Dispatches From Anarres, or Don’t Disappoint Denzel Washington

I’m convinced Denzel Washington just wants you to live your best life.

In The Equalizer, he walks into the bad guy’s office with a simple offer: Take some money, make things right, and turn over a new leaf.

The offer’s too simple, though. Denzel’s character is too unassuming — and so the bad guys laugh him out of the office.

Denzel walks to the door and sighs sadly at what’s about to happen.

Then he locks the door, checks his watch, and proceeds to demolish every last bad guy with intense precision.

Guys.

Don’t disappoint Denzel.

I love the trope of an underestimated badass. Maybe it’s the old man who’s secretly a martial arts master. Maybe it’s the little girl who’s actually a psychic grenade. Maybe it’s the shy kid who’s actually whip smart, or the outclassed kid with a secret talent.

Maybe it’s brother and sister shoemakers who are secretly fighting back against the conquerers who are occupying their town…

The Navu officer in his shop is admiring a pair of boots, though frowning at the underslung heel. “Doesn’t that make it difficult to walk?”

“It’s the northern style. Riders prefer them.” Desh turns on his own underslung heel, executing an abbreviated dance step in the tiny space of his shop, his back-step cut short before a display case. “Dancers, too.”

The Navu officer laughs. All the Navu seem to find Cazhitlani fashion and showmanship amusing. Jilli smiles at his back, appreciating his underestimation of her brother.

“I need them for a ball. Don’t you have anything less — ” The officer waves a hand foppishly.

“Bold?” Desh is used to this question from Navus. “For you, of course. I can make something special.”

A few weekends ago, I had the honor of sitting with a handful of other authors on a panel for the Portland Book Festival about Ursula Le Guin, and how her work had inspired our own. The panel was in celebration of a new anthology, Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin.

(The above excerpt is from my story in the anthology, “Black as Thread.”)

On the panel, we were asked what about Le Guin’s work inspired our own, and I picked the way her stories don’t center on the biggest, baddest warriors around.

Le Guin’s characters don’t always seem powerful on the outside; in fact, their power is in the way people to underestimate them.

The dart game scene in Ted Lasso is a fantastic example of this. I mean — who doesn’t love watching an arrogant bastard get taken down a notch by his own shortsightedness?

In my story, “Black as Thread,” a brother and sister who own a shoe shop begin crafting cursed shoes for the occupying forces. Their shoes grow in popularity among the upper ranks of the occupying forces, who never would guess where their string of bad luck is coming from.

You see it in the exchange I excerpted — the Navu officer finds the dancing shoemaker with his passion for color theory to be harmless. Laughable.

Le Guin has a lovely essay called “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which you can read for free in the Anarchist Library. In it, she talks about whose work — and stories — have traditionally been considered important.

When you see traditionally feminine crafts and hobbies — like shoes and fashion — as unimportant, you’re going to judge them as harmless.

You’re not going to be curious about them. You’re not going to ask questions like:

“What signal am I sending in your culture when I wear green shoos with red buttons?”

“What are those songs your sister is singing in the corner?”

“Why does the thread she’s sewing with turn black under her fingertips?”

You won’t expect danger to come at you in a shoe store.

You can find “Black as Thread” along with an amazing collection of other stories inspired by the amazing Ursula K. Le Guin in Dispatches From Anarres.

(Oh, and I’m thrilled to tell you my short story was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for literary works published by a small press! I’ve never been nominated for a prestigious literary prize, so I’m a bit floored.)

Meet Dispatches From Anarres:

Dispatches

Named for the anarchist utopia in Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction classic The Dispossessed, Dispatches from Anarres embodies the anarchic spirit of Le Guin’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, while paying tribute to her enduring vision.

In stories that range from fantasy to sci fi to realism, some of Portland’s most vital voices have come together to celebrate Le Guin’s lasting legacy and influence on that most subversive of human faculties: the imagination.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Who gets to be a villain?

