Privileged Lives – Chapter one, Part two, Linden

“Linden. Honey? You’re going to be late for school if you don’t get up now.”

Linden rolled over and looked at the clock. He’d been awake since before daylight was beginning to show, thinking about what had happened yesterday, how it just wasn’t possible for someone to change his whole life without even asking him. Like a giant hand reaching down out of the sky and just picking him up and carrying him away. Like aliens.

They’d stopped talking about it yesterday when neither of them could find anything more to say. But Linden refused to accept it. He wasn’t going to let himself be carted off by strangers to some college, who knew where. Not that he even cared where it was. Frustration and anger washed over him again, and then he gasped. Why hadn’t he thought of it yesterday?

He scrambled out of bed, threw on the same clothes he’d worn yesterday, and with only a stop to empty his bladder, tore down the stairs to the kitchen. “Mom, you have to call the school right now and make an appointment with Mrs. Kinney. We have to talk to her today. Don’t let anybody put you off because this is really, really important.”

“Your counselor?” Carrie flipped a pancake and put down the spatula. She looked Linden over with a disapproving eye. “You didn’t change your clothes and you haven’t brushed your hair. Did you even bother to wash up? You can’t go to school that way.”

“Mom!” What was wrong with her? She was acting like this was just a normal day. “What’s the point of going to school if I only have three more days? Look, maybe Mrs. Kinney knows what this is all about. She has to know something. Wouldn’t they have talked to her? She can tell us how I can get out of it, tell them I don’t want it. Call, please. Right now!”

Carrie’s expression lightened as she took in what Linden was saying. “Do you really think she could help?”

“I don’t know, but if there’s anybody that can, it has to be her. We have to try. Call her, Mom.”

                                                                *  *  *

Linden was hot and sweaty by the time they got to the school. His eyes were dry and itchy and his throat was sore. He bet that nobody was going to be going outside for phys ed today. There must have been an air alert, but neither of them had thought to turn on the news. It felt strange to be walking down this hallway with its familiar smells and sounds, knowing that it could be the very last time. It was just as strange to be here with his mom because that hadn’t happened since Mr. Charles had finally lost his temper and insisted on a parent-teacher conference.

The strangeness grew when Gus, the security guard, had made them wait outside until he got the okay from the office. He’d scanned Linden’s ID three times before shaking his head. Apologizing to Carrie for the delay, he said, “I can’t let anybody in without proper ID, Mrs. Thomas, even if I know them. You don’t have one, and Linden’s isn’t coming up. Must be some kind of glitch. Just the rules, you understand. Nothing to do with you, personally.”

Carrie had winced when Gus scanned Linden’s ID card and then the chip in his neck, and Linden wondered why it bothered her. “What’s wrong?” he asked, when Gus finally let them in and they were out of earshot.

“Nothing. It’s just the chip. I’m not used to that kind of thing. I always forget you have one, and I don’t like to be reminded.”

“Why does it still bother you so much?”

“You know why. You’re not a lost pet. The chips made it easier for them to be identified so their owners could be notified. It isn’t right for it to be used on people. Why do you even ask, Linden? We’ve been around and around about it.”

Except for the initial pain when the chip had been injected, it had never bothered him. It had been there since he was in the fourth grade. He hadn’t understood why his mother made such a big stink when the school board voted for them, and it didn’t make any sense for her to still be upset about it. Practically everybody was chipped. The only reason she never had been was because she didn’t have a regular job. She babysat for the neighbors once in a while, but that wasn’t something that required you to be chipped. He shrugged and knocked at the side of the counselor’s open door.

Mrs. Kinney looked up and smiled. “Come in Mrs. Thomas, Linden. Have a seat.”
Carrie hadn’t given  a reason when she called for the appointment, but Mrs. Kinney knew why they were there; he was sure of it. He’d catalogued all her smiles, most of them phony, but this one was the worst, and she flicked her eyes away from him too fast. She was nervous, the way she always was when he said something that he knew would throw her off-balance.

“You said that Linden has a serious problem, Mrs. Thomas. I hope it’s something I can help him with.”

Carrie didn’t return Mrs. Kinney’s smile. She laid the envelope on the desk and pushed it toward the woman. “We both have a problem. Would you look at these papers, please, and tell us what you know about this scholarship?”

Mrs. Kinney’s lips thinned. Carrie’s attitude offended her, and Linden was glad. Carrie had a way of doing that to people if she got angry enough. He saw the slight hesitation as Mrs. Kinney reached for the envelope. She shook the papers out and barely looked at them before raising her eyes to Carrie.

“I don’t understand why this is a problem, Mrs. Thomas. Linden is to be congratulated on being accepted to Merriman. The school is highly selective, and he’s only the second of our students to make the grade since the program began.”
Linden’s heart sank.

“Where is this Merriman College located, Mrs. Kinney? We can’t find an address anywhere in these papers. Not even in the letterhead. How do we know it’s real? And why would these people, whoever they are, just snatch Linden out of his school and away from his home? It says he can’t refuse to go. How is that possible? Isn’t this a free country anymore?” Carrie’s voice got louder with each question, and her face was flushed.

