How “No Time” Happened, Part 3

Due to overwhelming fan demand…

…that is to say, two people…

…here is the original outline document for No Time: The First Hour. I have a similar one for No Time for the Killing Floor: The Second Hour and have started the one for No Time for Revolving Doors: The Third Hour.

Obviously, SPOILERS AHOY!

Continue reading


Happy Clam Chowder Day!

Today’s post is a bonus, coming a day early to celebrate America’s National Clam Chowder Day.

God damn but that is beautiful. Just...look at that.

God damn but that is beautiful. Just…look at that.

Seriously, next time someone gives you shit about how Americans have no indigenous culture/cuisine? Clam chowder. It was the canny adaptation of a centuries-old French and English communal dish (something akin to cioppino) to the bountiful shellfish fisheries of the Atlantic seaboard. The only proper chowder, white and creamy, is made with clams, potatoes, onions, sometimes a green vegetable like celery, and milk.* It’s garnished with oyster crackers, the modern descendant of the ship’s hardtack used to thicken the chowder (rather than flour) in the first place.

Where I’m from, Morro Bay, chowder is on literally every menu but Taco Bell’s. When I was growing up, soup options were Soup du Jour and Clam Chowder, and every restaurant has “the best clam chowder in town.” My first job, washing dishes, included “bottomless bowl of chowder” as an employment benefit. Can’t imagine why.

[picture of waterfront – “This may have something to do with it.”]

This may conceivably have something to do with it. That and the estuary making the place an ideal habitat for bottom-feeding filtration mollusks.

This may conceivably have something to do with it. That and the estuary making the place an ideal habitat for bottom-feeding filtration mollusks.

When I got to China, I discovered that not only did they not have clam chowder, nobody had ever heard of it. Not even the other gwailo. Being as how fish and shellfish were freely available fresh (as in, ‘alive’) in the wet markets and I was in desperate need of American food, I turned to my friend Old Scrote (who’s taught me so much) and adapted his recipe. Here, then, is my recipe for Chinese clam chowder.

First, go down to the wet market and argue with the fishwife in Cantonese.

This one, around the corner from your apartment. You can go inside if it's raining.

This one, around the corner from your apartment. You can go inside if it’s raining.

Mind the blood groove in the floor, you do not want to fall in that shit. You’ll want a bunch of clams, mussels or oysters, and maybe a fish if you can get her to kill it and throw it in for less than ten kuai extra. Because of my terminal lack of fucks to give and usually dodgy employment situation, I didn’t ever have them shucked but just tossed them into the chowder, shells and all.

Go over to the vegetable ladies and pick up onions, potatoes, and celery. Everything I ever cook is ‘one quarter onion per person per meal,’ and you’ll want double that amount in potatoes and two celery ribs for each onion.

Head to the grocery store for the bacon and milk. Only use milk that you can make cheese with by boiling, adding salt and vinegar, and straining. If the milk doesn’t make cheese, it shouldn’t go in your body.

When you get home, chop the celery up into half-inch lengths and the potatoes into thin slices. As Old Scrote instructs, “Chop the bacon pieces very finely and fry them in a little oil. Chop the onion and soften it with the bacon.” Where we diverge is the next step – toss the clams in, liquid and all, adding water if necessary, then cover the cooking pot. Don’t turn it up too high – you want the liquid to simmer but not boil. It shouldn’t take but a few minutes, five or ten at the most. Remove the clams and set them aside, tossing out any that refused to open. You do not want to eat them.

The rest of the recipe proceeds like Scrote – throw in the potato slices, turn up the heat, and boil them. After about ten or fifteen minutes, toss the celery in, too. Add the milk after twenty minutes, then wait for the potatoes to crumble into flour and thicken the soup up. Add the clams back in and season with plenty of salt and pepper to taste.

Serve with Tsingtao beer and a side of homemade sourdough. Feed yourself and your two insane roommates and whatever friends/lovers come streaming through the house for a week or so.

Happy National Clam Chowder Day.

*I had heard legends of this ‘red’ chowder, mostly from a throwaway gag in Ace Ventura, but I didn’t really believe it existed. Then, when I was 22, I was finally served some. It made me doubt the existence of a just and loving God.


