Camus Kaze and the Best School Project Ever

The world, at times, is not a happy place. So it was for Al Camus from the time he was a small girl. If he was a girl -- which he doubted. He was also never small. Large, tubby, corpulent: these were the adjectives that described Al.
 "Alberta!" his mother hollered from the bathroom. "You used the last tampon and didn't tell me!"
 It was useless to explain to his mom that he couldn't have told her he'd used her last tampon because boys didn't use tampons. Al's mom believed he was a girl. Al's mom was frustratingly unenlightened about the world.
 Often, and especially at times like these, Al wished his mom were Japanese. Oh, she was Japanese; she just wasn't uber identity-based Japanese. She was American and had slovenly American ways. When Al passed the bathroom, he had to turn his head because the bathroom door was cracked open, revealing the mess of clothes and towels on the floor. At dinnertime, Al generally wished his dad were really French, too, so they could eat decent food.
 Put it all together, and Al was disgruntled with his life. He snagged a package of Nutter Butters and a bag of Hot Cheetos, and made his way to the back patio table where he could work on his homework in peace. He swept off his dad's beer cans and cigarette butts and spread out his books. He opened his math book and closed it. Al hated math. He opened his science book, and then shut that one, too. He was failing science, and it was too late in the year to fix it.
 But Al had a bigger problem. Tomorrow, he had to give his oral report for history class. The students had drawn World War II topics from the teacher's disgusting greasy ballcap; he had drawn "kamikaze pilots". At his peak performance, Al was a mediocre student. He had resigned himself to this reality years ago. Someday, he would no longer have to be a student. For now, he put most of his effort into keeping his head above the social waters.
 Oral reports were not the best way to prevent this particular style of drowning. By now, it was standard practice for someone to make farting noises at him while he walked up to the front. Last year in English, someone had oinked like a pig, while Al had stumbled, blushed, and forgotten what his topic was mid sentence. It didn't matter that the teacher had sent the oinker out of class because the damage had already been done. Even the teacher couldn't quite keep the grin off her face.
 This year, he'd prepared ahead of time by dying his hair black, and then adding white stripes. Sick dyed hair was a good way to gain instant street cred. Until oral report day, though, he had to wear a beanie. He didn't want the shock value to be lost.
 Al's phone bleeped at him, and all thoughts of schoolwork fled from his mind. Well, not exactly. Al was trying to recruit the class gamer boys to help him with his presentation by doing cosplay. So far, two wanted to be samurais, and the third said he would come as a sumo wrestler if it wasn't blatant cultural appropriation.
 "But I'm Japanese," Al reminded them.
 They'd all laughed uproariously. "Sure, you are, Alberta."
 They'd repeated his name several times, as if it was relevant to being Japanese or not.
 One of the samurai volunteers had just texted him to ask him where his sword was. Al had promised to provide real swords in exchange for their help. It had seemed a good idea at the time, an easy prop to acquire -- surely, something the school would allow once they realized it was for a history lesson. Because kamikazes. Because kamikazes had nothing to do with samurais, but they were both Japanese, and Al was Japanese, so...
 "I'll have them on the day," he texted back.
 "You'd better," was the response.
 Al racked his brain, trying to come up with a secondary option. If he couldn't get a hold of real samurai swords, maybe he could empty his mom's change jars and buy Nerf swords at Wal Mart. If he couldn't get anyone to drive him there, he guessed cardboard and foil would look snazzy.
 His phone bleeped again. "Hey, ur going to be the sumo, right? Lololol."
 That was all the text said. Al's face heated up, and his heart pounded. Didn't the gamer boys like him? Wasn't he one of them? Maybe they wanted to include him in the cosplay. Maybe it wasn't a dig on his weight.