As a child, I loved the Disney movie Sleeping Beauty — but probably not for the reason I was supposed to.

I suffered through Aurora’s sappy yearning for love. I yawned at the Prince (. . . um, Erik?) and his earnest escapades.

I loved the Flora, Fauna, and Merriwether of course — who doesn’t appreciate a gaggle of adorable witchy aunties who are just doing their best at adulting?

But I watched Sleeping Beauty for my idol.

Maleficent.

She had power. She commanded minions. She was fierce and strong. She did whatever the hell she wanted.

Yes, cursing a baby to die is pretty terrible — especially when her beef was actually with the parents. But as a child I remember feeling awed by her strength, confidence, and casual assumption of power.

She was a boss bitch, and she was amazing. I’d rather be her than boring, sappy Aurora crying on her bed any day.

As a girl, I felt like I was offered two choices in Sleeping Beauty: sit around waiting to be saved, or turn into a literal dragon and set some shit on fire.

I wanted to be the dragon.

Cue Sirens…

A few weeks back, I mentioned Sirens Con, the feminist SFF convention I recently attended.

The theme of the conference was villains: Who gets cast as villains in our media? How are straight, cis male villains treated compared to female, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ villains? What does a villain need to do to have a redemption arc? What does it mean to be morally gray?

Nearly every panel and talk touched somewhat on the theme. As a writer of sci-fi crime stories about space gangsters and pirates, you can bet I have a LOT of thoughts on how these topics relate to my own work.

My attempt to sit and write a quick recap of Sirens for you turned into a multi-part series of essays.

This specific blog post won’t have any spoilers for my books, but I did dig deeper into my world and characters in other essays — so I’m only send those to readers who are actually curious. (Read on for details.)

But first!

Maleficent didn’t become a villain by accident.

(And, no, I’m not talking about her character backstory, or the recent retelling with Angelina Jolie.)

Her character design in the animated film was deliberate, influenced by a Prohibition-era set of rules called the Hays Code — which we learned about at Sirens in a fascinating keynote talk given by Sarah Gailey.

The Hays Code was provided in 1927 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America — it listed things that should not be included in movies, such as profanity and nudity, but also things like relationships between people of different races, scenes of childbirth, and the positive portrayal of sexual depravity.

The idea is based on something I completely agree with: stories expand our experiences and help us empathize with other perspectives. Stories teach us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

What the Hays Code said, though, was that we should only be teaching audiences to empathize with certain people.

As Sarah Gailey pointed out in their talk, the Hays Code wanted audiences to empathize with “model citizens.” White, Christian, straight, and hard-working.

Anyone who didn’t fit that box could only be portrayed in a negative light. They got to be villains.

No one empathizes with the villains, right?

Well, no one except for us misfits.

You’ll notice sexual depravity on the Hays Code no-no list, of course. Loose women and women who are confident in their sexuality obviously fall into this category — hence the trope of the femme fatale, or the voluptuous vixen who gets a humiliating downfall.

And, of course, the gays. Start listing off old movie villains in your head, and just notice how many are butch women and effeminate men.

Sticking with Disney villains for a moment, take take Ursula the sea witch, another of my Disney favorites. Sarah Gailey pointed out that Ursula’s character design, expressions, and movements were literally based off the famous drag queen Divine.

The Hays Code was generally abandoned by the 60s for the rating code we use today (at least in the US), but the reverberations linger.

Imagine it.

  • Think of the gay kids who are only ever allowed to glimpse themselves in Scar or Ursula or Javier Bardem’s depraved Bond villain.
  • Think of the Muslim kids who are only ever allowed to see themselves as terrorists.
  • Think of ambitious girls who are only allowed to see themselves as psychotic, power-hungry madwomen.

As a girl, I wanted to be the dragon.

In real life I’ve actually become the witchy auntie who’s doing her best at adulting — but Maleficent still inspires me.

