Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical science fiction.

7Jun/240

How Do You Feel About Learning?

Humans have learned so much since the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment two and a half centuries ago. We learned our universe was inconceivably larger and older than we had imagined. We learned life on earth began, not in a Mesopotamian garden with magic fruit trees and a talking snake, but in the ocean, only gradually crawling on land, diversifying and achieving self-awareness. We learned human beings are motivated, not by the breath of God or so-called free will, but by sexuality, kin selection and other instinctive processes we don't fully understand. We learned how to interact with people on the other side of the planet or even in orbit around it at the speed of light. Now we're interacting with machines that seem awfully like people, so maybe we'll also soon learn that personhood — what some people call the soul — is a function solely of a sufficiently complex neural network. My mom has experienced the advent of both black-and-white and color television, humanity's first steps on the moon, and the Oval Office in three-dimensional virtual reality. Learning is fun, but it can also be challenging. And generally speaking, adults know they can do hard things, but also they don't wanna.

I read a true story this morning: When my late father-in-law got his first smartphone, he said it "wasn't working for him" because it "couldn't make calls." Of course, the opposite was true: He wasn't working for it, and he couldn't make calls on it. Learning is hard and he was still being asked to do a lot of it. I'm old enough now that I can kinda relate.

As we always are, we humans are in a tug of war between the exciting adventure of acquiring new knowledge and the difficulty of adjusting to it. I know lots of people who tell themselves it's not they who are deficient now, it's the phone ... or the culture ... or the country ... and those folks will fight tooth and nail to regress the world back to something they thought they understood. We see it in everything from school board meetings to national elections to some people's visible anger when they're asked to get along with trans people or press 1 for English or accept that first-trimester embryos look nothing like babies.

But if I have anything resembling faith these days, it is this: Time is a one-way arrow. One cannot truly unsee what one has seen, nor unlearn what one has learned. (Sorry, Yoda.) There is no possible way of going back. So to me, it just makes more sense to keep learning and trying to know more about the world and my fellow terrestrials than I did the day before.


To quote Starship Troopers: Would you like to know more?

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14Dec/220

Fiat Lux!

I'd like to take a few minutes to explain why yesterday's news from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermore, CA, was such a big deal — and why it also wasn't.

What I don't want to do is suggest I'm an expert in nuclear physics. No, I'm a geek with a lifelong affection for astronomy and hard science fiction, so this blog entry required interesting research. In many a Golden Age SF novel, sleek, reflective rocket ships powered by atomic fusion reactors plied the vasty spaceways, so I was already somewhat familiar with the idea but had a lot to learn about the mechanics of making it work. As of yesterday, the technology of artificially generated nuclear fusion left the realm of science fiction and entered science fact. I wouldn't book your passage on a fusion-powered flight to Ganymede just yet, though.

First, a catch-up lesson for folks who snoozed through high school physics: You're probably familiar with the Einsteinian equation E = mc2, but may never have thought through its implications. What it basically means is energy can be turned into mass, meaning stuff, or vice versa. The E on one side of the equal sign is energy, the m is mass, and c represents the speed of light. The lack of punctuation between the m and c2 means those two quantities are to be multiplied. Light is extremely fast, so the speed of light is a very large number, and multiplying that number by itself (squaring it, hence the superscript 2) yields an absolute whopper of a number. It follows then, that a relatively small amount of mass can be made to yield a very large energy release, as was demonstrated for the first time near Socorro, NM, on 16 July 1945 in the form of a mushroom cloud. About six kilos of uranium yielded a 21-metric-kiloton blast. The point is, messing with something even as small as an atom can lead to an enormous burst of energy, which in turn can be either constructive or, as has all too often been the case, horrifyingly destructive.

In theory, there are two ways to mess with atomic mass and convert it into energy. Both take advantage of the equal sign in Einstein's equation. The first, which was used in the 1945 Trinity device and in reactors and so-called atomic bombs since, is fission. That's when you take a very large atom, uranium or plutonium for example, and rip it into pieces. Those fragments partly reassemble themselves into materials made of smaller atoms, but the remainder is converted into energy. Blammo! Atomic fission energy is actually safer in many ways than our usual methods of burning matter from things that used to be alive. Our ecosystem is reeling from the effects of burning hydrocarbons and releasing the resulting carbon into the atmosphere. Of course, that's not to say atomic fission energy for civilian use is entirely safe; witness the terrifying accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island among others.

Then there's the other way, which is nuclear fusion. That's when you take two very small atoms, most often hydrogen, and smash them together at such high speeds that they're squished into the single configuration of a somewhat larger atom like helium. Not all the hydrogen stuff gets used in the helium recipe, and the rest of that matter gets converted into energy. That's the exact mechanism used by so-called hydrogen bombs, the sun and most stars. For billions of years now, the sun has been blazing away in a continuous fusion reaction, with hydrogen falling into its center and getting smooshed into helium and energy.

Now, obviously that creates very high temperatures, but that mega-degree heat can be used to boil water, which in turn creates steam, which can push a turbine around and around, and that turbine can generate electricity and now you have power for stuff like lighting and air conditioning and 4K Disney+. One advantage of fusion is it doesn't create greenhouse gases or radioactive byproducts. A disadvantage was, until yesterday, it cost more energy to jump-start nuclear fusion on earth than was gained coming out of it.