How “No Time” Happened, Part 2

In August of 2013, I flew back to America to sit the mandatory French testing that would guarantee me a placement in the Peace Corps. I’d worked on an organic farm outside of Shenzhen, China, and with proof of my French skills, they were certain to ship me off to some distant clime in West Africa. While I was home, I scoped out locations and soaked up the atmosphere of Morro Bay, a place I hadn’t seen in two years. I hashed a bit at my outline, in between visits with old friends, meals that involved cheese and good beer, and endless games of Europa Universalis III.

A month later, in September, I flew back to China, flush with success. I started a new semester at Northeastern University’s online program and hit the bricks, looking for work. I knew the schools had hired while I was an ocean away, but that just meant more tutoring opportunities, right?

…right?

A month later, I was still hitting the streets. China’s National Day had come on October 1, a weeklong vacation where, as with every Chinese holiday, the students go home to their parents, sleep, eat mama’s cooking, and sleep more. And eat. And sleep. Zhuhai, already a sleepy little seaside city, was sleepier still, soaked in its own turpitude.

It was during the holiday that my girlfriend broke up with me. Two and a half years come to an end. Looking back on it, it had been a long time coming. I’m glad she pulled the trigger – and I’m still glad she stood by me as long as she did. I said goodbye to her and cut our staycation short, walking home instead of taking the bus. It was four straight miles through the dark starry Zhuhai night, where the sea is slate-grey at noon and muddy brown at dusk, and the suspicious smell of the Pearl River’s effluvia poison the Pacific…but hell, at least the air’s clean enough to breathe.

I went home to the cavernous four-bedroom apartment that my roommate had fled months before, where we never did buy furniture and the kitchen always seemed in constant danger of being overwhelmed by some lifeform or another. It was a whitewashed tomb on the eighth storey, full of closed doors and regrets. My room and the kitchen were the only places that even seemed inhabited, and my room only because of the three luggages and the small collection of Tsingtao beer bottles I’d collected after each day’s job hunting.

The collection got bigger as October wore on. My internet gave out and never came back, the food in the fridge went bad as I dined, night after night, on a bottle of Tsingtao and two packets of Chinese peanuts. I began to take up residence in the local gwailo bar, an Authentic Australian Bar joined at the hip to a dodgy Italian restaurant, owned by a Welshman and staffed with the best English students the Zhuhai universities could provide. I ordered the garlic chicken at the extravagent price of ten dollars, and made four meals apiece out of it, washed down with copious amounts of the local swill beer that was priced just right at less than a dollar per pint. I did my homework over their wifi, perched on a rickety stool in the back and with my computer shoved in between the skittles table and the wall, ducking down if I saw my ex or any of her colleagues so I wouldn’t run the risk of embarrassing her.

My Hemingway impression was perfect.

I began, in a crude way, to figure out that I was destroying myself, and that unless something was done, my grades would suffer. Unless something changed. Unless I changed. Unless I did something…adventurous.

I signed up for National Novel Writing Month on October 20, my mother’s birthday. I shaved my beard on October 30. I had an ill-advised one night stand thanks to my Doctor Who costume on October 31.

On November 1, I nursed a hangover and opened a new word document. At the top, I typed NO TIME: THE FIRST HOUR. And I began to write.

I’d written a novella the previous year, a patchwork piece of five interconnected pulp stories entitled Ian Brown and the Hand of Fatima. But I’d never finished a full-length novel. National Novel Writing Month asks for 50,000 words. The 12-chapter mystery formula asked for 60,000. Well, Hell. I had no job and no girlfriend and my life consisted of online classwork, the pub, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, green Tsingtao bottles, and my bed.

And now, a book. Gooch took shape immediately – I’d done preliminary work on him, Rachel and Maria a week before I started. I groped for Rachel’s voice and found it once I realized the person I thought she was was actually Debbie-Anne. Maria took her entrance and characters began to crawl out of the woodwork: Uncle Jerry (then under the pseudonym Uncle Wrex), Matthew Park, Alison Wingate III.

