Stranger Habits

Our first fiction, here on Substack

Before we get to that, though, I just this weekend had a short article come out in a magazine called Utopia Science Fiction. It’s devoted to less dark, rainy, demon-haunted SF, which is sort of a mission of mine as well. That said, the piece opens with a quote from Benny Russell, a 1950s SF character/author who is meta-fictionally responsible for Benjamin Sisko’s adventures on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

I am a human being, damn it. You can deny me all you want but you cannot deny Ben Sisko. He exists! That future, that space station, all those people, they exist in here. In my mind, I created it. And every one of you know it. You read it. It's here. You hear what I'm telling you? You can pulp a story but you cannot destroy an idea. Don't you understand? That's ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea. That future, I created it, and it's real. Don't you understand? It is real! I created it and it's real! It's real!

This is the second piece they’ve bought from me, and I just sent them another one (fingers crossed!), so I’m more than happy to boost their sub-space signal. At least check out the free story and this month’s thematically related editorial:

… if every text is a conversation, then we aren't simply empty vessels that the author pours their words into, but instead are active in the creation of their meaning, both together in our fandoms and individually. 

I personally have zero problem separating authors from their works, in part because I try not to put authors on a pedestal in the first place. I mean, I am one. Seriously, do not be impressed. It’s just talking on paper.

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Samuel R. Delaney is presumably the guy Benny Russell was based on, because:

I am the first broadly known African-American science-fiction writer to come up through the commercial genre that coalesced before and after the term “science fiction” began to appear more and more frequently in Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories between 1929 and 1932.

I have to admit that I have never read any of his novels. He does good interviews, though.

https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/samuel-r-delany-speaks/

I was particularly struck by the anecdote at the end, when the kid asks him a question, he answers it, and the kid walks away — stunned (probably?), relieved (maybe?), transformed, even (hopefully?).

Those moments are exhilarating to an educator. But they don’t happen all that often. The following piece, which I wrote as a short story for an anthology called Unmasked but which probably falls into that new catch-all category, “creative nonfiction,” happened (mostly happened) late last summer.

STRANGER HABITS

I used to take my laptop to my wife’s bookstore and work when the dog was being too needy for me to concentrate at home.  I found that the background noise was helpful.  People coming and going, the hiss of the milk steamer.  It gave a rhythm to my writing.

The pandemic has made for some stranger habits.  Since the cafe has been closed, I’ve been working in the car under a tree in the parking lot outside the store.  Windows down, radio on sometimes, I people-watch and bang away on a story about an epidemic on Mars. 

Mohs 5.5 Mars, a hard science fiction anthology
Months later, that anthology hit the top of one of Amazon’s thousands of lists. Yay! Background on my story can be found in the first three editions of this newsletter.

Stocky middle-aged smokers walk by, wearing flip-flops, stooped a bit.  The stock girl at Toys & Co, in her burgundy belly shirt and skintight slashed jeans, stacks jigsaw puzzles on the sidewalk display.  Tiny kids oooo at stuff through the glass, jumping up and down when their parents ask someone to bring it out to them, or squealing when they don’t.  Funny how the sounds of delight and upset are so similar.

I’m done for the moment, and backing Lilo out to leave, when a young black man, sweating through his plain white t-shirt in the afternoon sun, waves to me through the open passenger-side window.  “Sir?”

Out of the parking spot, with my foot on the brake, looking past him so I don’t get hit, I respond, “What can I do for you?”  With the sir, I’m prepping for a short piece of street theater, followed by a request for money.  Some people get offended at being asked.  I think of it as busking without an instrument.  I get paid to tell stories — why shouldn’t anyone else?  I’ve always been curious about the thought process behind choosing who to hit up, but short-circuiting the script with a question throws people off, and I’m on my way out. 

Instead, he asks for a ride.

“Where ya goin’?”

“Out Four Seasons Mall area.”  There’s a bus stop a couple hundred meters away, but Greensboro still has a hub-and-spoke system; he’ll have to go downtown and change buses, which will take at least an hour.

