Why Short Fiction?

My literary friends (and my wife) have all wondered at one point or another: Why short fiction? Why am I so obsessed with short stories, reading them and writing them, instead of working on novels? I had incoherent answers about traditions in SF/F and about sketches in charcoal, but last year, Neil Clarke finally put into words what I wasn’t able to say: “As a short fiction editor, I can be subversive.”

I sent Solarpunk Winters a story called “Glâcehouse.” It’s the story of a Haitian-Québécoise history major, her friend, and her father the ecologist reenacting the Breton myth of KêrYs in a post-independence, post-climate change Québec. And it is subversive comme le diable. For one, I don’t think I could sell that as a novel to any editor in America, just on the difficulty of marketing that to an American readership. And for two, this time, when Dahut opens the locks, the cold and the water flow out instead of in, and it is quite definitely a good thing rather than a black betrayal.

The story I sold to Triangulation: Dark Skies, “Earth Epitaph,” is about two venerable astronomers in Tasmania trying to encode an epitaph for humanity into the Sun itself before a gamma ray burst sterilizes the Earth. They choose the Song of Seikilos, the oldest complete musical piece in the Western world, as the fitting words of the human tombstone. To speak to SF fandom and say “this is ancient, this is not secret, and this is valuable” is almost as subversive as asserting that leaving behind a work of art after the death of the Earth is worthwhile would be to regular folks.

I snuck paradox and pacifism into “Sweat and White Cotton,” criticism of cultural bias into “Preta,” and existentialist space exploration into “No More Final Frontiers.” As radical as Fahrenheit 451 and The Left Hand of Darkness were, some of Bradbury’s most powerful prose is in “There Shall Come Soft Rains” and some of LeGuin’s most condemnatory stands are in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The implicit criticism of smug Golden Age SF present in Neuromancer is explicit (and hilarious) in “The Gernsback Continuum.” Even into the present day, it’s in short fiction like Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience ™,” Ken Liu’s “The Paper Tiger,” and Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing” that subversive messages, subversive forms, subversive verse are frothing, bubbling, rattling.

Because some of those subversions catch, and thrive, and slowly become established and become the Establishment. The names and ideas you see printed in F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Daily Science Fiction this year will be what you see on the new releases bookshelves next year, will be what you see in the theater the year after that, and on television the year after that.

In short fiction, I can write about French North America as if anyone cared. I can call vampires “hungry ghosts” and question why anyone would want to be one. I can imagine the Last Quaker Meeting and let the last few pitiful Friends stand to give ministry, if they remember how. As a short fiction writer, I can be subversive.

Solarpunk Winters (feat. “Glâcehouse”)!

As of today, I can proudly announce that I will be published in WorldWeaver Press’ Solarpunk Winters! Coming January 7, 2020, Solarpunk Winters is the sequel to WorldWeaver’s bestselling Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers.

Glass and Gardens Winter Graphic

My story, “Glâcehouse,” is the story of a father and daughter fighting over the last snow-covered maples under glass, and whether to unlock the door and release them into a post-independence, post-Anthropocene French-Canadian future.

(I knew the story would sell when one of my beta readers told me, “Roscoe, this is the first story you’ve written where I actually cared about Québec.”)

But mine isn’t the only story. I haven’t had a chance to read the others, but based on the back-cover description, they sound amazing.

These are stories of scientists working together to protect narwhals from an oil spill, to bring snow back to the mountains of Maine, to preserve ecosystems—even if they have to be under glass domes. They’re stories of regular people rising to extraordinary circumstances to survive extreme winter weather, to fix a threat to their community’s energy source, to save a living city from a deep-rooted sickness. Some stories take place after an environmental catastrophe, with luxury resorts and military bases and mafia strongholds transformed into sustainable communes; others rethink the way we could organize cities, using skybridges and seascrapers and constructed islands to adapt to the changes of the Anthropocene. Even when the nights are long, the future is bright in these seventeen diverse tales.

The full TOC below. Remember, January 7! I’m buying my copy the minute they go on sale.