I have a figurine of her on my desk, a gift from my sister. Every time I catch a glimpse of it, I remember that it’s okay for a woman to be a bit monstrous if it means advocating for herself and fully coming into her power.

And it reminds me to pay attention to the worlds I’m writing, and the implicit lessons I’m sharing about who can and cannot be a hero.

How about you – do you have a favorite villain?

Let me know in the comments!

Want to read the rest of this essay series?

Oh — and as I said, Sarah Gailey’s talk at Sirens was one of many many presentations that sparked a lot of thoughts for me.

Specifically, I want to dive more into Fonda Lee’s discussion about morally gray characters, and into the idea of villain redemption arcs which was discussed by multiple presenters.

However, I drew a lot off my own work, and I didn’t want to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t read all the Bulari Saga yet.

If you have read it — or don’t mind a few spoilers — I have another few emails I’d love to send your way. Click here to get a series of three more emails over the next three days:

  • Navigating the morally gray world of the Bulari Saga
  • What makes a good villain (and can you redeem them?)
  • And a super secret surprise 😉

Want a deeper dive on Disney villains?

Photo by Norbert Buduczki on Unsplash

CROOKED V.1 Author Spotlight — Mark Niemann-Ross

This week we’re celebrating the launch of CROOKED V.1 with author interviews!

Mark Niemann-Ross is an author, educator, and chicken wrangler living in Portland, Oregon. He teaches “R” — a programming language, and “Raspberry Pi” — a small computer used for the Internet of Things. Both topics influence his writing, which fits solidly in the genre of “Hard Science Fiction.”

Mark co-authored his first story in 2005 with Richard A. Lovett in Analog, Science Fiction and Fact. Since then, he has published additional stories in Analog and Stupefying Stories, has self-published two collections, and collaborated on a children’s book. Most recently, Mark published Stupid Machine, a science fiction murder mystery solved by a refrigerator.

Mark’s website: niemannross.com

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Tell us a bit about your story (and the story world, if applicable).
Araci Belo lives in our world, only slightly further downstream in the cosmic timeline. It’s entirely possible he’s already been born – or will be soon. Unlike you and I, he’s going to live through the Portland earthquake and see Portland rebuilt as a modernized city.

The technology he uses isn’t mind-boggling. It’s just a linear extrapolation of what we have today. You and I will recognize his world in the same way our parents recognize our world. Devices have a familiar form, but there’s always a sense of something impossible about them.

I write hard science fiction where the laws of physics still rule. In Hot Meal, I spent a lot of time researching how an oven would explode. If the FBI chooses to audit my search history, they will find incriminating questions such as “Do propane tanks explode?” … or “How much propane does it take to blow up a kitchen?” … or “air fuel mixture requirement for propane vs hydrogen”. You may see the problem I will face.

Both “Stupid Machine” and “Hot Meal” revolve around events in a kitchen. I think it’s a terrifying place: sharp knives, explosives, burning oil. Just because it’s familiar doesn’t mean it’s safe. Coupled with the emerging (emerging is a euphemism for unknown) addition of artificial intelligence to these weapons of destruction… I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

I’ve been careful to write my artificial intelligence as different than the “human in a box.” Machines have different motivations and behaviors than humans. Persistence, for one. Machines continue to do a task long after humans get bored and move on to the next shiny object. Look up “persistence hunting,” then watch “It Follows.” Now are you worried?

What was the inspiration behind this story?
I seem to be exploring chaos at the edge of technology. Quality assurance engineers are employed to find these problems – and we continue to invent new ways to keep them busy. Anywhere two technologies touch, there is potential for unexpected behavior. Like genetic mutations, most are benign. Like genetic mutations, some are deadly. Who would have guessed light bulbs would provide hackers with entry points to the internet?

I’m also fascinated by the commercialization of basic human needs. Food and water have always been a source of commerce. Health and social interaction are the current darling of capitalism. Our nature is to control these assets – I perceive this drive to control as a rich ground for misbehavior.

