View From Nowhere: …to Facebook or not to Facebook

facebookAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

A few years ago, I joined Facebook. My plan was to network with other authors and learn the state of the publishing world—find the best path to get my work in print, in front of readers, and perhaps even make some money. We can all dream a bit, can’t we?

On the one hand, this was a fine plan. I did network with authors of all sorts. On the other hand, the plan was also deeply flawed. Alas, despite networking, it became obvious that none of these people understood the current publishing industry either. Alas! They were all asking the same questions I was, and although we had some fine conversations on the subject, little of substance was decided.

So, what exactly is it that many writers get out of FB? Aside from interesting online chats, they also build up an entourage and get to listen as their fans tell them how brilliant they are.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with this, but there are hidden dangers. Writers, perhaps science fiction writers in particular, tend to be opinionated and Facebook is not the best place for persons of diverging opinions to share views. Anyone familiar with FB has no doubt seen those irritating “Yes, they are”/“No, they aren’t” exchanges that constitute most online arguments. It is quite tempting to just de-friend people whose opinions irritate you—to simply cut people off—particularly if you don’t have any offline relationship with them. In fact, some would say it’s better than wasting valuable time arguing with them, particularly when FB friends might be watching. (I lost at least one date this way.)

The problem with cutting them off, however, is that it allows writers to inadvertently surround themselves with “yes-people”—in other words, a writer’s online fan base becomes a band of sycophants reminding them of their own brilliance. Where I’ve seen this frequently is in gun-control debates. Many science fiction writers support gun control. I do not. Why? I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt having a gun made me safer.

One author, I’ll call him John, has decided that there are too many big, scary guns in the USA. This is not an unusual position. However, John, while on Facebook, attempts to discuss the issue by citing questionable sources. For example, he shared a British study that claimed to prove that gun owners were racist. The study began with the premise that no rational person would own a gun, arguing that they were more likely to be used for suicide than home defense, and then based its conclusion on the premise that one could determine a racist by their tendency to vote against social welfare programs. Finding a correlation (surprise) between gun ownership and a tendency to vote for Conservative politicians, the study therefore “proved” gun owners were racist. (Editor’s note: I’ve seen this study, it’s riddled with logical fallacies.) In response, John’s followers—90% of them—responded with bland statements about how they did not like gun owners.

Now, my impression is that John, in addition to being a good writer is a pretty intelligent guy. However, by surrounding himself on FB with “yes-men” and clamoring sycophants, he’s not likely to consider an opposing viewpoint anytime soon.

Now, do all writers do this? No, of course, not. I’ll even name Theodora Goss, as a counter-example. Dora and I attended the Odyssey Writers Workshop together fourteen years ago although I’ve only seen her once since then so it would be a mistake to call us friends. Dora and I disagree on many things but she’s a smart cookie. And, unlike some science fiction writers, she does not delete people who disagree with her from her FB page; keeping open to opposing views.

Of course, Facebook has other uses. Some writers use it to seek publicity and build a following. Facebook, they say, will allow you to tell others about your projects and help sell books. Apparently, that’s a documented fact. Then again, if you actually check Facebook to see what its book marketing process looks like, you’ll see giant webs of inter-connected authors trying to sell books to one another. Think about that.

 

The Brothers of the Golden Tiger Slam Hong Kong: Four Trained Fists of Blazing Fury Meet Kang the Puppetmaster’s Minions in a 1970’s Kung Fu Fantasy Guaranteed to Make Your Chi Flow Like Blood Spurting from a Compound Fracture!

by Peter Huston

 

“Cash. I need your cash.” The mugger blocked the Hong Kong seaport alley, waving a switchblade stiletto. There wasn’t time for this. I took a deep breath of cool, early morning salt air and struck, my years of training serving me well.

A crescent kick disarmed him. As the knife clattered to the pavement, a quick pivot and a spinning side kick caught the man mid-chest. He flew back, stumbled, recovered and brought his hands up ready to fight.

It surprised me a mugger still had such fight in him.

I lashed out with my hands before he could catch his balance, a double single-fingered cobra strike to the nerve centers on each side of his neck, and with a sigh and a rolling of his eyes he fell to the ground, breathing deeply as if asleep.

“Took long enough,” said the deep voice behind me.

“No jokes,” I said. “A ship awaits and people depend on us.”

I was tense. I had a job to do. Thousands of lives hung in the balance, perhaps the very fate of the free world, but, worse, I felt guilt for having misused my art. Kung fu was supposed to be about self-discipline and devotion to a spiritual path, not casual violence against a down-on-his-luck street thief.

Behind me Barbed-wire Jackson chuckled. I glanced back noting the grin splitting the face of my large afro-ed friend. “Nelson, you bad-assed kung fu honkey. Up ahead our ship awaits.”

I gave him the power sign in answer, and headed down the alley, knowing he’d watch my back. He’d die for me and I’d die for him. We were both sworn Brothers of the Golden Tiger and we’d been sent here to stop a shipment of heroin destined for the streets of America. But this wasn’t just any simple shipment. It was so much more.

By the side of the alley, a beggar woman waited in the early morning dawn, wrapped in rags, leaning on her staff, the bowl in front of her holding just a few coins. I paused, placed a bill in the dish, then moved on.

“An Andrew Jackson? A twenty? Man, you sure are some soft-hearted honkey.”

“A warrior must show compassion even while heading into battle—so says the ancient proverb.” Kung fu was a deep philosophy handed down for thousands of generations.

“Man you so silly. I bet that chick is jiving you and there’s nothing even wrong with her. If you grew up on the streets like I did, man, you’d know that score.”

I adjusted the straps that held the backpack with the satchel charges and kept walking. “To the ship, Barbed-wire. Save it for the ship.”

We wove through the side streets of the Hong Kong seaport arriving at the docks. The ship, a large freighter, floated, conspicuous among the harbor full of Chinese fishermen’s junks.

It was a large ship with a large crew, some of them hand-picked warriors and assassins sworn to fight, kill and die at Kang’s whim. Aboard were countless kilos of heroin, heroin specially treated by that arch-nemesis of all that was good, Kang, the puppet master. Our job was to stop that shipment.

The moment of truth awaited, that sublime moment when a warrior looks in his heart and learns what he is made of, when life and death become one and action and justice are all that matter.

Gaining access to the large freighter was no problem. Hand over hand, we pulled ourselves up the anchor chain, then climbed a few feet and raised ourselves over the edge of the ship. It was dark and all was still save for the hum of a crane that lowered pallet-loads of plastic-wrapped crates into the recesses of the ship’s hold and the Cantonese chit-chat of its bored tenders. Barbed-wire Jackson and I watched from our perch in the shadows. We knew what was in those crates.

Heroin is a plague that destroys souls just as it rots minds and bodies, but Kang’s special heroin was even worse. Kang specialized in using Western science, Chinese tradition and the dark hidden sorcerous teachings of myriad cultures to fulfill his nefarious goals and increase his personal power.

The special heroin was part of his latest plan.

First he’d used occult inter-species breeding techniques to create the ravenous creatures known as “scorpion-mosquitoes.” A swarm of these fist-sized flying things could easily surround a man, paralyze him with their sting and then strip him of his flesh with their razor-like claws while simultaneously draining his blood and bodily fluids. From beginning to end the agonized victim was frozen, unable to scream. Three minutes later, nothing was left save for bare bones and a fleshless skull, its jaws locked in a horrible grimace.

There was only one known repellant to attacks from the scorpion-mosquitoes, and, of course, Kang controlled that too. His plan was to distribute it as an additive to heroin. The addictive drug laced with the repellent would then be sold on the streets of America’s greatest cities to desperate junkies eager for a fix.

That was phase one of the plan and these sales alone would fill Kang’s war coffers with dangerous wealth.

Phase two was even worse. Kang and his minions would then release swarms of scorpion-mosquitoes upon these same cities. Just as the few good citizens who managed to survive began to recover, they’d then find themselves surrounded by desperate heroin-addicts who emerged from the assault unscathed, desperate for another fix, already amoral and soul-damaged, and now completely willing to do anything Kang asked.

When our contacts at Interpol first learned of this, they’d realized it was far outside their expertise. Naturally, they’d contacted the Brothers of the Golden Tiger.

This is the sort of thing we specialize in and the sort of plan we’d learned to associate with Kang the Puppetmaster and his ilk. We knew how to stop it, by using the ancient art of Kung Fu and fighting fire with fire.

Kang, his followers, and the Brothers of the Golden Tiger studied the same arts of personal development. Of course, while traveling these paths, the Brothers of the Golden Tiger kept to the light while Kang the Puppetmaster and his like kept to the shadows. We were like the two sides of the classic paradigm of yin and yang. We knew society needed us to protect them from people like Kang, but we also knew that without villains like Kang, our art, our skills, our years of disciplined study would be of little value to society and we’d remain untested as warriors. Yin and Yang. Evil cannot exist without good and good cannot exist without evil. So says the ancient philosophies underlying our art.

We watched the workers steady the pallets and load them into the ship.

“So, Jackson, what do you think?”

“There’s only twelve of them, Nelson. Let’s do it.”

With a grin we charged. I aimed my flying kick so that I would take out two, one after another, before I landed. Jackson took a different approach and used a double flying kick, also taking two at a time, one with each foot.