Francesca Caballero y Gutierrez, Ama, was a particular treat. Until Gooch opened that door, I was expecting the frail old woman from my notes. The woman who appeared on the page is still blind, but her fingers are strong and her ears sharp. Age didn’t diminish her – it refined her. And I fell in absolute love with her (still am!).

The soundtrack coalesced. Gooch’s “Telegraph Road,” Maria’s “Heaven on Their Minds,” the tick-tock of “No Time” and the spare acoustic eulogy of “Beast.”

I remember finishing chapter four and talking to my mother on the phone and going “I wrote this character who’s just like you!” (Alison)

I remember writing chapter nine and calling her again and going “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t plan this. Alison just …kind of got away from me there.”

I remember spending almost a week on chapter eight, as it metastasized and threatened to strangle the book like a cancer. As it simply kept growing as fast as I kept writing, and of the sleep-deprived despair I felt at ever finishing the damn thing. I remember Lachlan Atcliffe steeling me to carry on and listening to my rants about how much I hated it.

No, seriously, fuck chapter eight.

I remember writing about Gooch’s love of tequila, inspiring Big Joel to suggest a round of tequilas. And another, and another. We whispered terrible secrets in the dark, the things that haunted us and drove us to that dingy bar, that distant continent, that fish-smelling village of Tangjia that had once shown so much promise.

There is a pervasive energy to the gwailo, a malaise and a shadow that hangs over us whenever two or more gather – the mingled love and fear of Home. In large cities, young cities, husky, brawling, where there are Russians and Frenchmen and Israelis thrown together with the usual detritus of the Anglosphere, where some are still young and still on their gap year, where there is still some hope, the malaise ebbs. In cities like Zhuhai, it’s in the air – the sense that you have failed at life at Home, and will fail again if you ever return, that are less than a man if male and an invisible white ghost if female. In Haikou, it was suffocating as the jungle odor of the coconut groves and the punishing wet heat of afternoon before the monsoons came, and just as real.

There was an Englishman who tried to pick a fight with Big Joel that night, but the old brawling hockey-playing Irish boy from south Boston wasn’t having it. He was quoting Robert Frost instead, as he might have done before a tabernacle or a Harvard lecture hall in another life. So, after the tequila conspired with darkness to rob me of memory, he started in on me. They tell me we wandered out together as the bars closed at two AM, spilling into the street market beneath the shadow of the legendary Dragon Union dance hall and brothel and bordello, that dominates the heart of Tangjia.

Praise be to China and the Chinese, for they make use of every public space. Any square inch will be turned to community garden, to ballroom dance practice in the evenings, to the housewives’ tai chi in the mornings under the care of the wizened master, or to the street market. Enterprising young guns from across China, from Urumqi and Kashgar on the old silk road where the men all wear silk hats under Allah to the waterside slums of Shenzhen, gather in the night markets to buy and sell. The card tables come out at sundown, the portable barbeques are trundled from their hiding places, the restaurants retreat inside themselves while the Muslim boys banter and grill you oysters and kebabs and crucified chicken drumsticks and the toothless Hokka women smile at your Mandarin as bad as theirs and grill or blanche vegetables and pork by the mouthful. We whites set up ourselves a card table, between two pointless street gangs and a quiet table of low-grade tong soldiers.

They tell me that the Englishman became mean as he drank, as Englishmen do, and he began to insult my mother. They tell me I took a swig of beer, and asked with all politesse if he was joking around, or if he was really trying to insult my mother. They tell me I put the bottle on the table, quite deliberately, as the other six guys shifted around, ready to start the fight if I threw the punch. Hell, I had a brown belt in Uechi-ryu and a Boston southie going for me.

And the Englishman sputtered that he was just joking around. And I smiled, and shook his hand, and was pleasant.

That’s the bit that scared people, the bit they were haunted by when they told me the next morning. I was scary because I was friendly.

Finally, by November 30, I had taken a spare room with a Grand Old Gentleman and a scholar, and stayed up all night, powered by homework and cheap Tsingtaos and Pepsi, and plowed inexorably through the last few chapters. I wrote them all in that night, finishing at 5:50, the time on Gooch’s microwave when he stumbles into his house on Easter morning. I scattered [tk]s like confetti, marking places to fix in the second draft or after, leaving them spread in my wake as I sailed on towards the safe harbor of the end, the end in sight, -THE END-.

