Preorder Day: “Day Of Atonement”

Yesterday, the release of an anthology that I have waited a long time for was announced: the Holy C.O.W. (Center of the World) anthology, which is an alternate history collection including stories that concern the Middle East. It ships July 29th.

I’m proud of this because it carries my story “Day Of Atonement” which imagines a historically different relationship between Christians and Jews. I’d especially like to thank my editor, D Avraham and my good friend Cliff Winnig for their insights on Hebrew traditions which were a vital supplement to my research, and made this story much better than it otherwise would have been.

Excerpt follows:

“Christ killer!”

The gobbet of mud struck Yossef below his ear, splattering his neck and robes. For a moment he stood motionless, his anxiety wiped away by shock and growing anger, watching the ochre mud drip down the white cloth of the kittel and the tallis that he wore over his shoulders, his prayer-shawl that his mother had made. The ragged urchin who had thrown it was grinning, and bending to pry more muck from the gutter of the Jerusalem streets.

“Shame!” The voice cracked like a whip through the quiet Wednesday morning. A few peddlers, busy setting up their stalls selling sacrifices and food, paused to stare at its source. Yossef turned, distantly wondering if anyone else could hear how close that voice was to cracking. “Shame on you, boy!” Striding past Yossef, the priest in the rough black habit grabbed the boy’s arm and twisted hard. He howled, and the mud fell. “I am not hurting you, boy,” he said, more calmly. “You but feel a small portion of the pain your sin has brought upon your soul. How do you dare to defile a man, let alone a man of God on the Eve of the Day of Atonement?”

“His people killed Christ, father!”

“Oh?” The priest raised his eyebrows and pointed the boy’s chin firmly at the soldier who stood guard at the Double Gate. “His people helped us defeat the Arabian heretics as well. But if you want to fight, there is an Imperial soldier. They, too, took part in shedding our Savior’s blood. Will you throw your mud at him?” After a moment of silence, he snorted. “I thought not. Your cowardice and unforgiveness shames Christians, not Jews. Get home, and pray to St. Nicodemus for your sins.” The boy ran off to a stall, where a bearded man wore an expression of shame mixed with fury. He dropped his gaze and hauled his son around a corner.

The priest straightened and looked at Yossef. “I am so sorry. Come, let’s get you cleaned up.” He helped Yossef unwind the tallith and folded it neatly. “I don’t suppose you have a spare?”

“There will doubtless be one in the shrine, Matthias,” Yossef said. “It is no great matter.” The tightness in his voice betrayed him, however, and his old friend’s eyes darkened with shame.

“My people should know better,” he said. “We have disgraced ourselves before the Father, and ask your forgiveness.”

“As His mercy is everlasting, so we forgive.” Yossef repeated the ritual formula, and felt his own shame. It was not Matthias’s fault: God forbid, he might have to ask the same of a Christian, someday. Matthias led Yossef up the steps of Constantine’s Church, where it nestled on the southern side of the great wall of the Temple Mount. An acolyte rushed to meet them as Matthias dipped a towel in the basin at the entrance to the nave. Matthias stopped his incipient protest with a hard look.

“I know it’s holy water,” he said evenly. “And what is more holy than lifting up the oppressed?” The acolyte looked suffused, but stepped back in silence.

End of excerpt.
Advertisements

Whoever Is Not For Us: Author’s Note

One of my favorite things to do when I write SF is to screw around with genre expectation. And there is one that is almost never messed with that was too fun not to try to deal with, and that is the Parasite.

In SF, whenever people are infested by an evil parasite-like creature determined to enslave them, body and mind, it is always a hideous, nasty thing. Or it’s invisible. By contrast, on the rare occasions (like STNG’s the Trill, say) that a symbiote is beneficial, it is always invisible. For whatever reason, we’re wired to believe — or maybe it’s just that we really, really want to believe — that beauty is truth and truth is beauty. It might have something to do with the fact that beautiful people are usually healthy ones, and breeding with the healthy only makes good evolutionary sense. But there’s certainly no rational reason to believe that this would be the case.

