Tag Archives: fiction

Steampunk alternate Mormon history fiction

I’m running a d20 Modern campaign. For those not well versed in geek lingo, it’s basically like Dungeons and Dragons except with a rule set for modern times. So every week, a group of us get together, sit around, eat snacks, roll dice, and make up stories based on set dice. It’s loads of fun.

This time around, I am running the story as the Game Master (GM); basically, I run all of the background characters, devise the world, and interpret the dice results into narrative fiction. I’ve done this for a while now, since I was roughly 19 years old, so I wanted to do something I had never done before, especially since my group was all Mormon.

I weaved a world based on my religion.

Well, sort of. The world that my friends delve into every week is steampunk alternative Mormon history. Basically, I ran with the idea of “What if Joseph Smith had successfully fled to the West instead of being martyred in Carthage Jail?” Suddenly, it’s the year 1899, and the Northern American continent has split into three basic political entities — the Federal Union, the Confederacy, and the Mormon Territories (during the Second War of Independence). Joseph Smith is still the prophet, operating out of Deseret, the capital established next to the Great Salt Lake, while Brigham Young is the governor of New Nauvoo, west of the Mississippi (the ruins of old Nauvoo lie just across the river). The two major Mormon cities are connected by a network of dirigibles, called the Mormon Line. Also, there’s magic, swashbuckling adventure, and sweet steampunk goggles and gears and stuff.

I’m planning on running strong themes of order versus nature, freedom versus security, justice versus mercy, the law versus the Spirit. In the background are the two gleaming diamonds of Mormondom — the alabaster, orderly, cosmopolitan city of Nauvoo and the dusty, rough-and-tumble, frontier city of Deseret. Two political leaders, the charismatic Joseph and the managerial Brigham, will butt heads as they both grapple with problems both mundane and fantastical and wonder what to do. In the midst, our plucky hero-adventurers will make decisions that will alter the course of alternate Mormon history forever.

When I ran this idea excitedly past my wife, she seemed reluctant. “Your friends are pretty liberal when it comes to Mormonism, and they’re pretty used to your blasphemy by now,” she warned with a wink, “But this might be crossing the line.”

“There’s a line?” I replied. Of course, I knew there was a line. This unsaid line runs deep through Mormon culture, separating the wheat from the chaff, the wholesome media from the seditious, libelous, faith-breaking, irreverent material deemed unfit for goodly Saints’ eyes and ears. A conservative, faith-promoting portrayal of Joseph Smith in Gerald Lund’s series, The Work and the Glory is appropriate. But a gun-toting, charismatic-but-too-trusting, Wild West Joseph Smith who wears steampunk goggles and swoops about in a steam-driven mini-glider shooting down invading Danite dirigibles? That’s too, well, irreverent.

But why is that? There’s a pretty fine line between parody and homage. One is lampooning, and the other is sincere respect. Sure, there can be elements of both in either, but I had considered this fantastical world I cooked up an homage to Mormon history, of which I have a deep appreciation for. And in every audience, in every niche, the fans’ parody-homage meter is finely tuned; we can’t explain it, but we can tell when someone is laughing at us, or smiling with us. Somehow, however, our parody-homage meter in Mormon culture tends to be hyper-tuned towards parody. If it doesn’t read like a Sunday School manual, you’re making fun. Or hurting the Church. At the very least, you could destroy someone’s testimony. Harsh consequences abound for any writer who decides to take liberties with Church history.

It could be because we’re still young, and we still take ourselves way too seriously. It could be because we’re still somewhat ashamed and confused about our own history and self-identity. It could be that we’re still too insecure about ourselves as a culture, afraid to appear fractured or to appear less than perfect. Maybe we just need time to mature, to mellow out, to realize that it doesn’t matter what the world says because the world will never like us anyway so we might as well have some fun at the expense of ourselves because we’re not really that perfect either.

Whatever the reason (and I believe it’s a complicated ball of cultural neuroses that would be fun to dissect but would turn this blog post into a dissertation), I ran the game, and afterwards, despite the skeptical looks, everyone had fun and look forward to see where the story goes. So far, nobody wants to burn me at the stake for heresy (talk about an awkward end to a get together). And I’m 85% confident than when I die and go to the Spirit World, Joseph Smith will come up to me, dice bag in hand, and say, “You know Brother Ted, I’d like to play in that steampunk alternate Mormon history game you ran several decades back. Pull out your campaign notes.” And I would, because we would both understand that we’re smiling together.

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Fictional heroes

I recently listened to a quick radio excerpt on KUOW where a UW professor talked about his three greatest heroes from, well, television shows. I thought it was very interesting; we often talk of heroes we have in real life, such as famous people who have done great things, or people in our personal lives who’ve made a huge effect on us. But just as much as real heroes, we also develop fictional heroes, and so below are the three fictional heroes who have changed my life:

3. Utahraptor, from Dinosaur Comics

Dinosaur Comics is quite possibly one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time. I can’t explain the appeal. It’s just a bunch of pictures someone probably drew on Microsoft Paint replicated over and over again with new dialogue. Still, Ryan North, being the rascally genius he is, has managed to create an entire world populated with incredible characters (including creepy raccoon and cephalopod neighbors) that continue to amuse and inform (yes, inform).