If you could travel to any science fictional world, where would you go and what would you do?
I’m living in it! Michael Crichton would find inspiration for “Andromeda Strain” in today’s world of COVID-19. What would I do? Get vaccinated, wear a mask, cry like a baby and try to become acidotic.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi crime books or stories?
My guilty pleasure is E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “The Lensmen.” It doesn’t age well – but it’s a roller coaster. Read it before you see Star Wars.

What authors have inspired your writing?
Daniel H. Wilson. I’m inspired by his take on robots and their motivations. I remember him discussing “Terminator” and how the robots would throw their opponents across the room. He asserted robots killer robots would instead try to get as close as possible to dismember opponents. I recommend “Robopocalypse” for insight into how true killer robots would behave.

What are you working on next?
I’m haunted by two other short stories that insist on being written. One has to do with the difficulty of maintaining a relationship when partners don’t share the same circadian rhythm. The other has to do with dissociative memory. They barged into the queue ahead of Stupid Machine Two, which is probably a science fiction murder mystery CAUSED by a refrigerator.

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CROOKED V.1

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CROOKED V.1 Author Spotlight: Benjamin Gorman

We’re celebrating the launch of CROOKED V.1 by spotlighting the authors who have contributed stories!

Benjamin Gorman is an award-winning high school English teacher, political activist, author, poet, and co-publisher at Not a Pipe Publishing. He lives in Independence, Oregon with bibliophile and guillotine aficionado Chrystal, his favorite son, Noah, and his dog, E.V. (External Validation). 

His novels are The Sum of Our Gods, Corporate High School, The Digital Storm: A Science Fiction Reimagining of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Don’t Read This Book. His first book of poetry, When She Leaves Me, was published in November of 2020, and his second, This Uneven Universe, will be released in November of 2021. He believes in his students and the future they’ll create if given the chance.

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Tell us a bit about your story and the story world.
I’ve been reading some great novels about aliens and the ways alien intelligences might view our universe very differently from the way we perceive things. I wanted to play with the idea that a confession of a murder could be complicated by inter-species cross-cultural misunderstanding.

What was the inspiration behind this story?
I started a story about a character trapped on a spaceship during a pandemic, and it turned into a murder mystery. I haven’t finished that novel, but when you asked me to write a sci-fi mystery, I already had the character of my consulting detective in mind. So I skipped ahead and imagined him taking on this case later in his career.

If you could travel to any science fictional world, where would you go and what would you do?
For comfort’s sake, I’d love to live in the utopia of Star Trek. I’d see if I could get a gig traveling around with Starfleet or maybe hanging out on a space station like DS9, collecting the stories of fellow travelers and then fictionalizing them into novels that could be beamed around the galaxy and read by people looking for entertainment during their long interstellar journeys.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi crime books or stories?
I’m a big Star Wars fan (not a universe I’d want to live in, but one I love to visit), and both Solo (heist story) and much of The Mandalorian (bounty hunter in a space Western) are crime stories that fill me with joy.

What authors have inspired your writing?
This particular story was most inspired by Anne Lecke’s Imperial Radch series, specifically the character of Dlique, translator for the alien Presger in the second book, Ancillary Sword, and Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, specifically the alien Rocky. These alien characters forced me to wrap my head around new ways aliens could comprehend our species from the outside. Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest, the second book in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, made me think about the ways species that are far more or less advanced than one another might interact. And Jessi Kwak’s Bulari Saga and Durga System series showed how well a complex and enthralling crime drama could thrive in a sci-fi universe. You really should check them all out. Excellent.

What are you working on next?
I have a book of poetry coming out in November titled This Uneven Universe, and I’m still hard at work on the second book of my The Convention of Fiends paranormal trilogy that started with Don’t Read This Book. When I finish that, I’m excited about trying my hand at an epic high fantasy novel, but this story was so fun to write, maybe I’ll go back to that half-written murder-mystery-on-a-colony-ship-during-a-pandemic. Hopefully we’ll be a bit further from our own pandemic by then, and people will be interested in a story like that one without it feeling quite so close to home!