And I reached The End.

The dawn was just yellowing, the sun peeking triumphantly out before the factories would bury it under smoke and soot. I put on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” and brewed myself a cup of jasmine tea. I spent an hour like that, wandering the house, as my roommate wandered out for his coffee and out to teach his morning class. I let it steep into me, into my bones.

I’d written a book.

At 62,000 words, I’d written an entire novel.

I uploaded it to NaNoWriMo for verification, and got my winner’s diploma.

Then, spent, I stumbled to my room, and slept.

On December 1, I took the ferry to Hong Kong. It was time for my visa run…and a party to go to. One I had damn well earned the right to go to.

Strange and beautiful things happened then in Hong Kong, but then they always do. Hong Kong, for my money, is the most romantic city in the world. And I had written a book. God damn. I’d really done it.

The rest of the story is a roundy-round of drafts and edits, shifting names and nationalities, Alison and Jerry and Ama assuming their proper place and dignity, things explained, verisimilitude. The story of publishing a book is rarely as interesting as the story of writing it. But, hey, that’s the company motto: Every story has a story.

And I’d written a book.

God damn.

Edit: Big Joel died, not too long ago, in a freak car accident in the streets of Zhuhai. Wherever you are, raise a glass for him. Where he’s gone, everyone is a poet – and he can drink and quote Robert Frost in a night that never ends.


How “No Time” Happened

No Time: The First Hour

No Time: The First Hour

I covered this a little bit on the Acknowledgements page, but here’s the full, uncut version of how No Time: The First Hour came about.

It started with Audrey Niffenegger, and started with The Time Traveler’s Wife. I grew up on Bill & Ted, Doc & Marty, the Doctor and time travel episodes of Star Trek same as anybody. Until Audrey came along, time travel in science fiction was conventionalized – an adventure plot, the danger of paradox, the terrible knowledge of the future. The most original development, arguably, was Bill and Ted’s most excellent insight that you can totally stuff your pockets with the things you really need once the adventure’s over! Excellent!

*air guitar*

AIR GUITAR

But then Audrey turned it on its head – Henry DeTamble doesn’t interfere with historical events, because he’s locked in an eternist framework from which there is no escape. There’s one small paradox. Henry does plenty of running, stealing, and fighting, but that’s not the focus of the story. The focus is the strange relationship between Henry and Clare*…and time travel is a force that both brings them together and separates them. Time travel becomes a metaphor, not for history, cause and effect, or prophecy, but for the emotions inside a long-lasting relationship. It is an inexorable tragic force, like age and how people change once they’ve been together for years. Audrey didn’t approach her time-travel book like Star Trek or Back to the Future…she came at it completely differently.

And I started to see the possibilities. My tiny little mind started to crack open to the light.

Then I read the Continuum RPG, and my mind fucking exploded.

Guys? We're the good guys, right? The bloody hands and crypto-fascism  are making me start to think we might not be the good guys...

Guys? We’re the good guys, right? The bloody hands and crypto-fascism are making me start to think we might not be the good guys…

Continuum, the Aetherco RPG from the late 1990s, is the greatest time travel game you’ve never heard of. Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, Continuum assumes a perfectly eternist universe – where the Twin Towers are always falling, somewhen. And Continuum thinks through all its implications – you enter into a society of time travelers (spanners) locked into an eternal Time War that they know they’ve won, but know must be fought. It takes a degree in theoretical physics to effectively wield the Time Combat rules.

I’m not going to lie, Continuum was a big, big influence on the world and society of No Time. No Time basically started life as a reinterpretation of Continuum – specifically, one where the Continuum and the Narcissists are perfectly matched, a Temporal Cold War out of Star Trek rather than a chillingly prescient terrorist hunt.

Along the way, I started a story called Music Girl based on some ideas I read about adapting Michio Kaku’s work to tabletop RPGs. Kaku and scientists like him enjoy playing with the dimensionality of time, really digging into the concept of the fourth dimension. Things would look more comprehensible up there, the way two dimensional worlds (such as the figure above) make perfect sense as long as you’re looking in three dimensions. Three-dimensional shadows would be cast. You could have perfect hair, because your head is now a hypersphere.

