I’m delighted to offer a new short story, one that means as much to me as anything I’ve written to date.
“The Fireman” (read or listen: narration starts @ 6min mark) is out today at the award-winning PodCastle, narrated by the best voice in the business, Keeper of the Buttery Man-Voice himself, Dave Robison. If you’re curious, in a moment I’ll share why this story means so much to me, but honestly, just do yourself a favor and let Dave’s dulcet tones transport you to the fiery world he brings to life with the magic of his wizard’s tongue.
So, why does this one mean so much to me? First, it’s edited by Eleanor R. Wood and hosted by Matt Dovey, co-editor and host of PodCastle, respectively. These two brilliant writers and editors have each had strong influences on my storytelling, starting from way back when we were critiquing each other’s work in the same online writing group. Matt Dovey and I both won the Writers of the Future Award the same year, so I had the pleasure of adventuring around Hollywood with him. He is the Most British Person in the World.
But the most personally meaningful aspect of this story is how it began.
A decade ago, when I was working as a wildland firefighter, a friend and coworker confided in me about his long struggle with bipolar disorder. As much as tried to empathize, I struggled to grasp what drove some of his strange behaviors, and I began writing the story as an attempt through allegory to better understand him.
Years later, after his untimely death, I revisited the story he’d inspired. This time, I saw more of myself in the main character than I’d previously allowed myself to recognize, and realized that all along, the friend I’d found so inscrutable mirrored some of my own habits. Leading me to a more honest self-awareness is just one way the fireman continues to enrich the many lives he touched.
Perhaps, through this story, he’ll enrich your own.
Enjoy “The Fireman” here. Narration starts @ 6 minute mark.
Did you resolve to read more in 2022? No? It’s not too late. Yes? Good for you! And me, because I’m pleased to offer my freshest short story, “Hunting el Chupacabra,” now available in Dark Cheer: Cryptids Emerging (ebook, paperback, & hardcover). You know, because the 2020s haven’t given us enough monsters.
This one’s an adventure story featuring two unlikely hunting partners: a wounded veteran of the War in Afghanistan, now employed shooting feral hogs from helicopters, and a patchouli-perfumed Sasquatch enthusiast on break from Lewis & Clark College in Portland. Following a string of reports—and one photograph—of a bipedal, hairless creature mutilating sheep across Texas, our odd couple teams up to hunt el Chupacabra … and the $20,000 bounty a rancher has posted for whoever brings him the body of the beast.
What our pair finds, deep in the Texas backcountry, is unexpected … and even more valuable than the bounty.
I hope you enjoy the adventure. As always, I love to hear your thoughts. Happy New Year, humans (and monsters too)!
Do you 1) have a juvenile sense of humor? and 2) think celebrity worship is laughable?
If you answered yes to both the above, you’ll probably enjoy my new short story, “Such Stuff as Stars are Made of,” which you can now read free at Space Squid, the magazine that’s “like uber-famous” for, among other antics, printing an issue on cuneiform clay tablets (Wired story).
I wrote this one while in Hollywood for the Writers of the Future Award, where I was challenged to interview random strangers on the Walk of Fame, then finish a short story in 24 hours. Though I spoke with some truly interesting people, the general Hollywood atmosphere of celebrity worship and fame-chasing struck me as so absurd, when I sat down to write, everything that emerged was equally ridiculous. Crazy in, crazy out.
Years later, the creators of South Park came out with the episode “Turd Burglars,” which has the same plot, except with more Dune references. Trey and Matt, if you are reading this, in lieu of royalties I will accept samples of your spice melange, so I might one day be funny like you.
If any of you lovely readers are brave enough to still want to read this story after my warnings (seriously, if potty humor makes you squeamish, this isn’t the one for you), here’s a fresh sample so you have an inkling of what you’re getting into:
"Stool transplants?" I asked my agent. "Please say you're joking."
Angela shook her head. "I swear I'm not making this up. It started with mice. When researchers transferred the stools of outgoing mice into anxious mice, the recipients became more outgoing. And when they gave people fecal transplants for digestive disorders, they found the same thing--recipients take on characteristics of their donors. Point being: the microbes in our guts exert significant influence over our personalities. If you really want to be a star, you need to have star stuff inside you."
"You mean star shit."
Angela waved her hand dismissively. "Semantics."
"How would you get a sample?"
"I know a guy, former P.I. It'll just be a matter of figuring out Robert Downey Jr.'s patterns and disabling a toilet."
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you do read “Such Stuff as Stars are Made of,” as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Two strange new skulls have been found in Israel and China. The latter, “Dragon Man,” has been proposed as Homo longi, a new human species! Even if it turns out to be the first Denisovan skull we’ve found, it’s still huge–both literally and figuratively!
These finds drive home a sad fact: it’s a lonely time to be human. Not long ago (okay, relatively) Homo sapiens was just one of at least SIX human species sharing our planet simultaneously.
