white-donkeyBack around the time that I enlisted in the Marines, I came to an abrupt realization: very little fiction featuring or focused on the military actually reflected what I saw as the reality of the military. For the most part, what I saw was a lot of people behaving in ways unrealistic for their roles, particularly in that commissioned officers were badass, all-purpose action heroes. Junior enlisted (a/k/a the numerical bulk of the military) featured not at all, or if featured slotted into convenient stereotypes, and if a story started with focus on a private, you could bet a paycheck or two that he or she would wind up some kind of commissioned officer (lieutenant, captain, etc.) by the end of the story.

This is purest, refined, high-quality, premium-grade horseshit. This never happens. The closest it got to being a thing was in World War II, due to the sheer scale and attrition of that war.

Yes, officers definitely get their heroics in, though usually it’s alongside lots of lower enlisted folks, often committing heroics on a similar scale. But for the most part, their job is to direct and supervise everyone else doing the actual fighting.

But if you read a lot of military fiction, especially science fiction, you’d get the impression that only officers had stories to tell, and they were the only ones who could interest and engage an audience. I get that part of this is due to the “big picture,” in that an audience (allegedly) feels the need to see the entire scope of the conflict and the character’s part in it. I would argue, however, that there are ways to communicate big picture through a junior enlisted character (who remains junior enlisted), and that big picture is not necessary to tell an engaging story.

Terminal Lance: The White Donkey is as close as I can get to a thesis on this particular topic, at least for now. The graphic novel was written and illustrated by Maximilian Uriarte, a former Marine infantryman and veteran of Iraq (like me!), who created this project as a Kickstarter back in 2013. By then, he’d been at work on a sort-of companion webcomic, Terminal Lance, for three years, starting in 2010 just before he got out of the Marines. After some delays, he finally dropped the book to backers, plus a supply for general purchase on Amazon, this past Monday.

The story follows Abe, a disgruntled junior enlisted Marine as he prepares for, then departs for the war in Iraq, circa 2007. His experiences there are personally problematic, and his disgruntlement spills over in dramatic ways. Along the way he experiences things both surreal and illuminating, and provides a lot of commentary not only on the Iraq war specifically, but war and warriors in general. Unsurprisingly, given his experience, the other junior enlisted Marines are drawn (figuratively and literally) like real people, not two-dimensional placeholders.

The best comparison to this is probably the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, which like The White Donkey, draws from the creator’s own experiences in a hard and unpopular war, with educated protagonists seen as working “beneath” themselves by enlisting in the infantry with the idea of going to war. There are specific incidents that draw from real life, and the war is portrayed as it is (for the most part) with very little hype or stylization. The junior enlisted characters never really advance in rank, they have conflicts with authority, and they’re searching for some meaning beyond themselves. They both find it in the end, though that really is the sum of the similarities in the stories.

Platoon features an arc that is generally too convenient for real life, and Stone is known to have mashed together things that happened to other units or (in the case of the climactic call for a bombing run right on the unit’s position ) to other services. But that is part of the requirement of the story he was telling, in the war movie format. Uriarte had more latitude, being a creator-published work, and the story he wanted to tell was different, incorporating the return from Iraq and dealing with the effects of what happened there. And he executes it well, beginning to end, in every facet of the medium.

Bottom line, excellent book and another datapoint for my thesis: small scope stories have merit, junior enlisted stories have merit, and they’re often more true to the realities of conflict than stories that focus on officers and senior enlisted.

Unfortunate footnote: you can’t get the book any more. The author sold through his print run of the book, and seems disinclined to foot the bill for another printing on his own. I’m hopeful he find a publisher for it, but it may be seen as too niche for a traditional publishing deal. If I know you well and you want to borrow it, something can be arranged, but for now… it’s a rare bird.


