery of this person who’s providing the foundation.
There’s a guy whose imagined fantasy-world, or rather, his attentiveness to it, is so vivid, that it has become a commercial playground for recreation via cyber-neurological connections. It’s incredibly successful and profitable; it’s franchised to death via all possible other media, and people are beginning to take vacations there rather than physical ones. But something awful has begun to desecrate and mutilate the visitors in ritual, symbolic, and yet insultingly humorous ways.
The events in Elsewhere (as it’s called) get pretty ghastly, but even worse are the psychological manifestations in the victims in the real world, especially since they match a whole host of modern dysfunctions so perfectly. Not ordinarily a fan of blatant symbolism, I like it here a lot, partly because the dream topic permits a little leeway, but especially since it’s unrelievedly savage. Magri White tries to figure out where the “stain” is in his beautiful imagined landscape, unaware that it’s on his own face.
Then there’s Ivo, who serves as the story’s face for Elsewhere’s fandom base, as the quintessential sort-of lovable useless dork who freely acknowledges that his sleep-deprived obsessive use of Elsewhere is better than anything in his actual life, any price be damned. Long-time readers of the blog may remember the discussion in the comments of Justice comes by night, in which we debated whether the character Ed in Box Office Poison was an exasperating but understandable protagonist, or in essence, an infant monster with no imaginable creative merit of his own. Ivo is Ed squared.
The confusing plot-point (for summarizing, not in the story itself) is that the thing running around committing atrocities in Elsewhere isn’t Jaeger himself, but a construct built using his image and also of Magri’s dead brother who may or may not have existed. It’s really an insightful aspect of Magri himself as a frustrated creator but also of the creative potential that all these visitors to Elsewhere bring but which is stifling/being stifled in a toxic feedback with Magri’s own timidity.
This jaeger-construct shifts through a series of nightmarish forms, and it gives Magri a thorough going-over through multiple encounters, to result in one of the satisfying redemptions of a weakling hero I can think of, without being overwrought. When he decides to take some real-world action, look out. That’s because Magri’s not the bad guy. The corporate persons who’ve been running his life aren’t either (although his judgment upon them concerning “two-headed piglets” is yet another winner line in a book full of such). The story’s ire is instead directed at Magri’s adoring nigh-lobotomized audience. The jaeger-construct gleefully tortures, mutilates, dismembers, and otherwise disrespects them, and they say, “Oohhh, Elsewhere is so lovely,” “Oohhh, Magri’s such a genius,” and take no action in their fantasy wonderland at all. It hates their guts, and although it’s just a construct with no actual mind, it’s saying what Magri really thinks of his audience deep down.
But it loves them too. Its savagery is born of Magri’s buried knowledge that yes, he and his audience could go the next step, could make shining epics and dark powerful legends, could be real creators. It comes down to the jaeger-thing going nose to nose with Ivo, the single most resistant Elsewhere user, and the one suffering the most threatening neural damage for it. It tells him what it thinks of him. And I know all about what it’s talking about. Very, very well. Twelve years of running the independent-RPG website, The Forge, worth of well. Veterans thereof might recognize the panels to the right … eh?
After finally managing to get Ivo to begin to start to maybe to almost kind of create a story, it growls what might have been the single solid driving judgment during my whole time with the Forge:
I hope you finish it one day, you lazy, selfish shit.
That’s the bumper sticker on my own ass, and if you don’t like it, then get out ahead in front, God damn it. For myself in owning that particular sentiment, and in specific reference to the Forge, I’m not talking about designing role-playing games; I’m talking about using them. Getting past the initial and intoxicating Color of first-contact, taking hold of what’s there to do instead of pressing at provided levers or waiting for more input. Making it go rather than sitting in the ride.
C’mon, Star Wars fandom blithering about the next-est movie, comics fandom demanding to know how this works and how that works, anyone who brandishes the vile phrases “TOS” and “MCU,” name whatever you like. The construct had the right idea: rip out your guts, put your head on a pole, spray your blood across the rocks. Motivate you to do something, to take action with these unbelievably excellent imagined sensations and inspiring fictions, to rock yourself and others with more unbelievably excellent stuff. Why? Why such an awful, intolerant, thought? Am I an elitist, thinking himself “better” than you (you lazy, selfish shit)?