This left us, two men, unarmed but skilled in the deadly art of kung fu, versus eight thugs. Hardly a fair fight at all. But they’d brought this upon themselves when they’d taken Kang’s pieces of silver.

We attacked, again without hesitation. They were aggressive and showed little fear, but they were clearly undisciplined. Our feet, fists and elbows cut them down one, two at a time.

It was just when we started to taste victory, things changed. Overhead came a high-pitched whistling sound. Hurtling towards us was Odo Mal, the death dwarf, one of Kang’s Twelve Deadly Assassins from his Inner Circle!

Using a kite to guide himself and with razor spurs fastened to his heels, the small muscle-bound man was like a cannonball of death. As he shot towards my head, I threw myself to the ground. I dodged the blow but I still felt him pass.

I jumped, pivoted and watched him land. Dropping the kite, he turned and threw himself towards me, closing the distance with cartwheeling leaps. Only four feet tall, as he built momentum his spinning little legs turned faster and faster, the slashing blades fastened to his heels cutting the wind as he closed the distance.

By my side, Jackson was holding his own against the thugs, so I focused on Odo Mal. We’d never met but I’d seen his handiwork. In fact, there were nights when the memories of the mutilated bodies of his victims haunted me, depriving me of sleep. Perhaps now I could avenge those deaths.

I grounded myself and prepared to block as he tumbled forward. My rising forearm caught his falling leg on the back of the calf. With a shock and a recoil, the leg glanced away and came down again. This time the razor spur bit my shoulder.

Pain like fire burned through me as I grabbed the wound, slowing the flow of blood. “Zounds!” I cried.

Odo Mal faced me, grinning.

I raised my hands, lowered my weight and assumed a tiger stance.

I blocked out the sensations of warm, sticky wetness and pain from my shoulder and focused.

He hurled himself forward and I easily stepped aside.

He recovered and prepared his next assault. Barbed-wire Jackson seemed to be taking his time defeating the thugs. There were five still standing, but it was clear those five were beginning to suspect they’d hired on with the wrong tyrant. In a few minutes, I figured, they’d either be down or have retreated, jumping into the sea over the ship’s edge.

Despite Odo Mal’s appearance, the ship would soon be ours. Or so I thought.

A search light scanned the deck of the ship, followed by the roar of whirling rotor blades. With wind and swirling dust, a helicopter landed, and a horde of violent men discharged from the chopper, fists waving, ready for a fight. Yet I almost didn’t notice them. That’s how much their leader dominated the scene.

He wore a large red face-mask and was dressed in shining, metal plate armor of an oriental style. About eight feet tall waving a pole arm that had a massive blade almost three feet long and weighed nearly two pounds. When I say red-faced I mean “red,” red like in “scarlet.”

“Fight, you dogs! Fight,” he cried as he waved the weapon. “There’s only two of them.” With heavy mechanical strides that shook the deck of the freighter, he advanced into the melee.

It was Salazar the Decapitator! Another of Kang’s Inner Circle of Twelve Deadly Assassins. All I could do was take solace in the belief that a warrior must be prepared to die without fear.

A voice like a shaken can of rusty nails interrupted my thoughts, and I turned, knowing it was Odo Mal behind me. “So, Brother of the Golden Tiger, do you choose to admit defeat or are you prepared to die?” A leer so large that it almost split his oversized head in two marked Odo Mal as he steadied himself for his next attack.

I faced off, again in a tiger stance. “If you understood the Brothers of the Golden Tiger you would not even ask such a question.”

With a giggle he somersaulted towards me. I sidestepped and shouted. “Jackson, how you doing?”

“Five by five, my man. Five by five,” he said as he downed one attacker with a side kick to the ribs and then the next with an open-hand palm lunge to the forehead. But the thugs were still coming, not to mention, Salazar, the Decapitator.

Almost as if hearing my thoughts, Salazar stepped into the fray with a mighty klunk, swinging the polearm. True to his own name, he hacked off the head of one of his own, less enthusiastic henchmen.

“At them, I say. At them! Fight harder. I will reward success with fortune and failure with death.” Reaching down, he lifted the thug’s decapitated head and dangled it by its hair as it dripped blood. “Let this man serve as an example to you all.” From within his red-metal mask, he stared deep into the eyes of the bodiless head. Apparently seeing little of interest there, he then hurled the head at Jackson.

Jackson blocked with a classical rising forearm block and the head soared upwards, still dripping blood, like some macabre volleyball from hell.

I turned just in time to sidestep Odo Mal’s next somersaulting attack. With a maniacal giggle, he cartwheeled on, disappearing into the crowd. I had no idea how we were going to survive but we’d been in worse fights before. The key, I knew, was to rely on my training and handle things one step at a time.

I took a position by Jackson’s side.

“About time, you got here,” cried Jackson as he smacked a pair of heads together using a technique that had been generations-old when the Shaolin temple had been founded. I was impressed by his style, but worried by the sheer numbers matched against us.

“Jackson, there may be too many.”

“So?”

“So,” I gestured at the satchel charge in my back-pack, “how do I leave you behind and blow this ship?”

“Ain’t you enjoying yo’self?” he asked as he punched, pivoted and chambered, then struck in a way that masterfully combined an elbow strike to the rear with a front punch that caused an actual bulge in the backside of its victim.

“That’s not the point. We have a mission.” I blocked an attack from behind feeling the attacker’s wrist snap as it came into contact with my forearm.

“Fair enough. Step one, I suggest, is we take out every single one of these dog-nappers.” And as if to emphasize his point, he downed one with a roundhouse kick to the head, then without pausing, cut the next one down with a hook kick.

I knocked out two more with a palm strike and a backwards axe kick. “But there’s so many, not to mention Odo Mal and Salazar the Decapitator.”

At the mention of that name another bodiless head came flying towards us dripping blood. “Fight harder, fight harder! See what happens to those who do not fight hard enough?” cried Salazar the Decapitator. “There’s only two of them. Wealth to the one who brings them down. Death to those sniveling puppies who fail.” I used an outer forearm block to deflect the flying head and it bounced to high left, trailing dripping blood behind like part of a sanguine fireworks display.

I soon downed two of the on-coming thugs; the first with a knife hand strike, the second with an oldie but a goodie, a punch to the face. Above I heard the roar of another helicopter and realized why the horde seemed never-ending. Kang the Puppetmaster knew just as we did that the fate of the free world hung on this battle and continued to send reinforcements.

“Jackson,” I cried between punches, kicks and blocks. “We’re outnumbered and more are coming. We’re never going to blow this ship.”

“Don’t think about me,” he answered while engaging in some very impressive foot-to-the-headwork. “Think of the mission.”

A man charged at me with a pipe and swung it down with both hands trying to split my head. I sidestepped, grabbed the pipe, gained control of his balance and momentum, pivoted and then threw him back into the crowd, watching him fly over the others as he did. No reason Salazar the Decapitator had to be the only one allowed to throw people today. “I am thinking of the mission. Unless something changes, and soon, we’ve lost this fight. We may have to postpone this mission.”

“And take the chance that Kang releases his plan upon just one or two American cities? No way, my man. It’s too terrible to think about. Not even the honkey side of Cleveland deserves that.” Barbed-Wire Jackson grunted and hit the next two thugs particularly hard to show what he thought of that. The sound of his fist crunching bone made even a hardened warrior like me queasy.

We fought on, weaving through the thugs, knocking them down where they stood, so that the bodies wouldn’t pile up and cause us to trip. Part of our training—practiced countless hours, blindfolded—had been maneuvering around scattered sandbags in the depths of secret dojos and kung fu training schools whose names were known only to the inner core of the deadliest fighters on Earth.

From behind the mob, something changed. Although most wouldn’t have sensed it, we were trained kung fu warriors, attuned to the rhythms of conflict. The thugs moved differently. Their rhythm was off, as if distracted. At first, we were merely grateful that it was now easier to down Kang’s thugs one after another. But in time we sought an explanation and moved the fight closer to where these new events were unfolding.

And there she was! The beggar woman from the alley was attacking Kang’s thugs from the rear. But she moved like no beggar woman I’d ever seen.

She waved her four foot jo staff like a conductor directing a massive symphony of carnage using motions that were carefully honed and centuries old.

Around her the thugs fell like bowling pins.

“You!” I cried. “But you were a crippled beggar lady.”

She tore off the rags that covered her face, revealing herself to be an astonishingly attractive woman with long, flowing obsidian hair and heavily lidded eyes. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Suzuki Chen, daughter of Tanaka Chen.”

In my astonishment I almost let myself be struck from behind, only sidestepping the blow at the last moment. “Tanaka Chen, the Grandmaster of Iron Fist Karate?”

“Of course,” she said as she pivoted and leaned low, returning to the melee. Her jo staff destroyed two more thugs almost before they realized they’d caught her attention. “And as you can see these spastic, arrhythmic monkey-boys have not only hijacked my father’s art and fighting style but they are performing it quite badly. I was raised from birth to restore the name of Iron Fist Karate by first taking vengeance upon those who misuse it for evil, and, secondly,” she emphasized her upcoming point with a front-to-back pair of sliding thrusts of the jo, “by taking special vengeance upon those who misuse the art of Iron Fist Karate in a sophomoric and flacid manner. I assure you gentlemen that if these thugs had been trained by my father himself we’d all have a much more serious fight on our hands. I, for one, feel more disgusted than fearful because of their attacks.”