Beneficial symbiotes aren’t even common in SF. I can’t name a single case in which a disfiguring symbiote has been good for someone. The closest I can get to it is the symbionts from the Babylon 5 episode “Xenogenesis,” which was a very bold move on the part of the show. But even the hideous symbionts caused pain and disfigurement only for a moment, and then they vanished invisibly within their hosts.

So for “Whoever Is Not For Us,” I wanted to break that trend and ask what would happen if the truth came disguised in ugliness. It was a fun story to write. I hope you enjoy it.

Release Day! “Whoever Is Not For Us”

Today, “Whoever Is Not For Us,” a military SF piece with a spiritual dimension that I first “sold” in 2014,* is finally being published! It also marks my return to Don Crankshaw’s and Kristin Janz’s Mysterion website. I was in on the first anthology they released, with my story “This Far Gethsemane,” and they run an awesome ship. The story is here, and I hope you like it. I also hope you’ll back them as they buy more stories (hopefully from me!)

*to a small press which never paid or published the work and then tried to re-buy it after 18 months of hanging on to it and never answering queries. No thanks.

Short Story Release: “Whoever Is Not For Us.”

Received confirmation today that “Whoever Is Not For Us” will appear on the Mysterion website on July 8th, but for supporters of their Patreon it is available NOW.

Here is an excerpt, just to whet your appetite:

(Sorry for the lack of paragraph indents, but WordPress is particularly stupid in that regard).

Whoever Is Not For Us
by
Scott Huggins

 

The sparking hell of Main Engineering shuddered and rang like a cymbal under the blows of magnetic grapples impacting the outer hull. Marine Captain Manuel Stolz spared a single glance for Commander Ellerbee and her mate frantically working on the drive bomb.

“How long?” he said. His voice echoed in his combat suit helmet, unnaturally loud.

“A couple of minutes,” grunted Ellerbee. The Navy engineer’s hands were moving too fast for him to follow.

Too long. Stolz switched to his Marines’ channel. “Perimeter check.”

“Conrad, hatch secure.” 

“Olivett, hatch secure.”

“Plekhanov, hatch…” The lights went out with a photoflash and Plekhanov’s voice was swallowed by a roaring hiss. The boarders were through the stern perimeter, moving with a precision inhuman and terrifying. Their lasers strobed the compartment. Ellerbee’s suit sprouted holes: superheated air and flesh jetted out, knocking her body back into Stolz, smashing him into the bulkhead. Conrad slammed the butt of his rifle into the helmet of the attacker that appeared suddenly behind him. Then he leveled it at the thing’s belly. He and the alien fired at the same moment. They exploded apart from each other.

Stolz’s reflexes and enhancement took over. Riding the tailored hormones like a roller coaster, he tucked and bounced off the bulkhead, rolling back to fire his puppetcutter. The focused EMP seared through the Brainsucker’s circuit-neurons, severing the connection between host and parasite, and his target spasmed and went still. Then Stolz was through the hatch, into the weapons bay. Scanning. His bulky gun’s screen showed nothing. He sealed the hatch and moved again, bouncing from wall to wall. His back itched, but no infinitely hot finger reached out to stab him between the shoulder blades.

They wanted him alive. Wanted them all alive. It was their way.

He dogged the hatch behind him and turned forward. Then he heard the shout. “Manuel, stop!”

He stopped. He didn’t remember letting the gun go, but it hung before him in microgravity.

Zanne’s voice.

Numb, he reached for his holster. So even this prayer would be denied him. He’d had nightmares about this moment, had planned for it. And prayed it would never happen. The weight of the weapon filled his hand with heavy and final comfort. He focused his eyes on it, and the comfort drained away. 

His laser sidearm was burnt clean through. He’d never noticed the hit. And the hatch behind him was beginning to glow red. The Brainsuckers were burning through. He was trapped, with Zanne on the other side, coming for him, and he could not kill himself.

The Enemy Of My Enemy Is Not My Friend

One of the reasons that Deep Space Nine was my favorite of the post Original Series Star Trek is that the writers got to make some pretty bold moves. One of the boldest and most insightful, I feel, was their choice of what to do with the Mirrorverse from one of the Original Series’ strongest episodes.