 Who was he kidding? It didn't matter, anyway. What mattered was their making him look cool.
 From the kitchen this time, Al heard his mom hollering at him. "Al, get in here and clean up this mess! I want the kitchen clean when i get home from work."
 His mom worked nights at Circle K. Since his dad was still gone God knew where, nobody would be around to take him to Wal Mart. Al would have to make cardboard swords. If he worked really hard on the design, they might look even better than real ones.
 He pushed aside his largely empty 3x5 cards and spread out some soggy broken down boxes that were in a stack on the porch. So he hadn't gotten around to writing relevant facts and information on the cards. He figured he could fudge a little, as long as everybody was distracted by samurais.
 After working steadily for a couple of hours -- he'd never had any intention of doing what his mom had told him to -- his swords didn't live up to the image in his head.
 But he was tired now, and he had to live with what he'd prepared for his oral report on kamikazes, which included a few samurai swords and a vague idea that kamikazes were suicide pilots. He'd be fine.
 Alberta was never fine. When he rolled himself out of bed the next morning, he threw up. Nerves. Or too many Hot Cheetos. Why couldn't his parents make dinner like normal people? He opened a bottle of Red Bull and chugged it. After that, he pulled off the beanie he'd been wearing for a week and pressed his hair down with water. After that, he barely had enough time to make a run for the school bus.
 Once he'd managed the social nightmare of sitting down, he realized he'd forgotten the swords. It was no use asking the bus driver to stop so he could run home and fetch them. She waited for nobody.
 The school's air conditioner had broken, which made Al sweat profusely. That didn't even count the sweat that poured down when he thought of history class. He saw the gamer boys at their lockers, and he turned from them, afraid. They weren't popular. It wasn't that. They had a place in the world, and Al didn't.
 If they helped him, people would say, "Oh, I didn't know Al was a geek. That explains everything."
 But eventually, history class rolled around, like all dreaded classes did. And when he arrived, there was nobody there. A note hung on the door: "Meeting outside today at the lunch tables. Too hot inside!" Al groaned. Sunlight was the worst kind for his complexion.
 From a distance, he watched his classmates settled comfortably on the benches, including the gamer boys, who were leaning over their phones. Phones weren't allowed inside, but now they were outside, so...
 Al pulled out his phone. There was a single text: "No swords, no deal. But awesome sumo costume."
 He couldn't do it. He couldn't go through with it. And that was when it happened, the sudden compulsion to squash them like the tiny insignificant bugs they were. Either that, or hurl himself from the roof and end it all. Conveniently, the air conditioner work people had left a ladder for him to climb.
 Wow, they really did look like insignificant bugs from up here.
 "Hey!" he screamed. "I'm giving my oral report up here!"
 Their pleasingly shocked faces stared up at him. Mr. Thorpe, the teacher, looked like he was sending for help, as his pet student went scurrying off.
 "Alberta, you need to come down from there!" he shouted, hands cupped around his mouth.
 "My name's not Alberta!"
 The entire class was now huddled beneath him. They looked worried. Good. The teacher was on his phone now, completely ignoring Al. Or calling the po!ice. Oh, God, not the police. He hadn't meant for this to get out of hand. He paced nervously at the edge of the roof, huddled over in anxiety.
 One of the gamer boys pointed at him. "Oh, my God, she really is a sumo!"
 "I'm not a she," Al cried. "I'm not a..."
 This was going to be his best oral report. Melancholy filled his soul, as he now knew what he had to do.
 "I'm a Camus Kaze!" He declared, as the divine wind rushed through his godlike hair.
 And then he jumped, aiming himself right at the teacher.
 It was too bad he missed.
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The Minäverse