Out of all the characters, I love Utahraptor the most (trivia: he is widely considered the most salacious of raptors). The best friend and sometimes antagonist of main character T-Rex, he serves as a straight man foil to the more zany, easily excitable T-Rex. Whenever T-Rex appears with a crazy hypothesis, Utahraptor either (a) pokes holes in the theory, or (b) changes the subject to something else.

I can’t say why I look up to Utahraptor so much. I guess it’s perhaps because he’s erudite and well-informed. Much of Utahraptor’s charm comes from, however, his interactions with his best friend. Somehow, despite very different personalities, they’ve managed to forge a strong friendship. Having a friend like T-Rex (or Utahraptor) is an incredibly fulfilling experience (if not sometimes exasperating), but highly recommended. But don’t take my word for it!

2. Iroh, from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Iroh is the former Dragon of the West and one of the greatest generals of the Fire Nation, until his defeat at the seige of Ba Sing Se. Since then, he becomes the guardian, mentor, and protector of his fiery nephew, Zuko, and is just in general a totally cool guy.

He loves tea and the game Pai Sho, and is committed to finding and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Underneath this seemingly bumbling, lovable character, however, is an incredibly serious and spiritual man who, when things need to get done, get them done. Despite his great strength (he is, after all, the Dragon of the West), he’s humble and kind to others. What’s most disarming about Iroh is his modest humor and his ability to admit his own mistakes, and yet somehow always end up right most of the time.

My wife says that if I don’t end up becoming Iroh — physique, awesome facial hair, wisdom and all — she will be sorely disappointed.

He's just so lovable!

1. Koiwai, father of Yotsuba from Yotsuba&

Koiwai is a translator from Japan who adopts a precocious young girl named Yotsuba who goes on zany adventures. Working from home, he has a very close relationship with her daughter, and the author of the manga Yotsuba& does a great job detailing the ups and downs of parenting.

What’s so endearing about Koiwai is that he’s far from perfect. He hates wearing pants in the house. He’s constantly apologizing for being irresponsible. He allows Yotsuba to wander the neighborhood and get in and out of trouble (much to the chagrin of many parent readers, I’m sure). At the same time, however, he strives to be the best parent possible for Yotsuba, and it’s undeniable that the two have an incredibly strong bond. Most of this is probably derived from the fact that he is just as weird as Yotsuba is.

As an expectant parent, nervousness comes with the deal. Reading Yotsuba& and watching imperfect Koiwai build a good relationship with his daughter and work as hard as he can in becoming a great parent (while eschewing pants and challenging Yotsuba to fights with boxers on his head) gives me hope that maybe someone as strange as me could do a good job, too.

I will do this to my daughter as well, probably.

Who are your fictional heroes?

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Or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love the fanfic

Okay, this is not true in my case, unless you're my wife. But if you're single, this t-shirt just might work for you. Maybe.

Okay, this is not true in my case, unless you're my wife. But if you're single, wearing this t-shirt just might lead to some sexy times.

I’ve been working hard on my Calvin and Hobbes – Encyclopedia Brown crossover fanfic the past couple of days, and it’s been a fairly enjoyable experience (after a considerable writer’s block). In fact, it’s definitely been some of the most fun writing I’ve done in a long time.

I had started writing this on a whim (the genesis of the idea actually manifested itself in a comic form). I mostly did it for fun and to goof around. What I didn’t expect it to do was make me a better writer.

Fan fiction just has that aura of…amateur. There’s bad fiction, and then there’s fan fiction, which is the lowest circle of writer hell (with furry fan fiction, self-insertion fan fiction, and furry self-insertion fan fiction as the absolute bottom). When I began writing this fanfic, I specifically wrote it completely over the top with lots of Tom Swifts and ridiculous dialogue and even more ridiculous plot. It was, after all, a fanfic, and you can never take these kinds of things too seriously.

But the sheer lack of seriousness helped transform what began as a silly project into an incredibly helpful and insightful foray into fiction writing, and here’s why I think every writer should write at least one serial fanfic.

1. It gets you into the habit of writing

My habits as a writer waxes and wanes with the moon cycles. Sometimes I’m on fire and I’m producing page after page. Other times, I’m in a slump and the blog goes weeks, even months without an update (though I try not to go too long before I post something – anything!). The fanfic definitely experienced a prolonged hiatus, but before and after the hiatus, the fanfic forced me to be fairly regular in my writing. I couldn’t let it sit for too long because I knew it would start to turn cold, and, frankly, I like the plot I came up with, and I’m pretty determined to finish this one writing project through, so I’m forcing myself to trudge along, especially when a few of my friends confided in private that despite the fact that it’s a fanfic, they actually do want to know what eventually happens to Calvin and Encyclopedia Brown. This only encourages me to continue producing.