Glass and Gardens Winter TOC Banner

“Wings of Glass” by Wendy Nikel
“Halps’ Promise” by Holly Schofield
“A Shawl for Janice” by Sandra Ulbrich Almazan
“The Healing” by Sarah Van Goethem
“The Fugue of Winter” by Steve Toase
“The Roots of Everything” by Heather Kitzman
“Viam Inveniemus Aut Faciemus” by Tales from the EV Studio and Commando Jugendstil
“Recovering the Lost Art of Cuddling” by Tessa Fisher
“Oil and Ivory” by Jennifer Lee Rossman
“Orchidaceae” by Thomas Badlan
“The Things That Make It Worth It” by Lex T. Lindsay
“Glâcehouse” by R. Jean Mathieu
“Snow Globe” by Brian Burt
“Rules for a Civilization” by Jerri Jerreat
“On the Contrary, Yes” by Catherine F. King
“Set the Ice Free” by Shel Graves
“Black Ice City” by Andrew Dana Hudson

The Stars Come Closer: WorldCon 76


[Not a real George R. R. Martin, but one of the four Martin impressionists at large]

As most of you know, I spent this last weekend in San Jose, at WorldCon 76. It’s why I overhauled the blog and restored the Books and Stories page. Right now, I’m gonna talk about why. Why I went to WorldCon, and why I want to bring the stars closer.

My wife used to work for Ten Speed Press. They are definitely not a science fiction and fantasy publisher; their forté is more cookbooks, self-help, and New Age. Our Matron-of-Honor, Abigail Simoun, is a writer in her own right, a seasoned editor, and runs Red Fox Literary, the prestigious children’s/YA agency. Melissa’s confidante, Danny, only has finer taste for hard bop jazz than he does for American literature, his walls lined with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon and Haruki Murakami. When I first met Melissa, she thought I was an arrogant upstart writer and I thought she was a snobbish New York literati type. Turns out we were both right.

All these literati have been, for the last six months, looking up from my manuscripts with shocked and impressed eyes and telling me that it’s high time I got an agent and a publishing deal. Indie is all well and fine, and I intend to continue publishing that way, but even I have to admit that New York can distribute and sell books better than I can.

Even after clarifying that I am, in fact, a commercial writer, and not Haruki Murakami or something, they have stood behind their opinion that my writing is good and needs representation yesterday. And I have to admit, having so many capital-L Literary people who believe in me has been a shot in the arm.

That’s when I found out WorldCon would be in San Jose this year. My round-trip train ticket cost $70. Membership in WorldCon was $250. I phoned up my Aunt Nona in San Jose to have a place to stay. Yes, I said, I think I can do this.

WorldCon is the oldest, and most prestigious, continuously-running literary SF/F con in the world. It floats from continent to continent, city to city, year after year. At the first WorldCon, in New York City in 1939, Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury all attended. As fans. While Comic-Con is larger, WorldCon is the industry event of the year if you’re involved in genre publishing.

WorldCon is also where the Hugos, “the Academy Awards of science fiction,” are awarded. Comparing them to the Oscars is a bit imprecise, though, as the Hugos are awarded by the collected membership/attendees of WorldCon, in other words, the fans. Fans assemble the nomination lists and fans vote for the winners. You may remember, a few years back, when the alt-right tried to stage a coup.

I printed business cards and polished my query letter (and stopped polishing when Abi told me what she’d do to me if she found out I accosted an agent at an industry event with unsolicited queries). I practiced my pitch. I annoyed the shit out of Aaron Ochs with publicity questions. I drove pretty much everyone around me up the wall. When a friend called with a job offer, I said “perfect timing – I’m so busy worrying about WorldCon I don’t have any nerves left over to worry about a job interview.”

And on August 16, 2018, Wednesday, I waved goodbye to Melissa as the train pulled out of Paso Robles. I was on my way to WorldCon.

The next four days are kind of a blur. I remember asking Mary Robinette Kowal to sign my notebook, furiously taking notes at N. K. Jemisin’s worldbuilding class, demanding to know how in the Hell Neil Clarke can have a response time of less than forty-eight hours with 1500 submissions a month, shooting the shit in Mandarin with the crew of SF WORLD, realizing with dawning horror as Caroline M. Yoachim talked that I wasn’t revising nearly enough, getting congratulations from Sheila Williams for a sale twenty years ago, making an ass of myself in French, and sitting in Callahan’s Bar with new friends as the world turned upside down.