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CROOKED V.1

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CROOKED V.1 Author Spotlight: Mark Teppo

This week we’re featuring spotlight interviews with authors from CROOKED V.1!

Mark Teppo divides his time between Portland and Sumner, and he tends to navigate by local bookstore positioning. He writes historical fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, and horror, and has published more than a dozen novels. If he’s writing a mystery, he’s pretending to be Harry Bryant. He also runs Underland Press, an independent publishing house.

Learn more at markteppo.com.

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Tell us about your story
I’ve been wrestling with Maisi for most of the year, actually. She started out as a secondary character in a larger ensemble, but I kept coming back to her story as being central to the narrative. Then, she decided that the role I had given her was too boring and that she wanted to be part of something more exciting. Wisely, I got out of the way . . .

What was the inspiration behind this story?
I was working on my weekly newsletter and realized that I hadn’t mentioned anything about writing in a few weeks. I decided it would be good to tell everyone that I was working on something, and so I found a cool piece of SF art and wrote part of the scene with Maisi and Nome in the car as a teaser.

The rest was a matter of figuring out why they were in the car and what was going to happen next.

If you could travel to any science fiction world, where would you go and what would you do?
When I stop and think about this, the first dozen or so that come to mind are either over-populated, thoroughly dystopian, or in the process of being devoured. That says something about what I’ve been reading.

I think I’d like to visit somewhere really weird. Something very un-earthlike. I’d like to see things that I couldn’t imagine. I remember taking my son to the Tacoma Zoo when he was very small. They had a white beluga whale, and I couldn’t get him to look at the magnificent whale. He was too busy being entranced by the pattern of light on the floor. I realized that he was seeing many things he had never seen before. It dawned on me that it had been years since I had had that sort of experience.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi crime books or stories?
Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series are bloody, explody fun. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun continues to astound me.

What authors have inspired your writing?
I get a lot of my inspiration these days from crime writers. John D. MacDonald and Richard Stark, to name two.

What are you working on next?
I’m working on the next part of a giant robot mega-corp future story where the only person standing against an imminent attack of the Old Ones is a spy who learned all his tradecraft from old pulp novels. It’s Moonraker meets Pacific Rim meets Out of Sight.

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CROOKED V.1

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CROOKED V.1 Author Spotlight — Kate Sheeran Swed

Welcome to another author interview for CROOKED V.1!

Kate Sheeran Swed loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. She has trekked along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, hiked on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland, and climbed the ruins of Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. After growing up in New Hampshire, she completed degrees in music at the University of Maine and Ithaca College, then moved to New York City. She currently lives in New York’s capital region with her husband and two kids, plus a pair of cats who were named after movie dogs (Benji and Beethoven).

Her stories have appeared in publications such as Fireside Fiction, the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide Volume 5, Electric Spec, and Daily Science Fiction. She’s the author of the League of Independent Operatives superhero series and the Toccata System sci-fi novella trilogy.

Learn more about Kate: katesheeranswed.com

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Tell us a bit about your story and the world.

The crew in my story, “Highly Irregular,” shows up in my superhero novels, though they’re about to get their own completely separate space opera series. “Highly Irregular” takes place between those two stories, and it stands on its own.

Basically, they’re a misfit crew run by a captain who was roped into the job and has no clue what she’s doing. There’s a lot of humor in it, or at least that’s the goal. An apt analogy might be that they’re the Guardians of the Galaxy to my superhero series’ Avengers types. Only no raccoons 🙂

The main character, Sloane, keeps trying to shed this responsibility and get back to her normal life. The crew pretty much wants to get rid of her, too. So this story finds her taking up her first bounty hunting gig, because she wants to try and earn enough money to start searching for her uncle, who stuck her in this situation.