Linden reached over and put his hand on her arm. “Mom. Give her a chance.”

“Mrs. Thomas, please.” Mrs Kinney patted the air as if that would have a calming effect. “One thing at a time. I’ll try to address your concerns, but I have to tell you that I don’t know everything about the program, and there are things I’m simply not allowed to tell you. What I can tell you, which may alleviate some of your anxiety, is that the scholarship is quite legitimate. It’s a government program, after all.”

“I know it’s a government program. At least that’s what I read, but I couldn’t believe it. How can you even approve of something like that? My own government wants to take my son away from me! He’s just a youngster. They can’t possibly have any interest in him.”

Mrs Kinney smiled. “That’s where you’re wrong. They’re very interested in him. In fact, they’ve been following his academic progress for several years.”
“The government’s been spying on me?” Linden burst out. “What right do they have?” He clutched the arms of his chair as if he’d like to tear them off.

“Linden, it wasn’t spying. And they do have the right to track students. Especially since they’re the reason you and your classmates have been taking all those extra tests for the last three years. The government needs good minds, and it isn’t willing to depend on luck to find them. Our country’s problems are too serious. That’s how it was explained to me. The testing program is used in schools all over the country. I don’t know where Merriman College is, and probably wouldn’t be allowed to tell you if I did know, but the program is legitimate. Merriman is a real college with a real program for elite students.”

“How is that supposed to make me feel better?” Linden was close to tears. The trap was closing and he knew that none of his arguments would force it open. He knew that now. But he couldn’t just give in. “So they think there’s something special about me. So what? Does that mean I don’t have any rights any more? I still have a year and a half of school. I don’t even know if I want to go to college. I told you that a dozen times.”

He stopped dead, glaring at the woman. “That’s why you’ve been nagging at me to get my grades up.” He didn’t even notice that she stiffened with disapproval at his words. “Is it a prestige thing for the school? You were afraid they wouldn’t take me?” He stood up, his fists clenched, ignoring Carrie’s gentle tug at his hand. “Well, you can just find a way to get me out of this. Tell them I won’t go. I won’t cooperate if they take me. Tell them I’ll kill myself first. I don’t care what you tell them.”

“Calm down, Linden. I’m not going to tell them anything. I haven’t been given any details, but I do know that the program is a matter of national security. Instead of making a big fuss about it, you should be proud you’ve been chosen. Where is your sense of patriotism?”

Linden snorted. “I guess I lost it when I got that stuff.” He looked at the envelope still lying on her desk and then at the clock on the side wall. “I’ve already missed two classes because of this. I’m going to my psych class. It’ll be okay, Mom. She got me into this and she’s going to get me out. All she has to do is tell them that I won’t cooperate—ever. Go home and stop worrying.”

“Linden.” He was halfway to the door when Mrs. Kinney’s voice stopped him.

“Whether you cooperate or not, and I doubt that you’ll be allowed any of your usual rebellious attitude, you’re still going. I hope that you’ll eventually understand how important this is.” She gathered the papers together, put them back in the envelope and held it out to Carrie. “Go home with your mother. You’ve already been withdrawn from school. You’re no longer a student here.” She held out her hand. “I need your ID. Now, Linden.”

He stared at her in disbelief, then down at the piece of plastic hanging from the lanyard around his neck. Now he understood why Gus’s scans hadn’t worked. Very slowly, he lifted the lanyard over his head. He laid it in Mrs. Kinney’s hand, suppressing the urge to throw it at her, and watched her open a drawer, drop his identity in and shut it away.

“I’m sorry this is making you so unhappy, Linden. I wish I could change things for you, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do. You have to start thinking about the good side. It’s an honor, and you’re going to get the very best possible education. I know you wouldn’t have been able to go to college without a scholarship. Well, here it is. I’m very glad for you, and I wish you all the best.”

Linden turned away from the desk, willing himself not to have heard any of that. He shook his head. “No.” He was running out of air. There was a strange buzzing in his ears and he was starting to feel dizzy.

“Linden!” Suddenly his mother was holding him in her arms, protecting him from something, but he wasn’t sure what.  “Linden, honey. Look at me.”

He looked up into her face and everything came rushing back, and with it a pain that was unlike anything he’d ever felt. It was sharp and it stabbed him right down to his bones. He was afraid he was going to start crying, right there in his counselor’s office.

“Take me home, Mom, please.”

Privileged Lives – Chapter one, Part one, Linden

“Hey, Mom. I’m home. You in the kitchen?” Linden let the door slam shut behind him and cringed. She’d probably chew him out about that. He dropped his backpack on the floor and followed his nose to the kitchen. “Something smells good. Oatmeal raisin cookies? How did you know I was wanting those? It’s been just about forever.”

Carrie Thomas smiled at her gangling son and uncovered the heaping plate of cookies. “Yes, it has. It’s the first time in a while the store has had raisins, and there were only a few boxes. The price has gone up again, so I just got one box. They have to last, so try not to make a pig of yourself. Okay?”