Last night I finally got around to watching Interstellar. The wife and kids were off at her folks’ and my friends were busy, so I decided to catch up on some movies I had been meaning to see. I ordered some Thai, sat down, and proceeded to watch one of the better movies I’ve seen in a long time. I had been meaning to do some house hunting stuff on my laptop while I watched, but I was so into the movie that that was all forgotten. I want to watch Interstellar again, which is my personal high-water mark for a movie’s quality. Then I posted on Facebook that I liked it, and got back the comment I had been dreading: in short, “Ugh, Anne Hathaway’s speech.”

If you’re not familiar, around halfway through the movie it’s revealed that Hathaway’s character, Amelia Brand, may be pushing to explore one particular destination over another because her onetime lover was sent to that destination. She gives a speech about love, about how it is a motive force, and then winds up speculating that maybe love exists beyond biology and has an extra-dimensional character to it. A lot of people got worked up about this, because they felt it was too much “new age woo” in their science fiction.

In fact, all it really was, was a bit of new age woo in a sad, lonely, and desperate person on the sharp edge of a potentially futile mission to save humanity. It was a revelation of her character. The story itself never really validated her speculation.

This is one of those neat things you can do with storytelling. Let’s say I have a character who says, “Peanut butter is God” and another character who says, “Might be, all I know is, it tastes good.” If the story doesn’t then have the characters receiving the will of God by way of peanut butter, then the author is not really trying to make a point about the divinity of peanut butter. The story is not about the divinity of peanut butter. The story is just showing that under some circumstances, someone might feel that passionately about it. If either of them decide they should go to the store and get more peanut butter, driving forward the action or the plot, that’s still not any kind of statement on the divinity of peanut butter.

Interstellar talks a lot about love and family and what drives people, especially in desperate circumstances. It does not validate the idea that love is cosmologically significant, just that it’s significant to the actions of people. Which, amazingly, it is! Like fear, hate, greed, anger, etc. The only thing Interstellar says, definitively, about the nature of the cosmos is that a) it still has secrets we have not uncovered and b) we need to leave Earth if we want to uncover them.

Last year, I found myself in the strange position of being the last member of my extended family to live in the house my mother’s parents had owned since the late 1950s. That was a rather odd experience. I was working in metro Detroit (while there rest of my own family was still in Grand Rapids), my grandmother had moved to assisted living, and the family needed someone to do some extended house-sitting while they first convinced my grandmother to sell it, then prepped it to be sold. It was cheap, and close enough to work, so I jumped at it.

Leaving it was strange, getting the last of my things out when I moved with my family into an apartment nearer to my job. Walking through empty rooms, knowing that it had been sold to someone else, that someone else would soon start to build memories there. I liked the town the house was in, hard against 8 Mile Road, the infamous northern border of Detroit. Whites had streamed out of there in the 80s and 90s, furthering the “white flight” from the inner city to the suburbs, then to the more distant suburbs (precisely the path my parents had taken in the mid-80s). The neighborhood was exactly as I remembered it, with well-tended lawns and houses and working class folks everywhere.

Saturday, I kind of get to do it again. My other grandmother passed away back in December and that side of my family has gotten their act together, cleaned out the house, and sold it. Closing is in a couple weeks, so Saturday I go over there to take the last couple things we elected to save out of the garage. My Dad’s parents had owned that house since the 1950s, or early 1960s, and it was a touchstone of my childhood, a constant where my own home and neighborhood had changed. Grandma’s was always, or nearly always the same.

And now, like my other grandparents’ home, it’s about to be gone, to be a new home for someone else. I hope it is for them what it was for me.

Speaking of geographic mobility, yesterday we ended our temporary single car adventure by getting my wife’s minivan fixed. The “fix” involved replacing the battery–no simple task in her van’s crowded engine compartment–the alternator tested, and a headlight replaced. We hadn’t bothered when we discovered the issue back at the end of February because, aside from a couple points where we needed to be in two places outside of the home at once, we really didn’t need two cars.

However, those points added up and looked to continue to be obnoxious. It meant I had to go into work late, or get dropped off and picked up, and while those were doable, they’re not really sustainable. And the costs savings of only operating one car wasn’t all that great, either. Since we don’t drive the second car all that much, we don’t spend a lot filling it with gas, and the insurance, while not exactly negligible isn’t a life-changing amount of money, either. So we figured having the flexibility, ultimately, was more valuable than the minor cash savings.

