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The Coming Age of Assholes: Mad Max Fury Road

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-lovely-dayMad Max: Fury Road is a great movie. Zero exposition, nonstop action, real-feeling stuntwork, and subtle performances plus a surfeit of imagination when it comes to the details and characters of a universe — these are the ingredients for a film that will probably be remembered long after the Marvel tent collapses under its own weight. If you disagree that Fury Road is a good-to-great film, we are no longer friends.

What struck me most about the universe in Fury Road is the way George Miller assumes that in the event of apocalypse, it’s not the strong who will survive. Or the just. Or the smart. Or the innocent. No, Miller’s universe has consistently assumed one thing: When the world ends, it will be the assholes who rule the embers.

Confining ourselves just to Fury Road, every single character, basically, is an asshole. You have your murderous thugs in Immortan Joe and his crew, you have your unsympathetic, gluttonous plutocrats in the leaders of Gastown and the Bullet Farm. You even have Max himself and Furiosa, our protagonists, who are both incredible assholes. Max, after all, spends much of the film concerned only for himself, and Furiosa isn’t exactly nice, and she’s making “amends” for some mysterious crimes, likely pegged to her rank as Imperator in Immortan Joe’s brutal society.

Now, this makes sense. A lot of apocalyptic fiction likes to imagine that at least somewhere some thoughtful, socialized folks will set up camp and impose some sort of order, or that even when pushed to the edges of their humanity people will still be fundamentally good. The Stand and The Walking Dead both trade in these tropes, but Miller is probably closer to what would really happen: The assholes who already act like civilization is an impediment to their enjoyment of life will simply strap on a studded codpiece, rev up a chainsaw, and take over your town with brutal glee.

Think about the folks you ride the subway with, who share your HOA, who bump into you at bars and nightclubs. Think about all those assholes and despair, because chances are they will be the Immortan Joes of our future world, whereas the rest of us will be killed, enslaved, or exiled.

In fact, I personally like an interpretation of the film that “Max” as portrayed by Tom Hardy isn’t actually the Max Rockatansky from the original three films — that Max has become a legend of sorts, a ceremonial name people adopt when they leave behind the brutal me-vs-you attitude of the world. This appeals to me because it fits in with my Assholes Theory: It’s like you have this epiphany that you just fought like a dog for something larger than yourself, or common decency, and you’re declaring that you’re no longer, I dunno, Gloriable Amputate or some other insane persona wearing leather and driving a car festooned with rusting metal spikes, but a person – the legendary Max.

Likely that’s a stretch, though Miller’s casual attitude towards continuity and throughline in his four films makes it entirely possible. Either way, it doesn’t matter, the point remains the same: In the Mad Max universe, the assholes have taken over, and it’s why the films are so good. It’s the verisimilitude.


Excerpt from “The Walled City”


Because this is my job, I’m going to continue to try and convince you to buy my wares. Here’s the first 600 words or so of the new Cates short story, which you know you want like the desert wants the rain:

1. the accumulation of humiliating aches and pains

I made myself as comfortable as I could against the tree and watched the smoke rise. Several thin tendrils of white smoke, very tidy, very on purpose. This wasn’t some old fuel depot blowing, or a town catching a spark from a wildfire. This was civilization.

In the field in front of me there was the wreck of an old SSF Hover, bent nearly in half, a scattering of rotting white uniforms around it. It had been stripped of anything useful years ago, and a climbing vine had begun to envelope it industriously, crushing it an increment at a time over the course of centuries.

The fields had once been worked and still retained the basic outlines of neat squares of crops, but were being overrun, melting slowly back into the wild. I sat for a long time in the warming air, watching, listening. The smoke was the first sign of life I’d encountered since the Howler. I didn’t exactly have the urge to go running towards it, shouting in joy at not being alone any more.

Instead, I let my hands slide the shredder off my shoulder and begin dismantling it while my eyes, which weren’t what they used to be, kept scanning, and my ears – also not what they once were – kept straining through the birdsongs.

Shredders, the Roon Corporation 1009 model – gas-powered, explosive shells – were notoriously easy to jam. They attracted grit and dirt like it was a design feature, and failed on a regular basis. For the old Stormers in their white ObFu, it didn’t matter because they’d had plenty of backups, and plenty of other Stormers laying down fire. For me, alone and old, with limited ammo and fraying reflexes, the shredder was a superpower. If it didn’t jam when I fired it.

Luckily, they’d been designed for morons to take apart and clean.