Soon she spun, thrust, tripped and probed with the jo staff so quickly that I had lost count of the number of men she dispatched.

I blocked, kicked, and took down two more thugs myself, feeling barely adequate as I did. “But the beggar woman disguise?”

“You ask too many questions, Nelson Kane. I was simply, as your friend Barbed-wire Jackson told you, ‘jiving you.’ You should listen to him more. Now go, fulfill your mission. I will protect him.” She spun to the left and spun back to the right, striking a thug on both sides before he could fall from the first blow.

I was astonished by her flowing and deadly movements and could have watched her fight all day if there hadn’t been a mission to accomplish. I began to punch and kick my way to the hold, shouting back over my shoulder, “It’s nice to have you fight by our side.”

Between a block and strike combination that could only be described as elegant, she smiled a cynical smile. “No, Nelson Kane, please remember it is you and Jackson, the Brothers of the Golden Tiger, who fight by my side.”

“Fight, you dogs, fight. Two men and a mere woman? Fight harder!” And, again Salazar the Decapitator sliced the head off of one of his own men and threw it, but this time he hurled it at Suzuki Chen. She deflected it with the jo staff like a batter at a softball game and the head flew above the fight, dripping red like an aurora borealis of blood.

Then she stepped forward aiming at Salazar himself.

It was as if the melee stopped. All eyes were upon them. Their leader challenged, the thugs had forgotten about me and Jackson.

“Insolent she-whelp!” cried Salazar as he stepped towards her. “I will make an example of you.” He raised the deadly pole arm with its many-pound blade over his head and aimed it straight for her skull, bringing it down.

She stepped under the blow, catching the handle of the pole arm with the middle of her sturdy jo staff in a block that took both arms and all her strength. The battle paused, as strength against strength the contest continued. Then she spun the jo quickly, allowing the pole arm to fall and then striking it on the back to drive it down to the ground even harder. The pole arm bit deeply into the metal deck of the ship. As the deck shook, men tumbled, slipped and fell but Suzuki Chen held her ground and stood firm while Salazar the Decapitator struggled fruitlessly to pull his weapon free.

She spun, pivoted, cocked the jo staff back and with a solid two-handed strike aimed for Salazar’s armored head. With a mighty klang like a deep Buddhist funeral bell the blow connected. Salazar froze, still gripping his pole arm, his now unconscious state marked by only a slight loosening of his thumbs on the handle.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh! My sworn brooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooother! I shall avenge you. No one does this to one of the Inner Circle of Twelve Assassins without suffering agony.” I turned. The screams came from Odo Mal, the Death Dwarf who waved his hands in fury.

To my left, Jackson was dispatching thugs with machine-like precision.

“I just did,” answered Suzuki Chen, as she gave her jo staff an idle spin. “Would you, Odo Mal, care to try me in a bit of sport?”

With a wordless scream he launched himself towards her in another attack somersault. I knew Suzuki Chen and Barbed-wire Jackson could take care of themselves and headed for the entrance to the depths of the ship. The mission awaited.

I ignored the conflict behind me. I even ignored the thought that Odo Mal and Suzuki Chen would soon be locked in combat in a fight remembered for generations to come. Worst of all, I ignored that I was leaving my sworn brother, Barbed-wire Jackson, in danger. The mission, the heroin, the fate of the free world awaited and, for the moment, all depended on me. I adjusted the satchel charge on my back and headed for the doors leading into the depths of the freighter.

Two men tried to stop me but I made short work of them. As I made my way to the engine room, the few crew members who saw me turned and fled. The trained fighters were up on the deck and it was clear that they’d had little success against the Brothers of the Golden Tiger.

Placing the satchel charge was easy enough. I sighed as I worked. High explosives somehow lack the elegance of the ancient weapons of my art, the sword, staff and nunchaku, not to mention the most ancient and elegant of all weapons, a man’s hands and feet. Still, I had to use the explosives. The fate of the free world depended on destroying this shipment. I set the timer for three minutes and made my way back to the surface.

On the way, I pulled a fire alarm, setting off bells and horns. Not only did I expect this would add to the confusion and encourage the crew to flee, but I also felt it important to show mercy whenever possible. Confucius asked, “Why slaughter the deluded when you could be merciful and educate them in proper behavior instead?”

Few tried to stop me as I returned to the deck. When I arrived, the fight was continuing but its intensity had diminished. “Jackson, Chen, to the lifeboats,” I screamed. They looked up from the punch, kick, block of endless battle and saw me. “To the lifeboats!” I cried again.

Suzuki Chen defeated her opponent of the moment with a sweep of the jo staff to his ankle. “Got you with the Shanghai cobblestone maneuver!” she exclaimed as he landed on his back with a thud.

Meanwhile Jackson took out his opponent with a side skipping side kick. The man flew backwards four feet through the air and hit the deck.

“To the lifeboats!” I cried, gesturing.

“Right at you, my man,” answered Jackson as he turned and ran.

Suzuki Chen said nothing as she too turned and followed.

I was first in the lifeboat and began to lower it into the water. A couple minutes later, Jackson, then Suzuki Chen, dropped themselves next to me, forcing me to grip the sides and steady myself as the boat rocked. Soon after I’d regained balance, with a splash the boat hit the water. We undid the oars and began rowing.

We only had a minute or so before the ship blew.

Around us crew members were jumping into the water while other lifeboats, some jam-packed and others almost empty, did their best to escape. In their panic, the thugs, like the proverbial rats sinking a fleeing ship, chose to ignore us.

The ship exploded with a blaze of fire and a sound like a thousand cannons. Pieces of deck, hull and cargo flew through the sky as we covered ourselves, shielding our eyes.

We knew that, for the moment at least, Kang’s plan was foiled. His special heroin would never reach the streets of America, making his scorpion-mosquito attacks unnecessary and pointless. The free world was safe, for now.

The three of us looked at one another. “Odo Mal?” I asked. “What happened to him?”

“I defeated him,” Suzuki Chen answered. “But before we could finish the matter with a fight to the death, his own men dragged him off while he kicked, screamed and begged to be able to finish the combat. Yet even they could tell he was completely out-classed.”

“We’d best be ready,” I said. “He might have survived the blast and soon be seeking extra training.”

“And Salazar the Decapitator?”

“I didn’t see,” answered Jackson.

“Say,” I said, looking at Suzuki Chen, “Kang’s still out there as are most, if not all, of his Inner Circle of Twelve Deadly Assassins. Why don’t you join us in our fight against evil? I see no reason why we couldn’t have a Sister of the Golden Tiger.”

“Yeah! Why not?” said Barbed-wire Jackson.

“Hah!” she replied. “Although I must thank you for the offer, Nelson Kane, Barbed-wire Jackson, I also must decline. You two may, if you wish, follow me for a while. And Mr. Kane, one more thing I expect you to understand, do you remember the twenty dollars you placed in my bowl when you thought I was a beggar woman?”

“Yes,” I said wondering what she was going to say.

“Please understand I am keeping it.”

 

View From Nowhere: Poly Styrene, R.I.P.

An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

For the last several issues, I’ve shared my thoughts on how humanity might appear to total strangers, say aliens from space. This time I’m going to take a break and write about something a little closer to home: writing, reading, art and the purpose of it all.

I’m a bit emotionally worked up. I just received word that Poly Styrene died in April. Now, who’s Poly Styrene? some of you might ask. And, should you not know, it’s good to ask because better to learn late than to never learn at all. Poly Styrene was the stage-name of British performing artist Marianne Joan Elliot-Said, best known as the lead singer of the early punk band X-Ray Spex. Inspired by a Sex Pistols show, Poly Styrene put out an ad, collected some like-minded people and began recording songs.

Not yet eighteen years old at the time, half Somali-half English, dressed in bizarre clothes and with a strange hair cut, at times performing with dental braces, Poly Styrene did not look like someone who should be the lead singer of a band. Nor did she sound like one, alternately introducing songs with a little girl voice and then shouting out lyrics—often unintelligible lyrics—as loud as she could. Yet Poly Styrene was, indeed, lead singer of a band. And, should anyone care, that band and their most popular song, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” is in my CD collection four times. Once on the band’s classic album, Germ-Free Adolescents and three times on various compilation discs. It is with shame, regret and a feeling of being a poseur that I confess the group to be absent from my much older vinyl collection.

Poly Styrene had somehow managed to reach the age of 53 at the time of her death, a mind-boggling feat for anyone who has seen videos of the early X-Ray Spex, videos that froze a certain image of the band in time.

Is the song “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” great art? Obscure, perhaps, but it has clearly had an inspirational impact on many people, and, now, perhaps sadly, has outlived one of its key creators.

These are both goals that I aspire to as a writer, and like many people connected with this publication, I am a writer. What that means is that just as teenage Poly Styrene once saw a punk show and cried “I want to do that too,” at some point in my life I finished a favorite book and shouted “Hey, could I, too, write one of these things?” In other words, I embraced the punk slogan, D.I.Y., Do It Yourself.

There is, as far as I know, no way to become a professional writer that does not at some point involve announcing oneself as a writer to the world and then seeing how seriously people take your claim. And it’s a strange feeling when you first do it, a feeling of perhaps being an imposter.