That said, I’m forever attracted to the idea of going car-less or car-light. Even living in Metro Detroit, bastion of the automobile, I figure its really quite feasible. I’ve gone without a car on a couple of other (extended) occasions, and it mostly meant a lot of walking and having a certain savvy for the local bus system which, truth be told, isn’t terrible around here. I know, “not actively awful” isn’t exactly high praise, but I’ll take it. I’m confident it’ll (probably) get better.

Every so often, I write something in a discussion that I want to share more broadly. What follows is one such occasion, responding to someone who thinks that the 70s and 80s were a safer time for kids, and wondering if the scumbags who snatched kids and such were always with us.


There always were scumbags, but two things happened.

One, we became far more aware of the scumbags. First newspapers, then nightly news, then 24 hours news networks desperate to fill time and local news channels hyping everything to get you to tune to them instead of anyone else. And then, of course, the scumbag internet and well-intentioned (but trolling) chain e-mails from your friends and loved ones. The sense of danger became inflated far and above its actuality, simply because we heard it more often. Fictional media really didn’t help, either, given shows and movie franchises that exist entirely on the premise that there are serial killers and kiddy diddlers hiding EVERYWHERE, ready to pounce.

Two, we became more isolated in the places we live. Given factors like job mobility (or lack of job security), geographic mobility, and aspirational housing, you don’t have quite as many stable neighborhoods as you used to. New people moving in, familiar people moving out, and a general wariness of strangers increased the fear that anybody, anywhere could be a sinister danger to your kids. Add to that the increased workday/commute (which makes it harder to get out and meet the neighbors) and a general increase in people gravitating toward interest-based, non-geographical communities (such as Fark), and you have a situation in which we generally regard our physical neighbors as no more trustworthy than actual, complete strangers.

But overall, the world is no more dangerous a place than it had been in the 60s or 70s or 80s, when it seems a lot of commenters grew up and wandered the land with impunity.

It should also go without saying, and in the interests of fairly representing the other side of the coin, that all of the people to whom bad things happened are not here to talk about them. I think of that every time I see something on Facebook like “We all played with guns as kids and we’re still here!” or “We never sat in car seats, and we’re still here!”  Well no kidding, Sherlock. It’s about the people who aren’t here that caused the issues in the first place.

But that doesn’t mean that the world is more dangerous. The danger was always there. Danger is always there. The question is how you respond to it, how you teach your kids to respond to it. You can’t ever escape it, so it’s far better to learn to live beside it, and confront it when necessary.

I’m getting to the point where I’m just getting tired beyond tired of some things. Not, like, suicidally tired so please don’t worry in that vein, just…tired. Tired enough to ignore them as best I can for a good long time. That’s always tricky though, of course, especially if I’m to remain even vaguely engaged with social media. You never know when a valued friend is going to go on a tear about something. And not that I want to stifle anyone; they should feel free to bang the drum about things that are important to them.

But I’m tired of it, weary, worn out.

The latest thing is the sturm und drang over the Hugos and the Sad Puppy slate. I mean, it’s obviously a shit sandwich. That windbag Wright got nominated for how many separate works? Okay, whatever. As Justin Landon says very well, the whole effing thing is broken. (And whether there’s a false equivalency in the weighting of shortlist appearances for competing agendas, or one side is worse than the other, what’s clear is that it’s capable of being gamed by anyone with an agenda.) And while I could get into the arguments, and the minutiae, and advocate for what I feel is right… Right now I just can’t be arsed, beyond the occasional parenthetical commentary.