“Okay.” Linden poured himself a glass of milk from the fridge, sat down, and grabbed a handful of cookies. “What’s all that stuff?” He nodded toward the papers spread out in front of his mother, and stuffed half a cookie in his mouth.

“A college offer. Sort of a scholarship.”

Linden washed the cookie down with a swallow of milk and peered at his mother, a line of worry between his eyes. He wasn’t sure what to ask first. Her expression was… strange. He didn’t like the smile she had on now, as if there was something she didn’t want to say.

“What’s a sort of scholarship? I haven’t applied to any colleges.”

Instead of answering, Carrie went to the sink and started washing the dishes.

Linden glared at her back, annoyed. “Mom. We agreed that we wouldn’t get into the college thing yet. I still don’t know if I even want to go. You didn’t send in an application, did you? Without telling me?” He thought about it, frowning. “No. You couldn’t have. I’d have to fill in all kinds of stuff for myself. That’s what Jen told me. They want to know what your ambitions are in life, the important stuff you did in school, like be the president of some silly club, all that junk.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you anyway, Linden.” Carrie didn’t turn away from the sink. “It just came… I mean it was delivered. By a man. In some kind of uniform.”

“ Like NUPS? A brown uniform?”

“More like a military uniform. Maybe army. I don’t know.”

“Army? Mom, turn off the water and come sit down. I hate talking to your back.”

She moved the few steps from the sink to the table, dabbing at her hands with a towel, then bunching it up as if she didn’t know what to do with it. Her expression scared him. The fake smile was gone, but now she looked almost the way she’d looked at his dad’s funeral. Whatever was in those papers, it couldn’t be as bad as her face said it was. He had to straighten this out.

“Are you sure the guy had the right house?” As soon as he said it, he knew it was a stupid question. She wouldn’t have opened the envelope if it hadn’t been the right house.

“He asked for you by name. And he knew my name. I tried to ask him what it was about, but he just handed me the envelope and walked away. I watched to see if he was going to stop anywhere else, but he got into a car parked down at the end of the block and it just drove off.”

“It still has to be some kind of mistake, Mom. It wasn’t for me. They just got the name wrong. Anyway, if I did win a college scholarship, even if I don’t want it, you ought to be at least a little happy about it. Scholarships are good things, aren’t they?”

Carrie fluttered her hands over the papers without saying anything, then gathered them together and pushed them across the table toward him.

“Mom? You’re scaring me.”

“I just don’t understand it, sweetheart. It doesn’t make sense. Maybe you can see something I’m missing, but I don’t like what I read. It says you have to leave in three days.”

Linden put down the cookie that was halfway to his mouth. “I have to leave? In three days? That’s crazy! It’s the middle of the school year. Colleges don’t do that. I’ve never heard of such a thing, and I bet nobody at school has, either. Nobody can make me leave if I don’t want to.”

Carrie bit her lip. “I hope I read it wrong, but it does seem like you can’t refuse to go. It’s a government program, so I guess they can do whatever they want.” She stood up and hovered, looking down at the papers, and then at her son. Loss and hopelessness were written in her posture, just as they’d been that horrible time before.

Linden couldn’t bear to see her like that. He forced a laugh, but even to his own ears, it sounded false. “You must have read it wrong. They probably have some squirrely language in there. Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out and then we can throw all that stuff away and forget about it.”

“I’ll leave it to you then. I’m going to start supper. Is fish all right?”

Linden’s nose wrinkled. “Is it real fish or that fake stuff?”

“It’s almost the end of the month, dear. We can’t afford real fish right now. I’m not even sure I want to buy the real stuff any more. We had to throw out the last that I bought because it tasted so awful. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh, yeah. It almost made me barf. Fix whatever you want. I promise not to complain. I can always fill up with cookies.” He gave her a big smile, but when Carrie turned back to the sink without returning it, it slipped away.

Linden looked for the envelope the papers had come in. If it was hand delivered, there probably wouldn’t be a postmark, but at least it was a place to start. But there was no return address, and his name and address were machine printed. Disappointed, he laid it aside and picked up a letter with an official-looking letterhead. It was short and to the point, and he thought it was probably like what he’d see if he did apply to some colleges. He snorted as he skimmed over the formal language. Congratulations. Chosen for an intensive two-year program at Merriman College, which he’d never heard of. An elite government program. Did the government run colleges? He’d never heard of anything like that. Very strict selection, blah, blah, blah, looking forward to having you join us. Sincerely, above an illegible signature.

He hesitated between the brightly colored brochure and the sheet with ‘Instructions’ written at the top. Whatever the instructions were, they weren’t for him. So the brochure first. He’d seen a lot just like it in his counselor’s office. Too many times, as far as he was concerned. Mrs. Kinney kept calling him into her office because she seemed to think he needed pep talks. Even though he was almost at the top of his class, she kept pushing him to work harder. It was important for him to do his very best so he’d be ready for college. It didn’t matter how many times he told her he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college, she just kept at him. And he was only half-way through his junior year. Why was she in such a rush, anyway?