That sort of changed yesterday, sort of, when scientists aimed 192 carefully calibrated lasers at a golden canister about the size of a pencil eraser. Inside was an industrial-diamond sphere the size of a peppercorn, which in turn contained two varieties of hydrogen. When the lasers hit the canister, the gold superheated to millions of degrees, and that blasted X-rays into the canister's interior. Those X-rays in turn imploded the capsule, which triggered nuclear fusion of the hydrogen into helium. The laser trick shot lasted less than a hundred trillionths of one second, but it made scientific history because while the lasers shot two megajoules of energy, roughly the energy in two sticks of dynamite, the resulting fusion released about three megajoules of energy. News media were quick to assure us that meant inexpensive clean energy was now in the making.

Well, it isn't quite that simple. See, actually running and firing those 192 lasers required hundreds of megajoules of energy, and the heat they released, once converted to electricity, would run a single light bulb for a handful of minutes. I mean, whoopity-doo. Gold and diamond are a great deal harder to come by than hydrogen (which is, after all, the H ingredient in the familiar recipe for water, H2O), and once they were gone, that was it for this particular fusion reaction. To create useful power, you'd need to create similar reactions several million times a day. Happily, that means there's zero risk of a runaway chain reaction in 2022 or probably ever, but it also means we have a long way to go before anyone figures out how to turn nuclear fusion into electricity enough to run global civilization. Most experts think it'll be at least 15 to 20 years before fusion power plants are ready to go online. When they do, though? Hoo, boy. It'll drastically cut our need for fossil fuels and will help us turn the tide on global warming, which would be nothing short of a terrestrial game changer. Together with wind and solar power, we could finally have an ecologically friendly yet electricity-gobbling society straight out of Star Trek.

Oh, and make no mistake about it: Some country, perhaps some corporation, will get very, very, mega, obscenely rich in the process. As an American, I'm glad we're on the forefront of this technology. As a humanist and futurist, I sincerely hope it'll be safely but generously shared with the world.

P.S. Dec. 15: I edited this post for accuracy regarding nuclear weapons, with gratitude to commenter Alan Marshall.

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1Feb/220

Game of Sabers: A Star Wars Speculation

If you aren't a Star Wars nerd, you can skip this post, I promise.

I think episode 5 of The Book of Boba Fett has been out long enough now that I can share a pet theory of mine here publicly. You might remember that four years ago, David Benioff and D.B. (Dan) Weiss were hired to create a trilogy of Star Wars features. At the time, we were told those movies would appear in two-year increments starting in 2023. For those who don't know, Benioff and Weiss were the showrunners of Game of Thrones, and they met with George Lucas in Italy as research for their trilogy-in-progress. Then, in October 2019, all that fell apart, and many speculated they'd blown the deal by either admitting they learned showrunning on the job (which I suspect was needlessly expensive) or by signing a concurrent, multimillion dollar deal to craft content for Netflix. Lucasfilm exec Kathleen Kennedy may not have liked sharing -- Who knows? We never learned the subject of their proposed trilogy, but that's where my theory comes in.

Lucasfilm has a habit of building expectations, dashing them, then repurposing that archived material to create new stories. For example, "kyber crystals" were in early drafts of Star Wars, then reappeared in the now-disowned novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye. Decades later, they're canon, with mentions in Clone Wars and Rogue One. Concepts from cancelled computer game Star Wars: 1313 have resurfaced as canon in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. The Obi-Wan Kenobi series debuting on Disney+ this year evolved from a planned feature directed by James Mangold. And so on.

"The Night of a Thousand Tears," a term that appears to be undercounting, in a screenshot from The Book of Boba Fett.

Well, obviously Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni are heavily invested in telling a grand, historical fantasy about planet Mandalore and its complex, Spartan culture. Here's my theory: I think Benioff and Weiss were hired to craft a similar epic tale about Mandalore. It seems clear to me Mandalore will be the focus of a Game of Thrones-style mythos over the next few years on Disney+. There are dueling houses, vigorous swordplay and even draconian beasts in the mix (though I still think the term "mythosaur" is a bit on-the-nose, even for Star Wars). If I'm right, Favreau and Filoni will have a lot of material to pull from, and we might even see some concepts from 1313 and Star Wars: Underworld, the series Lucasfilm worked on from 2005 to 2010 but never shot. We're told Underworld banked some 50 scripts, by writers including Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica and For All Mankind fame, but we've never seen any of them. I suspect they could easily be transposed to "the living waters beneath the mines of Mandalore." After all, we'd rather that location not look as much like Moria as it sounds, right?

Allegedly, this screenshot is from test footage for Star Wars: Underworld. Or that could be utter hooey.

Incidentally, now that Patty Jenkins is almost certainly off the Rogue Squadron movie, which was announced with great fanfare in 2020 but "postponed indefinitely" less than a year later, how great would it be if Ronald Moore took the reins of that exciting project?

This is the closest Patty Jenkins will probably ever get to a Star Wars title.

And while we're at it, here's my own Star Wars pitch: I want to write a Disney+ series set in the Outer Rim, maybe 10-15 years before A New Hope. I see it as kind of an anthology series, with characters drifting in and out of each other's stories, based on an awesome Mike Resnick novel from 1986 called Santiago: a Myth of the Far Future. If you've never read Santiago, look it up. It has the feel of a tall tale crossed with a spaghetti Western, which puts it exactly in early Star Wars territory despite being entirely unconnected to Star Wars.

For the record, I found no evidence whatsoever that Santiago was the "basis for" any "upcoming major motion picture."
But that's where I come in!

So what did you think Benioff and Weiss's trilogy would be about? And now that Jenkins is almost certainly off the Rogue Squadron project, who do you think should take it over?