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This what a sample title page looks like.

Oso Beñat was born to be a hero. With advanced cognition and an ability to remember the future, he knows he’s meant for more than the subsistence farming his father scrapes out in rural New Mexico. Armed with an education and his best friend, a biotech engineer, he creates advanced biological androids that are awakened with the voice of infrasound.

When his beautifully intelligent androids, known as Minäs, are rendered window-lickers through government mandated lobotomies, his eponymous corporation turns to inventing mindless robotics, leaving the idiot Minäs to roam in a wasted economy.

Even with his future instinct, he fails to foresee this mess. Now that his life is nearly over, maybe it’s not too late to fulfill his destiny by helping someone besides himself. Sometimes, being a hero means passing the torch to his biological creations. His granddaughter seems willing. But what about those Minäs? There might yet be one left in the world who isn’t too stupid to care.

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Book Review: City of Sand

This was my first experience reading Robert Kroese. For some time, I’ve been meaning to read The Big Sheep, but I cringe at the $12.99 ebook price. Generally, I won’t pay more than $7.99 for an ebook. Buying ebooks opened a world to me beyond my small town library due to the low prices: I’ve been able to read a lot of fiction this way, while not stealing from my children’s dinner plates.

Or at least I read them up until about a year or two ago. After that, I just bought them but found I couldn’t get past the first few pages. I don’t know why. Have I become impatient? Has fiction changed? No good answer. Reading solely nonfiction doesn’t quite fill the soul’s need for stories, though. So I continue searching for fiction that will engage me.

Little by little, I’m finding some good reads again. City of Sand is among them. I found it on my Kindle — don’t even remember buying it. However, I’ve become so skeptical of my ability to enjoy fiction that I just ignored its presence until my insomnia was so intense that I clicked on it.

I read it in a few hours. Now that I’ve wasted most of my projected blog word count telling you why I won’t buy expensive books and complaining about fiction (and/or my new inability to focus), I’m going to quickly explain why I liked City of Sand. A. It was a detective novel that B. turned into science fiction (those are my favorite genres) that C. piqued my interest because it was philosophical and a little weird. Think Man in the High Castle weird.

I’m not off in thinking that it’s Philip K. Dick weird, either. He reveals that he had intended for it to be a “Chinatown as told by Philip Dick” in the afterword. In other words, what we have here is a hard-boiled, weird, philosophical science fiction book. Could there be any better fusion of elements?

I didn’t have any serious issues with the plot or writing; I really just enjoyed the read. At first, I thought the detective noir tone was a little forced, but I ceased thinking that as the book picked up speed. And the ending could have been really bad. I’m just stating a fact, a kind of warning. Somehow, the author pulled it off. Some people won’t agree with me, but there are all manner of people who disagree with just about everything I say.

If Kroese’s other books are of this vein, I’ll have to read them, too. There’s one called Schrodinger’s Gat* that I might enjoy.

*I left out the umlaut because I’m too lazy to html it in. Or as friend Jay DiNitto said, “To umlaut or not to umlaut, that’s the question.”** I doubt those were his exact words, but it raises one’s fame status marginally when one is misquoted.

**I wrote a book with an umlaut in the title and would add it in or leave it out at my leisure; hence his response. As I’m not just editing in Sigil, but rewriting whole chapters there, I find myself annoyed at myself for all the obvious reasons. Btw, the main character also has a tilde in his name. ä ñ — … is no way to write a book. Those will show up as the characters instead of the html entities in my blog post. Oh, never mind.

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Pulp vs Literary: there is no opposition

Even the cover is philosophical.

I admit I waded my way through a creative writing program. For the most part, I hated it. I took the bare minimum classes required and spent the rest of my time studying history and Spanish. Not every writing class was terrible all the time. I had one redhead professor who was quite likeable, in fact. And I had a few face-offs with the ones who annoyed me. But let me be honest — I never once had a face-off with a math professor. Well, there was that one time… Okay, so I had some interesting moments with math and science professors, too. Math professors can be a bit misanthropic, but I can deal with curmudgeonly misanthropes. Re math, I earned my grades without opinionated comments critiquing the manner in which I produced the answers.

Writing professors are a type. Instead of misanthropic, they’re prone to being elitist. Unless they’re being intentionally ironic, they’ll never treat pulp fiction with the same kind of profound analysis as they will literary fiction. These elitists sometimes get published. Occasionally, their books hit bestseller lists, but more often than not, they get stories published in literary magazines nobody reads, or they write prize-winning memoirs and/or novels (usually with the denotation “A Novel” to remind us what we’re reading) that sell a few copies before falling into obscurity. There is a divide between what is “profound” and the pulp that will sell on the market.

It wasn’t always this way, though, was it? When thinking about the history of novels, as in, what we think of as novels today, literary and pulp have both managed to stand the test of time. Growing up, I read Dickens and Lovecraft; Hemingway and Brackett; Cather and Bradbury, along with (Edgar Rice, not William) Burroughs and Chandler. I read them because they were recommended to me by people I respected. They were recommended because they’ve stood the test of time to one extent or another. Obviously, Dickens’ novels have proved their worth throughout two centuries, while Brackett’s have, at this point, merely managed to outlive the author.