I still have the physical printouts of all the fourth dimension notes I made for Music Girl. Scrawled along one page like Jack Torrence’s moonlighting as a ghostwriter for Philip K. Dick are the words “LISA IS LISA-SHAPED LISA IS LISA-SHAPED LISA IS LISA-SHAPED.” Because if I study enough fourth dimensional physics I become all Roscoe’s Not Here, Man.

So, while I was cheerfully filing the numbers off of Continuum, I realized that the only way to do a time travel story properly is to build it from the ground up. Like …from the very laws of physics. How does time work? How do paradoxes work?

I wrote up a document that I am exceedingly smug about. It outlines how Gooch’s universe works. It’s an exceedingly elegant system…one very different from the rules that govern the Continuum. Superficially, the Eternists and the Continuum are similar. But all you have to do is scratch the surface and keep your eyes open…and, as Will Howe could tell you, there are things in the fourth dimension, Horatio, undreamt of by your philosophy.

All very fine intellectual games, but not a story.

When I have a setting or a scene, but no characters, I ask two simple questions that Orson Scott Card taught me:

  1. Who hurts?
  2. Who has the freedom to move?

My character wouldn’t be a general of the Time War. I was sick to death of those stories. Nor would I have some hackneyed Terminator Twosome duke it out for the girl.

Roscoe1

No…I wanted something subtler, something classier, something more in the tradition of Le Carre or Hammett…

Hammett?

HAMMETT!

A detective, of course! A hardboiled gumshoe, a marginal figure on the edge of time traveler society. A real Harry Dresden type, waging his lonely crusade to protect us mundanes from the superpowered who mistake themselves for ubermenschen. Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder came back to me:

[D]own these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

Why would he stick his neck out for us levelers and plebians? Ah, of course…where there is the time traveler, there is also the time traveler’s wife. What a woman she would have to be! Someone who, herself not time-active, nevertheless can hold her own.

And every Holmes must have his Moriarty.

His opposite number in the Time War…wait! Their own private, little Time War. Their careers are consumed with each other, bound up with each other in ways Moriarty and Holmes never were. The arrival of my time-active Moriarty puts into motion  the inexorable eternist machinery to start my Holmes’ career, and vice versa. Their Time Combat is but one battle of a vast and eternal Time War, like a pair of Vietnamese snipers with a vendetta in 1971…but a tale to tell, nevertheless.

I’d run across ticket2write’s Guide to the Twelve Chapter Mystery years earlier, so I dug it up again and proceeded to lay out a plot. At this point, Gooch was little more than a sketch, Rachel and Maria subplots. Hell, I didn’t even know who  the murderer was. But I hammered out what I wanted to cover in each chapter, broke it down and shook it out.

Then I set it aside for over a year. It would take a series of massive shocks that nearly destroyed me to make me finally dig it out and put flesh on Gooch’s Quixotic bones…

…which is where we pick up next week. :D

—-

*Sidebar: I think I am very strange, because when you ask me to picture the ideal romantic couple, I picture Leto & Jessica Atreides, Gomez & Morticia Addams, and Henry & Claire DeTamble…rather than more conventional choices like Romeo and Juliet or Elizabeth and Darcy. By sheer coincidence, my main couple are (mostly) happily married and in their thirties…


The Peace Corps

Last week, I wrote a summary of the charities I’m giving at least $25 apiece to this year. It went up on Friday morning, partly because of the Peace Corps section. I kept rewriting it and rewriting it, and I finally only bashed it into the approximate paragraph that’s there by taking the rest of the material and stuffing it in another document.

American friends and readers probably already have some idea of what the Peace Corps is and does. For my international friends, the Peace Corps is a program instituted by John F. Kennedy in 1961. The mission of the Peace Corps is to provide technical assistance and training to foreign lands that need them by sending volunteers abroad, to help other peoples learn about Americans and, just as important, help Americans learn about other peoples. The Peace Corps has its roots in older religious and progressive missions conducted by European countries – one proto-Peace Corps proposal even referred to Peace Corps Volunteers as “missionaries of democracy.” Volunteers live in and with the communities they serve (many are homestays) to plant gardens, dig wells, build roads, find financing, and develop community and economic relationships.