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1Nov/210

REVIEW: Dune (2021)

Stop me if you've heard this one: There's a desert planet, OK? And on this planet is a teenage boy with a Biblical first name. He doesn't want to be there. It's a world where moisture is currency, rusty mining vehicles share the surface with giant worms, and a tribe of hooded "sandpeople" ambush the unwary. This kid has one hereditary advantage, though: Thanks to a mysterious family history, he has an in with a cult of interstellar sorcerers. He'll build alliances and practice his swordplay, then take on a corrupt empire. Sound familiar?

If you say that's the plot of Star Wars, you are, of course, correct. But it's also the plot of Frank Herbert's Dune, a novel that became an international sensation a decade before Lucas penned his screenplay. Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky came thisclose to shooting a 14-hour film adaptation of Dune, a book he'd never actually read, and his album of storyboards had been making its way around Hollywood throughout the early '70s. Lucas never explicitly admitted the connection, but to claim he was unaware of Herbert's magnum opus would defy credulity. Of course, there were other inspirations, too: Asimov's Foundation, "Doc" Smith's Triplanetary, Flash Gordon serials, The Dam Busters, Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. But Tatooine just is planet Arrakis, aka Dune, only renamed after shooting location Tatouine, Tunisia.

Until a year ago, Dune was probably best known in the non-geek-speaking world as director David Lynch's 1984 noble failure of an epic sci-fi film. The damn thing just doesn't work. But despite that, the novel and the movie's designers contributed so many interesting visual ideas that millions of Dune readers long believed the franchise deserved a third shot. (The second was a pair of Sci-Fi Channel miniseries debuting in 2000 to mixed reviews.) COVID-19 delayed the release of this newest version by a year, but it's available in cinemas and, for a limited time, on HBOMax. I've seen it twice. It's a whopper of a movie, so I wanted to make sure I assessed it carefully before reviewing it in detail.

If you've read the Herbert novel, or seen its 1984 movie or 2000 miniseries adaptations, you'll find no spoilers here. Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) brings his dreamlike vision to a story that's in large part about dreamlike visions. If you're still worried about spoilers, I'll give you the TL:DR version: It's a big, hypnotic epic of a movie, more Arrival than Star Wars, and unless you're easily confused I see no reason to believe you won't enjoy it. You may not love the ending, though. There's a reason the film's on-screen title is "Dune: Part One." Villeneuve and cowriters Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts elected, wisely it seems to me, to cover only the first three-fifths of the book in this episode. The sequel has since been officially greenlit, and you have only two years to wait for the next installment. In my opinion, Part One finds a way to arrive at a stopping point, though the ultimate fate of Paul Atreides, his mother, his adoptive tribesmen and his arid, hallucinogen-soaked planet remain to be seen.

For those unafraid of mild spoilers, here we go.

The first thing I want to say is Villeneuve does right by the novel, often by ignoring or obscuring parts of it. See, Dune is a killer read that absolutely deserves its prestige as the Lord of the Rings of literary space opera. If you've read one science fiction novel in your life, there's a good chance Dune was it, and rarely do we hear any serious objection to that -- but Dune was definitely written in 1965, by a Tacoma, Washingtonian who'd been breathing the spicy atmosphere of 1965 for both better and worse, and there's no way a 2021 movie can't address that. In the novel, for example, Paul encounters an overworked, underestimated desert culture called the Fremen. The Fremen sometimes call themselves the Ichwan Bedwine, so it's pretty clear Herbert was thinking of both Islamized Bedouin cultures and Arabized tribes like the Berbers. In fact, he probably muddled several African and Sinai cultures after a reading of Lawrence of Arabia, a mistake I'm trying (and possibly failing) to avoid. So here's a novel awash in what I'll call respectful racism. Herbert admires the Fremen for their ability to survive a brutal desert, but ascribes to them an equally brutal code of behavior. In Villeneuve's version, the Fremen are played largely by actors of color, but with no attempt to look specifically northern African.

In the movie as in the book, Herbert's future, roughly 20 millennia from now, is a feudal space opera in which an emperor shares power with dynastic houses (the "Great Houses of the Landsraad"), a women-only religious order (the "Bene Gesserit"), and a guild of once-human creatures whose addiction to spice allows them to transcend the speed of light. It's a lot to explain in 155 minutes, but my wife, a Dune newbie, was able to grasp it in a single viewing. That setup creates another problem, though. See, our hero, Paul, is the son of a duke, Leto of House Atreides, and House Atreides has long been at barely-cold war with another major house, the Harkonnens. The struggle between those colonizers for management of Arrakis is the engine that drives the whole plot. Herbert wants us to know from the outset that the Atreides of planet Caladan are the good guys, and Baron Harkonnen and his sons are just awful, awful, awful. But how do you accomplish that when the Atreides and Harkonnens are basically pursuing the same goal, especially when that goal is the imperialist domination of an all-but-enslaved indigenous tribe via the theft of their ancestral resources? Well, Herbert does what a lot of white, cis-heterosexual writers would've done in 1965: He makes Baron Harkonnen a morbidly obese homosexual with incestuous and pederastic tendencies so we'll abhor him. And that, of course, is a relic of a much crueler time.

So Villeneuve backs off. There's no hint of Harkonnen's sexuality in this film, other than the presence of a translucently clad servant girl. (If you've seen Blade Runner 2049, you know Villeneuve has yet to grasp modern feminism.) The baron's obese, but mostly so there's an excuse for him to use personal VTOL equipment. Unlike Lynch's decidedly Lynchian take on the character, he isn't also oozing from pustulent sores. Oh, we get he's the bad guy, but mostly because Stellan Skarsgård, the actor playing him in a ton of foam rubber and a Jacuzzi full of Pennzoil, growls his lines and rubs his bald head a la Brando's Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Villenueve told Collider, "As much as I deeply love the book, I felt that the baron was flirting very often with caricature. And I tried to bring him a bit more dimension. ... Stellan has something in the eyes. You feel that there’s someone thinking, thinking, thinking." For me, the character works. For some of my friends, not so much.