We needn’t be lonely for long. Soon we’ll have the opportunity to de-extinct some of our lost fellow humans, get another chance to look into their eyes, and know them.
But should we? It’d certainly be interesting. For one, I suspect it will put our stubborn hang-ups around race into perspective. The minor variations we habitually overemphasize will probably seem a wee bit less significant when we share the room with 8-ft tall Denisovans, their massive grins revealing teeth so big archaeologists first thought they belonged to a cave bear, and peeking out from behind them, the 3-ft-tall Homo floresiensis “hobbits” of Indonesia, along with the even more petite Homo luzonensis, perhaps standing on the shoulders of a thickly muscled Neanderthal while our 90-lb tree-climbing cousin Homo naledi dangles from a ceiling pipe.
Which begs the question: if we’re somehow still stumbling over variations as minor as skin pigmentation, how will we treat these humans? Especially if they don’t possess the kinds of intelligence necessary to integrate into our society? And what if it turns out WE’RE the dummies? How will they treat us?
Pretty fun to think about, right? Hey, someone should write a book series about what happens when we bring back extinct hominins! Wink. Stay tuned for Hangman. Book 1 is about to go on submission while I flesh out Books 2-4. Fingers crossed, please. In the meantime, check out my story in Nature, “The Descent of Man,” which became the basis for Chapter 1 of the Hangman saga, along with my guest post for Nature about the science and inspiration behind this series.
A day may come when the great beasts of the past will leap to life again in our imaginations, when we shall walk again in vanished scenes, stretch painted limbs we thought were dust, and feel again the sunshine of a million years ago. -H.G. Wells, “The Grisly Folk”
Apologies for my recent absence. I was hiding from 2020. And half of 2021, it seems.
The dumpster fire of last year brought some major life changes. Some good, some shit. I’ll babble about those below, if you care to know. But the thing I’m here to share, because I’m deeply excited about it: I’m back in the saddle and writing again!
Three new short stories are forthcoming. Additionally, the editors of Deep Magic, who previously honored my story “Hanging Trees” with a Pushcart nomination, recently flattered me once again by selecting it for their Best of Deep Magic anthology … which launched TODAY! Though it’s quieter than the fast-paced speculative fiction I typically write, it’s a good introduction to my short fiction. If you’ve read some of my other stories, this one is a nice change-up, stylistically. The anthology is now available on Amazon (free if you have Kindle Unlimited).
What I’m even more giddy about: I’m once again at work on my debut series, Hangman. Book I is complete, soon to go on submission, and without a doubt the best thing I’ve written. And that’s only if I don’t count Books II-IV, because they’re still growing from baby outlines to adult novels (no, not adult novels. Sorry.). Each installment is better than the last, and the saga as a whole is shaping up to be the story I always wanted to read, but never found. Probably because it is super weird! But hey, weird is a synonym for original, right? Right!? Yeah …
As for those life changes:
The Bad: A shitstorm of 2020-related stress, the exact details with which I won’t bore you because you probably had your own, but a consequence of which was a near-complete absence of my usual love of literature—reading and writing both. I suspect there may be something to that old hierarchy of needs after all.
The Good: Brooklyn, my incredibly patient saint of a partner, who was in large part responsible for getting me through the bad, convinced me to move with her to Hawaii mid-pandemic. Though we left beloved people, trees, and birds behind, we’ve already found much to treasure here. My love of literature is rivalled by my passion for trees, fruit trees in particular, and for that Hawaii truly is paradise. Here one can regularly feast on rare tropical fruits, many of them better than anything I could previously grow in Northern Nevada’s five frost-free months.
Putting the cherry on the cempedak, I started an exciting new job that satisfies my fruit obsession: I’m propagating, planting, and caring for fruit trees at a budding 60-acre rare fruit orchard and probable future arboretum (can we please call it an “arbor-eat-’em”?). I’m often consulted for tree recommendations for sites ranging from city parks and universities to small home gardens, and I almost always include at least some fruit trees. Far too often, my suggestions meet resistance from this idea that fruit trees are “too messy, and too much work.” Well, life is messy, and too much work. But it requires us to eat, so if we’re going to be planting and caring for trees anyway, we might as well select those that’ll reward us with delicious, healthy fruit, right? The answer at this “arbor-eat-’em” is an emphatic “OF COURSE!” and that’s as refreshing as white pineapple on a summer day. Plus, the office views ain’t bad:
To wrap up, I’ll try to convey the feeling that inspired me to check in after far too long (again, my embarrassed apologies), and to do so I’ll lean on the wisdom of a certain variety of lodgepole pine, which knows this: Only from the ashes can a forest grow anew.
Or, perhaps more fitting to this post: last year’s rotten compost is today’s delicious fruit.
In the aftermath of last year’s catastrophic California wildfires, VICE’s Terraform published “The Last Stand,” a piece of mine about the future of fire. It’s making another stand, this time in Little Blue Marble, a publication I’m particularly fond of. You can read my story for free, or purchase the excellent anthology here.