In the Mirrorverse, the Federation was the Terran Empire: a bloodthirsty, dictatorial and ruthless state. And Vulcans were pretty much Romulans. During their brief sojourn in the Mirrorverse, our own universe’s Kirk tried to convince the Mirrorverse’s Spock to try overthrowing the Terran Empire in favor of a Federation. In DS9, we got to see the results.

Turns out that Mirror Spock had been quite successful at the overthrowing the Empire part. Unfortunately, that merely left the Empire in enough trouble that its subject peoples plus the Klingons and Romulans had easily conquered Earth and made humanity into a slave race. And they were still enslaved about a century later.

The Original Series had made an unwarranted assumption, and it is one that uneducated “revolutionaries” make to this day: that when an oppressive system is toppled, freedom and justice will naturally follow. They do not. To establish them requires hard work, and it is not often hard work that the “revolutionaries” are equipped to do. To take a few examples, it must have seemed to the Aztecs’ subject races that the Spaniards — whose God, notably did not demand human sacrifice — were their liberators. The French believed that toppling the nobles, and later the king, would bring them equality, liberty and brotherhood. What they got was the Committee Of Public Safety, the Reign of Terror, and Napoleon. Aleksandr Kerensky had a chance to establish a Russian Republic when the Czar’s oppression was overthrown, as did Yeltsin when the Soviet Union fell apart. They were succeeded by Lenin and Putin respectively, and the only thing better about Putin is that he isn’t using starvation as a tool for mass murder, as far as I know.

Overthrowing oppressive systems isn’t very hard, even when it isn’t easy. Not replacing it with an enemy that’s even worse is the trick.

Iron Lensman

Every now and then I have the impulse to do a little literary criticism, although I can usually control it with prescription medication. But the other day I was watching Iron Man II (I really watched the MCU out of order) and a parallel struck me that I haven’t heard anyone else talk about before, so you lucky readers get to hear me ramble on about it.

The Lensman series, by E. E. “Doc” Smith was one of the seminal works of Golden Age SF, appearing in Astounding magazine from 1937-1948, and later reworked in the 1950s as a series of seven novels. Roughly, the titular heroes, the Lensmen, were an organization that fought crime on a galactic scale. Their lenses amplified their psionic powers, and no person who could be corrupted by wealth and power could wield a lens.

The length of the series, the poverty of the plot (which generally just featured the Lensmen going up against more and more powerful foes, armed with ever-more esoteric and larger superbattlefleets) and Smith’s excruciatingly awful prose meant that the Lensman series never saw release as anything approaching a major motion picture, which is on some level a relief and on another a profound disappointment. I always thought the series might have some hope in the hands of a really awesome screenwriter. But the themes he launched were a major influence on Star Wars (incorruptible psionic supersoldiers, anyone?) Other than that, it’s hard to find a direct heir to Smith’s style of storytelling.

And then it hit me that Tony Stark is pretty much a lensman par excellance, updated for the modern world. There are several parallels: like many other writers of that generation, such as Asimov, to whose Foundation series Smith lost the 1966 Hugo for Best Series, Smith’s lensmen are trained and expected to function as scientists, and frequently make discoveries and invent new weapons and vehicles. This whole thing struck me as i watched Tony Stark invent a new element under the guidance of his father’s notes to replace the palladium in his arc reactor heart. Like the lensmen, Tony Stark relies on a scientistic talisman that grants him his power, but it is always clear that his real power is in his willingness to do the right thing. Also like the first family of lensmen, the Kinnisons, Tony Stark gets a big helping hand from his father’s legacy of great genes and connections. Finally, by Civil War we see that Tony Stark is also concerned, as was Smith, with the idea of oversight. There is a major difference here, since the lensman’s source of power was also his shield against corruption. Tony Stark loses faith in himself and his fellow Avengers, but it’s interesting to me that this lack of faith is ultimately shown to be misplaced when he goes up against Captain America. Who also has his own “lens” made for him by Howard Stark, in a sense. The shape is even similar.

Although I really liked the conclusion of the major arc of the MCU, I’m going to miss Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. I hope that another generation of lensmen — whatever they are called — comes quickly.

Critiques And Stories!

I don’t want to make this blog into a marketing machine, but I haven’t written about my Patreon account for about a year, and I just made some changes to it, so today I’m going to let you know what all of you could get if you choose to patronize me.

Um, maybe I should rephrase that.