Watching and rewatching Villeneuve's Dune, I was awed by its scale. We've been told we should see it in IMAX, and maybe that's true. I watched it on a 65" 4K TV with a mid-budget sound bar, and that seemed to do the trick, but there's no question the images are composed for a towering screen. Tiny humans cluster around spaceships the size of Ayers Rock. An interstellar tunnel structure looms in Dune's orbit, competing with a pair of too-close moons, allowing fleets of warships to drift through the Guild stargate like malevolent fleas. When the emperor's envoy arrives on Arrakis to transfer power from the Harkonnens, the proceedings have the scale and ornate beauty of a royal wedding. Every dollar is right there on the screen. Amazingly, Dune '21 cost 35 million fewer dollars than Jungle Cruise. It looks like it cost twice as much.

I worried about Hans Zimmer's score, partly because I'm not a Hans Zimmer superfan and partly because I've grown weary of pseudo-Middle Eastern wailing in place of an imagination, but the sound team has done an exemplary job of blending Zimmer's work with sound effects by Mark Mangini (Mad Max: Fury Road) and linguistics by David Peterson (Game of Thrones). Sound is crucial in Herbet's universe, and this adaptation nails it all.

The visual effects are flawlessly composed and designed to best simplify the story and world-building. They deserve and almost certainly will receive an Academy Award. The iconic sandworm, of which we get only a partial view in this first episode, makes as much sense from a biological standpoint as possible (take that, square-cube law) while also rearing up to form a symbolic eye.

The movie is very well cast, with both Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya believable as the teenagers those characters are in the book. I was surprised to find this movie belongs at least as much to Paul's mother Jessica, played superbly by Rebecca Ferguson, as it does to Paul himself. We learn the extent of his pain and suffering, and the hopes piled on his narrow shoulders, by watching her expressions. It's a smart screenwriting and directorial choice is a movie that risks being the quintessential white male savior cliché.

Look, bottom line (he said thousands of words later), this is an exceptionally well-made film based on a book that all but defines a literary genre. Despite all that, David Lynch swung for the cheap seats only to trip over home plate. It's an easy book to mess up. For half a century it's been branded as unfilmable. Denis Villeneuve filmed it. And now that I'm hearing teenagers have started buying the novel en masse, I'm looking forward to hearing what they think of it, how it chafes against their smarter sociopolitics. If Dune: Part Two is just as good, this will be a more adult Star Wars for a generation of ecological idealists. I hope it continues to inspire in a world that has largely left the novel behind.

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29Nov/200

There Has Been an Awakening

Have you felt it?

I haven't updated this site in over a year. That changes now.

I've completed the first draft of a new novel. Expect to hear more about it soon.

COVID struck America hardcore in March 2020. With nothing to do but stay home for the summer -- my day job is teaching public middle school -- I decided to try living the way I always dreamed of living. In other words, I resolved to live like a rich author. I was still banking paychecks from the school year, so why not? I woke every morning, made a hot cup of coffee, spelunked research rabbit holes on YouTube and cranked out a thousand words a day. I was over half finished with the new book by the time school started again in September. I finished its first draft by Thanksgiving break.

This was easily the most fun I've ever had writing a novel. I hope that joy will translate to readers' experiences. I plan to revise and polish the novel over Christmas break, then attempt to have it accepted by a mainstream agent and publisher. Here's hoping the Force will be with me.

In the meantime, here, only very slightly edited, is the novel I began to write before I started this one. Over the course of several years, I made it through ten thousand words before giving up. I didn't quit because I thought what I wrote was bad; I quit because a tangerine clown sleazed his way into the White House, and then America was so obviously, cartoonishly insane I no longer saw the value of a Veep-style political satire.

Instead, a new idea grabbed hold of my creative consciousness. Someday, Muses willing, it'll be a trilogy of teen-friendly space operas in the vein of The Hitchhiker's Guide to, Spanner's or The Guardians of the Galaxy.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ddd15d83-98a1-4a3b-b86a-5f33291d2097
This image is exactly what my new novel is about. Also, not at all.

But first, the book I didn't finish writing. You'll find it here. The actual, completed book's still an alien contact story, but the arrival of the superbeings in question looks different from how I first imagined it.

Watch this space! For more outer space!

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18Jan/190

Problematic

We need to rethink how we approach so-called "problem plays."

In Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, a woman is threatened with the death of her brother if she doesn't submit to sexual assault. The guilty party gets discovered and punished, but the innocent victim is victimized yet again by an allegedly just duke coercing her into a loveless marriage.

In The Taming of the Shrew, a character we've been asked to find adorable, Petruchio, embarks on a campaign of systematic spousal abuse. He promises his male buddies he can force his wife Katherina to accede to his every wish without so much as a sniff of complaint.

In The Merchant of Venice, we're asked to identify with a Jewish moneylender who conducts business in a rabidly antisemitic culture. Fair enough. Then the moneylender, Shylock, demands actual bloodshed in recompense, an indiscriminate response to cultural bigotry.

In Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, a woman who, not that it matters, has behaved unimpeachably gets assaulted by a centurion turned on by her chastity. Before justice can be served, poor Lucretia commits suicide.

For centuries we've referred to such stories as "problem plays." We're reluctant to stage them now, perhaps even read them, as they leave us feeling wronged. But why is that?