I didn’t know where I was. I hadn’t seen any of the robotic … things that had dragged me to the Howler’s little playpen, but that didn’t mean they weren’t out there. And now I had cooking fires, my first people in a very, very long time. I didn’t know how to feel about being alarmed and unhappy about the idea of seeing other human beings.

Feel smart, Marin whispered in my head.

He was the last survivor, or at least the last conscious survivor. Where once I’d had dozens in my head, Marin was the only one who spoke up, now. It was rarer and rarer, and usually only to insult me, though if I concentrated I found I could usually get him to answer me. There might be others in there, silent, watching – Marin had hinted as much – or then again he might have been fucking with me, because I got the sense that Richard Marin, former Director of the System Security Force, did not like me very much.

When I was done with the shredder, I stowed it next to me in its bag and took out the Head. Mara’s face was frozen in an expression locked somewhere between shock and amusement, and would always be if I had anything to say about it. Inside the plastic and silicon was Canny Orel, or a magnetic imprint of him, all those secrets, all that death.

“One,” I said, holding it up to the sky, “I go check out the smoke. Good idea if it’s civilized. Maybe I can trade some stuff. Jesus, maybe someone has fucking alcohol.”

The Head said nothing.

“Two,” I offered. “I go around the long way, because everyone I’ve ever met in my whole life has been a miserable asshole.”

The Head said nothing, but it felt like it was agreeing with me.







New Avery Cates Short Story Coming

Walled_coverSo, Avery Cates is not only my first published book series, it’s also a character close to my heart and one I thoroughly enjoy writing. And while I’m busy with a lot of other projects, sitting down and writing an Avery story always remains in the back of my head, so I’m giving in, slowly.

A few months ago I published The Shattered Gears, a short story that was also the nub of a new Avery adventure. Since then I’ve written The Walled City, which will be released as a short story on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Google Play on June 15th, 2015, again for 99 cents. It’s a direct continuation of the story from The Shattered Gears. It’s available for pre-order now, in fact!

I have a whole story arc laid out, and what I’m going to do, until someone tells me to stop, is write chunks of the story and release them as novella-length pieces. Each piece will be a standalone story as well as a piece of a larger story. When all the chunks are out, I’ll combine them into the complete novel and release it separately.

Why not? This way I’m not trying to write a whole novel while trying to write six other things, but I still get to play in my favorite universe and sell some writing. It’s a win-win, I think.

Feel free to spread the word to any Avery fans out there. Here’s a little video trailer I made for the new story:

Any questions, just shoot me an email!


Mech: Age of Steel

mechSo, I am in this anthology: Mech: Age of Steel

From the publisher: “Growing up there was only one thing I loved more than giant monsters and that would be giant robots! The anthology will feature a diverse array of tales from some of the genre’s finest talent … and each story will be accompanied by a piece of interior art by either Frankie B. Washington or Oksana Dmitrienko.

“The Mech: Age of Steel Kickstarter campaign will launch in Q3/4 2015 and feature stories from some of the genre’s finest talent.”

Mysteriously, they include me in that category. Considering who else in this thing, that’s incredible:

  • Kevin J. Anderson & David Boop
  • Jody Lynn Nye
  • Graham McNeill
  • Peter Clines
  • Jeremy Robinson
  • Martha Wells
  • Jeff J. Mariotte & Marsheila Rockwell
  • Ramez Naam & Jason M. Hough
  • Gini Koch (writing as J.C. Koch)
  • Matt Forbeck
  • Anton Strout
  • Bill Fawcett
  • C.L. Werner
  • James Ray Tuck, Jr.
  • M.L. Brennan
  • Timothy W. Long
  • Jennifer Brozek
  • Kane Gilmour
  • Paul Genesse
  • Patrick M. Tracy
  • Andrew Liptak
  • Steve Diamond

Just FYI for now – get ready to support the kickstarter so I will actually be paid for this thing. Otherwise I will find you and burn your house down.


A Few Quick Mad Men Thoughts

How come when I wear a suit I look like a 10-year old kid playing dress up?

How come when I wear a suit I look like a 10-year old kid playing dress up?

While I realize the universe is likely not waiting breathlessly for one more set of random thoughts on a TV show, I have always been that jackass that likes to bloviate endlessly about TV shows and the like, so let’s do this.

Watching the final episodes of Mad Men I’ve been struck by the way the show repeats patterns in different ways, generally following changes in the characters. In some ways, each of the principles is ending the show on a pitch-perfect note for their characters, the perfectly appropriate ending. Roger has come full-circle as the monied but irrelevant figurehead. Joan, who once advised all the girls to pursue husbands and not get too ahead of themselves, is cut short on her rise to power. Peggy, whose life has been dedicated (to the detriment of everything else) to her career, attacks her new job with gusto. Pete, lusting after executive success, finally gets a job that lives up to his expectations. Betty – sure, Betty is dead, but her final scene showed her back in school, flirting with the boys, like she’d always wanted. While some of the details of these fates are unexpected, you can line them up with Season One’s depiction of these characters.