Neil Clarke, Liz Gorinsky, Emily Xueni Jin, Chen Qiufan, Regina Kanyu Wang on Chinese science fiction. Not pictured: invisible sixth member Ken Liu, ten feet tall and made of awesome.


Me with Yang Guoliang, the editor of SCIENCE FICTION WORLD in Chengdu, where Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem was first published.

At the panel “selling strategies for short fiction,” I thought of my half-dozen stories out in the mail, each with at least a half-dozen rejections each, and I asked the panel: “When should I retire a story?”

Caroline Yoachim leaned forward and said: “When you stop believing in it. It doesn’t matter how many rejections it gets, if you look at it, revise it, and still believe in it, send it out again.”

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting. It was the one I needed.

(And on that note, I am retiring “Only the Good Die Young.” Completely. I’m removing it from Amazon and taking down the description from my bibliography. It’s a better idea than it ever was a story, and the moment when that story would have worked is past. I no longer believe in it. I’m retiring it. Thank you, Caroline!)

I must have passed out a few hundred cards to authors, editors, agents, reviewers, and general fans. I collected just about as many. I’ve filled in half my notebook and a ton of comments and marginalia in the program guide besides. I’ve learned a lot about writing and about being a writer, so much I’ll probably spend years processing it all.

But the biggest part of WorldCon 76 wasn’t about me.


N. K. Jemisin

On my way out the door on Saturday night, I met a couple of Chuck Tingle buckaroos who know that love is real.


Pictured: buckaroos.

We fell in together and went out to dinner, and agreed to meet up at Callahan’s for the Hugos the next evening. That evening, Sunday, we sat around our table with new friends and sipped beers, the liveliest table in the bar as the awards ceremony wore on. We were comparing notes on which story or novella we’d voted for and why, making bets on who’d win, cheering Rebecca Roanhorse and Lynne and Michael Thomas and others as they ascended the stage.

All through, one of my new friends kept nervously glancing at the end of the awards program, at Best Novel, muttering “God, I hope she makes it…” and “What if she really did?” I knew what she meant, of course. After the Sad Puppies’ attempt to hijack the Hugos, in 2015 and ‘16, the very Black, very female, very academic, very proud N. K. Jemisin won Best Novel for her amazing The Fifth Season – the antithesis of everything the Puppies had stood for. The next year, she won again, for the sequel The Obelisk Gate. Now, Jemisin’s third book in the Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky, was on the shortlist.

And when Joe Pacacio announced that The Stone Sky had been voted Best Novel, Callahan’s went batshit. N. K. Jemisin had pulled off a threepeat, the hat-trick, the power trio, I’ve heard a dozen names for it. Here’s the truth: one trilogy, three years, three books, three Best Novels. It was something no one, no one, in the history of the award had ever done. Not Asimov, not Heinlein, not Gibson, not Stephenson, not Gaiman.

There was laughter and tears, screams of joy and stamping of feet and thunderous applause. Callahan’s shook.

And Jemisin strode up on that stage, resplendent in golden constellations, and she gave this speech.

That was an amazing moment in science fiction. The world turned upside down.

And I’d been there to see it.

I’m still processing a lot of what I saw, and did, and heard, and said. But the big thing is what Ms. Jemisin said: let 2018 be the year the stars come closer for all of us.

New Story! “Hull Down” on Amazon

At last, “Hull Down” is available to read from Amazon!

“The room pulsed around him, its fetid breath almost palpable even through the helmet. The bodies of Commander Wu Suzhen and Major Sam Harris were woven into the wall, a superimposed lovers’ embrace developed in resin and red light. Their shapes were fuzzy; the inside of Matt’s helmet sticky with condensation like his hair was sticky with sweat. His inner ear couldn’t find north or down, his eyes stung and he could taste something salty, but whether blood, sweat or tears, he couldn’t tell.

Why did you live?”

Pvt. Matthew LeWald is surprised when a Navy officer leads his Marines on the Search and Rescue operation. He’s even more surprised to be the only survivor of a mission gone disastrously wrong, when better men than him died left and right. Why did he live? But there are stranger things afoot than war, things like love and things like enlightenment.

The reviewers are saying it’s “not your Dad’s military SF” and calling it “strange [and] haunting.”