I think most of us have an intrinsic belief life is fair. It should be, we reckon, so it is. We think that so deeply, in fact, that most of us don't even think about the fact that we're thinking it. That's a charming quirk of human nature, I guess. Except no, it really isn't, because it leads to real-world consequences that are deeply destructive.

We think life is fair, so if a guy is behind bars, he must belong there. Surely The Innocence Project can't be right when it claims at least one percent of the U.S. prison population has been wrongfully convicted. That's about 20,000 people. That number couldn't be right — could it? We're talking about the American justice system here, the greatest, we claim, in the world. Life is fair, so how could American justice be unjust for so many?

We think life is fair, so when a woman gets sexually assaulted, we're immediately asked what she did to deserve it. How was she dressed? Did she scream or just say no? Has she ever taken a naked picture of herself? Is she pretty?

We think life is fair, so if an unmarried woman gets pregnant, many ask why she should be allowed to make that "mistake" free from decades of consequences. (The man's "mistake," bizarrely, seems a matter of little concern.)

We think life is fair, so if people are hungry or homeless or emotionally ill, we assume they must've brought it on themselves.

We think life is fair, so we believe billionaires must be special. Surely they deserve to keep all that money, even in a wealthy nation where one in eight people live below the (too-low) poverty line and 16 million kids reside in food-insecure households.

We think life is fair, so when African-Americans are treated unkindly we suggest perhaps they should do a better job of maintaining and policing their own communities.

We think life is fair, so when LGBTQ Americans suffer from bigotry, we shrug off recent findings that almost half of gay teens have contemplated suicide. After all, we're told, they could've just decided to be straight. It wouldn't be fair if homophobia persists in a world where homosexuality isn't a choice, so let's continue to allow schools where it definitely isn't.

Life isn't fair. I'm going to say that again: Life ... is not ... fair. It's unfair that a guy who's been credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women has been punished with a seat on the highest court in the land. It's unfair that a guy who routinely masturbated in front of women he barely knew, women who looked to him for professional guidance and support, has been punished with zero jail time. Should he be allowed to resume his career, even as he embraces full-on mockery of massacre survivors? Geez, who can say? It's impossible to know for sure. After all, he's rich and famous and creative, so maybe in a fair world he deserves to stay on top. His victims are women who could've objected more forcefully, so perhaps that's on them.

I say again, life is not inherently fair. The only way it'll ever be fairer is if we demand that it be. We must be fairer ourselves. We must insist on that, from ourselves and our culture and our authority figures and ostensible justice system.

Back to stories. Perhaps it's time we accept that the problem with these plays isn't their scripts or their writers; it's the world. It's the world in which they're set. More to the point, it's a problem with our world. Because yes, our world obviously has problems. Our world is, in fact, a major problem. It's the problem we've all allowed it to be because we couldn't face obvious signs it was flawed. We waited for a superhuman, all-seeing Judge to make things fair when clearly, the only improvements in justice have come at the hands of progressive humans.

I submit to you it's time we reconsider these plays without trying to make them any fairer. My presentation of Measure for Measure at Tacoma Little Theatre (Jan. 31) will land hard on the absolute injustice of its conclusion. Perhaps Elizabethans did believe its outcome was fair; I don't know. I certainly do know it wasn't. So why can't we just acknowledge that? Why do we insist our plays end fairly? It's because we want so deeply to pretend life is fair that we insist on it from even our fictional fantasies.

I want to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew in which Petruchio is simply a spousal abuser. Don't make poor Katherina a harridan who deserves what she gets. She isn't and she doesn't. Call the play Petruchio the Abuser and stage it as written. Don't ask audiences to identify with and therefore excuse its least lovable ogre. He's the play's central character, yes, but he shouldn't be allowed to be its hero.

I want to see a King Lear who may or may not be developing senility, but is certainly an unrepentant a$$hole. Clearly he's surrounded by people who feel sorry for him in his old age; but if the past two years have taught us anything, we should know by now people make excuses for amoral authority figures. They also obfuscate mistakes and rewrite history to obliterate advantaged folks' misdeeds entirely. It's how monarchy persists to this day. We think life is fair, so if a person lives in a castle on a mountain of wealth simply because he or she had the good fortune to be born first in a royal family, we assume that must be part of God's plan. The royals deserve what they have, including governmental power over millions, we tell ourselves, because the ramifications of thinking otherwise are too immense to accept.

(I note in passing that even virulently anti-monarchist Americans still have no problem thinking of Christ as "King of Kings and Lord of Lords." After all, Jesus' Dad was a pretty big deal, so even after the Messiah does a vanishing act for two thousand years we're still fervently inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.)

I want to see a world of storytelling in which writers are able to illustrate an unfair world without directors sweatily sanding it clean.

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24May/180

Tragedy Tomorrow, Comedy Last Night

I am a lifelong fan of stand-up comedy. Among my earliest memories are the hours I spent listening to and all but memorizing the classic Bill Cosby albums in my uncle's collection. When someone asked me recently what my favorite TV show of all time was, I decided it was Saturday Night Live, from the first-year episodes I watched with my dad to the stellar season that just ended. When I lived in Hollywood, I spent many a weekday night at the Comedy Store or Laugh Factory, dissecting the work of every open-mic performer, from never-seen-again nobodies to the soon-to-blow-up Dane Cook. And so, so many times over the decades, I've thought, I could do that … if only I could get over my terror of performing my own material in front of an audience. To me that phony brick wall behind the mic felt like the backdrop for an execution by firing squad. I never did take my shot, to my enduring shame.