The perfect example, which I suspect will show up in next week’s finale in some form, is simple enough: Don is running away again. Don Draper, coward, liar, creative force, is once again fleeing his life into the West.

He’s done this before, or tried to. When Pete Campbell threatened to expose him, he tried to run away. When his wife found out about his affairs and his lies and began to assert herself, he fled to California for a long time. Don has always run away, or dreamed of running away. It’s what he does.

The difference is that before, Don ran out of fear. Fear was what drove him, a desire to escape consequences. What’s he running away from here at the end of the season? Not fear: For once he has nothing to fear. He’s secure in his career (or could be), he’s got access to all the best accounts, he’s divorced, rich, and his kids are finally growing up. His relationship with poor Betty was on the upswing. He’s even day-drinking in a modestly controllable manner and hasn’t vomited, passed out, or pissed himself in front of other people in ages!

You could argue that he runs out of fear, that what inspires him to run is actually the sight of all those other Creative Directors, the competition. Maybe Don is terrified he’s lost “it” and can’t compete. Instead of a big fish in a small pond, he’s suddenly a guppy, and he runs in terror. The clue, for me, is the shot of the plane that captures Don’s attention right before he flees. It’s not fear. He looks around and realizes he has no desire to do this work any more.

No, Don’s running for other reasons, finally. He sits in a boring meeting and realizes he’s no longer the Golden Boy, he’s one of dozens of Creative Directors. He’s a cog. And he’s bored. So he does what I think anyone with an office job has dreamed of doing: He walks out of a meeting, away from millions of dollars, gives away his car, and seems happy about it all. Just walks out. Because it’s not fear, for once. He’s just ready to move on.

This is why I’ve really enjoyed the show. It’s thoughtful, and while it could be occasionally obvious in its metaphors, and sometimes a bit plodding with self-seriousness, it’s one of the few TV shows I’ve ever seen that explores themes and patterns over the course of the entire show, and not just for a brief episode arc. Don’s a runner, so he runs – but not always for the same reasons.


The Perils of Podcasts



As you may or may not know I am likely the most incompetent self-promoter in the universe, which is problematic when you live in the age of the Shrunken Publishers who basically buy your novel and then then wave vaguely at the wide world and wish you the best of luck promoting your book. Part of my incompetence is in the planning, certainly; I have never claimed to be skilled at or even knowledgeable about marketing or PR, and I literally often have no idea what I should be doing. Or not doing. So far all I’ve figured out is

SHOULD BE DOING: Wearing pants.

SHOULD NOT BE DOING: Cursing at people on the assumption that they have not bought my book.

That’s it. But I’m also incompetent on the doing of self-promotion as well. For example, I recently did a promotional thing and broke all the rules of a good live reading and interview appearance: I was not prepared, I got flustered, I got out of breath and spent the entire forty-five minute experience sounding like someone had recently kicked me in the groin and about a second or so away from passing out.

Once you lose your breath under pressure, my experience tells me, you’re screwed, because you need a few minutes of calm in order to get yourself under control, which means a few minutes of dead silence while the person or audience listens to you breathing (and possibly sobbing, or glugging down booze, or possibly all of those things).

Which brings me to the lesson here: Be prepared? Sure, see how that works out for you. No, the lesson is to always be drunk when doing any sort of appearance.

I am not kidding. In the words of Professor Jennings from Animal House: “I’m not joking. This is my job!”

Now, I’m not talking about being ripped, staggering about shouting. I’ve done that, and it is not effective promotion. Back before The Electric Church was published, I was invited to a launch party by my publisher. I’d recently been asked to consider writing sequels to the book, and so I thought: Jebus, this is it, I will henceforth be rich and famous and adored by millions and able to leverage that adoration into an income the likes of which has never been seen! Or something to that effect. I’d already written about half the sequel, and was really full of myself. So I got really, really drunk and began shouting all sorts of things I now regret. I can’t forget this because The Duchess reminds me of it any time we go out to an industry party, with the implication that she will knock me unconscious if I try to repeat the performance.

No, what I mean is: Have a drink. Sit for twenty minutes with a scotch, or a glass of wine or a beer and relax. Have two! Then stop, because your goal is a nice buzz, not staggering around in Hulk Jeff mode as described above.