2. It gives you an excuse to write

I am not a strong fiction writer by any means. While most writers have the problem of describing everything in excruciating detail, I seem to have the opposite problem with fiction writing. I progress the story too quickly. There’s no build up, no suspense, and half the time people don’t know what’s going on because I described the scene so poorly. Because of this, despite the fact that I would like to write fiction, I never did because I told myself that I am a poor fiction writer.

But then I started to write this fanfic, and, you know, despite the fact that I’m a poor fiction writer, I didn’t care, because it’s fan fiction! It’s supposed to be atrocious and terrible! That’s half the fan fiction’s charm! It suddenly became okay, even accepted to be horrible at writing when you’re writing an open fan fiction, and suddenly it lifted my self-imposed bans on writing fiction.

3. It will make you a better fiction writer

Even though it started as a fiction with over the top dialogue, plot, and writing, as a writer you can’t help but endear yourself to the characters. The more I wrote, the more I started rooting for Calvin, even though I knew fully the hell I had planned for him before he could defeat his demons. And the more I started to care about the presentation of the story. This thing isn’t going to win any awards, but I definitely want to at least do a decent job writing this.

Every writer goes through this. You become incredibly attached to your creations, and, at least for me, you’re afraid to reveal them for the world to judge because you don’t want people to hate them. These creations’ flaws rest upon your own flaws, and how people view them reflects how people view you, or at least that’s how you feel. With fan fiction, you can show the world your loved characters, and when people tell me how one dimensional Calvin is, I laugh and say, well, of course, it’s fan fiction. No harm done. But if someone tells me that despite the fact that the story is stupid, they can sometimes relate to Calvin and his troubled grip on reality, I thank them and inside, I’m proud.

So I started to pay more attention to how I structure things. Parts nine and ten, as well as the future parts eleven and twelve, were actually one long storyline that, as I read it over and over again to edit it, I begin to rewrite and add parts, fleshing out one part here, explaining more there, setting a slower pace here, chopping up parts to speed things up there. I began to re-read the old “how to write fiction” books from my old college classes. I listened to the great writing podcast Writing Excuses much more carefully, and I began to obsess on how to improve. And as I continued to write my atrocious fan fiction and tweak things and practice and experiment, I could feel myself getting better.

Of course, the fan fiction is still over the top, melodramatic, Tom Swift-y and atrocious. But even if I’m purposely writing pretty terrible genre fiction, I become more aware of why what I’m writing is so atrociously bad. But even though I’m purposefully writing bad fiction, I have tapped into the daily routine of what successful writers go through. I’ve started to obsess over what will happen next, how will I present it, what will I reveal to the audience, and what will I conceal? In my spare time, even during the times when I’ve tried to meditate for zazen, the thoughts of my fanfic float into my head, asking me constantly, how will you write the next part? I’ve begun to think and evaluate my work the way successful writers do, all within the safe, accepted confines of bad fan fiction, and this room to experiment and to just simply practice writing on a massive scale is a great experience, one that every aspiring writer should try, if only so that you, too, can practice your fiction writing and not care if somebody thinks the writing is terrible because, you know, it’s fan fiction. I mean, my Gandalf x Captain Picard x Voldemort x Mr. Darcy fanfic is supposed to be terrible.

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The duty of a Mormon artist

I once ran a story idea past a Mormon friend, who immediately rejected it. He said it contradicted Mormon doctrine. I told him the story didn’t even have anything to do with Mormons, that this situation detailed a very particular pickle Mormon writers find themselves in, mostly because our faith is still relatively new and we’re paranoid of anything that even hints at anti-Mormonism. We expect Mormon writers to write stories of sterling examples of exemplary Mormons, and where our doctrines always trump all, where protagonists banish ambiguity, the boyfriend joins the Church, the child is healed of all sickness, the righteous person prospers, the wicked suffer, and the parents stay together. But such stories are not very true to the real Mormon experience. Even when Mormon writers write about things that aren’t very Mormon, we’re expected to defend the faith somehow. It didn’t seem fair.

This incensed my friend. “What, are you angry at the Lord? Are you angry that you’re a Mormon? That’s a dangerous attitude! You should be grateful that you’re a Mormon writer! You have a duty as one! Don’t complain about your duty or the Lord’s commandments.” And he lectured me for a good thirty minutes on what my “duty” is. His remarks sting even to this day.

There’s a writing contest called Monsters & Mormons (the deadline is soon). As the purpose statement says, “As Terryl Givens documents in The Viper on the Hearth, from Zane Grey to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mormons served as stock villains in the early days of genre fiction (both pre-pulp and pulp heyday). We propose to recast, reclaim and simply mess with that tradition by making Mormon characters, settings and ideas the protagonists of genre-oriented stories to appear in an anthology simply titled Monsters & Mormons.”