2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson


I really, really want to like Kim Stanley Robinson. I do. His ideas are beautiful. The Mars trilogy is the most in-depth analysis of Martian terraforming ever committed to print; Mark Watney couldn’t have planted potatoes without it. The Years of Rice and Salt combines a staggering scope (alternate world history, 1300-present) with a thoroughly original structure (following the reincarnations of a jati, a group of souls fated to meet again and again). In my middle-school years, he and Ursula LeGuin seemed to be the only voices for the earth and the wretched of the earth amidst a sea of gung-ho libertarians like Heinlein, Bradbury, and Frankowski.

But then you actually read the book, and your hopes are dashed. His characters are forgettable, his plots meandering, his prose wooden. I can’t remember which initial from Years of Rice and Salt is supposed to be the angry one, I or B. I recall a few passages of Red Mars, and one character because he was a sympathetic Frenchman at a time when we frogs were all “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and one because he up and disappeared halfway through the book and I kept wondering when he’d come back.

I started 2312 full of the apprehensive hope that the last twenty years have made a better storyteller of this brilliant, idiosyncratic Author. I’m afraid Anne Rice was correct: we don’t really change, we only become more fully what we are. Kim Stanley Robinson is the Arthur C. Clarke of the 21st century: a consummate idea man who isn’t about to let mere writing get in his way.

2312 is full of absolutely amazing ideas: the Mondragon that has superseded capitalism, leaving “capitalism [as] the residual on Mars, as feudalism [as] the residual on Earth,” the art-world of Mercury and its capitol at Terminator, mutually-hermaphroditic sex, and, of course, the terraria.


“Terrarium” for this style of vessel/colony, hollowed out of an asteroid and filled with biosphere, seems destined to enter the SF lexicon alongside terms like “ansible,” “waldo,” “hyperspace,” and “robot.” And Robinson’s inventive new ideas don’t stop at content, he has some brilliant literary strokes as well: the interstitial lists, extracts, and quantum walks are not only elegantly-presented exposition, they further the feeling of balkanization that Robinson characterizes his future with. 2312 has one of the very, very few examples of future works of art that effectively influences the story without being the focus of it, both Swan’s art installations on Mercury and those of other artists through the Solar System. Speaking of art, he even inverts the Famous Famous Fictional Trek trio near the end and lists “I Met Her in a Phobos Restaurant,” “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid,” and “We’re Off to See the Wizard” as drinking songs in that order.

But his characters. His plotting. It opens with a funeral and closes with a wedding, in fitting comic theater fashion. There’s terrorist attacks, two survival trials as Swan and Wahram are marooned, a romance that takes you from behind, the possibility of emergent AI turning against their masters, and the secret machinations of various factions…but none of them seem to connect to anything. Indeed, it’s hard to connect much of anything to anywhere. As one not-a-reviewer noted, “Swan Er Hong and Wahram prefer to run away from problems they don’t understand,” and the whole book feels less like a book, less even than a patchwork story, than it does like a picaresque. Our Heroes finish up one adventure (or, more often than not, leave it dangling like the worst Stephenson novel, as they did in Africa) and are whisked off by terrarium to the next one. Which is great! I’ve enjoyed a great many novels exactly like this, and even written a couple myself. Except, Robinson wants us to see a bigger picture and a greater drama to this balkanized novel, and it just doesn’t seem to work.

Which brings me to Swan.

I will probably remember Swan Er Hong a long time, if only because she consistently aroused vague disgust, which is probably not what you want in a viewpoint character. She’s over a century old but behaves like a bratty teenager – a smart one, but still emotionally immature and bizarrely inexperienced. She’s apparently never seen poverty on Earth before, nor been in love (despite a medical history in the middle of the book describing past loves and children), nor even lost a parent. She imperiously declares what is best for whatever planet she’s standing on or in, endangers her friends at least twice, and is generally an unpleasant person to be around and to read about. Her companion, Wahram, by contrast, is merely boring. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s oeuvre of forgettable characters, Wahram’s phlegmatic plodding is something even Robinson specifically notes as boring. Maybe this is why their romance seems more formal than real: on the one hand, you have the man who’s never perturbed even by losing his own leg, and on the other, the woman who constantly reacts to whatever’s in front of her. What kind of spark could you have there?