Like the punk singers, I wanted the world to notice me, and react, but, let me tell you, it ain’t easy. And, like many punk rock singers those same demons that drive one to cry “notice me” and drive you to seek attention hoping that in some small way you can change the world for the better, are often the same demons that get in the way of one’s production as an artist. Drugs, violence, alcohol, behavioral problems and addictive, damaging relationships can all provide life experience, ideas for stories, and an interesting perspective and outlook on life which make for better writing, but at some point the resulting mental, physical and emotional problems start to hinder your ability to actually write, finish and market anything. Remember, if you want to be a writer, you must be physically and mentally able to focus yourself on projects long enough and regularly enough in order to string out long sequences of words that make sense to other people. And then you must be able to put these passages together into an article or a story and send it somewhere where people will show it to each other.

Think of all those artists—punk singers, as well as writers—who destroyed themselves. Sure, some died young and stayed pretty, becoming icons, but most just wound up forgotten.

So, if you want to write, take care of yourself, at least well enough that you can actually produce writing that makes sense to other people and get it to a market.

And don’t expect to start at the top. Yeah, it’s happened, and, yeah, I just might marry Jennifer Lopez now that she’s single again, but it’s never a good bet. If you want to write and you want to change the world consider contributing to forums like your local paper’s Op-Ed page. You’ll gain valuable experience working with editors, writing on a deadline and with limited space, and, like the punks, if you do it right, you can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, always a good rule of thumb when deciding how to act.

Which brings me to two ongoing writing debates I’ve recently faced.

Should writers read and should writers include messages in their writing?

Some writers read and some don’t. But I believe great writers read and they read extensively. Writing is their art. How can they grow as a writer if they don’t have a love of this art that manifests itself through a strong desire to experience the writing that already exists? What sort of visual artist, if given the chance, does not visit art galleries and art museums? What sort of musician does not listen to music? Do you think Poly Styrene listened to other people’s bands or not?

Those who disagree with me, argue that they read when they were younger but are just too busy at this point in their life. A friend of mine likes to quote a widely published pulp writer he knows as saying, “Why should I read? I can write a book faster than I can read one.”

I think in a case like this it comes down to motivation to write. If you write for money and are able to get paid to churn out content to fill voids in publishing catalogs, you probably don’t need to read. But don’t expect many people to read what you write after you’re gone if you do. After all, you’ve virtually admitted to yourself and others that you don’t care what you write so long as you are paid to do it. And if you don’t care what you write, why should I care what you write?

Other writers write for other motivations. Some of us are looking for attention. We want others to see how intelligent, insightful, knowledgeable, important, or outrageous and crazy we are. I’ve been there and done that. But I think that once we reach a certain point, achieved certain goals, then we’ve got to focus again on what we are doing—creating art. And what sort of artist says, “I don’t need to see any more art. I saw all I needed years ago.” What sort of musician stops listening to music because they have heard enough to last a lifetime?

Similarly, some writers debate if fiction should be written to share a message. Yet they generally seem to think that it’s essential to have a theme and character growth. How can one include theme and character growth without even considering the possibility that this growth and change in the character might produce growth and change in the reader? Sure, a lot of stories have been destroyed through heavy-handed attempts at selling a message. But a lot of stories have been destroyed through poor characterization, wooden action sequences, clumsy dialogue, and laughable portrayals of sex and romance, but no one uses this fact to argue that fiction is better off without these things.

Recently I stumbled across a list of 25 highly rated novels chosen by the Cincinnati library. (Why Cincinnati? They were high on a Google search.) It’s astonishing how many of these great classics had clearly defined messages and this is certainly a part of why they have lived on beyond their time.

So, in conclusion, if you are going to use writing to express yourself, then stand tall, speak out, speak clearly, say what you want to say, look to other writers for inspiration in not just technique but also the power of your chosen art and, above all, say something that makes the effort to write and read your pieces worthwhile.

If you do, Poly Styrene would be proud.

 

View From Nowhere: Knowledge

An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

If space aliens came to Earth and tried to understand the behaviors of the human race, they would soon find us a complex, diverse and often contradictory species.

I teach English at a major university in Shanghai. Despite previous years in Asia, the cultural obstacles amaze me. Recently, I faced a roomful of graduate students each eager to know, and genuinely uncertain, if they were guilty of plagiarism.

After being assigned to summarize a news article, and then share thoughts about it, I discovered two undoubtedly plagiarized submissions. The first not only had remarkably good English but included facts not in the original piece. The second copied the original piece almost line by line. I announced the situation and requested the guilty students to come forth privately and resubmit their work.

A confession soon came, then another, but from the wrong people. I examined the writing of the self-confessed, only to discover it did not seem plagiarized. Rechecking still revealed no hints of plagiarism. Next came a flurry of e-mails from students wishing to know if they too had plagiarized.

These students were, at most, guilty of improper citation technique.

Meanwhile, of the two parties originally guilty, one finally confessed, admitting to lifting sentences from a Canadian government website. The other never confessed, but when confronted, explained that direct copying seemed like a good way to avoid mistakes.

Some will ask if these were typical Chinese students. Based on their level and school, if anything, they were above average.

Clearly they had not been taught proper citation technique or the importance of original work. When told, my department head, a Chinese academic, was not surprised and said I was doing well. Our students, he said, must be taught not to plagiarize. After all, he explained, some day they might study abroad or submit to foreign journals. I soon modified my syllabus.

Plagiarism, as serious academic misconduct, seems a foreign concept in China.

In this column, I’ll focus on just one of many causes of this complex situation—how theories of knowledge vary across cultures.

Knowledge is a wonderful thing. But what is the source of knowledge? How is it discovered? How is it judged to be of value?

In the West, where the scientific method is paramount, we generally see knowledge as something that is discovered through research. Ideas, patterns, secrets are uncovered through hard work and verified by careful testing. When disproven, knowledge is discarded and seen as a thing of little value, save perhaps as a historical curiosity. (Of course, we know that in the real world of science, things are actually often murkier than such an idealized series of events.)

Within this paradigm, ideally, knowledge that is useful, or in other words shows the capacity to be applied to solve a problem or create technology, is valued, regardless of its age.

As mankind moves forward into the future, knowledge grows and should continue growing.

However, some cultures, past and present, view knowledge differently.

In many Asian cultures, for instance, the traditional paradigm was that knowledge originated in the past, descending to us from a distant golden age. Things were better. People then could do things we cannot today, for the reason that the knowledge they had has often been lost over the generations.

Within this framework, medical knowledge, for instance, is not something that is discovered, but instead something that can only be rediscovered. If one says, for instance, to a person who holds these views, that traditional Chinese medicine is not as effective as modern, scientific allopathic medicine, they might counter that centuries ago it used to be much more effective than it is today and claim the comparison unfair.

I once heard of a Taiwanese kung fu teacher who claimed his teacher’s teacher’s teacher had defeated a local rival’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher in a street bout. The surface implication is that his style is superior. The deeper subtext is that one’s fighting ability depends almost entirely on one’s training, and that the entirety of his training had been passed along, without either depreciation or improvement, for three generations.

Within this paradigm the creator of an idea is not respected, because, as being new, the idea itself is not seen as having proven value. If original ideas are not of value, why should someone who creates them be seen as having done something valuable?

Therefore, for instance, the identity of the author of the classic of traditional Chinese medicinal theory, the Huang Di Nei Jing (The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine), is unknown. Whoever he or she was, when they wrote (or compiled) the book two or three centuries before Christ’s time, they saw no benefit to putting their name on the work. Instead it was advertised as the work of the Yellow Emperor, a mythical sage said to live around 3,000 B.C.

The value to an individual lay in possessing knowledge, not in its creation. Study of past knowledge, after all, was a much more efficient and respected way to obtain learning than to simply try to invent new ideas whole cloth, hoping they somehow worked as well as long-respected ideas handed down for generations.

In fact, in the nineteenth century, when the West proved itself undeniably in possession of superior technology, the Chinese soon developed what seemed a logical explanation. Perhaps the Westerners had somehow acquired and then built upon Mohist knowledge. The Mohists were a school of ancient philosophers and scholars from the days of Confucius, a few centuries before Christ. They were known for skill in fortifications and siege warfare. To the Chinese of that time, such an explanation seemed much more likely and sensible than to imagine that Europeans had just invented these things, thinking up ideas out of nowhere.

And when an idea is disproven? Within the traditional Chinese paradigm, this was seen as largely situational. Just because a long-respected idea seemed incorrect in one situation, meant little. It should be saved, taught and passed on to the next generation as it undoubtedly held the potential to be useful elsewhere. The key, perhaps, was to know when and where to apply different theories even if a later civilization might find them contradictory,

Among the less-civilized people of south east Asia some of the same ideas exist. The Chin and the Homng (Miao) are both tribal peoples of the region. Surprisingly, both groups have near identical stories to explain their traditional illiteracy, something that distinguishes them from the literate Burmese and Chinese who they fought with. According to these legends these peoples were once literate but during a great battle with their enemies they left all their books at home. When they returned they discovered, in horror, that pigs and horses had eaten them all. With the books lost, so too went the knowledge of reading and writing. In fact, one reason both peoples welcomed Christian missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is that the missionaries not only came with a book but taught them reading and writing, an event seen as a wonderful restoration of things lost long ago.

Countless books have been written on the complex problem of China and intellectual property rights. China is our biggest trading partner and often a political rival. Traditional ideas concerning the origin, value, creditation and development and/or decline of knowledge are just one facet of the issue.

Yet to resolve this it will help to understand that many people in this world see knowledge as something that is better acquired instead of created.