Kennedy’s announcement, in his um-er-ah Boston Brahmin brogue, puts it thusly: “We will send Americans, men and women, who are qualified to do a job […] It will not be easy. None of the men and women will be paid a salary. They will live at the same level as the citizens of the country which they are sent to, doing the same work, eating the same foods, speaking the same language.” He specified that the Peace Corps would put particular emphasis on “those men and women who have skills in teaching, in agriculture, and in health.” Not much has changed – there are now opportunities for Americans skilled in community organization, environmental protection, and business development as well,  but everything else is as true today as it was in 1961.

So, why in Hell would I join? Why would anybody?

When I went to China the first time, it was 2006. Two years earlier, America collectively woke up after Voting Day to discover that not only did we elect George W. Bush again, but we’d doubled down on him and everything he stood for. It’s hard to express how utterly disillusioned and defeated the American left felt in those days. Media figures theorized that this marked the demise of the Democratic party, at long last. I remember watching V for Vendetta and being shocked and not a little relieved that I apparently wasn’t the only person left who felt dismayed by the whole apparatus of Homeland Security, the PATRIOT Act, military adventurism, an endless and fathomless War on Terror, and the smug assurance that neoconservatism was right, was sacred, and would endure forever.

I was a bitter and self-loathing American at 20. You can ask any of my old drinking mates in Asia.

But during my year there, I fell in love with China – with the night markets, the street food, the depth of meaning in the language. I also, much to my surprise, fell in love with America – with the gregariousness, the diversity, the cheese. I learned what it was to live with the chilling effect of censorship and to be a second-class citizen, not only to the Chinese but among foreigners as well (thanks to military adventurism and an endless and fathomless War on Terror).

I came away with a feeling that underneath all that were things worth upholding and celebrating – a national character that turns around and says hello while waiting in line and puts its scandals on the front page instead of hiding them in the back. Americans are weird, and I came around to loving them for it. And I felt the urge to serve my country, to honor the things it stands for and do what I could to make its people better – starting with myself.

My interests and talents skew international, but I felt that I would clash with the Armed Forces. I also feel that America’s interests and, more importantly, her morality and values are better served by exporting American generosity and pluck rather than American iron and lead.

Volunteers, when they return home, come back with a greater awareness and understanding of life outside our borders. Five years in China was educational, but I’ll be first to tell you that it’s only marginally prepared me for two years in Senegal. Returned Volunteers have unique experience and skills, in dealing with cross-cultural business, organization management, and inter-organizational cooperation, that their homebody contemporaries frankly can’t match. This is over and above job skills: medical Volunteers have had to deal with giving vaccinations for scarlet fever out of windswept canvas tents with only boiled water for sanitation. That kind of even keel and resourcefulness is something you want in your doctor.

Returned Volunteers get a laughably small stipend for relocation and may be able to afford a year of grad school afterwards, too. But that’s not the big reason – the real reason.

We, America, are the preponderant power in the world. Our battleships patrol the Malacca Straits and the Red Sea for pirates, our air support prevents use of chemical weapons. Our media plays a grotesque and distorted but ultimately recognizable self-image on screens from Russia to Rio. When we commit atrocities, everybody knows it – usually because we tell them.

We also come up with stuff like a United Nations for representatives of all countries to discuss their differences before resorting to armed conflict, like a space program to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth, like a government organization that sends people to foreign lands just to dig wells. Because they want to help.

That’s the kind of leadership, the kind of moral leadership, that America has glimmerings of in our best moments. Sometimes, we actually live up to the nobility and good-natured dignity that the American character is capable of. Establishing a constitutional democracy was good – opening the doors to the world’s poor and tired and huddled masses was better. Defeating Nazi Germany alongside our British, French, and Russian allies was good – the Marshall Plan that allowed all those countries to rebuild after the War was better.

Americans are weird, and wonderful, and sometimes even great.

If America is supposed to be the Leader of the Free World, if we even remotely deserve to be, it’s because of the kind of activities, values, and psychology that the Peace Corps embodies. The generosity with our talent and initiative, the innate friendliness and confidence, the desire and ability to lend a helping hand, the focus on individuals and communities over institutions and collectives. Above all, the hope and idealism that other nations have sneered at and that we now specialize in sneering at, ourselves. It’s those traits, more than anything else, that will make America genuinely worthy of being Leader of the Free World.