Kim Stanley Robinson has never been easy reading. I got that all the way back in seventh grade. But getting through it has always been interesting, even if I argue with myself about whether it was worth it. The sheer scope of Years of Rice and Salt still dazzles me, the meditations on humanity as cultivator or humanity as witness (Green vs. Red) in the Mars trilogy is some of the best philosophy in commercial fiction. Despite the meandering plot and the forgettable characters, despite the mannered prose and the hollow dialogue, I think 2312 was worth it. In 2012, when the book came out, the vision of a future where hope could be found, a future where humanity increases in genetic, cultural, and artistic diversity while still being human, a future where even Earth could be terraformed, was as alien to the omnipresent Singularity or Apocalypse as the liberal-green philosophy of Red Mars had been at the tail end of cyberpunk. Other authors have since taken up the call, dusted off the terraria, grappled with the intersexed and transcender implications, and explored other ways to terraform Earth. We wouldn’t have Sunvault and Reckoning without 2312, we wouldn’t have Ecopunk! without 2312, we wouldn’t have solarpunk without 2312. For that alone, the book is worth it.

(edited versions of this review have been crossposted to Goodreads and to Amazon.com)

Doutor Compaixão

I’ve just (re-)discovered Twitter, and on about the second day, Cat Rambo posted a tweet from the Magical Realism Bot: “A Brazilian math teacher proposes marriage to compassion.” She challenged the world to write a story of it. I took up the challenge. This is the result.

Continue reading

Cowboy Bebop, 20 Years After – Session 02: Stray Dog Strut

Spike: “Well, the show’s finally underway!”
Jet: “What’s all this?”
S: “Next week, we’re totally changing gears. It’s gonna be anime for all ages.”
J: “What’s the story?”
S: “Housepets wreak havoc amongst the stars!”
J: “What?!”
S: “No, the guy who talks to animals will not make an appearance, but anyone who loves animals should gather ‘round and watch this show!”
J: “Hey, can we say stuff like that? I don’t wanna take responsibility for this!”
S: “Caution: Small children should sit far back from the TV.”
J: “C’mon, how far back?”
S: “About three-quarters of a mile.”
J: “That’s too far!”
S: “Heh, okay. Half a mile.”

– Preview for Stray Dog Strut


Kim Stanley Robinson calls it ‘the pseudo-iterative.’ In a previous post, I called it a ‘Bolero.’ But the word we’re looking for is variation. Improvising variations on a song everybody knows is as core to jazz as hyperspace is to space opera – the genre couldn’t exist without it. The song could be anything, as long as everyone in the room knows how it’s supposed to go: Embraceable You, On Green Dolphin Street, even The Star-Spangled Banner. Most jazz players go ahead and “state the theme” or play the original piece at the beginning of the performance, to get the audience in tune.

“Asteroid Blues” was Watanabe, Kanno, and crew stating the theme.

“Stray Dog Strut” is where they start performing.

As Spike said it, the show’s underway. We aren’t treated to pickup notes of cool-toned Prague this time, only thrown directly into the staccato hornfire of TANK! And when we emerge, what do we see?

A man sitting in a public toilet. His eyes. A nearby suitcase, rattling. The toilet paper shivering in the bowl. The dripping gives way to a solid, thundering flush. More amorphic storytelling to set  the scene. Men rush into the bathroom, cornering the man on the pot. He smiles.

It’s a variation on the scene between Spike and Asimov in the previous scene, with a few notes of Asimov’s speed-fight in the El Ray to give the tune some texture. The man Hakim kicks down the stall-door, and downs the three men in a flash of fists and feet, before calmly departing with his briefcase.

It’s a variation on the scene, but this time, the fight broke out, instead of ending in a tense man watching a cowboy stroll away, whistling. This bathroom is scrawled with graffiti and lined with narrow urinals like an urban American stall of a later decade, instead of the Spartan and dusty restroom of a dying Mexican town.

After the title card (silent but for Hakim’s retreating footsteps), we’re treated to another variation: The Martian approach, through the gates, but this time to the sound of rat-a-tat-tat drums and the hyperspace gate announcements in Mandarin. In Asteroid Blues, the clearest voice was in English, this time, it’s in Chinese.

That, more than anything else, sets the tone for the episode. More on that in a moment, let me let that note hang in the air.