My friend David and I threw around some ideas for Mormon genre fiction, and we came up with some very fun ones, such as a team of Mormons who go looking for Bigfoot/Cain. Or a Mormon who finds out all the fantastical elements of fantasy like magic and elves still exists, and how does Mormonism fit in such a context? My friend Quinton suggested steampunk alternate Mormon history fiction, while my friend Ben came up with an idea of where our spirits actually are parasites which take over the bodies as they’re born. I bandied around ideas of where some kind of supernatural disaster, such as a zombie plague, forces Mormons to reconsider some precious theological tenets, such as agency.

The problem is, where do you draw the line between sacrilege and fiction? What happens when you find that the mostinteresting story to tell is when situations arise to challenge the protagonist’s faith? For example, David proposed an idea of a “Young Joseph Smith and Porter Rockwell Adventures” pulp novel, of two young, God-inspired archeologists digging up old Nephite ruins for rare, possibly magical artifacts. Sounds like Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites, right? But what about a story where Joseph Smith actually communicates to a clockwork God through some kind of steampunk “revelatory” device in an alternate dimension of Mormonism? Some people would balk. Or what about a gunfight between the steampunk-ified Brigham Young (aka The Iron Lion of the Lord) and the steampunk version of Abraham Lincoln? Or, as my friend Adam proposed, the pioneers must build a fleet of dirigibles to transport the fleeing Saints across the plains, and before they reach the Promised Land, three young boys go through a harrowing adventure where they eventually sacrifice their lives in a most noble, selfless manner in order for the dirigibles to make it? On the one hand, it sounds epic. On the other hand, no doubt Mormons would find it belittling or even mocking a sacred Mormon folk story.

Mormon audiences are a fickle thing, a very fickle thing. And sometimes irrational. For one, we take our stories very seriously. A lot of people believe them to be factual truth, even some of the more outlandish ones (after all, we believe in a God of miracles). But at the same time, Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites is a Utah Mormon favorite, and it literally (no pun intended) tampers with Book of Mormon chronology.  And then, of course, there’s the Twilight saga, which isn’t about Mormon characters, but a Mormon author wrote it, Deseret Book carried it for a while, and lots of Mormon moms and tweens love it whole heartedly despite the fact that it deals with some pretty supernatural devil stuff like vampires and werewolves.

This, I believe, is a massive burden Mormon artists need to carry. At any moment, we bring upon ourselves the accolades or scorn of our brothers and sisters of the faith, even when we don’t understand why. Anything we write will crackle with religious tension, even if we don’t write it with our faith in mind. And after watching some books hit a home run with the general, orthodox Mormon audience, and watching some books fail because people felt it was too “disrespectful” or “heretical,” I only have two points of advice:

1. Intention is key – write stories without guile and without melodramatic didactics.

2. Don’t be a jerk. You know what I mean.

And when people talk about your duty as a Mormon artist to represent the group, just laugh. The artist’s duty is to tell stories, stories that entertain, stories that challenge, stories that instruct, stories that observe. Our duty is not to toe the cultural lines, but to transcend them. And often times, when it comes to Mormon artists and their dutues, most people don’t know what they’re talking about (and even more, what they want), and if we as artists tried to define that nebulous duty, I don’t know if we really could either.

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J.K. Rowling and the Prince of Darkness – A Short Story

It was an act of desperation; Jo understood that much. In fact, she used desperation to rationalize what she was about to do. She knew that with just the flick of her hand she would commit the most abominable of crimes. Her hands shook as she held the bowl of chicken’s blood, splashing drops onto the floor which disappeared with an angry hiss. Arcane markings surrounded her, etched into the ground and walls with painstaking accuracy – a single deviation would fail to protect her from what she was about to summon.

Jo took a deep breath, exhaling out all of her frustration at her life. She was divorced, juggling a child while sitting in coffee shops scribbling on napkins because the heat had been shut off at her flat. She knew she had to do something but her book – nobody wanted to pick up Harry Potter, Boy Genius (though she couldn’t understand why a story about an orphaned genius mathematician wouldn’t sell).

“This is it, Jo,” she muttered to herself. Finally, after what seemed like minutes, she flipped the bowl over and poured the contents all over her shoes and floor.

A burst of smoke and flames shot up, scorching the ceiling of her flat. The lights browned out for a split second and the entire room filled with the scent of brimstone and burnt hair. She coughed, her body vainly trying to expel the awful smell. Finally, she realized that a large shadow loomed over her and she timidly looked up.

“WHO DARES SUMMON BEELZEBUB, PRINCE OF DARKNESS!” boomed the shadow.

Jo meekly raised her hand. “Well, I do, uh, sir.”

“WHAT DO YOU SEEK, PUNY MORTAL, THAT YOU WOULD SUMMON SATAN WITHIN THE BINDING CIRCLE?”