In addition to what Justin said about the failures of Internet democracy, I think this is another problem with the always-present nature of the internet and the discussions happening there. There’s a certain pressure to participate in discussions like this, and put one’s two cents in, and take a stand. And it’s like, man, all I’ve got to say is that it’s broken and I don’t have the energy to discuss it beyond that. Thankfully, as of late, no one drops by here to make me defend my assertions, so I’ve got that going for me. But that’s mostly because I do post more here than I say on Twitter and Facebook where I know I’ve got a present, if meager, audience. I’m not so worried about the spambots talking back to me here. Or you, future reader, looking back through the archives to see if I dropped some undiscovered nuggets of wisdom.

In other news, I’m also tired of looking for a house. I mean, fucking tired. Fuck that process. So much hate.

Periodically, I have ideas of things to post here, things that I could talk about. Inevitably, when I sit down to actually do this, I completely forget what I was going to say or do. There’s an app for my phone which could probably help me at least register ideas as drafts, and I could go from there. One of these days, I’ll get that organized.

Neat things:

  • “Rules of Enchantment,” the story I wrote with Tobias Buckell, which appeared in the John Joseph Adams anthology, Operation Arcana, turned up on Wired.com (with our permission, natch) last weekend. Check it here.
  • After a discouraging weekend looking at houses, we might be getting a second chance on a house we thought we had completely missed out on. All depends on a relocation company seeing reason, but we’re cautiously hopeful. Apartment living is getting really old.
  • I continue to write, slowly but surely. I should do some more after I finish up this blog post.
  • I attended my first meeting of my local community theatre’s Play Reading & Casting Committee. I’m really excited about contributing to the theatre with this, and getting a better appreciation of what’s out there. I feel woefully under-informed when I have conversations with just about anyone else in the community, so I’m excited to contribute and get to know the landscape better at the same time.
  • That’s about it. Yep, that’ll do.  It’s Friday, so… yeah.

In other news: Friday.

My Inbox looks ridiculous right now and yeah, that’s about it. I had a really neat opportunity last week, that I’ll talk about more at some point, but it took a lot of thought and some time, so I found myself in a bit of deficit when it came to spare brain cycles. Plus my wife had gone out of town for her semi-regular pilgrimage back to her dayjob employer, so my workday was compressed and my evenings a little more chaotic than normal.

Plus there’s been the tragicomic search for a house. I swear, if I hear one more time, “Bad news… there’s nine million offers on that house already…” I’m going to scream. Ironically, there’s a bunch of houses we could have, but we don’t like them much. Apparently no one else does either. Which makes me think the current environment is some kind of bizarro blend of a buyer’s and a seller’s market. (Seriously, there’s like 10-15 properties we dismissed that are just… lingering out there right now.) It’s a seller’s market for people with granite countertops in their kitchens and fresh paint everywhere. For people trying to sell something with a lot of paneling or wallpaper… it seems to be trickier.

But that’s it for excuses. Today I get things back on track.


Yeah, I wanted to try blogging every day, but that just didn’t work. For, you know, reasons. One of the big ones was that I was actually successful in getting some fiction writing done on my lunch hour. Pretty sweet, right? Right. As is typical for me, I have a dozen things I’d like to be working on simultaneously, but with kids and a day job, that’s kind of tough. I have the time/energy for one thing at a time, though I suppose I could refine the process a little, if I could perfect switching gears on command. I’m also trying to read more, of course, which makes it tricky, too.  I’m still meandering through The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. It’s been good so far, but like with everything, if I just sink into it, then nothing else gets done, including this.

And yeah, this might not seem as important as, you know, reading, but I find it rather useful.

Life, otherwise, has been life. Work, wife, kids, house hunting, convention planning, theatre planning, and so on. Went to a convention planning party on Saturday, and that was fun as far as it went. But I do wonder if I’m not burning out on it a little. I guess we’ll see how I feel in the fall as we start to ramp up to the convention. I know a lot of people who do convention planning say this, but… I’m wondering if I wouldn’t enjoy just attending for once. It’s been a while since I did that.

Just bought two books for my Nook: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, which I twigged to thanks to a BBC Travel article, and Tripwire by Lee Child, third in his Jack Reacher series. We’ll see how long it takes to actually get to them…