Carl Sagan on Books

François Boucher. Madame de Pompadour. 1756, oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Literacy is one of the great tools of civilization. Etymology is one aspect of this tool. Your ability to read my writing—another. The moral imagination invoked is a third. Unfortunately, writing is a recent invention—we’re still getting used to it. As Sagan notes in The Demon-Haunted World (335):

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

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Perrine on Escape and Interpretation

The first question to ask about fiction is, Why bother to read it?

Rembrandt van Rijn. Scholar in His Study. 1634, oil on canvas, National Gallery in Prague, Czech Republic.

Laurence Perrine, an English professor whose Sound and Sense textbook series was immensely popular, splits literature between escape, which helps us “pass the time agreeably,” and interpretive, “written to broaden and deepen and sharpen our awareness of life” (3). Escape and interpretation are not “two great bins, into… which we can toss any given story” but a scale with each inhabiting opposite ends (4).

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Failed—Desmorious

Every writer has several projects initiated with gusto, abandoned with reluctance. My first was a forty-page novel in middle school—a Lord of the Rings knock-off called The War of the Bowl. In high school, my friend Jon Ying and I devised a western desperadoes-and-dragons webcomic called Dustbound. In college, I wrote rough drafts and buried them in the rough. Even now, as I revise my novel, I fear its future in a back-folder on Dropbox.

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Published—”Black Bear on White Paper”

Literally Stories published my fantasy story, “Black Bear on White Paper.” The story takes place in a realm I’ve envisioned for some time: a forest world founded on an endless, underground library. Unexplained, and mostly unexplored, the library is attended by a small cabal of librarian-monks. The concept combines Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” Tolkien’s Mines of Moria, and the medieval monastery.

Literally Stories was started in 2014 by a wiggle of writers, including a bloke named Adam West (no, not that one). The magazine not only provides a platform for prose and poetry, but encourages reader feedback and author interaction. There’s even a comments section labeled “Your Thoughts” for criticism of the magazine itself. The hope is to give “each story its moment in the sun.” Naturally, this might provide a healthy tan; for others, a nasty burn.

Fiction—”Another School Shooting”

Grubbs wasn’t the first to use an EMP, but he was the first to use a plasma cannon. After the EMP left a tickle like dead fingers, Grubbs opened a static resistant bag and unloaded an array of metal bits. These fit together into a cannon in less than twenty seconds, hence their Amazon description as “quick, easy, you won’t need instructions.”

As soon as the cannon was mounted, Grubbs opened fire, the stone face of the high school exploding in hot blue flashes. A symphony of bolts fired from drones hanging above his shoulders; even more terrible were the neuro-frags planted in the gym and cafeteria, their bursts releasing psychic shards that slipped through stone and metal and split apart the thoughts of survivors. Seconds later, the only living soul within a mile was Jain Grubbs.

Yes, Americans still avoided metric in 2068.

This was the sixth school shooting that day; the third highest casualty count that week. The rates had long surpassed fragments of populations. Now death tolls were determined by school size minus absentees. On Monday, Jorge R. R. Tarkin had 4,434 students and 162 professional educators in the building. By the weekend, there were almost that many funerals. Those rituals of safety, like turning off the lights and moving away from the door, were as effective as duck and cover before a mushroom cloud.

Grubbs set up a heat line across the freeway, an invisible beam that turned cars into silver splatter. (Heat lines, because they had a trigger, were protected under the 2nd Amendment.) Grubbs finished his spree by launching mini-nukes into the suburbs while his drones battled an armada of police-pods. When sky personnel failed, the U.S. Military resorted to releasing a three-foot rod from space. The rod fell through Grubbs’s body and fifty feet into the ground. When his exosuit kept dead fingers firing off nukes, they dropped fourteen more until the corpse was pulled pork.

That weekend also saw the Green Ribbon Gun Show, which decided to stay open despite the tragedy (a corporate decision). The news interviewed salesmen about their weapons, making sure to linger holo-cams on tables lacquered with gleaming rifles. One man, wearing a red hat with white text reading The Trumps Will Rise Again, was mightily upset at the suggestion of closing the show.

“This isn’t a gun issue,” the man raged to the cameras. “It’s not a gun-drone issue. It’s not about nuke pistols or heat rays. It’s a mental health issue. It’s a family issue. It’s about how we raise our kids.”

Five feet away, two boys stared at a drone, six barrels glinting in the sun, as it zoomed back and forth, back and forth over the lawn.