And what was the point? There was no money to pay for college, and his grades weren’t quite good enough to get him a full scholarship. Without that, he wasn’t going anywhere, and he didn’t really care. His dad’s pension, and the amount his mom had been awarded because of the company’s negligence, kept them comfortable enough if they were careful. There was usually a little left over for a few small luxuries once in a while, but college? That was just a dream—his mother’s dream. He could pull his grades if he worked a little harder, but Mrs. Kinney’s nagging just made him want to push back and let them drop instead.
His chest ached every time he thought about why they were so poor. Even if the settlement could have paid for two college degrees, it would never make up for losing his dad. He’d never said anything to his mother, and certainly not to Mrs. Kinney, but half the reason he really didn’t care about going to college was that his mom needed him.

He rubbed his finger over the brochure’s glossy pictures of smiling students in front of classical buildings. There were lots of shade trees and endless swathes of green grass. Was there any place that still looked like that? But he guessed the government could figure out how to keep the grass nice and green, no matter how bad the weather was. There was lots of stuff—with pictures—about the comfortable dorms, the library and the gym. It all looked unreal. He kept glancing over at the page of instructions. That had to be the one that was upsetting his mom. There was nothing in the brochure about having to accept the scholarship or leaving in three days.

He wanted to take everything—the envelope, the brochure, the welcome letter and instructions—tear them into little pieces and throw them in the trash. With a sense of dread, he finally picked up the page of instructions. Why had it been hand-delivered? Frantically, he he looked for an address, a state or a part of the country, realizing now that even the letterhead lacked an address. Where was this college, anyway? The instruction sheet was mostly a list, and a quick scan told him what he was already sure of. No address.

“Mom? Did you see an address anywhere? Like the name of a town where the college is?”

Carrie had gone back to washing the dishes. She put down the dish in her hand, but she didn’t turn around. “No. I didn’t even think about it. It must be there, somewhere.”

“It isn’t.”

She turned then, and looked at him with that strange expression. “I suppose the people who are going to pick you up will tell you.”

“Pick me up?”

“Yes, didn’t you read that part? It’s near the bottom of the instructions, I think.”

She made an attempt to smile.

“I’m just about to read it.” The weird shivery feeling that had been growing while he hunted through the papers was starting to become a queasy roiling in his stomach.His mom was acting just like when they found out his dad was dead. That fake smile, and her voice without any expression in it.

The instructions didn’t even take up the whole sheet. It was impossible to misinterpret anything. He couldn’t refuse the scholarship. He had three days to settle his affairs at home. He wasn’t allowed to take anything with him. Everything he needed would be provided by the college. He would be picked up early on the morning of the fourth day and would be escorted during the entire trip.

He grabbed the brochure again and tore through it, looking for something that he couldn’t possibly have overlooked if it had been there. There was nothing about vacations, about visits home. Not even summer vacation. He sat back and stared in front of him without seeing anything. His mind had been processing all the little details and the missing pieces, and now it all came together in a terrifying way.

He’d been recommended by an unknown person, for a scholarship to a college in an unknown location. He wouldn’t be allowed to refuse, and he would be taken away from his home and his mother in three days. He almost laughed, but it choked before it turned into sound. He was going to be kidnapped. No matter how he turned it around, trying to see it from every possible angle, that’s what it really was. Don’t be a dope. Nobody gives you advance warning that you’re going to be kidnapped. You’re just dramatizing again. That’s what Mom would say. But he couldn’t convince himself. If someone could just come and take you away, that was kidnapping.

He knew, when he looked up at her, that his expression must be as bleak as her own. She’d been waiting for him to find the way out, and he hadn’t. He stood up, wanting to go to her, but he couldn’t get his legs to move.

“I don’t want to leave you, Mom. I can’t.” It was true, but not what he wanted to say, if only he could get it out in the open where he could see it. Then, all of a sudden, he did see it. “How do we even know this is real?”

“What do you mean? Of course it’s real. Look at it. I don’t want it to be real, and neither do you, but if it isn’t real, what is it?”

“A hoax, maybe? A really nasty practical joke? If it was real, why would they hide where this college is? And why would they do it this time of year and only give me three days?”

“But why would anyone play a joke like that? You don’t have any enemies at school, do you?” Linden shook his head. “How could anyone hate you—or me—enough to do something so awful? Maybe it’s a top-secret program and they can’t tell you more until you’re in it.” She smiled hopefully, just long enough to see that Linden wasn’t convinced. “I guess that does sound silly, doesn’t it? Like one of those ridiculous espionage movies.”

“It feels like…” Linden shut his mouth. He didn’t want to say the word. His mother would panic if she really thought he was going to be kidnapped. And it was such a wild idea, anyway. He couldn’t really believe it, himself. But there had to be some explanation. “Never mind. Forget it. I had an idea and then I realized how crazy it was.”

“Are you sure? Sometimes those weird ideas you get turn out to be right. Tell me, Sweetheart.”

Carrie looked so hopeful again that Linden forced himself to smile. “It really wasn’t anything worth thinking about any more. Do you want some help with supper? I wouldn’t mind having mashed potatoes, and I’ll even peel the potatoes.”