In other words, we could be The Americans.

Sidebar: A lot of my friends abroad seem to think that the Peace Corps is some kind of CIA plot, which I find frankly perplexing. You won’t find two organizations in Washington that hate each other more than the intelligence community and the Peace Corps, with the possible exception of the Democrats and Republicans. When I applied for the Peace Corps, they made it quite clear that I would be disqualified if I or any of my immediate family were involved with the CIA, FBI, or other alphabet-soup agencies, now, in the past, or in the next five years. Conversely, the Peace Corps is listed as a subversive organization (sandwiched between the American Communist Party and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)) if you try to join the intelligence community. The two groups have two very separate missions, and always avoid each other at parties.


Give

badge

Charity is an intimate thing. It’s a clear declaration of your principles and your values, expressed in cold, hard cash. And if you happen to follow the man from Nazareth, or believe you do, it should be done in private and without fanfare. What charities you support, with sweat or gold, is as close and private as to leave you, essentially, naked.

And others are ready to judge you. Man, are they ever. If your charities (read, your values and principles) do not precisely align with theirs, they will look down on you for supporting undeserving causes rather than the noble and urgent causes that they support. I generally hear this in half-remembered rehashes of Alice Walker when I talk about space travel. “How can we waste money on space exploration when people are starving in Africa?/when there’s human rights abuses in China?/when you could be contributing to the Democratic party?”

smug2

At which point, I’m usually thinking this.

So why talk about charity and about giving?

Because it is an expression of your values and principles. It’s one of the clearest indications of what you do value, what you consider important. And why you give to this cause (instead of others) is another indication. Because talking about an idea, writing it out, helps you to understand the idea – even if that idea is “what I think is important.”

And because I’d like to get to know you. Not a grand reason, but a real one.

I won’t judge you for your choices (even if that choice is not to give anything to charity at all!), and anyone who does will feel the loving stroke of the banhammer. I do ask that you give your reasons, because reasons are interesting and help us all understand you better.

So, let’s get charitably intimate. I don’t mind starting. I compiled this list last year, and one of my resolutions is to donate at least $25 to each of these charities this year. I’m going to group these roughly in terms of self-interest going in – into expanding circles of empathy. Continue reading


“Red Seas Under Red Skies” – Scott Lynch

“That’s a sweet piece,” said Jean, briefly forgetting to be aggravated. “You didn’t snatch that off a street.”

“No,” said Locke, before taking another deep draught of the warm water in the decanter. “I got it from the neck of the governor’s mistress.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“In the governor’s manor.”

“Of all the -”

“In the governor’s bed.”

“Damned lunatic!”

“With the governor sleeping next to her.”

The night quiet was broken by the high, distant trill of a whistle, the traditional swarming noise of city watches everywhere. Several other whistles joined in a few moments later.

“It is possible,” said Locke with a sheepish grin, “that I have been slightly too bold.”

tl;dr version: If you like the quote, you’ll love the book.

I was first introduced to Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies by a very excitable friend of mine (hi, B!). When B fangirls, she fangirls hard, and she fangirls with the evangelistical fervor of Oliver Cromwell. And as we were standing in Powell’s Books in Portland, she kept insisting I had to read this fantasy series that I’d missed out on.

Lynch’s first book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, concern the trials and tribulations of a gang of religious-minded con artists in fantasy counterpart Venice. I fell in love somewhere around page two, where the saintly beggar meets with !Fagin, pulls out a cigar, and proceeds to curse like a sailor while discussing the sale of a child. I only fell more in love as I watched Locke grow up, met Jean Tannen and Bug and the Sanza Brothers. The book was witty, scintillating, corrupt, rich, and ripe for the plucking.

I love thieves, conmen, and swashbucklers. I actually own David Maurer’s The Big Con, the linguistics study that inspired literally every con artist story you’ve ever seen that isn’t Catch Me If You Can. Fantasy con artists serving a thieves’ god in magical Venice and pulling the world’s most screwed-up Spanish Prisoner gambit? YES PLEASE.