No. Wrong answer. It’s because a deadened audience is the death of the activity. There is no such thing as the boundary between creators and audience. “It,” the art, the thing, the experience, the awesome-ness, is us. All of us. Literally no one “can’t do it,” the fact that you like someone else’s story is direct proof that you are doing it. He or she isn’t making a story unless you do it. It all fails only when you won’t and go into nipple-sucking mode to get the initial engagement repeated over and over.
Tell me a story. Short or long, oblique or straightforward (those are the only variables, you know). Or let’s do it together, neither of us in charge. C’mon. Of course it’s not safe. But finding out, finishing it, that’s the best there is.
Links: Lightspeed Press
Next: Round-headed kid
Posted on May 1, 2016, in Gnawing entrails, Storytalk and tagged Carla Speed McNeil, Dream Sequence, Finder. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.
“There are stories in your head. I can smell’em. What I wouldn’t give to get in there and elbow your inhibitions in the eye, tear the guts out of the pretenses that you throw out instead, and kick your denials solidly in the ass.”
This is EXACTLY what Ron did to me in 2005. The result? My Lab Bratz webcomic. Thanks Ron!
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In the Bloodlands, wishes can come true… for a price.
Julia envied the birds, so she lured them to her windowsill with nectar and seeds, caught them barehanded, and ate them, still wriggling and shrieking, until she found she could raise her arms and lift herself from the ground. Not flight, exactly, she could never quite break the shackles of the earth, but something like it, something close. She kept this secret, floating only at night; and the birds feared her like a god, and told her things they overheard listening at windows and in the fields, and she became known in the village as a wise woman. Many came to her for advice or to bargain for the secrets of their enemies. She took to wearing a cape patterned with feathers that draped beneath her arms like wings.
While hovering among the rooftops one night in the village, she saw Matthew with his new wife Maria. Crouched on the neighboring thatch, she watched them making love through the window; watched the strong muscles of Matthew’s back flexing in the moonlight, and wanted him for her own. She resolved that when either of them came to her for advice, as they surely would, she could find reason to separate them. She set her spies to watch them, when she could not return to their window.
Time passed, and Maria swelled with child, but neither Matthew nor Maria never came to Julia. The birds told her they had no secrets- they were simply happy. Julia, privy to the petty spites and furies of the whole village, was bewildered at the simplicity and wholeness of their love. But she was not one to be denied her desires. She could be patient.
One Spring morning, when Matthew was at home with his new son, and Maria was walking home along the cliff-side with a satchel of ripe plums at her hip, a flock of starlings flew at her face and pecked at her until she lost her footing.
Julia waited, sure that when Maria failed to return to him, Matthew would come to her to find out why, and she would reveal with endless sympathy how Maria, unready for the burdens of motherhood, had run off with a passing traveler from another land. Julia would be there to comfort him in his grief, to welcome him and his child into her house, grown luxurious with the offerings of the villagers.
Only, instead of tumbling into the sea, never to be found, Maria’s satchel caught on a root and broke her neck, leaving her there for Matthew to find – dangling, but accessible, with the marks of a hundred tiny beaks pocking the skin around her eyes.
Matthew’s grief festered within him until it turned to rage. He dug a grave for his wife in the garden behind their house, and, with a whispered apology, laid his son, quietly sucking on a piece of whiteroot, beside her. When his labor was finished, he fell, exhausted, and slept beside the fresh turned earth. When the next morning he found a stalk growing from the grave, with a single blood-red plum dangling from its end, he ate it without questioning, and immediately succumbed to a fever that lasted for three days.
He awoke alone, tied with hempen rope to a tree far from the village. Snapping his bonds as if they were rotted vines, he stumbled back toward his home. As he knelt beside a clear stream to slake thirst deeper than he had ever known, the face he saw in the water was that of a monster, as much reptile as man.
Matthew lurks at the edge of the woods by night, watching the silhouettes of the houses in the village. He longs to return to his old, happy life, but knows this is no longer his home. Then he sees a strange shape, hovering about the rooftops, surrounded by smaller, flitting forms that alight on its shoulders as if whispering in its ears. Forgetting the safety of the woods, he draws closer, just as the shape touches down by Julia’s door. Unhampered by darkness, his eyes show him her feathered cape, and her winged servants. And he knows.