Carrie gave him a look that said she wasn’t satisfied. But she wouldn’t argue with him. Not until supper was over, at least. Maybe by then he could think of something to make this all go away.

“Okay. You’re on potato duty.”

Good to Know: Near-future SF is Dangerous

Near-future science fiction can be dangerous, not that it always — or usually — is. In a recent article, SF writer Charles Stross says, “Over-generalizing wildly, science fiction falls into two categories: scifi with a far future setting, and scifi about the present or the near future. Far future settings are fun to write, and they also insulate you from the slings and arrows of contemporary history in the making. If you’re playing in a Star Trek setting circa 2400, the events of 2016 are as remote as the events of 1916, or even 1816. And by “remote” I don’t mean that the denizens of 2400 might not have heard of Donald Trump; I mean they might not have heard of the United States of America—2400 is as far away from us in time as 1632.”

No one’s going to complain about SF that just entertains. But the most thoughtful near-future SF is unsettling. It generally assumes that some of the worst features of the present are going to carry on into the future in one form or another. Where we prefer to believe that the future is going to be even better than the present, near-future SF says tries to knock off those rose-colored glasses and stomp on them.

But… “Near-future scifi is not a predictive medium: it doesn’t directly reflect reality so much as it presents us with a funhouse mirror view of the world around us. But in a post-truth world, it may be that only by contemplating deliberate un-truths can we retain our sense of what it is plausible to believe in the collage the media surround us with.”

Stross goes on to say that what near-future SF does for us — or to us, is glue “convenient handles — explanations we can grasp — on models of phenomena that mimic the patterns of the real world, and gives us the chance to infer the intentions of the hidden manipulators.

“And that’s why near-future SF remains relevant—and dangerous—in the “post-truth” era.”

A near-future scenario worth considering is an America that has joined current repressive governments in imprisoning writers for what they say, not what they do.

Coming up — Four Years of Inspiration for SF Writers

It’s hard to believe that this country’s most significant and dangerous step into the future is only a day and a half away. The writer in me rejoices, not that I’ve been lacking for ideas. But the humanist in me shakes with dread. Will it be a never-ending nightmare in which the future is the blackest of black comedies, or a black comedy that makes every day a nightmare?

Humans, as a species, aren’t good at facing reality, and the next four years may be the ultimate proof of this failing. Global climate is, in a way, the metaphor that illustrates what such blindness will cost. It is proof that when faced with an unacceptable reality, humans are perfectly capable of rejecting what they see with their own eyes and experience with their own bodies, and retreating into a fantasy world in which bad things simply don’t happen. There is factual, real-life evidence, from every part of the world, that processes we can’t stop are already underway, and that they are proceeding at a much faster rate than scientists were willing to admit until very recently.

There is no shortage of rose-colored visions of a future that won’t be as bad as the worriers and Cassandras predict. Wishful optimism fits both climate change and the upcoming administration. The belief that raising buildings a few feet will defeat the incoming waters, or that the man moving into the White House will, sooner or later, start acting more “presidential,” are dangerous delusions. What will happen, sooner or later, is that the wearers of rose-colored glasses will be the first to scream, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” And they will be looking for someone to blame.

Writing Prompts for 21st Century Science Fiction

  1. A new US president places the country on a wartime footing as allies fall away. Without enough volunteer military, he reinstitutes the draft.
  2. The EPA becomes an arm of the corporations that produce pesticides and the chemicals added to food.
  3. The Department of Homeland Security is expanded to oversee the media, and censor anything it judges dangerous to the nation.
  4. Torture and imprisonment without trial are expanded to include US citizens.
  5. The temporary slowdown in militarization of police is set aside, with heavy-duty weaponry and and transport once again being made available, and to a wider range of local police units.
  6. Controls on the use of pesticides are loosened. With the loss of most pollinating bees, food shortages become the norm, and prices climb skyward.
  7. Measures to protect coastal areas from sea rise are either never funded or fail in the face of increasing storms, tsunamis, etc. Climage refugees become a divisive political issue.

All this comes out of recent news reports, just slightly extended into the near future. I wrote the above about a month ago, and what do you know? — saw an article today that #5 may very well be real when the Trumpf takes office.

Somebody remind me, please, that I want to write a post, fairly soon, about what I’m calling “creeping dystopia.”

Another Taste of Camp Expendable

I don’t take vacations or observe holidays, so it’s appropriate that I post another chunk of Camp Expendable during a holiday weekend.

Chapter One, part two

Most of the men were on their feet now, pulling their belongings down from the overhead racks. A few shoved their way to the front of the bus, followed by angry shouts.

Jake pointed a skinny finger. “Take a gander, will ya? Gotta be the first off, even if you ain’t nowhere when you get there. Just like it used to be on air flights. You’d think people with the money to ride a plane would be politer than these assholes, but there ain’t really much difference. Except airline passengers smelled a whole lot better.”

Was this going to be one of Jake’s stories about the old days? They were usually amusing, and every now and then they let slip clues about Jake’s past life. But right now, all Casey wanted was off, as fast as possible. His ass hurt from a night and almost two days of sitting, and he was as stiff as if he were Jake’s age instead of thirty-eight.