Except here's a thing you need to know about me: I freaking hate it when I find myself limited by things I'm afraid of. It eats at me. I end up daring myself, and once I've done that my brain never shuts up about it. So for over thirty years now, I've been internally chastising myself for wanting so desperately to be heard by the entertainment industry, yet never availing myself of repeated invitations, even exhortations, to overcome my stage fright and tell jokes to audiences thirsty for laughter (and, in some cases, a minimum of two feeble well drinks).

With my fiftieth birthday looming, I resolved to finally put my self-recrimination to end. When I visited Vomity, an unfortunately-named, weekly night of open-mic comedy at Le Voyeur, a club in downtown Olympia, I knew it was only a matter of time before I answered that call to belated action.

Here's how it works. To sign up, one must first follow Vomity's Facebook page. Every Tuesday at noon, host Colt Barton posts a message inviting each aspiring comic to sign up by commenting with his or her name. Then, around midnight, he announces who got in and who's been relegated to the "bump list." If you made it, you perform the following night between 9 and 11. If you're on the bump list, that means you have to sign up again next week. By reminding them you were bumped, though, you guarantee yourself a slot the next week. And that's how it went down for me.

My material was already written. I'd culled it, in large part, from past social-media posts, so I was confident (based on likes and retweets) the jokes were funny to someone other than myself. I memorized it two weeks ago and repeated it out loud under numerous stressful conditions. The Vomity format only gives you three minutes to fill, so long-form storytelling was out. One of my observations from previous Vomity attendance was that new comics tend to space their punch lines too far apart, so I wanted to see how many I could pack in there. I whittled the material down to only necessary words and managed to squeeze in what I hoped would be seven or eight decent laughs. I was thinking of one-liner comics like Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright, though not thinking for even a moment I wield their genius or would emulate their success in slipping from joke to joke every couple of seconds.

I took a risk and decided to dress up for the occasion. Granted, it's a room packed with comics and audience members less than half my age, most of whom show up looking like they were ejected by a tornado, but I donned a jacket and tie over sneakers and skinny slacks. My plan was to stream the set to Facebook, both for friends and to review later in private, and I wanted to look as good as possible. Also, this was a milestone in my life, for better or worse, and I intended to give myself every shot at remembering it fondly.

A few days before the big event, I searched the web for first-timer tips. Experienced comedians had differing advice, but they all agreed on two things: You will absolutely, positively bomb, Enola Gay, so don't you dare record your set for posterity or even invite your closest friends. I invited my wife to both attend and stream my set, and I found out hours before that my sister and brother-in-law would also be there to witness my debut. Well, whatever. Go big or go home and never show your mug in a comedy club again, am I right?

Probably not.

Andy Kindler: "My first performance on my own … was horrifying. I remember telling the crowd it wasn’t going well. They knew that already. I will admit to quietly sobbing in the car on the way home." So that can happen. And of course then you go home and off yourself, and you don't even bother leaving a note because all your friends saw the Facebook stream and know exactly why it was time for you to jump off a cliff.

Except that's not what happened to me. I'm proud to say I did face my fears. I hopped up on stage, grabbed the mic and did my three-minute set. Not, maybe, in the order I memorized it, but every joke found its way in there. I even managed to get about four or five decent laughs, a decent ratio for the room I was in. Several comics were lucky to get a few pity laughs. Others, including Sam Miller, headliner Bo Johnson and nineteen-year-old (!) Anna Eggleton, slew the room. I didn't kill; I didn't bomb. You can see for yourself. Try to ignore the glare off my head, okay? I know it makes me look like Reddy Killowatt in a suit, but it is what it is.

Video: Carv Does Stand-Up

I notice as I post this that the URL includes the phrase "feedback_reaction_generic," which seems about right.

So will I do this again? Y'know … maybe. I feel I brought no shame upon myself or my tribe, and few other comics seemed to know it was my first time performing my own material. I consider that a win. Also, from my perspective, that three-minute set felt exactly like, "Thanks, Colt. Hi. I'm Christian Carvajal." Everything else was a blur. So maybe it'd be fun to try it again when I'm calm enough to be present in my own mind and body, not floating out there in a galaxy of terror squillions of light-years away.

-----

Meanwhile, plans continue for public performances in which I've grown more confident and comfortable these last few years, namely author appearances. I'll be reading from and signing my new book of short stories, called C Is for Collection. By then I might even have some new jokes! You can catch me Wednesday, June 13 (the day after my birthday) at 6:30 p.m. in Tacoma's King's Books, or the next night at 7 p.m. at Browsers Bookshop in Olympia. Or, thanks to the magic of the interwebs, you can simply dodge the whole process and order it now. Yes, today! It won't arrive signed, of course, but maybe you can buy me a drink or something and I'll throw in a free copy of Lightfall for your trouble, assuming you don't have one already. Pretty fair, right? I know. The word heroic gets thrown around a lot these days, y'know, but every once in a while you kinda have to admit it's justified.

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18May/170

On Success

After a long conversation with my mom the other day, I've been thinking a lot about the nature of success. Sometimes it's happening to us and we don't even notice it.

Forty years ago, a silly space opera hit theaters. Little did I know it'd be one of the pivotal events of my childhood. On the heels of Ray Bradbury's S Is for Space, it set me on the path toward being a professional storyteller. And I am. I tell real stories; I tell stories I made up. Every April I get to tell the IRS I write for a living...and I'll pay them when I can. It's not the best-paying job in the world, at least for folks who aren't Ray Bradbury or George Lucas, and that makes it harder for me to see when I'm succeeding day to day.