Then I found out the sequel had tall ships in it.

Oh gods yes.

While I was toting it around, people would ask me what Red Seas Under Red Skies was about. And I always told them, “it’s Ocean’s Eleven on a pirate ship.” Red Seas opens with Locke and his stalwart companion Jean Tannen two years deep into a con to rob the richest casino in Tel Verrar, which seems to be the fantasy counterpart Genoa to Camorr’s fantasy counterpart Venice. The Sinspire has one, very important, rule: If you are caught cheating, you are put to death. And Locke and Jean have been cheating every single game since they walked in the door two years before.

As Locke notes, people will show up to compliment them on their unique skills, usually in the process of coercing them into practicing them for free. Some stuff happens, and he and Jean have to flee to the sea (despite having zero nautical knowledge whatsoever), where they promptly fall in with a pirate crew.

It’s a legitimate criticism that Scott Lynch apparently got bored with his book halfway through and ran off to write an entirely different book. It’s not as jarring as the same left turn in Les Miserables, but it’s jarring nevertheless. However, as the entirely different book is “Captain Blood with con men,” I can’t find it in myself to consider this a problem.

Lynch’s pirate gang is led by a middle-aged black mother of two who wears an impenetrable blinged-out bulletproof vest. Because any good sailor on the Brass Sea knows you don’t leave port without two things: A cat, and a woman on the crew. Preferably an officer. Preferably Captain.

Oh yeah. That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

One of the things I appreciate about the series is how inclusive and diverse it is…while at the same time being incredibly low-key and accepting of that diversity. There’s an early scene where Locke and Jean are being gondola’d by a young lady gondolier. Men on the shore make crude comments about her sexuality. She makes crude comments about theirs right back, because they’re all equally gutter trash. Neither Locke nor Jean find this at all remarkable, no moreso than the two most famous gladiators back home in Camorr being female nor their Captain being of a notably darker skin-tone than her first officer (or themselves). There are as many women guards and constables as there are men, as many female officers and pirates as men, and nobody bats an eye. It’s just …all taken as normal.

As it should be.

Scott Lynch clearly enjoys his nautical lore quite as much as I do, and nowhere does that shine more than in the taking of the Kingfisher. Rafael Sabatini may have written more seafaring derring-do, and, on the whole, it might be better. But, for my money, that one scene is better than any one nautical scene in Captain Blood. Yes. Really.

Locke goes mad with bloodlust. Jean falls in love. Locke falls in the water. They eventually make it to the pirate republic (because of course there’s one) and begin spinning new plots.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you someone dies in a Scott Lynch book. But it is to tell you who. If you’d rather not, although I frankly saw it coming from about halfway in, skip the block quote.

The only thing I really take issue with in Red Seas is how Lynch handles the death of the first mate, Jean’s lover, Ezri. By all rights, it should work: Lynch clearly has no problems whatsoever with women as people or as characters, Ezri has enough character development apart from Jean to stand on her own two feet, she sacrifices herself to save the ship, the captain, and her lover, and Lynch treated Bug and the Sanzas the same way in Lies.

It still feels like a fridging. Jean and Locke swear vengeance for her death, which motivates them for the last third of the book. And her death, while noble, struck me as hollow: She was moved by the needs of the plot, the need to pare back down to the Gentlemen Bastards, rather than by her character. She threatened to stick around, how convenient that she gave a Noble Sacrifice to save the crew instead.

Locke and Jean ended the last book with a death-offering, which by their religious beliefs must be stolen and in proportion with the skills of the thief making the offering and the value they held the dead in. The offering in Lies was suitably epic. The offering in this book may be worth less, but damned if it isn’t fitting.

And, of course, there’s a beautiful gotcha to cap off the epilogue.

If, like me, you like nonstandard fantasy, firmly grounded in a place and time and ideally one that isn’t “medieval-ish England-ish Franceland,” or if you like heists and capers, or if you like sea stories, I cannot recommend Red Seas Under Red Skies hard enough. Even if you haven’t read Lies of Locke Lamora, although you should anyway.

Because it’s Ocean’s Eleven on a pirate ship that turns into Captain Blood with conmen.


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