And if we can’t understand our fellow humans, can we expect extraterrestrials to fare any better at understanding humans?

 

View From Nowhere: Addictions

An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

The original intent of this column is to explore how humanity might appear to extraterrestrials, the ultimate outsiders. Honestly, there are times when I wonder if such beings would even perceive us as sentient. After all, it is a matter of debate as to just how much conscious control over their own actions humans hold. We are a species marked by a proneness to addictions.

When we speak of addictions, most people think of addictions to substances such as alcohol, tobacco, or any one of a number of legal and illegal drugs. Obsessive, out-of-control consumption of any of these can lead to great financial, social and health problems, a situation that clearly marks serious addictions. Such addictions are common to not just people everywhere but a surprising variety of animals. In parts of southeast Asia drunken elephant rampages can be a lifethreatening side effect of making rice wine should an elephant stumble across the buckets used to ferment the beverages. For a good introduction to the subject of intoxication in the wild, there are many good books, but one I enjoyed was Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication.

But addictions are not just to substances. Humans are also known for behavioral addictions.

To understand behavioral addictions, it’s important to understand the mechanisms behind them. Many of us humans are often in a great deal of pain and discomfort. For some this is physical discomfort but for others, their pain has a psychological cause. There can be many sources of this pain. Poor self image, low self esteem, unrealistic expectations that make one feel like you’ve never done what one should, there can be as many different causes for pain as there are suffering people. In some cases, a solution is simple, once people recognize which patterns of thought are causing them trouble. David D. Burns, a psychiatrist, wrote a book called Feeling Good that does a good job of teaching people to monitor their own thoughts and reduce such pain. Still in many cases, the problem is much more serious and difficult to correct.

People in pain, regardless of whether that pain is psychic or physical in origin, generally take actions to avoid feeling that pain. For instance, responses to pain could include pulling a hand away from a fire or hot stove or taking an aspirin. These are healthy responses.

Unhealthy reactions to pain, particularly psychic pain, include seeking out situations that are so intense that the person will not feel their own internally generated discomfort. Once a person has found such a state, a pain-free state caused by a situation where they cannot feel their own discomfort, they often wish to return to it and seek out similar situations. For this reason, intensely emotional situations can be literally addictive.

Recently, with high profile cases like Tiger Woods and David Duchovny, sex addiction has been in the news. Can a person be addicted to sex? To some extent the issue hinges on the definition used. (Definition of addiction, not the definition of sex.) If we start with a definition of addiction that hinges on a person’s willingness to seek out something while knowing full well that they shouldn’t and that they may cause themselves and others great social, financial and physical damage, then the answer is obviously yes. In fact, who among us has not risked some sort of social problem in an attempt to, if not exactly get sex, at least get a date?

And why, pray tell, is it that when the subject of dating comes up my mind immediately goes to such subjects as anger, crisis-seeking and large quantities of unnecessary drama? Setting aside what this says about my own tendencies towards seeking out unnecessary drama to spice up my life and distract me from my own personal problems, anger, crises and intense drama all can produce states where a person does not feel their own inner pain. Therefore, for some people, they can be more attractive than mundane, uninterrupted, everyday existence. And, thus, for some people, including a surprising number of my dates over the years, all these things can be addictive. (They may also have something to do with why I not only sought out such people, but why I also have been attracted to activities like ambulance work and for a couple seasons enjoyed the sledding sport of skeleton.)

And sometimes even after a person learns that a particular activity is not healthy, and they stop doing it, they find another, possibly equally unhealthy way to avoid pain. This is why the fields of addiction and recovery are sometimes so frustrating. A person shifts from one release to another. They quit smoking and then start taking solace in the pleasures of food, only to soon begin to overeat. Or they go from a life lived in pursuit of drugs to a life lived in pursuit of such things as the intense thrill of staking something they can’t afford to lose a bet. In Chuck Pahlaniuk’s novel Choke there’s a very funny scene where a character overcomes sex addiction and instead tries to keep busy through rock collecting only to eventually find his cabinets, his microwave and every other nook and cranny of his house stuffed with rocks. Ultimately he and a good friend get together and soon take all the rocks outside and build a wall with them.

It’s because of this shifting from one source of pain-relief to another that so much of the discussion in the addiction and recovery field often focuses on such things as “healing the inner child,” “getting in touch with your pain,” and other terminology that sounds quite strange or even silly to an outsider.

Still, the issue is real. Behaviors can be addictive. Need proof? Visit a friend whose collecting has grown out of bounds and who clearly has too much stuff. Yes, that warm fuzzy feeling of purchasing a desired item can often become an end in itself, quite separated from any need or desire to possess. And, it can reach unhealthy levels, and thereby qualify as an addiction. Credit card debt and excessive loans can be one more aspect of the problem.

The intent of this column is to give some thought as to how humanity might appear to space aliens. In this context it has always struck me as fascinating to see what a sentient species might make of our own species’ tendency towards unhealthy, undesirable, and self-destructive behaviors. Would they dismiss us out of hand as a race prone to slipping in and out of control and therefore dangerously erratic, unpredictable and impossible to deal with? Or are occasional lapses in rationality inevitable for a sentient species? Might they have their own irrational and self-destructive behaviors? And if so what form might these take? We can only imagine, but don’t think about it too hard. You might have trouble stopping.

It’s for this very reason that the fields of addiction and recovery are sometimes so frustrating.

 

View From Nowhere: Languages and Science Fiction

languageAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

Remember that mandatory scene in almost every science fiction movie, the one where everyone is surprised the aliens speak English? Or makes reference to languages like “Romulan,” “Klingon,” “Minbari,” or even “Barsoomian,” each indicating that an entire sentient species speaks a single tongue? Of course, realism aside, these advance the plot without characters stumbling over memorization of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. And there are exceptions. Tolkein and the less well-known games and novels of M.A.R. Barker’s science-fantasy world of Tekumel revel in linguistic complexity. Still, if there’s one area where much science fiction loses me, it’s when language differences are explained away with a wave of one’s hand

Language diversity is, after all, a universal human trait linked to our adaptability. As people form groups they begin to speak differently. The more isolation, the more time, the more societal change, the more these groups’ languages tend to diverge. This results in such interesting facts as Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) being home to more than 100 languages. In China and India, although numbers are in dispute, linguistic complexity is everywhere. In Africa and India, the colonial languages of French, Portuguese and English retain surprising importance largely because of the underlying linguistic diversity of the regions.

Few Americans really appreciate the natural linguistic diversity of mankind. This is probably because the many indigenous languages of the Americas have been largely supplanted by English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Commonly, our awareness of European linguistics is low as well. In the United Kingdom, not just English is spoken but also Welsh and Scotch and Irish Gaelic. In the nation of Spain commonly spoken languages include not just Spanish but also Catalan, Galician and the entirely unrelated language of Basque.

A quick look at Beowulf or the writings of Shakespeare demonstrates that the English spoken in the past is not the English spoken today. Language diversity is temporal as well as geographic and cultural, although most time travel stories ignore this.

Some science fiction bypasses the problem by using telepathy for universal communication. Unfortunately, not only is hard evidence for psychic phenomena sorely lacking but humans think largely in language. Even if you could read a person’s thoughts what good would it do if you could not understand the language they were thinking in?

Could an automatic language translator even exist? Something like the universal translator of Star Trek or the Babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It would be difficult.

Languages consist of words and words are symbols for underlying concepts. These concepts do not line up exactly from one language to another. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese there are eight different words for “first cousin.” These words, which do not sound similar, specify if a cousin is older or younger, maternal or paternal, male or female, three factors that directly influence how one should treat them in Chinese culture. Although the Spanish word “siesta” entered English, it did so because there was no English word for “nap during the hottest time of day when work is impossible.” In his writings, Jim Cummins, a leading authority on bilingualism and bilingual education, refers to these differences as a language’s “conceptual base.”

Languages also vary widely in terms of syntactic variation (word order), tonality (whether or not the pitch of a word affects meaning), and the embedded information and concepts. For instance, although some languages incorporate concepts of gender for nouns into their grammar, they do not do so in a universally consistent manner. In Spanish the sun is a masculine object, while in German it is feminine. Navajo incorporates some incredibly complex grammatical changes to verbs allowing a native speaker to modify a verb depending on things such as the shape of the object that is performing the action. And as for the old myth about multiple Eskimo (Inuit) words for snow, it just isn’t so. In fact, there is just one Inuit word for snow which Inuit grammar allows to be modified multiple ways.

Controversies abound in linguistics and the quasi-mystical field of language acquisition. We are literally assisting people to reprogram the deep coding within their very brains. The implications are unsettling. What would Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary and (the hoaxer) Carlos Castaneda think? Images of John Dee and his announcement that he had learned the Enochian language come to mind as one’s thoughts travel deeper into realms where language, mysticism and psychology intersect. The tower of Babel. The language of the birds. Adam and God strolling through the garden of Eden giving names to everything they see. The study of human language is an intellectual quest of mythic proportions, but science is a tool that can guide us through this quest. Although we are a small and stupid species, condemned to stride through the dirt unnecessarily proud of our upright posture, as we do our brains, our opposable thumbs and our facility for language are the only means by which we (barely) differentiate ourselves from animals.