Thirty years ago, I was utterly lost. Two years out of high school, I was still paying heed to a religious sect that forbade me from going to the college I so desperately needed. Instead, I knocked on doors as a full-time evangelist. Yes, me. I honestly can't tell you how many Watchtowers I distributed, but I can tell you for sure it was more than the number of OLY ARTS I've distributed. My mom's patience was running out, though, and it wouldn't be long before she paid a visit to East Central University to enroll me behind my back. I gave her hell for doing that...but I was only playing the role expected of me by our moral "superiors." I knew she was right and all my other authority figures were wrong. You can feel that sometimes.

ANY success I've had in my adult life was the direct result of her act of rebellious frustration. Rebels are important; they certainly have been to me.

Twenty years ago, I was graduating from SIU-C after three of the most difficult years of my life, less than two months before I filed for divorce. Graduation is a success no matter how you slice it, especially for an ex-Witness trailer trashbag from Crowder, Oklahoma, but all I could feel was relief. I escaped. I escaped Illinois with my MFA, I escaped Crowder, I escaped a foolhardy marriage, I made it all the way back to L.A. and earned work in the entertainment industry. Simply braving the freeway was one of the greatest achievements of my life. I had a serious driving phobia back in those days, and merging onto the 110 felt like diving into a tank full of sharks. I arrived everywhere dripping with flop sweat. It was like that EVERY DAY. People tell me I was brave for trying to "make it in the big leagues." I wasn't. That was something I just had to do. The brave thing I did was arriving where it might happen.

Did I succeed in Los Angeles? To this day I don't know. I worked for Warner Bros. I passed that shield every day on my way into the office. Can you say something similar? I was on network TV dozens of times and appeared on screen in big-budget features. For a week, so I'm told, I was the writer of Terminator 3. I attended movie premieres and hobnobbed with the stars. But I was only a credited performer in two indie projects, neither of which I'd ever show you on a dare. My video-directing project collapsed into ignominy when my editor couldn't put her bong down for half an hour straight. But I did have my writing produced and performed on Sunset Boulevard. I had lightning shoot out of my eyes on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And when I left Hollywood for good in 2004, I knew I could hold my head high after all those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I could do that because, while I never really "made it," I also never lost my integrity or ability to tell a story in a meaningful, from-the-heart way. I never once created product; I told stories. And oh, my friends, the Hollywood stories my Hollywood accomplices and I could tell you.

Ten years ago I arrived in Washington state and auditioned for my first play here, TAO's Taming of the Shrew at the Minnaert Center black box. I made my first Pacific-Northwestern friends and earned a job teaching remedial algebra at Olympic College in Shelton. I started work on Salvation, the novel renamed Lightfall for publication in 2010. Sounds pretty good, right? But I was a lonely guy earning minimum wage, living with his mom at age 39, with no romantic prospects in sight, angry and so, so depressed from what felt like a life going nowhere. I told someone at a PARTY for God's sake that I'd been a disappointment to everyone who ever cared about me. What I didn't know was my life was about to take off like an Independence Day rocket. The seeds had already been sown. I was months away from my first date with Amanda (also my first date in Washington). And though Lightfall would come to feel like a nine-hours' wonder, breaking my authorial spirit for years, it would actually lead to writing jobs at the Weekly Volcano and Cengage Learning. Those would in turn prepare me for Chegg, then OLY ARTS.

I don't know if I'm a success. I look at my sister and brother-in-law's restaurant or my brother's inauguration at Valdosta State University and I'm not always thrilled by the comparison. But I have two novels and at least a dozen short-story publication credits to my name, I've written for a national magazine, I have loyal readers and a thriving marriage. I get to travel and see parts of the world no reasonable person would've predicted for my life thirty, perhaps even twenty years ago. I read the other day success can be defined as stumbling from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. If that's true, then yes, I suppose I really am a success. For no matter how bad things may seem sometimes, I can still feel the fire inside me burning. I have stories yet to tell and opportunities to tell them. And my goal for the next year or so is to keep telling your stories with you. Success, it seems to me, is never really a solo enterprise. You and I, we're in this together.

Let's be successes. Let's never, ever, never, NEVER give up.

"Let me tell you something you already know," a fighter once explained. "The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place; and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you permanently there if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. Now if you know what you are worth, go out and get what you are worth; but you gotta be willing to take the hits and not pointing fingers, saying you ain’t where you want to be because of him or her or anybody. Cowards do that..."

And that ain't us. I know it ain't you...and I know it ain't me. Not for long. Not now, not ever.

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14Jul/160

The Grand Debut of OLY ARTS

It had been a tough spring. The world was in complete chaos. Closer to home, I was underemployed, and I failed to land three different teaching jobs I wanted very much. My wife was beginning to worry I'd morph into one of those guys who sits around the house paying video games and dozing through one TV series after another on Netflix. It turns out I work pretty hard when I'm unemployed, so I had numerous irons in the fire, but the disappointment and depression were weighing on me heavily.

That was when my friend Ned Hayes discovered he had a smash hit with his third published novel, The Eagle Tree, which you should buy the second you finish reading this. Some guys would buy a sports car or summer home; not Ned Hayes. He's actually holding down a day job that pays him just fine, so instead, he's put his newfound lucre into a longstanding dream project. A generous patron of South Sound theatre, Ned resolved to publish a periodical called OLY ARTS. This magazine would focus exclusively on art and culture in Olympia: especially theatre, but with serious excursions into music, visual arts and special events. To that end, he aimed his debut issue at an annual downtown tradition here, Capital Lakefair, which tightened his print date to Wednesday, July 13.