In light of the lasting nature of both pulp and literary, why is one valued at the university level and the other not? I know — I know. Snobbery. Snobbery for characterization, introspection, reflection. Literary work is deemed more philosophical, a necessary analysis of humanity, society, and its foibles. I would like to suggest that pulp has its own philosophy, and that this philosophy is intrinsic to the story: the archetypes are reflections of who were are inside without ever having to be introspective about it, and the stories of heroes fighting against evil are reflections of what our souls need. Traditional pulp is a reflection of our inner selves (outward looking in), while traditional literary is a reflection of the inner self’s effect on the outside world (inward looking out).

Because they are both honest, albeit different, ways of telling the human story, I don’t view them as being in opposition to one another. With one big exception. Going back to my days slogging my way through creative writing classes, I have to admit that something shifted in literature at some dismal point in the 20th C, when the literati sort lost their faith. They became cynical. They gave way to nihilism. They went modern, then postmodern, then post-postmodern, and then gave way to irony.

As I said earlier, Unless they’re being intentionally ironic, they’ll never treat pulp fiction with the same kind of profound analysis as they will “literary” fiction. There’s a good reason for that. When nihilism takes hold, and nothing means anything, then concepts like hope, joy, and heroism mean whatever they want them to mean. Archetypes don’t matter. Honest reflection doesn’t matter. Nothing matters, which is why skewing the narrative to be ironic or cutting edge has become the new benchmark for success. It makes a pretense at being introspective, but the reflections don’t ring true.

Still, they call it literary and call it good, as though they are gods of their own creation. No, there’s really not a “versus” between pulp and literary. Rather, the opposition is between what is real and meaningful and what isn’t.

There are many, many good posts on pulp fiction over at Castalia House, which have inspired me to add my post-creative-writing-slog thoughts on the subject. Thanks for reading my contribution.

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Steam Powered Robotics: Mr. Steam Man

The steam engine, however viable (it is), has become an anachronism in retro future fantasies. Of course, the steam engine was quite popular up until about the 1940s, when the diesel engine became de rigueur due to economics; diesel engines were cheaper to operate. That was then. The steam engine could still make a comeback, if consumers could be convinced that the technology is neither dangerously explosive, and neither is it tediously slow to get going for the morning commute. Meanwhile, the steam engine gives rise to Victorian images of women in corsets and men in coattails, wearing goggles in their magic flying vehicles — also, machines using intricate clockwork as well as steam. Unless the fashion changes considerably in the future, nobody will be wearing goggles or corsets in their steam powered hybrid cars. But, honestly, just as steampunk authors do, I’m imagining a future which doesn’t exist…or doesn’t yet exist.

When looking at the steamy past and all its magical elements  (the past holds a kind of magic, living as it does in mental time travel) what captures my imagination the most is Mr. Steam Man. Yes, Mr. Steam Man. He was invented by one Mr. Dederick in 1868. In reality, he was simply a steam engine cloaked as a man, who could pull along a phaeton. The engine was given a humanesque appearance, apparently, so as not to scare the horses that would be pulling along the usual carriages dashing up and down the streets. Mr. Steam Man had a driver, of course, who could turn the contraption or alter its speed. In the book image below, the driver appears to be holding reins — as if a steam engine would need reins. What Mr. Steam Man did require was steam pressure that was built up through the use of coal. Mr. Dederick made a number of fancy claims about his invention, e.g. that it could step over small objects in the roadway and that it could cover a mile in only a couple of minutes. The inventor also had plans to create a steam-powered horse, to be used for farming, etc. Sadly, his invention never really took off.

As if to codify steam power into the popular imagination, however, the author Edward S. Ellis went ahead and wrote a sci fi book about a steam man. In the novel, a crazy inventor by the name of Johnny Brainerd invents a rotund steam man to pull him along into a world of adventures. You can find a copy of The Huge Hunter or, the Steam Man of the Prairies at Project Gutenberg.

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