If you could travel to any science fictional world, where would you go and what would you do?

Oh, I’d head straight for the world of Stargate: SG1. I love the idea of getting to travel to all those other worlds without having to ride a rocket to do it. And yeah, they land in trouble a lot, but they always end up OK. It’s the kind of optimistic, adventurous sci fi I like best, but with plenty of thoughtful ideas thrown in the mix.

Second choice: it’d be cool to live in the world of the Expanse, at least during the early part of the series (no spoilers). It’s pretty awesome to think about humanity expanding into the solar system like that.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi crime books or stories?

Lock In by John Scalzi is incredible. One of my favorites. Leviathan Wakes is the first Expanse book, and I feel like it hedges on space crime. Lindsay Buroker’s Star Kingdom series has a nice thread of criminal activity running through it, too, including an intriguing pirate/mercenary character.

Is it awkward for me to say your Bulari Saga series Jessie? Because those books had me staying up all night. And I’ve got two little kids, so that’s something I try to avoid. It was so worth it though!

Lastly, this one’s technically fantasy, but I feel like sci fi crime readers might also really like Jade War by Fonda Lee. The magic is very scientific, and the characters are fascinating. It kept me guessing for sure.

What authors have inspired your writing?

Oh gosh, so many. Mary Stewart early on, especially her Merlin trilogy. More recently, I very much admire Leigh Bardugo, N.K. Jemisin, Heidi Heilig, Emily St. John Mandel, and Marie Lu.

What are you working on next?

The League of Independent Operatives series wraps up in January 2022, so I’m actually getting started on the Parse Galaxy series, which stars Sloane and her friends from “Highly Irregular.” So that’s exciting!

I’ve also got a YA dystopian space opera story in Amazon’s new serialized fiction platform, Kindle Vella. It’s called the Interstellar Trials, and season 1 runs through the end of September 2021. The second season will probably kick off in November-ish.

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CROOKED V.1

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CROOKED V.1 Author Spotlight: Greg Dragon

This week we’re celebrating the launch of CROOKED V.1 by spotlighting the authors!

Greg Dragon brings a fresh perspective to fiction by telling human stories of life, love, and relationships in a science fiction setting. This unconventional author spins his celestial scenes from an imagination nurtured from being an avid reader himself. His exposure to multiple cultures, religions, martial arts, and travel lends a unique dynamic to his stories.

You can enjoy excerpts from his work by visiting his website: gregdragon.com

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Tell us a bit about your story and the story world.
In the galaxy of Anstractor, the Vestalian people are dwindling on the edge of extinction. Having fled their planet after Geralos occupation, most survivors now serve on city-sized warships in space. Not everyone is meant to be a Navy spacer or Marine, however. Maysun Sear is no Navy man, and while he’s decent with a hand cannon, his prime concern is taking care of his family. Smuggling goods out from the Nusalein Cluster has allowed him to carve out a living and gives him hope of one day moving away from the conflict. When an Alliance patrol vessel intercepts an otherwise routine smuggling run, Maysun is thrown into a world he has spent his life trying hard to escape.

What was the inspiration behind this story?
Having just published Steel-Winged Valkyrie, a book centered around the war with the Geralos, I thought it would be interesting to write about a survivor caught in the middle of this conflict. With no powered armor suit and Alliance ordnance, how would an outlaw refugee fare against these aliens combing the system, looking for Vestalian brains?

If you could travel to any science fictional world, where would you go, and what would you do?
I would love to spend a month on the planet Coruscant in Star Wars, but with enough credits to move about freely ingesting spice, blue milk, and whatever else I fancy.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi crime books or stories?
Neuromancer, A Scanner Darkly, Snow Crash, just off the top of the head.

What authors have inspired your writing?
Phillip K Dick, Stephen King, Dewey Lambdin, and Bernard Cornwell.