Okay, so starting at the $2 reward level, I will start writing you your own personalized story at the low, semi-pro rate of $0.03 a word. The longer you support me, the longer your story goes.

At $10 of support, I will provide a detailed critique of a single work of fiction/poetry of 6k words or less. I’m a runner-up with about 20 short stories published: it’s a good deal.

At $25 or more per month, I’ll offer a second critique, only this one will be good for up to 10k words. Yes, you can get 2 critiques per month.

Finally, $40 of support gets you a single piece of flash fiction that I will write just for you, on whatever subject you wish.

Try out some of these rewards and watch your writing improve. Or just enjoy some great fiction. Thanks for your support!

An Open Letter To The Manufacturers of the Spice Melange

Dear CHOAM Company,

I would like to take the time to complain about your spice “MELANGE (a genuine Arrakis product!) It is my opinion that not only is your overhyped and overpriced, but is deceptive and dangerous as well. My own family’s case will prove illustrative.

My wife came home with a jar of melange about six months ago, for which she paid the exorbitant price of $575. While the jar was approximately the size of the other jars in our spice rack, we were surprised and dismayed to discover that within the jar stood barely enough melange to be visible, and no, I am afraid that thoughtful as it was, the microtweezers and hufuf oil magnifying lens included was not enough to significantly improve the inconvenience of digging out enough to use in cooking. Which brings me to my second point. Regardless of your advertising copy that promises “a flavor unmatchable in the known Universe,” the overwhelming impression I got from the scent of melange is cinnamon, the best grade of which is easily purchased at about $10 for a full ounce. As to the claim that melange is “never the same taste twice,” it’s rather ridiculous to make the claim when there is not more than one taste in the jar, even for the most artful of cooks.

Finally, I must question the wisdom of allowing — let alone advertising — the fact that melange is an indispensable part of foldspace drives. I can’t think of any other machine additive I would be well-advised to put on my food and consume. Besides the which, ever since we did use melange on our Thanksgiving apple pie, our familial harmony has been shattered. Not only did no one in the family notice the expense and trouble to which we went, but my wife has been going abut murmuring that she thinks I will divorce her when I discover what she really paid for the jar of spice. My high-school age son has decided it is impossible to pass calculus no matter what he does, and the younger children are all complaining about what they are getting for Christmas, and I haven’t even finished my shopping yet. Plus ever since that meal they youngest one has seemed to be in several places at once.  If the doctor says that’s more than the fact that he’s seven years old, you may advise your legal department that they will be hearing from my lawyers.

Sincerely,

Malcolm Idaho
Duchy of Grumman

memo: write the Ix division about eye treatments, re: younger brother DI

 

Less Controversial Science-Fiction Rant: The Aliens Who Hate Everything Every Million Years or So.

Am I the only one who is tired of the plot that goes: “Well, you see, a long time ago there was a huge alien race that got pissed off that other people existed, so they decided to wipe everyone back to microbes every now and then.”

Sometimes, there’s a putative cause for it, as in Babylon 5, a series I love. But the whole Vorlon-Shadow war which was like, in the words of John Sheridan, “a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides” was my least favorite part of it. Because it was like watching a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides!! I mean, these were two demi-god-like races! I wanted the war to be over some transcendent disagreement or point of history Not Meant For Man To Know. Instead, it was basically American politics and personal pettiness (but I repeat myself).

David Weber did it a little better with his Achuultani in The Armageddon Inheritance, where the aliens at least have the excuse of being enslaved to an evil AI that can do self-maintenance for millennia.

At its worst, this trope takes the form it did in the game Mass Effect where the ultra-powerful Reapers sterilize the galaxy every million years or so because Reasons.

Folks, this trope is TIRED. And it’s an idiot plot. If the aliens are that powerful, why don’t they just create a fleet of robot ships to go burn the life off every planet that shows cholorophyll? Answer: because DRAMA! They always wait until humanity et al. develop the technology to play David to their Goliath and then get stopped. Also, how is it that the aliens always have this amazing social and political cohesion? They hang around, absolutely loyal to each other and content to do bugger all until the Evolutionary Alarm Clock sounds and reminds them it’s time to get back to slaughtering the Younger Races again.

Enough.

Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.