Another variation on a theme: Spike and Jet in the ship’s living room, complaining about their poverty and swapping exposition on this week’s bounty. But this time, for tonal texture, Watanabe introduces a new motif, one that’ll be with us the rest of the show:

Big Shot!.


The other day, I learned that, technically, Judy is wearing more clothes than Faye. Make of that what you will.

Shucks howdy, Big Shot!.

It takes the trappings of an older genre, the Western, from the costumes to the music to the literal Punch-and-Judy relations between high archetypes that transcend the Western genre and become something deeper, more universal, all in the service of science fiction. Now, am I talking about Big Shot, or am I talking about Bebop itself? Because Judy’s ridiculous outfit and Punch’s ridiculous accent are both, I feel, Watanabe commenting on Bebop, on its tropes and its trappings. It makes sense the first episode of Big Shot! comes in the second session of the show. There was no theme to noodle on until the first session laid the theme down.

Then we pan down to a Martian city, about as far from the Tijuana of Desperado as it is from the asteroid TJ. This is a city of narrow streets and fluttering laundry dizzying heights from those streets, of huge garish hanzi signs and sidewalk fortunetellers, of a peculiar golden afternoon light through the smog and sampan dipping next to hulking containers like the BeBop.

It’s a city I know well.

The name of this nameless city on Mars is Hong Kong, the Hong Kong of the 1970s, the fat years of Golden Harvest and being first of the Four Asian Tigers, as the Mansions became notorious and Victoria became Central.

That’s why the Gate announcement was in Mandarin. Because this session, and Bebop in general, is rooted deeply in China, specifically Hong Kong, and this session is a love letter and a leitmotif to one man, and what he meant to Watanabe and crew.

If Asteroid Blues was all about Rodriguez and Tarantino, then Stray Dog Strut is about and one man.


And one film.


Obviously, there are other connections between the one and the other…


…but Stray Dog Strut is far more loyal to its source than Kill Bill ever was. There, I said it.

Dogs and spaceships aside, this is the theme. Like Charlie Parker’s Embraceable You never bothered stating the theme in the beginning, and why should Watanabe? Game of Death is a legend in East Asia, the Dragon’s image emblazoned from every corner, even the fast food joints.


You thought I was joking. I wasn’t. There’s one of these on every corner. The chicken nuggets are pretty good!

Everyone in the room already knows the tune. It’s up to Watanabe, like Charlie Parker, to play the variations alone, without fear of risky things.

It’s why this episode is grounded in the streetside realities of 1970s Hong Kong the way that Asteroid Blues was grounded in the Tijuana of the fifties. It’s why Spike comments on the Way of the Dragon-style nunchaku hanging in the dealer’s alley. It’s why the bad guy looks and sounds and is even named like “Hakim.”

But Game of Death was supposed to be an exploration of the Dragon’s philosophy of fighting. The original script involved Bruce’s character ascending the tower and fighting each man, representing different fetters along the way to becoming a true master of combat. Seriously, look it up. Bruce Lee abandoned the fixed forms of Wing Chun and Western Boxing to develop his own style, an intuitive and adaptive, ever-changing improvisational art he called the Way of the Intercepting Fist, Jeet Kune Do. Game of Death was supposed to be a new Chinese fairy tale, an allegorical tale of his development as a fighter and as a philosopher.

At last they created a new genre itself. They are sick and tired of the conventional fixed style jazz. They’re eager to play jazz more freely as they wish then…

Charlie Parker and Bruce Lee: the improvisers who mastered the fixed forms, the “classical mess” as the Dragon called it, and used those fixed forms to transcend form.

But Watanabe and crew still pay respects to the remix artists who taught them their trade. After Hakim steps into a street apothecary where the Cantonese-voiced proprietor offers him a foul-tasting panacea for whatever ails him*and gets his briefcase stolen, we are treated to a note-perfect briefcase shot. For all we know, it’s got Marcellus Wallace’s soul in it.

You may recognize the briefcase shot as someone’s signature, the way all my SF has a spiritual guile-hero Sweet Polly Oliver tucked in somewhere.