What decides me is his arms.  The insides are covered in a washboard pattern of twenty or thirty inch-long scars of varying age and pinkness raised up above the deep brown of his skin.  Days before, sitting in the car under this same tree, I had heard an NPR interview with another cutter, who sued the prison system over not providing the mental health care that could have addressed his anxiety issues in a more constructive way.  Injury releases endorphins, the body’s own opioids, which reduce both pain and fear.  Ironically enough, causing injury can relieve anxiety, short-term.  I had never considered the endorphin angle, which might explain why the behavior sometimes becomes addictive.

It’s probably just the heat, but I wonder if he’s actively displaying his scars.  I do not have tattoos and piercings.  My clothes are mostly functional, though I do have probably fifty nerd-badge t-shirts.  A few of them I actually bought.  Others were free con swag.  Some were presents.  Some I inherited from my comic collector brother-in-law after he dropped dead at his apartment, doing tech-support online.  I tend to think I like x is a different message from I am x, but in our current political environment that may be splitting hairs.

“I got a mask,” he says, pulling a thick white cotton one out of his backpack.

“Sure, get in,” I say, putting my own mask on.  “I’ll leave the windows down, too, for air flow.”

“Thanks,” he says, struggling to squeeze his backpack into the floorboard between his knees.

“Lilo, move the passenger seat back five centimeters.”

“OK, boss,” the car says, in Lilo’s overly enthusiastic, faux-little-kid voice.  I wonder if the original actress gets royalties from this new use of her recordings.

“I saw the Stitch head on your radio antenna,” the young man says.

“Yeah, our first Prius was blue.”  That one was totaled four years ago when I got rear-ended out on 40, coming home from a Shadowrun game.  I saw the brake lights on the car in front of me and got stopped in time.  An old Marine on his way home from a long shift reacted just a little too slowly and hit me going about 45mph. 

Tore up the connective tissue in my back, which is only now more or less healed.  It would have been much worse if the car had been as indestructible as its genetically engineered alien namesake.  If it hadn’t crumpled up so impressively, all that energy would have been transferred to me.  I would have been the brain inside a skull during a bad concussion.  But that’s TMI for this situation.  Instead I say, “This one is red, so, Lilo.”

“You a Disney person?”

“My wife is.”

“Did you ever kill anyone?” Lilo asks. 

“Shut up, Lilo.”  What triggered that specific quote?  Was it random?  Was it because Cobra Bubbles was black?  Literally the last thing I need right now is an algorithmically racist car.  Or was it because of the scars?  Does Lilo know what scars are?

Things are uncomfortably silent for a bit as I navigate my way out of the parking lot, through three lights out to Friendly Ave.  “So, how are you today?” the kid asks.

“Pretty good,” I say, noncommittally, and then think, What the hell.  “I just finished typing up a story.”

“You a writer?  What kind of story?”

Real enthusiasm?  OK.  “A science fiction story, actually.  About Mars.”

“I write, too.  I ain’t never published nothing.”

“Oh, I’ve only published one story so far.  Most of my stuff is nonfiction.  You ever read Ender’s Game?”  It’s a common option for middle school summer reading around here, because the author is local.

“I think so.”

“The guy who wrote that published his own magazine online, The Intergalactic Medicine Show.  I wrote a science column for them for about four years.”

“That’s cool.”

Cool is right.  Polite, but no actual interest.  “What do you write?”

“It’s like, an anime.  You watch anime?”

“My kid does, and tells me about them.  I’ve seen a lot of Miyazaki’s stuff, and Fullmetal Alchemist, and Black Butler, and The Devil Is a Part-Timer …”  That last one is hilarious, in its cheesy anime way.  An alternate world demon lord is exiled to Earth, where he has to get a job working fast food while he rebuilds his magical reserves so he can go home.  His ass-kicking, sword-wielding, red-haired nemesis girl works in a call center, like my brother-in-law.  OK, so I’ve actually watched a lot of anime.  Never mind.  “What’s yours about?”

“Well, there’s this genetically engineered super-soldier, and a conspiracy, and he doesn’t remember who he is …”  Well, of course not.  That’s pretty much every SF anime ever.  But that’s how we learn.  None of the superhero comic book characters I created as a teenager were in any way original.  Not one.  Whether you know it or not, you copy the old masters until you become fluent enough to recognize the trope-patterns, and then you can depart from them.