Bellowing a roar that wakes the whole village, Matthew charges toward Julia, his clawed feet churning up the moist earth. She barely has time to lift her arms, five feet, ten feet; but he is faster than a man now, and he leaps up to catch her legs in a crushing embrace.
Suddenly, they are soaring, above the clouds, the moonlight blinding, the wind deafening in their ears, spiraling across a sea of white foam, her avarice and his rage forgotten in this unexpected moment, her exaltation and his fear.
When again she swoops down, through the clouds, across turbulent waters, it is to a coast neither of them recognize. Their speed is still great, and Julia cannot quite veer away from the stand of strangely upright trees. His body weighs her down, her legs numb from his unfailing grasp. They careen wildly toward the straight boles, but Matthew swings his legs out and the boughs shatter under the impact of his armored shins.
On the other side of the trees, they crash to the ground and tumble apart, to lay on the wet grass, both exhausted beyond measure, they stay there, unmoving, for a long time, listening to one another’s breathing.
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That was terrific. (I can’t ‘like’ without a wordpress account, so.) Finished, though?
Maybe? That’s like the fourth or fifth draft of that. I don’t have more in my brain at the moment, but who knows about the future?
When Jacob was twelve, he climbed into one of those giant, sprawling ballpits, the ones which have tunnels and slides and nets, the ones that are supposedly only for children aged 5-10… and he was never seen again. He wasn’t missed much: he had lived most of his life with his stepfather and older stepbrothers, and all of them despised him. They made him live in a shed and never showed him any love.
Which turned out to be a problem for Jacob, once he found himself on the Foamworld. The Foamworld was an universe composed entirely of ballpit areas; you could climb up, climb down, use a slide, wade through a literal ballpit, come out the other side, even cut a net (under penalty of death and the danger of falling into what Foamers called the Void), and you would always find yourself into another ballpit area. The Foamers included local creatures, a few other humans like Jacob, and even people who had fallen in from other universes.
They lived in the plastic tunnels and used the plastic balls as a unit of exchange; they were more valuable the rounder they were. Sometimes you’d be crossing a more open passage, stepping on net, and a few plastic balls would fall over you, coming from somewhere in the upper darkness, probably a broken net on another passage miles above.
It didn’t take much time for Jacob to get involved in the local politics. Prince Zahmel, a boy his age, asked him to lead a group of warriors, most of them boys and girls their age, into the domains of an evil emperor who wanted to find a way to bend the inside of any tunnel into any other one, effectively gaining access to most of the Foamworld and maybe other realities.
And that’s when the trouble really started for Jacob. He could’t find a way to inspire or even mingle with the other warriors; he hadn’t gotten a chance to interact healthily on his time on Earth. On the Foamworld, he treated his companions with a mixture of fear, distrust and despise. They quickly formed a group around him of which he was not part. He didn’t realize what was happening, he didn’t think of observing them; all he could think of now was that he was truly lost, because he didn’t want to go back home either.
But shouldn’t he? At the end of the journey, once the emperor had killed Prince Zahmel, and Jacob and his ¿friends? had led a revolt against him, Jacob found himself with a working prototype of the tunnel-bending technology right after winning the battle. He knew he could use it to get back home; he knew it was too late to make friends there.
Yet he had an advantage. Halfway through his journey, a bit before Prince Zahmel’s death, Jacob had met the Goddess of the Net, a spirit that roamed free all through the Void. With her help he had seen, with her love he had tried to learn. Now as the road to Earth appeared in front of him, he remembered her words: “There’s nothing wrong inside you. Yet there is a lot you must change. Remember it is always possible to change, and change is always found in the path towards others.”
And thus he closed the portal, came back to his fellow warriors, and gave himself a second chance.
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There once was a man from Nantucket! …okay, let me start over. Here’s a snippet of something in my head that started out finished, and I’ve been trying to work backward from there. If you feel like tacking on a prologue or epilogue, work away.
“The village was a blackened and smoking ruin, with only charred embers to mark the site of the shrine they had built. Thela the healer turned to her companion, pleading in her eyes.
But turning silently, Cedren the ranger went back into the hills, and did not come down again.”