In light of Australia’s current wildfires, this piece is unfortunately just as relevant today as it was last year. But somehow, I’m hopeful. People are taking action. Not enough to reverse current trends, but enough to inspire hope.
On top of that, we have these extraordinary machines that can capture carbon, purify air and water, manufacture building supplies, feed us, and even make us happier. They’re called trees, and if you need tips on how to obtain, install, or maintain these wondrous machines, I’m here to help!
Seriously. Post a comment or send me an e-mail. If you have a question, I’ll answer it. If I don’t know, I’ll find out. Unless you live in Antarctica, you can probably grow trees. Hell, trees used to grow in Antarctica–with significant life extension and a whole lot of patience, you could re-introduce them!
This is the first year I’ve recommended my own work for consideration, as it’s the first year I have something I feel worthy. That story is “Hanging Trees” (Deep Magic, 4400 words).
It’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, but is really a much better fit for the science fiction awards. You can purchase the story for Kindle (free with Kindle Unlimited) or, if reading for award consideration, shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your preferred format and I’ll happily send you a copy.
“Hanging Trees” is allegory for an event in the history of science which impacted me deeply and turned out to be extremely relevant in 2018. More than that, though, the story is about humanity’s place in nature, and how we might improve the ways we relate to our fellow bioforms.
Eleanor Franklin, a young marsborn colonist, discovers the first complex extraterrestrial lifeform known to science: bioluminescent “trees” that dangle from the ceiling of a cavern deep below the Red Planet’s surface.
We craned our necks up toward the source of the deep green glow, and that’s when we saw them—the upside-down trees, hanging from above like living chandeliers. Their luminescent roots traversed the ceiling in a light-show lattice joining each tree to the others, anchoring the ethereal forest to the rock above.
Others take credit for Eleanor’s discovery, however, and when they realize the trees are the source of the poisonous gas plaguing their colony, they destroy them–along with the only connection to non-human life Eleanor has known.
Her days numbered, Eleanor desperately searches Mars’s underground karst landscape for more trees … and for a way of life that will allow humanity to better share the cosmos with its fellow residents.
2. The Last Stand – Terraform (VICE)
My other eligible story is “The Last Stand” (1000 words), which appeared Nov. 2018 in Terraform (VICE). It draws on climate/fire science and my years as a firefighter to paint a picture of what California wildfires will look like–and what we stand to lose–if we don’t alter current trends. It lacks the layered depth of “Hanging Trees,” but I certainly won’t stop you from considering it!
Terraform, the future fiction section of VICE, just published “The Last Stand,” a piece of mine about the future of fire in California. It draws on climate/fire science and my experiences fighting fire to paint a picture of where we’re headed if we don’t get our shit together. You can read it here, along with my notes and references for you nerds interested in the science behind science fiction. Comments/arguments welcome.
Special thanks to Tony Alvarez, hotshot firefighter, US Marine, and the hardest-working human I know, for providing the inspiration behind fire soldiers, and for schooling me on the proper way to sling a Humvee via helicopter.
I donated my payment for this piece to those who lost their homes and loved ones in the recent CA fires. If you have the means, I hope you’ll consider making a donation, however small. The California Fire Foundation is a good option: responding firefighters know who needs help, and they distribute funds on site, when assistance is most critical.
New story day! “Hanging Trees” is out now in the spring issue of Deep Magic(available here).
I’m especially excited because this issue includes a story by Ken Liu. His translation of The Three-body Problem is among my all-time favorite novels, and his short story “The Paper Menagerie” (winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards) brought me to tears when I first read it.
“Hanging Trees” is slower than the thriller-type SF stories I usually write; nevertheless, I think it’s among my best. Set on a near-future Mars colony, it’s an allegory for an event in the history of science which impacted me deeply, and which I think is relevant today.
Like puzzles? “Hanging Trees” contains numerous clues to its inspiration; if you think you know which historical event inspired El’s story, tell me in a comment. The first reader to guess correctly will get a tree I’ve grown from seed, or a pack of wildflower seeds native to your region!
If you missed my science fiction medical mystery, “Möbius,” it’s available free for one week in Event Horizon: An Anthology of Authors Eligible for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (download). After July 15, “Möbius” will still be available, but only by purchasing Writers of the Future, Vol. 32 (Amazon,Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers).
Of course I’d blow smoke about all my story-babies, so here’s an unbiased opinion from review magazine Tangent Online: “‘Möbius’ is a tightly written mix of mystery and moral questions that literally leaves the ending in your hands. Centering on a world where genetic research is tightly regulated, outlaw labs have sprung up and law enforcement has responded. The characters are well written, the mystery plausible, and the story reads like a high stakes poker game with the characters in a cycle of raising the stakes that leaves you racing through the story. Probably the best of the anthology.”