“If they’d been riding on a broke-back bus with all the windows shut, and dust still sneaking through the cracks, not to mention the damned heat, they’d probably have been stinking to high heaven, too. Just like us.”

Each time they got back on the bus after a rest stop and a chance to breathe some fresh air, the fug of body odor, foul breath, and stale urine had hit him right in the gut. He couldn’t smell himself most of the time, thank goodness, but he itched all over. Maybe this new camp would have enough water for long showers. Hot showers. He could dream, but he knew better than to hope. Long was rare; hot was almost non-existent, an impossible luxury for anyone on the drift.

The smells had become part of the background of misery between stops, unavoidably there, like the aches and pains that came with long hours of immobility and the fatigue of too little real sleep. The worst part of the trip was that they had driven through the night, two of the soldiers taking shifts, while Sargeant Marshall—damned Marshall—sat like a grim statue, his rifle across his lap, watching, always watching. Every time Casey woke up and looked his way, he was wide awake. Maybe he slept with his eyes open. The damned man probably wasn’t human, but Casey was too desperate for sleep to stay awake and try to catch him with his eyes shut.

“Yeah,” Jake said.  And they’d be bitchin’ and moanin’ about it to beat the band. But I gotta admit those were the good old days before …” Jake came to one of those abrupt halts that meant he’d almost touched on something in his old life, before the streets and the transit camps. That was the only topic he was tight-mouthed about.

Two years now and Casey still didn’t know much about his closest friend. His only friend. He was pretty sure Jake wasn’t the grammar-challenged bum he seemed to be. That persona slipped now and then, but Casey never made the mistake of appearing to notice, or of asking questions. Jake wasn’t the only one in the camps with a past life closed to discussion. That was something most people respected.

“And they had soft drinks on the plane. And whiskey. And beer. And water! Man, I could drink a gallon or two right now. And then jump in a shower and stay there till I prune all over. I’m just about as dry inside as out. I don’t think I could even take a piss.”

Casey grinned. “Can’t piss. Can’t spit. You’re in bad shape, Jako. I think you’re just about to dry up and blow away.”

“Real funny,” Jake growled.

“Water,” Casey murmured, as a tendril of memory flew by, too fast to catch. Even vanished, the dream continued to bother him. “A lot of it. I remember that. But why salt water?”

Jake gave him a puzzled glance, then a commotion up front caught his attention. “Oh jeez! Would ya take a gander at that poor bastard? He ain’t never gonna get all that stuff back together.”

An elderly man was trying to save his belongings from the scavengers picking through them. A torn plastic garbage bag hung from the rack above him, trailing a few raggedy items that looked like salvage from a dumpster. The rest was scattered on the floor or being yanked back and forth between the men around him. Casey sympathized. Everything he owned was in his duffle. He couldn’t blame the old man for trying to save his possessions, even if they did look like trash. The soldiers sitting up front watched what was going on, but neither of them moved to put a stop to the thieving. In fact, Sergeant Marshall was grinning as the old man tried to grab something that was being held up, out of his reach. Casey turned to look out the window, disgusted, then startled at a shout.

“Enough! All of you sit down and shut the hell up. Where do you think you’re going, anyway? Some fancy hotel? I don’t want to see any more pushing and shoving. And lay off grubbing through that crap. What the hell you want with that old geezer’s garbage anyhow?”

Complete silence fell, and every face turned toward Marshall, now standing by the driver. Typical, Casey thought. The sergeant didn’t give a shit about the old man losing his stuff. It was just another chance for him to throw his weight around, like he’d been doing during the whole trip, and even before they got on the bus, acting like he’d love to shoot someone if they’d give him a justifiable excuse. One of his first targets had been Jake. In the exodus from the camp, Marshall had treated the men as if they’d deliberately set out to make his life difficult. He yanked one man around, then another, for no reason that Casey could see, creating more confusion than if he’d let them alone to line up for the bus. By the time they’d finally formed up to the sergeant’s standard, his patience was apparently exhausted. He’d given Jake a hard shove in the back as he stumbled on the first step. Jake fell to his hands and knees, trying to catch his breath before pulling himself the rest of the way up. Casey got between them, infuriated, when Marshall reached out for the old man again, cursing at him for his clumsiness.

“Don’t you dare hit him, you son of a bitch!”

Marshall’s face had turned a violent red. He raised a fist toward Casey, but noticed the other soldiers  and the camp supervisor watching them. “I’ll be keeping on eye on you, asshole,” he ground out in an undertone. “Don’t think I won’t.”

“That’s just great,” Jake had told Casey. “That’s the kind of son of a bitch that holds a grudge. And now you’re in his line of sight, too. You should have just let it go.”

“And let him hit you? Don’t worry, Jako, I won’t have any problem keeping an eye out for both of us.”