What are you working on next?
A story based in 2094, the future of an alternate history that has led to a world embroiled in conflict. In Case City, an isolated metropolis, an assassin loyal to his guild finds himself in deep trouble with not only his rivals but the government itself. That’s the gist of it without giving away too much. Lots of cyber augments, neon lights, speedy hover cars, and debauchery. It’s a wild ride, and I am having a blast writing it.

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CROOKED V.1

You can read Greg Dragon’s story, “The Smuggler,” in CROOKED V.1.

Get it here.

Learn more about Greg’s books and download a free novel at www.gregdragon.com.

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CROOKED V.1 Author Spotlight — Wade Peterson

Welcome to CROOKED V.1! In celebration of launch week, I’m featuring some of the authors whose stories appear in the anthology. Today, we’re chatting with Wade Peterson (who I’ve featured here before).

Wade Peterson is the author of the Badlands Born series and lives in Dallas, Texas. His stories have received honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future contest and are available online and on his website.

When not writing, he’s in the back yard trying to master the arcane mysteries of Texas barbecue while also wrangling his over-scheduled teenagers, serving the whims of two passive-aggressive cats, and agreeing with whatever wine his wife pairs with dinner.

Learn more about Wade at www.wadepeterson.com.

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Tell us a bit about your story and the story world
Full Core takes place in a small corner of space called The Confederation of Humanity, a cluster of human enclaves that splintered from the Human-AI Sodality after the AI wars. It’s the story of a pit-fighting robot, a clone mechanic and their gangster owner.

What was the inspiration behind this story?
Combat sports have always attracted whispers about mob influences, match fixing, and shady characters profiting at the fighter’s expense. I also wanted to tell a story about people finding the gumption to rise above their own expectations. Shows like BattleBots and Real Steel influenced the action sequences, and I used to program industrial robots once upon a time so I drew on that background, too. 

If you could travel to any science fictional world, where would you go and what would you do?
Iain M. Banks’ Culture, no question. I’d start by hopping on a GSV and start rubbing elbows with aliens and machine minds with an eye to departing on the Masaq’ Orbital from Look to Windward and sail down its Great River.

What are some of your favorite sci-fi crime books or stories?
The Stainless Steel Rat series by Harry Harrison was a favorite of mine growing up, a series about a criminal that catches criminals. A Game of Universe and The Quantum Magician are SF riffs on classic ensemble capers like The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven. If you like football even a little bit, Scott Siegler’s GFL series is well worth your time. It’s Any Given Sunday meets The Godfather: aliens playing football for team owners who also happen to be the heads of their own crime syndicates. 

What authors have inspired your writing?
Too many to list! I think you’ll find traces of Iain M. Banks, Neal Asher, Frank Herbert, and Steve Perry in my science fiction.

What are you working on next?
I am writing a full-length space opera series set in the Sodality. If you enjoyed this appetizer, you’ll love the main course!

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An old crone, a space witch, and a boy-child walk into a gom jabbar…

This article was originally posted on my newsletter. Subscribe here for a free Bulari Saga novella.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

“In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”

I first read those words in high school, when my drama teacher, Mr. Lemieux, handed me a worn paperback and said, “I think you’ll like this one.” 

Frank Herbert’s Dune opens with mystery and promise as young Paul Atreides overhears a conversation between his mother and the visiting Reverend Mother: What’s a gom jabbar? he wonders. What will he find on Arrakis? Who is this woman who calls and dismisses his mother like a common serving wench?

“Paul fell asleep to dream of an Arrakeen cavern, silent people all around him moving in the dim light of glowglobes….”

Paul’s fear and excitement and anticipation for his family’s move to Arrakis immediately ignited my own curiosity as a teenager.

What new world was I about to explore?

I’ve re-read Dune a half-dozen times over the years since I blazed through that first paperback in highschool. It’s a familiar world now, and one I love re-immersing myself in.