Jo straightened her spine, an uncommon courage filling her frame.

“I need to sell a children’s book to become rich and famous so that I can take care of my daughter!”

The shadow seemed to blink twice – even though shadows don’t blink and Jo understood that. Jo stood resolutely, daring to look the shadow in the…well, shadows don’t have eyes, but Jo assumed that inky black area would have eyes had it, well, been even slightly human.

Finally, the darkness filling her room seemed to shake, and a booming laughter echoed through her tiny living room. Jo cringed, hoping her neighbors wouldn’t be bothered enough to call the landlord. It would be most inconvenient if the stupid sod walked in on her summoning Lucifer himself.

“I ENJOY YOUR SPUNK, PUNY WOMAN. I SHALL GRANT YOU YOUR WISH. BUT FIRST, YOU MUST WRITE THE BOOK ACCORDING TO MY INSTRUCTIONS.”

Jo felt a glimmer of hope for the first time in months. Her wish just might come true! Her baby wouldn’t need to go without!

“Anything! Anything, uh, er, sir.”

“FIRST, YOU MUST CHANGE THE SUBJECT FROM MATHEMATICS TO WITCHCRAFT AND WIZARDRY, MY TOOLS OF POWER.”

“Reasonable,” Jo responded.

“THE CHARACTER IS TOO MILQUETOAST IN YOUR CURRENT DRAFT. GIVE HIM A DOSE OF COURAGE AND BRAVADO SO THAT CHILDREN WILL ACT OUT AGAINST PARENTS AND AUTHORITY.”

“Makes sense.” Jo considered the absolute chaos residing within households everywhere as children rebelled against exasperated mothers and fathers.

“MAKE SURE THE PROTAGONIST HAS FRIENDS WHO WILL STICK WITH HIM NO MATTER WHAT BUT WHO ARE ALSO NOT AFRAID TO SPEAK OUT AGAINST HIM IF THEY THINK HE IS ABOUT TO DO SOMETHING WRONG.”

Jo stopped. She scratched her head. “Excuse me, your, uh, Darkness? I’m not so keen on propagating evil to support my tiny family, but how exactly does this, well, further your agenda?”

“SILENCE!” the shadow boomed. Jo threw herself on the ground in fear. She trembled against the hardwood floor, her entire body anticipating punishment. Instead, the shadow continued his directions.

“IT IS VITALLY IMPORTANT AS WELL THAT THE PROTAGONIST’S MENTOR EMPHASIZES THAT LOVE CONQUERS THOSE WHO IGNORE IT AT THEIR PERIL AND CAN DEFEAT EVEN THE MOST OVERT ABUSES OF PHYSICAL POWER.”

Jo wondered if she should interrupt Satan once more, but decided to keep her mouth shut.

“MAKE SURE THE CHARACTERS EMPHASIZE LOYALTY, COURAGE, LOVE, FRIENDSHIP, TENACITY, RESOURCEFULNESS, AND A WILLINGNESS TO DEFY AUTHORITY THAT ATTEMPTS TO COMPEL THEM TO SPREAD HATE OR DISCRIMINATE AGAINST THOSE WHO ARE DIFFERENT.”

Jo caught herself sighing into the floor. She slowly picked herself up, wondering if the shadow would notice.

“BE SURE THAT THE CHARACTER DIES A NOBLE DEATH BUT RETURNS TO LIFE. THIS CONCEPT IS IMPORTANT AND MUST BE INCLUDED IN THE END.”

“Excuse me.”

“WHAT!!!” the shadow roared once more. Jo winced as she heard pounding from Mr. Zuckermann underneath. Most likely he was watching his game shows again; he always became so cranky whenever she so much as made the floorboards squeak during reruns of The Weakest Link, let alone have the Enemy of All Righteousness sitting on her couch.

“It just seems, it’s just…I don’t know how to put this, but,” Jo stumbled over her words, stammering wildly. How do you tell the Lord of Flies that his ideas were, uh, well…

“SPIT IT OUT, HUMAN WOMAN.” The shadow grew thick and angry. She could barely peer into her kitchen where a pot of tea sat warming just in case her summoned visitor became, you know. Thirsty.

“Well, it just seems like you’re ripping archetypes straight from the Bible. These ideas are not necessarily evil or even original.

The room grew deathly silent as the shadow extinguished all light. Jo felt herself falling into darkness, her stomach lurching as her body accelerated, hurtling through icy air, invisible, frozen talons clawing at her body. She tried to gasp but could barely catch enough air to breathe back in. This was it; she had opened her big, stupid mouth for the last time and now she would be thrust to Hell for her insolence and she couldn’t even provide for her daughter, oh her daughter –

Jo felt herself crash into the floor of her flat, her coffee table shattering underneath her. Mr. Zuckermann screamed in fury below, but Jo only cared slightly of his inconvenience; she was carefully, mentally reviewing the state of her battered body to make sure no shards of cheap plywood had pierced her ribcage. She wheezed and coughed as the air knocked out of her entered with great force from her lungs expanding rapidly. The shadow remained in her room, looking smug, despite the fact it possessed no identifiable body parts to even make so much as a simple facial expression.