Just like Jake had warned, Casey had caught the sergeant staring at him several times during the long trip. Whenever their eyes met, the soldier gave him a toothy grin and swung his rifle toward Jake, just for a fraction of a second, as if he was adjusting its position. He did his best to shut out the man’s voice, but it rode over the commotion. He hoped the bus would do a quick turnaround once they were all off and take the bastard with it. It wouldn’t be too soon to see the last of Marshall’s ugly face

“That means everybody. Nobody gets off the bus until I say so. And you!” Marshall pointed his rifle at the man scrabbling to save his belongings.  Everyone near him ducked. “Get that trash off the floor. The rest of you set your asses down until I say you can get up.”

“Yes, sir. Yes, sir,” Jake muttered in a low voice, flipping off a quick parody of a salute. “I’m already gettin’ pretty sick of these soldier boys. At least we didn’t have to put up with them in the camps.”

Casey stretched and groaned as stiff muscles protested, then concentrated on what little he could see through the windshield, shifting in his seat to get a wider view. “You might have to get used to the soldier boys, Jake. Can’t see a whole lot from this angle, but that looks like a row of army barracks.”

“Aw no! Tell me it ain’t so, Casey.”

“Okay, it ain’t so. That make you happy?” Casey couldn’t help laughing at Jake’s  expression. “Look on the bright side. A solid roof over your head instead of tents flapping in the wind. Maybe even hot showers. And hot meals!”

“Don’t get my hopes up,” the old man grumbled, running his fingers through his tangled and filthy white beard. “You don’t even know if those barracks are for us or the soldier boys. And speakin’ of hopes, when are we gonna get off this rattletrap?”
As if in response, the bus gave a jerk as the gate slid open, pulled forward, and turned toward a dirt parking lot. When the engine died, Jake gave a big sigh. “It’s about damned time.”

YA Dystopias — On the Way Out?

 

It’s only lately, with the realization that I have a couple of Young Adult novels in my hot little fist, that I’ve taken any interest in the genre. Hence, I was caught by this LA Times article dissecting the possible death of YA dystopian movies, which were once a hot, very profitable item.

Writers of dystopian YA, and the film makers who see gold in them, assume that any dystopian film centering on youngsters has to have a happy ending. Not very different from what romance readers expect, when you think about it. There also has to be an easily identifiable baddy, and for true heroism to assert itself, that has to be something really, really big, like an entire government. That government has to be represented by baddies who can be defeated by a youthful uprising, and who will take the government down with them.

The assumption is that the causes of the “bleak future,” as the Times writer puts it, are uncomplicated and that once they’re out of the way, the light will shine again. There’s no room for anything but simplistic cause and effect. It would be nice to think that this is why YA dystopias have been doing less well in film than the Hunger Games movie–movie goers want something more substantial. I’m not that naive, though. The fall-off in box office revenues is due more to movie goers being tired of seeing the same themes rehashed ad infinitum, with slight variations thrown in to give the impression of something new.

Bleak futures do exist, in literature and real life, and it isn’t likely that they will ever be terribly popular on film. 1984 and The Road are among the exceptions. Those two are very different stories, but what they have in common is that they represent extremes: the all-powerful, pervasive and invasive government, and the hopeless outcome of some mysterious disaster from which there seems to be no coming back. The YA films have followed that pattern–things are as bad as they can possibly get, and if there’s any hope at all, it’s in extreme action.

But there must be something in the middle. How did we get to those extreme ends? Is there some way to prevent them from happening? How do people live their lives in that everyday middle place? Can there be hope for the future, even if it’s a very different future from the one we would prefer? Real life is complex. Real problems are complex and rarely give way to simplistic solutions.

All of which makes me wonder if there’s any room for YA dystopian fiction in which the problems continue to exist, along with the attempts to solve them, after the last page is read. Fiction that can come to a HFN (happy for now) ending rather than HEA (happy ever after).

Sunday Odds & Ends — Dystopian SF

I spent an hour or so cleaning up the URLs and text files cluttering my desktop. When I go through the morning’s news sites, I don’t always read all the articles that interest me. So I put off the URLs for later reading and sorting into their proper folders. Most are about some aspect of the death penalty and criminal justice, but a good chunk are about writing.

According to an article I found somewhere, a badly cluttered desktop slows down the computer because all those little icons are taking up memory. That may or may not make a difference, but my computer has less memory than it should, so it’s good motivation for getting the place cleaned up.

A text file called Notes on Dystopias has been sitting there for a few days while I try to figure out where to put it. In the Scrivener “Stories” project? Use it to start a new project? It’s basically a list of the many elements that impinge on stories about near-future dystopias. I keep adding to it as I remember more, or news articles serve up reminders. It’s a pretty depressing list, but that’s what I’ll be working with from now on. Stories of near-future dystopias don’t have to be depressing, but given the human tendency to hide its head in the sand rather than face reality, most of them probably will be.

Maybe I’ll post the list sometime next week.

By the way, both the stories under Free Reads are dystopian. I’ll probably revise and expand them both, eventually.

 

When Future Fiction Becomes Today’s Headline

This was originally a very short post that I wrote for Google+. I’ve expanded it to reflect how I’ve been thinking about near-future science fiction as a form of prediction. And how that was suddenly forced to change. It’s possible to write about one specific set of facts and give them many different outcomes, none of which will actually happen. SF sometimes attempts to be predictive, but it’s more pure luck than prescience at play when that pans out.

The novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo this year is taken from news headlines and from quieter news that was barely noticed at the time I started working on it. It looks into a future about 40 or 50 years on, assuming that some current trends would continue and have major consequences. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years, off and on, making notes, doing research, thinking about what I want it to show and say.

There was no way that I could imagine its central idea showing up in real life any time in the very near future. Or in today’s news. I don’t know how to feel about it when I write a detail that I’ve never read about anywhere, and then see something very similar in the news.  The novel is set in a male-only internment camp, since separating single men from refugee women, children, and families is supposed to make the so-called transit camps safer.

The headline that provoked this post: “Canada’s Syrian refugee plan limited to women, children and families.” Single Syrian men will not be allowed to enter Canada. Granted, parallel isn’t exact. The current threats are far more serious than those in my novel, but it’s still disturbing, and not something I imagined could come about in today’s world. But that was naive of me, since it already happened, during WWII. While Japanese/American men were fighting in our armed services, their families and friends were being viewed as possible traitors and rounded up to be locked away in internment camps.  Japanese-Americans, both naturalized citizens and American-born, were torn from their homes and their jobs and treated like prisoners of war. Most of them lost everything they had worked for over the years, as their homes and possessions were stolen or sold off.

The parallel between the men of my novel and the Syrian men currently being denied admission to Canada is exact in one way: they are all refugees. My characters are homeless, having lost their livelihoods in a collapsing economy, or driven from the coasts by rising waters as climate change continues on its destructive path. News headlines that we see today are predicting the future when masses of refugees, whether from climate change, economic failure, or war, try to find safety somewhere far away from their troubles, and are refused, just as they are being refused today. We will see more internment camps, more mass drownings, and more murders as a response to “invasions” by foreigners.

 

Sometimes a Great Rethink

Even though I’ve been concentrating on nonfiction lately, there’s lots of fiction action going on in the background. My 2012 NaNo novel is slowly evolving into something bigger and more interesting than the original idea. The notes, the bits of dialogue and sketches for new scenes are piling up nicely.

My semi-vampire novel, Gift of the Ancien, took a big hit when someone whose judgment I trust pointed out the flaws. And they are big flaws. Huge. So it’s been completely on hold, not even creating a ripple in the brain waves for some time now. That changed today with a major insight that will probably trash most of the novel, but use some of its material in a completely different way.

For some unknown reason, I’ve been writing a bit of dystopian flash fiction lately, in between articles for Bubblews. That really isn’t a great site for fiction, and there’s every chance that the stories will be stolen, but they’re very short and off the top of my head, so no loss. I could take any one of the three and turn it into something much bigger, but I probably won’t. In the meantime, they’ve earned me a bit of money. Considering that I don’t care for flash fiction and seldom read it, making any money at all from a few amateurish attempts isn’t a bad deal.

 

Apocalypse is Easy

Science fiction novels about post-apocalypse survival are easy to write. All the big stuff usually takes place before the novel starts, and it doesn’t have to be explained. Sometimes, as in The Road, you don’t even know what happened. All the complications of civilized life are pretty much wiped out, and all the characters have to worry about is survival. Life and death. Maybe moral scruples come in there somewhere, but it’s mostly about scratching a living from what’s left, kill or be killed, and nothing to look forward to but more of the same.

Most dystopian novels aren’t much more complex. The bad stuff is already in place and it’s the duty of the characters to endure. Maybe there’s room for some heroism, which will probably lead to being demised by the bad guys (usually an all-controlling government, usually hand in glove with evil corporations, usually with at least one, preferably two, truly evil power mongers). Again, it’s all about survival for the masses, with some rebellion by brave but hopeless losers thrown in to raise hopes.

There aren’t too many novels that ask how things got to this pass. Even fewer that try to show how it happened. Because that’s difficult. You have to deal with reality, which operates slowly, which hides its most important details in plain sight where they can be ignored in favor of entertainment that keeps the populations nicely sedated and distracted from what’s going on.

Come to think of it, maybe that why we have mostly the kind of novels I described in the first two paragraphs. The writers, being just as oblivious as everyone else,  don’t know how it all happened, so they really have no option except to wave the writerly equivalent of a magic wand. Hocus pocus, it’s now 2063 or 2258 and everything has already happened. Earth groans under the domination of (fill in the blanks), the few survivors are eating each other for breakfast, are killing zombies, or have fled earth to live on (fill in the blanks).

 

Seized by Story

It’s annoying when a story just leaps up and grabs me by the throat. Oh, it’s great, too, because that feeling that a story is ready to be told is like no other. It’s just that it tends to happen on its own mysterious schedule, without any regard for whether I really have the time for it right now. And I don’t. I really don’t. But the story doesn’t care, as long as I attend to its needs.

So, if you look up at the menu bar and dip into WIPs, you’ll find a good solid beginning to a story that’s ignoring what I’d planned for it and has taken off in a completely unexpected direction. Short story. Slavery. Dystopia. Of course.

Dominus. Damn trouble maker!