I’ll never get this particular appearance back, and maybe it wasn’t as bad as it felt at the time (it was). My sole comfort is that no one is paying much attention to me anyway, so very few people will notice this when it goes live. Which means I might as well not wear pants and get horribly drunk anyway, right?


Why I Was So Smug in College

Digging through rejections, another non-rejection that’s still kind of interesting, I think. I’ve told this story before, but now with pictures!

Back in 1989 I was a young kid, and I’d written a science fiction novel called White Rabbit, which was about a specially trained agent of a galactic civilization who could control his musculature so minutely he could actually change his appearance just by concentrating in order to infiltrate groups and such. On a mission, he discovers a terrible secret, and finds himself at odds with his own people, and on the run. Yada yada yada. Was it good? I haven’t read it over in 26 years, so who the hell knows. I did, however, manage to get someone to agree to publish it. In fact, I have the letter to prove it (and the contract):

Sic-Sic by the Seaside? WHAT THE HELL, 17-YEAR OLD ME?

Sic-Sic by the Seaside? WHAT THE HELL, 17-YEAR OLD ME?

Yup, not only was he not looking for submissions, and not only did I apparently write him an incoherent cover letter in which I assigned us code names, I also left several pages out of the photocopy I sent him. PROFESSIONALISM: Look into it. Hey, I was in high school! And any way, it worked: He wanted to publish me. We actually signed a contract. There was no advance, and about a year and a half later he wrote to say he had to cancel everything due to financial and health reasons.

Just goes to show that you just never know. I mailed 350 pages of manuscript, unsolicited, to a guy based on a (dubious) listing in the Writer’s Market, and came close to actually seeing a novel in print. No wonder I was such a prick when I arrived at college.

What I really wish is that I could see the letters I wrote this guy, especially that first one. I have no copies of them, and this was snail mail, so my letters are likely lost forever. That first letter must have been something, though, and certainly set the tone for the rest of my literary career. Which is to say: Batshit.


My Rottened Heart and All the Grubs Within

John had for some time tried to be a good man, until the death of Casey Farrow made the burden unmanageable. That night, after the phone had stopped ringing finally, he’d waited for Celia to fall asleep, waited for her breathing to deepen and smooth out, waited for the soft and feminine snore to begin, and slipped out of the bedroom and into the living room. Finding his hidden pack of cigarettes, stale and dusty, he went into the cold kitchen, sat down at the little-used table and smoked in the dark, staring at unfamiliar shapes: the fridge, the microwave, the door to the bathroom.

He thought about Casey Farrow’s wife, Margaret.

Sitting, he looked around the dark kitchen. It had been Celia’s apartment, now theirs. They had decided that Celia’s was larger and in a better neighborhood, that his apartment was cold and cramped. He regretted the decision, he wished for his own private space, someplace where he wouldn’t have to pretend to be normal.

He thought about Celia, the laughing girl he’d met five years ago, and never fallen in love with.

Celia was pretty but unspectacular. She laughed at too many things and took disproportionate joy in simple, everyday things. She was honest and affectionate and practical and willing in bed and hundred other attractive things, but for John there was always one thing she wasn’t, and would never be. She was not Casey’s wife Margaret.

For her part, Celia lay awake and imagined she knew what John was chewing on in the kitchen. The empty half of the bed seemed to glow radioactively next to her, his fading body heat an accusation.

She kicked at the covers. Sat up. Fell back to the mattress. Let out an explosive breath.

Celia had always been a popular girl, but one of those pretty tomboyish girls who garnered more emotional conversations than kisses. She’d made up for it with aggressiveness, making a cheerful habit of dominating conversations and attempting seductions carelessly. She had a reputation in high school, and several boyfriends in college, but John quieted her.

She was two years younger than him, and had known him since high school. In school she’d been able to walk up to any boy and say anything, she was famous for it. But around John, she’d always been tongue-tied. She found it almost impossible to speak two words to him, and so naturally they became friends in college, where she had chosen to attend the same school as he did. They met at a dorm party and he recognized her, which thrilled her, secretly. For some time, then, she settled into her familiar role as John’s faux-sister, providing emotional talks and quiet, non-physical support. It killed her, froze her brittle inside, but she settled for it, and made up for it by dating. Predatorily, she seduced well-meaning men around, men who hardly had time to decide whether they were attracted to her mix of pretty and broad shoulders before they found themselves in bed with her. John’s amused commentaries on her love life merely irritated her, but silently.

For his part, John had met and fallen in love with Margaret, asked her out, been refused, and settled with a companionable flirtation with her. Young, optimistic, and unimpressed with her choice of boyfriend, John had been quietly and self-satisfyingly sure that she would come around. She never did.