Although we can and should research and study how people use and learn language, ultimately it will be centuries before the details are really known or understood. Our brains seem to be using language to learn language but it’s probably actually largely using processes that we are nowhere near understanding. The world is much bigger than we are and we are beginning to understand that perhaps both neurophysiology and physics lie completely outside man’s capacity to understand. Therefore we may never completely understand how people learn language. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that linguistic complexity is a universal feature of mankind.

 

View From Nowhere: Food

worldonplateAn alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston

 

A classic thought experiment is: If extraterrestrials observed Earthlings what would they think? For openers, an outside observer would note intense variety, but there are universals. The universal we’ll be observing this month? Food.

With thousands of cultures comes an amazing diversity based on varying food sources, economic necessities, geographical demands and differing aesthetics.

Food is health. Food is economics. Food is art and to some extent, be it a businessman’s steak dinner, an exotic spread of complex sushi, or the classic Chinese banquet, food even indicates our social status among fellow humans.

Food has multiple meanings. In some cultures, notably parts of China, a standard greeting is not “How are you?” but “Have you eaten yet?” Out of politeness, we offer guests food, whether they need it or not. As the classic big band, scat singer Cab Calloway sang in the 1940s, “Everyone eats when they come to my house.”

Yet despite the use of food as hospitality, not all cultures appreciate the same cuisine. Some cultures enjoy heads, intestines, brains and organ meats while other cultures don’t even eat meat. Sometimes there’s an underlying logic to these choices. For instance, while most humans find insects unpalatable, in most places insects would not make a good food source. The calories required to catch an insect usually outweigh the calories gained from eating one. However, in situations where insects can be harvested in a manner that results in a net-gain of calories rather than a loss, they often become a desired food source. Accordingly, ants and locusts that can be caught easily in large numbers are eaten much more commonly than other insects.

What one culture finds delightful, another finds bizarre. The other day I visited a museum with a friend, a Karen hill tribesman who came from Burma after fleeing conflict and spending his teenage years as a refugee in Thailand. The displays of traditional Iroquois life reminded him of home. “Hey Pete, have you ever eaten curried bear meat?” he asked as he described cooking curries over an open fire. “It makes you warm.”

Although a widespread and varied cooking technique, I was surprised to learn that currying a food not only flavors but also preserves it, thus making currying invaluable in the tropics of Asia and the Caribbean.

Not only are we aware of differing approaches to food among cultures, at times we as a species seem to revel in them. From cable TV shows that present eating exotic foods as a perverse form of entertainment, to countless ethnic slurs from multiple cultures involving the cuisine and diet of their “weird” neighbors, the food preferences of others often strike us as bizarre.

Browsing through authentic Chinese cookbooks from Asia can be an odd experience for a Westerner. With the flip of a page one turns from an image of a dream meal only to stumble on a photo of stewed chicken feet. There’s rarely much logic to our internalized food preferences and even when there is it is often knowingly flawed. I’m reminded of my father’s visit to Taiwan. “I could never eat chicken feet,” he announced one day. When asked for a reason he said, “I used to raise chickens. I’ve seen where they walk.”

I remember years ago telling a Taiwanese friend that Americans did not normally eat squid or jellyfish. “Why not?” she said with a straight face. “Don’t they like seafood?” To the Taiwanese squid is not just a normal part of their diet, but a common beach food is squid on a stick, barbecued and smeared with sesame seeds and eaten like a lollipop with tentacles spread upwards like a bouquet of miniature flowers.

Commonly we combine our food with our ideas of entertainment. Recently I attended a presentation where Chinese college students described their home provinces, including cuisine. My favorite was “dao xiao mian,” a dish from Shanxi whose English name varies but is often referred to as handshaved noodles. The chef quickly shreds strips from a large ball of dough into boiling water. The varying textures of the irregularly shaped noodles adds to the flavor. Elaborate presentation have become part of the hand-shaved noodle dining experience. Presented was a photo of a chef who shredded the noodles from a platform fastened on top of his head while riding a unicycle in front of the diners.

Amidst the decadence and artistic experimentation of mid-war Weimar Germany, even starvation became art. One restaurant featured “performances” by a “hunger artist” who sat in a sealed glass booth chain-smoking in his underwear while a midget periodically announced the length of time since the “artist” had last eaten. Patrons would tap their glasses in appreciation while consuming a traditional dish of raw pork and onion drizzled with boiling lard.

From Disney-themed birthday cakes to the latest McDonald’s third-pounder to traditional hot dogs and apple pie to biker-themed barbecue restaurants, the commodification and consumption of food is also an expression of an idealized cultural image. It’s no coincidence that if you want to be accepted in Vietnamese society you should learn to eat fertilized duck eggs or by Koreans to appreciate kimchi. These dishes mark them in their own eyes as distinctly different from people who don’t eat them.

What conclusions might an alien make on human food culture? We’re astonishingly flexible yet rigid upon forming conclusions. As a species we’ll eat almost anything consumable yet as splintered cultural groups we’re quite finicky and judgmental of those groups that do not share our preferences. We attach great social importance to the forms that simple biological necessities take. Surely, they could not avoid seeing us as an amazingly complex banquet.

 

Literary Legacy of a Vampire

by Peter Huston

 

Somewhere, thought Jeanne, there may exist a clean bus station. But it wasn’t this one. Even at night, the place was squalid, the people unwholesome, adrift and sickly. And she was here with William. William honed in on the worst aspects of any situation, absorbing the negative energies of wherever he happened to find himself. What way was that to spend eternity?

She followed William down a side street, into the darkness, seeking the people whose lives revolve around watching bus stations from hiding; those who hide from the light, hide from others and ultimately hide from themselves, observing and cowering in an ugly state of semi-survival, night by night, day by day, until, inevitably, comes one night that they just don’t make it anymore. They were William’s favorite sport.

Jeanne watched the man, half a head taller than her, gaunt, and pale. (Of course he was pale. But William had been known for being pale while still alive.) With those hollowed out cheekbones, the man had always looked like a vampire, even before, when he hadn’t been one. “William, must we?”

“But of course, my dear.” He turned and smiled, the crannies of his face half hidden, half exaggerated under the awkward lighting.

“But, William,” she said, her voice tired and chiding. “Hasn’t this game of yours worn thin yet?”

“Trolling for drug addicts?” William’s eyes filled with excitement as he spoke. “Why, it’s great sport indeed.”

“I would think this activity would have worn thin long ago, and besides,” she said, “it’s cannibalistic.”

“Cannibalistic? But that’s half the fun. For if there’s one thing an addict knows, it’s to never trust another addict.” She watched as William turned and headed further into the intermittent light and shadows, still grinning widely. Jeanne followed, half trotting, half tip-toeing as she worked her way through the trash and discards that cluttered the filthy alley.

“Hey mister, do you have money for food?” The woman’s voice came from the shadows. Weak and quavery, it sounded half-asleep yet worn near breaking.

“Money for food?” said William, sounding pleased. “Why you poor thing. You must be hungry indeed.” He fished in his pocket and soon held out money. “Here. Will twenty do? Take it. You need it.”

A woman rose from the shadows, and tentatively stretched out her hand. Dirty, unkempt, eyes unfocused and tired looking, jeans unwashed and the slogan on her t-shirt so faded as to be unrecognizable, her age was completely indeterminate. Twenty whole dollars in the outstretched hand of a stranger. “Twenty?” She hesitated, hand still half outstretched. “Er, thanks mister, but what do you expect for this?”

William made that rapid snorting noise that Jeanne had long ago learned to recognize as repressed laughter. “Expect for it? Why nothing at all, my dear. You remind me of my daughter, now long lost, too, on the streets. Take it.”

The woman hesitated, then snatched the money. “Thanks,” she muttered as she half-trotted down the alley with a shuffling gait.

William turned to Jeanne and grinned.

“William,” she said. “I’ve told you before, there are easier ways to feed.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “But no greater way to get the other thing I need.” And with a leer, off he followed, stalking the broken woman from a distance like a predator follows a wounded deer.

Jeanne sighed, wondering why he didn’t just straighten out and quit. Drugs, and the never-ending frantic search for the drug-thinned, chemically-altered, opiate-laced lifeblood of broken humans was an addiction that could so easily cause a person to waste an entire afterlife. “William,” she said. “Just remember, get what you need and get gone. This isn’t the time for elaborate games. Somewhere out there, there’s a vampire hunter.”

“Another one?” he cried. “This is tiring. When will they cancel that stupid TV show?” And then he was under a streetlight, following the woman out the alley, down a side street in a bad part of town, Jeanne following at the rear.

* * *

It was a struggle to hold William up as they walked, but Jeanne trudged on, gripping his arm tightly with both hands. “Are you proud of yourself?” she asked, her tone like a schoolteacher.

“What do you mean?” said William, his voice slurred.

“You’re a mess. You can hardly walk.”

“But you know why I do this, right?”

“I know why you say you do this.”

“I do this because I am a sensitive soul.”

“You eat drug addicts because you are a sensitive soul. Does this mysterious sensitivity also explain why you tend to focus those same predatory, sensitive energies on somehow preying upon the skankiest, dirtiest, puke-covered, garbage-headed drug-addicts you can possibly find?”

William stumbled and came to a halt, turned his head and struggled to focus his eyes on Jeanne, who, less than a foot away, still gripped his arm, steadying him carefully. Eventually, apparently satisfied that he could see her well enough to speak, he spoke. “I am,” he said, “indeed, a sensitive soul. I am, after all, a writer and a poet.”