Ned first mentioned this project to me about two months ago. His idea was I would act as Managing Editor while he continued to work for [global tech giant, redacted]. Essentially, my job was to serve as copy editor and point man for a writing and distribution staff. There was still one big hurdle: advertising. We had to sell some and fast. To that end, Ned resolved to create a 12-page dummy edition, the "spring 2016" issue, to show potential advertisers as an example of the thing we were about to create. Would I be willing to craft that dummy issue in InDesign, subject to Ned's direction, and have it finished in two weeks? Uhhhhhm...sure. I mean, I'd never worked with InDesign, but how hard could it be? I signed my contract on May 18.

I learned the essentials of InDesign over the weekend while looking for past articles I could use as presentable lorem ipsum. (That's a phrase I learned on this project. It means filler copy.) Ned and I turned that "spring issue" around in record time, and if you didn't look at it with your glasses on, it looked like a no-foolin' magazine.

olyartsspringdummycover

Meanwhile, Ned was setting up the infrastructure for our new website, OlyArts.com. I was mocking up fake ads and the basics of our summer edition. Ned hired a real designer, Dorothy Wong, and a staff of writers and distributors. I now have the privilege of assembling the work of some of the best arts writers in town, including Guy Bergstrom, Alec Clayton, Jennifer Crain, Molly Gilmore and Kelli Samson. I wrote tons of content myself for our website and calendar, only to rewrite the whole mess a week later when we learned we needed a more robust calendar plugin. Have you visited our website? It's freakin' huge. Ned and our ad rep, Rick Pearlstein, landed upscale advertisers. I learned the basics of MailChimp and Sprout Social to create a weekly newsletter and post regular social media updates. Ned hired people to write our mobile app for Android and iOS, available soon.

Long story short, we've produced TWO magazines, a massive website with an active arts calendar, a thriving social media presence, most of two mobile apps, and T-shirts for Pete's sake in two months, plus gathered a staff of seven great writers and seven extroverted distributors, all in two months. I've worked like crazy on this thing. I won't lie; it has my fingerprints all over it. But what amazed me throughout is the amount of time, effort and expertise Ned put into this project, not to mention startup capital, all while holding down a big-boy job and raising two great kids. That job, by the way, moved to Portland this summer, so he's been driving back and forth to another state three times a week. I had the opportunity to drive to our printer with him yesterday and watched him use his truck as a mobile office. To be honest, I assumed he benefited from some fancy [global tech giant, redacted] setup that allowed him to do his job vocally while his eyes were on the road. Not so much! Ned does it all on his everyday cell phone and, I suspect, 5-Hour ENERGY Shots.

I still write for the Weekly Volcano, by the way. OLY ARTS covers Olympia only, we don't do reviews, and it's all separate content, so there's no conflict of interest. But for the most part, I spend my days now as a quarterly magazine editor. Some days it's fun. Some days it's...less fun. Some days it's stressful, especially when the mistakes I'm frantically struggling to correct were my mistakes. That happens often. I can tell you without fear of exaggeration there hasn't been a day in the last two months when I haven't learned something major, often something I should've known before accepting the job. This will make me a better writer, editor, manager and friend to the Oly cultural scene. It feels to give back. I was a good critic, I think, but isn't a job that I miss.

The summer edition, our grand debut, is available now. Find our T-shirted street team at Music in the Park, Capital Lakefair and its associated parade, and a number of other events over the next three months. Meanwhile, I'm already planning our fall edition. OLY ARTS is here to stay.

OLY ARTS, Issue No. 1, Summer 2016

OLY ARTS, Issue No. 1, Summer 2016

Now, how cool and classy is that?

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24Aug/150

Glory, Glory, Vanished

Hi, everyone! It's been a while, so I grabbed a few minutes to tell you what's been happening in my life. Yesterday saw the last performance of Theater Artists Olympia's Improbable Peck of Plays Vol. IV, in which I played three comic roles. The first was Martin, an irascible, middle-aged, urban professional in the short play "Amenities" by Gregory Hirschak. In Act II, I played Erik, a Viking adventurer in Eva Suter's "Glory, Glory, Vanish," followed by a hapless Little League coach in Adam Seidel's "One for the Chipper." I've also been cast as Capt. Markinson in Lakewood Playhouse's production of A Few Good Men, opening September 11, so I appreciate director Beau Prichard allowing me to focus on Peck for a month. I've been dipping in and out of rehearsals up north, and I'll return to that show full-time starting Thursday. Our preview is just two weeks away!

Meanwhile, I'm hawking Mr. Klein's Wild Ride and Lightfall. Might I take this opportunity to remind you that not only is Campanile still distributing Lightfall's hardback edition, but there's also an unabridged audio edition, read by yours truly, available on Audible? If you're interested, you can find it by clicking the link at your right to my Amazon author site. The link for Klein is just below that. Remember, positive reviews are very much appreciated on Amazon and/or Smashwords! Your reviews are more helpful to writers than you probably realize, as they open new sales categories.

On the day-job front, I've begun my fourth week--golly, how the time flies--writing content for online developmental math games. I've been earning my highest per-hour rate ever, so I'm fervently hoping to extend this particular contract as long as I can. It also makes me feel good to work on a product that'll help folks leap a difficult hurdle and master their undergraduate course work to get on with their lives.

I've submitted another story to an anthology, so I'm hoping for news on that soon. I've also started my research for a full-length play (tentatively called Stellar Composition) and a new comic novel, the sci-fi political satire Karakee. Busy, busy! I've been struck recently by how many plates I've kept spinning over the last twelve months. It'll be a welcome change to refocus on writing once A Few Good Men gets safely underway.

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