On the wedding day, John brought Celia as his date to watch Margaret marry another man. He drank and drank and drank but could not seem to get drunk. He sat with Celia and kept track of Margaret. He danced with Celia and watched Margaret dance. He talked to Celia and heard Margaret’s vows in his head. And after the reception, with a headache, with dust in his mouth, he took Celia to bed and thought of Margaret as he’d never seen her. Imagined her elsewhere, doing similar things.

Celia lay awake and remembered that night. Fully aware, she’d let him and could not bring herself to get out of bed, go to the kitchen, and tell him what a bastard he was.



Rejection-palooza Part the Fourth

Once again, I’ve taken a walk through my many, many, many rejections letters in search of interesting or humorous things. This time I switched over to my pile of short story rejections.

I write a fair number of short works out of love, and also because I think writing short stories keeps you in practice. By forcing myself to think up a premise and knock out 1,000 – 5,000 words that conclude with a recognizable ending every month, I’m keeping my skills sharp. Or so I tell myself. Whatever, shut up. Anyways, as a result of this practice I have tons of short stories to sell, and so I, er, sell them. I’ve been trying to hawk my short stories for decades, and I have the rejections to prove it.

These days, most of those rejections are emails, because I don’t submit via paper any more. But back in 2006 I was still sending out paper submissions, with HILARIOUS cover letters. Trust me: Hilarious cover letters for the win. I got this response for a short story called “Time’s Thumb”:

NO PANTS for the win.

NO PANTS for the win.

I don’t recall what I wrote in the cover letter about my pants, but it amused the editor enough to invite me to submit again. Did I? I honestly can’t recall right now. Probably not, because I am incompetent.

I do think selling writing is 50% finding someone on the other side that sees things the way you do, who gets your jokes and references. Making an editor laugh is a good way to be memorable to them, and to wedge your story into their brains. Also, it’s one more step towards a world where everyone just accepts that I don’t wear pants. Mission: Accomplished.


It Follows: Needs More It Following


It sure as hell does.

I saw the film It Follows over the weekend, and it was pretty damn good: I love the premise, and I thought the execution was excellent, for the most part.

If you’re unfamiliar, It Follows is a horror film with a simple premise: A young girl has sex with a new boyfriend and is promptly informed that she has now been cursed: “It” will begin following her, and if it catches her, it will kill her. She can pass “it” on to someone else by having sex with them, but if that person is caught and killed, “It” will return its attentions to her. “It” can only be seen by the people who have been infected, and it takes various forms, all chosen to be particularly terrifying to each of its victims; this means sometimes “It” takes the form of loved ones.

“It” always walks at a steady pace, “It” always walks in a straight line, and “It” never stops.

The Heroic Heebie Jeebies

Now, for my money that premise rocks. Yes, the slut-shaming angle is a bit musty, but at least it’s unisex, but the relentlessness of “It” is horrifying. Something about the slow and steady approach of horrifying death that only you can see is effective.

Even better are the moments in the film when people are talking or doing something else, and you (the audience) become aware of someone (or something) approaching from the background. Naturally, you begin assuming “It” is always lurking, slowly walking towards the camera, and it is very effective at making you feel the dread that the characters must be feeling.

In fact, the one flaw of the film, I think, is that it doesn’t do this very often. There are only perhaps three moments in the movie (that I’m aware of) where extended shots show someone approaching from a distance, prompting this sort of dread. That dread is powerful, kids, and the film would have been better served, I think, to set up a few more sequences when you find yourself desperately searching the middle distance of the shot.

Diminishing Returns

Which prompts the question: If you have a powerful device in your story (or film), how often should you employ it? Once too many and it loses steam and can even become a joke. Not enough and you miss an opportunity. Certainly in It Follows if every scene had been a game of “spot It!” the effect would have worn thin very quickly, and become kind of boring and predictable by the end. While I think once or twice more, in variations, would have served the film well (and since it’s only 92 minutes long now, two more long sequences like that wouldn’t make it overlong), five or six more would have become kind of tedious.

So how do you know? It’s difficult. You want that magic number one less than boredom, so the rule of thumb should always be to use a device or technique only as often as you need to – once to establish it for the reader/viewer, once more to make it a technique instead of a one-off, and then … as many more times as you can get away with without cheapening the whole affair.

It Follows played it safe with its most powerful aspect, and that’s fine – it’s still a pretty good movie that kept my interest. But a little more of It Following might have made It Follows the creepiest movie I’ve ever seen.