“A writer and a poet,” she said. “I see, but, William, you stupid junkie who feeds on junkies, what have you done for the world lately?

“I still write,” he said swaying as he did.

“And what happens to this writing, William?”

“Well, nothing much… They say it’s derivative.”

“Then don’t you think it’s about time you find another creative outlet?”

“Hmmmf,” he sputtered. “You forget that they say it’s derivative of myself. You see, these stupid publishers, these stupid unimaginative publishers, are unable to look beyond their own naïve and stupid little paradigms and see the world for what it really is. They think, you see, that I am dead.”

“You are dead, William. You’ve been dead for years. We both are. That’s what being a vampire’s all about. It comes with the territory, I’m afraid.”

“Ha!” he laughed. “Well then if I’m dead, then I don’t have to do nothing anymore. And when I was alive, I was, in fact, the author of over a dozen books, many award-winning, and innumerable poems. My work was translated into seventeen different languages, some illegally, and the cause of several ground-breaking obscenity trials.” He laughed some more. It was the sputtering, awkward, half laugh of a man (or vampire) heavily sedated.

Jeanne purposely let go of his arm, and, soon, he fell over, landing in the street with an audible thud. “Hey,” he said, “that wasn’t very nice.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Jeanne. “You’re dead. Remember?”

“I’m a writer.”

“Yes, you’re a writer. Now, William, hurry and get up and get straight. We’ve got to get home before dawn and besides, there’s a vampire hunter out here somewhere.”

“Hmmmf,” he sputtered. “I don’t like vampire hunters. They’re derivative. Not creative at all. Very few of them have had their work translated into seventeen languages.”

“That’s right, William. Very few. Now hurry and get to your feet.”

Awkwardly, he managed to rise and soon they were on their way.

* * *

The apartment was small. Curtains and blinds were tightly drawn to ward out the early morning sunlight. (When involved in a project, William habitually refused to go to sleep before noon or later for days at a stretch, staying up late until exhaustion finally overtook him. This was yet another inefficient personal trait that Jeanne regularly chided him for, but had long ago given up on ever correcting.) Its decorations, a wide assortment of collectibles, books, art works, objet d’art, and more, were, if not exactly ornate, then plentiful to the point of clutter, but cluttered in the sort of way where each individual item was somehow worthy of its own entire conversation. The result was that while the collective assemblage of sprawling knick-knacks, books and diverse items of interest was, perhaps, quite museum worthy, the overall effect was less evocative of the baroque than of border-pop kitsch.

“William,” said Jeanne, again using the same tired school teacher tone. “There is a corpse in the hallway closet.”

“Sorry,” said William calling from his office room down the hall. “I’ll take care of it later.”

“That’s not the point. I thought we’d discussed this sort of thing before, hadn’t we? No luring victims into the apartment. Now wasn’t that a rule we’d both agreed on? For mutual safety perhaps?”

William made the sound that indicated repressed laughter. “Well… there were special circumstances.”

“Oh really, and now who is he anyway?”

“Someone named Matt. He said he was interested in discussing writing with me. Said he wanted to be a writer himself.”

“So? You found a fan at last and what do you do? You eat him. That’s hardly the way to develop a fan base.”

“Don’t be so judgmental. It turns out he wasn’t really interested in my writings at all. Well, at least not the ones I wanted to share. All he wanted to talk about was the same old, same old ones that impressed everyone way back when. I tell you, it’s so frustrating sometimes. He said he could tell that I was big fan of myself. I mean myself before I died. Again he didn’t realize we were one and the same. I asked what he thought of the new stuff, the stuff I’ve recently done and all he could tell me was that the influences were obvious. At least he carefully danced around that word—derivative! That’s why I killed him quickly. I said, ‘Let’s talk about these writings.’ And I’d show him my latest works and he’d soon be trying to redirect the conversation to something that I did twenty years before I died. And I’d say, ‘Yes, but isn’t this new piece here better,’ and show him something I’d done lately but along the same lines of exploration.”

Jeanne gave him a hug. “Oh you poor thing. It seems I’m your only fan left, and even I’m deceased.”

William smiled. “Well, I had to bring at least one admirer over with me, when I changed, and you were always my biggest fan. But I’d thought if I became immortal I could simply create forever.” For a moment, William sat in silence, looking dejected.

“But then what happened?” prodded Jeanne.

As if startled, William sat up straight and looked at Jeanne with a leer. “Well, we were sitting here, discussing our writings. I showed him mine. He showed me his, and what meaningless, sophomoric, angst-drenched trash it was indeed, and then, finally, do you know what he did?”

“What did he do?” said Jeanne.

“That bastard looked me in the eye and he just said, and in such a condescending tone, ‘Sir, I respect your attempts at writing. I really do. I’m a writer myself,’ he said, that bastard. ‘But don’t you think it’s just a tad bit egotistical of you to claim to be outdoing the late, great William S. Burroughs?’ And he smiled as he said it, and then, then that bastard said, ‘Sir, I don’t know you well enough to really say this, but, one writer to another, don’t you think you should really try to find your own style? Burroughs was great in his day, unprecedented, groundbreaking even, but his strength was his very pushing of boundaries. Friend, you can’t copy that. Burrough’s time has come and gone and we must, as writers, each find our own muse and seek our own literary path.’ And then that cock-sucking bastard grinned at me like a fucking undertaker.”

“So you ate him?” said Jeanne.

“Yes, so I ate him,” said William. “And I’m glad I did.”

“Well, obviously you had a legitimate grudge, but that still doesn’t excuse leaving his corpse in the hall closet. Besides you know you have no one to blame for your publishing problems except yourself.”

“I’ll take care of the corpse tomorrow.”

“You’d done the research. You knew the way all the other undead writers handle their careers, but you just had to be different. Has death stopped Hubbard from being published? Far from it. Tolkien? Herbert pretends to be his own son, for goodness sake. You, too, could have been producing a never-ending stream of so-called ‘undiscovered’ and posthumous ‘lost’ works, but you just had to be different. You were the one who decided it would be ever-so creative to fake your own death. ‘Won’t it be creative?’ you’d said. You know you brought this problem on yourself.”

“Bah! An eternity spent spewing a never-ending stream of meaningless pulp sequels. Dead writings from dead men. They’re nothing but hacks. And, you have to admit, my so-called death was indeed quite spectacular. Very creative indeed. Pulp. Is that what you want from me?”

“But when Philip K. Dick became a vampire, he used the opportunity to get all his mainstream novels into print. Didn’t he? You could have done something like that.”

“Dick? That neurotic flake. He couldn’t take it, could he? Vampiric undeath and the guilt from endless feeding on mortals were just too much for him. One day he walked right out into the daylight and burst into flames like an exploding sun. Is that what you want from me?”

Jeanne’s reply was cold. “Maybe it was the drugs. He was an addict, you remember.”

William looked at her stone-faced. “But he was a very creative soul.”

Jeanne sighed. “William, what if someone should come? We’ve discussed this sort of thing before. We do not leave corpses in the apartment.”

“No one will come. I’ve installed a burglar alarm.”

“Electronics do seem to be your new thing. But why, pray tell, a burglar alarm?”

“It’s this damn vampire hunter. Vampire hunter! Ptth! Nothing more than an irritating, imitative media parasite who should get a life of his own, carve out his own icon, and stop bothering his betters. I don’t have time for wasting on some idiotic fan-boy run amok who thinks he can find satisfaction and self-worth by running a stake through my heart. Ptah! Vampire hunters inspire vampire hunters who inspire vampire hunters. It’s like someone eating his own shit and then shitting it out and eating it over and over again until it just gets darker and stickier and tarrier.”

“William, don’t make me say it.”

“Say what?”

“The D-word. You’ve used that image of people eating recycled shit before, and, in fact, did so long before you died.” From behind his chair, she put her arms around him and gave him a hug. “You know, William-dear. I’m only saying these things because you know I do care for you deeply.”

William tensed, gripped his arms together and then waved his hands in the air, shaking them like a soldier trying to surrender to the enemy. “I’m a very sensitive and creative soul, I tell you. I’ve got work to do. Things to create. Horizons to expand. Did I tell you I’ve found a new medium in which to work?”

“No,” cried Jeanne. “Now that is, indeed, interesting.”

“Yes, and like everything else these days, it’s going to be digitalized and computer-driven. A whole new field. I’m going to take some of these TV sit-coms, the most vapid, sappy, putrescent and unoriginally suburban, petty bourgeois value reinforcing one that I can possibly find, digitalize it and use a computer to inter-splice contrasting images. And I’m going to use the most repulsive images I can find. Kiddie porn, starving children in the Philippines, Mexican women doing donkeys. Nazi death camp imagery, the worst god-damn stuff I can find, the most nauseatingly, repulsively human imagery I can find, and I’m going to combine the two, contrasting them, into one new and original wholely repulsive mess. And then I’ll bypass these god-damn publishers who accuse my work of being derivative, derivative of myself, I might add, and just post it all on the internet. The world won’t know what’s hit it when they see what I come up with.”

Jeanne just stood there for a moment saying nothing. Then she spoke, choosing her words carefully. “William… William, my dear. That’s been done before. In fact, high school children do it all the time. And not only do they usually get ignored, but when they do get noticed, they’re more likely to get suspended from school, instead of being showered with positive attention from the art world.”