“YOU HAVE RECEIVED ONLY A TASTE OF MY POWER, HUMAN.”

Jo decided to stay sprawled on the ground rather than try to pick herself back up again, even though she knew that trying to illicit pity from Satan himself was useless.

“Very, very powerful, sir. ”

“NOW, SHALL WE CONTINUE?”

Jo only nodded slightly.

“GOOD. NOW, ALSO REMEMBER THAT IT IS ESSENTIAL FOR REDEMPTION OF THE HUMAN SOUL NO MATTER HOW BLACK IT IS TO BE AN IMPORTANT THEME WITHIN THE SERIES. WHAT’S WITH THAT LOOK? THIS IS GOING TO BE A SERIES OF SEVEN BOOKS (WHICH HAS RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE BY THE WAY, THE NUMBER SEVEN). HEY, ARE YOU WRITING THIS DOWN?”

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Healthcare of Darkness – A Short Story

So I’ve been trying to avoid writing anything controversial (I think I need a controversy detox) but this short story is not really meant to be controversial. One of my favorite logic professors once said that sometimes to prove someone wrong, you simply assume their claims are true – and then watch how ridiculous of a world it constructs because their original premises are flawed. A good way to prove people wrong indeed, but that’s not what this story set out to do. Rather, this formula also helps cure boredom and doldrums and allows me to imagine pretty fantastical, interesting worlds – yes, even post-socialized medicine apocalyptic Londons. This story is less a dig on those who oppose my opinions and more of a soft, gentle dig at overwrought hyperbole in general.

Ash swirled down on the almost deserted streets of London. Dark, dilapidated buildings sagged forward, their windows and doors a multitude of yawning maws gaping to swallow the residents of the soot-covered city. Jonathan walked down the empty sidewalk, approaching the lone figure standing underneath a flickering lamp.

“’Ello, ‘Enry.”

The figure nodded, pulling his hood back to reveal a darkened, filthy face. Bright, jaundiced eyes seemed to pop out of his dark features, and a craggy, toothy smile split open his cheeks.

“Mornin’ to ye, Jonathan. I s’pose yore here for the goods?”

Jonathan cringed, trying hard not to gag on Henry’s foul breath emanating from what was left of his jaw. They had once been schoolmates, even shared a flat together when they attended university. But now, the poor lad was only the shell of the man he once was – ruined, once and for all, by public option healthcare.

“It’s a shame, really. Yore face I mean –“

“Eh, drop it, Jon. It’s nothin’, really. It’s the NHS, afterall.”

Poor Henry, Jonathan thought. If only Parliament had let physicians set their own wages as dictated by market forces, instead of working for the government. Perhaps somehow the surgeon’s skill would have been better – better enough not to botch a routine mole removal that resulted in the poor sod losing half a jaw. Ever since then, he’d never been the same.

“So, you here to peddle for my wares, I s’pose?” Henry’s scratchy voice brought Jonathan back to reality.

“Listen, I need the good stuff. The Advil. My –“ Jonathan lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “My mum’s ill, you see, and I’m afraid if she don’t show any improvement by Tuesday next, the death panels’ll git her.” The last dependent clause Jon uttered sent a shiver up his spine.

“Oh, right right. But the bloody Downin’ Street-owned bilgers won’t ration the Advil out to ye, am I right?” Henry’s elbow poked Jonathan’s ribs painfully as the filthy man dissolved into a mixture of spasmodic coughs and wheezing laughs.

“Oh, we can get it for ye, but there’s a price,” Henry finally said quietly, his watery eyes now a steely yellow. “My wife is due for a tyke –“

“Oh, congratulations,” Jonathan robotically interjected, absentmindedly.

“Yeah, thanks. Problem is, bloody Parliament says they want to take my baby away and abort it or something of the like.”

“Bloody shame, really. I know London’s overpopulated and all, but couldn’t we at least send the bloody poor blighters out to India or some-“ Jonathan caught himself, his sentence caught in his throat, gurgling.

Henry spat on the ground – even his phlegm was a filthy black – as Jonathan focused his gaze on the only clean speck on the blackened wall of the local sweatshop factory next to him. The whole neighborhood used to be quite posh – until, that is, the creation of the NHS. Now all the poor private insurers were absolutely bankrupt and millions of claims agents and CEOs were out work. Henry was one of them. Undesirables, the rest of society called them.

He remembered well the fear that whipped through the nation as those who avowed themselves as the Cromwell Party vowed to bring morality and decency back into British politics. A flurry of unpopular legislation later and the NHS came into being. Nobody liked it at first, but that’s how government worked. Soon, people couldn’t imagine a life without the NHS, robbed of their capacity to make decisions for themselves. Infant mortality skyrocketed as well as unemployment. The government fulfilled their promise that British citizens would no longer worry about cancer; now, a bloke could pitch over from anything, even the common cold, if he like. Old diseases came back after all the good doctors shipped out – polio, smallpox, even the bloody black plague would ravage outside villages.