Another variation, Spike turning the ignition on the Swordfish II and the strangely comforting clanks and clunks of the takeoff sequence. This time, he’s comfortable, bantering with Jet about Peking duck, and the incessant drums follow us. It’s  the same scene from “Asteroid Blues.” It’s a totally different scene from “Asteroid Blues.”

Spike heads out to get the skinny from a shady back-alley dealer behind the Chungking Mansions.



The kid tells him “You can buy anything here on Mars, from information to human lives. But it’s gonna cost ya.” Spike, unruffled, looks approvingly on a piece of his merchandise. Nunchaku. “Nice – Way of  the Dragon model?” Instantly, the kid is bubbly and friendly, and tosses in the mere scrap of information Spike was after.

In sociology, there’s a pair of concepts from the German: gemeinschaft  and gesellschaft. Gemeinschaft roughly means a village relationship, limited in number and complex in nature, since the butcher is also your father-in-law is also your godfather is also the man you beat in high spirits the last time you all went out to play ball together. You have multiple, overlapping relationships with everyone you know. Gesellschaft, by contrast, is a city relationship, theoretically infinite in number and simple and straightforward. The butcher is just your butcher. You may not even know his name. Gesellschaft groups are rationalized, monetized, efficient, cold. Gemeinschaft groups are irrational, traditional, so warm it’s stifling.

The kid pitched Mars as the perfect gesellschaft. Spike ignored him, and appealed to him, not just as clerk and customer, but as shared disciples of the Dragon, fellow fans of Way of the Dragon. And it got him what he wanted. It’s masterful kung fu, and he didn’t even have to raise a fist.

My old man chisels retail prices exactly the same way.

Spike finds the luckless thief who made off with the briefcase as he tries to fence the goods, and we finally find out, along with Spike, what’s inside: a Welsh corgi. Spike walks away, passes Hakim unaware on the street, and gets drawn into a chase scene by Hakim’s gunshot. The backgrounds are drawn in a soft golden glow, sketched or almost painted, making every character stand out stark and straight in the foreground. It’s a subtle detail, but it’s emphasized in this session and in this sequence in particular: compare it with interior shots of the BeBop, where Spike and Jet clearly belong, to this, where Spike, Hakim, Ein, and the rest stand out in marked contrast.

Finally, Spike corners Hakim on a narrow bridge over a canal. And oooh yes…


…except we don’t get it.

We get a few flashes of feet, Ein looking back and forth, and then it’s over the water.

It takes me by surprise every time. I mean, they’ve called out Bruce, his native Hong Kong, hell, even Way of the Dragon. The bad guy is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, fer Chrissake! How could it not lead up to that legendary battle?

Because this is jazz, man.

Because Watanabe is a disciple of Bruce Lee and of Charlie Parker. He’s playing variations without the theme, tired of the fixed-style classical mess, and playing without fear of risky things.

The Kareem fight is the note he didn’t play. And that silence is deafening and astounding.

This is why “Stray Dog Strut” is cooler and more loyal than Kill Bill. Tarantino can dress up Uma in all the yellow jumpsuits he wants, he can call out Golden Harvest in half the scenes, he can use the same shots and cuts, but ultimately all he produced was a pastiche. He copied what Game of Death did, and remixed it.

Watanabe, by contrasted, copied what Game of Death was trying to do, and honored the philosophy that inspired it. By not playing those notes, he makes everyone in the room, who already know the song, think of the notes. He wins the fight without throwing a punch…just like Bruce Lee  taught.

And while the unplayed notes are ringing in our braincases, he dropped in a little ditty that he’ll be playing later, with full band and all the trimmings. The chase.

Spike and Jet retreat where Spike lays down the first variation on one of his minor motifs: “I hate kids and pets!” We go from pets to kids fishing in the river, and they fish up Hakim. Hakim, meanwhile, phones up his contact, Snoop.



Hakim’s meeting with these guys, but we never meet them. In a lot of cases, we never meet the authorities, the backers, the people behind Spike, Jet, and the bounties. They’re ronin, masterless men, old-fashioned cowboys, freelancers without faction. Malcolm Reynolds may have had his own ship, still flyin’, but he wore a brown coat, and it defined him. Shifting allegiances are the bread and butter aboard the Racinante. And faction defined each and every person on Battlestar Galactica,  made in the heady days when you were either With Us or Against Us.