“Hmmmf!” William rose from his chair and threw a pen at the wall. “Well, I’ll just have to find a new creative outlet. For the moment, I’m going to go out and eat a junkie.”

“William… William, dear. Just wait until tomorrow. It’s daylight and it’s not safe to go junkie hunting.”

“Hmmmf!” Without further comment William stormed down the hallway to his coffin.

* * *

Two hours later the phone begin to ring. Each time the answering machine would turn on and record a message that never came. Just a click, a repetitive never-ending nuisance that went on long enough to wake the undead, until, finally, Jeanne decided enough was enough, and rose to answer it.

“Hello,” she said.

The voice on the phone was harsh, menacing, demanding, desperate yet cruel. “William, you god-damn blood sucker. You thought you could hide, lurking in your lair, emerging to prey upon the blood of the innocent, feeding upon women and children who’ve never done you wrong. Yet, know you now that justice is at hand. Your time is near. I know who you are and I know where you live and my name is justice, you undead feeder upon the innocent. When we meet, I shall show you no mercy.”

Jeanne cupped the phone with the palm of her hand and called down the hallway. “William, dear, the phone is for you.”

“Hunh? I’m sleeping,” muttered William. “Tell them to call back in the evening.”

“William, dear. I think this is the sort of thing you’d like to take care of yourself.”

“Is it important?”

“Well, it is to them and I think it’d be best if you spoke to them directly.”

“Is it a publisher?” The eagerness in his voice was obvious.

“No dear. It’s the vampire hunter.”

“The vampire hunter? Oh.”

Jeanne hated to disappoint him this way. Soon William was slowly stumbling down the unlit hallway.

She handed him the phone and William put the receiver to his ear slowly, like someone half asleep or half dead, which was only natural, for William was both. “Hello,” he said, voicing the word tentatively, apparently, for once, unsure of himself.

Jeanne could hear very little of the remaining conversation. Just an occasional something about “lurker in worm-eaten graveyards” or “evil feeder upon babies and other innocents” and, of course, a never ending stream of cliched, hackneyed phrases about “justice” and “retribution” and “cleansing the Earth of half-living fiends.” By the expression on his face, William appeared to be as bored with all this as she was.

“Well,” said William finally speaking into the receiver, “there is no choice but to settle this honorably using the code. Vampire and vampire hunter together. Each facing the other in a tradition that predates known history.” William paused. “What? Surely you know what I’m talking about. You aren’t new at this, are you? Why the code of demonic dueling has been around far longer than either of us. Probably longer than mankind itself. I’d think you’d at least have heard of it. What kind of vampire hunter are you, anyway?” Another pause. “Tomorrow soon after sunset will be fine. Nice to hear you’re getting into the spirit of this thing. Oh of course, bring all the stakes and weapons you want. I am a vampire after all. You’ll need your weapons, I’d think… Who are you calling a weak-kneed drug addict? Have you ever been published? Have you? I thought not. Well, you just bring your weapons then. My place will be fine. Well, yes, you just chose the time so under the code I choose the place. You did know that, didn’t you?” William paused and nodded his head a bit more, finally finishing with a smile. “Why thank you. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you and I look forward to finally meeting face to face.”

“How’d he find us?” asked Jeanne.

“Who knows?” said William. “It’s the information age. Privacy’s a thing of the past. Perhaps he somehow learned a bit about skip tracing. Perhaps he purchased a couple of Paladin Press how-to-be a detective books. Maybe he somehow gained access to my library card records. Or, maybe, one of those fine colleagues of ours, the ones who were so good to let us know a vampire hunter was in town in the first place, felt it would be in their best interests if this foolish media-inspired wannabe somehow learned where we live. In any case, that’s ultimately unimportant. What matters is that he’ll be here tomorrow.”

“Was that wise to invite him over, William? What shall we do when this vampire hunter arrives?”

“Relax.” He smiled showing his fangs. “He was coming anyway. At least, now we know when he’ll arrive and can plan accordingly.”

“You may have a point. But William, really now, ‘the dueling code of the vampires?’ Where did that come from?”

William smiled. “Relax,” he said.

Jeanne shuddered.

* * *

The next day, not long after sunset, the moment arrived. The knock on the apartment door came.

“Who is it?” said Jeanne.

“It is I,” came the deep solemn voice from the far side of the door. “Marcus Finklewitz, Vampire Hunter. Remember that name for it is the last name you shall ever hear.”

Jeanne rolled her eyes and turned to where William waited with a pair of police officers. “That’s him officers,” said William. “I know that terrible voice anywhere. That’s the one. The crazy man who’s been stalking me for weeks. I don’t know how he decided I was a vampire, or even why. But he’s crazy. I’m telling you, officers, I’m so lucky to have you here. God bless the police department. Whatever would we do without you guys? Our brave boys in blue! It sure can be difficult sometimes being a major literary figure, I’m telling you. Thank god you’re here to protect me.”

The older police officer looked at William. “Literary figure?”

Jeanne intervened quickly. “Never mind officers. He was published long ago. The important thing is the crazy man outside.”

“Unh, okay,” said the cop, rubbing his nose and salt-and-pepper mustache with the back of his hand. “Well, then let’s open the door.” He drew his baton with his left hand and held the small canister of pepper spray with his right. His younger Hispanic looking partner followed suit and did likewise.

Jeanne opened the door to reveal a man standing there dressed in a long black trenchcoat, several long pointed stakes held in each outstretched hand. “Die minions of evil!” he shouted. “It is I, Marcus Finklewitz, Vampire hunter!”

“Hold it right there, buddy,” said the lead cop. “Back off.”

“Take this, spawn of Satan,” cried Marcus Finklewitz. “I am a vampire hunter. Police uniform or not, I know your true face, Bloodsucker.” Shifting the stakes to one hand only, the vampire hunter quickly reached in his pocket and tossed a half-filled, loosely tied condom of clear liquid at the police officer, which burst and splashed over the dark blue uniform. “Holy water!” cried the vampire hunter. “Prepare to burn.”

“You stupid dipshit,” cried the cop. “I’m wet.” The police officer steadied the pepper spray canister, depressed his thumb and let the liquid spray over Finklewitz’s face. Finklewitz began to scream and rub his eyes as he stumbled, half-blind, gasping for breath. “Stupid crazy-assed dipshit,” said the cop. “Cuff him, Santos.” Turning to William, the cop said, “Sorry about this mister. Make you wonder sometimes, what’s wrong with the world that all these half-baked wackadoos are out on the streets. It’s the liberals who don’t have the backbone to keep them in the mental hospitals that does it.”

“Yes, officer. It’s sad indeed,” said William. “Those nasty liberals and all.”

The police officer turned his head to watch Santos dragging the now-handcuffed screaming vampire hunter down the apartment stairs. “Hey don’t drop him like that, Santos. We got in trouble for that last week, you know.” With a snicker, he turned back to William and began speaking. “Yeesh. It’s bad enough that the kook thinks vampires are real, much less than he’s going to attack someone about it. But at least we’ve got him now. If it’s not too much trouble, it’d help if you could come down to the station and fill out some paper work on what happened.”

“Er. Officer,” said William. “Can we fill out that paper work at night?”

The officer looked at him funny. “Of course,” said the officer. “I do work the night shift after all. And the sooner the better.”

“Very well, officer,” said William. “We’ll be by the station shortly.” And with that, the police officer turned and headed down the stairs where the sound of a screaming, pepper-sprayed vampire-hunter wannabe had been joined by several mysterious thuds as if someone had somehow fallen down a short flight of stairs.

The police officer’s voice was a bit quieter as it came from the base of the stairs. “Oh, what a pity,” he could be heard to say. “It looks like the vampire hunter fell down by accident. Well, we’ve got to take him back to the station anyway.” Jeanne and William heard another thud, another scream and the sound of the building’s front doors slamming open and shut as the cops left.

With a contented sigh, William looked at Billie. “You know, my dear.”

“What William?”

“Somehow during all this, I had an inspiration. Perhaps even an epiphany. Undoubtedly it’s of literary significance. I was thinking that if one were to simply take a long enough novel, and remove occasional words, yet, and this is the significant change, the thing that makes this ever-so significantly different than what I did back during my ‘cut-up’ phase when alive, I WILL KEEP THE WORD ORDER EXACTLY THE SAME! You see, I shall simply remove words as necessary, and sometimes even entire sentences, paragraphs or pages. And, when I’m done, and the remaining words are read in sequence, then, my dear, we shall have a work of immeasurable literary significance. And do you know what will only add to the beauty of this project?”

“No William,” said Jeanne, her voice dull and showing little interest.

“What shall make this project, this work of creation truly exquisite, is if I choose my target piece with appropriate care! I must use the eye of an artist and a counter-cultural icon. Something plebian, dull, uninteresting and without the least bit of inherent worth or interest. Some Danielle Steele or some Sidney Sheldon perhaps. Maybe a Harlequin Romance, those pieces of petty bourgeois, heterosexist trash. At least if I can find one sufficiently long enough. Remove enough words from the middle of such a thing, keeping the sequence intact, and I think, that, ultimately, I shall prove that subversive thought can be found anywhere. That shall be my sub-text.” He stood there grinning broadly.

“William,” said Jeanne. “I think it’s been done.” She waited, knowing that soon he would be suggesting that they go trolling for junkies. It’s what he always did at these times.