People would go into hospitals complaining about a headache and came back with a lobotomy. The neighborhood boy broke his right arm while climbing a tree, but he came back with a left arm missing and his right arm still broken. But of course, Parliament kept such a tight lid on anything that nobody realized the squalor they lived in – nobody, that is, except the academia. But they kept quiet. If poor blokes were dying of dysentery or cholera, no skin off their noses.

Jonathan was no supporter of the change by any means; he had openly denounced the roving bands of vigilante “capitalist hunters” who ferreted out those who professed belief in free enterprise. But he had to be careful if he didn’t want to be labeled as one of “them,” them being the bloody capitalists that had ruined the country with a depression unparalleled. In the best case scenario, they were severely beaten and quietly shipped to America several weeks later. In the worst case scenario, the dirty money grubbers were never heard from again.

Jonathan ventured a gaze at Henry, whose face displayed no remorse or shame of his fallen status. Once a CEO of a thriving health insurance company, he had provided millions of dollars willingly to the people of London, providing the best customer service and unparalleled coverage. Now, he was forgotten, branded with the polemic label of “capitalist,” portrayed as only greedy, amoral, self-serving.

Two years after they had graduated – Henry in Business Management, Jonathan in English Literature – his old college mate had shown him a wall plastered with letters dripping with praise and relief that Henry’s insurance company was there to cover all the costs of this procedure or that. The old man’s face beamed that day, content that he had built an industry that truly helped people. He often poked fun at Jonathan, asking him how his soul crushing academia desk job was, offering a job to “help real people with real problems, instead of fictional people with fictional problems.”

Now the face showed nothing; simply a blank, stained canvas with nothing left. Some days, when Jonathan needed Henry to smuggle in contraband medications too hard to get a hold of through the NHS, his old mate’s eyes still shined with tenacity and life. But lately, those days were fewer and far in between and he could see the light fading.

He knew he shouldn’t pity one of the capitalists, but, Henry was a mate after all, wasn’t he? Alma mater, in fact, and surely he could pull some of the strings he held within the government to help the poor man.

“Listen Henry,” Jonathan said, nervously licking his lips. “Listen closely. I could help you and Patty get out of here, somewhere where you can have a baby without it gettin’ aborted. I could get you into America if you like-“

Henry’s face twisted into the façade of a monster, and Jonathan took several steps back, recoiling in terror. The former CEO’s bloodshot eyes bulged out of their sockets, his cracked, bleeding lips peeling back from his decaying gums, pulsing veins lining the tendons in his neck.

“It’s too late!” he screamed, grabbing Jonathan’s shirt with both hands, roughly pushing the meek professor up against the wall. “It’s too bloody late! Obama! He passed it! He passed the healthcare bill! It’s over! He passed it!” And suddenly, the crushed man crumpled to the side of the street.

“He passed it! He passed it!” His final, foul breath exhaled quietly out of the still gaping mouth.

Jonathan shook the corpse off of his Oxfords, brushing them, and hastily backed away from his former friend, finally sprinting down the street in fear.

Moments later, Jonathan met Patty, informing her awkwardly of her husband’s death. The woman’s face seemed not even to register the news; she sank into her chair as if carrying a heavy weight despite being a slight, malnourished ninety-three pounds.

“Tell me, Jonathan. What were his last words?”

Jonathan’s voice faltered. “He said…he said your name.”

The woman merely nodded. “He was a kind man.”

“Yes, he really was, Patty.”

But both Patty and Jonathan knew it was a lie. It all was.

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Godwin’s Law – another short story

“Those many had not dared to do that evil if the first man that did the edict infringe had answer’d for his deed: now ’tis awake; takes note of what is done; and, like a prophet, Looks in a glass that shows what future evils, – Either now, or by remissness new-conceiv’d, and so in progress to be hatch’d and born, – are now to have no successive degrees, but where they lived, to end.”
– Angelo,
Measure for Measure, William Shakespeare


The men in suits sat around the oaken table uncomfortably, the dour silence saturating the air. One man fidgeted with the buttons on his coat nervously, while another tapped his cane against the floor in agitation. All of them stared at the President sitting at the head of the table, his hair turning white from the burden of carrying the free world on his shoulders. His face was buried in his hands, and through his long, wrinkled fingers, a heavy sigh breathed out, then dissipated quickly, lost in the choking depression that hung like a London fog.

“What are the numbers, again?” The President’s voice was sharp and clear, though his hands quavered.