I grew up in the desert. I love the desert. And it would be a lie to say that my desert planet, Bulari, wasn’t in part inspired by Arrakis.

Dune was also my first exposure to “Middle Eastern culture.”

I put that in quotes, because of course Dune is science fiction set far in the future, and the culture in question is “Fremen.” As a teen, I assumed that the elements of Middle Eastern culture in the series were simply seeds from which Herbert had grown a unique world.

(Of course, much of what I thought was unique was simply lifted wholesale from Arab culture. It was my unfamiliarity with the Middle East that made me feel like Herbert was a genius for creating Arrakis.)

With the movie coming out later this month — (I AM SO EXCITED!!) — there’s been a lot of criticism of the story that has me feeling contemplative about my love for it.

Herbert’s storytelling, characters, and vision are epic — but I can hold my unabashed love for the story alongside my desire to listen and learn. 

After all, Dune was written by a white man nearly 80 years ago. Fundamentally, the story is a white savior myth, and no matter how badly I want to see an excellent adaptation of the source material, any adaptation will be made using problematic bones.

A few years after I read Dune for the first time, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centers, and that curious sci-fi word, “jihad,” was all over the news.

I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about the Middle East or Arab culture despite the fact that it felt familiar after years of drinking in the lavish descriptions of Frank Herbert’s Arrakis. 

I went to college and took Middle Eastern studies classes. I sought out Arab authors and started learning from them. I tried to expose myself to art, stories, writing by Arab creators.

Earlier this month, I thought I might reread Dune in anticipation for watching the movie. Instead, I decided to spend time seeking out other voices that will help me broaden my perspective.

What I’m hearing is an overwhelming disappointment that despite being heavily influenced by Arab culture, there are no Middle Eastern or North African actors cast in main Fremen roles (like Chani and Stilgar).

“The great irony of the new adaptation is that it seeks to criticize exploitation,” write Laila Ujayli and Zaina Ujayli for Inkstick Media, “while perpetuating cultural exploitation in its casting. In a film critiquing resource exploitation from the desert, inhabited by indigenous peoples who wear Maghrebi clothes, speak in Arabic words, and are manipulated by a parody of Islamic theology, Arab actors will speak no lines denouncing imperialism or exploitation.”

(FFS, Hollywood, we’ve been over whitewashing casts a dozen times in the past few years alone!!!)

The cast looks amazing. But as a viewer, I can’t help but be disappointed myself that I won’t get a chance to experience a richer version informed by the perspective of Arab actors.

As much as I’m excited for this movie, it’s a white man’s adaptation of a 80-year-old work by a white man. I read science fiction to explore new worlds and meet people with different lived experiences than my own. 

And as comforting as it is to revisit old favorites, I always want to bring new perspectives with me on the journey.

Am I going to see the movie later this month?

I’m going to go watch the hell out of it.

(I am 100% team “Would betray my ancient order of space witches for this photo of Oscar Isaac.”)

And I’m also going to make sure I’m doing the work of listening to Arab creators who are telling their own stories, rather than letting Frank Herbert and Denis Villeneuve define the narrative.

Cover photo by Jimmy Larry on Unsplash

Space Cocaine, Vol 2: The Zoom Situation

We titled the second volume of our offbeat anthology the Zoom Situation for pandemic reasons — but by the time we actually got the reading scheduled most of us were vaccinated and able to do live events again.

The result was a strange, hybrid event where four of us read live and two of us read via Zoom — which was broadcast to both the in-person and virtual audience.

Here’s the replay. The audio’s fine, though the video’s a bit jerky. It might be the bandwidth issues, or it might be the space cocaine. It’s hard to tell.

The cast of instigators includes:

  • Mark Teppo (publisher)
  • Andrew McCollough (editor)
  • Jessie Kwak (editor)
  • Erik Grove
  • Kate Ristau
  • Jeb Sherrill

Here’s the link if you don’t see the embedded video below.