I let him go on through a couple of lights until he runs down.  “Have you ever submitted anything?”  I do not mimic Lilo’s voice for this question, as I might with someone I know better.  The callback would be at least clever in that case, and maybe even funny, but in this case I want to move away from that moment, not towards it.  I feel like I’m piloting through an asteroid field, not a straight shot down Holden.

“No, it’s not really done — just a lot of notes and drawings.  I don’t want anyone to steal my ideas.”

Ideas are cheap, but I don’t say that. It’s a common reason for self-censorship. I have personally submitted 27 pieces to genre markets this year, with 3 accepted and 18 rejected so far.  Rejection is not fun for anybody, but that’s just how it works.  I don’t say that, either.

Practically every publisher in the genre is now supposedly prioritizing BIPOC authors, or LGTBQ authors, or whatever their favorite marginalized abbreviation is.  But those people are generally busy surviving being marginalized, walking home from their part-time jobs through parking lots like this kid (or like exiled demon lord Sadao Mao).  For the most part, publishers place their calls on their own websites, not in The Carolina Peacemaker, or even in The State of Black Science Fiction group on Facebook.  I’ve got some vague idea of a mentoring thing forming in my head.  I don’t want to be pushy, though, so I come at it from the side.

“You know about Critters.org, or Codex?  Those are online groups where you can get feedback on your work.  All confidential and shit.  There’s a science fiction group for the Writers’ Group of the Triad here in town, too.  They meet at the Sternberger Center on Summit Ave.  Or they did, before the pandemic.”

“Left up here on Patterson,” the young man says, drawing my gaze off the road for a half second before I move into the turn lane.  His mask hangs limply off his face.  It would redirect a sneeze out the sides, but it’s not blocking anything.  I wonder if it makes him feel any safer.

“You in one of the hotels?”  We’re getting close now, and I need to know where to go, physically and conversationally. The City has been putting homeless people up with federal money, for once following through on the idea that prevention is cheaper than the emergency room.  I don’t think he is homeless — his clothes are in too good a shape — so that was probably not the best segue, but I’m multitasking here.

“Nah,” he says.  “This is good, just let me out at that gas station there.”  Whatever opening there might have been is gone now.  I’ve been classified as another advice-giving adult, someone who is not sufficiently impressed by small displays of ambition.  Which is true, but not the whole truth.  And there’s no more time to peel the onion of social convention — race, age, money, each one a stinging, eye-watering barrier of awkwardness.

I don’t have any of my business cards with me, but we trade e-mail addresses verbally.  A fist-bump would have been pathetic poseur move on my part a year ago, but the pandemic has made handshakes passe for almost everyone.

I watch him walk away past the gas pumps, shrugging his shoulders through the straps of his backpack, fiddling with earbuds, just long enough to make me seem creepy to anyone else watching, without learning anything.  He doesn’t wink over his shoulder and turn into a crow, or fade away like a phantom hitch hiker.  The only twist to this ending is my turning the steering wheel as I guide Lilo back out on to Patterson.  I check the rear-view, looking for him, and realize that I’m still wearing my mask.  I pull it off and toss it into the passenger seat.

“Should I enter his e-mail into your contacts?” Lilo asks.  I expect any e-mail I send to bounce, but it’s worth a try.

“Yes, thank you,” I say, as I’m turning on NPR.

And that’s it.  No magical moment of telepathic communion or racial healing.  No discernible change in the world.  Just me and my copyright-compliant talking car, heading home.

Make that 3 out of 28, I guess.  Though I should check the mail after supper.  You never know. 

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So I never did hear back from that young anime author, but a few months later, after the cafe at my wife’s store re-opened, I was approached by another young man who wanted to sell me a copy of his self-published book. Peddling his wares inside a retail establishment. My wife would have wanted to strangle him, but I admired his moxie. He and I also traded e-mails, and have since had a couple of basic conversations about magazine submissions and resources for writing.

Also, I should probably say that my car Lilo doesn’t actually talk.

After two weeks, we’re up to 12 people on the e-mail list. Sweet.