Spike has no side. Jet was ISSP once, but that was a long time ago. Hakim stole a dog to sell, Asimov fled the syndicates. Of all the major characters in the series, there’s only two I can think of who have factions: Vicious and Twinkle Maria Murdoch. Everyone else has been atomized. Everyone else lives in a gemeinschaft, in worlds of relationships, where every relationship they do have is everything to them. Jet is Spike’s business partner, but also his mother, his voice of reason, his advisor. In an atomized universe, those old-fashioned relationships are all you have.

Hakim consults a fortune-teller (a very traditional, very village activity on urban, gesellschaft-ridden Hong Kong Mars) and Spike takes the dog for a walk. Thanks to the timely intervention of some sinister nerds…


Sinister? Seems that way.

…we get to revisit that little ditty Watanabe dropped in like the Marseillaise in the 1812 Overture. And like the Marseillaise, he didn’t quite finish the phrase. This time, he does.

Starting on foot, Spike after Hakim after the Ein after the researchers’ van, going up-tempo when Hakim steals a car from a married couple.**

Spike alights the Swordfish II and gives chase, chasing Hakim through the narrow Kowloon-esque streets above the sinister nerds. We shift uptempo again as the three of them race out onto a causeway that presumably goes out to Martian Lamma Island…but there’s a deeper, and subtler variation playing here, one we might miss in all the horn-blasts and screeches of “Want it All Back”.

In “Asteroid Blues,” it was fundamentally Katerina’s story, through Spike’s mismatched eyes.

In “Stray Dog Strut,” it’s fundamentally Ein’s story. Ein saves himself from Hakim, and sends Hakim spiraling off the causeway and into police custody, along with the sinister nerds chasing him. Once again, Spike is there  to see, and to pitch in, but it’s not his story.

He pitches in by going after the falling dog instead of the bounty, slowing his jets so Ein would land with a bump, but safe and sound.

We switch to Big Shot!. Punch and Judy treat us to exposition, dishing out denoument on Hakim and explanation of Ein the data dog. But no one on BeBop is watching. The only one who sees, and almost draws a connection, is the crazy pet-store lady with her turtle hat. And she gives us the denouement for that poor thief who chose the wrong suitcase to steal.

Meanwhile, back aboard the BeBop, Ein wakes Spike up from his nap and they firmly establish their millieurs enemies relationship. Spike and Ein antagonize each other, but Spike saved Ein’s life, so we know he can’t hate the pooch too badly, and this new addition to the family firmly establishes his place, his complex relationships with both Spike and Jet. Spike isn’t the only one more comfortable in a gemeinschaft. And when he protests, Jet points out that it was Spike himself who brought Ein aboard. And he’s got no argument for that.


Watanabe, Kanno, and crew wove variations and themes and ditties all through this session. Some were revisiting the themes they laid down in the first session. Some are initial statements of theme for later, fuller variations in other sessions. Some are peculiar to this session alone.

But the main riff that Watanabe is noodling on is the “Embracable You” escapades on the theme of Game of Death, that love letter and leitmotif to the Dragon. He honors Bruce Lee from every level, obliquely quoting him, namedropping his films, featuring one of the most iconic characters in the Dragon’s ouvre, down to embracing the Tao of Jeet Kune Do and taking away what is not necessary (the actual fight) for the true elegance of simplicity, casting off the fixed forms of the “classical mess” (as Tarantino failed to do), and sounding a note without playing, winning without fighting, making us see the fight between giant Hakim and our diminutive hero without having to show it.

And he made it look effortless. That’s the jazz.

Next week: A sultry-voiced woman muses on chance and trust, on being alone, “a stardust session played in an off-key melody.” The woman without a family, the pure mercenary of gesellchaft, takes her first steps toward a nakama…and her first steps out of it.


*street apothecaries are real, and I know exactly what that laochu tastes like. It is godawful, even without the roach in it. The roaches are also authentic.

**This married couple look so Caucasian and so alien. What the hell is this art style? The Anglican minister and clear wealth and power help. This has got to be what Anglo-Hongkongers looked like to the rest of the island’s population before the Handover in 1997. It’s a wonderfully subtle touch that grounds us in a Chinese reality, even when our main character is an ethnically-Jewish Mandarin-speaking Martian.