“Intelligence reports say…almost six million killed. Mostly Jews. However, the numbers keep rising. We’re not quite sure when they’ll stop.” The man’s voice near the end of his statement trailed into a near whisper.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, scion of the great conservative Theodore Roosevelt, finally looked up, his eyelids drooped with the long years of the great war on fascism. The war had officially ended against Germany just last week, but reports of concentration camps scattered throughout the German frontier chilled the Allied victory, dampening the celebratory spirits. First, the eye-witness accounts of men and women emaciated, walking skeletons, barely living. Then, the photographs. Oh, God, the photographs! Looking at them would cause his stomach to churn, his heart to wrench as if an invisible hand reached through his ribcage and attempted to rip it out of his chest.

“How was it done?” The Secretary of State, Edward Stettinus, asked.”How could Hitler have killed so many people so…efficiently?”

“Well,” the young man continued, “you could say they were all killed with…inefficiency.”

A collective, puzzled murmur spread throughout the room. What could that mean?

“This monster killed millions of people by…it’s almost too horrific to tell.” The paper the young man held begin to shake, and a tear spilled down his face.

“Please, excuse him, Mr. President,” Stettinus said softly. “He…was one who saw the aftermath firsthand.”

Roosevelt nodded compassionately and then turned to the young soldier. “Officer, take your time.”

“Thank you, Mr. President.” He wiped away the tear and begin to read, his voice ringing clearer.

“He was killed by a most monstrous, diabolical plan, created to systematically kill off entire populations on the sole basis that he considered them ‘inferior’ to the Aryan race. He -” The man’s voice broke. “He killed them…with public option health care.”

The entire room broke into a angry frenzy. They shouted in anger, bewildered how any one human could stoop so low, lose his humanity so thoroughly as to promote such a terrible, destructive policy.

“Public option health care?” President Roosevelt spat out, as if the phrase tasted of bile and consisted of poisonous venom. “How in all of hell did he come up with such a plan and had the gall to so offend God and implement it?”

“As hard to understand, it’s true, Mr. President,” the man said. “Millions of Jews, Poles, homosexuals, gypsies and other ‘malcontents’ were deprived of their private insurance policies and placed on a government run insurance policy instead. They could not choose their doctors, Mr. President.”

“No choice of which doctor to see!” Bewilderment tinted the President’s exclamation.

“Yes, Mr. President.” The man shook his head and continued, ignoring the shocked, disgusted expressions on everyone’s faces. “Not only that, but he stifled innovation within the medical industry. Because of this, German medicine is years behind the rest of the industrialized world. I have reports that even the Communists have better medicinal technology than Germany.

“In addition, he implemented a policy where the government owned doctors would talk to elderly Jews about long term health provisions, such as living wills, under the pretense that they would be able to decide difficult life-and-death situations in a clinical, non-emotional setting, but the Jews tell me that they were in fact more appropriately called ‘death panels.’

“Because of this, millions of ethnic and religious minorities were systematically eliminated, forced to wait in long lines for diagnoses and organ transplants, and the diagnoses they did receive were determined by Nazi bureaucrats shuffling papers back in Berlin rather than trained medical doctors. It is a tragedy beyond tragedy, sir. Despicable, deplorable, abominable. Some have begun to call this the ‘Holocaust,’ meaning wholesale burning. I believe this term is more than appropriate for the destruction wrecked by the hands of one clearly insane megalomaniac.”

The room lay silent once more, as everyone watched the President for a reaction. Roosevelt’s face had transformed into a stony facade, revealing no emotion, until finally, his hands gripped the sides of his wheelchair and he pushed himself up, forcing his polio-stricken legs to support him. An aide rushed forward with his braces, but he pushed them aside with a wave of his hand, and turned to face his cabinet.

“Gentlemen,” his steady voice intoned, “We today have seen the very face of evil. The Nazis have done terrible things – they have started a world war, plunging the globe in a bloodbath, and today we continue to fight the aftereffects of their greed as we struggle to triumph over the Empire of Japan. But today, we have learned a Nazi policy so terrible, so incredible, that it pales in comparison to the rape and pillage he has committed across the face of Europe, Asia, and Africa.”

Roosevelt coughed, and his aide rushed forward again, but Roosevelt simply shook his head before continuing to speak. His eyes clear and wet with tears, he paused momentarily, before finishing his statement.

“Let it be known, gentlemen, that no matter what atrocity the Nazis may have committed against us, the United States of America, for now and forever, Nazism and fascism will be synonymous with the damnable policy of the so-called program of universal health care. Let America be warned – should we as Americans decide that caring for our elderly, our poor, our sick, our needy, our uninsured is somehow important enough to raise taxes on those who can afford, a tragedy akin to the Holocaust, perhaps even greater will occur.”

The entire room remained soberly somber. Not a single cough or rustling of fabric could be heard as each man sat still, contemplating the staggering cost of destruction the Nazi program of universal health care had caused. Roosevelt gently eased himself back into his wheelchair and then turned, staring into each man’s eye.

“Mark my words, gentlemen. Mark my words. Universal health care equals the Holocaust.”

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